11 April 2018

Vlad III Dracula 1431-1476 - national hero or brutal war lord?

The 1400s was the peak of the Ottoman–Hungarian Wars, when Wal­lachia in Southern Romania was one of Hungary's strongest rivals. Sit­uated between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania and Wallachia (see map) were often the scene of bloody battles. The Ottoman forces pushed west­ward into Europe, and Christian Crusaders marched eastward toward the Holy Land.

Vlad the Impaler Tepes (1431-1476) was born in Trans­yl­vania in 1431, son of the famous war lord Vlad II and the Princess of Moldavia. He had two older half-brothers and a young­er full broth­er. In his birth year Vlad's father trav­elled to Nuremberg where he was honour­ed with the Order of the Drag­on, and was grant­ed the sur­name Dracul after his induction into the Christian Military Order of the Dragon. In 1436, Vlad II Dracul ascended the Wallach­ian throne.

When Vlad II was called to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, he brought his young sons along. But the meet­ing was a trap: all three were arrested and held hostage. Vlad II was released, but he had to give his sons to the Ottoman court.

Vlad II was ousted in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, but secured Ottoman support for his return, agreeing to pay the tax on non-Muslims to the Sultan!! At 11, Vlad III was imprisoned and whipped because of his verb­al ab­use tow­ards his captors. These years pres­um­ably had a great influence on the young man's char­ac­t­er and led to Vlad's hatred for the Ottoman Turks, Janissary military corps, brother Radu for con­vert­ing to Islam and the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. He also distrusted his own father for trad­ing him to the dreaded Ottoman Empire.

Vlad III, cruel and ugly, c1450 
Castle Ambras in the Tyrol

Vlad III was later released and taken to be educ­ated by the Ottomans, in logic, Quran, lit­er­ature, warfare, horse rid­ing, science, philosophy, arts, Turkish and Persian lang­uages. 

Note again that the boys' father, Vlad II Dracul, got the support of the Otto­m­ans, returned to Wallachia and took back his throne from Basarab II and some unfaithful Boyars. But dad was ousted as ruler of Wallachia by the boyars and was kil­l­ed in the Wallachian swamps in 1447. Vlad's older brothers were tortured, blinded and buried alive.

Vladislav II took Wallachia over. But once Vlad III was freed by the Ot­t­omans, he killed Vladislav with his own hands.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, threatening all of Europe with an invasion. In his battles to protect the home­ land, Vlad III became famous as a brute who took sadis­tic pleasure in torturing and killing. His weap­ons of choice were: the kilij, a curved Turkic sword, good for chopping bodies and the halberd an axe blade, topped with a spike on a long shaft and a hacking hook.

Map of Wallachia and Transylvania
totally surrounded by the Ottoman Empire

Impaling was the most grotesque form of torture and death. A pole was inserted through the body vertically, through the rec­tum and out via the victim's neck. The pole was then rais­ed vert­ical­ly to display the dying vict­im's pain.

In 1462 invading Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II fled, af­ter seeing the carn­age: 20,000 decay­ing impaled corp­s­es being eaten by crows in Vlad's capital: Târgoviște.

Pro-Vlad propaganda started appearing, including Vlad’s port­raits, his weapons, captured enemies and religious im­ages. One splendid religious image app­eared on the altar piece of the Church of St Maria Vienna, painted in 1460.

Anti-Vlad German woodcut pamphlets from the late C15th became popular eg Ambrosius Huber’s sadistic paintings created in 1499. The pamphlets depicted Vlad as violent and barbaric. Note that these images were printed and reprinted, even after Vlad's death.

Vlad III was a cunning tactician, even when vastly outnumb­er­ed. He was widely credited with bringing security to Wallachia and strengthening its economy; he built new villages for the peasants and encouraged the production of new agriculture. Trade became an important source of development and revenue.

Most importantly his Orthodox Christian victories over the invading Ottomans were cel­ebrated through­out Wall­achia, Trans­yl­vania and the rest of Europe, especial­ly by Pope Pius II (ruled 1458-64). In a very real sense, Vlad was the Christian gatekeeper of Eur­ope. But at what cost? The total number of Vlad III’s vic­t­ims was c80,000. PLUS he al­so had whole villages and fort­res­ses burned to the ground.

Vlad the Impaler as Pontius Pilate judging Jesus Christ, 1463
National Gallery, Ljubljana. 

Vlad eating while presiding over the impalement of Ottoman prisonersTitle page in a German woodcut pamphlet, 1499
Created by Ambrosius Huber

The reputation of Vlad's cruelty was even more act­ively prom­­ot­ed by Matthias Corvinus (1430-90), King of Hungary & Croatia from 1458 on. Corvinus smeared Vlad’s political credib­il­ity on purpose, to build up his own standing.

Romania’s capital city was first mentioned as Buc­ur­esti in 1459, when it was recorded in a document of Vlad III. In that same year, during Vlad III’s rule, the Old Princely Court was built as a palat­ial residence. Archaeological excav­at­ions have been very successful recently, and now the site is oper­ated by the Mun­icipality in Bucharest’s historic centre.

Each ruler ext­ended the prin­c­e­­ly resid­ence, built large cell­ars and surrounded it with stone walls. Today Drac­ula's Castle, near the town of Bran, is a major tourist attract­ion, even though its connection with Vlad is uncertain. 

Dracula Palace in Bran

Old Princely Court in Bucharest

In 1476 Vlad III and a small vanguard of soldiers were march­ing to yet another bat­tle with the Ottomans when they were am­bushed and defeated. Was Vlad was killed, with his head taken to Constantinople as a trophy; his body was buried in a Roman­ian monastery? Or was he ransomed by his daughter, brought to Italy and was later buried in Santa Maria La Nova Church, Naples?

The British consul to Wallachia, Wil­liam Wilkinson, wrote An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in 1820. Irish author Bram Stoker (1847–1912) never visited Vlad III's home­land, but he cert­ainly did read Wilkinson's book. And if any hist­orical figure could inspire a blood thirsty, monst­rous fictional character, Vlad III Dracula was one. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel was of course Dracula.


bazza said...

Interesting how we can't really trust any historical source, not absolutely. It is of course written by the winners. Didn't Churchill once say "History will be kind to me for I shall write it"?
So what are to think of Vlad now? Was he maligned by those who followed?
By the way, I like new photo!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s tremulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

mem said...

Hello , what a lovely start to my day! Puts all the ructions in Syria into context . Well All I can say is that Vlad certainly had issues , I guess that he was desensitized to violence at an early age and seems to have had a great energy for destroying those he hated or had slighted him. Surly even though he might have done some good for his own , we cant see him as anything other than a violent sadist?

mem said...

PS I too like your photo

Hels said...


history writing is always only half written *nod*. After the official records are released and published, there is no space for the losers to give their version of the same events. The victims are usually dead; the eye witnesses are silenced through gaol, exile or worse; new national legislation comes in to ban public discussion; newspapers and publishers are effectively censored; and the children never know what happened to their parents. Even now, I cannot find out how many hundreds of thousands of civilians were massacred by American atomic bombs in Japan in 1945, nor how many survivors died of cancer within 20 years.

Yet I cannot change a life-timing of thinking about Vlad III Dracula as a beast.

Hels said...


a violent sadist is correct. That doesn't mean that some individuals and communities did not do very well out of Vlad III's rule. Some thrived.

Even Pol Pot did very well on behalf of some sections of the Cambodian and international communities. I suppose it depends on which historians we read.

Hels said...

bazza and mem

I stopped colouring my hair 4 years ago. It was a big decision to put a current photo on the blog :)

Another Student said...

Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania were united under one prince or another for some short time, but this part of Europe has clearly been unstable for a very long time. The Habsburg Monarchy was not much better.

Andrew said...

Brutal times and the stakes were high. Very interesting to learn about. I am reading on my phone and so can't see your new photo.

Hels said...

Student, constant disaster :( The three states had been conquered by every invading tribe from Northern Europe, Russian Empire and Central Asia. By 1541, the entire Balkan peninsula and most of Hungary became Ottoman provinces.

