The Real Dracula
By John Fasulo
Who is the real Dracula? When the name “Dracula” is mentioned, should we refer to the undead blood-sucking vampire who sleeps in coffins and transforms into a bat, or should we reflect upon a fifteenth century Romanian prince with an obsession for impalement? Such questions lead us to realize that folklore offers us one Dracula, while history offers us another. We can thank Bram Stoker for stealing Dracula’s name and replacing it with a mythical villain who cannot even endure sunlight, and for leaving us to piece together the truth of a forgotten man. When the myth finally dies, and the fables are at last put to bed, the name of Dracula will remain unchanged in our history books – as it has for over half a millennia. Then we will find that the true history of Dracula, in fact, is far more fascinating than any vampire fairy tale.
Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu (a descendant of Dracula’s younger brother) dedicated their lives to finding the truth about the historical Dracula, and translated hundreds of Romanian, Russian, and German accounts in their book, In Search of Dracula. In order to detail the life of Dracula, this paper will place a heavy emphasis on McNally and Florescu’s book, as do nearly all other writings concerning the historical Dracula.
The real Dracula, Vlad Tepes III Dracula, was born during the winter months of 1431 in the Transylvanian fortress of Sighisoara, located in Romania. Dracula’s father, Vlad II, had three sons: the eldest, Mircea; Vlad, who kept his namesake; and Radu, who would come to be known as “The Handsome.” The early childhoods of Dracula and Radu were typical for sons of the nobility. Dracula’s first steps in becoming a monster were taken on at the age of five, when he began a formal apprenticeship for knighthood. Dracula learned the art of warfare, and the skills of combat deemed necessary for a Christian knight living in turbulent Europe.
Contrary to the popular romantic legends of the Draculas living in Transylvania, they resided just southeast, in the Romanian independent province of Wallachia. Wallachia, a principality, was often found caught in the middle of the constant power struggle between its stronger neighbors, Hungary and Turkey. At that time, Vlad II was living in Transylvania attempting to gather support for his intended effort to seize the Wallachian throne from a pro-Turkish puppet prince. The same year Dracula was born, Vlad II joined a group of Slavic rulers and warlords who swore to uphold the Christian faith by fighting off the advancing Ottoman Empire. The group was known as the Order of the Dragon. It gained Vlad II the Holy Roman Emperor’s pledge to support his claim to the throne of Wallachia.
The Order of the Dragon was created by the Emperor Sigismund to defend the Cross and to war against its enemies, principally the Turks. It was comprised of noble princes and vassals that Sigismund considered useful for both political and military alliances. Dracula’s father was included in this Order, which used the mythical dragon as their emblem. From his induction on, Vlad II had the dragon symbol of the Order displayed on his coinage. True to the modern image of vampires, he also had it embroidered on a black cape over a silk red garment.
Vlad II fell so deeply in love with the idea of being part of the cliquey Order that he adopted the dragon to his name, using the word “Dracul,” which means “The Dragon” in Romanian. His son Vlad III used the sobriquet “Dracula” in the context of “The Son of Dracul” or “The son of he who was a member of the Order of the Dragon.” However, it was only a matter of time until young Vlad Dracula would cause the name to take on a second meaning. Dracula would give his enemies and superstitious peasants good reason to refer to members of the Dracul family as “Devils.” Dracula grew to be so deeply feared and associated with the diabolical, he was even depicted martyring St. Andrew in paintings of the day. Regardless of his devil image, Dracula’s father killed his pro-Turkish rival in 1436, and became the Voevod (Warlord–Prince) of Wallachia with the help of the Order.
However, the political situation in Wallachia remained unstable after Vlad Dracul seized the throne. In 1442, Vlad II decided to keep his principality neutral during Turkey’s invasion of Transylvania. The prince of Wallachia was a vassal of King John Hunyadi of Hungary, but at the same time had been forced to pay steep tributes to Sultan Mehemet. After Hunyadi (leader of the Order of the Dragon) successfully repelled the invasion, Vlad II was driven out of Wallachia as punishment for his neutrality. Vlad II regained his Wallachian throne via the Sultan in 1443 by swearing loyalty to him – not the Order of the Dragon, and by promising to pay steep tributes. Just to prove his goodwill to the Sultan, Vlad II topped it off by sending Vlad III and Radu to Istanbul as hostages. His two youngest sons were sent in 1444; Dracula would stay there until 1448, while Radu would remain until 1462. It was in a cell where young Vlad Dracula grew into a striking figure, with a chalky complexion, long nose, large mouth, and piercing green eyes. He was considered good looking for his day, sporting a lengthy mustache and wearing his hair long.
It would be preposterous to explain how Dracula eventually turned so batty; however, his Turkish captivity surely must have played an important role in his upbringing. It was during this time that Dracula developed his pessimistic and sadistic outlook on life. The years of imprisonment taught Dracula the Turkish language and trained him in Byzantine cynicism, which the Turks had merely inherited from the Greeks. Life became cheap for Dracula from this point on; after all, his own life was constantly threatened, hinging on the good behavior of his father. Any hint of morality that remained in Dracula was swallowed by suspicion and revengefulness. Dracula was known for his insubordination, while the younger Radu was much more malleable.
Sultan Mehemet quickly indoctrinated and converted Radu to Islam, but had trouble with the wiser, more stubborn Dracula. The Sultan’s goal was to make allies of the two Romanians, and to use their claim to the future Wallachian throne to his own advantage. The Sultan’s idea of imprisoning Dracula for twelve years proved to be the wrong way to win over the young Romanian’s heart, and resulted in Dracula developing a permanent hatred for the Turks. Regardless, the Sultan’s plans for Dracula to gain the Wallachian throne eventually came to pass in 1448. Just before Dracula was seated on the Wallachian throne, the Sultan decided to slip him some information: his father and older brother were tortured and buried alive by the Hungarians. Their murders were traced to rival Christian warrior, John Hunyadi, which only added another name to the list of Dracula’s enemies.
Earlier in 1444, Hunyadi launched a campaign to drive the Turks out of Europe. Hunyadi demanded that Vlad II fulfill his oath as a member of the Order of the Dragon and join the crusade against the Turks. Either way Vlad II looked at the situation, he was going to enrage one of his more powerful neighbors. He tried his best to walk a tightrope between them. Vlad II did not join the Christian forces, but instead sent Mircea in hopes that the Sultan would spare his two younger sons. Vlad Dracul and Mircea criticized Hunyadi’s idea of a campaign in the first place, and after the Christian forces were utterly destroyed by the Turks, they accused John Hunyadi of being solely responsible for the debacle. Hunyadi became bitterly hostile toward Vlad II and Mircea, and hired assassins to kill them. After their brutal deaths, Hunyadi placed his own candidate on the throne of Wallachia.
Mehemet loathed the idea of a Hungarian puppet ruling Wallachia, so he released the seventeen year-old Dracula, and helped him seize the Wallachian throne by 1448. Within two months however, Dracula was forced by Hunyadi to surrender the throne, whereby he fled north to Moldavia. Dracula hated the fact that he was just a puppet prince for the Turkish Sultan, so Hunyadi’s threats in fact provided him the opportunity to leave. However, Turkish advances made Moldavia unsafe as well, and by 1451, Dracula was forced to flee back to Transylvania.
Meanwhile, the fact that Radu willingly remained with the Sultan greatly troubled Dracula. He came to believe the only way to both oust the Turks that brainwashed his brother and become the true prince of Wallachia was to seek the help of fellow-Christian John Hunyadi. Dracula temporarily put aside the humiliating murders of his father and older brother, swallowed his pride, and crawled to Hunyadi in an attempt to gain back his throne. The timing bade well for Dracula, since Hunyadi's puppet on the Wallachian throne had recently instituted a series of pro-Turkish policies. To the luck of Dracula, Hunyadi saw him as more reliable, and accepted the allegiance of his old enemy's son. Dracula became Hunyadi’s vassal, received his father’s old Transylvanian duchies, and remained under Hunyadi’s protection.
In 1453, the Christian world was shocked by the final fall of Constantinople to Islam. As a result, John Hunyadi immediately began planning another campaign against the Turks, while Dracula continued waiting for an opportunity to regain his throne. In 1456, Hunyadi invaded Turkish Serbia while Dracula simultaneously invaded Wallachia with the help of Hungarian forces. Hunyadi was defeated and killed, while Dracula succeeded in taking back the Wallachian throne.
