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 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 Bătrân. 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 Braşov) 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 onwards 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 Braşov 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 Târgovişte 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 Argeş 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 gruelling 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 captured the young Dan [of the rival Dăneşti 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.
"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 Târgovişte 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 [Amlaş], 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 Braşov. When the local merchants refused to pay taxes in spite of repeated warnings, in 1459 Dracula led an assault on Braşov, burned an entire suburb, and impaled numerous captives on Tâmpa 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.
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