Vlad the Impaler

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Vlad III Drăcul "Țepeș"
Full-size portrait of Vlad Țepeș in the "Gallery of the Ancestors" of the House of Esterházy,  17th century, Forchtenstein Castle
Voivode of Wallachia
Reign1448; 1456–1462; 1476
BornNovember 1431
Segesvár, Kingdom of Hungary
(now Sighișoara, Romania)
DiedDecember 19, 1476 (aged 44/45)
near Bucharest[1]
SpouseIlona Justina Szilágyi de Horogszeg
HouseHouse of Drăculești (branch of the House of Basarab)
FatherVlad II Drăcul
MotherCneajna of Moldavia (presumed)

Vlad III, commonly known as Vlad the Impaler (Romanian: Vlad Țepeș [ˈvlad ˈtsepeʃ]) or Vlad Dracula (/ˈdrækjələ/; Romanian: Vlad Drăculea [ˈdrəkule̯a]; November 1431 – 1476/77), was Prince of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death in 1476/77. He is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania.

In the English-speaking world, Vlad is best known for the legends of his cruelty. These legends gave Bram Stoker the idea for his main character in the popular Dracula novel.[2][3]

Historical background[change | change source]

Wallachia was placed between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The Turks were fighting against the Kingdom of Hungary led by John Hunyadi and this made Wallachia a battle ground between Turks and Hungarians. The rulers of Wallachia were chosen by the Romanian aristocrats, called boyars. The ruler was often from a noble house, sometimes an illegitimate prince born outside of marriage. The country rulers were struggling with each other, and this was resulting in instability, family disputes and murders.

Biography[change | change source]

Family background[change | change source]

Order of the Dragon symbol

Vlad the Impaler was born in 1431. His father was Vlad II Dracul.[4] His mother is unknown. Vlad II was married to princess Cneajna of Moldavia. He had several mistresses. Vlad III was raised by Cneajna with the help of her household.[5] He had two brothers, Mircea born c. 1430 and Radu born 1435. He also had a half-brother, Vlad the Monk born around 1425-1430.

Vlad II went to the court of Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxemburg as a young man. Sigismund was supporting Vlad II for the throne of Wallachia, and made Vlad II knight 1431 of the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconis in Latin).

The oldest brother, probably named Mircea, was sent by Vlad II to fight the war against the Turks in 1444. This war called the Battle of Varna was lost. Mircea and his father died in 1447.

Vlad's half-brother. Vlad the Monk was waiting in Transylvania for a chance to rule Wallachia. Vlad the Monk was a monk until he became prince of Wallachia in 1482.

Radu, known as Radu III the Fair or Radu the Handsome, the youngest brother, was also Vlad’s most important rival as he continuously tried to replace Vlad on the throne.

Marriage[change | change source]

From his first marriage, Vlad the Impaler (or Vlad III) had a son, later prince of Wallachia, as Mihnea the Evil. His first wife, whose name we do not know, died during the war 1462. Vlad III the Impaler was fighting against the Turks. The legend says that the Turkish army surrounded Vlad's castle, the Poienari Castle, led by his brother Radu the Handsome. Vlad's wife threw herself off the tower into the Argeş River below the castle. According to legend she remarked that she "would rather have her body be eaten by the fish of the Argeş than be captured by the Turks." Vlad had another two sons with his second wife Ilona Szilágyi a fraternal cousin of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. Some historians strongly believe they may have also had a daughter named Maria Zaleska (Princess Zaleska).

Early years[change | change source]

Vlad was very likely born in the city of Sighişoara in Transylvania, then a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, during the winter of 1431. Sighişoara was a military fortress at that time. He was born as the second son to his father Vlad Dracul. He had an older brother, Mircea, and a younger brother, Radu the Handsome. Although his native country was Wallachia, the family lived in exile in Transylvania because his father had been chased away by pro-Ottoman boyars.

A hostage of the Ottoman Empire[change | change source]

Vlad's father was pressured by the (Turkish) Ottoman sultan. He gave a promise to be the vassal of the Sultan and gave up his two younger sons as hostages so that he would keep his promise.

Vlad suffered much at the hands of the Ottomans, and was locked up in an underground prison; however, his younger brother, Radu, caught the eye of the sultan's son. Radu was released and converted to Islam, and he was allowed into the Ottoman royal court.

These years had a great influence on Vlad. They shaped Vlad's character. He was often whipped and beaten by the Turks for being stubborn and rude. He developed a well-known hatred for Radu and for Mehmed, who would later become the sultan.

Short reign and exile[change | change source]

Vlad's father and Vlad's older brother, Mircea, were dead at this point. The Turks invaded Wallachia and the Sultan put Vlad III on the throne as his puppet ruler. His rule at this time was short; Hunyadi invaded Wallachia and chased him away the same year. Vlad fled to Moldavia and was put under the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II.

War[change | change source]

Bogdan was assassinated. Vlad took a chance and fled to Hungary. Impressed by Vlad's knowledge of the Ottoman Empire, Hunyadi pardoned him and took him in as an adviser. Later, Hunyadi made him the Kingdom of Hungary's candidate for the throne of Wallachia.

In 1456, Hungary invaded Serbia to chase away the Turks, and at the same time Vlad III invaded Wallachia. Both invasions were successful. Hunyadi suddenly died of the plague. Vlad became prince of Wallachia.

Main reign (1456–62)[change | change source]

Vlad was spending most of his time at the court of the city of Târgovişte. He made laws, met foreign ambassadors, judged in trials. He reinforced some castles and probably enjoyed hunting with his friends. The constant state of war since the death of his grandfather, Mircea the Elder, in 1418, led to increased crime levels and less agricultural production. Trade had almost disappeared in Wallachia.

Vlad tried to solve these problems with severe methods. He needed an economically stable country.

Vlad wanted to eliminate all threats to his power, mainly the rival nobility groups, such as the boyars. This was done mainly by killing them and reducing the their economic role. The Wallachian nobility had connections with the Saxon merchants. The Saxons lived in the free towns of Transylvania, making trade flourish. Vlad cut their towns trade privileges with Wallachia, and started war against them.

Vlad gave key positions in the Prince’s Council to people of lower rank who were loyal to him. Vlad preferred to knight men from the free peasants. Vlad III was always on guard against the Dăneşti clan. Some of his attacks into Transylvania may have been efforts to kill or capture Dăneşti princes. Several members of the Dăneşti clan died at Vlad's hands. Rumors say that thousands of citizens of the free towns that sheltered his rivals were impaled by Vlad. One captured Dăneşti prince was forced to read his own funeral speech while he kneeled at an open grave before his execution.

Personal crusade[change | change source]

There was a war between the Ottoman Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom. Following family traditions, Vlad decided to side with the Hungarians. To the end of the 1450s there was once again talk about a war against the Turks, in which the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus would play the main role. Knowing this, Vlad stopped paying money to the Ottomans in 1459, and at around 1460, he made a new alliance with Corvinus. The Turks did not like this and tried to remove him from power but they failed. In the winter of 1461 Vlad attacked and devastated the area between Serbia and the Black Sea, leaving over 20,000 people dead.

In response to this, the Sultan Mehmed II headed towards Wallachia with an army of 60,000 men in the spring of 1462. With his army of 20,000-30,000 men Vlad was not able to stop the Turks from entering Wallachia. The Turks occupied the capital Târgovişte (June 4, 1462) and chased Vlad away. Vlad was hiding and made small attacks on the Turks. On the night of June 16 Vlad and some of his men entered the main Turkish camp, wearing Turkish clothing, and attempted to kill Mehmed. Later the Turkish army retired and left Vlad’s brother, Radu the Handsome, as the new ruler prince. Radu the Handsome gathered support from the nobility and Vlad fled to Hungary. In August 1462 Radu made a deal with the Hungarian Crown.

In captivity[change | change source]

Vlad was living in exile because he was afraid of the boyars of Wallachia. Vlad escaped to Hungary but he was put in prison there. The exact time of Vlad's captivity is not known for sure. Apparently his imprisonment was not too dangerous. He was able to gradually win his way back into the favor of King Matthias. He was able to meet and marry a member of the royal family (the cousin of King Matthias). However, some do not believe that it was likely to happen that a prisoner was permitted to marry into the royal family.

He had two sons with his new wife. Vlad also became a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Diplomatic letters and writings from Buda during this time show that Vlad's actual period of imprisonment was short.

