By Andrei Pogăciaș
Wallachian voivode Vlad III the Impaler is well known all over the world, both for the gruesome stories that circulated about him over time and due to an Irish writer who used him as the main character for a fantasy book regarding a Transylvanian vampire.
His aura was enhanced by his military exploits and by his ruthlessness, both in war and on a domestic level. When we talk about him, we should take into account at least two sides to his real story: the chronicles and official data regarding his military campaigns, the writings against him during and after his lifetime, and last but not least, the local legends about his sense of justice and cruelty.
The Military Campaigns
The official chronicles, whether Wallachian, Hungarian, or Ottoman, backed by various other documents – letters, reports, etc. – talk between the lines about a classic medieval European ruler who simply wanted to secure the throne (that was rightly his), to impose justice and discipline in his country, and to scare off foreign enemies. There are a few descriptions of his military exploits and his prowess in conducting these campaigns. Some of the later legends also talk about the massacres he ordered against civilians. We know nothing about his first reign. His third rule was also short and ended in his death. His second rule is better known after he lived at the court of his relative, John Hunyadi.
In 1456, when Hunyadi was preparing to go to Belgrade to fight the Turks, Vlad commanded the troops left to guard the mountain passes between Wallachia and Transylvania in the Saxon area. At the end of July or the beginning of August, he crossed into Wallachia and won the throne once again. Unfortunately, we don’t have any information on the circumstances of this event. Around August 15, he was the new voivode, and one of his first acts was to publicly execute Vladislav II, the one who had usurped the throne. His next activity was to execute many of the boyars (loyal to Vladislav) who had been involved in the murder of his father and brother. There was a short civil war mentioned in the documents when during at least one battle, Vlad crushed the boyar opposition and executed entire families in gruesome displays of sheer cruelty. Once he had made his point with the boyars, he turned towards external but close enemies.
Two pretenders to the Wallachian throne – Dan and Vlad the Monk – were still in Transylvania, in good relations with the Saxons, and surrounded by the boyars who had escaped Vlad’s wrath. After failing to convince the Saxons to stop aiding these two, Vlad crossed into Transylvania after Easter 1457, set fire to various villages, destroyed any opposition, and took many prisoners – men, women, young and old – and had them impaled in Wallachia. While he could not besiege the Saxon towns, he could at least destroy their hinterland and execute all the prisoners, without discussing terms.
The two main Saxon towns, Hermannstadt/Sibiu and Kronstadt/Brașov, in revenge, started to infringe upon the commercial treaties, and they confiscated goods from Wallachian merchants and even executed some by impaling them. Hence, Vlad found himself again at war with the Saxons at the beginning of 1459. He called back his merchants from Transylvania and started punishing and impaling the Saxon merchants in Wallachia and confiscating their goods.
In April 1460, with help from the Crown, Wallachian émigrés, and Saxon towns, the pretender Dan finally crossed the border into Wallachia. Somewhere after the border, in the mountains, his army was completely routed. The prisoners – including women and children – were impaled, alongside the corpses of the fallen soldiers! Dan was captured, forced to dig his own grave and listen to his requiem, and was then beheaded.
Fearing the worst, Hungary, Transylvania, and the Saxon towns promptly sent 55 emissaries to Vlad, in order to appease the Wallachian voivode. Vlad had spikes prepared for them – and they knew – but he did not meet them for five weeks. At the beginning of May, Vlad crossed the border into Transylvania and started destroying villages, crops, and the outskirts of towns, and taking people prisoner. It is said that he had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people impaled in front of Kronstadt, as a reminder of the wretched help they had given to his enemy. The looting was also great. Other sources mention whole villages massacred – people “cut like cabbage” – and other prisoners beheaded or taken to Wallachia and impaled there. King Mathias, who was not very friendly before, immediately changed his view towards Vlad and asked the Transylvanians to stop harming the Wallachian merchants and travelers. The Saxon towns obeyed, and peace came again.
In his letters to these towns, Vlad announced that he was determined to settle the score with the territories in southern Transylvania, where Vlad the Monk and other Wallachians were still hiding, and asked the Saxons not to interfere. The raid occurred sometime in the first half of August, destroying a few villages. His troops looted and took prisoners, who were, as the sources mention again, cut into pieces, hanged, or impaled in plain view. The pretender Vlad the Monk was not caught.
Very soon afterwards, the Ottomans led by Hamza Pasha, the Vidin governor, wanted to capture Vlad near the Danube, but the voivode found out about the plan, attacked them, slaughtered and captured them, and impaled the prisoners – Hamza on the highest pole. His head was cut off and sent as a present to King Mathias. In the following great raid south of the Danube, in order to deplete the Sultan’s provisions base, there were over 25,000 registered victims, many being civilians. No prisoners or hostages are mentioned by the sources.
Killing in the Name of the Law
In the medieval stories, many made up by the Transylvanian Saxons at the end of the fifteenth century and sent to the Hungarian king, Vlad is presented as a vicious and bloody ruler who used to impale hundreds or thousands of people for any fault, no matter how small, enjoying the view and the stench, eating his meals under the decaying corpses, and even inviting boyars and emissaries to join him. If they complained, they would end up on a spike.
Ottoman envoys who disrespected him by not removing their turbans had them nailed onto their skulls and were sent back to the Sultan. Ottoman sources tended to exaggerate his deeds as the Saxon ones do, such as those that talk about a golden pike standing in the dining hall that was meant for envoys, or about a woman executed for having woven a shirt too short for her husband.
Another tale tells of him rounding up all the poor and the beggars in the country and feeding them in a large wooden building, which he then set on fire, explaining to the boyars that the problem was solved, there were only rich people in the country at the moment.
The rebuilding of Poenari fortress, a small stone fort on the peak of a cliff above one of the roads to Transylvania, is said to have been achieved by using the workforce of the boyar families from the capital Târgoviște, the ones who had betrayed his family before. It is said that he brought them in their rich clothes, men, women, young ladies, old and young, and had them rebuild the fortress using their bare hands. By the time the work was done, many had died falling from the cliff or from fatigue and all of them were barely dressed in the rags of their former luxurious clothing. But justice had been done in the eyes of the voivode.
Finally, the most enlightening of all these tales of his actions is the one regarding the golden chalice. The voivode ordered a large golden cup to be placed near a famous fountain so everybody could drink. It is said that while he lived, the golden cup remained there because everybody was scared to death of the punishment awaiting all those who stole or committed other crimes – impalement.
Impaling – Instrument of Torture or Execution?
While Vlad’s name seems to be linked for eternity with this gruesome instrument, it should be clear that all European countries used a variety of instruments of torture and execution, including impaling. The idea was not to immediately kill the victim but to make them bleed and keep them alive for a while in agony, while being plucked by birds and insects, being thus an example for all others – that anyone who would disobey the king or voivode would meet this end. The image would be horrifying, as the poor victims would die slowly, over days or maybe even more than a week, in the heat, cold, or rain, with body parts starting to fall from them as the bodies decayed. The stench of the execution places would be tremendous.
It’s no wonder that when the sultan saw the forest of impaled Turks in front of the Wallachian capital Târgoviște in the summer of 1462, he stopped his army, looked in awe, dismounted from his horse, and said a prayer, because his eyes had never seen such a gruesome image. This did not stop him from continuing the campaign and replacing Vlad the Impaler on the throne with his brother, although it would have been Vlad’s lifetime achievement to have had the sultan impaled on the highest spike for him to admire his most precious victim. But history would go the other way. After he was killed, Vlad’s head was skinned, stuffed, and sent to the sultan, who knew that he finally had some peace at his Danubian border.
Looking back on European medieval history, it is rather obvious that Vlad III was not a demon, he was just a normal ruler who wanted to secure his throne from other pretenders and rebelling boyars on the internal level. He also wanted to impose the law in his country and rid it of lawlessness. Also, his military campaigns, either in Transylvania or the Ottoman Empire or in the defensive battles in his own country, were meant to achieve victory by combat and scaring off his opponents. His means might have been a bit over the top, but it seems they worked, and this ensured his everlasting legacy.
Andrei Pogăciaș studied History and International Relations at the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj (Romania). He works as a freelancer military historian, editor at a publishing house, and translator, and has published mainly on Eastern European military history, from ancient times to the First World War. He has a PhD on the Austrian-Russian-Ottoman Wars of the eighteenth century, and has contributed to various magazines in his country and abroad. You can find his work on Academia.edu.
See also: The Impalings of Vlad the Impaler
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.