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Vlad the Impaler: The Bloodthirsty Truth Behind Dracula’s Namesake

Vlad III Dracula's reign looks monstrously cruel to today's eyes, but he was revered by his people.

painting: Vlad the Impaler meets with Turkish envoys
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad III Dracula, gave his name to fiction’s most famous vampire. The Romanian ruler had been dead for 400 years when Bram Stoker borrowed it for his 1897 novel. As Stoker lifted a moniker from the mists of history, much of the true story of the man who came to be called the Impaler was obfuscated by myth and make-believe. 

Yet Vlad the Impaler was a real person, not a mythical monster. His life, though obscured by the haze of the past and distorted by countless fictions, tells a story as dramatic and compelling as the narrative to which he unwittingly lent his name centuries after his death.

The real Vlad the Impaler was born in Transylvania sometime between 1428 and 1431, at the tail end of the medieval era. The sobriquet that he would inadvertently make so famous came from the fact that his father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order started by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408. Dracula, in the medieval Romanian of Vlad’s place and time, meant “Son of the Dragon”.

Vlad became Voivode—a type of military ruler, similar to prince or duke—of Wallachia during a turbulent period, which may explain why he actually ascended the throne three separate times, most of them for relatively short durations. 

Vlad’s father, Vlad Dracul, had reigned over Wallachia since 1436. Six years into his rule, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, began to question Dracul’s loyalty. Dracul had refused to support a Transylvanian invasion. To prove that he still deferred to Sultan Murad II, Vlad Dracul and his sons, Vlad Dracula and Radu, went to Gallipoli, where all three were promptly imprisoned.

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After about nine months, Murad II freed Vlad Dracul, but kept his two sons as hostages. It’s unclear exactly when Dracula and Radu were released, but by the time John Hunyadi, regent-governor of Hungary, invaded Wallachia in 1447, the two were back in their homeland. John Hunyadi deposed Vlad II Dracul, ensuring that both he and his eldest son, Mircea were killed.

Hunyadi installed Vladislav II, Vlad’s second cousin, as voivode after his invasion. When Hunyadi and Vladislav launched a military campaign against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad saw a chance to take back what was rightfully his. 

painting of Vlad the Impaler
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  • Vlad the Impaler, as painted sometime in the 15th century.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Ottoman support, he was able to retake Wallachia in October 1448. Holding the throne proved much harder. Vlad was driven off and out by the end of the year.

Vlad’s return to the throne of Wallachia in 1456 was longer-lived. The alliance between Vladislav II and the Hungarians had turned brittle. Vlad, who had been driven into hiding first in the Ottoman Empire, then Moldovia, then Hungary, saw a chance to once again retake his throne, this time with his own Hungarian aid.

The campaign was a success, and Vladislav was slain in battle. Vlad once more assumed the title of Voivode, and began a rule that would last until 1462. It was during this time that much of Vlad the Impaler’s bloodthirsty reputation would become cemented.

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To strengthen his position and—according to some contemporary scholars, especially in Romania, where Vlad is considered a national hero—to secure public order in the region, Vlad began a purge of local boyars, the regional nobility. According to various sources, hundreds or even thousands of people were executed during this time, some of them impaled on wooden spikes, the action for which Vlad would become best known.

Perhaps the most well-known, though likely apocryphal, tale is that of a banquet Vlad held. Supposedly, Vlad invited hundreds of boyars to a feast at his home, then ordered a mass stabbing of his guests. Each boyar was then impaled and left to die, still moving, upon their stakes. 

Vlad came into conflict with neighboring Saxon villages. After any attack, he would reportedly bring captives back to Wallachia to be impaled. “When a man or a prince is strong and powerful he can make peace as he wants to,” Vlad wrote in one of his first letters during his second reign, “but when he is weak, a stronger one will come and do what he wants to him.”

This approach worked for Vlad for many years. He continued to consolidate power and seemingly found gratitude amongst his people for protecting them from outside raiders. Wallachia was doing so well that they were able to dictate the terms of trade within their borders. Vlad even stopped paying his dues to the Ottoman Empire, feeling that the Wallachians were secure.

Near the end of 1461 or the beginning of 1462, Mehmed II, Murad II’s successor, sent two envoys to Wallachia, demanding that Vlad come and pay homage to him personally. Instead, Vlad had the two men impaled. Then, in February of 1462, he led an attack against Ottoman territory in a battle that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Bulgarians and Turks.

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The Ottoman Sultan raised an army “second in size only to the one” that occupied Constantinople in 1453 and marched against Wallachia. They intended to topple Vlad’s regime and replacing him with his younger brother, Radu. Driven back by the superior numbers of the sultan’s army, Vlad attempted to capture the sultan himself at Târgoviște—but attacked the wrong camp.

When the sultan’s army followed the retreating Vlad into Târgoviște, they found the town deserted and surrounded by a “forest of the impaled” stretching for more than a mile. According to The Histories by Laonikos Chalkokondyles, a contemporary of Vlad’s, “There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted.”

Image of Bran Castle, Romanian castle associated with Dracula
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  • Bran Castle, pictured, is often associated with the Dracula myth, although Vlad likely never set foot inside its walls.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails,” Chalkokondyles continued. Upon seeing this, “The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much.”

By today’s standards, the mass murder committed by Vlad and his troops would likely be considered genocide. Former Romanian Minister of Defense and current Member of the European Parliament Ioan Mircea Pașcu has said that Vlad would have been “condemned for crimes against humanity had he been put on trial at Nuremberg.”

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Despite several victories, more and more of Vlad’s followers deserted him to follow his brother Radu. Ultimately, Vlad sought the aid of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who had him imprisoned rather than risk war against the Ottoman Empire. 

While Vlad was in prison, Basarab Laiotă toppled Radu from the throne of Wallachia. When Vlad was released three years later in 1475, he launched an army of Moldavian and Hungarian troops against Basarab, forcing him to withdraw and beginning Vlad’s third and final reign as Voivode of Wallachia. 

It was short lived. Basarab returned with Ottoman reinforcements. Vlad died in battle, likely sometime in the beginning of 1477.

Ironically, modern sources believe that Bram Stoker actually knew very little about Vlad Tepes when the author borrowed his sobriquet for his famous literary vampire. What he did know was probably drawn from William Wilkinson’s Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them, which had been published in 1820.

Stoker likely chose Vlad because he was the most famous medieval ruler of the Romanian lands, and Stoker was already planning to tie his book to Transylvanian superstitions which he had read about in an article by Emily Gerard.

Long before Bram Stoker immortalized his name, however, Vlad was more than capable of selling books on his own merit. Stories of his bloody deeds had begun circulating even before his death, and German-language books depicting his cruelty were among the first “bestsellers” in Europe. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the literary infamy of Vlad the Impaler continued long after his death.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons