One of the most infamous characters from the Middle Ages was Vlad III Dracula, the prince of Wallachia. Here is the story of how he gained the nickname of ‘the Impaler’.
The Histories, by Laonikos Chalkokondyles, which has been recently translated by Anthony Kaldellis, describes the fall of the Byzantine empire and rise of the Ottomans. Written sometime between 1464 and 1468, it centres around the capture of Constantinople in 1453. However, it also covers many events that were happening in Eastern Europe, where the Ottomans, Hungarians and other states were vying with each other.
The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (1444-46; 1451-81) had supported Vlad II Dracula as Prince of Wallachia. In return, Vlad II sent two of his younger sons Vlad and Radu to live in the Sultan’s court. In 1447, Vlad III and his eldest son were captured and murdered by their own nobles. It would not be until 1456 before Vlad III Dracula was able to return to Wallachia, and with the Sultan’s support, take over the Principality.
Laonikos Chalkokondyles’ account begins here, with Vlad imposing his rule on Wallachia:
When he took over, he first created a corps of bodyguards for himself, who lived with him, and then he summoned separately each of the distinguished men of the realm who, it was believed, had committed treason during the transfer of power there. He killed them all by impalement, them and their sons, wives, and servants, so that this one man caused more murder than any other about whom we have been able to learn. In order to solidify his hold on power, they say that in a short time he killed twenty thousand men, women and children. He established good soldiers and bodyguards for his own use, and he granted them the money, property, and other goods of his victims, so that he quickly effected a great change and utterly revolutionized the affairs of Wallachia. He also worked widespread murder among the Hungarians, those who seemed to be involved in public affairs, sparing none of them.
Sultan Mehmed II was hoping that once Vlad ruled over Wallachia it would not be trouble for the rest of the Ottoman Empire. However, in 1461 he learned that Vlad was plotting to rebel, and he ordered two of his officials – Thomas Katabolinos, lord of Porte, and Hamza Bey, the governor of Nicopolis – two capture Vlad. The two officials contrived a plot where Thomas would meet with Vlad and lead him into an ambush for Hamza. As Chalkokondyles reveals, their plan did not go well:
But Vlad and his men were armed and, when he joined in escorting the lord of the Porte of that region and the secretary, he fell into the ambush. As soon as Vlad realized what was happening, he ordered his men to arrest them and their servants. And when Hamza came against him, Vlad fought bravely, routed and captured him, and killed a few of those who had fled. After capturing them, he led them all away to be impaled, but first he cut off the men’s limbs. He had Hamza impaled on a higher stake, and he treated their retinues in the same way as their own lords. Immediately after he prepared as large an army as he could and marched directly to the Danube, and crossed through the regions there by the Danube and the land that belonged to the sultan, killing everyone, women and children included. He burned the houses, setting fire wherever he moved. Having worked this great slaughter, he returned back to Wallachia.
Unsurprisingly, the Sultan was furious at Vlad’s actions, in particular for killing his officials. According to Chalkokondyles, Mehmet II prepared an army that was second in size to the one he conquered Constantinople with, and crossed the Danube to invade Wallachia.
Vlad responded by collecting his forces, but being too small to engage in battle with the Ottoman army (and also face the ruler of Moldavia, who had invaded too) he went into the forests. There they kept watch on the Ottomans, capturing those soldiers who wandered too far away from the main army. Chalkokondyles even adds that he heard reports that Vlad disguised himself and went into the Ottoman camp, but adds that “I cannot believe that Vlad would willingly expose himself to such a danger, as he would have been able to use many spies of his own, but this tale, I believe, was made up to give a sense of his daring.”
Vlad learned that the Ottoman forces were lax at protecting their camp, and one night he launched a surprise attack. However, it failed to sow panic among the Ottoman troops, and despite several hours of fighting, the Wallachians had to retreat just before dawn. Mehmet II continued his advance into Wallachia and most of the towns were destroyed or surrendered without a fight, while Vlad could do little more than follow and keep watch. Eventually, the Ottomans reached the place where Vlad had impaled his enemies. Chalkokondyles describes the scene:
The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen stades long and seven stades wide. There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been splitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself. The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much. The rest of the Turks were dumbfounded when they saw the multitude of men on the stakes. There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails.
Soon after Mehmet II ended his campaign and returned back across the Danube. However, he did leave behind Vlad’s younger brother Radu to convince the Wallachians to give up their resistance to the Sultan. Radu told them: “You have suffered all these horrible things of account of my brother, and you ingratiate yourselves with a most unholy man who has brought such harm upon Wallachia as we have not heard has been visited upon any other part of the earth.”
The Wallachian nobles and army soon abandoned Vlad, and Radu became the new ruler of Wallachia. Meanwhile, Vlad had gone to Hungary to find support, but instead was arrested and put on trial by King Matthias Corvinus for killing Hungarians years earlier. Vlad would remain in prison for about eight years. It was not until 1476 that Vlad was able to reconquer Wallachia, but that reign would last only two months before he died.
Vlad III Dracula and his brutal rule over Wallachia would become the stuff of legends and folk tales, and in 1897 was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
The Histories, by Laonikos Chalkokondyles, is translated by Anthony Kaldellis and is part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Click here to learn about this two-volume book from Harvard University Press.