The openly pro-Turkish policy of Vlad's brother, Radu was probably a cause in Vlad's good treatment while in prison. It is interesting to note that the Russian texts, normally very favorable to Vlad Ţepeş, tells that even in captivity he could not give up his favorite games; he often captured birds and mice which he tortured and mutilated, and some were impaled on tiny spears.

The years before his final release in 1474 (when he began making plans for the reconquest of Wallachia), Vlad lived with his new wife in a house in the Hungarian capital. His sons were about ten years old when he reconquered Wallachia in 1476.

Return to Wallachia and death[change | change source]

Around 1475 Vlad and Stefan Báthory of Transylvania invaded Wallachia with a mixed force of Transylvanians, some dissatisfied Wallachian boyars, and Moldavians sent by Prince Stephen III of Moldavia, Vlad's cousin. Vlad's brother, Radu the Handsome, died a couple of years earlier and had been replaced on the Wallachian throne by another Turkish candidate, Prince Basarab the Elder, a member of the Dăneşti clan. When Vlad's army arrived, Prince Basarabs army fled, some to the Turks, others in the mountains. After placing Vlad Ţepeş on the throne, Stephen Báthory and his forces returned to Transylvania, leaving Vlad in a very weak position. Vlad had little time to get support before a large Turkish army entered Wallachia to put back Prince Basarab on the throne. Vlad's cruelties over the years made the boyars to believe that they had a better chance to survive under Prince Basarab. Even the peasants, tired of the cruelty of Vlad, abandoned him. Vlad had to meet the Turks with the small forces at his disposal, which were made up of less than four thousand men.

There are several variants of Vlad III the Impaler's death. Some sources say he was killed in battle against the Turks near Bucharest in December 1476. Others say he was killed by disloyal Wallachian boyars in the war against the Turks, or during a hunt. Others believe Vlad was killed in the war, surrounded by the bodies of his loyal Moldavian bodyguards. Still other reports claim that Vlad was accidentally killed by one of his own men. Vlad's body was decapitated by the Turks and his head was sent to Istanbul preserved in honey. The sultan had it displayed on a stake as proof that Kazıklı Bey was dead. The exact place of his grave is unknown.

Legacy[change | change source]

Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys, painting by Theodor Aman

Tales and legends about Vlad stayed a part of folklore among the Romanian peasants. By constant retelling they have become confused and created an ideal picture of a big national hero. Among the Romanian peasants, Vlad Ţepeş was sometimes remembered as a prince who defended his country.

But sometimes he is remembered as a very cruel and often capricious ruler. There are several events that are common to all tales. One tale is about foreign ambassadors whom Vlad Ţepeş was meeting at Târgovişte. All versions agree that Vlad, in response to some real or imagined insult, (perhaps because they refused to remove the hats in Vlad's presence), had their hats nailed to their heads.

A good description of Vlad Dracula survives, courtesy of Nicholas of Modrussa, who wrote:

He was not very tall, but very stocky and strong, with a cruel and terrible appearance, a long straight nose, distended nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which the large wide-open green eyes were enframed by bushy black eyebrows, which made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head. A bull's neck supported the head, from which black curly locks were falling to his wide-shouldered person.

His famous portrait was rediscovered in the late 1800s, in the gallery of horrors at Innsbruck's Ambras Castle.

Cruelty[change | change source]

Vlad Tepes and his forest

Vlad III Ţepeş has been described as very cruel. The old Romanian word for dragon is Dracul, which in modern Romanian means "devil". In Old Romanian, it means "dragon". Dracul was the name given to his father, Vlad II, by other members of the Order of the Dragon. Impalement was Ţepeş's preferred method of torture and execution. His method of torture was a horse attached to each of the victim's legs while sharpened stake was forced into the body. Vlad often had the stakes arranged in patterns. The most common pattern was a ring outside of a city that was his target. The height of the spear indicated the rank of the victim. The corpses were often left there for months.

One tale says 10,000 were impaled in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu (where Vlad the Impaler had once lived) in 1460. Another tale says that on Saint Bartholomew's Day (in August), Vlad the Impaler had 30,000 people of the free Transylvanian city of Braşov impaled. One of the most famous woodcuts of the period shows Vlad the Impaler feasting amongst a forest of stakes outside Braşov, while a nearby executioner cuts apart other victims. Impalement was not his only method of torture. Other methods include nails in heads, cutting off limbs, strangulation, burning, cutting off noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially in the case of women), scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to animals, and boiling alive.