Dracula’s second term as the Prince of Wallachia proved to be his longest and most renowned. His leadership united the Wallachian people like never before, and protected them from any hostile foreign influences. It was during this reign that Dracula initiated his campaign against the Turks. His skill as a Voevod and his infamous acts of cruelty made him a dreaded enemy. There are numerous accounts concerning his atrocities, and it is estimated that anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed throughout his reigns. Most of the carnage associated with Dracula's name took place during the years of his second reign.
Dracula, not known to procrastinate, began his reign of terror as soon as he was inaugurated. His first significant act of brutality was one of vengeance, which targeted any possible suspects in the murder of his father and older brother. Dracula held a feast at his capital in Tirgoviste for his boyars (nobles) to celebrate his recent coming to power. He knew many of these boyars ousted numerous Wallachian princes in the past, and felt without a doubt they were part of the conspired plot against his father. The boyars were naïve to Dracula’s tactics, and saw the invitation as another opportunity to gorge and drink. During the feast, Dracula asked his noble guests how many princes had ruled during their lifetimes. The answers varied from at least fifty princes, to no less than seven. Dracula felt his point was made, and immediately extended all five hundred of his guests the hospitality of being impaled on the spot.
Dracula worked relentlessly and methodically in eradicating Wallachia’s old boyar class, who were responsible for the undermining and violent overthrowing of previous princes. Dracula was paranoid about any internal threats, and made sure his power would be secure at least within his own principality. He replaced the slaughtered nobles with men from the peasantry and middle class, who proved to be loyal only to their prince. Dracula's acts of cruelty can be interpreted as efforts to secure and strengthen the central government, or they can be seen as the acts of a madman pure and simple. In any case, they were nothing less than atrocities. In reference to the extreme methods used throughout his second reign, Dracula defended himself saying:
My sacred mission is to bring order to Romania. If someone lies or commits any injustice, he is not likely to stay alive, whether nobleman, priest, or common man. There must be security for all in my land. If they say I am a vindictive man, they fear me. And that is well. When a prince is powerful at home, he will be able to do as he wills. If I am feared by the right people, Romania will be strong.
Being confident in the effectiveness of his law, Dracula even placed a golden cup on display in the central square of his capital, Tirgoviste. The cup was for all the townspeople as well as any thirsty travelers to use, but the Voevod made it clear that it had to remain on the square. Throughout Vlad’s reign, the cup was never stolen and remained completely unmolested in the square. Dracula was not good at making friends, and tempted anyone to disrespect him in the slightest of ways. Such a deliberate flaunting of power only shows how terrified the Wallachians, as well as foreigners, were of Dracula.
Despite the atrocities committed against Wallachians and Transylvanians alike, Voevod Dracula was seen as a hero of Christianity by many Romanians. The wars he waged against the Turks to preserve his homeland have placed him in history books as a valiant military genius; while the atrocities he committed against the Turks only created his demonic image. It would be illogical to imagine a fiend such as Vlad Tepes limiting his terrors exclusively to his own people, when the Turk was the true object of his hatred.
One of the most grisly acts committed by Dracula against the Turks occurred when the Sultan sent two of his ambassadors with a message. When the Sultan’s ambassadors entered Vlad’s throne room, he asked them to remove their turbans. It was considered impolite to address the prince without taking off one's hat, and Vlad oddly enough cared about good manners. The Turks, however, took exception to this request. Most importantly, the turbans were not simply headgear; they were a symbol of Islam and the Eastern culture. In addition, the Sultan was not on the best of terms with Vlad, so flattering him was not of the ambassadors’ concern. The Turks therefore declined to remove their turbans; not knowing just how serious a mistake it was to tempt the likes of Dracula. Vlad immediately ordered his guards to seize them, and then stated that if they were so unwilling to part with the turbans, they should be nailed to their heads. Dracula, in his cruel humor, watched in satisfaction as the Turks writhed and screamed as large spikes were driven through their skulls. Vlad was not very good at making friends.
