The Real Dracula (Part 1)

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Ţepeş in Romanian) was descended from Basarab the Great, a fourteenth-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 Bătrân (Mircea the Elder). As Wallachian "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" -- noblemes -- had the power to select as voivode any son of a ruling prince), Mircea's death led to conflict between his illegitimate son Vlad (Vlad the Impaler's father) and Dan, the son of one of Mircea's brothers. This was the beginning of the Drăculeşti-Dăneşti feud that was to play a major role in the history of fifteenth-century Wallachia. In 1431, the year in which Vlad the Impaler may have been born (not confirmed), his father Vlad was stationed in Sighişoara as a military commander with responsibility for guarding the mountain passes from Transylvania into Wallachia from enemy incursion.

In 1431, the senior Vlad was summoned to Nuremberg by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, to receive a unique honor. He was one of a number of princes and vassals initiated by the Emperor into the Order of the Dragon, an institution, similar to other chivalric orders of the time, modeled on the Order of St. George. It was created in 1408 by Sigismund and his queen Barbara mainly for the purpose of gaining protection for the royal family; it also required its initiates to defend Christianity and to do battle against its enemies, principally the Turks. As an indication of his pride in the Order, Vlad took on the nickname "Dracul" (the Wallachian word "drac" means "devil", but also was derived from the Latin "draco" meaning "dragon"). The sobriquet adopted by the younger Vlad ("Dracula" indicating "son of Dracul" or "son of the Dragon"), also had a positive connotation.

In Romanian history, Vlad is usually referred to as "Tepeş"; 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 Sighişoara. His mother was apparently Cneajna, of a Moldavian princely family. He was the second of three sons; his brothers were Mircea and Radu. The family remained in Sighişoara until 1436 when Vlad Dracul moved to Târgovişte 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. 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 Târgovişte who had supported a rival claimant.

Vlad was voivode for three separate periods, for a total of 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. His recovery of the throne for a third time in 1476 was brief, for he was killed in battle during the subsequent winter.

Though Vlad 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 centres such as Nuremberg, Bamberg, and Strassburg, 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 Argeş 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 then 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.