05 October 2012

Executed: Torture under Vlad the Impaler

By Lisa J. Yarde

In 1499, a German pamphlet circulated through Nuremberg. It depicts a horrific scene that supposedly took place outside the Romanian city of Brasov. Hacked limbs and heads littered the ground while men and women are impaled through the stomach or torso. While the man to the bottom right carves up fallen bodies with a short ax, the solitary bearded figure to the left sits at a banquet table in clear enjoyment of the grim vista. Text accompanies the image. "Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves...."

Nuremberg pamphlet; Source - Wiki Commons

Vlad Dracula III, the 15th century Romanian prince of Wallachia gained such a reputation for cruel executions, he inspired Bram Stoker's famous novel and centuries of the vampire myths that still mire his past. The legends about Vlad that do not involve supernatural elements are just as terrifying as anything Stoker could imagine. Vlad's vicious enemies the Ottoman Turks thought he deserved the title Kaziglu Bey or the Impaler Prince. He earned his fearsome reputation among the Turks, his other enemies and even his own people with his favorite method of execution.

The Turks may bear some responsibility for Vlad's vices. In 1442, when Vlad was barely a teenager, his father had to surrender him and his younger brother Radu to the Turks in exchange for their military support. Initiated into painful torments with the whip by his tutors and unable to protect his brother Radu from the sexual advances of the future Sultan Mehmed II, young Vlad developed a brutal outlook on life. For six years, he survived as a hostage and must have nurtured a seething hatred against the Turks. They had forced their terms on his father, captured him and Radu, and turned his younger brother into a sycophant who forgot his Christian upbringing, embraced Islam and abandoned himself to a relationship with an Ottoman prince. Vlad might have also witnessed the execution of prisoners, a subtle demonstration from his captors of the fate awaiting him if his father rebelled. Turkish prisoners were shot with arrows, beheaded, crushed, hung, mauled by wild animals or impaled. In the latter instance, they endured the piercing stab of a sharpened pole through their rectums and were left in excruciating agony to die atop the raised pole. 

After Vlad's release from captivity in 1448, he had three terms as prince of Wallachia. During that time, the Turks had captured Constantinople, the bastion of Eastern Orthodoxy and impaled many of its Christian inhabitants. They prepared to conquer the whole of Europe.  The new Ottoman ruler Mehmed II had declared himself young, rich and favored, determined to surpass the combined ambitions of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Hannibal of Carthage.

Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia
Source - Wiki Commons
Vlad's revenge began with slow, deliberate purpose. During his second reign, Pope Pius II called for a crusade against the Turks who now threatened Hungary. In 1459, Vlad paid the last tribute of 10,000 ducats he would ever send the Turks.  A year later, Mehmed directed his envoys to Wallachia. Vlad detained the men and nailed their hats to their heads for failure to remove them as a show of deference. Mehmed sent a follow-up request for 500 boys for the Janissary corps. When Vlad refused, the Turks made incursions into Wallachia and stole the children. Vlad bided his time and pretended to negotiate with Mehmed, who sent the governor of Nicopolis, Hamza Bey under an escort of 1,000 cavalry to a meeting with Vlad. Vlad attacked the Turks and executed the survivors by impalement. He had the ends of the stakes oiled and required that they should not be too sharp, lest his victims die quickly. For Hamza Bey, he reserved the longest stake so the dying man could still rank highest above his fellow Turks. Over the years of successive warfare, a new type of forest rose above Wallachia - the impaled corpses of Vlad's prisoners. Mehmed's army once fled the countryside along the Danube River after encountering the gruesome display.

Vlad settled other scores by methods of impalement, with particular barbarity reserved for the nobles whom he had suspected of disloyalty and betrayal of his murdered father. At his capital in Tirgoviste, he impaled members of the nobility and on St. Bartholomew's Day, he allegedly had 20,000 men, women and children executed at the Romanian city of Sibiu while he enjoyed his lunch. When one of his soldiers covered his nose against the stench of death, Vlad had him impaled alongside the other victims with the words: "Let him join these others, but because he had been loyal until today, hoist him higher than the rest that he does not have to smell his company!"

Sources: Florescu, Radu R. & McNally, Raymond T. Dracula — Prince of Many Faces

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.