Biography of Dracula Inspiration Vlad the Impaler

About the infamous Walachian ruler Vlad the Impaler, his acts of cruelty would be the inspiration for the character Dracula.


VLAD (THE IMPALER) TEPES (1432?-1477), Walachian ruler

Eastern European folk hero Vlad Tepes was born in the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara, where his father--another Vlad--worked as an official in the Hungarian mint. In 1436 Vlad Senior became voivode, or ruling prince, of Walachia, a southern province in what is now Romania. Because of his bravery in opposing the Turks, he had been awarded the Order of the Dragon, which gave him the nickname Dracul, the Romanian word for dragon. He distinguished himself in battle against the Ottoman Empire in 1444 at Varna, despite the fact that young Vlad had been taken hostage by the Turks some years before. In 1447 Vlad Senior was murdered by a rival claimant to the throne. Young Vlad escaped from the Turks the following year, but it was not until May of 1456 that he was able to avenge his father's murder and assume the Walachian throne.

Consumed with a hatred of Turks, he immediately put an end to payments of tribute to them. In the past, the Walachians had not only paid tribute but had also supplied young boys to the Turks; these youths were given rigid indoc-trination and military training and then used in battle to slaughter their Christian kin. Many contemporary sources relate how the Turkish ambassadors went to Vlad, demanding immediate payment; Vlad, hearing that they were not prepared to remove their turbans as a mark of respect while in his presence, had the turbans nailed to their heads. This intensified Turkish hostilities, but Vlad, a master of strategy on his own ground, easily evaded the attacking forces and withdrew into the steep mountain passes, where the Walachian genius for guerrilla tactics and night fighting soon forced the enemy to take to their heels. The culmination of these hostilities was reached in 1462, when, in the course of a long campaign along the Danube, Vlad's armies slew 20,000 Turks.

His method of execution, borrowed from the Turks, was to impale the hapless victim on a wooden stake fixed in the ground; this gave him the nickname of Vlad the Impaler, or, in Romanian, Vlad Tepes, by which he is generally known. His own subjects had cause to fear his wrath. At the time he took the throne, Walachia was virtually lawless. All manner of pilfering, highway robbery, and extortion was rife. Vlad punished offenders mercilessly, and the contorted bodies on stakes served as a dramatic warning to would-be criminals. As generous in his rewards as he was severe in meting out punishment, he championed the cause of the Walachian peasant, who had traditionally been kept at a subsistence level by generations of boyars, the landed nobility. When he fell out with some boyars in the north of his territory, he forced them to labor at rebuilding one of his hilltop castles until the clothing fell from their backs. Within a surprisingly short time, Walachia gained a new reputation as a law abiding and industrious region.

Vlad's most notorious exploits involved the Saxons who lived in neighboring Transylvania in German-speaking, walled cities. They traditionally controlled all trade in the region and thus held an economic whip. Vlad repeatedly requested that a "common market" be established, in which Walachians could buy and sell freely. After receiving some rather high-handed replies, Vlad lost patience and impaled large numbers of Saxons at Sibiu and Brasov, earning himself the reputation of "monstrous tyrant" among German speakers all over Europe.

In 1462 Vlad was removed from power-temporarily, and his brother, a weak, pro-Turkish puppet, was placed on the throne. Vlad went to Budapest with Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, and while in Hungary, he married the king's sister. For the sake of expediency, it was reported that Vlad had been overharsh with the Saxons and, moreover, was guilty of treason; it is obvious that in reporting this. Corvinus hoped to appease the Turks following Vlad's decimation of their forces on the Danube. It was also to the Hungarian king's political interests to remain on friendly terms with the Saxons. At any rate, Vlad returned to the throne in 1476, on Jan. 31. but was killed almost exactly a year later in an ambush. His body was reputedly buried at Snagov, near Bucharest, but in the 1930s his grave was found to be empty. His mortal remains were either destroyed by his enemies or buried elsewhere.

During his lifetime he signed himself "Drakula" or "Drakulya," as a mark of respect to the memory of his father, "the Dragon"; and contemporary Latin sources render this as the familiar "Dracula." Today in Romania, his name has been given to many villages, and he is remembered as a savior of his people, a staunch upholder of law and order, and a fearless fighter for Christendom. Not only is there no connection between the historical Dracula and vampirism, but the most prominent authorities are agreed that no tradition of a blood-sucking "undead" exists in Romania. The link between Vlad Drakulya and vampirism is purely a literary one.

Because they believed that Vlad had acted unjustly, the Saxons wrote broadsides depicting him as a bloodthirsty monster guilty of almost every sadistic crime imaginable. Circulated widely in western Europe, these medieval horror-comics gave a one-sided and exaggerated view of Vlad Tepes.

Centuries later, Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist, got the idea for a vampire novel with an eastern European setting. Fired with enthusiasm, he searched avidly for a genuine historical character around whom he could build his vampire fantasy. He had some help from a Hungarian scholar, Arminius Vambery, and the novel Dracula was published in 1897. The book gave birth to a legend which is vivid, exciting, and terrifying, but which has no basis in fact apart from the name of the fictional vampire.

The broadsides have also inspired some amateur historians, who, in a sensational and frantic endeavor to "prove" that the real Dracula was just as horrifying and eerie as the fictional one, have accepted the hysterical medieval documents as reliable evidence. These historians have written some very misleading books and articles and have even translated Dracula as "son of the devil." The Romanian dracula does mean "the devil" as well as "the dragon," but that translation was first employed long after the death of Vlad Dracul and his notorious son. Vlad Tepes.

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