Vlad Dracula, the Impaler
Vlad III - Introduction
Dracula. We all know the name and the story. I would dare to say that there isn’t anyone on the planet over the age of 12 who hasn’t heard some version of the story of Dracula. He conjures up images of blood, vampires, fangs and bats. But what do you really know about Dracula? I’m not talking about the Bram Stoker invention, and the countless reincarnations in books and movies, but the real man that inspired the tales. He was no count. He was in fact, a prince. And he didn’t drink blood, but he spilled more of it than any two-bit vampire ever did in fiction. But this story isn’t fictional. This account is one hundred percent historical, and if there is any part of this account that deals in legends, I’ll note it as you read it. The rest is all true, as much as we know it. And it started one dark year in the late 15th century…
Also known more commonly to us as Vlad Dracula, and to history as Vlad Tepes
In the mid-15th century, there was a struggle in a part of Eastern Europe between Hungary and its neighboring states with the Ottoman Empire of the Turks. One of the kingdoms in the region was Wallachia, and it stood directly in the path of these mighty forces. The main warlord in the area was a Hungarian known as Janos Hunyadi, who fought many battles from 1446 to 1456. At the time, young Vlad Dracula was in his late teens or early twenties and very much in the shadow of Hunyadi.
For nearly one thousand years Constantinople had stood as the protecting outpost of the Byzantine Empire, also known as the East Roman Empire, and blocked Islam’s access to Europe. The Ottomans nonetheless succeeded in penetrating deep into the Balkans during this time. Through the actions of Hunyadi, the advance of the Turks had been curbed from coming further into Eastern Europe but the threat was by no means removed. Hunyadi’s success had overwhelmed and influenced all ambitious medieval warlords in the region, including Vlad Dracula.
This map of Eastern Europe, c.1500, gives an idea how close these countries were to each other, and to the Ottoman Empire
Hunyadi had previously defeated the Hussites and utilized some of their tactics. He used such Hussite innovations as war wagons (first used by the Early Goths and the Chosen – Korean -- peoples), and early firearms and even recruited Bohemian soldiers. He’d succeeded in repelling the Turks in Hungary by raid and counter-raid and also repelled them from Dracula’s native land of Wallachia. In the winter of 1444, Hunyadi conducted a major offensive against the Turks employing an army consisting of Hungarians, Wallachians, Romanians, Poles, Serbs and Bulgarians. Using his skill and speed he repelled the Turks and by the end of his campaign he had shattered Ottoman power in the Balkans north of Greece. He became quite famous for these exploits and even forced Sultan Murad II to accept peace.
Vlad Dracul, Vlad Dracula’s father, played an obscure or perhaps ambiguous role in this. Vlad Dracul was a knight and made a member of the Order of the Dragon by Sigismund of Hungary in 1431. This is where we get the name Dracul – for dragon. The word for dragon in Romanian is "drac" and "ul" is the definitive article (the). Vlad III’s father thus came to be known as "Vlad Dracul," or "Vlad the Dragon." In Romanian, the ending "ulea" means "the son of". Under this interpretation, Vlad III thus became Vlad Dracula, or "the son of the dragon." (The word "drac" also means "devil" in Romanian, in this case, quite appropriately). The Order of the Dragon was something of a religious military order and was dedicated to the destruction of heretics and infidels, of which the Turks certainly qualified by Christian standards. At the time of Hunyadi’s campaign, however, Vlad Dracul was ruler of Wallachia and he had no wish to crusade against the Turks. Living directly on the Danube frontier of the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, he was all too aware of the power of the Ottoman Empire and their Janissaries. If the Turks attacked, Wallachia would be on the front lines and the small princedom could hardly withstand an onslaught by the powerful Turks. So, Vlad Dracul signed an alliance (prior to Hunyadi’s campaign) with Murad II of the Ottoman Empire. He even accompanied the Sultan on raids into Transylvania, a province of Hungary. The rulers of Wallachia were thus forced to appease these two empires to maintain their survival, often forging alliances with one or the other, depending upon what served their self-interest at the time.
Emblem of the Order of the Dragon
But in 1441, Hunyadi, the powerful warlord, demanded Dracul renew his pledge to the Order of the Dragon and fight against the Turks. Caught in the middle of two powerful and opposing forces, Dracul allowed the Turks passage through Wallachia and they ravaged Transylvania. When Hunyadi defeated the Ottomans near Sibiu, he pursued them into Wallachia and while there he removed Dracul from his throne. Dracul sought sanctuary with the Turks and thus became ever more dependent on the Sultan for his very life. With Turkish assistance, he was placed back on his throne in Wallachia two years later, in 1443. To secure his alliance with the Turks, they demanded two of his sons as hostages. One was named Radu (Rudolph) and the other was young Vlad Dracula. They were held in a castle in western Anatolia, Turkey.
Wishing to cast out the Turkish influence once and for all from Eastern Europe, Hunyadi and the Hungarian King broke their treaty with the Turks in 1444, and advanced with an international crusader army to the town of Varna on the Black Sea. The intent was to break to Turkish ring around Constantinople. A Venetian-Burgundian fleet attempted to occupy the Dardanelles to stop Ottoman reinforcements from Asia. But the fleet failed, possibly due to Genoese treachery or sabotage, and the Sultan crossed with a mighty army to confront the Crusaders under Hunyadi.
The Battle of Varna
The battle began well for Hunyadi and the crusader army and their shining knights soon had the Ottomans falling back and looking disorganized. Bohemians, Italians and Hungarians were armed with handguns, which at the time were little more than small hand-held cannons mounted on shafts of wood. They were unreliable and dangerous even to the shooters, but they inflicted severe damage and the blasts were tremendously loud, frightening away many soldiers initially. As the hand gunners fired, Hungarian light horsemen (part of their Magyar heritage) dashed in around the Turkish formations shooting composite bows and throwing javelins. The Turks panicked and began to retreat. This is part of what led to a perceived victory; the flight of the Turks. But Hunyadi was an experienced warlord. He knew this battle was far from over. Alas, the Hungarian king saw it otherwise. As the Turks scrambled to regain some order in their ranks the Hungarian king and his knights wanted to rush in and secure the victory. But the king wanted more than a victory: he wanted to capture the Sultan, Murad II, who was on a nearby hill surrounded by Christian janissary archers. Hunyadi urged caution and asked that the king wait, but rashly the king and his knights lowered their lances and charged. Several hundred knights, possibly upwards of 500, closed on the enemy at a gallop and found themselves surrounded by Turks. They had fallen into a trap. Hunyadi could only watch from his position as the king and all the knights were brought down and slaughtered. The king’s head was cut off right on the battlefield and later delivered to the Sultan.
Vlad Dracul, who was playing both sides against the middle, avoided personal catastrophe by sending several thousand Wallachians, mostly foot soldiers (a token force really), to Hunyadi’s crusader army under the command of his eldest son, Mircea. While this saved his graces with Hunyadi, it threatened his two other sons, Vlad Dracula and Radu, who were still hostages of the Turks. Normally the life of a royal or noble hostage was a good one. They were usually kept in castles or palaces and used the time to learn the ways of their hosts including the language of the host. But this wasn’t the case for Dracul’s sons now that he’d sent forces to fight alongside Hunyadi. A Turkish document records that Radu had to defend himself from perverted and unwanted sexual advances of the Sultan. Eventually Radu succumbed, whether by force or fear and resignation, and eventually became a harem favorite of the Ottoman court. In this violent, cruel environment, Vlad Dracula learned the lessons of fear and violence and how this could affect an enemy. He himself was not recorded as being assaulted, but he must have been beaten at the least. The lessons of violence remained with him for the rest of his life, as we will see.
Turks charge Hunyadi
After the disaster at Varna, the Burgundian-Venetian fleet searched for Hunyadi along the Black Sea and the Danube. Dracul aided the fleet by giving them supplies. On one of the ships of this fleet happened to be the nephew of one Walerand de Wavrin, who was a chronicler. Were it not for him we would no nothing of this part of the story. The fleet bombarded several Turkish garrisons along the way and Dracul, noting the booty to be had, eagerly took part. He led one bombardment using a cannon (little more than a large, thick metal kettle aimed with a high trajectory), of which he knew little. Despite warnings to let the large barrel cool between shots, he kept firing repeatedly until it blew up. It was repaired and he did the same again until once again it exploded killing the gunners. Later, showing his treacherous nature, which had allowed him to survive amidst the battling Turks and the Hungarians, Dracul (Dracula’s father) proposed an ambush on the Turks. Being an ally to the Turks in the past, he knew he could offer some Turkish soldiers passage under safe conduct. He intended to ambush them while they were under this safe conduct. The Burgundian ship’s captain, Wavrin and his chronicler nephew were shocked at this deception and refused to put their seal to it. Dracul carried it out regardless and the Turks were massacred.