Just as Vlad reacted violently to insult, he responded very well to flattery. King Mathias, son of John Hunyadi, once sent a messenger to Vlad that apparently did not bring the tidings of good news. It was unknown what news the messenger brought, but Vlad became so enraged that he felt the ambassador deserved to be invited to feast with him. Before the meal, Vlad asked the ambassador if he knew why he was asked to eat with him. The ambassador knew the reputation of Vlad Tepes – and possibly his “feasts,” realized he was angry, and saw two guards standing, holding a spear behind Vlad. Thinking fast, he replied, “My Lord, should I have been responsible for something worthy of death, do as you please, for you are the best judge and in that case you would not be responsible for my death, but I alone.” Vlad burst out laughing and then motioned the soldiers away, and said “Had you not answered me in this fashion, I would truly have impaled you on the spot.” He then enjoyed the feast with the Hungarian ambassador, and showered him with gifts for his return to King Mathias.
Dracula’s relationship with the Turkish Sultan however, would never be on such good terms. In hopes of settling the matter of disputed territories, the Sultan attempted to set up a peaceful meeting with Vlad. The only thing the Sultan set up was another opportunity for Vlad Tepes to prove why his people called him “Tepes.” Suspecting a trap, the Voevod surrounded the appointed meeting place with a Wallachian contingent, and then captured the Turks. To no ones surprise, they had the honor of being subjected to Dracula’s favorite method of tortuous death: impalement on large wooden stakes. Dracula had the stakes arranged in concentric circles, and altered the heights of the spears according to the ranks of the victim – giving the higher ranking enemies the privilege to be elevated. Dracula could not help but make it a habit to thoroughly burn any possible bridges that could lead to peace with the Turks. By the end of his second reign as Voevod of Wallachia, relations with the Turks deteriorated so rapidly that an all-out war seemed inevitable.
In the beginning of 1462, Dracula launched his largest campaign against the Turks in an attempt to drive them out of the Danube River valley. Despite being often outnumbered by the Sultan’s forces, Dracula’s Wallachian army was successful and managed to gain many victories. In retaliation, the Sultan launched a full-scale invasion of Wallachia with a force three times that of Dracula’s. Vlad was forced to temporarily retreat, but first employed guerrilla warfare techniques against the Turks. In what was to be known as the “Night of Terror,” Dracula slipped his army into the enemy’s camp at night, and silently sliced the throats of thousands of Turks. Before his cunning genius could lead him to the Sultan himself, he was forced to retreat altogether.
While retreating, Dracula burned his own towns and poisoned the wells along the way, so that the Turkish army would find nothing to eat or drink. Dracula had a terrifying habit of repeatedly raiding certain villages in his own territory, and murdering great numbers of people. One of these villages was Sibiu, which held a heavy German population. Dracula’s contingent of 20,000 men killed, tortured, and impaled 10,000 of his neighbors in the greater Sibiu area. For reasons unknown, the towns selected for these meaningless attacks were often those with large German populations. As a result, most of the records of Vlad’s atrocities come from propaganda pamphlets printed by the Germans on the newly invented printing press. The most famous picture of Vlad is a woodblock print depicting him eating his dinner on a grassy hill surrounded by a forest of impaled bodies.
The atrocities Dracula committed on Sibiu proved to be meaningless because the Sultan immediately retreated after reaching the capital city of Targoviste, which lay much further east. The Sultan was confronted with a most gruesome scene; one that has earned Dracula the infamous image he holds to this day. Vlad Tepes created the “Forest of the Impaled,” which featured the carcasses of 20,000 Turkish captives impaled on long stakes. The Turkish forces were not known to be the slightest bit squeamish, considering how valiant they fought during the crusades. On the other hand, they never came in such close contact with the likes of Vlad Dracula, who truly was one of a kind.
This sadistically ingenious terror tactic by Vlad Tepes may have won the battle, but not the war. Following the Sultan’s retreat from Wallachia, he left the next phase of the war to Vlad’s younger brother, Radu the Handsome. Radu, the Sultan’s favorite for the Wallachian throne, was provided an army to pursue Dracula across Transylvania. Radu’s army tracked Dracula to his fortress at Poenari. Vlad’s wife, believing that escape was impossible, committed suicide by leaping off the upper walls into the Arges River below. Dracula had constructed a secret passageway in his castle at Poenari, and used it along with the help of some loyal peasants to escape across the mountains into Transylvania.
