Dracula: The Man Behind The Myth
A blog post by Lady Felicity
Back in January (2020) Greg and I had finished editing our Turkish adventure (which you can watch using the links at the end of our email) and were pondering where to go for our next episode. We bounced ideas back and forth, all of which had merit, but when Greg suggested Romania and a film about Dracula, all the other places were instantly filed away in the back of my mind for later. Romania had my full attention (and if you want to watch our travel adventure video before reading on, you can find links at the end of this post).
The country occurred to Greg because he knows I enjoy my fictional books and have a hoard of fantasy books, many of which indulge in mythological creatures of all types. I know a lot of teenagers go through that stage and I think I started younger than most! I remember when I was at primary school, we had a day where you could take a favourite toy into school with you and I chose to take my deck of tarot cards with me, passed down from my mother’s youth.
My childhood reputation amongst my class as a witch and then, due to my pale skin and long, dark hair, a vampire, was born. I didn’t mind, though my mum was quite shocked when the class bully took one look at her, went a shade of white and ran in the opposite direction when she was waiting in the playground at the end of the day to collect me. Even back then I had a creative imagination and hinted at what the mother of a vampire witch might do to naughty, tasty children.
Much to my Nan’s discomfort, my Mum understood my fascination and indulged me. My collection not only of fantasy fiction but particularly reference books relating to myths, legends and their origins. I loved history and became intrigued with old religions, their beliefs, gods and monsters. My collection of not only books but ornaments, models and decorations grew over the years too. It amused me when I met my sister-in-law, a golden blonde with a love of Disney collectables, me standing beside her with my pale skin and dark hair and my collection of swords, statues and pewter dragons back home. Then you add Greg beside me and I have my hairy, werewolf companion!
This interest has never waned and my enjoyment of fantasy fiction remains strong too. My favourite writer, Karen Chance, features some genuine historical figures in the fantasy world she has created and I love that combination. It was the fact that Karen Chance features Dracula and his brothers in her series which inspired Greg to suggest Romania and Dracula’s Castle.
While Greg’s mind jumped to Bram Stoker’s famous novel, ‘Dracula’, my mind instantly went to the arguable origin of that book and Vlad the Impaler. Thus our documentary title was decided – ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’.
Greg would take me in search of the fictional Vampiric Dracula while I would search for the Wallachian Warlord, Vlad Dracula.
I must admit I confused my best friend when I was talking about Vlad. There are many variations to his name, and he has a number of different titles.
Sometimes he is referred to as Vlad Dracula or Vlad III of Wallachia. He is also known as Vlad the Impaler – in Romanian that is Vlad Tepes – while to the Ottomans it was Kazikli Voyvoda, meaning ‘Impaler Lord’. I am aware I switch between all of these names for him throughout the documentary and it can cause confusion.
Over ten years ago I first read a book called ‘Vlad: The Last Confession,’ a novel by C.C Humphreys. This was a historical adventure novel and the author did much research into Vlad Dracula, including much of what he learned in the story to create a realistic feel for this historical ruler (if you’d like to read the book, it is available here).
The thought of doing our own research into Vlad Dracula and walking in his actual footsteps had me so excited that we booked our flights to Romania that very night!
Vlad Dracula is a controversial figure, and that is probably putting it mildly. I will explain…
Vlad was born in 1428 in the town of Sighisoara. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad ll of Wallachia (Yes, I know that his father having the same name also doesn’t help with the confusion and it is about to get worse!)
His father, Vlad ll of Wallachia became a member of a chilveric order known as ‘The Order of the Dragon’ in 1431. Thus he became known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon. He, like his son, had a complicated reign and was Voivode aka ruler of Wallachia from 1436- 1442 and again from 1443-1447. With me so far? Good.
Now, Vlad the Dragon (our Dracula’s father) had three legitimate sons, Mircea ll, Vlad Tepes (our Dracula) and Radu the Handsome.
Being ruler of Wallachia always seemed to require help and originally Vlad the Dragon seized the throne with Hungarian support. After the death of the Hungarian ruler, Hungary’s position weakened, resulting in Vlad the Dragon having to pay homage to Murad ll, the Ottoman ruler. It all gets rather involved, convoluted and complicated at this point, and if I am not careful I go off on a tangent about all the other rulers too. There were invasions and power struggles between various lands, some of which now make up the country of Romania.
All of this affects our Dracula as his father basically got caught in the middle of a power struggle between the ruler of Transylvania and the Sultan. Vlad the Dragon was captured in 1442 by the Sultan and later released, but our Dracula and his younger brother, Radu, remained with the Sultan as hostages to ensure Vlad the Dragon’s loyalty. Meanwhile the oldest brother, Mircea, remained in Wallachia as the heir.
Mircea ruled Wallachia in his father’s absence and was also caught in the conflicts between the Ottoman Sultan and the ruler of Hungary. In the end he only lived to the age of 19, only ruling for three months from September to December, 1442. He was actually captured by his own boyars from Targoviste who blinded him with a hot poker and buried him alive. His father, Vlad the Dragon, was captured and killed shortly thereafter. A sad state of affairs for Mircea and The Dragon.
