Something about Basarabs and Draculas

Dracul means dragon in Romanian language. But let’s see some facts…

The Basarab House was the first ruling Wallachian Dynasty founded by duke Basarab I the Great /ca 1310-1352/ recorded in Serbian sources as Ivanko Basarab Veliki – Ivanko Basarab the Great, founder and ruler of Walalchia. The Duke Basarab from the Arges area in Wallachia in the twenties of the 14th century united lands between the Danube and the Carpathians and so had established the foundations of Wallachia. After several victories over the Tatars /1325-1328/ Basarab I extended his territories north from the Danube River to the east, between Prut and Dniester Rivers. Nikola Aleksandar (ruled 1352-1364) was son of the first Wallachian independent ruler Basarab I the Great who had the title of voivoda and who established the Wallachia. At the start Basarab I the Great was vassal of the Hungarian king, but gained independent reign around 1324 and in 1330 won victory over the Hungarian forces in the Posada battle which provided independence of Wallachia. Since then this area was called Bessarabia.

Among its prominent members of the Basarab Dynasty were Mircea the Elder /prince of Wallachia from 1386 until his death in 1418/, Vlad Dracul II /1436-1447/, and Vlad III the Impaler /1456-1462 and 1476-1477/, both of whom were the literary inspirations for the imaginary Dracul personage, Michael the Brave /1593-1601/, and Matei Basarab /1632-1654/. The noble Basarab Dynasty became extinct with Constantine Serban in 1658. The House of Basarab has split into two rival ruling houses who were in constant contest for the throne from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries – the House of Danesti /descended from Dan I of Wallachia/ and the House of Draculesti. Descendants of the Draculesti lineage would eventually come to dominate the rule of this principality until its unification with Transylvania and Moldavia by Mihai Viteazul – Michael the Brave in 1600. The legacy of the Drăculeşti Dynasty began in 1386 with the rule of Mircea cel Bătrân – Mircea the Elder, one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history. However, the Draculesti family is most remembered for its association with Mircea’s grandson, Vlad III Drăculea. In ancient times Basarabia or Bessarabia was sometimes used as a synonym for Wallachia – Land of Bassarab – Basarabskaya Zemlya, Karabogdanska zemlya…. A number of place names inspired by Basarab tradition are found in throughout territory of Romania. Grand daughter of Ivanko Basarab Veliki – Ivanko Basarab the Great was the last Serbian empress – Anna Basarab – Anna of Wallachia, wife of the Serbian tsar Uros V.

The term of Basarab is referred to the family line or Dynasty to which Vlad II Basarab and his sons belonged to. However, neither Vlad II nor his descendants never officially used this name. The Dracul – Draculea – Zmajevic family were members of the Order of the Dragon which was devoted to a singular task: the defeat of the invading Turkish or the Ottoman Empire. The Order of the Dragon (German “Drachenorden” and Latin “Societatis draconistrarum”) was an institution similar to other chivalric orders of the time, modeled on the Order of Saint George (1318). Order of Dragon was created in 1408 by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (while he was still king of Hungary) and his queen Barbara Cilli – Barbara Celjska, mainly for the purpose of gaining protection for the royal family. According to its statute (which survives only in a copy dated 1707), the Dragon Order also required its initiates to defend the Cross and Christianity and to do battle against its enemies, principally the Turks. The Order of the Dragon adopted as its symbol in 1408 the image of a circular dragon with its tail coiled around its neck. On its back from the base of its neck to its tail, was the red cross of Saint George on the background of a silver field. The original Order of Dragon comprised twenty-four members of the Christian nobility, the most worthy of European knights, personalities characterized with highest moral principles, elite in the broadest sense of the concept, including such notable figures as King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples, Sigmund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary, Stefan Lazarevic, Despot of Serbia, King Vladislav II of Poland, the great prince Vytautas of Lithuania, the Duke Ernst of Austria, Christopher III – Duke of Bavaria and King of Denmark, Thomas de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (after 1439), Vlad II, Duke of Wallachia, Philip The Hungarian and Pipo of Ozora, Italian and Hungarian aristocrat (Kuzdrzal -Kicki, 1978), who had honor to bear the sign on knightly Armour and flag which was and still is a symbol of the highest possible nobility (dignity).….

Situated between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad II’s (and later Vlad III’s) home principality of Wallachia was frequently the scene of bloody battles as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces repulsed the invaders. Vlad III’s father, Vlad II Basarab was the second son of Mircea the Elder and had own residence in Sighişoara, Transylvania. Vlad II was ousted as ruler of Wallachia by local noblemen (boyars) and was killed in the swamps near Bălteni, halfway between Târgovişte and Bucharest in present-day Romania. Vlad’s older half-brother, Mircea, was brutally killed alongside his father.

In 1431, King Sigismund summoned to the city of Nuremberg a number of princes and vassals that he considered useful for both political and military alliances. King’s primary objective was to initiate the group into the Order of the Dragon. One of these was Vlad II Basarab (father of Vlad the Impaler), a claimant for the throne of the principality of Wallachia (now part of modern Romania), who was at the time serving in Sighisoara as frontier commander guarding the mountain passes from Transylvania into Wallachia from enemy incursion. While at Nuremberg, Vlad also received Sigismund’s pledge to support his claim to the throne of Wallachia. But it would be another five years before that ambition could be realized. Vlad was obviously proud of this achievement. Later he had coins minted which show on one side a winged dragon. His personal coat-of-arms also incorporated a dragon. In all of these cases, the dragon was intended to convey a favorable image drawn from medieval iconography in which the dragon represents the Beast of Revelation (Satan) who is slain by the forces of good (Christianity). Vlad took on the nickname “Dracul” in reference to his induction into the order. The word “dracul” has its origins in the Latin “draco” meaning “the dragon”. In 1431 the Senior Vlad II was summoned to Nuremberg by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor to receive a unique honor.

Vlad Dracul was descended from Basarab the Great, a 14th-century prince who is credited with having founded the state of Wallachia, part of present-day Romania. The most famous of the early Basarabs was Vlad’s grandfather, Mircea cel Batrin (Mircea the Old). As Wallachian dukes – “voivode” (a word of Slavic origin, used in Romania for the leader of a principality, a war-lord, or a supreme chief), Mircea was prominent for his struggles against the Ottoman Empire and his attempts to exclude permanent Turkish settlement on Wallachian lands. Mircea died in 1418 and left behind a number of illegitimate children. As there were no clear rules of succession in Wallachia (the council of “boyars” had the power to select as dukes-voivode any son of a ruling prince), Mircea’s death led to conflict between his illegitimate son Vlad II (Vlad the Impaler’s father) and Dan, the son of one of Mircea’s brothers. This was the beginning of the Draculesti-Danesti feud that was to play a major role in the history of the 15th-century Wallachia. In 1431, the year in which Vlad the Impaler may have been born (not confirmed), his father Vlad was stationed in Sighisoara as a military commander with responsibility for guarding the mountain passes from Transylvania into Wallachia from enemy incursion. It is not certain that Vlad III was born in Sighisoara according to Florin Curta, a professor or medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida. It’s also possible, Curta says, that Vlad the Impaler was born in Târgovişte which was at that time the royal seat of the principality of Wallachia, where his father was a duke -“voivode,” or ruler. However, the link between Vlad the Impaler and Transylvania is tenuous. His son Vlad III (Vladislaus, better known as Vlad the Impaler) used the sobriquet “Dracula” in the context of “son of Dracul” or “son of he who was a member of the Order of the Dragon“. Once again it was used as a term of honor. On a number of occasions, Vlad III (the Impaler) signed documents using the name sine the name “Dracula” was used in several historical documents including a few written by Vlad himself. The word “dracul”, however, took on a second meaning (“the devil”) which was applied to members of the Dracula family by their enemies and possibly also by superstitious peasants. After the death of Sigismund in 1437, the Order of the Dragon lost much of its prominence, though its iconography was retained on the coats-of-arms of several noble families. For many Romanians Vlad Dracul is an important figure in the history, indeed a hero, primarily because of his successful military exploits against the Ottoman Turks who overran much of southeastern Europe. As an indication of his pride in the Order, Vlad took on the nickname “Dracul.” (The Wallachian word “dracul” was derived from the Latin “draco” meaning “the dragon.”) The sobriquet adopted by the younger Vlad (“Dracula” indicating “son of Dracul” or “son of the Dragon”), also had a positive connotation.

Vlad III had three brothers: Mircea (? -1447 ), Radu III called “The Handsome-Beautiful” (1438-1500) and Vlad Mircea called “The Monk” (? -1496 ). Vlad Dracul was the Prince of Wallachia, ruler and historical figure who became a skilled horseman and warrior. Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracula, was Voivode /duke/ of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death. He is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. He was the second son of Vlad Dracul, who became the ruler of Wallachia in 1436. Wikipedia

Vlad Dracul III Tepes – Vlad the Impaler was known for allegedly being sadistic and tormenting his victims. According to legends that circulated after his death, Vlad invited hundreds of the boyars – novelty to a banquet and, knowing they would challenge his authority, had his guests allegedly stabbed and their still-twitching bodies impaled on spikes. Some of these legends were also collected and published in a book, “The Tale of Dracula,” in 1490, by a monk who presented Vlad III as a fierce, but just ruler. Vlad’s victories over the invading Ottomans were celebrated throughout Wallachia, Transylvania and the rest of Europe. Vlad III’s political and military tack truly came to the forefront amid the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the fall, the Ottomans were in a position to invade all of Europe. Vlad, who had already solidified his anti-Ottoman position, was proclaimed voivode – duke of Wallachia in 1456. One of his first orders of business in his new role was to stop paying an annual tribute to the Ottoman sultan — a measure that had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Ottomans.

