Vlad the Impaler

The Real Dracula
Vlad the Impaler

Romanian folklore tells of a golden chalice that once upon a time sat beside a spring along the lonely road into Târgoviste, a market town which was the capital in those days of the mediaeval principality of Wallachia. This cup had been placed there by the local prince so that weary travellers, indeed anyone who was thirsty, could pause and refresh themselves with the spring’s cold, clear water. It was a thoughtful gesture, characteristic of the sly young prince who made it. The cup remained there by the roadside for years. Despite its great value and the fact that the local populace was poor and the chalice unguarded, nobody ever stole it. Not once.

This was not because the people of 15th century Wallachia were all that much more honest than the general run of humanity elsewhere, but because the prince who had placed the cup there was a zealous law-and-order man with a famously tough, zero-tolerance approach to crime and an unhealthy fascination with punishment.

His name was Dracula – first name, Vlad – and he ruled with a whim of iron. Depending on his frame of mind on any particular day, law-breakers in his domain could find themselves roasted alive, flayed alive, boiled alive, disembowelled, dismembered or blinded, sometimes even combinations of the above if their constitutions could withstand it and the young prince was feeling inventive.

Mainly, though, they could expect to be impaled – a gruesome, lingering, agonizing death that was made all the more grotesque by the care and attention to detail given to the procedure by Vlad’s court executioners. Among their refinements: using greased and blunted stakes and inserting them carefully so as to minimise the immediate damage to internal organs and maximize the time it would take the condemned to die.

Hours, if not days, of unspeakable agony awaited, and every moment of it amusing to the aquiline-featured nobleman with the sensual lips and liquid brown eyes. He made little secret of the perverse pleasure he received from watching his victims writhe. Indeed, he was renowned for it. Woodcut illustrations, printed in Germany during the late 15th century, show Dracula enjoying lavish outdoor banquets where his table was surrounded by ‘forests’ of impaled human beings writhing on their stakes.

On such festive occasions as these, so the stories go, he was fond of dipping his bread into the blood of his victims. And so capricious was he in the matter of life and death that once, when the smell of coagulating blood and rotting flesh overcame one of boyars who were waiting on him, it is said he ordered this man too to be impaled – adding, with trademark sardonic humour, that the fussy fellow should be placed on an extra-long stake set higher than the rest so he wouldn’t have to endure the stench of his fellow impalees.

His obsession with impalement earned him the nickname Vlad the Impaler, or Kazîglu Bey, the Impaler Prince, in the language of his old enemies the Turks. His victims are said to have numbered in the tens of thousands. And it wasn’t just deserving thieves and squeamish waiters who found themselves at the pointy end of his stakes, plenty of honest folk ended up there too: merchants, priests, foreign ambassadors, nobles, generals, women and children, Christians, Turks, Jews, Saxons, even babies … just about anyone who annoyed him, according to some of the more breathless accounts of his life and times.

And these were many for Vlad’s reign coincided with the invention of the printing press and the rise of popular mass-market literature. Then, as now, shock-horror sells and tales didn’t get more harrowing than those coming out of Wallachia during the years when Vlad the Impaler was at the helm. Dracula horror stories are believed to have been the world’s first mainstream best-sellers.

All around Germany, home of the burgeoning new printing industry, publishers were scrambling to turn out racy pamphlets bearing such titles as The Frightening and Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-Drinking Tyrant Called Prince Draculaor The Story of A Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia. The man was good copy, a big seller, history’s first celebrity bad guy.

More than five hundred years later, he still is. As Vlad the Impaler he makes almost everybody’s short list of the cruellest and most sinister rulers of all time. His wax work image figures prominently in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, his broody old castles (he had several) are popular tourist draws in Romania, while his now-chilling surname, Dracula, lies at the very heart of the vampire myth – a billion-dollar entertainment genre in its own right – thanks to Bram Stoker’s borrowing of Vlad’s patronym for his horror classic, Dracula.

