The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler
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One of the most influential books in the horror genre is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Stoker, who was a manager of the world-renowned Lyceum Theatre in London, supplemented his income by writing stories. His books include The Lair of the White Worm, The Jewel of Seven Stars, and The Mystery of the Sea. However, it is his narrative about the vampire Count from Romania who invaded London for which the Irish author is most well remembered.
Stoker often researched his subjects carefully and included descriptions of real places and people in his stories. Dracula is no exception. Stoker was inspired by folktales from Eastern Europe about vampires and incorporated many of these legends into the novel. He had almost completed his book under the original title of The Un-Dead when he came across a historical figure that changed both the label of the book and the name of the main character. The figure was a 15th century Prince of Wallachia named Vlad III. Because his father was a member of the Order of the Dragon and had taken the name Dracul, Vlad was often referred to as “the son of Dracul” which in Latin was Dracula. Because of his preferred method executing his enemies, however, he was commonly known as “Vlad the Impaler.”
The Impaler Prince
Vlad III was born late in the year 1431 in the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara. His father, Vlad II, was a nobleman living in exile. The same year Vlad II was born his father was inducted into the secretive “Order of the Dragon.” The order, founded in 1410 by Sigismund the Holy Roman Emperor, demanded the members defend Christianity and resist the Ottoman Turks who were Muslims.
In 1436 Vlad’s father took over the throne of Wallachia, a region of what is now Southern Romania. He was removed from power six years later by rivals and decided the best way to get the throne back was to switch sides, betray his oath to the order, and ally himself with the Ottoman Sultan. As proof of his new loyalty, Vlad’s father sent two of his sons, Vlad III and his younger brother Radu, to the court of the Sultan to be held hostage. Radu (known as “Radu the handsome”) did well at the court and eventually converted to Islam. Vlad, however, was a problem child. He didn’t get along with his tutors and trainers and was angry at his father for favoring his older brother, Mircea, and betraying his pledge to the Order of the Dragon (into which Vlad III had also been inducted at age 5). He was also angry at his younger brother for leaving Christianity. His bad attitude earned him beatings, imprisonment and this gave him a hatred for the Ottoman Turks.
Eventually, Dracula was released on the promise of good behavior and continued his education at the Court, learning how to handle weapons and ride horses as well as getting an education on subjects like religion and logic. He also became fluent in several languages.
Dracula’s father was overthown in 1447 by some of the Wallachia chieftains (known as boyars) with some help the Hungarian King John Hunyadi. In the same attack Vlad’s older brother, Mircea, was blinded, then buried alive.
Fearing this would give Hungaria too much influence in Wallachia, the Ottomans marched in and put Vlad III on the throne. His rule lasted only a few months before Hungaria also invaded the kingdom, threw Dracula out and put a rival prince on the throne in his place.
Dracula fled the country and wound up living under his uncle’s protection in Moldavia. When his uncle was killed, in 1451, he decided to go to his former enemy, the Hungarian regent John Hunyadi for help. Hunyadi was impressed by the then twenty-year-old Vlad. The boy understood the interworkings of the Ottoman court and had a special hatred for the new Sultan, Mehmed II. In 1456 he backed Vlad III in a successful bid to retake the Wallachia throne.
The Prince Comes to Power
Once Dracula came back into power he moved quickly to secure his country. All the warring had left Wallachia in a terrible state: crime was rampant, agriculture was failing and trade was non-existent. Knowing that a nation in this situation would never be able to resist the Ottoman Empire, he enacted new laws and backed them with severe punishments for those that disobeyed.
It is for these actions that Vlad received his rather unpleasant nom de plume. Impalement is an exceedingly painful and ugly way to die. The victim has a large, sharpened, wooden stake driven through his body. In the method used by Dracula, the stake would be pushed through the body from either front to back or back to front in a manner that would not damage vital organs leading to immediate death. The stake would then be planted vertically into a prepared hole in the ground so that the victim was suspended in the air. Victims would be faced with hours or even days of agony before they expired. The stakes baring their gastly loads would be left in prominent locations to remind other would-be-enemies of the Prince the price of disobeying or betraying him.
Dracula did not invent impalement, the harsh punishment had been around for centuries, but he used it liberally. On Easter Sunday of 1457 Vlad rounded up the boyars that had opposed his father and killed his brother. All the older ones were impaled while the rest were marched to the ruins of Castle Poenari in the mountains above the Arge River, 40 miles north of the town of Târgovite. Here they were forced to rebuild the fortress for the prince until most of them died of exhaustion. Those that survived untl the fortress was finished were also impaled. The castle, built with blood and perched on a steep, inaccessible precipice of rock, became one of Vlad’s most important strongholds.
The prince worked to systematically eradicate the boyar class, replacing them with men from the lower ranks that would be loyal only to him. Since the boyars had been related to and supported by the Saxons of nearby Transylvania, Vlad also carried out a number of raids into their lands also impaling some of these settlers of German decent.
In 1459, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the Ottomans. Most European leaders by this time were tired of war and showed little enthusiasm for another expensive, bloody campaign. Matthias Corvinus, son of John Hunyadi, the King of Hungary, and an ally of Dracula, recommended that Vlad pay a tax on non-Muslims that the Turkish Sultan demanded so as to keep the peace. Vlad, however, hating the Ottoman Turks, and particularly Sultan Mehmed II, used a visit by the Sultan’s envoys over the tax to provoke a war. Because the envoys did not raise their “hats” to him, Vlad had their turbans nailed to their heads, resulting in their deaths.
The Sultan then sent a force of 10,000 cavalry to deal with Vlad. The prince, however, set up a clever ambush in a narrow mountain pass. He surrounded the Turks and defeated them. Those of the Sultan’s army that survived the battle were impaled. Their leader, Hamza Pasha, was mounted on the highest stake to show his rank.
In the winter of 1462 Vlad started carrying out raids across the Danube River into Bulgaria killing 23,000 Muslims. The Sultan responded by sending a force of 90,000 against the prince. Dracula’s troops were outnumbered by more than two to one. Unable to stop the Sultan’s advance by traditional means, Vlad employed “guerilla warfare” to harass the Turks. This included poisoning water sources, diverting streams to create swamps that had to be crossed and sending people suffering from lethal diseases, such as leprosy and tuberculosis, to mix with the Sultan’s forces.
The night of June 17, 1462, Vlad and his troops infiltrated the Turkish camp taking advantage of the Sultan’s order that his soldiers be confined to their tents after dark. Dracula’s forces then attacked using burning torches and sounding bugles to create confusion. In this engagement (which is referred to as “The Night Attack”) the Sultan lost 15,000 men in the skirmish which lasted three hours.
Though this demoralized his troops, it was not enough to stop the Sultan in his determination to take the capital of Wallachia. As he approached the city, however, he found no resistance. Instead, the 60 mile long road to the capital was lined with the bodies of 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The Sultan, horrified at the slaughter, headed home leaving the campaign to his subordinates including Vlad’s brother, Radu.
The war continued eventually, draining Vlad of money. He went to Hungary to ask for help from King Matthias Corvinus. Matthias had been given a sum of money from the Pope to be spent on the war, but had wasted it on personal expenses. To hide his crime he denounced Dracula and using false documents arrested him and threw him in prison. Vlad was finally released in late 1476 and attempted to retake Wallachia, but died in battle with the Turks a few months later.
The prince did not receive his nickname until well after his death. However, even while still alive in 1462, a pamphlet appeared in Germany describing the prince’s proclivity for impalement and other sadistic acts. It was probably written by a Saxon with an axe to grind who was not too happy with the treatment Vlad had given the Saxon settlers.. Over time a number of different German pamphlets and manuscripts came out along with a poem by Michel Beheim entitled, Story of a Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia. In these stories Vlad’s exploits were greatly exaggerated with huge numbers of victims ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 men, women and children. The atrocities he was accused of just weren’t impalements but included torturing, burning, skinning, roasting, and boiling people alive. Originally these tales were written just to blacken Vlad’s repuation for political purposes, but over time they simply became a form of lurid entertainment.
In addition to the German stories, Matthias Corvinus undoubtedly spread a number of vicious rumors about the prince in order to discredit him with the Pope. It was these stories, along with the German tales, that Stoker heard when he decided to make Prince Dracula the villain of his book.
Stoker and others clearly added some of Vlad’s real history into the Dracula legend. In one speech in the book Stoker has the Count tell about his battles with the Turks and the betrayal of his brother. Later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula the script writers added a scene where Dracula’s wife (played by Winona Ryder) commits suicide by jumping into the river after an arrow is shot through the castle window bearing a note telling her that her husband has died in battle. This was apparently taken from a local legend that Vlad’s first wife died when an arrow with a note arrived warning her that the Turks were about to take her palace. Dracula’s wife said she would rather be eaten by the fish than be captured by the Turks and leapt from a cliff into the river.
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