Thursday, October 31, 2013

Vlad Dracula: The Dragon’s Shadow, 1431-1460

by G. Jack Urso

Fig. 1: Vlad Dracula (Vlad Tepes).
In a dusty corner in the pantheon of the heroes of western civilization are gathered its forgotten champions the ones to whom the dirty work of war is given. Vlad III Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, Duke of Amlaş and Făgăraş (1431-1476), known to history as Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) was born into the bleeding border region between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire from Asia Minor. Wallachia in the 15th century provides a fascinating study in the problems of maintaining power and protecting sovereignty for a nation-state situated between two great powers with conflicting foreign policies.  

Wallachia was surrounded by larger nations, ruled by leaders who had a great impact on European history, such as John Hunyadi, King Matthias Corvinus, or Sultan Mehmed II. Nevertheless, it is the name of Dracula that continues to echo through history, and for good reason; the real Vlad Dracula was a far crueler and more brutal man than any vampire legend or myth.

Enter the Dragon    

Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul (dragon, see Fig. 1), was so-named due to his oath as a knight of the Order of the Dragon, also referred to as Draconists. The Order of the Dragon was committed to fighting against Islam, and the Turks in particular. Dracul took this oath in part to secure Sigismund’s support for his ascension to the Wallachian throne in late 1436 (Florescu and McNally 41, 48)
In taking this oath from Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, Dracul, was pitting himself against his own people who, like himself, belonged to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Dracul took the oath of the Order of the Dragon in 1431, the same year his son Vlad, later Vlad Dracula (Son of the Dragon), was born. This was the first a series of conflicting loyalties that would characterize the reigns of Dracul and his son (Florescu and McNally 41).
Fig. 3: The Knight's Hall, Nuremburg, Germany, where Vlad Dracul took his oath
as a knight of the Order of the Dragon, February 8, 1431 (Florescu and McNally n.p.).
In 1437, after the death of Sigismund, Dracul, in order to preserve his tenuous grasp on the Wallachian throne, entered into an alliance with the sworn enemies of the Draconists, the Ottomans. Indeed, in 1438 Dracul himself joined Ottoman Sultan Murad II on a raid into Transylvania, pillaging and ravaging the countryside. This brought Dracul into conflict with John Hunyadi, the Catholic Viceroy of the Kingdom of Hungary and Voivode of Transylvania (Florescu and McNally 49).

Even with Murad II, however, Dracul was playing a dangerous game of dueling agendas. During the 1438 Transylvanian raid, Dracul used his influence to spare the lives of Christians in the town of Sebeş. This, and other incidents, caused Murad II to question the loyalty of his Wallachian vassal and in 1442 he arrested Dracul and imprisoned him in Gallipoli. In order to regain his throne, Dracul pledged fealty once again to his Turkish overlord and in exchange left his sons Vlad Dracula and Radu as hostages (McNally and Florescu 21).

Here, at 11 years old, the young Vlad Dracula, abandoned by his father in exchange for power, left to his enemies and their alien, unchristian ways, learned a hard lesson before love, before family, before God, before loyalty, before life itself comes power. One is either the ruler or the ruled. For those at the top of the Medieval European social ladder the first step away from power was often directly into the grave, particularly in the violent Balkan border region with the Ottoman Empire.

In the Company of Wolves

The lives of Dracula and Radu were constantly in danger during their captivity. When Dracul joined John Hunyadi’s successful campaign against the Turks in 1443, he broke his agreement with the Ottomans and by rights both Dracula and Radu should have been put to the sword, or at the very least blinded like the sons of Serbian Prince Brankovic when he broke his agreement with the sultan (McNally and Florescu 22). Realizing that his actions in service to Christendom had doomed his sons, Dracul wrote in late 1443:
                Please understand that I have allowed my children to be
                butchered for the sake of the Christian peace, in order 
                that both I and my country might continue to be vassals 
                of the Holy Roman Empire.                
                                            Dracul to the city elders of Brasov 
                                                              (McNally and Florescu 22)
Hunyadi’s subsequent campaign of 1444 proved to be a complete disaster and he and Dracul held each other responsible (McNally and Florescu 23).

Vlad Dracul’s double dealing with Christian Europe and the Muslim Turks came to an end in November 1447. John Hunyadi, viceroy of Hungary and governor general of Transylvania, began a campaign against Dracul in order to remove him from power (Florescu and McNally 61). Not long afterwards, opposition forces caught up with Dracul’s eldest son and heir Mircea, who was “blinded with red-hot stakes and buried alive.” Then, in December 1447 at the behest of Hunyadi, Dracul himself was assassinated by Vladislav II Danesti, who was rewarded with the Wallachian throne in exchange for his efforts (McNally and Florescu 22-23).