“Lost in all the popular hype and horror in the West is the fact that Dracula is also remembered as a folk hero in Romania, a patriotic Robin Hood-style figure who restored order in the land, broke the powers of the rich boyars, gave lands and titles to the poor and won some stunning victories against the Turks,” said David Goldfrank, professor of eastern European history at Georgetown University who, every year on Halloween, entertains students with a lecture on the real Dracula. “His is a very complicated story that has nothing whatever to do with the character in Bram Stoker’s novel.”

The real Dracula was born on a dark and wintry December day in 1431 in the citadel of Sighisoara, in Transylvania, a younger son of an exiled Wallachian nobleman known as Vlad Dracul. The evocative surname was a new one, acquired only a few months earlier when Vlad senior travelled to Nuremburg to be invested into the secret brotherhood known as the Order of The Dragon, a chivalric order whose brethren were sworn to defend the Holy Roman Empire and wage war against the Ottoman Turks.

It was a singular honour for a relatively minor prince, bestowed by the Holy Roman Emperor in recognition of Vlad’s bravery in fighting the Turks, and no doubt with a canny eye to the future as well. Wallachia, which guarded the Danube, was crucial to the defence of Europe against the advancing Turks; it paid to keep the Wallachians committed to the cause.

The elder Vlad was immensely proud of his new status and adopted the surname Dracul, Dragon, in Romanian. His son Vlad was equally taken with the distinction, adding the diminutive ‘a’ to the patronym and calling himself Dracula, son of the Dragon. Later in life, when he ruled as Vlad III, he would sign court documents ‘Vladislaw Dracula’, or sometimes just a simple ‘Dracula’, written in a precise, sinister Gothic script.

In 1436, Vlad’s father seized power after the death of his half-brother Alexander. These were dangerous years to be governing Wallachia. The place was a hotbed of plotting and intrigue, treachery and shifting alliances, sandwiched between two powerful and implacable enemies, the Ottomans on one side and the King of Hungary on the other.

Vlad Dracul was a practical man. Despite his oath to the Order of the Dragon, when Vlad Dracul found himself shoved out of power in 1442 by a members of a rival clan friendly to the Hungarian King, he wasted little time in beating a path to the door of Murad II, sultan of the Ottoman Turks, and securing his help in regaining his throne.

In return he agreed to pay tribute and to leave two of his sons as hostages in the Sultan’s court, their lives a pledge that he would keep his half of the bargain. One of these sons was young Vlad, the future Impaler, then just eleven years old.

For the next six years the boy bounced around the Ottoman empire, from one fortress to another, the conditions of his captivity varying with the politics of the day. While he was busy learning fluent Turkish and fending off the amorous advances of crown prince Mehmed II, his father and older brother Mircea were having a lively time of things back home, quelling rebellions and dodging the increasingly strident demands by the King of Hungary that they join his disastrous Crusade against the Turks.

Vlad Dracul was overthrown in December 1447, tracked down and killed while hiding out in a marsh near the village of Balteni. A far ghastlier fate awaited Mircea, his eldest son, co-regent and heir apparent: the 19 year-old was captured, tortured, blinded with red-hot irons, then buried alive.

When news of these events reached Adrianople, the Ottoman sultan moved swiftly. Not wanting to see his former vassal state become a Hungarian puppet, he launched an invasion, and in short order booted out the usurpers and installed the late Vlad Dracul’s 16 year-old son and next in line on the throne as Vlad III.

It was young Dracula’s first taste of power. He lasted two months. Then he too was overthrown, but unlike his father and older brother, he escaped. He fled first to Moldavia and then on to Hungary for what ended up being a harrowing eight-year exile.

It was the summer of 1456 before he returned to Wallachia. But it was a very different Vlad who marched over the Carpathian Mountains this time. He was twenty-four then, experienced far beyond his years, a veteran of many a court intrigue and a seasoned leader of men in battle. He had come to kill the man who had murdered his father and older brother and stolen his birth-right. He had an army behind him and enjoyed the backing of the powerful King of Hungary.

He met the usurper, Vladislaw II, on the outskirts of Târgoviste and killed him in hand-to-hand combat. The date was July 22, 1456. The reign of Vlad the Impaler had just begun.


He wasted little time in getting down to business. Having learned the horrific details of how his brother died, blinded and buried alive, he looked up the wealthy boyars of Târgoviste who had allowed such a thing to happen and the impalements began. Nor did he forget the German Saxon traders in neighbouring Transylvania whose shenanigans had done so much to unseat him the first time around and who threatened to do so again. Over the next few years they felt the full weight of his wrath, with entire villages razed and thousands of people impaled.

His governing style at home was just as direct. Wallachia, when he came to power was in a wretched state, impoverished by years of constant warfare. Lawlessness was rampant, farms lay abandoned and the flow of trade had all but ceased. Vlad did something about it, starting with a crackdown on crime.

“He so hated evil in his land that whenever someone did evil, a crime or a robbery or lied or was guilty of an injustice, then he was not allowed to live,” reads a Russian chronicle of his life, published in 1490. “Neither great boyars or priests or monks or ordinary people or those owning great wealth could save themselves with money.”

With the roads safe to travel once again – safe enough to leave golden goblets by the roadside – trade began to flow. He founded towns and villages, endowed churches, and strengthened the military and built up a loyal peasant militia. He crushed the wealthy boyars, whose rivalries, ambitions and animosities he blamed for the unrest that unseated his father. In their place he created a new nobility, one that would owe everything to him, by elevating a few promising commoners and awarding them lands confiscated from those who had fallen from favour and, more often than not, onto greased spikes.

He was feared, respected, selfish and utterly without scruple. In short, he was the complete Machiavellian prince, more than a decade before Niccolo Machiavelli was even born.

Having shored up his powerbase at home, he turned his attention to the Turks for he had some old scores to settle there and as a proud bearer of the Dracula name was eager to wage war against them on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire.

When a Turkish delegation came calling in 1459, wanting to know why the new ruler hadn’t gotten around to paying his long overdue tribute to the sultan, he let them know in no uncertain terms that Wallachia was a sovereign state and wouldn’t be paying any further tribute – driving home his point by having the delegates’ turbans nailed to their heads on the pretext that they had not removed their ‘hats’ in his royal presence. It mightn’t have been the most nuanced of diplomatic communications, but it was effective: Sultan Mehmed II understood that this was a man they were going to have troubles with.

As indeed they did. By 1462 Vlad had handed the Ottoman Turks a string of the biggest military defeats they had suffered in years, surrounding, capturing and impaling entire armies along the Danube and razing enemy villages to the ground. “I have killed men and women, young and old … 23,884 Turks and Bulgars without counting those whom we burned in homes or those whose heads were not cut off by our soldiers,” Vlad crowed in a letter to the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus in a letter dated February 11, 1462, adding with considerable understatement: “Thus Your highness must know that I have broken peace with him [the Sultan].”

Alarmed by the Wallachian upstart’s successes, the Sultan turned the full might of the Ottoman Empire on Dracula and launched a full scale invasion in the long hot summer of 1462 – one of the hottest on record. While Vlad’s army was no match for that fielded by the Sultan, he knew the terrain and with a combination of guerrilla tactics, a scorched earth policy, audacious night attacks, assassinations and even a bit of biological warfare – having smallpox and plague victims mingle amongst the enemy encampments – took a heavy toll on the invaders.

All the same, the Turkish army continued its advance towards Dracula’s capital city of Târgoviste, which had battened down for a prolonged siege. It never came about. Before invading Turks could reach the city they came upon a horrific spectacle on the banks of the Danube, Dracula’s masterpiece of psychological warfare – an entire forest of the impaled, with the bodies of 20,000 Turkish captives and soldiers rotting on their stakes in the scorching summer heat, the decomposing carcasses of two of their leading generals adorning the highest stakes of all. The shocked Sultan, himself no stranger to terror tactics, knew trumps when he saw them and gave orders to retreat.


Dracula’s successes over the Turks met with rejoicing in Rome. For years Pope Pius II had been urging a crusade against the Ottomans. He’d even gone so far as to give Matthias Corvinus, the powerful Hungarian king, some 40,000 gold florins to finance an army, but nothing had come of it but a lot of excuses. And so Dracula’s string of solo victories over the Turks shamed a lot of people in high places.

