Known to history as Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, or Dracul, was born in the imposing citadel of Sighisoara in the mountainous region of Transylvania in modern day Rumania on a dark, stormy winter’s night in 1431.
The darkness of that night remained forever in his soul and in his heart as he became one of the most brutal men known to history, a man who revelled in the spilling of blood and took a sadistic pleasure in the torture of others, and the man upon whom Bram Stoker was to loosely base the character of Count Dracula.
His father Vlad II, was the ruler of Wallachia and in the year of his son’s birth he had been summoned by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, to be initiated into the secret Order of the Dragon and made to swear an oath to uphold and defend the Christian faith against its many enemies.
In reality, this meant the Ottoman Turks who at the time controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe.
Vlad II was to betray this oath however, and come to an agreement with the Turks in return for retaining his throne.
In 1436 as insurance of his fidelity, he handed over his two sons Vlad and his younger brother Radu to the Sultan Murad II as hostages.
Little is known of the young Vlad’s time in the Ottoman Court though it would appear that both he and his brother were well-treated but nevertheless it was during his captivity that he acquired a burning hatred of the Turk, and an equally virulent hatred of his brother.
It was rumoured that Radu, by all accounts a pretty young boy, was particularly close to the Sultan and that he favoured him over his brother. Whatever their relationship it evidently angered an increasingly embittered, Vlad.
In 1447, his father was murdered in a palace coup and Vlad’s older brother Mircea wrote to him explaining how his father’s eyes had been gouged out before he was set alight and burned to death.
Mircea knew his younger brother well enough to know that such detail would guarantee a merciless response to the perpetrators of the deed should he ever return, and he was to be proved correct in his assumption though he would not live to witness it. Not long after he too was be murdered when he was captured and buried alive by his enemies.
Following the coup Vlad was indeed permitted to return home, Radu however chose to remain at the Ottoman Court.
Vlad was determined to take the throne of Wallachia for himself but for this to happen he would have to be patient. So he maintained a low-profile, offended no one, and bided his time – the preservation of his own life, his first priority.
In 1456, he got his opportunity and with Turkish support recaptured the throne, and it was to transpire that the intervening years had not in any way dampened his desire for revenge.
He invited the Boyars, or Noblemen, of Tirgoviste whom he held responsible for both his father and his brother Mircea’s murder, along with their families, to an Easter feast as part of a planned reconciliation.
Instead the men were rounded up and forced to march fifty miles to labour on the fortifications of his Castle at Poenari and those who did not die of exhaustion or starvation he later had impaled; and there was to be no mercy either for the families who despite their protestations of innocence he had slaughtered.
Vlad III, as he was now known, was a grim, humourless man devoid of personality and charm upon whom, the burden of responsibility appeared to weigh heavy, for he spoke little, trusted no one, and was rarely seen to smile.
Indeed, even to attempt humour in his presence carried risks and the only pleasure he took it seems was in witnessing the pain of others. But he had a courage and strength of character that demanded respect if not love.
He despised idleness and would not tolerate being lied to and he was determined to defend his Kingdom and be a good ruler, and as far as he was concerned this meant war with the Turks and order at home.
Vlad believed that everyone in Wallachia should work, to be unproductive was to be worthless and so he determined to rid his Kingdom of poverty and vagrancy so as an example to others he had a large number of the unemployed invited to feast in a hall he’d had especially built for the occasion. At the end of the feast, during which the guests had been wined and dined to excess, he asked those who had just been so lavishly entertained if they wished to be rid of the pain of hunger forever? When they predictably answered yes, he had the doors of the hall bolted from the outside and set ablaze.
All those inside were incinerated.
When he was later asked to explain his actions he replied that they would now no longer be a burden to others and that he would not tolerate poverty in his Kingdom.
He could also be notoriously capricious, once when travelling through the countryside he came across a particularly dishevelled looking farmer. Seeing that his coat was dirty, worn, and had no buttons he demanded to see the farmer’s wife. He then proceeded to berate her for her lack of care. When she argued that she was too busy washing, cooking, and taking care of her children to bother about her husband’s appearance he ordered her to be executed and told the farmer to find a less lazy wife in the future.
He was also easily offended and when a delegation of Italian and Turkish emissaries visiting the Royal Court to negotiate a treaty failed to remove their hats in his presence he took this as a personal affront and demanded to know why? When they explained that it was not their custom to do so he ordered that their hats be nailed to their heads so that they would not have to break with custom in the future.
But it was not just strangers and foreigners who had reason to be wary of Vlad Dracul. When his mistress fearing that she was losing his affections informed him that she was pregnant, he was delighted. When he discovered this to be a lie he took out his knife and disembowelled her.
The stories of Vlad Dracul’s cruelties are myriad and manifest, and that he was a dark and unpredictable character was clear and no one ever quite knew what his response would be to any given situation, except that it invariably seemed to result in someone’s death and his favoured method of execution was impalement, a particularly slow and painful way to die.
The victim would be hoisted up and then lowered down onto a spike that had been driven into the ground. The spike would enter the body either through the anus or the vagina and the weight of the body would guarantee that death would result and to ensure that it was as slow and painful as possible he had the spikes blunted.
If the victims were many he would have their executions arrayed in a circular pattern so that he could take his dinner within the circle and watch them as they died. It was said he enjoyed listening to their screams, and particularly enjoyed impaling women for they screamed the loudest.
If any of his guests demurred or did not seem to be enjoying the spectacle then they risked enduring the same fate.
But though impalement was his preferred method of execution he had others. Some he had boiled alive in pots, others roasted on spits. One young man he even forced to attend his own funeral service before beheading him beside the grave he had recently been forced to dig.
Sometimes he would impale his victims sideways because it was said he liked to see them wriggle in agony like frogs for death was no punishment if the pain was not so great that the victim welcomed it.
By 1461, Vlad Dracul was at war with the Ottoman Turks campaigning in the Danube River Valley region of Hungary.
Always heavily outnumbered he was aware that he could not defeat the Turks in open battle but he was nonetheless a ferocious warrior, and a daring one devising a plan to attack the Turkish camp at night and slay the Sultan personally as he slept in his tent. The attack itself was a success but he chose the wrong tent and slew the wrong man.
Relieved at his lucky escape but furious at Vlad’s temerity, Sultan Mehmed II vowed to lay waste to Wallachia but he needn’t have bothered for Vlad did it for him burning villages and crops, and everything else that lay in the Sultan’s path. He even left behind a forest of impaled Turkish prisoners as a gift for the Sultan.
The historian Chalkondiles described the scene:
“The Sultan marched on for about five miles when his army came across a field with stakes, about two miles long and one wide. And they were large stakes upon which he could see the impaled bodies of men, women, and children, about twenty thousand of them.”
The Turks seeing so many people impaled were scared out of their wits. There were babies clinging to their mother’s on stakes and birds had made nests in their breasts.
The Sultan in wonder kept saying that he could not conquer the country of a man who could do such terrible and unnatural things.
Sickened by the stomach churning sight and the stench of rotting corpses the Sultan Mehmed turned away and invested Vlad’s brother Radu, with the responsibility for completing the campaign.
Vlad may have broken the Sultan psychologically but he had not won the war.
Radu pursued Vlad all the way to his Castle at Poenari but he evaded capture with the help of local peasants who remained loyal.
His wife, Illona Szilagy, a humble woman devoted to her husband (though given the circumstances it was perhaps difficult to be otherwise, and this certainly had not been her reputation earlier in life) was not so fortunate.
Radu who heartily disliked his sister-in-law tempered his frustration at Vlad’s escape by having her thrown to her death from the battlements.
Following his victory, Radu was installed as the King of Wallachia whilst Vlad, burning with hatred and the desire for revenge, fled to the Castle of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and relative safety.
The King was none too pleased at his presence and at first had him placed under lock and key but over time Vlad was able to win the trust of the King eventually marrying his niece and fathering two children by her and with the help of Matthias Corvinus he was able to win back his throne but was unable to avenge himself on Radu who had died two months earlier of dysentery.
Vlad Dracul’s second reign was to be short-lived, however.
To regain his throne he had needed the support of the Church and had therefore agreed to act as a bulwark against further encroachment by the Ottoman Turks into Christian lands, but in truth this was not something that he was able to deliver. His position was weak, the loyalty of his army remained uncertain, and he was not welcomed back by the Boyars who had not forgotten their previous treatment at his hands and preferred to live under the Turks than subject themselves again to his rule.
Many of the Boyars refused to rally to his support and went into hiding.
Still, Vlad was not a man who broke an oath and he took his much reduced army to confront the Sultan as he vowed he would.
The outcome of the fighting he knew in the end was a foregone conclusion and so it transpired. But he had determined to die fighting alongside his men.
Vlad the Impaler was killed outside Bucharest in December 1476, though the exact circumstances remain vague.
He may have died in a skirmish with the Turks or been assassinated by a rival either way his body was so badly mutilated it was said that it could only be recognised by its vestments.
His severed head was pickled and taken back to the Sultan in Constantinople as proof of his death and where it was put on display as a trophy of war.
For many in both Hungary and Rumania Vlad Dracul is a hero.
He did after all fight heroically against the Turks and despite overwhelming odds maintain Wallachian independence, and though Vlad Dracul may have struck fear into the hearts of his enemies the common people respected and admired him as a just ruler for whom being rich and powerful was no security against his wrath.
Those who committed a crime would pay the penalty regardless of who they were and he was also seen to be a generous Prince who richly rewarded those who remained loyal and stories of his generosity towards the common people are still told today.
He is also remembered for bringing the hated Boyars to heel and for restoring order throughout his realm.
Indeed, so well-ordered was Wallachian society under his rule that it was said he placed a gold cup in the central square of his capital at Tirgoviste and dared anyone to take it.
No one ever did.
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