Vlad the Impaler
Posted on 12th March 2021
Known to history as Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, or Dracul, was born in the imposing citadel of Sighisoara in the mountainous region of Transylvania in modern day Romania on a dark, stormy winter’s night in 1431. The darkness of that night would remain forever in his soul, they said; a man without a heart who took delight in the killing and torture of others; the man upon whom Bram Stoker would loosely base the character of Count Dracula.
His father Vlad II was the ruler of Wallachia and in the year of his son’s birth he had been summoned by Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, to be initiated into the secret Order of the Dragon and made to swear an oath to uphold and defend the Christian faith against its many enemies which in reality meant the Ottoman Turks who at the time controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe.
Vlad II was to betray this oath however and come to an agreement with the Turks in return for retaining his throne and in 1436 as insurance of his fidelity he handed over his two sons Vlad and his younger brother Radu to the Sultan Murad II as hostages.
Little is known of the young Vlad’s time in the Ottoman Court though it would appear that both he and his brother were well-treated, nevertheless it was during his captivity that he acquired a burning hatred of the Turk, and an equally virulent hatred of his brother.
It was rumoured that Radu, by all accounts a pretty boy, was particularly close to the Sultan and that he favoured him over his brother. Whatever their relationship it evidently angered an increasingly embittered, Vlad.
In 1447, his father was murdered in a palace coup and Vlad’s older brother Mircea wrote to him explaining how his father’s eyes had been gouged out before he was set alight and burned to death. Mircea knew that the details would ensure a merciless response from his brother and hoped to elicit his support but not long after he too was murdered.
Following the coup Vlad was permitted to return home while Radu chose to remain at the Ottoman Court.
Determined to take the throne of Wallachia for himself Vlad would first bide his time and adopt a low-profile. He also remained on good terms with the Ottoman Court, the preservation of his own life being his first priority.
In 1456, he got his opportunity and with Turkish support seized the throne and it soon became apparent that the intervening years had done nothing to dampen his desire for revenge. He invited the Boyars of Tirgoviste who he held responsible for both his father and his brother Mircea’s murder, along with their families, to an Easter feast as part of a planned reconciliation. Instead, the men were rounded up and forced to march fifty miles to labour on the fortifications of his Castle at Poenari he later had them impaled while the families despite their protestations of innocence he had slaughtered.
Vlad III as he was now known was a grim, humourless man, who spoke little, trusted no one and was rarely seen to smile. Indeed, even to attempt humour in his presence carried risks and the only pleasure he took it seems was in witnessing the pain of others. But he had a courage and strength of character that demanded respect. He despised idleness, would not tolerate being lied to and was determined to defend his Kingdom and be a good ruler which meant war with the Turks and order at home.
Vlad believed that everyone in Wallachia should work and that to be unproductive was to be worthless and so he determined to rid his Kingdom of poverty and vagrancy; so, as an example to others he had a large number of the unemployed invited to feast in a hall he’d had especially built for the occasion. At the end of the feast, during which the guests had been wined and dined to excess he asked those who had just been so lavishly entertained if they wished to be rid of hunger forever? When they predictably answered yes, he had the doors of the hall bolted from the outside and set ablaze. All those inside were incinerated.
When he was later asked to explain his actions, he replied that they would now no longer be a burden to others and that he would not tolerate poverty in his Kingdom.
He could also be notoriously capricious, once when travelling through the countryside he came across a particularly dishevelled looking farmer. Seeing that his coat was dirty, worn, and had no buttons he demanded to see the farmer’s wife. He then proceeded to berate her for her lack of care. When she argued that she was too busy washing, cooking, and taking care of her children to bother about her husband’s appearance he ordered her to be executed and told the farmer to find a less lazy wife in the future.
He was also easily offended and when a delegation of Italian and Turkish emissaries visiting the Royal Court to negotiate a treaty failed to remove their hats in his presence, he took this as a personal affront and demanded to know why? When they explained that it was not their custom to do so he ordered that their hats be nailed to their heads so that they would not have to break with custom in the future.
But it was not just foreigners and the poor who had reason to be wary of Vlad Dracul. When his mistress fearing that she was losing his affections informed him that she was pregnant, he was delighted. When he discovered this to be a lie he took out his knife and disembowelled her.
The stories of Vlad Dracul’s cruelties are myriad and manifest, and that he was a dark and unpredictable character was clear and no one ever quite knew what his response would be to any given situation, except that it invariably seemed to result in someone’s death and his favoured method of execution was impalement, a particularly slow and painful way to die in which the victim would be hoisted up and then lowered down onto a spike that had been driven into the ground. The spike would enter the body either through the anus or the vagina and the weight of the body would guarantee that death would result and to ensure that it was as slow and painful as possible he had the spikes blunted.
