By Alice Isabella Sullivan
Dracula has been a mainstay of films, TV shows, plays, novels, and comic books for decades. The modern fascination with Dracula began in the 1920s and ‘30s with the appearance of plays and movies based on Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel, first published in 1897. The events described in Stoker’s Dracula take place in fin-de-siècle London and Transylvania, and the novel makes only loose historical references to its fifteenth-century namesake: Vlad III Țepeș (1431-c. 1476), prince of Wallachia. But its massive popularity had the effect of generating considerable curiosity about the prince himself, his brutal reign, and the historical context in which he lived.
The extant textual records and archaeological remains offer insight into the life and times of Vlad III. We know that he was born in 1431 in Sighişoara, a town then in the Kingdom of Hungary and now in modern-Romania. He was the son of the Wallachian Prince Vlad II (r. 1436-1442; 1443-1447), who was educated in Nuremberg at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg (r. 1433-1437), and in 1431 was inducted into the prestigious “Order of the Dragon.” This was instituted in 1387 by Sigismund of Luxembourg and his second wife Barbara von Celje as a military order and religious confraternity intended to protect the Church and crusade against the Ottoman Turks in Eastern Europe.
Vlad III’s connections with the Ottomans were in fact quite intimate. In 1443, he and his brother, Radu the Handsome, were taken hostage in the Ottoman Empire. The previous year, the two had crossed the Danube River with their father in order to confront the Ottomans. The attack failed and they were captured. Vlad II was eventually released but his two sons remained hostage at the court of Murad II (r. 1421-1444; 1446-1451). In a letter to the city elders of Brașov, issued in 1443, Vlad II lamented: “Please understand that I have allowed my children to be butchered for the sake of the Christian peace, in order that both I and my country might continue to be vassals to the Holy Roman Empire.”
In the winter of 1447, Wallachia was invaded by the Kingdom of Hungary, then governed by John Hunyadi. Vlad II was defeated and was soon murdered in the marshes of Bălteni, near the site of an ancient monastery (north of Bucharest). His eldest son, Mircea, suffered an even worse fate: blinded by red-hot iron stakes and buried alive in Târgovişte. Following these gruesome events, John Hunyadi gave the Wallachian crown to a new family – the Danești – which was in close ties with the Hungarian court. Vladislav II took the throne of Wallachia.
Vlad III and Radu the Handsome remained in captivity in the Ottoman Empire until 1448, initially in Gallipoli, then moved to Doğrugöz (Egrigoz) in Asia Minor (Anatolia). Eventually, Vlad III was released, but his brother stayed behind and became an ally to Murad II. With Murad’s help, Vlad III ascended to Wallachia’s throne sometime between October and November 1448. At the time, Vladislav II was fighting alongside John Hunyadi in the Balkans, which resulted in their loss at the Battle of Kosovo in October of that year. When Vladislav II returned to Wallachia from his campaign in the Balkans, and also fearful of his father’s assassins, Vlad III fled to Moldavia and remained at the court in Suceava until October 1451.
Between 1451 and 1456, Vlad III returned to Transylvania and developed a relationship with John Hunyadi, who served then as his political mentor and tutor. During this time, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. In the summer of 1456, under unknown circumstances, Vlad III regained the Wallachian throne for his second (and most important) reign. Turbulent years followed. Feuds erupted between Wallachia and the Transylvanian Saxons, with Vlad III setting up new regulations and increasing tariffs on imported goods. When the Transylvanian merchants ignored these changes, attacks ensued with merchants impaled and youths burned alive. Extant later German pamphlets detail the events as follows: “…Dracula went to Brasov as far as the chapel of St. Jakob and ordered that the suburbs of the city should be burned down. And no sooner had he arrived there, when early in the morning he gave orders that the men and women, young and old alike, should be impaled next to the chapel, at the foot of the mountain. He then sat down at a table in their midst and ate his breakfast with great pleasure.”