Dracul finally went back to Wallachia, sure of his minor successes and scornful of Hunyadi’s defeat at Varna. When Hunyadi was passing through Wallachia on his way back to Hungary, Dracul captured him and imprisoned the warlord. He chided Hunyadi that the Sultan had more men in his hunting parties than Hunyadi had followers. He intended to execute Hunyadi but the warlord’s reputation saved his life. Hunyadi swore revenge for his ill treatment by Dracul and invaded Wallachia in 1447 with an expeditionary army. Dracul and his son Mircea were both killed. Hunyadi made himself the new ruler of Wallachia but soon tired of it and gave the title over to a loyal retainer, Vladislav II.
The Turks were furious at this action for they saw Dracul as a good friend an ally, despite some of his actions, which perhaps they were unaware of. In 1448, a year after Hunyadi took over Wallachia; the Turks released Vlad Dracula and encouraged him to claim his dead father’s throne as his own. Dracula emerged from captivity a bitter, violent and determined man.
Vlad had to be thinking of much on his journey back to Wallachia. He had to contend with Hunyadi, the powerful Hungarian warlord and Hunyadi’s personal handpicked successor to his father’s throne, Vladislav II, now Prince of Wallachia – Vlad’s Princedom. But he had more problems that these, as if these weren’t enough. A major factor influencing political life was the means of succession to the Wallachian throne. The throne was hereditary, but not by the law of primogeniture. The nobility and real power of Wallachia for centuries had been with a group known as the ‘boyars’, who were wealthy land-owning nobles. They had the right to elect the voivode (prince) from among various eligible members of the royal family. This may appear somewhat democratic in the Age of Kings, but all it really did was to allow for succession to the throne through violent means, corruption and conflict. Assassinations and other violent overthrows of reigning parties were thus rampant. In fact, both Vlad III and his father assassinated competitors to attain the throne of Wallachia.
But he must have regarded the news of Hunyadi’s new military campaign against the Turks as an omen of good fortune. While Vlad was on his way home to reclaim his throne with a borrowed company of Turkish warriors, Hunyadi, probably unaware of Dracula’s release from Turkish confinement, went to war against the Turks again.
Hunyadi burned to avenge himself and his crusading army for the failure Varna. This time there would be no rash actions, like rushing of the lines of battle. When he reached Kosovo, now part of Bosnia, he came into contact with the Ottomans. He had recruited German and Bohemian handgunners and placed them behind massive war-wagons and fieldworks. On his flanks he placed Albanian and Wallachians mixed in with Hungarian soldiers. These were mostly horsemen, adventuring knights and even Magyar horse-archers. His handpicked successor to Dracul’s throne, Vladislav II rode alongside him with some 8,000 warriors.
The Turks dug in behind defensive structures employing crossbows and composite bows instead of firearms, opposite the Christian center. Nothing happened for long minutes. Neither side wanted to make the first move and give away part of his strategy. For a time it seemed as if the two sides were frozen in place, facing one another. But skirmishing broke out between the two sides of cavalry who were restlessly riding back and forth. Suddenly, before a planned attack was announced on either side the battle had begun. Gangs of Horsemen on both sides charged each other, shot, threw or fired their missile weapons and dashed back. Christian gunners lit their barrels with sparks and held on tight as blasts from Hunyadi’s lines delivered flying shot and terrifying death to anything that stood in its way. Men cried out in pain, horses fell and so much smoke and haze filled the air after several volleys, that neither side could easily see the other. The Turks responded with bows and bolts from crossbows, which thudded into the earthworks or landed silently in the flesh of men, who fell over dead all around. The battle went on for two days, with missile weapons filling the air with deadly projectiles and the cavalry of both armies meeting for bloody encounters in the center. Again and again the horsemen challenged each other. Finally the Wallachian’s and Hungarian’s nerves became strained and they snapped. Some retreated in a panic and this lead to others thinking this was a good idea until the whole of the Christian army was in disorderly retreat. It was a hard fought battle with hundreds, perhaps thousands dying on both sides. The tactical victory went to the Turks, but the military victory went to neither. It was more or less a draw. The Turks gained little advantage of it. It was a bloody two days at Kosovo, and perhaps the only winner was Vlad Dracula, who wasn’t even there.
Dracula made his way to Wallachia and in Vladislav’s absence, seized the Prince’s throne (it was a Princedom, not a kingdom) with his Turkish forces. But he wasn’t to hold it long. While Hunyadi was leaving the dismal and terrible scene at Kosovo in defeat, his army looted and pillaged a Serbian town and the Serbian Lord of that town imprisoned Hunyadi for his men’s actions. His retainer, his handpicked prince of Wallachia, could have saved him, but Vladislav II instead made quickly for Wallachia when he heard the news that Vlad Dracula had come back and taken his throne. Vladislav left his patron, Hunyadi, to rot in the Serbian dungeon, and took what he could of Hunyadi’s Christian army to Wallachia with him where he tracked down Dracula and defeated him with his much larger force. Dracula fled east to Moldavia for sanctuary. Exiled again, he plotted a way to return.
This map shows a close view of the area (modern Romania) and some of the places in the story.
Disaster struck the Christian world and shook Central and Eastern Europe to its Core when in 1455, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This was the last part of the old Roman Empire and had been a bastion of Orthodox Christianity and ally of Europe. It was an especially great blow to Hungary, then at the height of their power. Everyone in Eastern and Central Europe feared the Turks would invade them next. Hunyadi, who had managed to extricate himself from Serbian dungeons, feared a Turkish invasion of Hungary. But Vlad Dracula was playing politics. He threw himself on the mercy of Hunyadi – Moldavia was too much like his imprisonment in Turkey. Hunyadi needed strong warlords to fight upcoming conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, and accepted Dracula. It also helped Dracula’s cause that Hunyadi’s handpicked leader of Wallachia, Vladislav II, had left him in a Serbian prison, something he never forgave. What made Vladislav look even worse in the eyes of Hunyadi, and it didn’t take much more, was that Vladislav had started to succumb to Turkish influence. The Wallachians under Vladislav II paid regular tribute to the new Turkish Sultan, Mehmed II, who considered the country open territory, from which he could attack Transylvania. Given these conditions, Hunyadi accepted Dracula’s pledge of loyalty and sent him to defend the border of Transylvania against Wallachian invasion. Dracula wanted Wallachia back more than anything else. But he waited until the right time to make his move.
Meanwhile, Hunyadi, with his usual strategic brilliance, sensed that the Turks were going to attack so he attacked them first. It was a bold move, and one that would pay off. He rode to the beleaguered fortress at Belgrade (pictured below), which was under siege by the Turks. Combining professional soldiers and a peasant infantry, he smashed the Turks who were caught completely off guard. It was his most impressive victory, but one that also cost Hunyadi. Not long after the victory, disease began to spread amongst the soldiers. In just a couple of weeks one of the victims of the disease was Hunyadi himself. His unexpected death severely weakened Christian resolve and resistance in the region. We don’t know what Vlad Dracula thought of this, but it had to be a tremendous relief for the aspiring Prince and warlord to be rid of the overwhelming presence of Hunyadi, once and for all. This was the moment he’d been waiting for.
The Fortress at Belgrade
Now free to do what he wanted, Dracula left his position in Transylvania that Hunyadi had asked him to guard, crossed the mountains into Wallachia, confronted, defeated and killed Vladislav II. In September of 1456, Vlad Dracula became the Prince of Wallachia. The first thing he did as ruler was to pay homage to both the Hungarian King and the Turkish Sultan. He was following a long Wallachian tradition in trying to appease both sides for his own survival.
