19 October 2011

Villains: Prince Vlad III of Wallachia

By Lisa J. Yarde

Vlad III of Wallachia

Also known as Dracula (son of the Dragon or devil) and Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), the legendary life of this fifteenth century Wallachian prince is filled with accounts of his excessive cruelty. He also inspired the Gothic nightmares of Bram Stoker's Dracula, about an undead count who preys upon the innocent to sustain his life. Dracula wasn't the first vampire in fiction of the Victorian era, but he's arguably the most popular. The mysteries behind the real history of Vlad III of Wallachia have made it possible to mire the past in fantastical imaginings of him as an enduring vampire. 

Who was the real man behind the legend? A murderous villain who impaled his enemies and innocents alike by the thousands, worthy of the vampire stories associated with his legend? A fighter, like his father, who protected his land from the invading Turks? Or, perhaps the truth lies in between; he might have been a pragmatic man, born into a violent time, who used brutal tactics to ensure his country’s survival.

Vlad Dracul
Vlad III was born in 1431, in what is now modern-day Romania. His father Vlad Dracul became Prince of Wallachia and a member of the Catholic military Order of the Dragon, dedicated to fighting the Turkish invasion from the east. His mother’s identity is uncertain, but she may have been his father’s second wife, Cneajna, daughter of Prince Alexandru of Moldavia. Vlad III had brothers; Vlad the Monk (illegitimate; born around 1425), Mircea II (born 1428) and Radu the Handsome (born 1435).  Vlad Dracul ruled a vast territory where hundreds of nobles or boyars vied for power in a state weakened by the persistence of the Turks.

Two momentous events in the youth of Vlad III might have inspired his enduring hatred of the Turks. In 1437, his father signed an agreement with the Sultan Murad II, betraying the tenets of the Order of the Dragon. Five years later, when Vlad III was eleven, Murad II seized him and his brother Radu for their father’s half-support of the Turkish invasion of Wallachia. Radu would live with the Turks until 1468, but Vlad III stayed from 1442-1448. When his brother Mircea II revolted against the Turks, the family risked the lives of the two young boys. They were never harmed, but young Radu had to bear the sexual advances of Prince Mehmed II. During his confinement, Vlad III learned much from his Turkish captors about the fickle nature of politics, and more about cruelty and vice.

Radu the Handsome
In 1447, Vlad Dracul died, assassinated while escaping from disloyal boyars. The nobles captured his son Mircea II, blinded him with a red-hot poker and buried him alive.  A year later at the age of seventeen, the Turks released Vlad III, who later seized the vacant principality of Wallachia. He only held it for two months. He bided his time in Moldavia until 1456, when a council of boyars supported his new reign. They would soon regret their actions.

In the spring of 1457, after having dug up his brother’s remains and seeing the proof of his terrible demise, Vlad III invited two hundred boyars from the city of Tirgoviste and their families to a feast. The elder noblemen and their wives were impaled on sharpened, wooden stakes. The young and able-bodied were marched along the Arges River to the site of the future Castle Dracula. Vlad III also roamed the countryside in disguise and inquired after the condition of his poorest people. Yet, he could be cruel to them – he once invited all the beggars to a banquet in Tirgoviste, where his men locked the doors and burned the occupants alive. As Vlad said, “These men live off the sweat of others, so they are useless to humanity.” Clearly, the Prince of Wallachia wasn’t interested in social reform.

Mehmed II
However, Vlad III reserved his greatest cruelty for the Turks. In 1459, when Sultan Mehmed II sent his emissaries to collect the poll tax and tributes of Wallachian boys into the Janissary order, Vlad nailed the ambassadors’ hats to their heads. When the Turks later attacked, Vlad’s men ambushed them and impaled their leader on the highest stake, based on his rank. Since he spoke Turkish, Vlad was also able to infiltrate Turkish ranks and destroy their camps.

The Venetians and Genoese lauded Vlad’s efforts, but hostility toward the Prince of Wallachia at home and the betrayal of his younger brother Radu placed his rule in jeopardy. King Matthias Corvinus, Vlad’s suzerain, imprisoned him for ten years. The Turks placed Radu the Handsome on the Wallachian throne, where he reigned as Radu III. Upon his release, Vlad married the cousin of Matthias Corvinus, by whom he had two sons. His first wife had committed suicide by jumping into the Arges River, rather than surrendering to the Turks.  In 1476 after Radu’s death, Vlad tried to regain Wallachia, but he was assassinated two months later.

Historians believe that tales of Vlad’s extreme cruelty can be attributed to propaganda by Matthias Corvinus, who was less than helpful in Vlad’s fight against the Turks. Romanian patriots have portrayed Vlad as a patriot, but it is hard to deny the evidence of his villainy toward his own people. 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of On Falcon's Wings, a medieval novel chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. She has also written the medieval novels Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, both set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain.