Heroes & Villains Vlad the Impaler

Outside Romania Vlad III is most known for inspiring Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but how did this folk hero acquire his bloodthirsty reputation?

A heroic outlaw. A rebellious streak. A morally righteous man who punished the rich and was hailed by the poor. You might be thinking of Robin Hood but Romanians would use similar words to describe their national hero Vlad the Impaler, a leader who once dined while surrounded by the twitching bodies of his enemies, pierced with sharp wooden spikes. How does someone with such inhumane and extreme methods become seen as a folk hero?

Vlad III didn’t have a normal upbringing — not surprising for a leader who would become notorious for impaling his enemies. Even though his family descended from a Romanian warlord who founded the state of Wallachia (now southern Romania), they didn’t act like noblemen. War was in their DNA and the urge to spill blood was simply too strong to spend their days debating politics. It was inevitable that as a young Vlad grew up surrounded by the horrors of war, he too would one day participate in it.

But history might have been very different had it not been for a bizarre decision by Vlad’s father, Vlad II, that sparked a chain of events responsible for what his son would eventually become.

Wallachia was a state teetering on the brink of destruction, stuck directly between the hated Ottoman Empire and untrustworthy Hungarian Empire. Lacking the necessary political skill needed to manage such an explosive and delicate situation, Vlad II made the decision as Wallachia’s leader to side with the bigger threat — the Ottoman Empire — sending his two sons to be held captive in Turkish court as a sign of loyalty to the Sultan. In the short term, it worked, prompting a shaky peace agreement between the two states. But in the long term, this would have devastating consequences.

For this is where Vlad III, already a young boy with a hostile mentality, would learn the art of torture and have his psyche twisted into something extreme and unpleasant.

If Vlad II believed that sending both his sons to the Sultan meant they could rely on each other for support, he made a huge error of judgement. Vlad’s brother Radu was immediately favoured by his Turkish captors, attracting the attention of the future Sultan, Mehmed II, who ensured he didn’t suffer like the other prisoners. Radu was allowed access to the Royal Court and converted to Islam.

Vlad III was furious and developed a hatred for both Radu and Mehmed, suffering bigger psychological scars caused by burning jealously and rage than those inflicted by his Turkish captors for his rebellious streak and insolence. Vlad III would often be locked up in Turkish dungeons and whipped as his instincts saw him continue to fight back despite the painful consequences.

It was in the dungeons of these strange, foreign lands that the perfect conditions were set to create a bloodthirsty leader, Vlad III’s young mind clouded with thoughts of revenge while witnessing the twisted agony of other prisoners — a toxic combination that distorted his mindset.

When Vlad escaped to Moldavia, he put the shoes on his horse backwards to confuse anyone who tried to follow him

The boys had become young men when devastating news hit that would shatter their brotherly bonds for good. The struggle for power in Wallachia had proved too much for the father who sent them away, who now lay assassinated along with their older brother, Mircea. Vlad III demanded revenge on those who had taken the lives of his father and brother. The Turks foolishly believed his time in captivity meant they could control him as a puppet leader and supported Vlad III’s return to Wallachia, but, incredibly, Radu declined to join his brother in the quest for revenge, deciding to stay behind with the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III was beside himself with outrage. The two may have entered captivity as brothers, but they left as bitter rivals.

Things went from bad to worse. Although Vlad III was successful in taking power in Wallachia, his inexperience made him an easy target for the Hungarian military, who ousted him with ease. It was an embarrassing defeat, as Vlad was unable to exact his revenge on his father’s murderers, or prove his superiority to his estranged brother. He had become ill-tempered and moody, driven by desperation and simmering hatred of Radu and the Turks. With no family or allies to turn to, Vlad III turned to the last hope he had to recapture the throne: his former enemy, the Hungarians. Vlad III spun a dramatic tale, selling them stories about his knowledge of the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire so that, together, they could use that information to bring them down. And the Hungarians bought it.

He returned to Wallachia with the Hungarian army on his side, eight years after that same army had driven him out. However this wasn’t the same naive leader who had previously taken charge. Hardened by a fierce rivalry with his brother and the bitter failure of his first reign far from forgotten, Vlad III was now a man ready to lead his people. Wallachia demanded a strong leader too. The state had fallen into ruin while he was away, torn apart by years of war as trade ground to a halt, crime ran rampant and leading noblemen squabbled with each other for power. Extreme measures were called for to restore the proud state of Wallachia to its former glory.

Independence was the key. Spurred on by his own memories of being locked up in Turkish dungeons, Vlad III wanted his people to be independent and proud, free of the shacldes and chains that bound them to the noblemen who poisoned Wallachia with extortion and corruption. He built a number of new villages for the peasants and recruited among their ranks positions in the council, while limiting foreign merchant trade so the economy of Wallachia could thrive once more. But the noblemen would not escape that easily -particularly as Vlad III considered their class to be guilty of assassinating his father. He doled out extreme punishment for those who dared break the law and, just like the beggars and thieves who suffered death by burning, mutilation or any other inhumane methods, any noblemen who committed crimes received exactly the same fate.

It was a strange, cruel and twisted view on equality that crushed any thoughts of rebellion against his leadership, particularly in high society.

It was his infamous torture methods that ultimately defined his reign. Vlad III had a thirst for impaling those who had wronged him, slowly inserting the wooden spikes into his victims so they wouldn’t die from shock, then watching with amusement as they twitched. As the printing press became widespread around Europe and tales about the leader began to spread, one particular image from a German printing block stood out — Vlad calmly eating his dinner surrounded by a forest of impaled victims. Even the Turks, who had once held Vlad captive, were fearful of the monster he had become and now referred to him as Kaziklu Bey — ‘The Impaler Prince’. In Wallachia, he was known simply as Vlad the Impaler.

However despite Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror, the hatred of his brother Radu that would never fade ultimately caused his downfall.

Eventually the Ottoman Empire became restless with the growing reputation of Vlad -and particularly with his successful campaigns along the Danube River, which saw the slaughter of many Turks. The Sultan decided that it was time to punish the fearless leader and he marched with a huge army, greatly outnumbering Wallachia’s forces.

Vlad was forced to retreat to the capital of Targoviste, setting fire to his own villages and poisoning wells along the way to slow the Turkish army’s advance. But the most gruesome sight was saved for when the Sultan arrived at the capital, as he was greeted with a field of impaled Turks, stretching as far as the eye could see. This take on psychological warfare worked.

Enter Radu. The Sultan knew he had failed and so he turned to Vlad’s brother to continue the charge and pick up where the Ottoman Empire had left off. Radu accepted the task with relish. Although Vlad had a terrifying reputation, Radu knew his brother well and didn’t fear him as others did. He also had something that would prove far more important in battle: money. With the financial backing of the Ottoman Empire, Radu pounded Vlad’s mountain strongholds with battalions and guns, while blackmailing Wallachia noblemen into switching sides. Radu slowly gained the upper hand in the conflict, grinding down the morale of Vlad’s forces and their leader. When the end came, it would be a devastating defeat. Preferring death to captivity, Vlad the Impaler’s wife threw herself off a cliff into the river below as Radu’s forces approached. Vlad himself was helpless, forced to flee to Hungary where the king accused him of treason and locked him up.

Vlad the Impaler would never have his revenge. Radu would suffer a sudden death on the throne of Wallachia while Vlad was manipulating his Hungarian captors into releasing him. He would wrest back power of Wallachia for a third time, but perhaps with Radu gone and the tragic loss of his close family over the years, Vlad no longer had the burning hatred necessary to motivate him — he was killed in battle just a few months later.

Some argue Vlad the Impaler was an inhumane monster who tortured for his own pleasure. Others argue he was a fierce defender of his homeland, using extreme measures to cut through the corruption and lawlessness rife in the Middle Ages. But however you see him, there’s no denying that Vlad the Impaler is bigger than the state he ruled and has left an indelible mark on history.

Life in the time of Vlad ‘the Impaler’ Dracula

Birth of propaganda

The first mechanical printing technology was created in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. As it became widespread, Germans started to print pamphlets of Vlad -the most famous example showing the leader eating dinner while surrounded by impaled bodies (as pictured below).

Superstitious era

The 15th century was an extremely superstitious time in Romania, with burning of those accused of being witches or warlocks. Witch-hunting texts began to circulate such as Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer Of The Witches) in 1486, which described how to torture those suspected of witchcraft.

The Black Death aftermath

The first wave of the bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death, swept through Europe in 1347 and there would be six more waves before 1400. As a result the 15th century began with Europe’s population cut in half by the Black Death, as the long road to recovery -both socially and economically — got underway.

War had changed

While gunpowder had become common after 1300, it wasn’t until the early-1400s that the number and calibre of guns rose dramatically — to the point where these new weapons would be a regular sight on the battlefield. As the price of gunpowder fell in the late-14th century, the use of cannons increased too.

Europe starts to explore the world

Europe’s trade tours with the East meant there were plenty of middlemen who took their cut on the way, and the routes themselves were hostile and dangerous. It wasn’t until the Ottoman Empire began taking bigger cuts that Europe was finally spurred on to start voyages and exploration quests — mostly to find another way to reach the Far East.

Vlad to vampire

Bram Stoker’s world-famous novel Dracula from 1897 is often credited as being inspired by Vlad the Impaler, which is little wonder as the notorious antagonist of the Irish author’s novel shares much in common with the historical figure. There was the birthplace of Transylvania, the bloodthirsty tendencies and, crucially, the name: Vlad Dracula. However, it’s not entirely accurate to say that Stoker’s vampire was actually based on Vlad.

Vlad the Impaler never drank blood, showed no aversion to sunlight or any other of the other mythological traits associated with Dracula or, by extension, vampires. Bram Stoker’s novel was inspired partially by Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla from 1872 and partially by notorious Flungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory, said to have killed up to 700 women and bathed in their blood in the 16th and 17th centuries. Dracula’s mannerisms were inspired by Sir Flenry Irving, the actor-manager at the theatre where Stoker worked.

So why Transylvania? Why Dracula? The vampire connection with Transylvania had already been established prior to Stoker’s novel, the most well-known example being the blood-drinking vampires in Jules Vernes’ The Castle Of The Carpathians (1892). As for the name Dracula, Bram Stoker stumbled upon it in a book he consulted for research purposes — Count Wampyr was the original name.

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