If the victims were many, he would have their executions arrayed in a circular pattern so that he could take his dinner within the circle and watch them as they died. It was said he enjoyed listening to their screams, and particularly enjoyed impaling women for they screamed the loudest. If any of his guests demurred or did not seem to be enjoying the spectacle, then they risked enduring the same fate.
But though impalement was his preferred method of execution he had others. Some he had boiled alive in pots, others roasted on spits. One young man he even forced to attend his own funeral service before beheading him beside the grave he had recently been forced to dig.
Sometimes he would impale his victims sideways because it was said he liked to see them wriggle in agony like frogs for death was no punishment if the pain was not so great that the victim welcomed it.
By 1461, Vlad Dracul was at war with the Ottoman Turks campaigning in the Danube River Valley region of Hungary. Always heavily outnumbered he was aware that he could not defeat the Turks in open battle, but he was nonetheless a ferocious warrior, and a daring one devising a plan to attack the Turkish camp at night and slay the Sultan personally as he slept in his tent. The attack itself was a success but he chose the wrong tent and slew the wrong man.
Relieved at his lucky escape but furious at Vlad’s temerity Mehmed II vowed to lay waste to Wallachia but he needn’t have bothered for Vlad did it himself burning villages and crops and everything else that lay in the Sultan’s path. He even left behind a forest of impaled Turkish prisoners as a gift. The historian Chalkondiles described the scene:
“The Sultan marched on for about five miles when his army came across a field with stakes, about two miles long and one wide. And they were large stakes upon which he could see the impaled bodies of men, women, and children, about twenty thousand of them.”
The Turks seeing so many people impaled were scared out of their wits. There were babies clinging to their mothers on stakes and birds had made nests in their breasts. The Sultan was in despair and kept repeating how he could not conquer a man who could do such terrible and unnatural things. Sickened to the stomach by the sight and the stench of rotting corpses he turned away and gave Vlad’s brother Radu the responsibility for completing the campaign.
Vlad may have broken the Sultan’s spirit but he had not won the war and Radu pursued him all the way to his Castle at Poenari but he evaded capture with the help of local peasants who had remained loyal. His wife, the humble and devoted Illona Szilagy, was not so fortunate.
Radu who heartily disliked his sister-in-law sated his ire at Vlad’s escape by having her thrown to her death from the castle battlements.
Following his victory, Radu was installed as the King of Wallachia while Vlad, burning with hatred and the desire for revenge, fled to the Castle of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and relative safety. Not that the King was pleased to see him, and he was briefly imprisoned but over time Vlad was able to win his trust eventually marrying his niece and fathering two children by her.
It was with the help of Matthias Corvinus that he he was able to win back his throne, but he was unable to avenge himself on Radu who had died two months earlier of dysentery.
Vlad’s second reign was to be a short one, however.
To regain his throne, he had needed the support of the Church and had therefore agreed to act as a bulwark against further encroachment by the Ottoman Turks into Christian lands but this was not something that he was able to deliver, and he knew it. His position was weak, the loyalty of his army remained uncertain, and he was not welcomed back by the Boyars who had not forgotten their previous treatment at his hands. They would rather live under the Turks than subject themselves again to his rule. Most refused to rally to his support and went into hiding. Still, Vlad was not a man to break an oath and he took his much-reduced army to confront the Sultan as he vowed he would.
The outcome of the fighting was inevitable defeat, and he was determined to die fighting alongside his men. He was outside Bucharest in December 1476, though the exact circumstances of his death remain vague. He may have died in a skirmish with the Turks or been assassinated by a rival either way his body was so badly mutilated it was said that it could only be recognised by its vestments. His battered and severed head was pickled and taken back to the Sultan in Constantinople as proof of his death and where it was put on display as a trophy of war.
For many in both Hungary and Romania Vlad the Impaler is a hero.
He did after all fight heroically against the Turks and despite overwhelming odds maintain Wallachian independence. He may have struck fear into the hearts of his enemies, but the common people respected and admired him as a ruler who dispensed justice without prejudice. He was also a generous Prince who richly rewarded those who remained loyal and is remembered for bringing the hated Boyars to heel and for restoring order throughout his realm. Indeed, so well-ordered was Wallachian society under his rule that it was said he placed a gold cup in the central square of his capital at Tirgoviste and dared anyone to take it. No one ever did.
Tagged as: Ancient & Medieval
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