The conquest of Varna in 1444 consisted of three battles in two days and ended with the defeat of the Turks. Victors were the united Serbian and Hungarian troops. After that a peace treaty was made between the opposite sides, that was later violated by the Hungarian king Sigismund of Luxembourg and Janos Hunyadi (in Serbian popularly known as Sibinjanin Janko). George Brankovic, despot of Serbia, made a separate peace with the Turks. After this event a war broke out between the Hungarians and Turks resulting the capitulation of the Hungarian troops. Dracul II and Mirceta accused the leader of the campaign Janos Hunyadi to be the reason for the debacle and he was sentenced to death but was pardoned because of his past merits. In 1447 Hunyadi attacked Wallachia with the intention to take over the Wallachian throne for Vladislav Danesti. Dăneşti were another branch of the Basarab Dynasty and pretenders to the throne of Wallachia. During Hunyadi’s attack, the boyars of Targoviste raised rebellion and captured Mircea. After cruel torture they buried him alive. Vlad II was able to escape, but the rebels caught him in the swamps near Bucharest, and cut off his head.

In September 1448, the Turkish army captured Hunyadi and Vladislav Danesti near Kosovo. Vlad III, even-though still very young, led the Ottoman army in an attack on Wallachia and without serious opposition seized the town of Targoviste. Vladislav Danesti managed to escape from Turkish captivity and gathered an army with which he started a major counterattack on Vlad III. Finding himself before a far more numerous opponent he is forced to retreat after which he spends some time in the wilderness. From December 1449 till October 1451, he lived on the court of Bogdan of Moldavia. On the Moldavian court, Vlad completed his education together with Bogdan ‘s son Stephan cel Mare. In October 1451, Bogdan was killed by his brother Petru Aron, which at the time was a common practice in the fight for the throne. Vlad III and Stephan barely managed to escape and save their lives. After the death of sultan Murad II, in February 1451, the new Sultan became his son Mehmed II, which was welcomed by the vast majority of European rulers. Based on his experience from years spent in Turkish captivity, young Vlad Draculea advised European leaders to be cautious, as he knew all to well what kind of Sultan the Christian world would face. It is undisputed that Vlad harbored indescribable hatred towards the Sultan but just how much his warnings will turn out to be true, proves the fact that Sultan Mehmed, later Sultan Mehmet al Fatih will remain known as the conqueror of Constantinople.

Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople and from the year 1453, the Eastern Roman Empire ceased to exist. After the conquest of Constantinople, Vladislav Danesti manages to get close to the Sultan and establishes good relations with the Turkish court. At approximately the same time a reconciliation between Vlad III and Janos Hunyadi occurred. In Buda Vlad attended the coronation of Ladislas V of Habsurg king of Hungary, where he was appointed as protector of Transylvania, with a seat in the city of Sibiu (Florescu, 1989). Vlad III finally gets his opportunity in 1456 when Janos Hunyadi started a campaign in Serbia in response to an attack by Mehmed II on Belgrade, which was then under Hungarian rule. Janos Hunyadi came to aid the besieged crew of Belgrade with the help of the Vatican monk Ivan Capistrano. He led about 70,000 men, defeated the Turks at Belgrade and forced them to retreat. But in the same year he died of plague somewhere along the Danube. Vlad takes advantage of the situation and in June, under the glow of Halley’s comet in the sky, leads his army through the Carpathian mountains and invades Wallachia. By the end of July of the same year, Vladislav Danesti was killed in one of the battles, after which Vlad III Draculea finally takes the Wallachian throne in Targoviste. According to one of the legends, Danesti was slain on the battlefield by Vlad personally but this story has never really been proven. From this moment on, the most, historically speaking, controversial period in the life of Vlad III begins. Ascended on the throne, Vlad III immediately begins to rearrange the foreign and domestic politics. He was first confronted with the same problems that were troubling the previous ruler of Wallachia: to maintain balance between the Hungarian and the Ottoman Empire, and at the same time keep the independence of their country. Vlad Draculea immediately, at the beginning of his rule introduced, in today’s terms horrible ways of punishment, both for foreign enemies and offenders and for hard criminals in Wallachia. If his intention was to intimidate and horrify his opponents, his methods proved to be a huge success. His favorite method of punishment, which was probably introduced by the example of the Turks and later became a synonym for Vlad’s brutality, was impalement.

Regarding his ways of execution, he would after his death, be best known as Vlad the Impaler (rum. Ţepeş) from the Romanian word “teapa” meaning “to impale”. However his cruelty must be viewed in the light of historical  circumstances,  the  objectives  and  policy  he  pursued  and  what  is  most  important the era in which he lived and ruled. Rulers who were contemporaries of Vlad III, from King Louis XI of France, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, through Henry V of England and  King  Charles  of  Burgundy  were  also  known  for  conducting  callous  and  cruel  punishments in order to intimidate their enemies (Stoicesku, 1978). Even in the famous legal code of Tzar Dusan, cruel punishments that are incomprehensible today, were ordered for the even smallest crimes. However, unlike the punishments enforced by the Code of the Serbian Tsar, where the nobility received more lenient sentences than normal subjects, in the state of Vlad III all criminals were treated in the same way, regardless of their social status. Although Vlad’s methods of punishment must have been horrific, both to his enemies and those who broke the law, among ordinary subjects he seemed to gain approval, as of this time the myth of Vlad Draculea as a national hero began to emerge. It is said that at that time, Wallachia was in the state of a “grave-like tranquility”. Internal political conditions were far from simple. The main problem that he initially faced were the boyars who supported the Danesti Dynasty. It is assumed that due to conspiracy, hatched against him by the Hungarians who supported the dynasty Danesti, a conflict broke out between Wallachia and Hungary where Transylvania was also involved. The fights lasted for several years, interrupted by some brief periods of truce. Between 1460 and 1461, Vlad succeeded to obtain independence from Hungary, recover territories from Transylvania and eliminate rival pretenders to the throne of Wallachia. At that time he terminates all relations with the Ottoman Empire, ceases to pay tribute, and begins to prepare for war (Treptow, 2000). The war against the Turks began in the winter of 1461, when Vlad decides to attack the neighboring Turkish fortifications and advances deep into the territory of the Ottoman Empire. The most famous incident that consolidated the reputation of Dracula’s Christian crusader and warrior, was the conquest of the Ottoman territories in the 1461, when he and his army killed about twenty four thousand Turks, and burned all the Turkish Fortresses that he could not possess. In response to Vlad’s actions, the Sultan decided to invade Wallachia and appoint Vlad’s brother Radu to the throne. Facing a far more numerous enemy, Draculea was forced to retreat, but before that, he tried to kill the Sultan himself in a daring night campaign. The withdrawal caused horror among the rising Ottoman army as Vlad left behind him a field full of Turkish soldiers impaled on high stakes. However, eventually he was forced to retreat and his brother Radu occupied the throne of Wallachia. After his withdrawal under circumstances that were not entirely clarified, Vlad was taking prisoner by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus. About the time he spent in captivity, very little is known except that he was considered a political prisoner. In 1476, facing a new threat of a Turkish invasion, Matthias Corvinus frees Vlad Draculea, urges him to stop the advance of Ottoman Empire and regain the Wallachian throne, but under the condition that he renounces the Orthodox Cross and converts into Catholicism (Stoicesku, 1978). Vlad accepts Corvinuses conditions and after inflicting a heavy defeat to the Moldovans who supported Radu, for the third time he ascends to the throne of Wallachia. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards he was killed in one of the clashes with the Turks. After his withdrawal under circumstances that were not entirely clarified, under circumstances that were not entirely clarified, Vlad was taking prisoner by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus. About the time he spent in captivity, very little is known except that he was considered a political prisoner. In 1476, facing a new threat of a Turkish invasion, Matthias Corvinus frees Vlad Draculea, urges him to stop the advance of Ottoman Empire and regain the Wallachian throne, but under the condition that he renounces the Orthodox Cross and converts into Catholicism (Stoicesku, 1978). Vlad accepts Corvinuses conditions and after inflicting a heavy defeat to the Moldovans who supported Radu, for the third time he ascends to the throne of Wallachia. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards he was killed in one of the clashes with the Turks.

Vlad was forced into exile in Hungary, unable to defeat his much more powerful adversary, Sultan Mehmet II. Vlad was imprisoned for a number of years during his exile, though during that same time he married and had two children. Vlad’s younger brother, Radu, who had sided with the Ottomans during the ongoing military campaigns, took over governance of Wallachia after his brother’s imprisonment. But after Radu’s death in 1475, local boyars, as well as the rulers of several nearby principalities, favored Vlad’s return to power. In 1476, with the support of the voivode of Moldavia, Stephen III the Great (1457-1504), Vlad made one last effort to reclaim his seat as ruler of Wallachia. He successfully stole back the throne, but his triumph was short-lived. Later that year, while marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans, Vlad and a small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed. There is much controversy over the location of Vlad III’s tomb. It is said he was buried in the monastery church in Snagov, on the northern edge of the modern city of Bucharest, in accordance with the traditions of his time. But recently, historians have questioned whether Vlad might actually be buried at the Monastery of Comana, between Bucharest and the Danube, which is close to the presumed location of the battle in which Vlad was killed, according to Curta. One thing is for certain, however: unlike Stoker’s Count Dracula, Vlad III most definitely did die. Only the harrowing tales of his years as ruler of Wallachia remain to haunt the modern world.

In Romanian history, Vlad III is usually referred to as “Tepes” (pronounced Tse-pesh). This name, from the Turkish nickname “kaziklu bey” (“impaling prince”), was used by Ottoman chroniclers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries because of Vlad’s fondness for impalement as a means of execution. The epithet, which echoed the fear that he instilled in his enemies, was embraced in his native country. No evidence exists to suggest that Vlad ever used it in reference to himself. By contrast, the term “Dracula” (or linguistic variations thereof) was used on a number of occasions by Vlad himself in letters and documents that still survive in Romanian museums.

We know little about Vlad’s early childhood in Sighisoara. His mother was apparently Cneajna – Snezana, of a Moldavian ? princely family. He was the second of three sons; his brothers were Mircea and Radu. The family remained in Sighisoara until 1436 when Vlad Dracul moved to Targoviste to become voivode of Wallachia. Here, young Vlad was educated at court, with training that was appropriate for knighthood. But his father’s political actions were to have major consequences for him and his younger brother Radu. On the death of Sigismund, Vlad Dracul ranged from pro-Turkish policies to neutrality as he considered necessary to protect the interests of Wallachia. To ensure the reliability of Dracul’s support, the Sultan required that two of his sons — Vlad and Radu — be held in Turkey as guarantees that he would actively support Turkish interests. The two boys may have spent up to six years under this precarious arrangement. Young Vlad would have been about eleven years old at the time of the internment, while Radu would have been about seven. It appears that they were held for part of the time at the fortress of Egregoz, located in western Anatolia, and later moved to Sultan Murad’s court at Adrianople, at present Edirne. The younger brother Radu, a handsome lad who attracted the attention of the future sultan, fared better than Vlad, a factor that helps explain the bitter hatred and rivalry that developed between the brothers later. Apparently, no serious physical harm came to the boys during these years of captivity, though the psychological impact on Vlad is difficult to assess. After their subsequent release in 1448, Radu chose to remain in Turkey. But Vlad returned to Wallachia to find that his father had been assassinated and his older brother Mircea buried alive by the nobles of Târgoviste who had supported a rival claimant.

Vlad was duke-voivode for three separate periods, totaling about seven years. Not too much is known of his first brief period of rule (in 1448). This reign was short-lived, and Vlad spent the next eight years plotting his return to power. Finally in 1456 he was successful and ruled for the next six years, the period about which most is known. After major battles against the Turks in 1462, he escaped across the mountains into Transylvania and was held as a prisoner by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus until the mid-1470s. Vlad Tepes and despot Vuk Gtgurevic Brankovic joined the common Hungrian campaign in Bosnia and 1476 when Srebrenica fall. The Serbian despot Vuk Grgurevic also took part in the battles with Vlad Tepes against the Turks in Moldavia. Recovery of the Vlad Tepes on the throne for a third time in 1476 was brief, for he was killed in battle during the subsequent winter.

Though Vlad Tepes was to reign for less than seven years, his reputation throughout Europe was widespread. There are several primary sources of information, which offer a variety of representations, from Vlad as a cruel, even psychopathic tyrant to Vlad as a hero who put the needs of his country above all else. Consequently, it is a virtually impossible task to reconstruct his political and military activities with certainty.

The most influential in establishing his notoriety throughout Europe, were the German sources dating from as early as 1463 (while Vlad was still alive). The most popular were several pamphlets that began to appear late in the fifteenth century and which were widely circulated because of the recent invention of the printing press. Indeed, some of the earliest secular texts to roll off the presses were horror stories about Vlad Dracula. Written in German and published at major centers such as Nuremberg, Bamberg, and Strasbourg, these had such unsavory titles as “The Frightening” and “Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-drinking Tyrant Called Prince Dracula”. Researchers have discovered at least thirteen of these pamphlets dating from 1488 to 1521. The printers of the Dracula tales also included woodcut portraits of the prince and, in some cases, illustrations of his atrocities.

Other historical documents include Russian sources, notably one which presented not only the cruel side of Vlad’s behavior but also his sense of justice and his determination to restore order. Turkish chronicles, not surprisingly, emphasize the horrors that Dracula inflicted on his enemies, especially during the battles of 1461-62. By contrast there are the Romanian oral narratives, still preserved in the villages near the ruins of Vlad Dracula’s fortress on the Arges River. Here we find a very different Vlad: a prince who repeatedly defended his homeland from the Turks at a time when just about every other principality in the region had been subjected to Ottoman rule; and a leader who succeeded in maintaining law and order in what were indeed lawless and disorderly times.

All of these sources are biased. In the case of the German reports, the German Saxons of Transylvania were victims of incursions by Vlad into what was an independent state and the imposition of his harsh economic measures. One could hardly expect them to be objective informants. The Turkish chroniclers are hardly any more objective, downplaying Vlad’s military successes and stressing their own demonstrations of bravery and cunning. Russian narratives were generally more unbiased. The Romanian narratives, by contrast, present a very different Vlad: a folk hero who endeavored to save his people not only from the invading Turks but from the treacherous boyars.

Vlad’s immediate priority when he regained his throne in 1456 was to consolidate his position in Wallachia. He was determined to break the political power of the boyars (nobles) who tended to support puppet (and often weak) leaders who would protect their interests. Such a policy, Vlad realized, worked against the development of a strong nation-state. A related internal problem that faced Vlad was the continuous threat from rival claimants to the throne, all of whom were descendants of Mircea cel Batrin. Coupled with his determination to consolidate his own power was his extreme view of law and order. He did not hesitate to inflict the punishment of impalement on anyone who committed a crime, large or small. On the economic front, he was determined to break the hold that the Saxon merchants of southern Transylvania (especially Brasov) had on trade. Not only were these merchants ignoring customs duties, they were also supporting rival claimants to his throne.

Vlad began his six-year period of rule in 1456, just three years after Constantinople fell to the Turks. It was inevitable that he would finally have to confront the Turks, as the small principality of Wallachia lay between Turkish controlled Bulgaria and the rest of central and eastern Europe. Vlad precipitated the anger of the Sultan by refusing to honor an earlier arrangement to pay an annual tribute and to supply young Wallachian men for the Turkish army. After a period of raiding and pillaging along the Danube border, full-fledged war broke out during the winter of 1461-62. His exploits drew the attention of several European rulers, including the Pope himself. The Turks launched a full counter-offensive. Badly outnumbered, Vlad employed every possible means to gain an advantage: drawing the enemy deep into his own territory through a strategic retreat, he burned villages and poisoned wells along the route; he employed guerilla tactics, using the local terrain to advantage; he even initiated a form of germ warfare, deliberately sending victims of infectious diseases into the Turkish camps. On 17 June 1462, he led a raid known in Romanian history as the “Night Attack.” But the Sultan’s army continued onward and reached the outskirts of Vlad’s capital city. There Vlad used his most potent weapon — psychological warfare. The following is an account from the Greek historian Chalkondyles of what greeted the invaders:

“He [the Sultan] marched on for about five kilometers when he saw his men impaled; the Sultan’s army came across a field with stakes, about three kilometers long and one kilometer wide. And there were large stakes on which they could see the impaled bodies of men, women, and children, about twenty thousand of them, as they said; quite a spectacle for the Turks and the Sultan himself! The Sultan, in wonder, kept saying that he could not conquer the country of a man who could do such terrible and unnatural things, and put his power and his subjects to such use. He also used to say that this man who did such things would be worthy of more. And the other Turks, seeing so many people impaled, were scared out of their wits. There were babies clinging to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made nests in their breasts.”

The Sultan withdrew. But the war was not over. Mehmed threw his support behind Vlad’s brother Radu, who with the support of defecting boyars and Turkish soldiers, pursued Vlad all the way to his mountain fortress at Poenari. According to oral legends that survive to this day in the village of Aref, near the fortress, Vlad was able to escape into Transylvania with the help of local villagers. But he was soon arrested near Brasov by Matthias Corvinus, who had chosen to throw his support behind Radu, Vlad’s successor. Corvinus used as evidence letters supposedly written by Vlad that indicated he was a traitor to the Christian cause and was plotting to support the Turks; Romanian historians concur that these letters were forgeries and part of a larger campaign to discredit Vlad and justify Corvinus’s actions.

Vlad is best known today in the West for the many cruel actions that have been attributed to him. Even his most ardent defenders will concede that he took drastic measures to achieve his political, economic and military objectives. Most of these occurred during the period 1456-1462.

One of his earliest actions was taken against the nobles of Targoviste whom he held responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. According to an early Romanian chronicle, in the spring of 1457, Vlad invited the nobles and their families to an Easter feast. After his guests had finished their meal, Vlad’s soldiers surrounded them, rounded up the able-bodied and marched them fifty miles up the Arges River to Poenari, where they were forced to build his mountain fortress. His prisoners labored under very difficult conditions for many months. Those who survived the grueling ordeal were impaled.

Impalement was an especially sadistic means of execution, as victims would suffer excruciating pain for hours, even days, until death came. It appears that Vlad was determined at times to administer it in ways that would ensure the longest possible period of suffering for the victim. While impalement was his punishment of choice, Vlad apparently employed other equally tortuous ways of dispensing with opponents. One of the German pamphlets (Nuremberg 1488) notes the following episodes:

“He had some of his people buried naked up to the navel and had them shot at. He also had some roasted and flayed. “He captured the young Dan [of the rival Danesti clan] and had a grave dug for him and had a funeral service held according to Christian custom and beheaded him beside the grave.

“He had a large pot made and boards with holes fastened over it and had people’s heads shoved through there and imprisoned them in this. And he had the pot filled with water and a big fire made under the pot and thus let the people cry out pitiably until they were boiled quite to death.

“He devised dreadful, frightful, unspeakable torments, such as impaling together mothers and children nursing at their breasts so that the children kicked convulsively at their mothers’ breasts until dead. In like manner he cut open mothers’ breasts and stuffed their children’s heads through and thus impaled both.

“He had all kinds of people impaled sideways: Christians, Jews, heathens, so that they moved and twitched and whimpered in confusion a long time like frogs.

“About three hundred gypsies came into his country. Then he selected the best three of them and had them roasted; these the others had to eat.”

While it is impossible to verify all of these, there is no doubt that Vlad meted out his punishments with unusual cruelty. Several of the tales of his atrocities occur in three or more separate and independent accounts, indicating a large measure of veracity. One is this story of how he dispensed with the sick and the poor:

“Dracula was very concerned that all his subjects work and contribute to the common welfare. He once noticed that the poor, vagrants, beggars and cripples had become very numerous in his land. Consequently, he issued an invitation to all the poor and sick in Wallachia to come to Târgoviste for a great feast, claiming that no one should go hungry in his land. As the poor and crippled arrived in the city they were ushered into a great hall where a fabulous feast was prepared for them. The princes guests ate and drank late into the night, when Dracula himself made an appearance. ‘What else do you desire? Do you want to be without cares, lacking nothing in this world,’ asked the prince. When they responded positively Dracula ordered the hall boarded up and set on fire. None escaped the flames. Dracula explained his action to the boyars by claiming that he did this, ‘in order that they represent no further burden to others so that no one will be poor in my realm.”

Nobody was immune from his cruelty. Another widely disseminated tale involves the arrival in his court of two foreign ambassadors: “Some Italian ambassadors were sent to him. When they came to him they bowed and removed their hats and they kept on the berets beneath them. Then he asked them why they did not take their caps off, too. They said it was their custom, and they did not even remove them for the Emperor. Dracula said, ‘I wish to reinforce this for you.’ He immediately had their caps nailed firmly on their heads so that their caps would not fall off and their custom would remain. Thus he reinforced it.”

In other versions, the ambassadors are Turkish and the caps are turbans. But the essence of the story remains the same.

Impalement also proved to be a powerful deterrent to would-be criminals. Consider the following story, found in both Russian and Romanian narratives: “Dracula so hated evil in his land that if someone stole, lied or committed some injustice, he was not likely to stay alive. Whether he was a nobleman, or a priest or a monk or a common man, and even if he had great wealth, he could not escape death if he were dishonest. And he was so feared that the peasants say that in a certain place, near the source of the river, there was a fountain; at this fountain at the source of this river, there came many travelers from many lands and all these people came to drink at the fountain because the water was cool and sweet. Dracula had purposely put this fountain in a deserted place, and set a cup wonderfully wrought in gold and whoever wished to drink it from this gold cup and had to put it back in its place. And so long as this cup was there no one dared steal it.”

Perhaps his most horrifying atrocities were committed against the Germans (Saxons) of Transylvania, beginning with raids on a number of Transylvanian towns where residents were suspected of supporting a rival:

“In the year 1460, on the morning of St Bartholomew’s Day, Dracula came through the forest with his servants and had all the Wallachians of both sexes tracked down, as people say outside the village of Humilasch [Amlas], and he was able to bring so many together that he let them get piled up in a bunch and he cut them up like cabbage with swords, sabers and knives; as for their chaplain and the others whom he did not kill there, he led them back home and had them impaled. And he had the village completely burned up with their goods and it is said that there were more than 30,000 men.”

But the incident that was to cause the greatest damage to his reputation took place in Brasov. When the local merchants refused to pay taxes in spite of repeated warnings, in 1459 Dracula led an assault on Brasov, burned an entire suburb, and impaled numerous captives on Timpa Hill. The scene has been immortalized in an especially gruesome woodcut which appeared as the frontispiece in a pamphlet printed in Nuremberg in 1499. It depicts Vlad having a meal while impaled victims are dying around him. As he eats, his henchmen are hacking off limbs of other victims right next to his table. The narrative begins as follows: “Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract and in the land he ruled.” A similar woodcut appeared the following year (Strasbourg) with the caption, “Here occurred a frightening and shocking history about the wild berserker Prince Dracula.” Whether the accounts were accurate or not, Vlad’s evil reputation was assured.

In spite of such reported atrocities, Vlad Tepes is a significant figure in Romanian history. For one thing, he was one of a number of voivodes who contributed to the building of a strong, independent Wallachian state. He stood up against the powerful nobles and assured law and order in what were lawless times. But most of all he is remembered for standing up against the Ottoman Empire, at a time when other principalities around him were falling under Turkish control. He is perceived as something of a David facing a Goliath. As for the brutality of his punishments, his defenders point out that his actions were no more cruel than those of several other late-medieval or early-Renaissance European rulers such as Louis XI of France, Ferdinand of Naples, Cesare Borgia of Italy, and Ivan the Terrible of Russia.

Today, Vlad Tepes is still remembered. In the village of Aref, near the fortress at Poenari, the locals depict him as a hero and friend to the people: “My grandfather used to tell me that during the reign of Vlad the Impaler, Romanians paid tribute to the Turks in exchange for peace. This tax included one to two hundred young people a year to serve in the mercenary corps of the Turkish army. Some of these lads came from the village of Aref. Vlad the Impaler decided to put a stop to it. The mighty Sultan, on hearing that Vlad refused to pay tribute, sent an army to capture him alive and bring him to Turkey. When the Turkish army crossed the Danube, Vlad retreated through this village to his fortress. When he arrived at Castle Poenari, he sent word to the village asking the elders for advice. Vlad told the elders, ‘The Turks have surrounded this fortress and I want you to take me across the border into Transylvania, by morning.’ One of the elders who was an iron smith said, ‘I have a plan. Let us reverse the shoes of the horses so that when we leave the fortress and the Turks come, they will think we have entered when we have actually gone away’ So they reversed the shoes and escaped through a secret passage, and crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania. When they reached the border, Vlad asked how he could compensate them for their loyalty. The elders of Aref replied, ‘Your Highness, give us not gold or silver because these can be spent. Give us land because the land is fertile and will keep us alive for all time.’ So he asked for a rabbit skin and wrote on it, ‘I give you, the elders of Aref, fourteen mountains and nine sheepfolds which you will have forever.’ And we still have a couple of the mountains from that time. And as children, listening to our grandfather, we rejoiced at how Vlad fooled the Turks.” The villagers keep these stories alive to this day.

Less than two months into his final reign (probably near the end of December, 1476) Vlad was killed in battle in a forest just north of Bucharest. The circumstances are unclear. A Russian source claims that he was mistaken by one of his own men for a Turk and consequently killed. More likely is that he was attacked by a rival claimant, Basarab Laiota (who succeeded him as voivode), and killed by a hired assassin. One story goes that he was beheaded, and his head was taken back to the Sultan in Constantinople and displayed as a trophy. Tradition has it that his body was taken by monks to the Snagov Monastery and buried there close to the altar, in recognition of the fact that he had supplied funds for the rebuilding of the monastery years earlier. However, excavations on the site during the early 1930s failed to uncover a burial site. Where are his remains? Some suggest that he was buried elsewhere on the monastery site where indeed remains were found but have since disappeared. Others contend he is buried near the altar, but at a greater depth than was excavated. Yet others suggest he may have been interred in a different monastery altogether. We may never know.

As for Vlad’s immediate family, we know practically nothing certain about his first wife (assuming they were even married), except that she was a Transylvanian noblewoman. Her name is unknown. She is, however, preserved in this surviving oral narrative in Aref:

“It is said that Vlad the Impaler had a kind and humble wife with a heart of gold. Whenever Vlad took his sword and led his army into battle, his wife’s heart grew sad. One night a strange thing happened. An arrow entered through one of the windows of the fortress and put out a candle in their bedroom. Striking a light, she discovered a letter in the point of the arrow which said that the fortress was surrounded by the Turks. Approaching the window she saw many flickering fires in the valley. Thinking that all was lost, and without waiting for her husband’s decision, she climbed up on the wall of the fortress and threw herself into the Arges River.” This cannot be verified through historical documents.

We do know that Vlad later married Ilona Szilagy, who was related to Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary who had placed Vlad under arrest following his escape from Wallachia in 1462. It appears that Corvinus made an arrangement with Vlad to restore him to his throne. To strengthen the bond, Vlad was offered a royal bride. After his death, Vlad’s wife was left with his three sons. Mihnea, the eldest, was from his union with the Transylvanian noblewoman. He had two sons by his Hungarian wife — Vlad, and a second whose name is unknown. Only Mihnea succeeded in gaining the Wallachian throne. During his brief rule from 1508-1509, he showed signs that he could be as atrocious as his infamous father; nicknamed “Mihnea the Bad,” he is reputed to have cut off the noses and lips of his political enemies. He was assassinated in 1510 on the steps of a church in Sibiu.

According to genealogical research conducted by historians Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (published in their 1989 book Dracula: Prince of Many Faces), the Romanian male line died out in 1632. As for the Hungarian lineage, the last male descendant died late in the sixteenth century, though a female line can be traced for an additional hundred years. As for indirect descendants, it has been verified that Professor Constantin Balaceanu-Stolnici of Bucharest is descended from Vlad Dracula’s half-brother, Vlad the Monk. According to researchers at the Institute of Genealogy of the Romanian Academy, other claims are unsubstantiated.

Whatever Vlad might have been, nowhere is it stated that he was (or was believed to have been) a vampire. While some of early negative reports aligned Vlad with the devil (playing on the alternative meaning of “dracul”), this was not a vampire association. The word “vampire” was never used in connection with Vlad until long after Bram Stoker’s novel appeared and it became popular to assume (incorrectly) that Vlad was Stoker’s inspiration for his vampire Count. Source : Dr Elisabeth Miller and other authors

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