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Everyone knows that Dracula, the most famous vampire, was born of the mind of novelist Bram Stoker in the late 19th century, but what few know is that the alluring Count Dracula who drank blood to stay immortal was inspired by a real man. Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century prince in Eastern Europe who made a name for himself by fighting the Ottoman Empire but more remarkably, by the massive application of his favourite execution method: impalement, which gave him his soubriquet. Discover how this ruthless ruler inspired Stoker’s blood-thirsty vampire, because as they say: reality surpasses fiction.

1# Origins

Vlad was born between 1428 and 1431 in the town of Sighișoara, a Transylvanian village back then under the control of the Kingdom of Hungary. His father, also Vlad, was military governor of Transylvania, appointed by the Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg. Vlad senior was the illegitimate son of Mircea, former prince of Wallachia, and therefore aspired to the throne of his forefathers, since even ilegitimate sons could do so there. Finally achieving his deepest ambition in 1436, the family moved to Târgoviște, the Wallachian capital. Wallachia, known in the Romanian Language as Țara Românească (The Romanian country) was a principality locked between Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, Moldavia, and Hungary-administered Transylvania. In time Wallachia was to become the core of modern Romania.

Wallachia during the reign of Mircea the Elder (1355-1418). He was Dracula’s grandfather. Author: Wikipedia. Source

The true masters of the land were the Boyars, whose council could elect the prince to rule over them. However, factionalism and mistrust towards centralised authority meant they usually chose the weakest candidate, to the delight of the predating neighbours of Wallachia. These same boyars dubbed Vlad senior, Dracul (the Dragon), his nickname coming from his belonging to the Order of the Dragon, a military order established by his patron, Sigismund, to defend the cross against the infidel Ottomans. It is from the father then, than Vlad Junior came to be known as Dracula (son of the dragon).

2 # Hostage of the Turks

Wallachia had other issues besides the ambitious boyars. Until then the expanding Ottoman Empire had contended themselves with receiving tribute from the Wallachian prince, and a yearly tribute of Christian boys to swell the ranks of the Janissaries, the Sultan’s elite corps. Out of choice, Vlad Dracul had no choice but to grovel to the growing power of the Ottomans. Bulgaria and Serbia (except Belgrade) had fallen, and Wallachia lay at a stone throw across the Danube, the frontier. In time wary of Dracul’s loyalty, the Sultan Murad II ordered him to Gallipolli, where he imprisoned him with his two younger sons Vlad Dracula and Radu the Handsome. Dracul was liberated but his sons were kept as hostages (a common practice to ensure loyalty from vassals). Dracul would return to Wallachia to his eldest son Mircea, where both would be murdered in 1447 by a rival to the throne, Vladislav II, of the rival house Dănești. He received help from Hungary’s regent, John Hunyadi (native of Transylvania), who was by then the principal crusader in Europe, and a bitter foe of the Ottomans.

Hunyadi János
John Hunyadi. Enemies with the young Dracula, he then would become his mentor and protector. Author: Miran Hladnik. Source

3#  Rise to power

His life as a hostage gave young Dracula exquisite education and good treatment. Provided the relatives of the hostages wouldn’t play against the sultan, they were safe. Surely it came as a surprise to see himself and Radu alive, when Dracul and Mircea double-crossed the Sultan in 1444, in the catastrophic defeat at Varna, by sending troops to help Hunyadi. Perhaps the Sultan had already envisoned placing Dracula or Radu as his own pawns in the Wallachian throne, and with Dracul and Mircea out of the way, he could do so.

With Turkish troops, Dracula was dispatched to retake the throne in 1448, briefly succeeding but ultimately defeated by Vladislav II, thus fleeing first to the Ottoman Empire and then Moldavia, where Bogdan II ruled (possibly his maternal uncle. The identity of Dracula’s mother is still subject to debate). Bogdan was assassinated in 1451, thus Dracula and his cousin, the Moldavian heir, Stephen, fled to Transylvania across the Borgo Pass (one of the famous settings of Stoker’s Dracula).