Meanwhile Vlad III (our ‘Dracula’, meaning son of the Dragon) and Radu were also having a difficult time. It is said that so long as their father remained loyal to the Sultan, the boys were taught and well looked after. They were educated in logic, the Quran, the Turkish and Persian languages and literature. Radu also became friends with the Sultan’s son, Mehmed ll.
Once their father’s loyalty moved away from the Sultan, things changed for the hostage princes. There are rumors of torture and brain washing. Radu converted and became a puppet for the Ottomans, while Dracula resisted and was treated accordingly.
With Vlad the Dragon and his eldest son dead, the ruler of Hungary invaded Wallachia in 1447 and installed Vlad’s second cousin, Vladislav ll, as the new Voivode (I know – too many Vlads, too many Dracul/ Draculas and now a Vladislav too!).
Hungary then launched a military campaign against the Ottomans alongside Vladislav. It gets complicated again now, with our Dracula sneaking into Wallachia in Vladislav’s absence (and with Ottoman support), then being forced to flee when Vladislav returned. There was much moving around for Dracula until relations between Hungary and Vladislav deteriorated. In 1456 Dracula gained Hungary’s support and invaded Wallachia, killing Vladislav and retaking what he felt was his rightful place as ruler of Wallachia.
As I said, all rather messy and complicated. However, so far our Dracula has only been known as Vlad Dracula- the son of Vlad the Dragon. This is about to change.
Dracula is now in charge of Wallachia and he knows it was his own boyars who killed his brother and father. He has also seen and learnt some unpleasant things from his time as a hostage. Things such as torture methods… and impaling in particular. He began a purge among the boyars, as well as plundering the Saxon villages as they had supported his opponents (Vladislav’s brothers as well as Dracula’s own illegitimate half brother, Vlad the Monk!). His enemies were impaled. Peace was restored in 1460 and with it we have his new names: Vlad Tepes and Kazikli Voyvoda.
Vlad the Impaler had arrived.
Now we have Vlad the Impaler in charge of Wallachia and a new Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed ll. When the new Sultan ordered The Impaler to pay homage to him, Vlad instead captured the Sultan’s two envoys and impaled them. Dracula had not forgotten what was done to him or his younger brother during their time in Ottoman hands and the conflict his family was dragged into.
In February 1446, Vlad the Impaler attacked Ottoman territory and massacred tens of thousands of Turks and Bulgarians. The new Sultan tried to replace Vlad with his younger brother, the Sultan’s puppet, his beloved Radu the Handsome. Many Wallachians switched allegiance from The Impaler to his brother as Radu promised the surviving boyars that he would restore their privileges and promised that defectors from his brother’s camp would not be punished. Radu preached of lasting peace and a gentle reign with no revenge for any past wrongdoings. He approached the Saxon villages punished by his brother, converting them with talk of advantageous trade regulations.
Once the Ottomans secured Radu’s place as the new ruler of Wallachia he chased his brother, The Impaler, to his mountain stronghold in Poenari Fortress.
In desperation in 1462 The Impaler fled to the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus) for help, but Corvinus had him imprisoned on what were likely false charges of collusion with the Sultan. It is said that there were incriminating letters found, but these are believed to be a forgery by Corvinus himself.
The Impaler was held in captivity from 1463-1475. Stories of his brutality spread in Germany and Italy. The neighboring Moldavian ruler requested his release in 1475 and he was allowed to fight in Corvinus’s army against the Ottomans.
Radu (thanks to Sultan Mehmed ll) was ruler of Wallachia on and off for thirteen years (1462-1475) and by the time Vlad the Impaler was ready to try again to reclaim rule over Wallachia, Radu had been dethroned by another- Basarab Laiota.
Radu was born in 1437/ 1439 and died in 1475. (Aged 36/37)
With the help of Hungarian and Moldavian troops, Vlad the Impaler forced Basarab Laiota to flee but he soon returned with Ottoman support. Vlad the Impaler was killed in battle in January 1477.
To our knowledge Dracula was born in 1428 and he died in 1477. (Aged 49)
He ruled for one month (October-November) in 1448. His second reign was from April 15th 1456- July 1462. His third and final reign started in 1476 and ended with his death in 1477.
Thanks to the new invention of the printing press, books describing Vlad’s cruelty were among the first best-sellers in German-speaking territories. These tales spread to Russia and were even adopted by Romanian historians in the 19th century. This was largely the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’.
Despite all of this he is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. A ruler who looked after the people rather than making the rich boyars richer. A ruler who protected the people from invaders and was such a strong ruler, theft and aggression disappeared from Wallachia while under his rule.
During our time in Romania and throughout all of our research we were constantly faced with these conflicting impressions of this Wallachian Voivode. Facts were hard to find as so much was propaganda by his enemies or wistful stories from his supporters. At the end of the day I decided that there is no black and white, pure good or pure evil. Vlad Dracula, The Impaler lived in a time so unlike my own that I cannot judge his actions or fully comprehend his reasons. I will always be fascinated by him and enjoyed my time in Romania, walking in his footsteps. All I think it is safe to say is that he was a hugely important figure in the history of a beautiful country which he dearly loved.
Thanks for reading, I hope it wasn’t all too confusing!
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ROMANIA: SEEKING DRACULA’S CASTLE: Our travel documentary looking into the history, legend and castles connected to Vlad Dracula III, sometimes known as Vlad the Impaler, and a journey around Romania:
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