The details of Dracula's treatment during Turkish captivity are not dealt with in depth by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in the classic texts: Dracula: Prince of Many Faces (1989) and In Search of Dracula (1994). While they discuss Dracul’s youngest son Radu's submission to the sexual advances of the future Mehmed II, they are silent as the matter regards the young Dracula himself. Norman Davies, however, author of the massive historical survey Europe: A History (1996), contends Dracula was raped while in captivity and the psychological trauma led to his obsession with impalement particularly via anal penetration (449).

Radu, in perhaps an early example of Stockholm Syndrome, accepted the invitations of the Ottoman Empire and became an officer in the court of Sultan Murad II in 1447, the same year his father and older brother were assassinated. Dracula, however, now about 16 years old, was not as easily seduced. He proved to be a difficult and truculent hostage who had to be whipped and beaten into obedience by his Turkish keepers who nevertheless feared their young prisoner’s belligerent temperament (Florescu and McNally 56, 60). Despite all that, when the Turks needed a candidate of their own for the Wallachian throne, it was Dracula, not Radu, they turned to.  
Whereas Hunyadi sought weakness for his Wallachian prince, the Turks sought strength a decision they would eventually regret.
The Dragon Princes
Vlad Dracul, knowing his own demise was looming, willed to Dracula two items associated with the Order of the Dragon: the sword made of Toledo steel presented to him my Emperor Sigismund upon taking his oath for the order in 1431, and a gold collar with a dragon insignia. In this way, Dracul was also symbolically passing to his son his oath as Draconist to fight Islam and Turks. Upon receiving the sword, Dracula was reported to have said that he would avenge his father’s death by personally killing Vladislav II Danesti (Florescu and McNally 63).

Meanwhile, Hunyadi’s military power began to wane following his defeat at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in October 1448. While Hunyadi and Vlad II Danesti were fighting south of the Danube, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to put their own candidate on the throne Vlad Dracula. Despite Ottoman support, or perhaps because of it, Dracula’s reign lasted only two months before Hunyadi and Vlad II Danesti returned to Wallachia and the young Dracula fled into exile to neighboring Moldavia, where his uncle, Prince Bogdan ruled. There, he formed a close relationship with his cousin, the future Stephen the Great (Florescu and McNally 65-66).

Dracula remained in Moldavia through October 1451 when Prince Bogdan, father of Stephen the Great, was assassinated. This compelled Dracula to seek refuge in Transylvania under the protection of John Hunyadi, who clearly did not view him as an ally, to say the least. Vlad II Danesti, secured back on the Wallachian throne, however, began adopting pro-Turkish policies to keep his crown from the threatening Ottoman Empire. This move alienated Vlad Danesti from Hunyadi and gave Dracula the opening he needed to ingratiate himself with the Hungarian viceroy (McNally and Florescu 24-25).

Hunyadi’s acceptance of Dracula at his court was only partially due to Vlad Danesti’s turnabout.  Dracula, having lived in the court of the Ottoman sultan and campaigned with his armies, had intimate knowledge of their language, customs, and military tactics. Dracula joined Hunyadi’s army as an officer and learned much about the successful tactics his Hungarian overlord used against the Turks in several campaigns (Florescu and McNally 68). What Dracula thought by having to seek refuge in the court of the man who ordered his father's assassination is not know, but he clearly accepted it as a means to an end.

Dracula would not have to wait long for his reward. It was during this time that, in return for his service, Dracula was invested with the duchies of Amlaş and Făgăraş, which had also been previous awarded to his father, Vlad Dracul (McNally and Florescu 24-25). Step-by-step, Dracula was  securing his father’s legacy, and the Wallachian crown was next in his sights.

The Return of the Dragon

In 1453, Constantinople, the last bastion of the aging Byzantine Empire, fell to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Byzantium, a relic of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire, was also the spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well as a buffer state against the Ottomans. Now that it had been absorbed by the Turks into their empire, fear spread through the Balkans that nothing could stop the rising Muslim tide from stabbing deep into the heart of Christian Europe (Florescu and McNally 74).

It is possible that Dracula may have once temporarily served as a page to the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Paleologus, but even if he did not certainly the collapse of the last vestige of the Roman Empire had a profound impact on him (McNally and Florescu 25). The Ottomans were slowly grabbing more and more territory and with the collapse of Byzantium the principality of Wallachia stood next in line.

Fig 4: Europe circa 1500 (McNally and Florescu 187).
Three years later, in 1456, Dracula saw an opportunity to get back into power. That year, John Hunyadi was once again battling the Ottomans and in July succeeded in ousting them from Belgrade. Dracula’s role in this campaign was to protect Hunyadi’s Eastern flank. Now in command of sufficient forces to finally move against Vladislav II Danesti, Dracula met and killed his nemesis the man who murdered his father and brother in personal combat sometime in mid-July 1456, about the same time Hunyadi was taking Belgrade.  Only a month later, however, Hunyadi contracted the plague and died. By the end of August 1456, free from his Hungarian overlord, and having killed his Danesti rival, Dracula once again sat on the Wallachian throne, this time with fatal consequences for any that opposed him (Florescu and McNally 79-81).