It must have seemed as though his father’s murderers would get away with it, and with the throne that belonged to him. But destiny is fickle, and the relationship between Hunyadi and Vladislav II quickly deteriorated when Hunyadi seized the duchies of Făgăraș and Amlaș, traditional fiefs of the Wallachian princes. On the other hand, were Vladislav’s friendly overtures towards the new Sultan, Mehmed II, who in Hunyadi’s eyes, was the most dangerous enemy of Christendom. Often having declared his intention to surpass Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Hannibal, and with Constantinople between the eyebrows, he finally conquered the unconquerable city on 29th May 1453, an event that shook the foundations of Christian Europe and renewed Hunyadi’s efforts to stop the unsatiable ambition of Mehmed.

Sultan Mehmed II. Knowing Dracula from young age they both ended as bitter enemies. Author: Nakkaş Sinan Bey. Source

It was precisely Dracula’s knowledge of Mehmed that interested Hunyadi. He was acquainted with him thanks to his time as a hostage of the Sultan, and his knowledge of Turkish customs, war tactics, and language (Dracula spoke it like a native), were to prove him very useful. Know your enemy indeed. As suggested by Hunyadi to the Hungarian King Ladislas Phostumous, Dracula was appointed military commander of the Transylvanian frontier, which left him facing Mehmed’s new hound and the object of Dracula’s revenge: Vladislav II. While the Sultan’s troops foundered against the determined defenders of Belgrade, the gateway to the Danube and therefore Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire, Dracula defeated Vladislav II and avenged his father. God was to handle Hunyadi himself, the victor of Belgrade succumbed to an epidemic that had struck at the crusaders. It was August 22nd 1456, Dracula was prince of Wallachia.    

4#  Vlad the Impaler

His cousin Stephen ruled too in neighbour Moldavia, his allies had inflicted a colossal defeat to Mehmed in Belgrade, and his father’s murderers were all dead. But were they all? Once in power, Dracula discovered the role played by some of the boyars of Târgoviște in the death of his brother’s Mircea in 1447, when they had buried him alive. Boiling inside with indignation but composed on the outside, he attended the Easter Liturgy with the same boyars and once outside the chapel he had them apprehended with their wives and sons. The able-bodied were chained and sent to reconstruct Castle Poenari (Dracula’s Eagle Nest) where many would die of exhaustion, the rest were impaled, henceforth, Dracula’s signature move.

Engraving from 1593 depicting impalement. Source

There is much discussion why Dracula favoured impalement over other methods but what is clear is that it wasn’t a novel technique. The Transylvanian Saxons (ethnic germans) acknowledged it as a valid execution method while the Ottomans frequently used, perhaps Dracula’s teachers on the art of skewering people. There existed several variations but Dracula’s preferred one was to drive a stake through the anus of the victim that would emerge from the mouth. He truly made impalement a state-of-the-art technique, by rounding and oiling the edges of the stakes, therefore avoiding to pierce the vital organs and maximising the suffering (which could last several days). He permanently kept stakes in the courtyard of his residences to relish at the executions he so often ordered. Nobody was save from them, neither monks, boyars, or even the Saxon cities, which worked as a distinctive nation within Transylvania.

It was against them that Dracula would excel in cruelty. Driven to support his half-brother Vlad the Monk, and Vladislav’s relatives, Basarab Laiotă and Dan III, the Saxon cities of Brașov, Sibiu, and Dracula’s native Sighișoara amongst others, suffered the attempts to refine impalement in a massive scale. In fact, it is argued that Dracula’s total victims at the end of his reign might have reached between 40.000 and 100.000 (the latter a wild estimate), including Turks when he waged war against them. Given that Wallachia’s population didn’t exceed half a million, Dracula’s can be safely considered amongst the most prolific killers of all times, on the par with Stalin, Hitler, or Ghengis Khan.

