Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler
Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler” as he is more famously known was an interesting figure in Eastern European history. Known for his cruelty the Turks called him Kaziglu Bey or “The Impaler Prince” The following is a brief history of the man who was said to inspire the legend of Dracula.
Vlad III (early history of Vlad Tepes)
Vlad III was most likely born in the fortress city of Sighisoara in Transylvania in 1431. His father, Vlad II had claimed the throne of Wallachia and was inducted into “The Order of the Dragon”. The purpose of this order was to protect Eastern Europe and Holy Roman Empire from Islamic expansion which came in the form of the Ottomans. Vlad II soon became known as Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon). Vlad Dracul was under increased pressure from the Turks and threatened with invasion he gave up his two youngest sons, Vlad III and Radu (later to be known a Radu, the Handsome) as hostages. Vlad suffered much and was locked away in an underground dungeon however Radu caught the eye of the Sultan’s son, was released and converted to Islam. This was instrumental in shaping Vlad III’s character. He grew up hating the Turks, his own brother Radu and even his father for betraying the Order of the Dragon and giving him up.
(Note from here on Vlad III will be referred to simply as Vlad)
Vlad’s father was assassinated in 1447 by rebellious Boyars under the order of John Hunyadi. He was buried alive. Vlad’s eldest brother Mircea was also dead at this point, having his eyes burnt out by hot stakes then buried alive by his political enemies at Targoviste. To protect their political power, the Ottomans placed Vlad upon the throne of Wallachia as a puppet ruler but Hunyadi invaded Wallachia and ousted him the same year. Vlad fled to Moldavia and was in the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II. Bogdan was assassinated and Vlad taking a gamble went to Hungary. Hunyadi was impressed by Vlad however mainly due to his hatred of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II and his inner workings within the Ottoman Empire. Hunyadi pardoned him and supported him in his quest for the Wallachian throne (The Wallachian ruler at the time, Vladeslav II was loyal to the Turks). In 1456
Hungary invaded Serbia under Hunyadi whilst Vlad led a campaign to take back Wallachia. Both were successful although Hunyadi died of plague soon after. Vlad was now prince however of his native land.
Vlad’s reign (1456 – 62)
The first years of his reign were spent mainly in the court of Targoviste or occasionally in Bucharest, a city which he himself founded. They were no different from any other Wallachian prince. He would appear publicly during religious festivals, draft in new laws and hunting game in his free time. He would soon begin eliminating possible threats to his power, mainly the rival Boyar nobility. This was mainly done through physical elimination but he also reduced the economic roles of the nobility and handed them over to those loyal to Vlad. He also knighted peasants in place of Boyars and stripped certain cities of trade rights. He also organised a series of raids against the Boyars. Another major threat was the fact that Wallachia was entering a stage of anarchy. Crime was widespread and many places were without law and order. Vlad used extreme methods to restore order as he needed an economically and socially stable environment if he was to wage war against his external foes.
One of Vlad’s most noted foes was the Danesti clan. Vlad sent a series of raids into Transylvania to capture the Danesti princes. He killed several of them including Vladislav II of Wallachia, who was murdered soon after Vlad came to power. He also captured another prince and had him executed. It was at this time that rumours started to spread that he had impaled thousands of citizens from the town that sheltered the prince.
During the late 1450s Vlad began talking with Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary of a war against the Ottomans. In 1460 the alliance was made and Vlad stopped paying tribute to the Turks. During the winter of 1461 – 1462 Vlad crossed the Danube into Serbia and devastated the region leaving more than 20 000 people dead. In response sultan Mehmet II sent an army of 60 000 into Wallachia. Vlad’s army was no more than 20 000, realising he could not win in battle he resorted to guerrilla warfare. He led a series of raids and ambushes on the Ottoman army including a bold assassination attempt on the sultan. As the Turks drew nearer he had wells poisoned and burnt his own villages. When the sultan reached the capital of Targoviste he saw a terrible sight. Remembered in history as “the forest of the impaled” there were said to be around 20 000 Turkish prisoners impaled outside of the city. After seeing this, the sultan, not one known for his squeamishness returned to Istanbul and his officers too afraid to continue.
Although the sultan had fled Vlad’s brother Radu, loyal to the sultan, remained in Wallachia with another Turkish army. Soon after many of Vlad’s Boyars abandoned him and sided with Radu. They lay siege to his fortress at Poenari soon after. Vlad’s wife was so frightened by the size of the Turkish army she threw herself from the upper tower but Vlad managed to escape through a secret tunnel. Vlad fled to Hungary seeking the protection of King Corvinus but instead of welcoming Vlad, the King threw him in a prison cell. Radu, the Handsome became Prince of Wallachia.
Vlad’s later years
The exact period of time he was imprisoned is unknown but it was probably sometime between 1462 and 1466. His time in prison was not bad as he gradually managed to win over the Hungarian monarchy. He later married a member of the Royal family. During this time he adopted Catholicism. He was not finally released until 1474.