His victims included women, children, peasants, great lords, ambassadors from foreign powers and merchants. However, the vast majority of his European victims came from the merchants and boyars of Transylvania and Wallachia. Most of the merchants there were German-speaking Saxons who were seen as bad people because they were not Romanian. He saw the boyars as people who were not loyal (Vlad's own father and older brother were murdered by boyars).

Almost as soon as he came to power, he gave a party for his boyars and their families to celebrate Easter. These nobles were part of the conspiracy around his father's death. Vlad, to avenge his father's death, had all the assembled nobles arrested. The older boyars were impaled on the spot. The younger nobles and their families were marched north from Târgovişte to the ruins of the Poienari Castle in the mountains above the Argeş River. The boyars and their families were forced to work for months rebuilding the old castle. According to the reports, they worked until the clothes fell off their bodies, and then were forced to continue working naked. Very few survived the building of Vlad's castle.

Vlad Ţepeş is also believed to have tortured and impaled some of the Turkish forces. It was reported that an invading Ottoman army turned back when they saw thousands of rotting corpses impaled on the banks of the river Danube. In 1462, Mehmed II returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses outside of Vlad's capital of Târgovişte. Many of the victims were Turkish prisoners of war.

Anecdotal evidence[change | change source]

Maybe it is Vlad the Impaler who is painted here in a picture as a pagan Roman at Jesus crucifixion

Much of the information we have about Vlad III Ţepeş comes from texts published in the Holy Roman Empire in German texts from 1488 and books written in Russian. These were entertainment in a society where the printing press was new. The texts were reprinted over the thirty years following Vlad's death. The German texts said Vlad Ţepeş was a person who terrorized the land and killed innocents. The Russian texts said his actions were justified, because Vlad helped them. The texts agree on some details.

According to the texts, he was particularly cruel against women and wanted his people to work hard. Merchants who cheated their customers were likely to be killed because of that.

The vampire legend[change | change source]

The fictional vampire in the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was inspired by the legends of this Wallachian prince. The cruel person of the Impaler was a suitable character for Stoker's purposes possibly combined with Oscar Wilde, a poet whom dated Stoker's wife and was outed as homosexual near the making of Stoker's famous novel. The events of Vlad's life happened in a region of the world that was still medieval in Stoker's time.

Although there were vampire tales originating elsewhere, the vampire, as he became known in Europe, largely originated in Southern Slavic and Greek folklore. The vampire tale is virtually absent in Romanian culture. Vampirism became part of the popular culture in Europe beginning in the late 17th century. Philosophers in the West began to study the phenomenon. It was during this period that Dom Augustine Calmet wrote a famous text on vampirism in Hungary. It was also during this period that authors and playwrights first began to explore the vampire legend. Stoker's novel was a work in a long series of works that were inspired by the reports coming from the Balkans.

Further reading[change | change source]

  • Florescu, Radu R.; McNally, Raymond T. (1989). Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Little Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-28655-9
  • Radu R., Florescu; McNally, Raymond T. (1994). In Search of Dracula. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-65783-0
  • Treptow, Kurt W. (2000). Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula. Center for Romanian Studies. ISBN 973-98392-2-3
  • Babinger, Franz (1992). Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691010786
  • Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad the Impaler by Kurt W Treptow, Center for Romanian Studies, 2018, amzn.to/2rYx93U via @amazon

References[change | change source]

  1. "Vlad the Impaler | Biography, Dracula, Death, & Facts | Britannica".
  2. Richard Pallardy. "Vlad III (ruler of Walachia)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
  3. Dracula.cc Research Team. "Vlad the Impaler (Vlad III Dracula)". Dracula.cc. Archived from the original on 23 February 2015. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  4. Grigore Nandris, 'The Historical Dracula: The Theme of His Legend in the Western and in the Eastern Literatures of Europe', Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Penn State University Press, 1966), pp. 367-396
  5. Florescu & McNally 1989, p. 45.

Other websites[change | change source]

Preceded by
Vladislav II
Prince of Wallachia
Succeeded by
Vladislav II
Preceded by
Vladislav II
Prince of Wallachia
Succeeded by
Radu cel Frumos
Preceded by
Basarab Laiotă cel Bătrân
Prince of Wallachia
Succeeded by
Basarab Laiotă cel Bătrân