Vlad Drăculea – the man behind the myth

Lucy Mallows on the real Dracula.

Written by Lucy Mallows


Bram Stoker and Hollywood have given us more than 150 versions of Dracula. Christopher Lee and, ironically, a Hungarian, Béla Lugosi from Lugoj, Timiş County, have played the vampire Count perhaps most memorably. The real person behind the fictional Count Dracula was even more cruel and bloodthirsty. Bram Stoker claimed Dracula, published in 1897, was, ‘born of a nightmare following a supper of dressed crab’.

Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania by Warmcolours, DreamstimeNo single image evokes the Dracula legend quite like Bran Castle © Warmcolours, Dreamstime

The real-life Dracula was born in 1431 in Sighişoara, the son of Vlad II Dracul, who had received the title ‘Dracul’ after being inducted into the Order of the Dragon (draco) by King Zsigmond. The boy was called Vlad III Drăculea, meaning ‘son of Dracul’. The family moved to Târgovişte in 1436, to take up residence in the palace when Vlad senior became Voivode of Wallachia.

In 1442, in order to keep the Turks at bay, Dracul sent his son Vlad and his younger brother Radu, to Istanbul, as hostages of Sultan Murad II. Vlad was held there until 1448. This Turkish captivity played an important role in the young Vlad’s upbringing. He learned much about the brutality of life and was particularly interested in the Turkish method of impaling prisoners on stakes.

Ioan de Hunedoara arranged the assassination of Vlad senior and Drăculea’s elder brother, whom they tortured and buried alive. Ioan also arranged the release of Drăculea and Radu, to be pawns in the struggle between the newly emerging empire and the Ottomans. Vlad III Drăculea became the ruler of Wallachia in 1448, although the first term lasted only two months, again between 1456 and 1462, and finally in 1476.

During his reigns he committed many cruelties and thus established his reputation, earning him the posthumous moniker of ‘Ţepeş’ (‘Impaler’). His preferred method involved binding victims spread-eagled then hammering a stake up through the rectum as far as the shoulder, then leaving them to die in agony, raised up for the crowd to watch.

Vlad’s first major act of revenge was aimed at the boyars of Târgovişte for not being loyal to his father. He arrested all the boyar families who had participated at the princely feast for Easter Sunday. He impaled the older ones on stakes while forcing the others to march from the capital, Târgovişte to Poenari in the Argeş River valley on a gruelling 80km trek. Vlad then orderedthe boyars to build him a fortress on the ruins of an older outpost.

Many died in the process, and so Vlad managed to refresh the noble stock and at the same time create an impregnable fortress. The ruins can be visited today at the southern tip of Lacul Vidraru. Vlad started feuds with just about everybody. In 1457, he accused the Saxons of supporting claims to his Wallachian throne and burnt many of their villages. In 1460, he wiped out the forces of his rival Dan III and a month later attacked the Bârsa Land around Braşov and impaled thousands of villagers before marching off to Făgăraş to continue plotting against the Turks.

To withstand Turkish raids, Vlad formed an alliance with his cousin, Ştefan cel Mare of Moldavia and the Hungarian kingdom. In 1462, he declared war on the Turks, attacking their camps and inflicting heavy casualties. He impaled 20,000 Turkish troops on a field of stakes and the remaining soldiers retreated in terror. When the Transylvanian Saxons traded with Germany and western Europe, they demonstrated negative feelings about Vlad. In 1462, he was arrested and held prisoner by the Hungarian king Matei Corvin at Visegrád, near Budapest until 1474. In 1474, Ştefan cel Mare won a battle against Matei at Baia and forced him to set Vlad free. Ştefan needed Vlad to fight the Ottomans once again.

Vlad regained the throne of Wallachia in 1476, but the reign lasted for only two months. During Vlad’s eight-year captivity, the throne had been held by his younger brother Radu ‘the Handsome’, who had been doing deals with the boyars.

There are several versions of the death of Vlad III Ţepeş. Some sources say he was killed in battle against the Ottomans near Bucharest in December 1476. Others say he was assassinated by disloyal Wallachian boyars while out hunting. Other accounts have Vlad falling in defeat, surrounded by the bodies of his few remaining loyal Moldavian guards.

Still other reports claim that Vlad was struck down at the moment of victory by one of his own men. Vlad’s body was decapitated by the Turks and his head was preserved in honey and sent to Istanbul where the sultan displayed it on a stake as proof that the Impaler was finally dead. Vlad’s headless body was reportedly buried at a monastery on an island in Lacul Snagov, although some doubt that he is actually still resting there.

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