However vindictive there’s evidence to believe he strove to create an ideal society sustained on his impalement stakes. Often travelling in disguise, he freely impaled those whom he considered wrongdoers. This ample list includes: beggars, gypsies, thieves, the libertine, and even the lazy. Specially harsh he was with women who cheated on their husbands or didn’t reach marriage with their virginity unspoiled. Other favourite punishments included mutilations, blinding, strangling, hanging, burning, boiling, or burying alive. One famous Russian folk tale is that of Dracula nailing the caps to the heads of ambassadors who failed to remove the cap in his presence. A page that Ivan III and Ivan IV “The terrible” seemed to have borrowed from Dracula’s playbook.

Woodcut from a pamphlet published in 1499 in Nuremberg. It depicts Dracula dining while his victims are implaed around. From these horor stories was born the myth that he drank the blood of his victims. Source

Those Cahtolic priests from the Saxon villages that suffered his ire would flee back to their native Holy Roman Empire, where their horror stories of Dracula helped cementing his reputation as blood-thirsty vampire, and literature about him became a best-seller of the epoch (only second after the Bible).

5#  The reign of Dracula

Not all was indiscriminate killing though. There was some constructive killing too. The boyars, true rulers of the Wallachia, with their factionalism and plotting, suffered greatly under Dracula’s iron fist, with much of their estates confiscated (after being impaled of course) and given to Dracula’s new nobility, in the style of Napoleon Bonaparte. The peasants on the other hand, revered him thanks to his refusal to allow the Sultan to recruit children from them, and many of Dracula’s soldiers would come from the peasantry, as opposed to the traditional troops sent by the boyars to the prince in times of war.

He also attempted to centralise the administration and justice by creating forces solely loyal to him. By establishing a new nobility and recruiting troops from the peasantry and small landowners, he showed the early traits of the future Renaissance Prince, the quintessential centraliser. He built or reconstructed several Orthodox monasteries, including that of Snagov, where he allegedly hid his treasures, and fortified several castles to resist the Turks. It is worthy to clarify here that he never set foot on Bran Castle, which many wrongly consider Dracula Castle. He also fortified and gradually favoured Bucharest (until then a most trifling and unconsequential village) as his capital.

In this painting of the crucifiction the author depicted one of the spectators as Vlad the Impaler. 1460. Source

6# Vlad the War Hero

Bar Dracula himself, the Pope Pius II was the only European ruler that understood that the Christian victory in Belgrade had only delayed Mehmed’s grandiose plans of conquest. In the spirit of old he summoned a Crusade, although this time most of the European kingdoms had too many troubles of their own, and the appeals to fight for the Cross in exchange for absolution of the sins went unanswered. Only one man listened, perhaps because he knew his sins were too many. Dracula, son of the Dragon, whose father had been an original member of the Order of the Dragon that had sworn to fight the infidels. Only he could be counted to fight this new threat. And fight he did.

The insignia of the Order of the Dragon. Author: Cristian Chirita. Source

Being no fool, Mehmed had long distrusted Dracula’s double allegiance, to him on one hand, and to Hungary to the other, and even attempted to draw him with the prospect of capturing him or perhaps assassinating him to be replaced by a more pliable prince. But Dracula was no fool either, and had the two high-ranking officials that Mehmed sent to to set the trap were outmanoeuvred instead, and impaled. This was tantamount to a declaration of war for Mehmed, who after wrapping up his campaigns in Asia Minor, marched north at the had of a 80.000 strong army to destroy Wallachian independence and carve a new province of the Ottoman Empire on its place. Forced to leave his fleet out of the equation thanks to Dracula’s destruction of forts and ports across the lower Danube in the winter of 1461-2, his Janissaries were however, successful in fording it and were followed shortly after by the rest of the army. This would turn to be the last of Mehmed’s successe in the war.