He sought help from Hunyadi’s son, King Mathias of Hungary, but the evil deeds of Vlad the Impaler finally caught up with him. The German people living in the Sibiu area had gotten to King Mathias first. The Germans in Transylvania had published numerous pamphlets concerning Dracula’s evil deeds, which caused a shockwave of horror throughout Europe. Avenging the atrocities Dracula committed against them earlier that year, the Sibiu people forged three letters depicting Dracula as a spy and ally of the Turks. The forgeries failed to make sense in the first place, mainly because they had Dracula requesting the Turks to invade and destroy Mathias’ fortresses. Dracula was certainly insane, but he still valued his own life, and would never ask the Turks to destroy the very place his was retreating to for asylum. Regardless, Mathias threw Vlad into prison immediately after he arrived, and kept him there for the next four years.
Dracula’s imprisonment however, was not nearly a burden. Vlad developed a relationship with the guards that allowed him to satisfy his sickening urges, and not give up his favorite pastime. The guards would often deliver Dracula captured birds and mice, which he then proceeded to have the pleasure of torturing and mutilating. Some were beheaded, while most were impaled on tiny spears. Surprise, surprise.
Despite such unromantic tendencies, Dracula caught the eye of King Mathias’ sister, Ilona, and gradually managed his way to win back the graces of Hungary’s monarch. She tirelessly pleaded that her brother release Vlad, and convinced Dracula to renounce the Orthodox faith and to adopt Catholicism. Meanwhile, Radu’s pro-Turkish policies as the puppet prince of Wallachia helped Dracula’s reputation as a vehement anti-Turk. As a result, Mathias soon pardoned Vlad, but required him to stay within the general vicinity of Buda. Over the next eight years, Dracula became an ally of Mathias, married Ilona, and fathered two sons with her. During this time, he moved across the Danube to Pest and then even to Sibiu, since his marriage connections with the Hungarian crown reconciled him with the German people living there.
Radu the Handsome died in 1475, and had his Wallachian throne replaced by another Turkish candidate, Basarab the Old. Dracula decided to make his third, and final bid for the Wallachian throne. In 1476, he invaded Wallachia with an alliance of Transylvanian forces, dissatisfied Wallachians, and Moldavian troops from the north. Basarab’s armies temporarily fled to the east, and Dracula consequently assumed the throne in November. To Dracula’s disgust, his Transylvanian and Moldavian allies grew homesick and returned to their lands - west and north respectively. This in turn left Dracula's tactical position in Targoviste extremely weak to a Turkish offensive.
The Turks swiftly launched an overwhelming counterattack in December, which forced Dracula to march his band of 4,000 men to meet their forces. Dracula’s forces were greatly depleted because many of them left with the Transylvanians and Moldavians. A significant part of Dracula’s army sided with the Turks; figuring life would be better under Basarab the Old, since it could not get much worse under the Impaler. As a result, Dracula was killed while fighting near Bucharest at the age of forty-five. To this day, it is not known whether Dracula was assassinated by his own men, killed by them on accident, or simply killed by the Turks in battle. Nevertheless, Dracula’s remains reveal that his head was severed, and that his first two vertebrae were crushed – clear signs of decapitation. Turkish soldiers brought Dracula’s severed head to their Sultan, who then had it displayed on a spike in Constantinople to prove to everyone that the infamous Impaler was in fact dead. He was reportedly buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest.
Dracula’s standard battlefield death seems less than fitting when compared to the extraordinary life he led. One can understand how Bram Stoker was successful in creating a myth from the likes of Vlad Dracula, a man whose life was legendary in its own right. Literally hundreds of horrors committed by Dracula were recorded, to which this paper did no justice in only including a few. Although history tells the tale of this diabolical Dracula, we are left with Stoker’s prevailing fable of an undead garlic-fearing bat. The only element the two Draculas share in common is their obsession with blood; one loves the gory scene of impalement, while the other is infatuated with biting and sucking his victims’ necks. I am sure if Bram Stoker somehow presented his mythical Dracula to Vlad Tepes III Dracula, the Voevod would either invite him to a feast, or simply skip the sadistic prelude and have him impaled on the spot.
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