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Vlad Ţepeş – in search of the real Dracula

Vlad Ţepeş - the "Impaler" of history

Vlad the Impaler – the man behind the legends

I have been a keen horror film buff since I was a kid, and this is something else I can attribute to my dad. He gave me a 1958 collectors’ first edition of Forrest J Ackerman’s classic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and I was hooked from that moment on. I would pore over the pages studiously, marvelling at the old black and white stills of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney et al, and patiently wait for the next showing of these classics on television (we only had two channels in those days – I remember my parents getting a new tv set that could receive BBC 2 just so I could watch Hurd Hatfield’s seminal performance in the title role of The Picture of Dorian Gray).

I never did forgive Steven Kennyon for not returning that much loved, prized copy of Famous Monsters when we were both eleven – well, maybe a bit when I finally managed to replace it on eBay a couple of years ago, even if it did set me back sixty quid. I undoubtedly have it to thank for stirring in me an interest not just in the classic portrayals of Dracula by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, but also the fifteenth century prince of Wallachia, Vlad Ţepeş, the real inspiration behind Irish novelist Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire count.

Even as a child, I was fascinated by this mysterious prince – a national hero in his own country for delivering his people from the marauding Turks. How had he earned the name Vlad the Impaler (Ţepeş) and was he really the inhuman monster he is often made out to have been?

My research into the character was obviously limited as a child – it was mainly down to what I could learn in books or glean from infrequent tv documentaries. Much of what you read is biased too – poor Vlad is portrayed almost as the antichrist in many volumes, and this is wildly opposed to the opinion of most Romanians today.

In adulthood, my fascination with the subject and the man as strong as ever, I decided I would have to go on a journey to get to anything like the real facts about Vlad III of Wallachia. I would have to go to Transylvania. I flew to Bucharest with Tarom Airlines of Romania, a comfortable enough service even if they did still allow people to smoke on board. I’d arranged transport and an English speaking guide to collect me at the airport and take me on the arduous four hour journey to Poiana Brasov which, nestling about eight miles above Brasov high in the Carpathians, would make an ideal base over the coming days. We stopped for about half an hour at a roadside inn and, as I savoured the delicious glass of local red wine, the butterflies in my stomach did extra somersaults as I peered longingly up into the darkness of the imposing mountains. What mysteries did they hold? What stories could they tell? My guide informed me that “we should be getting along,” and so I quaffed the last of my wine and, minutes later, we were on our way again.

Dănuț, my guide, helped me work out my schedule for the next hour or so of the journey. Every now and then, I would gaze out of the window, inwardly beaming at the prospect of all that lay ahead. I was like a child in a sweet shop, and almost had to pinch myself to realise that I was actually here, in Transylvania, ascending the Carpathian mountains – even if it was in a Ford Transit minibus.

I asked Dănuț what his opinion of Vlad Ţepeş was. “He was a good man,” he told me, “very fair and much loved by his people. He was also a very holy man, defending his empire and the church against our enemies.”

“So how did he manage to earn such a dreadful reputation?” I wanted to know.

“It’s true he impaled people – that was his execution method of choice,” my guide went on. “But it was only to those who were treacherous against the Wallachian people, and you must remember that those methods of torture and murder which seem so barbaric today were much more common-place in the fifteenth century.”

West to East

Food for thought, certainly. For the last hour and a half of the trek up into the dark, majestic mountains, I sat back, deep in thought, pondering the life of Prince Vlad and wondering where my quest would take me. When we finally arrived at the Poiana Hotel in Poiana Brasov, I was relieved that the check in process was quick and uncomplicated and, within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow, I was fast asleep. It had been an exhausting first day, with an almost twenty-four hour journey with various stops and connections. Unbelievable when you think what few miles lie between England and Romania, but in some way it added to the epic nature of my undertaking and, as Jonathan Harker had observed in his journal, the distinct impression I had had of the journey “was that we were leaving the West and entering the East”. What a pity, I thought as I drifted off to sleep, the Stoker himself had never actually visited this strange and wonderful land.

The next morning I awoke to glorious sunshine. Having breakfasted well in the hotel’s dining room, I met with my official guide for my stay here, Horia, who immediately handed me a glass of cloudy liquid, urging me to drink it in one. I ran through my notes I had made in the minibus with Dănuț, and Horia gave me his own input into what I should do and in what order. His own thoughts on Vlad very much echoed those of his colleague – maybe this misunderstood prince really didn’t deserve all his bad press. I’d have to wait and see, but many more of those local welcome drinks – it seemed to be a blend of absinthe and gin in equal measures – and I’d be in no state to make any valid judgments. I downed the last of it out of politeness and shivered, much to Horia’s amusement. “Come on then,” he said, patting me lightly on the back, “let’s get you off to Castle Bran. Your guide today will be Radu.”

Bran Castle – fictional home of Dracula

Bran Castle – again thought to have inspired Stoker in some way with his depiction of the castle of Count Dracula – is probably the most visited of the ‘Dracula connection’ sites, but undoubtedly the least authentic. Situated near Bran and in the immediate vicinity of Braşov, the castle is a national monument and landmark in Romania. The fortress is situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, on Highway 73. Commonly known as Dracula’s Castle’, it is marketed as such, and this has led to persistent myths that it was once the home of Vlad Ţepeş, ruler of Wallachia.

The castle is now a museum open to tourists, displaying art and furniture collected by Queen Marie. Tourists can see the interior individually or by a guided tour. At the bottom of the hill is a small open air museum park exhibiting traditional Romanian peasant structures, such as cottages and barns, from across the country.

Radu was both personable and eloquent, and probably the most knowledgeable Vlad ‘expert’ I had encountered so far. After my castle tour, during which he even donned a pair of plastic fangs to illustrate just how seriously the whole ‘Dracula’ thing is taken from a commercial point of view, we sat in a small restaurant for a chat over a bottle of ‘Vampyre’. This local red wine which, by rights – and its cheesy name – should be diabolical, was in reality rather moreish, and proved an excellent accompaniment to the fascinating conversation that followed. “It’s very difficult to separate fact from fiction these days,” explained Radu. “But I’ve brought these along to help us discern a little of the truth,” and with that, he opened up his rucksack and lifted out three rather dusty, ancient tomes scribed in his native tongue – “they were my grandmother’s” – and proceeded to thumb through the wafer thin pages of the first volume.

What followed was a remarkable few hours over which we debated the rights and wrongs of popular Vlad Ţepeş myth and culture, set against three fascinating accounts of the real man written by his fellow countrymen. Some of what emerged I already knew: Vlad Ţepeş (pronounced tse-pesh) was indeed a fifteenth century voivode, or prince, of Wallachia of the princely House of Basarab. Wallachia is a province of Romania bordered to the north by Transylvania and Moldavia, to the east by the Black Sea and to the south by Bulgaria.

Birth of a Prince

But let’s go back to the beginning. All three books seemed to agree that Vlad was born in either November or December 1431, in the fortress of Sighisoara, Romania. His father, Vlad Dracul, at that time appointed military governor of Transylvania by the emperor Sigismund, had been inducted into the Order of the Dragon about one year before. The order was a semi-military and religious society, originally created in 1387 by the Holy Roman Emperor and his second wife, Barbara Cilli. Now there was the first hint at that legendary name, ‘Dracul’ – so what exactly was the significance and how did it evolve into Dracula?

Radu explained: “The order’s emblem was a dragon, wings extended, hanging on a cross. The dragon was the symbol of the devil and consequently an alternate meaning of ‘drac’ (the devil) was dragon. The main goals of such a secret fraternal order of knights were to protect the interests of Catholicism, and to crusade against the Turks. This order provides an explanation for the name Dracula; ‘Dracul’, in Romanian, means dragon, and the boyars of Romania, who knew of Vlad’s father’s induction into the Order of the Dragon, decided to call him ‘Dracul’. Dracula is simply a derivative which means “the son of Dracul,” which was the surname to be used ultimately by Vlad himself. This is clearly where Bram Stoker took the name from. It was no invention of his, as is often believed, but something he lifted straight from the pages of history. “So you could say that your famous nineteenth century novelist is responsible for much of the negativity about Prince Vlad, purely by the stigma now associated with his name, which actually had quite noble connotations in its day.”

There isn’t much information about Vlad’s childhood. It is known that in 1442 he and his younger brother, Radu, became hostages of Murad the Second, as a result of an agreement between Vlad’s father and the Sultan. Being under considerable political pressure, threatened with invasion by the Ottomans, Dracul gave a promise to be the vassal of the Sultan, and reluctantly gave up his two younger sons as hostages to ensure he kept his promise. If he did not follow the sultan’s policies and interests, both Vlad and Radu would surely die. His eldest son, Mircea, was allowed to stay at home.

“Dracul is believed to have desperately regretted this action,” said Radu, “and it’s fairly well known that the boys suffered intolerable cruelty and sexual abuse at the hands of the Sultan. In fact, the disastrous effect was the massive division it created between the two. Vlad was the stronger of the brothers, but never forgave himself for his inability to protect his sibling from the depraved Sultan, who it seemed made Radu one his his ‘favourites’. The leaner, more chiselled features of the elder brother were apparently not to his taste and, although Vlad was tortured and beaten much more severely and with alarming regularity, he did escape the sexual attentions of his captor.

“Radu was much weaker than Vlad, which is probably why he chose to stay put when he had the opportunity to escape. He never forgave his older brother for symbolically “letting go of his hand” and this would prove to be something neither man would ever fully come to terms with, as later years would show.”

These years were influential in shaping Vlad’s character as he suffered much at the hands of the Turks, and spent much time locked up in an underground dungeon. It seems he was often whipped by his Turkish captors for being stubborn and rude, and one wonders if his fascination with torture truly began under the Ottomans as he witnessed their vicious atrocities and, it is believed, occasionally took part in various discussions on the art of torture.

We had finished our wine. “We’ll leave it there for today,” said Radu, “It’s almost sundown.” He smiled wryly as he saw I had acknowledged his sense of fun. We returned to my hotel and he bade me goodnight as I headed off to a dinner of Transylvanian sour pork. I had plenty to think about, and tomorrow’s destination was Sighisoara, Vlad’s birthplace. More wine would be on the agenda, I was sure, and hopefully more revelations.

We started out early the next morning and, as luck would have it, fetched up at Sighisoara on market day. On these days, outlying villagers come in horse drawn carriages to sell their produce, cheese or meats, and the market is an experience in itself for the old time feel and genuine people. One hour north of Brasov, this citadel is straight out of medieval times. As the best preserved and only inhabited walled fortress in Europe, Sighisoara certainly sees its share of Dracula fans. The house where Vlad was born still stands, and has become a quaint restaurant serving traditional Romanian cuisine, as well as contemporary foods.

Once you enter the citadel, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped back some 500 years, as little has changed inside the walls of the fortress. Passing under the 64 metre clock tower, you will be mesmerised by the medieval architecture and buildings beautifully preserved and still in use.

Radu was on form. We strolled around these ancient streets and I drank in the atmosphere. It was as though time had stood still here, and the bustling charm of the place was an experience to be savoured. Stopping at a hostelry, we ordered a bottle of local wine and sat down at an outdoor table. The sun shone warmly on my back as I sipped eagerly from my glass. Radu, his pleasant, weathered face smiling excitedly, brought out the three volumes together with some hastily scribbled notes he had made the previous evening. “Now,” he said in his inimitable, animated fashion, “on with our story. I got to thinking quite a lot last night, and I compared several accounts of the next few years of our prince’s life

“I think we can go from 1447, when Vlad’s father was assassinated in the marshes near Bălteni by rebellious boyars, because of his semi-pro-Turkish policy. In the same time, his older brother Mircea was also tortured quite brutally. He was blinded with hot iron stakes and then buried alive, after being killed by his political enemies at Târgovişte. At this point, the Sultan released Vlad, invaded Wallachia and and put the young man on the throne as his puppet ruler. But this rule was brief because soon after that, Hunyadi of Hungary himself invaded Wallachia with the Hungarian military and ousted the Turks.

“Vlad fled to Moldavia and was put under the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II. Legend has it that during his escape, he had the shoes on his horse put on backwards to confuse anyone who tried to follow him. He stayed until October of 1451, when Bogdan was assassinated. Vlad then decided to go to Hungary and try an alliance with Hunyadi. Shortly afterwards, Vlad became the Hungarian candidate for the throne of Wallachia.”

In 1456, Hungary invaded Serbia to drive out the Turks, and Vlad simultaneously invaded Wallachia with his own contingent. Both campaigns were successful, but Hunyadi died suddenly of fever. “It was at this point,” Radu told me, “that Vlad became prince of his native land and began his main reign during which he is supposed to have committed his many cruelties, and hence established his notorious reputation, earning him the title ‘the Impaler’. But we really have to look at this in context. Here was a boy who had been brutalised, witnessed unspeakable attocities performed on his beloved younger brother, and seen his family and people suffer greatly at the hands of their foreign enemies, in largely unprovoked attacks. You’ve got to admit he’d be pretty pissed off!