After the Austrian victory over the Turks, Transylvania was forced to the Habsburg Empire. But the Romanians were treated very badly. Transylvania invaded Hungary and proclaimed their ruler as the King of Hungary in 1618.

Soon after Transylvania’s crises, Wallachia was involuntarily annexed to the Austrian monarchy. After the defeat to the Russians, the Ottoman Empire restored the main Danube ports to Wallachia. Alas Wallachia got caught in the Austro-Turkish War 1716–8.

In 1775, the Austrian empire occupied the western Moldavia, while the eastern half was occupied by Russia. Following war, all the Moldavian lands came under Russian military occupation.

When a Romanian family woke up each morning, they didn't know what language they would be speaking that day :( No wonder they felt oppressed :(

Hels said...


unbelievably brutal, yes. But can we ever understand Vlad III's obscene behaviour in terms of his nation's desperation for independence? I don't think so.

Weekend-Windup said...

Good one to know about:)

Hels said...


Welcome aboard.

I rarely give lectures or publish papers on history topics before 1600, so I had to do a lot of research for this 15th century topic. Isn't blogging great :)

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is amazing how often in history insanely vicious people have been given incredible power to prosecute their hideous schemes. Even given that times were tumultuous, who would get these kinds of ideas into their heads? I suppose we can be grateful to Vlad for inspiring Stoker, who in addition to his great novel, in his turn inspired so many adaptations of the vampire legend. Have you noticed how many monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein have come to be celebrated as sympathetic creatures in books and movies? It seems to be one of the overarching metaphors of modern times.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fabulous summary, most of which I didn't know. Gruesome, and brutal, of course. We're too fond of judging history with modern eyes. I'm just glad I wasn't there!

Hels said...


you touched on something really interesting there. I was the only girl in my huge extended family and wasn't encouraged to see films, books, cartoons or tv programmes that included vampires, ghosts, werewolves, blood wars, science fiction, monsters or medieval tortures. But the children and grandchildren know all about that type of literature/films and agree with you totally.

I find the generational change amazing.

Hels said...


Exactly so. In fact this entire post turned out to be an analysis of how we moderns judge historical events.

CherryPie said...

An interesting account most of which was new to me. It was all very brutal and reminds me of what was written on the wall of the museum of torture in Carcassonne:

"You have just visited the museum of torture. Do you think all this belongs in the past; alas such things are still used today in several countries, with more modern and evil refinements.

It is an inevitable result wherever intolerance and fanaticism thrive.

In every human being there is good and evil. Arrogance spreads evil. Wherever it is found it must be fought by the good. You have just seen the consequences of failure."

I too like your new photograph :-)

Hels said...


thank you - the museum of torture in Carcassonne is a gross idea, but really important. Firstly if we didn't know before, most brutal regimes used torture, brutality and executions against their external enemies, but also against their own citizens. Secondly we might have expected brutality during times of war, but also we are discovering it during times of relative peace. Thirdly it doesn't make much of a difference is the regime is extreme right wing, moderate right wing, extreme left wing, religious, military or political, the outcome for the victims is the same :(

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - thanks for coming over to my posts during the A-Z ... apologies for being so slow at getting here - lots to read ... which looks like it will be May! But such an excellent summary of that time frame and those people ... I really will come back and learn more from your posts - it'll give me a better overview of that area of eastern europe/northern middle east and the politics going on - thank you - Hilary

PS the photo looks like it does you justice!! Looks good.

Hels said...


apart from my lecture notes (Britain and its Empire, European and Mediterranean history and art history), I also have a personal passion for Eastern Europe and the Middle East. My own family was Russian, my husband came from Czechoslovakia, all my friends were Polish born, and my son, nieces and nephews live in Israel.

Parnassus said...

The only girl in a large extended family? You must have been spoiled rotten!
P.S. Happy Cambodian/Thai/Khmer New Year (Songkran)!

Hels said...


There were 8 of us children, all in the one street. Thankfully I was the first born, followed by my two brothers and 5 first cousins. The boys were very cute, but a bit grubby and rough, and more interested in cars than in proper human conversations.

So I joined the anti-Vietnam War Movement at 18, Women's Liberation at 19 and the Labour Party at 21 :)

Happy New Year to you too!