Faced by an army of 30.000 ill-armed peasants, the hardened soldiers of the Sultan shouldn’t have had any problem in mopping the floor with them, but Dracula had in store several surprises for the invaders, including his trustworthy stakes. Wallachia, known to the Turks as the granary for Constantinople, in fact it was a very fertile land, had been turned into a wasteland under Dracula’s orders. Following a strategy of scorched earth, the fields were destroyed and dusted with salt, wells were contaminated, cattle was removed or killed, and dams were built to flood the countryland into marshes to bog down the hevy cannons of Mehmed. Thanks to their superior knowledge of the geography, Dracula and his men led a relentless guerrilla war, picking on the stragglers and foraging parties of the Turks, and to further ravage the enemy, Dracula pioneered germ warfare by encouraging those affected with leprosy, tuberculosis, plague, or other diseases, to infiltrate in the Turkish camp and interact with the soldiers there.

His tactics had a tremendous effect on the morale of the Turks, who at the gates of Târgoviște, barely managed to repel a surprise attack that almost ends with the death of Mehmed. The temerary Wallachian attack didn’t succeed in taking the big prize home however, and the Turkish advance resumed. Hungry, riddled with diseases, low on morale and under a scorching heat, even the bravest of the Janissaries must had suffered from a fit of heaving when they witnessed Dracula’s ultimate madness. A forest of impaled, 20.000 of them, many being Turks but also Wallachians, Transylvanians, Dracula’s political enemies and other countless victims. The Forest of the Impaled was such a gruesome sight that finally convinced Mehmed and his generals that Wallachia wasn’t worth it. And as if further afflicted by Dracula’s evil influence, the Ottomans were suddenly struck by a deadly plague that further decimated them. Known to the Turks as Kazîglu Bey, Lord Impaler, Dracula became a stuff of nightmares back at home, and a humiliating blot in Mehmed’s military CV. More important than that, thanks to Dracula, Wallachia’s independence was guaranteed.

7# The first downfall

Faced with certain defeat and convinced that a direct invasion woud lead to a bigger humilliation, Mehmed unleashed his secret weapon: Dracula’s younger brother and still hostage, Radu the Handsome. Mehmed knew that most of Dracula’s subjects feared their master’s predisposition to impale them, and none felt safe in that atmosphere of terror and uncertainty. They might had fought like possessed against the Turkish invader but would they fight for Dracula if their indepence wasn’t at stake? No pun intended.

As a result, Radu was left behind in Wallachia, tasked with rallying support to contest his brother’s throne. Since Radu and Dracula had never liked each other, the former had no objection in doing so, and during that same summer of 1462, even before all the Turks had left for home, boyars and peasants flocked to Radu’s banner. Deprived of most of his men, Dracula was forced to retreat to Poenari Castle and later to Transylvania, hoping his ally, the new King of Hungary Matthias Corvinus (son of Hunyadi), would succour him.

But Matthias’ interests were different from those of his erstwhile ally, and after recognising Radu as prince and signing a truce with the Sultan, he took the powerless Dracula prisoner with him to Buda (modern day Budapest). Facing an outcry from the European powers who considered Dracula a hero for his success against the Ottomans, Matthias fabricated evidence on his prisoner’s treacherous dealings with the Sultan, which were quickly accepted by the Germans but rejected by the Pope and others. Dracula meanwhile was once more a prisoner and would remain so for the following twelve years, a leashed dog to grin his teeth at the Sultan shall he showed any intention to break the truce with Matthias.

The town and castle of Visegrád, where Dracula was an unwilling guest of honour. Author: Szvitek Péter. Source

Deprived of boyars and Turks to impale, Dracula was forced to take on the mice and crawling insects of his luxurious imprisontment in the palace of Visegrád, forced to hear of the events unfolding in Wallachia during his absence. His cousin Stepehen of Moldavia had defected to the Turks, who had decided in turn to support yet another prince for Wallachia, Basarab Laiotă, one of Dracula’s oldest rivals. Buddies for a time, Basarab turned against Stephen, who missing the days when his cousin Dracula was on the Wallachian throne and nobody messed with him, he petitioned Matthias to release him. This only he did after making Dracula promise he would abandon the Orthodox Church and convert to Catholicism (Hungary’s only acknowledged religion). With no other alternative save rotting in prison, Dracula consented and marry Justina Szilágyi, Matthias’ cousin, who gave him two sons, Vlad and another unnamed one. In addition to, Dracula had one son already, Mihnea, from his previous marriage with an unknown wife.

