Vlad Dracula - the Impaler, Final Act
Dracula maintained close relations with the Turks in the first years of his reign. The treaty he signed with them required him to pay a large tribute and to send thousands of Wallachian boys for training as Ottoman janissaries. When he didn’t send as many as they requested, Turkish pressgangs came into Dracula’s countryside and took them. Dracula couldn’t accept this and after the Turks captured several castles along the Wallachian Danube, he retaliated. Ottoman ruler, Mehmed II sought to end Dracula’s resistance, and invited the prince to meet a Turkish representative, Hamza Pasha, governor of Nicopolis. It was a to be an ambush. But news of the deception got to Dracula as he approached the border and a fortress called Giurgiu, and he turned the tables. In his employ, Dracula still had Turks as retainers and bodyguards. They approached the gates of the fortress pretending to be a Turkish raiding party and demanded entrance. Once inside Dracula sprung an attack on the fort and impaled Hamza Pasha and most of Pasha’s men and set the place ablaze. Pasha was impaled on the highest stake, befitting his rank.
Dracula then continued raiding along the Danube to the Black Sea but he was running short of men and supplies so he asked for help from the new king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, son of Hunyadi. In a letter to the King of Hungary he claimed his men had killed nearly 24,000 Turks and that he had broken his peace treaty with the Ottomans, “not for my own sake, but for the sake of the honor of your Highness, for the defense of Christianity, and the strengthening of Catholic Law.” Clearly he was getting desperate for military aid, for none of these considerations had been a priority to him before. To prove his claims, Dracula sent several bags of Turkish heads, ears and noses to Budapest. The Hungarian king was not overly impressed but for a time people did begin to wonder if a new Hunyadi was in their midst? Despite his terrible reputation, he was a good warrior in an area that needed Christian warlords. They even held hope that he would prove as good a military warlord as Hunyadi had proven to be against the Turks, but they offered no aid. The French told him they were too busy in a war with England; the German Emperor said he could not depend on his princes; the Poles were fighting the Teutonic Order and the Italians asked for more money than Dracula could afford to pay. He stood alone against the might of the Ottoman Empire.
Bran Castle. Although Dracula didn't live here, it is said he stayed here several times. It is a main tourist attraction in Romania today.
Mehmed II raised an army of over 50,000, in the spring of 1462, to strike back against the Wallachian prince. They put Radu, Vlad Dracula’s bother who had suffered so much in the Turkish harem, at the head of this army. Mehmed figured should Radu (also known as Radu the Handsome) gain the Princedom, he would be a much more compliant ally than Dracula. In response, Dracula quickly raised the largest army he had ever commanded, some 30,000 Wallachains, Bulgarians and Transylvanians with his new boyar nobility and guard.
The two sides met at the port of Vidin, one of the few Danube towns that survived Dracula’s earlier raids. The Turks moved along the river in a huge fleet while Dracula’s horsemen followed silently along the banks, shadowing the Turkish movement undetected. They had no hope of defeating the massive Turkish army in open, pitched battle, but by guerrilla tactics they planned to surprise the enemy. When the Turks tried to disembark, the Wallachian's under Dracula burst from the banks along the river firing arrows causing the Turks to get bottlenecked on their ships and ramps. At first this prevented the Turks from crossing the river, but eventually, farther down the river, they came across under cover of night.
Three examples of early handguns (or hand cannons)
By now the Turks had also gained the use of firearms, and recent improvements in gunpowder manufacture and use, from dry to so-called “wet-mix”, had made more effective and efficient the impact of bullets and lessened misfiring. Bullets could now pierce most armor. With the enemy thus armed, and with superior numbers, Dracula couldn’t hope to confront them in open combat. He decided on a scorched-earth policy and set about destroying crops, poisoned wells, killing livestock and desolated entire areas so that they Turks could not live off the land. If they were to survive, they would have to import their own materials and that would lead to a long supply line. At night, Dracula, wearing black armor and a conical helmet, would lead swift and merciless raids against encamped Turks. Night after night he would hit them and run back into the woods, disappearing from sight like some black specter. We have a few written accounts from Turkish janissary named Constatin, who wrote, “With a few horsemen, often at night, using hidden paths, Dracula would come out of the forest and destroy any Turks who were too far from camp.” The strain in his words is obvious. “A terrible fear crept into our souls. Even though Dracula’s army is small, we were constantly on our guard. Every night we used to bury ourselves in our trenches. And yet we still never felt safe.” And they weren’t safe. Dracula captured Turks from their camps and tortured them hideously until he had extracted the information he wanted. Then they were killed. Dracula not only wanted to win; he wanted to capture the Sultan himself.