Vlad III’s relations with the Ottomans also soured during the 1450s. He refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans, send young men to join the janissary troops, or go before the Sultan in Constantinople. Instead, he killed a Turkish envoy by impaling them. By 1461, the Ottomans feared that Vlad III would align himself with the Hungarians through marriage, and demanded to break off the alliance and continue to pay tribute. Vlad III declined and instead seized Ottoman strongholds along the Danube River and plundered territories in northern Bulgaria. Writing to Matthias Corvinus on 11 February 1462, Vlad III notes: “Your Majesty should know that we have broken our peace with them [the Ottomans], not for our own benefit, but for the honor of Your Majesty and the Holy Crown of your Majesty, and for the preservation of Christianity and the strengthening of the Catholic faith…When the weather permits, that is to say in the spring, they will come against us with evil intentions and with all their power. But they have no crossing points because we burned all of them, except for Vidin, and destroyed them and made them barren. Because they cannot harm us too much at the crossing point of Vidin, they should want to bring their ships from Constantinople and Gallipoli, across the sea, to the Danube. Therefore, Your Majesty, Gracious Lord, if it is Your Majesty’s desire to fight against them, then gather all of your country and all of the fighting men, both cavalry and infantry, and bring them to our Wallachia, and be so kind as to fight against them here.”
Sultan Mehmed II responded to the attack by sending an army in April of 1462 either to capture Wallachia or to change its ruling prince (perhaps appoint Radu the Handsome on the throne). Although the chronology of this campaign is difficult to establish, it is known that Vlad III attacked at night, avoiding open field combat, and also engaged in scorched-earth tactics. But the Ottomans, with support from Radu the Handsome and Wallachian boyars, forced Vlad III into exile in Transylvania. Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458-1490) arrested him and placed him in Visegrád Fortress (north of Buda). Antonius Bonfinius, the court chronicler of Matthias Corvinus, writes: “On his way there, I do not know the reason why because this was never understood clearly by anyone, he [Matthias] captured Dracula in Transylvania, but the other Dracula [Radu the Handsome], whom the Turks had appointed prince of that province [Wallachia], he approved of, against all expectations.” The German Saxons from Transylvania assisted in Vlad’s arrest in the fall of 1462, and subsequently contributed to ruining his reputation across the premodern world and into the present imagination.
Vlad III remained in Hungarian captivity until 1474. The following year, he returned to Wallachia and fought against the Turks in Serbia and Moldavia. In 1475, his brother, Radu the Handsome passed away. Toward the end of 1476, Vlad III commenced his final (very short) reign, which culminated in his death on the battlefield near the city of Bucharest that winter (either late December 1476 or January 1477). He is said to have been decapitated with his head subsequently taken to the Sultan. His final resting place is the Church of the Virgin Mary at Snagov Monastery, about 15 miles northeast of Bucharest.
Although locally Vlad III has been regarded as a national hero, the stories and myths his figure generated outside of the Romanian cultural context have been gruesome and demonizing. The German pamphlets alone have contributed to the dissemination of certain knowledge about Vlad III, which only further entered into myth through Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Dracula, which popularized a certain image of the fifteenth-century Wallachian prince.
In addition to the textual and archaeological sources, the visual material in the form of paintings, prints, drawings, manuscript decorations, and architecture, as well as recent movies, novels, and cartoons offer insight into how Vlad III’s likeness and reputation have been perceived and represented over the course of several centuries. These visual manifestations and their multiple interpretations of Vlad III have inflected twentieth- and twenty-first-century renditions of Dracula and his vampire subculture. These issues will be tackled in future posts dedicated to this complex historical figure and his later reimaginings in art, cinema, and the popular imagination.
Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan
See also: The Impalings of Vlad the Impaler
D. Light, The Dracula Dilemma: Tourism, Identify, and the State in Romania (London and New York, 2012).
H. Madar, “Dracula, the Turks, and the Rhetoric of Impaling in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Germany,” in Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650, eds. J. R. Decker and M. Kirkland-Ives (Farnham, 2015), 165-190.
S. W. Reinert and M. Cazacu, Dracula (Leiden, 2017).
K. W. Treptow, Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula (Oxford, 2000).
B. Stoker, Dracula (Westminster, 1897).
Top Image: Portrait of Vlad III, ca. 1560, Ambras Castle – Wikimedia Commons