By 1475 Vlad was ready to make another bid for power. Radu had died a few years earlier of syphilis and the Ottoman, Basarab the elder now held claim to Wallachia. Vlad with the help of Voivode Stefan Bathory of Transylvania assembled a mixed force of Moldavians, Transylvanians and Wallachians and marched into Walachia. Basarab fled upon hearing of the invasion. Bathory and his army soon returned to Transylvania which left Vlad in a bad position. Vlad had little time to gather support before a large Turkish army entered Wallachia determined to return Basarab to the throne. Vlad’s cruelties over the years left him alienated from the Boyars and they aided the Turks. Many of the Wallachian peasants also abandoned him to his fate. Vlad was forced to meet the Turks with a mere 4000 men.
There are several versions to his death. One saying he died in a battle near Bucharest against the Turks, another saying he was killed by his own Moldavian Boyars, whilst another claims he was killed by a Turkish assassin. There is another account of him falling in defeat surrounded by the bodies of his loyal Moldavian bodyguards. Vlad’s body was then decapitated by the Turks and his head sent to Istanbul where it was preserved in honey and displayed on a stake. The truth is nobody knows for sure but it was widely thought his tomb was located inside a monastery outside of Bucharest but only the remains of animals were found inside his alleged coffin. In 1931 an attempt to find his body on the island monastery of Snagov went unrewarded. Still to this day the whereabouts of his remains continues to be a mystery.
The cruelty of Vlad Tepes
Vlad Tepes is best known outside of Romania for his cruelty and above all for his preferred method of torture, impalement. The victims’ legs were bound as an oiled wooden stake was slowly driven into the body. Care was made so that the stake was not too sharp or the victim would die of shock. The stake was usually forced through the anus until it came out of the mouth but victims were also impaled upside down or through their chests. Soldiers, peasants, women and even babies were all impaled usually in large numbers and it is alleged that Vlad would often dine outside with his impaled victims close by ( many woodcuts of the era depict this ). One account tells of Vlad inviting 500 Boyars to his fortress only to arrest them, impale the older members then order the rest to build him a fortress. There is another account of Vlad impaling 30 000 merchants from the city of Brasov who broke his authority. The most famous example of impalement comes from the Turkish accounts of “the forests of the impaled” mentioned previously. The impaled victims usually took hours, sometimes days to die and it was a slow, painful death that was designed to shock his enemies and spread fear into their minds. It clearly worked as many of his enemies were too afraid to oppose him directly even the great Ottoman sultan Mehmet II. During his reign he killed upwards of 70 000 many of which were impaled or tortured in various other ways including being boiled alive. Most of these people were his own countrymen, usually members of the Boyar nobility or merchants which he perceived to be parasites. An interesting inside into his psyche is the accounts of his time in prison where he was said to impale or rip of the heads of birds and rats. Although it is clear Vlad was a man whose cruelty to his enemies had no bounds, it must be pointed out that most of these accounts were most probably exaggerated by his enemies.
The legend of Dracula
It is often thought that Vlad Tepes was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula and there are a few interesting notes to be made. He was born in present day Transylvania and the setting is similar to Stoker’s novel. Today in modern Romanian “dracul” means devil and Vlad’s father was Vlad Dracul. This however is misleading because “dracul” in medieval times also meant dragon and Vlad’s father and he himself were sworn into the “Order of the Dragon”, an order of knights sworn to protect Eastern Europe and The Holy Roman Empire from Islamic expansion. As cruel as he was there is no evidence to suggest he drank the blood of his impaled enemies. There is mystery surrounding his death and burial and his father and eldest brother were in fact buried alive. It is most probable that the legend of Dracula was actually inspired by a woman, Erzsebet or Elizabeth Bathory. (Note a Stefan Bathory of Transylvania assisted Vlad in his later campaigns). She was a noble woman from Hungary who killed and drank the blood of her servant maids believing it would prolong her life. Perhaps Dracula is a combination of the two or perhaps the similarities are merely coincidental. It is also worth noting that during Stoker’s time the Balkans they had only just shaken off the remnants of the Turkish yoke and were still very superstitious. Stories of Dracula were still passed down in oral legends and belief in vampires was still widespread.
The legacy of Vlad Tepes
Despite Vlad Tepes alienating himself from his people through his cruelty he is often seen as a Wallachian and in modern times, Romanian hero. He defied the Ottomans and achieved dramatic if somewhat short-lived success and unlike other Balkan vassal states of the Ottomans, Wallachia remained a separate Christian entity, never being totally swallowed by the Ottomans and Islam. As knight of the Order of the Dragon, he in theory achieved victory. Vlad also helped assert a kind of Romanian national identity and authority. In Romanian folklore Vlad Tepes is portrayed as a hero and as a saviour of the people. He defied and defeated the Turkish invaders and perhaps gave birth to Romanian nationalism and patriotism by allowing the Wallachian kingdom to survive as a separate entity. Maybe he is seen as the devil by some but to others he is a hero.
Hungary and the fall of Eastern Europe by David Nicolle
Various internet sources including wikipedia
In search of History: The real Dracula (History channel)