He made Tirgoviste, in central Wallachia, his capital and lived in a modest palace where he plotted. Dracula knew that to ever have control of Wallachia he had to deal with the boyars, those elite nobles who had chosen the leaders of Wallachia for over a century. Dracula heard of rumors that the boyars also were partly responsible for the deaths of his father, Dracul, and elder brother, Mircea after their defeat at the hands of Hunyadi a year earlier. When Dracul and Mircea fled the battlefield (they were not both killed during that battle as reported), they’d been betrayed by the Boyars. Although the Dracula’s father may well have been killed during his flight, his brother Mircea was captured by boyar nobles in Wallachia; tortured and killed. Showing great deliberation, Dracula sought proof of this before he took revenge. He had the alleged grave of his brother exhumed and inside he found the partially decomposed body of his brother, Mircea, lying face down, tortured, contorted from unnatural death with dirt in his mouth and throat. He’d been buried alive. Dracula controlled the rage that burned within him. He remained calm and deliberate. Silently he returned to his palace, organized a royal feast for the boyar nobles ostensibly to celebrate Easter. It was going to be a black Easter. When all the boyar nobles had arrived and were gathered around a long feast table, Dracula left the room and sent in his loyal bodyguards. The boyar nobles were completely surprised and one by one were taken out of them room and brought outside the palace. When they were lined up (they were at sword-point), Dracula confronted some of them asking, “How many Princes have ruled Wallachia in your lifetime?” Even the youngest boyar could remember seven princes. This enraged Dracula and he shouted, “It is because of your intrigues and feuds that the principality [Wallachia] is weak!” And with that concluding statement Dracula showed the violent wrath that would make him infamous. He had each of the boyars impaled upon large wooden stakes. His bodyguard continued to impale boyars well into the night. Dracula met the screams and cries of agony with indifference.
The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north from Tirgoviste to the ruins of his castle in the mountains above the Arges River. The enslaved boyars and their families were forced to labor for months rebuilding the old castle with materials from a nearby ruin. According to the reports they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. Very few survived this ordeal. Throughout his reign Vlad continued to systematically eradicate the old boyar class of Wallachia. Pictured at right is one of Vlad's castles, Poenari Castle.
Vlad Tepes – the Impaler
[Note]: There is considerable debate about the numbers of victims cited in most histories of Dracula. Some claim that they are greatly exaggerated, others claim that with so many contemporary witnesses, all citing roughly the same high numbers, it is not an exaggeration. Personally, I think some may be exaggerated and have noted them in the rest of the article. But since contemporary sources from differing people agree, as some do, then I'm inclined to leave them as they are for the most part. [End of Note].
The method Dracula used to impale his victims was simple, effective and extremely cruel. The stakes were about three inches in diameter – wide enough to hold the body up for months – and about six or seven feet high. He placed many of the stakes on hills around his palace, and in this way people passing through could see them like a forest of human-trees for miles away. Sometimes they were impaled through the abdomen or chest and then the shaft was fitted into a hole in the ground where the victims writhed in pain for hours.
One account tells how some of the impalements were done. It claims that Vlad had a horse attached to each of the victim’s legs and a sharpened stake was gradually forced into the body, sometimes through the anus, through the center of the body, lengthwise. The end of the stake was usually oiled and care was taken that the stake not be too sharp, so the victim would not die too rapidly. The stake was sometimes forced through the body until it came out of the mouth. However, there were many instances where victims were impaled through the abdomen or chest. Infants were sometimes impaled on the stake with their mothers, the stake being forced through their mother’s chest. The records also indicate that victims were sometimes impaled so that they hung upside down on the stake.
On that dreadful night of pain and death, Vlad Dracula broke the power of the boyar nobility. However, after his time in captivity in Turkey and exile in Moldavia, Vlad was still paranoid about his security. Perhaps he had reason to be. He replaced the massacred boyars with a new nobility. People of common heritage – peasants, in some cases – were now elevated to nobles called viteji. He also surrounded himself with men who were loyal and committed to his regime and this new bodyguard became known as the sluji. Loyalty mattered more than background. With his actions at Tirgoviste, Dracula now earned a new nickname: Vlad Tepes. Tepes, (pronounced ‘sepish’) means ‘the impaler’.
German woodcut of Vlad eating diner with impaled victims surrouding him.
