Bran Castle, Better Known As Dracula’s Castle, Has A Long History!
Bran Castle is a medieval castle located in Brașov County, Transylvania, Romania. The castle was built during the 14th century, though an earlier fortification stood in the area during the preceding century. Over the centuries, Bran Castle was used for various purposes, but fell into disuse in the late 19th century. During the 20th century, the castle became a museum. Bran Castle is popularly known as Dracula’s Castle, due to its alleged association with Count Dracula, the titular character of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Although the castle resembles the description of Dracula’s Castle depicted by Stoker, the author’s knowledge of Bran Castle’s existence has been questioned. In addition, Vlad the Impaler, a real historical person, thought to be the inspiration behind Dracula, never owned Bran Castle. Some sources, however, claim that Vlad was once held there as a prisoner.
Bran Castle is almost impossible to attack as it was built on a cliff on top of high hill. (Pmatlock / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Bran Castle Sits On A High Rocky Promontory Above Bran
Bran Castle is situated on a rocky promontory above the town of Bran, in the Southern Carpathians (known also as the Transylvanian Alps). The castle is located about 25 km (16 mi) to the southwest of Brașov, the administrative center of Brașov County, Transylvania, in central Romania. During the Middle Ages, Bran was on a trade route passing through the Carpathian Mountains, hence its significance. The name of the town, incidentally, translates from Slavonic to mean “gate.”
Although the pass brought trade, it was also a route through which hostile forces could invade the region of Transylvania. Therefore, during the early 13th century, Andrew II of Hungary gave the area of Țara Bârsei (known also as Burzenland), which included Brașov County, to the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order. The Hungarian king hoped that the knights would establish themselves in the area and defend the south-eastern part of Transylvania from the nomadic Cumans and Pechenegs.
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In 1211, the first known fortress near the Bran Pass (known today as the Rucăr-Bran Pass) was erected by the Teutonic Knights. The knights, however, did not remain in Țara Bârsei for long, as they were driven out of the area in 1226. It is claimed that the wooden fortress that the knights built was subsequently destroyed. It seems that during the next 150 years, there was no attempt to construct another castle at the site.
It was only in 1377 that a new castle was built at Bran. On 19th November that year, a document was issued by Louis I of Hungary to the Transylvanian Saxons of Brașov. In this document, the king granted the Transylvanian Saxons the privilege of building a castle in Bran. Like Andrew before him, Louis also had the defense of south-eastern Transylvania in mind when he allowed the construction of a castle at Bran. This time, however, the threat came from the Ottomans, who were trying to expand their empire northwards.
Bran Castle is located is located about 25 km (16 mi) to the southwest of Brașov, the administrative center of Brașov County, Transylvania, in central Romania, pictured here. (Marcin Szala / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Defensive Brilliance of Bran Castle
The defensive function of Bran Castle is already evident in the site chosen for its construction, i.e., a steep cliff between Măgura and Dealul Cetăţii. This meant that any would-be besieger would have had to expend a substantial amount of effort to ascend the cliff to reach the castle. In addition, the position of the castle gave its occupants a clear view of the surrounding landscape and allowed them to spot approaching enemies.
The building of Bran Castle was completed in 1388, and the castle was populated with professional soldiers as well as mercenaries. For instance, the 15th-century storyteller Ioan de Târnava wrote about the “English brigands and ballista soldiers.” As for the lord of the castle, he was appointed by the king himself, normally from amongst the Transylvanian Saxons. This was no doubt an important position since the Bran Castle lord was the one who stood between the Ottomans and their conquest of Transylvania. By the end of the 15th century, for instance, the commander of Bran Castle held the title “Vice Voivode of Transylvania.”
It may be added that apart from its defensive function, Bran Castle also served as an important economic location, since it was located on a key trade route. The castle served as a customs house for Transylvania and held a considerable portion of the goods moving in and out of the region. Therefore, Bran Castle would have been a fairly wealthy possession for whoever was in control of it.
A 1499 German woodcut showing Count Dracula dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. (Markus Ayrer / Public domain)
The Ottomans Attack and Dracula Vlad Appears
In 1407, Bran Castle was given temporarily as a fief by Sigismund of Hungary to his ally, Mircea the Elder, the Voivode of Wallachia. At that time, Wallachia, the region neighboring Transylvania, was under threat from the Ottomans. Bran Castle was supposed to be a place where Mircea could seek refuge if he was attacked or driven out of his lands by the Ottomans. