Born: 1428-31, known as Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler or Vlad III Dracula
Died: December 1476 – January 1477
Reign: October – November 1448; 15 April 1456 – July 1462; December 1476 – January 1477
Marriages: Unknown first wife; Jusztina Szilágyi
Children: Mihnea (b. 1462), unnamed second son (killed 1486); Vlad Drakwyla
Dynasty: Drâculesti, House of Basarab
Throughout this post, I will refer to Vlad the Impaler as either ‘Vlad’ or ‘Vlad the Impaler’. Any other characters called Vlad (and there are a few!) will be referred to in full, such as ‘Vlad II Dracul’ (Vlad’s father), or ‘Vladislav II’ (Voivode of Walachia), so as to avoid any confusion. There is also a list of characters at the bottom of this post, and the characters are listed in bold.
Vlad III, better known as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, was born in Sighisoara, a part of Transylvania, modern-day Romania. He was the second illegitimate son of Vlad II Dracul – hence the name Dracula. His father was the Voivode (ruler) of Walachia from 1436-42, and again from 1443-47. The nickname ‘Dracul’ came from Vlad II’s membership in the Order of the Dragon, a military fraternity founded by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1408. It was dedicated to stopping the Ottoman Turks’ advance into Europe from the East.
Vlad’s date of birth is often contended, and there are no definitive sources as to when he was actually born. The dates are often presumed to be between 1428-31; he was old enough to be a candidate to the throne of Walachia* in 1448, meaning his birth would have been between 20-23 years old at the time. What we do know, though, is that he was born in Sighisoara, where his father lived in a three-storey stone house from 1431-35.
As an adolescent boy, during the Crusade Varna (1443-44), Vlad was sent as a hostage to the court of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II (r. 1421-44, 1446-51). Vlad was exploited as a child sex slave, and the buggery to which he was subjected to can be considered the likely psychiatric source of his later obsessions.
*Walachia was a historical region of what is modern-day Romania. It was situated north of the Lower Danube River and south of the Southern Carpathian Mountains.
First Reign, October-November 1448
Upon the death of his father and elder brother in 1447, Vlad became a potential claimant to the Wallachian throne. However, the current ruler, Vladislav II, had taken the throne before Vlad had chance to publicly put his claim forward. It is often believed that Vladislav II assassinated Vlad II Dracul (Vlad the Impaler’s father) in order to seize the throne. Vladislav II was assisted by John Hunyadi, a leading military figurehead in Walachia, and part of a noble Transylvanian family. However, in September 1448, John Hunyadi launched a campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Vlad took advantage of Hunyadi’s absence, and broke into Walachia in early October.
The Ottoman forces defeated Hunyadi’s army in the Battle of Kosovo between 17-18 October 1448. Hunyadi’s deputy, Nicholas Vizaknai, urged Vlad to meet him in Transylvania, but Vlad refused. Vladislav II returned to Walachia with the remnants of his defeated army – but it was still enough to scare Vlad off. Vlad fled to the Ottoman Empire, and arrived in Edime on 7 December 1448, putting an end to his first reign as Voivode of Walachia.
Second Reign, 15 April 1456 – July 1462
Vlad moved from Edime to Moldavia (which forms part of modern-day Moldova, Romania and Ukraine), where his uncle Bogdan II had taken the throne with John Hunyadi’s support in Autumn 1449. Vlad allegedly wanted to settle in Brasov (a city in Transylvania), but Hunyadi forbade the burghers (privileged citizens of medieval European towns) to let him settle there in a letter he wrote to them on 6 February 1452. Vlad instead returned to Moldavia.
Unfortunately – and not for the last time – there is a gap in the history of Vlad’s life here. We do know that he returned to Hungary sometime before 3 July 1456, because on that day Hunyadi informed the citizens of Brasov that he had tasked Vlad with the defence of the Transylvanian border from the Ottomans.
Once again, Vlad invaded Walachia in Spring 1456, but instead of garnering support from the Ottomans, he instead tried with Hungarian support. He was successful this time in two ways: firstly, Vladislav II ‘the imposter’ in Vlad’s view, was killed in the invasion; and secondly, he was proclaimed Voivode of Walachia. This was evident in a letter addressed to the burghers of Brasov on 10 September 1456. In this letter, he promised to protect them from an Ottoman invasion of Transylvania, but he also sought their support if the Ottomans occupied Walachia. Perhaps the most important element of this letter, though, was when he stated:
When a man is strong and powerful, he can make peace as he wants to; but when he is weak, a stronger one will come and do what he wants to him.Vlad to the Burghers of Brasov
This quote is often the first bit of evidence many historians see as Vlad’s completely authoritarian personality coming out. Shortly after this infamous letter, Vlad began his purge. The contemporary Byzantine historian, Laonikos Chalkokondyles, recorded in his chronicle that “hundreds or thousands” of people were impaled (with the aid of a needle-thin greased stake which was rammed up the victim’s rectum and out through their mouth in such a way that the death throes could last for days) at Vlad’s order at the beginning of his Second Reign. He initially targeted the boyars (aristocrats) who had participated in the murder of his father and brother, or whom he suspected had conspired against him. Interestingly, Chalkokondyles also wrote that Vlad helped the Wallachian economy somewhat, by using the “money, property, and other goods” of his victims to help pay off any debts he had accumulated from his previous invasions, and to pay soldiers in his retinue.
The next major event in Vlad’s Second Reign also occurred early on. John Hunyadi died on 11 August 1456, and his son, Ladislaus Hunyadi, became the captain-general of Hungary. Ladislaus accused Vlad of having “no intention of remaining faithful” to the Kingdom of Hungary in a letter to the burghers of Brasov and ordered them to support Dan III (Vladislav II’s brother) against Vlad.
However, the King of Hungary, Ladislaus V, had Ladislaus Hunyadi executed on 16 March 1457. Hunyadi’s mother, Erzsébet Szilágyi, and her brother, Michael, stirred up a rebellion against the king. Taking advantage of the civil war in Hungary, Vlad assisted his cousin Stephen (son of Bogdan II of Moldavia) in his move to seize Moldavia in June 1457. Vlad also broke into Transylvania and plundered the villages around Brasov and Sibiu. Some early German stories from the early 1460s describe Vlad as carrying “men, women and children” from a Transylvanian Saxon village to Walachia and having them impaled. Since the Transylvanian Saxons remained loyal to Ladislaus V, Vlad’s attack against them strengthened the position of the Szilágyis.
Vlad’s representatives participated in the peace negotiations between Michael Szilágyi and the Saxons. The burghers of Brasov agreed that they would expel Dan III from their town. Delighted, Vlad described Michael as his “lord and elder brother” in a letter dated 1 December 1457.
He imprisoned and impaled them…Basarab Laiota on Vlad the Impaler
However, Ladislaus Hunyadi’s younger brother, Matthias Corvinus, was elected King of Hungary on 24 January 1458 upon Ladislaus V’s death. He ordered the burghers of Sibiu to keep the peace with Vlad on 3 March. In May 1458, Vlad ordered the burghers of Brasov to send craftsmen to Walachia – he disregarded the Transylvanian Saxons in this respect, because he forbade the Saxons to enter Walachia, forcing them to sell their goods to Wallachian merchants at border fairs. One Saxon merchant confiscated the steel that a Wallachian merchant had brought to him, and upon hearing about this, Vlad “ransacked and tortured” Saxon merchants in early 1459, according to a letter written by Basarab Laiota (a son of Dan II of Walachia):
“…the officials and councillors of Brasov cried to us with broken hearts about the things which Dracula, our enemy did…[he] captured all the merchants of Brasov who had gone in peace to Walachia and took all their wealth; but he was not satisfied with only the wealth of these people…he imprisoned them and impaled them, 41 in all…he became even more evil and gathered 300 boys from Brasov that he found in Walachia. Of these, he impaled some and burned others.”
In response, Dan III broke into Wallachia, but Vlad defeated him and had him executed on 20 April 1460. Vlad then invaded southern Transylvania and destroyed the suburbs of Brasov, ordering the impalement of all men and women who had been captured. Peace was restored – simply through the people of Brasov fearing Vlad – by 26 July 1460, when Vlad addressed the burghers as his “brothers and friends”. Yet Vlad was not all about brotherly love and friendship – he had war on his hands.
The Ottoman Wars
The Ottoman Wars were a major part of Vlad’s Second Rule, and perhaps the most famous of these skirmishes was what was stylised as The Night Attack at Târgoviste.
This battle was fought between Vlad’s Wallachian forces and Sultan Mehmed II’s Ottoman forces overnight on Thursday 17 June 1462. It initially started when Vlad refused to pay the jizya, a tax on non-Muslim subjects, to the Sultan, and intensified when Vlad invaded Bulgaria in early 1462. In response, Mehmed raised an army of approximately 250,000 men (100,000 regular troops and 150,000 conscript engineers) with the aim to conquer Walachia and annex it to the Ottoman Empire. Vlad raised an army of 30,000 men (22,000 of whom were light infantry and volunteers) and with a band of these soldiers, attacked the Ottoman camp overnight, in an attempt to kill Mehmed himself. The assassination attempt failed, and Mehmed marched to the Wallachian capital of Târgoviste where he discovered it had been almost utterly destroyed.
There were large stakes upon which…about twenty thousand men, women and children had been spitted…The historian Chalkokondyles on the horror Mehmed II’s troops saw on their return to Constantinople.
Upon leaving the capital, and heading back to Constantinople, Mehmed and his men were horrified to discover a “forest of the impaled” – thousands of impaled Turks who had been killed during Vlad’s invasion of Bulgaria. The number 23,844 carcasses impaled is mentioned by Vlad himself in a letter to Matthias Corvinus in the same year. The historian Chalkokondyles wrote that:
“There were large stakes on which, it was said, about twenty thousand men, women and children had been spitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the Sultan himself…There were infants too, affixed to their mothers on the stakes and birds had made their nests in their entrails.”
It was not hard to see why – even with an army eight times larger than Vlad’s – the Sultan retreated back to Constantinople.
Vlad’s Imprisonment, 1462-75
Shortly after receiving Vlad’s letter describing the gory details of the thousands of impaled Turks, Matthias Corvinus (or Matthias I of Hungary as he was titled) came to Transylvania in November 1462 upon Vlad’s request. Vlad was insistent on waging war against the Ottoman Empire, but Matthias was hesitant, despite the negotiations lasting for weeks. In the end, Matthias contacted a Czech mercenary, John Jiskra of Brandys, and he captured Vlad near Rucar in Walachia, in order to imprison him.
Vlad was imprisoned in Hungary at Matthias’ request. In order to explain Vlad’s sudden imprisonment to Pope Pius II (r. 1458-64), Matthias presented three letters to him, allegedly written by Vlad on 7 November 1462, to Mehmed II, Mahmud Pasha (Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, 1456-66, 1472-74) and Stephen III of Moldavia. In these letters, it was stated that Vlad had offered to join his forces with the Sultan’s army against Hungary if the Sultan restored him to his throne. Many historians agree that these letters were forged to give grounds for Vlad’s imprisonment.
Pope Pius II obviously bought the story of Vlad’s three letters and made sure he stayed imprisoned. He was first imprisoned in what Chalkokondyles refers to as “the city of Belgrade”, which strangely was not the modern-day capital of Serbia, but what is now Alba Iulia in Romania. He was then taken to Visegrád (Hungary), where he was held for thirteen years.
As I mentioned earlier, there is unfortunately another gap in Vlad’s biography here. Absolutely no documents (that we know of yet!) have been preserved which refer to Vlad between 1462 and 1475.
What we do know, though, is that in Summer 1475, Stephen III of Moldavia sent his envoys to Matthias Corvinus, asking him to send Vlad to Walachia, against Basarab Laitoa, who had submitted himself to the Ottomans. Stephen wanted to secure Walachia for a ruler who had been an enemy of the Ottoman Empire, because “the Wallachians [were] like the Turks” to the Moldavians, according to his letter. Matthias accepted Stephen’s request, and he released Vlad from prison.
Third Reign and Death, 1475-77
Matthias recognised Vlad as the lawful prince of Walachia, but he did not provide him military assistance to regain his principality. Vlad moved from Hungary to Transylvania in June 1475, before briefly returning to Pécs in Hungary to purchase a house. His house became known as Drakula Háza (Dracula’s House).
Mehmed II invaded Moldavia and defeated Stephen III of Moldavia in the Battle of Valea Alba on 26 July 1476. Meanwhile, Vlad stayed in Brasov, and confirmed the commercial privileges of the local burghers in Walachia on 7 October 1476. Stephen of Moldavia and Vlad ceremoniously confirmed their alliance, and together they occupied Budapest, forcing Basarab Laiota to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire on 16 November. Vlad informed the merchants of Brasov about his victory in a speech and urged them to come with him to Walachia. He was crowned Voivode of Walachia on 25 November 1476.
However, Basarab Laiota returned to Walachia with Ottoman support, and completely overwhelmed the Wallachian forces, taking them by surprise. Vlad was killed in fighting them sometime in either late December 1476 or early January 1477. He was aged between 45-49. In a letter written on 10 January 1477, Stephen III of Moldavia related that Vlad’s Moldavian retinue had been massacred. According to Leonardo Botta, the Milanese ambassador to Buda, the Ottomans cut Vlad’s corpses into pieces, and that his head had been sent to Mehmed II.
The site of Vlad’s burial is unknown – further adding elements of mystery to his life. According to popular tradition in the nineteenth century, pieces of Vlad’s body were reportedly buried in the Monastery of Snagov (Romania). However, when it was excavated in 1933, nothing was found – only adding to the horror stories and myths which surrounded the real-life Dracula!
Works containing stories about Vlad’s cruelty emerged as early as the 1480s in the Holy Roman Empire. The invention of movable print in the 1450s thanks to Johannes Gutenberg meant that these stories and woodcuts could be published on mass and distributed across Europe – these stories made Vlad’s reputation become one of the earliest examples of a bestselling book. To enhance sales, many of the books were published with woodcuts on their title pages which depicted horrific scenes. Notable examples include the editions published in Nuremberg in 1499 and Strasbourg in 1500.
But where did the Dracula connection come from? We know he was called Vlad Dracul, but what about the vampiric element? Interestingly, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is the first time a connection was made between Vlad and vampirism. Yet it is not just the blood-sucking element which makes it so vastly different to Vlad’s life – numerous other similarities can be drawn. For instance, the fact that Stoker’s Count Dracula lives in a Transylvanian castle (as did Vlad), the stakes which can be used to kill vampires (such as Vlad impaling his enemies on stakes), and rumours of his body being buried in a church (which was popular in the nineteenth century regarding Vlad).
Historian Norman Davies contends that stories about Vlad’s cruelties serve to remind us about religious fanaticism and inherent evil which persisted in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe. He draws upon examples of Mary I of England (“Bloody Mary”) and her persecution of protestants, as related in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) as belonging to the same “sickening genre as the horrors of the Wallachian vampire-prince.”
I hope you enjoyed this one, and make sure you’ve got plenty of garlic in the house to keep those vampires away! Happy Halloween, everyone!
For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.
List of Characters
Basarab Laiota: a son of Dan II of Wallachia, and had five stints as Prince of Wallachia (November-December 1473, Spring 1474, September-October 1474, January 1475-November 1476, December 1476-November 1477)
Bogdan II: Prince of Moldavia (r. 1449-51), and uncle of Vlad the Impaler.
Dan III: Sometimes referred to as ‘Dan the Younger’. A pretender to the throne of Wallachia from 1456-60. Brother of Vladislav II.
John Hunyadi: Leading Hungarian military and political figure, descended from a noble Romanian family. Father of Ladislaus Hunyadi and Matthias Corvinus.
Ladislaus V: King of Hungary and Croatia (r. 1440-57), King of Bohemia (r. 1453-57).
Ladislaus Hunyadi: Eldest son of John Hunyadi, and a Hungarian nobleman. Older brother of Matthias Corvinus.
Matthias Corvinus: Also known as Matthias I. King of Hungary and Croatia (r. 1458-90), King of Bohemia (r. 1469-90), Duke of Austria (r. 1487-90). Youngest son of John Hunyadi and younger brother of Ladislaus Hunyadi.
Mehmed II: Also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, he was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1444-46, then again from 1451-81.
Murad II: Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1421-44 and then again from 1446-51. Vlad the Impaler was sent to his court and abused there as an adolescent.
Stephen III of Moldavia: Also known as Stephen the Great and later canonised as a Romanian Saint, he was the Voivode (Prince) of Moldavia from 1457-1504. He was a cousin of Vlad the Impaler. He was the son of Bogdan II.
Vlad II Dracul: Vlad the Impaler’s father. Also known as Vlad the Dragon. He was Voivode of Wallachia from 1436-42, and again from 1443-47.
Vlad the Impaler: Our main man! Also known more officially as Vlad III, or Vlad Dracula, he was the son of Vlad II and Voivode of Wallachia. The inspiration behind Dracula for his abhorrent cruelty to citizens and strangers alike.
Vladislav II: Voivode of Wallachia (r. 1447-48, 1448-56). Rumoured assassin of Vlad II Dracul and placed on the throne by John Hunyadi. Killed by Vlad the Impaler. Brother of Dan III.
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
Norman Davies, Europe: A History (2014)
John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History (2011)
Dictators Podcast (Spotify): Vlad the Impaler Pt. 1, Pt. 2
We Are History Podcast (Spotify): Vlad the Impaler, the original ‘Dracula’
Curious Characters Podcast (Spotify): Vlad the Impaler “Dracula”