In Dracula’s most famous raid, his forces gathered in a thick forest at night. Leaving horses behind, they traveled on foot and without much armor so they could remain silent. They sneaked up on Turkish guard posts, silently killed them and then burst into the sleeping encampment. All hell broke loose as swords and sabers were swung wildly, men screamed out commands, shot bows and fought hand-to-hand. At an appointed signal, the Wallachian horsemen came in fast and hard, killing and trampling the Turks. It was mayhem, and it was successful. Dracula was close to the Sultan’s tent, but the Sultan’s loyal janissaries rallied around their master. Dracula had expected this and ordered his second in command to approach from the opposite side. He was so close to capturing the ruler of the Ottoman Empire he could taste it. But the second in command, a boyar who lost his nerve, never showed up! Dracula and his men were forced back and had to settle with the slaughter thousands of Turkish men-at-arms and loot their weaponry before vanishing into the dark forest in the dead of night. Dracula was furious but his campaign, despite the escape of the Sultan, had been successful, alhough some of his followers weren't happy with just a partial victory. The Turks suffered heavy losses.
A few days later the Turks steeled themselves and were on the move to Tirgoviste, Dracula’s home. But as they came to a gorge they stopped dead in their tracks. Both in the gorge ahead of them, and on the opposite ridge, were 20,000 contorted bodies in various states of decomposition. Many of them were impaled upon huge stakes -- impaled on the orders of Dracula. The Sultan, Mehmed II, was horrified and revolted. His enemy had now seen Dracula’s reign of terror, and they were so repulsed the main Turkish army withdrew to the East, while a small force was given to Dracula’s bother, Radu, and he was ordered to take Wallachia away from Dracula. A Byzantine chronicler later wrote that the Sultan was “Overcome by disgust and admitted he could not win this land from a man who does such things. A man who knows how to exploit the fear of his people.” The main Turkish withdrawal was hailed in Europe as a Christian victory, and Dracula’s main success.
(Woodcut of Dracula's victims, right). Dracula, his men and his people, were exhausted by the end of this campaign. Radu knew he could not defeat his brother so he began a political quest to win the hearts and minds of an exhausted people. The Wallachian’s were receptive to Radu, who promised peace with the Turks again. He also used Dracula’s own resistance to the Turks as a selling point and appealed to boyars, some of who were angry that Dracula had not finished the job and destroyed the enemy.
By the end of the year, Radu 'the Handsome' had been recognized as the new Prince of Wallachia by the majority of the boyars and the King of Hungary. The Turks were satisfied with this outcome.
Dracula was thrown out of his native Wallachia, one suspects, not for his partially failed military campaign against the Turks (he didn’t capture the Sultan), but for his atrocities against his own people. He retreated to the mountains of Transylvania in the Fortress of Arges. This was Dracula’s castle, high up on the crags of the Carpathian Mountains.
What happens next is local folklore and legend, but it may be based in truth. It is told that Radu kept up his attack on his brother, using cannons against Dracula’s castle. An assault was prepared to finish off Dracula, but he was forewarned by a former slave who shot an arrow through a castle window with a message attached telling him of the impending raid. Also according to folklore, his wife decided to throw herself off the castle battlements to let her, ”body eaten by the fish, rather than become a Turkish slave.” According to legend she did just that. But Dracula decided on escape rather than death, and he slipped out and rode all the way to Brasov, where the King of Hungary saw him as an exhausted and desperate ex-prince and something of an embarrassment, because the King had just recognized Radu as the Prince of Wallachia. He put Dracula in confinement where he remained for 12 long years. There is also some debate on the legth of his confinement. Some sources say 12 years, others indicate much less. Even so, according to a Russian document, Dracula couldn’t help but to continue to inflict pain and death. One Russian writer noted that he delighted in catching mice and birds and impaled them on sticks. But this is probably not true. In fact, he was not truly ‘imprisoned’ at the Hungarian court, but under house arrest. At least by the end of his confinemnet, he was no prisoner, he was a member of the court, albeit restricted from leaving the court. The King of Hungary felt Dracula might be useful should Radu get too comfortable with the Turks again, and it never hurt to have their most feared enemy waiting in the wings.
During his time at the Hungarian court, Dracula met and married a Hungarian noblewoman, possibly King Matthias Corvinus’s sister, and renounced his Greek Orthodox religion and accepted Roman Catholicism. In his native Wallachia, this was considered heresy, and all such heretics were said to become vampires after death. Perhaps that is where this rumor started, but for now, Dracula had other things on his mind.
