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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'sDracula, 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 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
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.
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.
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.