“But what does he do? Well, admittedly, there’s a little revenge killing spree in there, but his main aim is to gain power to stop these actions against his people, and he went about it in a fairly measured way. These were not the actions of some deranged megalomaniac.”


In fact, as Radu had said, one of the first things Vlad did as the prince of Wallachia was seek revenge for the deaths of his father and brother. On Easter Sunday of 1459, he arrested all the boyar families whom he held responsible. He impaled the older ones on stakes while forcing the others to march from the capital to the town of Poenari. This fifty-mile trek was quite gruelling, and those who survived were not permitted to rest until they reached their destination. He then ordered them to build him a fortress on the ruins of an older outpost overlooking the Arges river. Many died in the process, and the prince succeeded in creating a new nobility and obtaining a fortress for future emergencies. What is left today of the building is now identified as ‘Castle Dracula’.

Said Radu: “Vlad’s brutal punishment techniques were well known; he often ordered people to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, hanged, burned, blinded, strangled, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive or stabbed – in fact, you name it and he probably did it. He also liked to cut off noses, ears, sexual organs and limbs. But – as him name suggests – his favorite method was impalement on stakes. Even the Turks referred to him as ‘Kaziglu Bey’, meaning ‘The Impaler Prince’. It is this technique he used in 1457, 1459 and 1460 against Transylvanian merchants who had ignored his trade laws.

“To balance this, we must also consider his donations to various churches and monasteries, one such place being the monastary at Lake Snagov, rumoured to be his burial place. I’ve organised a trip there for tomorrow, so you can take a look for yourself.”

I nodded thankfully in acknowledgment.

“He also fought to reduce the economic role of the nobility,” continued my guide, “and increase the rights of peasantry and reinforced some castles, like the one at Poienari, where he also had a personal house built nearby.

“Vlad was a deeply religious man,” said Radu. “He believed he had to answer completely to God for all his actions, so in his own mind his wars against his enemies were just and right. And, as we’ve already established, the punishments he dished out were not peculiar to him alone, except maybe the impaling. But these are the actions of a ruler who is trying to establish strength against his enemy. One wonders just how many people he actually killed and tortured – the propaganda machine turned in fifteenth century Wallachia just as much as it does anywhere in the world today, and it suited Prince Vlad to have his enemies believe he was a murderous tyrant – fostering this reputation was a crucial deterrent.”

Reputation of a monster

My own research had told me that in the beginning of 1462, Vlad had launched a campaign against the Turks along the Danube river. During that winter, he was very successful and managed to gain many victories, although the military force of Sultan Mehmed II was far more powerful than his Wallachian army. Knowing this, the Sultan decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Wallachia in order to transform this land into a Turkish province. He entered Wallachia with an army three times larger than Prince Vlad’s. Not having any allies, Vlad was forced to retreat towards Tirgoviste. I checked these facts with Radu.

“Ah, now this is where many accounts really go against him,” he observed. “The greatest criticism levelled by the anti-Vlad camps is that he brutally murdered many of his own people in an act of pathological madness. The truth was, in order to maintain his chances of winning the battle, he had to make some very hard and cruel decisions. He burned his own villages and poisoned the wells along the way, so that the Turkish army would find nothing to eat or drink. Moreover, when the Sultan, exhausted, finally reached the capital city, he was confronted by a most gruesome sight: thousands of stakes held the remaining carcasses of some 20,000 Turkish captives, a horror scene which was ultimately nicknamed the ‘Forest of the Impaled’.

“This terror tactic must have had a very profound effect on the Turks and the Sultan, who were tired, hungry and on the point of dropping. They admitted defeat. These were desperate times, and a lot was at stake. Just think of how many people are killed in our modern wars – nothing’s really changed, things were just done a little differently back then. And it suits historians and authors to have wicked, evil tyrants upon whom to base their characters.”

