By Peter Konieczny
A look at the events that took place in southeastern Europe during the fifteenth century and the role that Vlad III, Voivode of Wallachia, would play in its many conflicts.
When the Ottoman state first formed at the end of the thirteenth century, few would have predicted that it would become a multi-ethnic empire that extended into parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. By the end of the fourteenth century they had expanded into the Balkans and had decisively defeated a major crusader invasion at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1395. However, in 1402 the Ottomans were defeated by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, causing them to lose much of their strength and territory. It would take decades for them to recover, allowing even the much-diminished Byzantine Empire a reprieve.
As the fifteenth century progressed, the Ottomans would start again to make steady gains into southeastern Europe. However, they would also find themselves fighting another rising power, the Kingdom of Hungary. These two states would have an ongoing rivalry for the rest of the century, all the way until the Battle of Mohács in 1526, in which the Ottomans proved victorious.
During this Ottoman-Hungarian struggle, a number of smaller states also existed in southeastern Europe, including Albania, Moldavia, Transylvania and Wallachia, Much of the time they existed as client states to the Ottomans or Hungarians, but they also often tried to play these powerful states against each other.
Wallachia often found itself going back and forth between supporting the Ottomans and Hungarians, which was caused in part by its own internal power struggles. During the fourteenth century the ruler (Voivode) was usually a member of the House of Basarab. However, they would break up into two rival families – the House of Drăculești and the House of Dănești – and control over Wallachia would alternate between them. From 1418 to 1481, Wallachia would see fourteen different rulers, several of which had multiple reigns.
Vlad III would in some ways be a very typical ruler of Wallachia – he would have three separate reigns, two of which lasted only for a few weeks. His loyalty and fealty wavered between the Ottomans and Hungarians and he certainly had little reason to trust either of them. His career, as this timeline will show, reveals that his fortunes could rise and fall very dramatically.
1429–1430 – Birth of Vlad, son of Vlad II Dracul, in Transylvania.
1431 – Vlad II’s claim to the throne of Wallachia is supported by the Holy Roman Empire.
1432 – Birth of Mehmed, son of Murad II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
1436 – Vlad II becomes Voivode of Wallachia.
1437–1438 – Vlad II swears fealty to Sultan Murad II and supports the Ottomans in their campaign against Hungary.
1441 – John Hunyadi, Voivode of Transylvania, meets with Vlad II in order to convince him to fight against the Ottomans.
1442 – Fearing that Vlad II has betrayed him, Murad II has the ruler of Wallachia arrested and detained.
1443 – Vlad II is released in return for a new pledge of allegiance to the Ottomans, as well as increased tribute and handing over two of his sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages.
1444 – Crusade launched by several European states against the Ottomans ends at the Battle of Varna on 10 November. The Ottomans under Murad have a decisive victory, with both sides sustaining heavy losses. Vlad II sent troops to support the Hungarians, but later on his men capture John Hunyadi, one of the crusade leaders. Instead of sending Hunyadi to the Ottomans, Vlad decides to release him.
1447 – Vlad II and his oldest son Mircea are killed on the orders of John Hunyadi.
1448 – The Ottomans release Vlad and help him take over Wallachia for a couple of months, ruling as Vlad III. Meanwhile, Murad II fights against John Hunyadi at the Second Battle of Kosovo, fought from 17 to 20 October. The Ottomans emerge victorious, consolidating their control over much of the Balkans.
However, Vlad III’s rule over Wallachia ends within two months. Vladislav II, the previous Wallachian ruler who had been installed by Hunyadi, returns with his army from the Battle of Kosovo and forces to Vlad to flee. Vlad returns initially to Ottoman lands, but for the next several years he lives in Moldavia and Hungary. He eventually allies with Hunyadi.
1451 – With the death of Murad II, his son Mehmed II becomes the Ottoman ruler.
1453 – The Ottomans under Mehmed II capture Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire.
1456 – Mehmed II leads Ottoman forces to besiege Belgrade, but John Hunyadi’s Hungarian army arrives. The ensuing battle, fought on 22 July, is a major victory for the Hungarians.
Relations between John Hunyadi and Vladislav II break down, and Vlad III plots to invade Wallachia. Hunyadi dies on 11 August, and days later Vlad III begins his attack. Vladislav II is betrayed by his own men and then assassinated on 20 August 20. Vlad III becomes voivode again.
1456–1462 – Vlad III’s reign over Wallachia is characterized by frequent purges of real and alleged enemies, earning him the nickname ‘The Impaler’. According to some sources, thousands of people are killed by the voivode.
During this period, Vlad remains loyal to the Ottomans, paying an annual tribute of 10,000 gold ducats, sometimes delivering the tribute to the sultan’s court in person.
1458 – Matthias Corvinus, son of John Hunyadi, is elected King of Hungary.
1461 – When reports arrive that Vlad III is considering an alliance with Matthias Corvinus, Ottoman sultan Mehmed II orders the capture of the Wallachian ruler. Vlad learns of the plot against him and captures and impales the Ottoman officials. He then launches attacks on Ottoman territory along the Danube River.
1462 – Mehmed II leads an army to invade Wallachia. Vlad III uses guerrilla warfare tactics – including the famous Night Attack at Târgoviște – which hamper the Ottoman advance, but Mehmed is able to seize Wallachia and install Vlad’s brother Radu as the new voivode.
Late that year, Vlad meets with Matthias Corvinus in order to form an alliance against the Ottomans. After some negotiations, Matthias has Vlad arrested and taken back to Hungary. For the next fourteen years, he would be kept imprisoned, mostly at the city of Visegrád. According to Gabriele Rangone, Bishop of Eger, during this time Vlad “would trap mice, cut them into pieces, and stick them on bits of wood as he had done with the men he had impaled.”
1467 – Matthias Corvinus goes to war against Stephen III, Voivode of Moldavia, but is defeated at the Battle of Baia on 15 December.
1473–1475 – Rule over Wallachia shifts several times between Vlad’s brother Radu III and Basarab the Elder until Radu’s death in 1475. Another claimant is Basarab IV, the cousin of Basarab the Elder, who is supported by Stefan Bathory, Voivode of Transylvania.
1475 – Ottoman campaign against Stephen III ends in defeat at the Battle of Vaslui on 10 January. Stephen then allies with Matthias Corvinus and asks him to release Vlad in order to depose Basarab the Elder. In July the Hungarian king releases Vlad and assists him in preparation for a campaign, but then Basarab concludes a peace agreement with Matthias.
1476 – In the first few months of this year, Vlad is made a joint commander of a Hungarian raid against Ottoman-held territories in present-day Serbia and Bosnia. The towns of Šabac and Srebrenica are conquered and looted.
Mehmed II personally leads an army against Moldavia. With Wallachian support, the Ottomans defeat Stephen III at the Battle of Valea Albă on 26 July. The Ottoman campaign in Moldavia then falters, and the next month they begin to withdraw. Vlad III joins with Stefan Bathory in pursuit of the Ottomans, and this army then continues into Wallachia. Basarab the Elder flees as Târgoviște and Bucharest are conquered in November.
Vlad III’s third reign as Voivode of Wallachia ends around Christmas when Basarab the Elder returns with a new army and attacks. In the ensuing battle, Vlad is killed. In one version, he actually wins the battle, then goes to a nearby hill to observe the actions. However, Vlad’s own men mistake him for an enemy and attack. In the ensuing confusion, Vlad slays five opponents before “he was pierced through by many lances, and thus he was killed.”
To learn more about Vlad III, who would become a national hero in Romania, and the inspiration for the character Dracula, please see:
Matei Cazacu, Dracula (Brill, 2017)
Adrian Gheorghe, “Understanding the Ottoman Campaign in Wallachia in the Summer of 1462. Numbers, Limits, Manoeuvres and Meanings,” in Vlad der Pfähler – Dracula Tyrann oder Volkstribun?, ed. Thomas Bohn (Harrassowitz 2017), 159-188.
Kurt W. Treptow, Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula (The Center for Romanian Studies, 2020)
This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine, Issue XI:4, as part of a feature on Vlad. Click here to buy it.
Top Image: Woodcut of Vlad made in 1491 – British Library IA.2673.