A Throne of Thornes

He [Dracula] asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty.
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

Michael Beheim, Meistersinger (1416-circa 1472)
                                  (Florescu and McNally 90-91)

Wallachian law required that the voivode (governor) be elected by a small council of nobles called boyers. While in principle this was meant to prevent any one ruler from usurping power. Unfortunately, the result was political anarchy. From 1418 through 1456, the start of Dracula’s second and most notorious reign, the Wallachian throne exchanged hands no less than eighteen times. Typically, the reigns lasted only a few months or a couple years, and rulers often gained, lost, and then regained the throne (“Walalchian Voivodes 1247-1859”). Dracula ascended to power in 1456 because the boyers elected him. It was a decision they would soon regret.

Before turning his attention to his Turkish enemies, Dracula had to stabilize his country’s political, social, and economic situations. The horrible death of Dracula’s brother Mircea, who was blinded and buried alive on the orders of the boyers, gave him strong motivation to settle up a very personal debt.

During the Easter celebrations of Spring 1457, Dracula invited approximately 200 boyers and their families, and other “leading citizens” to a feast in Tȋrgovişte. There, Dracula seized them, young and old, male and female, and forced them to build the notorious Castle Dracula near the Argeş River (also referred to as Poenari Castle). Dressed in their Easter finery, the boyers and their families were worked until the clothes fell off their backs. If any survived, they found their titles and land given to other boyers or free peasants who owed their allegiance to Dracula alone, not to a council of noblemen (Florescu and McNally 91-93).
Fig. 5: Ruins of Castle Dracula along the Arguş River, also known as Poenari Castle
("Poenari Castle")
Between 1456 and 1462 nearly 90-percent of the Wallachian boyer council was comprised of free men from the lower classes (Florescu and McNally 95). There was no question during Dracula’s reign which way the council’s votes would go.

Socially, Dracula viewed, according to a Romanian folktale, “the old, the ill, the lame, the poor, the blind, and the vagabonds” as parasites on the nation. In his own words, Dracula said “. . . these vagabonds take your belongings gradually by begging but they still take it. They are worse than robbers.” In a joke of cruel irony, as he did with the boyers, Dracula invited these undesirable elements to a feast in Tȋrgovişte where they ate and drank themselves into a stupor. Then, he had the doors to the hall locked and burned the whole place down (Florescu and McNally 101).

Those who tried to defend themselves and avoid punishment only made things worse. One gypsy leader tried to escape death by claiming impalement or being burned alive was against his tribal law, so Dracula had him boiled alive and fed to his clan (Florescu and McNally 101).

Dracula’s use of various means of torture is well documented through various sources. Horses would be tied to each victims limbs and then torn asunder. Stakes had rounded tips to make impalements even more painful. Victims where staked through the chest, up the anus, or hung upside down and then impaled. Limbs were severed, eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off, heads scalped, bodies flayed, boiled alive, or eaten alive by wild animals. The Wallachian prince inspired fear at time when brutality and cruelty where commonplace (McNally and Florescu 41).

One event stands out as an example of Dracula’s penchant for terror as a means to assert his authority. Genoese ambassadors presented themselves at Dracula’s court, yet refused to take off their coifs (skullcaps). When Dracula inquired why, the ambassadors replied, “We are not obliged to take our skullcaps off under any circumstances, even an audience with the sultan or the Holy Roman Emperor.” Dracula, noting to the Genoese his desire to acknowledge their customs, nailed their caps to their head: “This is the manner in which I will strengthen your customs” (Florescu and McNally 96).

Through terror, torture, murder, and impalement Dracula asserted fear of his authority throughout Wallachia. One story, likely apocryphal, that symbolizes this fear is the tale of a fountain with a golden cup. Many travelers stopped and drank from the cup, but their fear of Dracula prevented anyone from stealing it, least they also fall victim to the stake (Florescu and McNally 103).

Trade and Traitors

The meager agricultural products produced by Wallachia were insufficient to maintain the voivode’s coffers. Trade brought gold and silver to the tiny principality and it was a resource Dracula would jealously guard.

Wallachia strategic location is not only due to it being on the border region between two warring cultures, but also it served as an important hub of trade moving goods form Western Europe to the Middle and Near East, as well as vice versa.

The death of John Hunyadi in 1456 set off a battle for the Hungarian throne between Hunyadi’s family and the Hapsburgs, who sought to expand their territory deeper into Central Europe. Dracula, who owed much to the Hunyadis, naturally supported their claim to the crown. In 1457, German Saxon’s in the Transylvanian town of Bistriţa rebelled against Hungarian control in support of the Hapsburg cause. Dracula descended on the town like the proverbial plague and crushed the brutally crushed the rebellion (Florescu and McNally 114).

Survivors from Bistriţa fled to the Transylvanian towns of Braşov and Sibiu, who, horrified at the treatment of their Saxon brethren, gave them refuge and accused Dracula of seeking Ottoman support. Further, they began seeking a new candidate to support for the Wallachian throne, including Dracula’s half-brother Vlad the Monk, and two members of the rival Danesti family —  Dan III, brother of Vladislav II, who had Dracula father and brother murdered, and Basarb Laiota (Florescu and McNally 116).

Dracula, who had granted trade concessions to Braşov and other Saxon merchants upon his ascension, now rescinded them and gave them to native Wallachians. Initial attempts to reach a political settlement failed and Dracula, unable to endure such a challenge to his authority anymore set out on the first of his punitive expeditions against the rebellious towns in 1458. The populations of entire towns were massacred and any survivors impaled. Those nobles who were spared the sword or the stake had all their possessions confiscated. This was essentially an ethnic cleansing of German-Saxons in the Transylvanian region (Florescu and McNally 116-117).

In one notorious incident in the winter of 1459, near Braşov, while pursuing Dan III, Dracula pillaged the outlying suburbs. He captured all those he could find and impaled them. Then, “he dipped his bread in the blood of his victims.” When a boyer held his nose against the stench, Dracula offended had him impaled on the highest stake. “Live up there yonder, where the stench cannot reach you,” Dracula is reported to have said in a Russian narrative (Florescu and McNally 120).

Was this just exaggeration by Dracula's opponents? To a certain extent, we must question the account in that the source of the report was his enemies. If this were an isolated incident we might be inclined to dismiss it; however, there are so many similar reports documenting Dracula's use of torture, and the lack of empathy with his victims, that it is not a stretch to suggest that the Impaler Prince's appetites did indeed run red.
Fig.6: German woodcut showing Dracula dining amidst the impaled, 1499
(McNally and Florescu 79).
Eventually, the Saxon opposition collapsed. Reparations were paid and Dan III was promised to be turned over to Dracula. In return, Dracula restored trading rights; however, Dan III was never delivered. As a result, Dracula returned to campaigning against the German towns even harder than before, if that was possible. The bloody internal conflict continued through 1460. In March, Dan III was eventually seized, forced to dig his own grave, and then beheaded by Dracula (Florescu and McNally 121).

Dracula, however, was not done with the Saxons. Amlaş and Făgăraş, the duchies Dracula held title to, still provided refuge to the former advisors and supporters of Dan III. Determined to end the rebellion once and for all, the Wallachian warlord destroyed whole towns and impaled the populations of entire towns, earning him the sobriquet, Vlad the Impaler. Throughout the duchy of Amlaş approximately 30,000 people were killed. Some towns, such as Amlaş itself, were so completely devastated they were never rebuilt (Florescu and McNally 122).

On October 1, 1460, a peace treaty was finally signed between Dracula and the Transylvanian Saxons. Each side made concessions, and Dracula wasn’t entirely pleased, but with King Matthias of Hungry guaranteeing the peace, his hand was forced. In any event, Dracula had greater concerns as he was soon to face his earliest and most hated of enemies the Ottoman Empire (Florescu and McNally 122).

Continued in:  Vlad Dracula: The Dragon’s Shadow, 1460-1476

Related Content
From my personal archives, Vincent Price’s Dracula, also known as Dracula: The Great Undead, is a sixty minute documentary featuring Vincent Price narrating a history of Dracula including:
  • A profile of the historical Dracula featuring rare clips from an unnamed mid-20th century Eastern European film about Vlad Tepes that features re-enactments of impalements and historically accurate costumes.
  • Rare video clips from movies about Dracula.
  • Film from Communist Romania in the early 1980s, featuring some of the locations of the historical Dracula and then-current rural burial rituals.

Works Cited 
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. New York: Oxford University
        Press, 1996. Print.

Forescu, Radu, R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula, Prince of
        Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston: Little, Brown and
        Company, 1989. Print.
McNally, Raymond T, and Radu R. Forescu, In Search of Dracula: 
        The History of Dracula and Vampires. Boston and New York: 
        Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.
“Poenari Castle (Castle Dracula).” Pure Romania, 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://>.
Vlad II Dracul. n.d. Sighişoara Historical Museum, Sighişoara,
Vlad Tepes. n.d. Oil on canvas. Castle Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria.
“Wallachian Voivodes 1247-1859.” Websites of Balkan Folklore., Dec. 2005. Web. 29 Oct.  2013. <http://>.
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