8# The death and tomb of Dracula

Ahead of a contingent of Hungarians under the command of Stephen Báthory, he departed to Turkish-occupied Bosnia, where Dracula demonstrated he had not gotten rusty when it came to impale his enemies. But he wouldn’t rest until Basarab Laiotă would join his Forest of the Impaled. With Báthory and Stephen of Moldavia on his side, they reached Wallachia and took Bucharest on November 1476. Dracula was for the third and last time, prince of Wallachia. He must have relished at the prospect of renewing the summer festivals of impalement as much as his subjects shivered with fear. Lucky for them the gruesome Dracula met his end shortly after, probably December 1476, when Turkish troops attempting to reinstate Basarab Laiotă, cut him and his escort down, behading him and taking the prize back to Constantinople. The head of their worst nightmare, Kazîglu Bey, was placed on a stake for everyone to see him having a taste of his own medicine.

Monks from the nearby Snagov monastery took the headless body of their erstwhile great benefactor and gave him burial in front of the altar of their church. Excavations in 1933 found an empty tomb, fuelling rumours about his immortal existence as vampire. But further excavations revelead a second grave on the right side of the entrance. Within the rotten coffin the remains of a headless skeleton were found, still wearing the tattered remains of silk and brocaded fabric. In his possession the archaeologists found a buckle, a ring, and a cup. This buckle was identified as the same his father Dracul was given by an anonymus lady in Nuremberg, after his induction in the Order of the Dragon there. Could this be the real tomb of Dracula? It is conceivable that he was moved afterwards by the monks. After all, Dracula had converted to Catholicism, an affrent to the Orthodox Church, thus unworthy of the place of honour in front of the altar where he was first buried. Sorry vampire fans.

Located on an island, the monastery of Snagov was one of Dracula’s favourite places to retire and find solitude. Author: fusion-of-horizons. Source

9# Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. The same person?

It is tempting to see that Stoker was inspired by Vlad the Impaler to become the Count Dracula of his novel. The Strigoi (Vampire in Romanian folklore) possessed characteristics that appearead in Stoker’s novel such as: blood-drinking, the stake through the heart, and the lack of reflection in a mirror, or the cutting of the head and filling the mouth with garlic. While other traits like the Count’s appeal and seductiveness, were born of the author’s wild imagination, the Strigoi being rather stinking, bloated corpses risen from the graveyard.

German literature of Vlad’s insatiable lust for the blood of his victms, or Hungarian, where Matthias had needed it to justify his arrest, or in the Ottoman Empire where the Turks had trembled at the mention of his name, were surely known to Stoker. On the other hand, the fact that he chose to set Dracula’s castle near Borgo Pass, a setting well removed from Poenari Castle, Târgoviște, Bucharest, or Snagov, the true places where the real Vlad the Impaler lived and commited his atrocities, seems to point the famous vampire was rather loosely based in the historical Dracula.

The Castle of Poenari was one of Dracula’s favourite for its steep location that made it almost impregnable. Today only the ruins remain. Author: Diana Popescu. Source

Today in Romania he is remembered as a protector of the people against foreign Turks and Saxons, a true national figure. Perhaps the Russian point of view is the most interesting and impartial of all, since it’s based on the reports of Kuritsyn to his master Ivan III of Moscow (1440-1505). Kuritsyn met Dracula’s family in Buda and interviewed others who had known well the prince in life. His resulting report lacks the embellishment of Dracula’s opponents and describe him as someone cruel but just, threatening torture and death with the goal of advancing justice, morality, and good government. Be as it may, as the authors Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally said: without vampirism that Stoker’s novel attributed to him, the historical Vlad the Impaler might have languished in the shadows of obscurity.

If you want to know the fascinating history of Dracula and the hedonius crimes that gave him such frightful reputation, don’t forget to check this book: