The historical Dracula: monster or Machiavellian prince?

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

Vlad III Dracul, voivod or prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepeş), the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker based his character’s appearance directly on a description by a papal legate to Buda, the Hungarian capital, who noted his‘. . . cold and terrible appearance, a strong and aquiline nose, swollen nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which very long eyelashes framed large wide-open green eyes; the bushy eyebrows made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head . . . from which black curly locks hung on his wide-shouldered person.’This celebrated portrait at Ambraş Castle near Innsbruck supports this written account. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Vlad III Dracul, voivod or prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepeş), the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker based his character’s appearance directly on a description by a papal legate to Buda, the Hungarian capital, who noted his
‘. . . cold and terrible appearance, a strong and aquiline nose, swollen nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which very long eyelashes framed large wide-open green eyes; the bushy eyebrows made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head . . . from which black curly locks hung on his wide-shouldered person.’
This celebrated portrait at Ambraş Castle near Innsbruck supports this written account. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Ireland and Romania lie at opposite corners of Europe. An obvious link is that both countries have well-developed rural cultures and have only relatively recently escaped the embrace of adjacent domineering empires. Another is that for just over a century they have shared the sinister figure of Count Dracula. Dracula, the 1897 novel by Dublin-born Bram Stoker, is a remarkable borrowing and reworking of a legendary figure from Romania’s heritage, and one that has spawned a whole genre of fiction and film in many languages. Stoker added to the allure of his immortal literary creation by effective use of the geographical setting of Transylvania, a far-away mysterious place that still feels unreal to many people.
Transylvania, indeed a place of mystery steeped in historical atmosphere, is today one of Europe’s most unspoiled places. Romania inside the bend of the Carpathians retains almost medieval landscapes of rolling hills, dark oak and hornbeam forests (with bears), flower-bright hay-meadows and scattered villages, the streets of eighteenth-century-style farmhouses dominated by great fortified medieval churches. And here indeed in 1431, in the picturesque citadel town of Sighişoara, founded by twelfth-century German colonists, was born the man destined to become Vlad III Dracul, voivod or prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepeş) or simply Dracula. Not only are the remote uplands of the Carpathian region rife with superstition, including tales of vampires, but also Vlad’s blood-soaked struggle against Ottoman Turks, Hungarians and his own nobility had passed into legend even within his lifetime. The fog of history has both obscured and exaggerated his fearsome reputation, notably his use of impalement as an instrument of awe, punishment and execution, but one needs to remember that he lived in an age of political insecurity, unstable frontiers, constant warfare and invasion, and institutionalised cruelty, not to mention repeated episodes of famine and plague.

Seeking inspiration
Stoker never visited Transylvania but had done his homework using Baedeker’s guide and a trawl through the British Museum library. In a passage from Jonathan Harker’s diary at the beginning of Dracula, Stoker elegantly summarised the region’s turbulent human population:

‘In the population of Transylvania are four distinct nationalities: Saxons in the south, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are the descendents of the Dacians; Magyars in the west, and Szekelys in the east and north. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Attila and the Huns . . . I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool . . .’

He mistakenly regarded his count as a Székely (Romanian Secui), one of a mysterious Hungarian-speaking warrior tribe who settled in the region at the same time as or perhaps before the Magyars. Today they are mostly peaceful farmers. And, ironically, Count Dracula’s forebear Vlad didn’t rule Transylvania, other than its most southerly part, but Wallachia, from the Carpathians to the Danube. Linguistic and other evidence supports the claim of the people of Romania, which comprises the medieval principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, together with Transylvania (formerly under Hungarian rule and incorporated in 1918), to be descended from the native Dacian people and their Roman rulers, who extensively settled much of the area from AD 106 to 271. Of the other ‘nationalities’, the Saxons are Germans (Romanian Saşi) who immigrated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, mostly from Flanders and Luxemburg. They settled in southern Transylvania, in an area around and between the cities of Sibiu, Sighişoara and Braşov, and in the north around Cluj (Klausenburg) and Bistriţa, from where Jonathan Harker set off by coach to the dark conifer forests of the Borgo Pass (Tihuţa in Romanian) to meet Count Dracula’s sinister coachman.
The real Vlad was undoubtedly a tyrant, capable of great violence and cruelty, for whom the end justified the means. Yet he was also a patriot and freedom-fighter, committed to seeing a strong, independent Wallachia, and worked long and hard to defend Christendom against the apparently irresistible force of resurgent Islam under the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, who were by then pushing west into Central Europe and towards Italy. Romanians commemorate Vlad as a merciless but vigorous and just ruler who, like Britain’s King Arthur, will one day return to defend their country in her hour of need. Like Arthur, many of his deeds are apocryphal, although based on actual historical events.

A principality in conflict

Still from the German expressionist silent film Nosferatu (1922), one of over 150 films inspired by Stoker’s Dracula.

Still from the German expressionist silent film Nosferatu (1922), one of over 150 films inspired by Stoker’s Dracula.

Vlad’s father, Vlad II, ruled Wallachia from 1436 to 1447. Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxemburg conferred the epithet Dracul (dragon) by admitting him to the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric fellowship dedicated to opposing Ottomans, Hussites and other infidels, heretics or pagans. Vlad’s father and elder brother, Mircea, were murdered by rebel boyars (nobles) supporting a rival claimant to the throne. By then Vlad Dracula (son of the dragon) and his younger brother were hostages in Turkey, first at Egrigöz, south of Bursa in north-western Anatolia, and later at Edirne (Adrianopolis) on the Turkish–Bulgarian border. Vlad seems to have reacted badly to Turkish captivity and his experiences may have implanted the idea of impaling enemies. Conversely, his brother, Radu cel Frumos (‘the handsome’), enjoyed good relations with his captors to the point of a homosexual liaison with at least one senior figure in the Ottoman court.
The blood-soaked story of fifteenth-century Wallachia echoed the contemporary Wars of the Roses between competing dynasties that devastated the English nobility. From the death of Mircea the Old in 1418 until Vlad’s death in 1476, eleven princes ruled Wallachia—over a total of 29 reigns! The Hungarians and Turks manipulated rival claimants. Vlad himself reigned in the autumn of 1448 courtesy of the Turks, in 1456–62 as an ally of János Hunyadi and then his son, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, and in November to December 1476 as a protégé of both Matthias Corvinus and Stefan the Great of Moldavia. Vlad’s main reign was a success, but he was impetuous and driven by implacable hatred of the Turks. In retrospect, as we shall see below, one of his less sensible moves was to massacre Saxons in Braşov and other towns, both for giving refuge to a rival to the throne and for implementing unfair trade practices. A wiser decision was to give refuge from political enemies to his cousin Stefan the Great (Stefan cel Mare), who in 1457 became voivod of Moldavia. Vlad also tried to curb the influence of the boyars, again using violence. He was feared and respected but probably not loved, certainly not by the nobility.

The Balkans c. 1470. (Sarah Gearty)

The Balkans c. 1470. (Sarah Gearty)

Vlad not only was determined to keep Wallachia free from Turkish vassaldom but also took up the call of Pope Pius II for a new crusade, despite disastrous crusader defeats at the hands of the Ottomans at Nicopolis in 1399 and Varna in 1446. In 1461, having asserted his authority against Hungary, he ceased paying tribute to the Turks and even attacked their territory along the Danube in Bulgaria while Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, was leading an expedition to capture Trebizond, last bastion of the Byzantine Empire, in north-eastern Turkey. Back in the Balkans in 1462, the sultan took a large, well-equipped army across the Danube into Wallachia. Vlad had to divide his forces to counteract Stefan, a vassal of Turkey, who was attacking the frontier fortress of Chilia—in the Danube delta—more out of self-preservation than outright treachery. Outnumbered and without allies, Vlad fought a rearguard action of ‘scorched earth’ and guerilla-style raids, including a dramatic night attack on the Turkish camp and a notorious episode of mass impalement said to have reduced that war-hardened sultan to tears. Only when Vlad had retreated across the Carpathians and the Turks had placed his brother Radu on the Wallachian throne did Matthias Corvinus arrive with a promised army. Instead of providing support, he arrested Vlad near Braşov and took him to Hungary. The basis for the arrest was letters, almost certainly forged, from Vlad to the Turks, promising an alliance against Hungary. Vlad remained under house arrest near Buda for thirteen years, probably as much a curiosity as a prisoner. Much of what is written about him comes from this period, as does the Ambraş Castle portrait.

Too late the hero

In 1475 all changed. Matthias Corvinus released Vlad, on condition that he convert from the Orthodox faith to Catholicism, and cousins Vlad and Stefan were reconciled. In the early spring of 1476 Vlad was campaigning against the Turks with Serbian leader Vuk Brankovic in Bosnia, where he sacked Srebrinica (infamous for more recent butchery of Muslims) and other towns with trademark hideous slaughter. That summer he and Brankovic helped Stefan drive the Turks from Moldavia, and in November he was back on the Wallachian throne. It seemed that at last his time had come, but by the end of the year Vlad was dead, killed—perhaps assassinated—in a skirmish with Turkish troops led by Besarab Laiota, another claimant to the throne. His preserved head was sent to the sultan. Stefan cel Mare would rule Moldavia until 1504, his long reign a high point of Romanian history. Ever the pragmatist and diplomat, Stefan held his country together, winning more than 30 pitched battles against Turks, Tartars, Hungarians, Ruthenians and Poles. Shortly before his death he made peace with Sultan Bayazid II, accepting that regional power was by then firmly in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Romanians also remember him for his piety and promotion of the Orthodox Church.

Horror stories about Vlad- embellished with gruesome woodcuts such as this- proliferated after his death and grew ever more bloodthirsty and lurid.

Horror stories about Vlad- embellished with gruesome woodcuts such as this- proliferated after his death and grew ever more bloodthirsty and lurid.

Posterity ought to honour Vlad Dracula too as a mighty ruler, brilliant military commander and stalwart bastion against Ottoman Turkey and rampant Islam. Instead we remember him as a monster who inspired a classic horror novel, a byword for creepy aristocrats in remote mountain castles. Even Transylvania became a cliché as a place of mystery and evil. What went wrong? First, even by late medieval standards, his violence appalled his contemporaries. Second, he was the victim of unsatisfactory, unsupportive and downright treacherous allies. Third and above all, the Saxons of Braşov, Sibiu and adjacent Transylvania took revenge on their oppressor by blackening his name, and Matthias Corvinus was only too glad to see propaganda directed against a dangerous, unpredictable rival whom he had grossly betrayed. Vlad had the misfortune to live at the same time as Johannes Gutenberg, European pioneer of movable type and inventor of the mechanical printing press. By the time Gutenberg died in 1468, a few years after Vlad’s main period of rule, printing presses were widespread in the German-speaking world. The public has always enjoyed salacious publications, and the story of this murderous Wallachian tyrant with a penchant for impalement was an instant, irresistible best-seller. The first known version appeared in Vienna in 1463 shortly after his downfall. The horror stories, embellished with gruesome woodcuts, proliferated and grew ever more bloodthirsty and lurid. A legend was born, one Bram Stoker seized on avidly, further diminishing the memory and reputation of a great prince of medieval Europe.

John Akeroyd is a freelance botanist and writer with conservation projects in West Cork and Transylvania.


Further reading:

R. R. Florescu and R. T. McNally, Dracula: his life and times (London, 2005).

B. Stoker, Dracula (1897; Ware, 2000).

K. W. Treptow, Vlad III Dracula. The life and times of the historical Dracula (Oxford and Portland, 2000).

M. J. Trow, Vlad the Impaler. In search of the real Dracula (Stroud, 2003).

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