Following his retreat from Wallachian territory, Mehmed left the next phase of the battle to Vlad’s younger brother Radu, the Turkish favourite for the Wallachian throne. At the head of a Turkish army and joined by Vlad’s detractors, Radu pursued his brother to Poenari castle on the Arges river. “This must have saddened Vlad a great deal,” said Radu. “This was, in his eyes, his great failure in life coming back to haunt him. His own beloved brother standing against him was proof positive to Vlad of just how much Radu hated him, indeed blamed him, for all that had happened to them as children. And the tragedy didn’t stop there; Vlad’s first wife, Elisabeta, rather than surrender to the advancing Turks, committed suicide by leaping from the towers of their castle into the waters of the Arges River below. Now, many accounts say her name was not ever recorded, but one of my three books states that it was indeed Elisabeta, though I can’t vouch definitely for its authenticity. I do find it curious that this was the name Francis Ford Coppola used in his movie about Dracula though, so he must have got this from somewhere. I doubt he has a copy of my grandmother’s book, so I would guess that this is recorded somewhere else too.


“Devastated at his wife’s suicide, Vlad escaped across the mountains into Transylvania and appealed to Matthias Corvinus for aid, but was arrested and imprisoned in a royal tower near Buda, where he remained a prisoner for twelve years. Unlike the film though, I really don’t believe any of this turned him against God.

“During his imprisonment, Vlad was able to gradually win his way back into the graces of Hungary’s monarch and subsequently, according to rumour, married the sister of Matthias Corvinus. During Vlad’s incarceration, Wallachia was ruled by his brother, Radu cel Frumos (the Handsome), who was still the puppet of the Ottoman sultan.

“In 1476 Vlad and Prince Stephen Bathory of Transylvania invaded Wallachia with a mixed force of Transylvanians, a few dissatisfied Wallachian boyars and a contingent of Moldavians sent by Vlad’s cousin, Prince Stephen the Great of Moldavia. Radu had died a couple of years earlier and been replaced on the Wallachian throne by another Turkish candidate, Basarab the Old, a member of the Danesti clan. For a short period of time, Prince Vlad managed to reclaim and hold the throne, but soon a large Turkish army entered Wallachia determined to return Basarab to the throne.

“Prince Vlad was finally killed in battle against the Turks near the then small town of Bucharest in December of 1476. Some reports indicate that he was assassinated by disloyal Wallachian boyars just as he was about to sweep the Turks from the field. Other accounts have him falling in defeat, surrounded by the bodies of his loyal Moldavian bodyguard (the troops loaned by Prince Stephen of Moldavia remained with Vlad after Stephen Bathory returned to Transylvania).

“Still other reports claim that, at the moment of victory, our prince was accidentally struck down by one of his own men,” said Radu. “His body was decapitated by the Turks and his head sent to Constantinople where the sultan had it displayed on a stake as proof that ‘the Impaler’ was dead. As I said earlier, he was reportedly buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest.”

“So what was the reaction to his death among his own people?” I wanted to know.

“They were devastated,” explained Radu. “Here was a man who had led them through their darkest hour, been a fair and just prince and probably one of the strongest rulers they had ever had. A very religious man, he had staunchly upheld the Christian teachings – you see, not many people think of Vlad Ţepeş as a Christian, but he most certainly was – a devout one at that. Now does that really fit in with the evil murderer portrayed in history and legend?”

Monastery at Snagov

Ultimately, of course, we all have to make up our own mind. My journey throughout Prince Vlad’s land took me to one last place as Radu had promised, the monastery at Snagov. The village is a short jog north of Bucharest, and is a worthwhile trip for any Dracula enthusiasts. The most notable feature is the lake, in the centre of which is located an island. On this island lies the monastery which actually does house Vlad’s tomb. Whether his body was ever really in there is apparently a matter for conjecture, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have got this wrong.

My whole journey into Vlad’s life had been a real eye-opener, and had certainly opened my mind to the possibility of a different man than the one we all think we know so much about. As Radu had said, it sometimes seems to suit writers and historians to milk a subject for all its dark, dramatic worth – look at the demonisation of Richard III, the accuracy of which is now in some considerable doubt – and I suppose all we can ask for is balance. So, next time you’re about to make a rash judgment about this famous Wallachian ruler, at least consider the other side to the story. Surely, as time marches inexorably on, and we too are consigned to history, it’s all any of us would ask.

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One Response to “Vlad Ţepeş – in search of the real Dracula”

  1. dracul says:

    Ohm. Further info and articles on Vlad Tepes see:

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