In 1475, Stephen Bathory [whose relation, Elizabeth, was known as the 'Blood Princess',] but that's another story, Prince of Moldavia, east of Transylvania, got funding from the Pope for a crusade against Radu, the brother that ousted Dracula from Wallachia. He invited the King of Hungary to attend the crusade. Corvinus accepted, always happy to have extra income from the Pope, and he invited Vlad Dracula, so long held captive at court, to go with them and serve. Of course Dracula accepted. He’d just married into the Hungarian royal family and this crusade was against the very country, then led by his brother Radu, that had overthrown him with Turkish help, a decade earlier. But by now, Radu had died and was replaced by Basarab the Old, a member of the Danesti clan.
While Corvinus, the Hungarian king, made a lot of loud proclamations about what he would do, it was left to Stephen Bathory and Dracula to do the fighting. Stephen moved swiftly against Basarab and his Turkish allies in Wallachia, while Dracula was given the job of defending Stephen’s borders in Transylvania from counter-attacks from Basarab the Old. It did not take long for Dracula to resume his old ways. When he captured some of the Turks in battle, he had them impaled on small stakes, after having cut them into smaller sections so that they would fit on the smaller stakes. A papal envoy that witnessed this sent a message back to Rome. It is not known what was said about Dracula other than he had gone back to his old ways. Stephen of Moldavia, possibly with Dracula at his side, defeated Basarab the Old winning a great victory against his Turkish allies and their supporters in Wallachia. With the ruler gone, the Hungarian King declared Dracula the candidate (again) as the Prince of Wallachia. But they still had to place him on that throne.
By late the following year, 1476, an army exceeding 25,000 Wallachians, Hungarians Transylvanians and Serbs gathered to invade Wallachia. Dracula came down from the snowy Carpathian Mountains and besieged Tirgoviste, his home city. The residents didn’t offer much resistance and soon Dracula was once again the ruler of Wallachia. The boyars -- that political nobility that picked all leaders in Wallachia -- seemed to be behind Dracula. All was forgiven. Seeing no obvious resistance, the massive army that came to restore Dracula to his Princedom soon returned home. But appearances were deceiving. The easy submission of Wallachia to the old tyrant was too easy. Within two months, a mutilated, headless corpse was found in the marshes near the monastery of Snagrov (see right). The corpse was Dracula. Apparently the boyars would never forget the horror of his reign. Dracula, riding with a small bodyguard of Moldavians, was surprised by a force of Turks and Wallachians and he was killed. How his body ended up in the marsh isn’t clear. There are several legends about who exactly caused his death, although none seem to be conclusive.
Chindia Tower, one of Vlad frequent haunts
We know Vlad Dracula was killed in battle against the Turks near the town of Bucharest in December of 1476. Some reports indicate that he was assassinated by disloyal Wallachian boyars just as he was about to sweep the Turks from the field. Other accounts say he died in battle, surrounded by the ranks of his loyal Moldavian bodyguard. Still other reports claim that at the moment of victory, Vlad was accidentally killed by one of his own men. One thing we know for certain is that his body was decapitated by the Turks and his head sent to Constantinople where the sultan had it displayed on a stake as evidence that the horrible Impaler was finally dead. Legend says is buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest. His tomb is still there today – but pictures (see right) show it opened and there is no body! In fact it looks desecrated or looted.
Conclusions about his mysterious death
The evidence about his body being found in the marsh is confirned by at least two sources from the period. This would seem to rule out Dracula dying on the battlefield or that he was accidentally struck down by one of his own. Why would they then place his decapitated body in the marsh? And if it were an accident, why then decapitate him? The conclusion of this writer is that the initial legend is the correct one: he was assassinated by someone (probably the boyars) and his body left where someone would find it.
The death of Vlad Dracula, Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, did little to improve conditions in Wallachia. Dracula’s demise encouraged the Turks even more and they continued to raid and interfere in Wallachia for years, keeping Stephen Bathory of Moldavia active in the area to repel the invaders. Eventually the Turks succeeded in crossing and invaded Hungary, but then Hungary rallied again. To the Romanians, the country that now owns the region known as Wallachia, even to this day, Dracula is considered a national hero, and a staunch defender of Christianity against the Muslim Turks. His image was much different in Western Europe, where he was thought to be a monster that drank blood, and killed people with stakes. And this was so up to the nineteenth century. Of course when Bram Stoker was looking for a historical figure on which to base his fictional vampire, he discovered a history of Transylvania and read about a man named Dracula. He made him the vampire we know today, and it has inspired thousands of books and hundreds of movies. But they rarely portray the real Dracula. The imaginary Dracula befouled young women, drank blood and sometimes killed. The real Vlad Dracula killed literally tens of thousands in the most horrible of ways. And one must ask themselves, who was the real monster?