Dracula. It’s a great name. It almost means son of the devil and it almost means son of the dragon. Vlad Tepes was the son of a royal warlord. The kind you might see on Xena, only with teeth. Father and son both belonged to the Royal Order of the Dragon, which was founded by Sigismund of Hungary or Luxembourg, depending on the source, in 1408 to protect Christianity in Eastern Europe. The Pope loved Dracula. They seem to miss that in Dracula Untold, the latest movie to meld the historic and mythological Dracula. But Vlad III was a living legend before he was an undead one. The shadowy guerilla of countless nightmares, Dracula has come to be known as a hero in Romania, which is what we call medieval Transylvania and Wallachia nowadays.
But he is known as Vlad Tepes (Romanian for “the impaler”) because he used to line the road to his castle with the impaled bodies of his conquered foes. Dracula is known as the guy who supposedly dunked bread in the blood of fallen soldiers and who nailed hats on traveling priests when they didn’t tip theirs. Fun at parties, beloved by common people at the time, he makes Luca Brasi in The Godfather look like a saint. He makes the ISIS beheadings look tame. Dracula is both a staple of horror and a symbol of nationalistic pride.
The first person to call Dracula a vampire was Bram Stoker, who wrote a play that was originally so boring that John Irving, the actor who it was written for, snored openly at the table read. Irving then started to hit on Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcomb, who also inspired the stories of Svengali and Dorian Gray. Stoker probably came up with Dracula from the best source at the time, William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: with various Political Observations Relating to Them, a mouthful of a title if ever there was one. By the time Stoker wrote his own book he learned to edit.
Vlad didn’t get his nickname the “Impaler” until 1550, long after his death, though Ottoman Empire subjects called him Sir Impaler, not to his face, mind you, but it’s the thought that counts! Indeed, it is one of the few rare qualities of actual “untold” movie monsterhood appearing in this weekend’s Dracula Untold.
The earliest artistic works on Vlad Dracula were visual, wood engravings that show the count dining happily amidst an encroaching throng of the impaled. These were probably made for early Romanian restaurants. When Romania became a state in 1859, Vlad was the face of their independence. Toward the end of the century Ion Budai-Deleanu wrote the poem “Tiganiada” and Dimitrie Bolintineanu wrote the poem “Battles of the Romanians,” both hailing Vlad Tepes as a hero. But in 1874, Romanian poet Vasile Alecsandri focused on Tepes’ impalements when he wrote “Vlad Tepes and the Oaktree.” Historian Ion Bogdan took it one step further by labeling Dracula a sick sadist in his 1896 work “Vlad Tepes.”
Vlad Dracula Tepes was born in Sighișoara, Transylvania, sometime during last two months of 1431. His name was a diminutive of his father’s name. His father was Vlad II Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon. Vlad II got the moniker because he was knighted into the Royal Order of the Dragon in 1431. This went to Vlad II’s head and he went around calling himself “The Dragon” from that moment on. Think George Remus from Boardwalk Empire or snotty little Viserys pre-coronation in Game of Thrones.
Most historians say Dracula means Son of the Dragon or Son of the Devil, but it could also mean little devil, and by no accounts this is what the young man was. I picture him putting his toy soldiers on stakes. Vlad II, I mean the Dragon, was a warrior prince in the royal Basarab family. I could see Dracula playing with his brothers Mircea and Radu the Handsome as a version of the Medieval Kennedys, over-competing in football on the family compound.
The Dragon’s trophy wife, the Princess Cneajna of Moldavia, proved to be a big expense and after the birth of his second son, the Dragon needed to get out of the castle. He looked south and set off down the Arges River to conquer Wallachia. Vlad and Radu grew up in Sighișoara, but in 1436, the Dragon took the throne of Wallachia and the family moved to Târgoviște, the capital. It’s tough breaking into a new school, but Vlad did well, majoring in combat, but also excelling in math, geography, science, languages, the classical arts and philosophy. He was also on the fencing team, though he brought a broad sword.
The Dragon was kicked out of Wallachia in 1442 and started kicking up to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and planned his comeback. When Vlad was 13, the Ottoman Turks took him and his brother Radu as political hostages and made them study logic, the Quran, and Turkish literature. All of which is actually referenced in Dracula Untold, well except for the Quran bit, because religion in a Hollywood blockbuster is blasphemy. They also trained the brothers in warfare. Probably a bad move in retrospect.
The Dragon was killed near Bălteni and Vlad’s older brother Mircea was blinded and buried alive at Târgoviște in December 1447, victims of Hungarian rebels led by John Hunyadi. In 1459, Pope Pius II declared a new crusade against the Ottomans at the Congress of Mantua and named Matthias Corvinus, John Hunyadi’s son, as the lead fighter. Vlad joined Matthias to keep the Ottomans out. Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Vlad defended Wallachia from invasion. He won the fight in 1456. According to legend, Dracula personally beheaded Vladislav II, his opponent, in one-on-one combat.
Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. Officially his title was Voivode of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462. The story about the nailing of the hats came in 1459. Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II sent envoys to collect back taxes. Vlad balked because he didn’t want people to think Wallachia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad accused the Turkish diplomats of refusing to take their hats off to him and nailed their turbans to their heads. Actually far nastier than the bit of swordplay in Dracula Untold, and far cooler, as well.
The first mass-impaling happened when the Sultan tried to knock Vlad out of the Danube. He sent the Bey of Nicopolis, Hamza Bey, with 1,000 cavalry, but Țepeș ambushed the troops on a narrow path in Giurgiu. Vlad impaled the soldiers and paid his respects to Hamza Bey by putting him on the highest stake.
Then came the Night Attack of Târgovişte in the winter of 1462. It started when Vlad, who was fluent in Turkish due to his time as a young hostage, crossed the Danube and got into the Ottoman camps by disguising himself as a Turkish cavalryman. According to a letter Vlad himself wrote, he ”killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks (most probably Tatars) without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers.”
Sultan Mehmed II responded by sending 60,000 troops and another 30,000 irregular soldiers into Wallachia under the leadership of general Mahmut Pasha and Dracula’s good-looking kid brother Radu. In the Night Attack, Tepes strategized small ambushes that added up to 15,000 dead Ottomans. This pleased the Pope who declared a Catholic holiday in Tepes’ honor on March 4, 1462.
Mehmed II named Radu the Handsome as the new Voivode in hopes of stabilizing the region and thus the entire Balkans peninsula. Radu and Mihaloghlu Ali Bey led the Ottoman battles on behalf of the Sultan. Between the well-stocked Ottoman armies and political dissent from the aristocratic Boyars, who Vlad pissed off, Tepes was beaten at Poenari Castle. Sultan Mehmed II named Radu the Bey of Wallachia.
By September 8th of that year, Vlad and Matthias Corvinus won three more battles, but Vlad ran out of money to pay his mercenaries. On November 26th, Vlad was ambushed by Corvinus’ men at Castle King’s Rock and shipped off to Hungary where he was imprisoned at the Oratea Fortress. Like father, like son, the fig doesn’t fall too far from the newton.
On October 14, 1465, Radu issued a writ declaring Ottoman victory. Vlad was locked up in Visegrád from 1462 until probably 1466 when he was released and married Ilona Szilágyi. He remained confined to the city until 1474.
In 1475, Radu died suddenly at the age of 40, and Vlad started planning to retake Wallachia with István Báthory of Transylvania. Issy was part of the Somlyó branch of the Bathory family that also boasted the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. Vampires gotta’ stick together. But not for long. After Báthory and Tepes routed Prince Basarab the Elder, who assumed the throne after Radu died, Báthory took his men and returned to Transylvania, land of night, where they did the Time Warp again, leaving Vlad alone to fight the Turks.
Vlad beat Prince Basarab’s forces with less than 4,000 men and declared his third reign as Wallachian ruler on November 26, 1476. Within two months, Vlad was dead. Either in battle or betrayed by his bodyguards, or by Wallachian Boyars during a hunt. Or Vlad was the victim of friendly fire, accidentally killed by one of his own men. The exact date and location of Vlad’s death is also unknown, but he was certainly un-Undead by January 10, 1477.
The Turks cut off Vlad’s head, preserved it in honey, and sent it to Constantinople where it was put on a stake. Vlad’s body was buried without ceremony, probably in a monastery that Vlad founded in 1461 in Comana. Though after Romanian independence, the official site was said to be in some island monastery by Bucharest in Snagov, however Vlad neither founded that Bucharest site as legend stated (it turns out to date back to the late 14th century), nor was his body found in 20th century excavations.
Though he was considered a barbarian while he was alive (in 1462 Mehmed II, himself no stranger to the tortures of war, went home to Constantinople disgusted by the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses in Târgoviște), Vlad became a legendary monster after his death.
Vlad’s go-to choice for capital punishment, impalement, wasn’t particularly graphic in comparison to other medieval battle violence. German Saxons played it up for maximum propaganda. A German woodcut from 1499 shows Vlad having dinner in a forest of impaled soldiers outside Brașov, while an executioner chops up more. By 1521, German documents said Dracula roasted children and fed them to their mothers, cut off the mothers’ breasts and fed them to their husbands and then impaled the husbands. Not really a far cry from chomping at the jugular and drinking, really.
It’s been more than 500 years since Dracula lost his head and he’s still making headlines and box office. It was reported this week that some archaeologist found the castle that Vlad was tortured in. Dracula Untold is one of thousands of movies about this tyrannical godsend. Most of Dracula’s legend comes from those who opposed him. Foes who were conquered, incapacitated, decapitated and hung up to die, demoralizing any who would follow. Most of the anti-Vlad propaganda comes out of Germany, no strangers to military humiliation. When you put it in perspective, it’s almost like giving Hitler his own horror movie franchise in 500 years. History and myth combined to make each of them larger than they probably were on a day-to-day basis. But Dracula has a special magic. Something in the blood.