When Dracula travelled to Hungary to ask for some of that Vatican gold to help finance his campaign against the Turks, the red-faced Matthias Corvinus – who’d already embezzled the Pope’s money for personal expenses – had the obnoxious hero-of-the-moment arrested and thrown into prison. The charge: that he’d sold out to the Turks.  He was to spend nearly the rest of his life in prison.

Forged letters were produced and, thanks to the recent invention of the printing press, Corvinus launched what was to become the world’s first media propaganda campaign to help justify his actions in arresting and imprisoning Dracula.

“Of course, blackening Dracula’s reputation wasn’t hard to do,” says Natalia Nowakowska, a lecturer in early modern European history at Oxford University who has an interest in historical characters.  “Vlad made a lot of enemies, particularly among the Germans and Saxons, and he gave them plenty of horror-story material to work with.”

Soon the bad publicity started circulating. Within a few months of Vlad’s arrest a German court poet named Michael Beheim composed a 1070-verse ballad titled Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia which he performed to music before the Pope at the Vatican. It proved a big hit. More followed and from more sources, for the monasteries in Germany and Hungary were filled with refugee who had fled the very real horrors in Transylvania and Wallachia under Vlad the Impaler and were only too willing to talk.

Among the shocking tales making the rounds was one about a courageous German monk named Hans who, knowing he would be martyred for his uncompromising stance, told the evil Impaler Prince personally and to his face that he was hell-bound: “It is conceivable that the Devil himself would not want you…You are a wicked, shrewd, merciless killer. What are the crimes that justify the killing of the pregnant women you have impaled? What have their little children done, some of them three years old, others barely born whose lives you have snuffed out…You bath in the blood of innocent babes….” For his outspokenness not only was Hans impaled, but for good measure the enraged Dracula had the monk’s donkey impaled as well.

“Matthias Corvinus’ campaign was effective,” says Nowakowska. “Who wants to celebrate anyone like that? As a rule anyone who had been scoring any sort of victory against the Turks – even one – could expect to have religious poems and hagiographies written in their honour yet here was Vlad who had handed the Ottomans a string of the biggest defeats they’d suffered in years and the Vatican is strangely silent. There was a lot of image manipulation going on behind the scenes.”


It was Victorian England that sealed Vlad’s legacy when a minor Irish novelist named Bram Stoker came across a reference to the by-then nearly forgotten Wallachian prince in an old history book in the public library at Whitby, an English seaside town where he’d gone to spend his summer holiday and research a Gothic horror novel he wanted to write. The novel was to have been called The Un-Deadand its villain Count Wampyre, but when Stoker came across the name ‘Dracula’ in a footnote in the book, all that was forgotten. “He had nothing more to go on than the name,” said Elizabeth Miller, a retired English literature professor and expert on Stoker who has spent more than 20 years researching Dracula myths. “When he saw that the name could also mean ‘devil’ in Romanian, he wrote DEVIL! in capital letters in his notes and went from there.”

Draculaappeared to critical acclaim in 1897 and has never been out of print since. The story has since adapted into stage plays, radio serials, comics, cartoons, novelettes, short stories and games while the character himself has featured in over 200 films (only Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more).

Bowdlerised versions of him have appeared on a kaleidoscopic variety of TV shows from The Muppets, to The Simpsons,to Gilligan’s Island. Only last year Dracula starred in a 3-D computer-animated children’s comedy called Hotel Transylvaniathat so far has grossed over $346 million, and this autumn NBC is bringing him into our living rooms with a 10-part series Dracula. There is even a Count Chocula breakfast cereal, with an animated vampire mascot who prefers eating General Mills’ chocolate-flavoured crunchies to drinking blood.


As for the real Dracula, he was released from prison sometime around 1475, after regaining the graces of the Hungarian king, and was allowed to take another shot at seizing power in Wallachia. But by then his time had passed. Although he succeeded in driving the incumbent from power – his younger brother Radu, the Handsome – late in 1476 few of his countrymen were glad to see him back. Within a few weeks he was killed, murdered in circumstances that remain unclear.  His head was supposedly sent as a trophy to Constantinople while local monks buried his decapitated body in the nearby monastery of Snagov. In an epilogue befitting the Dracula myth, what had for centuries reputedly been his grave was opened by archaeologists in 1932. They found it empty.