Dracula’s cruelty and paranoia became rampant, and he began impaling people he perceived could be threats for the most trivial of reasons. Perhaps he inflicted on others the pain and misery he’d experienced whilst in captivity. Perhaps he was making fear his the main weapon of his arsenal. He particularly began impaling Saxons, a German people who’d moved into Wallachia and Transylvania by the thousands. He did not like the way Saxon merchants had taken over much of the economic power in the region. He would often persecute them when they refused his one-sided treaties. They became common victims. In a German woodcut from 1499 (see above), Dracula is shown eating at a dinner table with dead and dying Saxon merchants impaled all around him. This may have been German propaganda, for through fear Dracula had become the new warlord of power in the region. Whereas Hunyadi had used military strategy and guile, Dracula used his much more modest military to instill deep fear. Fear was his best and most effective weapon. The German settlers of Transylvania had wielded great power and now they became the target of his rage. They never forgave Dracula and eternally conspired against him, which only added fuel to the fire. It is because of these atrocities and how they affected perceptions in Germany, that we know so much of Dracula today, and why his name was chosen to be Bram Stoker’s fictional blood-drinking monster. But the real Dracula seems almost as terrible as the one portrayed by Stoker. As one historian put it, “At a time of many bloodthirsty warlords, even his contemporaries considered him excessively violent”.
Thousands were often impaled at a single time. Upwards of perhaps ten thousand were impaled in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in 1460. In 1459, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Vlad III had thousands more of the merchants and boyars of the Transylvanian city of Brasov impaled.
Dracula often had the stakes arranged in various geometric patterns. The most common pattern was a ring of concentric circles in the outskirts of a city that was his target. The height of the spear indicated the rank of the victim. The decaying corpses were often left up for months. It was once reported that an invading Turkish army turned back in fright when it encountered thousands of rotting corpses impaled on the banks of the Danube. One such army returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of twenty thousand impaled Turkish prisoners outside of the city of Tirgoviste. We will read learn more about that soon. This gruesome sight is remembered in history as "the Forest of the Impaled." That figures are disputed, but it must have a tremendous number, perhaps approaching 10,000.
As time went by Dracula took pleasure in having the victims last longer alive and in misery. He devised a method by which the stake was impaled into the victims via the anus and driven a foot upward into their body. This way they would continue to live for many hours, sometimes days or even a week. As the victims of this method of impalement tried to free themselves, or move around, the force gravity alone would force the stake point farther up into the body cavity, thus causing more pain and bring death closer. It was a slow, painful, and humiliating way to die.
Although impalement was Vlad Dracula’s favorite method of torture, it was by no means his only method. The list of tortures employed by his men reads like a chapter out of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Such methods included nails in heads, cutting off of limbs, gorging out of eyes, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially in the case of women), scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals, and burning alive. It should be noted that 'scalping' as it was done in the region is different than the scapling done later in the Americas. In Vlad's time, scalping meant cutting the skin of the face, and peeling it off while the victim was still alive.
Although some of these certainly may be put down to German propaganda or fear, there is no doubt Dracula took some perverse pleasure in torturing and killing those he felt had wronged him or those he didn’t want in his princedom. Such atrocities are said to include sexually perverse behavior. His atrocities against the people of Wallachia were usually attempts to enforce his own moral code upon his country. Oddly, he appears to have been particularly concerned with female chastity. Maidens who lost their virginity, adulterous wives and unchaste widows were all targets of Vlad’s cruelty. Such women often had their sexual organs cut out or their breasts cut off, and were often impaled through the vagina on red-hot stakes. One account (unverified) tells of the execution of an unfaithful wife. Vlad had the woman’s breasts cut off, and then she was skinned and impaled in a square in Tirgoviste with her skin lying on a nearby table. Vlad also insisted that his people be honest and hard working. Merchants who cheated their customers were likely to find themselves mounted on a stake beside common thieves. Contradictions of morality and perverse behavior are not unknown in history. It makes Dracula all the more a paradox. Was he pure evil? A misguided fear monger, but a moral man? Or a sadistic fiend who was perhaps consumed with thoughts or morality to justify his own horrific deeds and actions?
©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 2006/2009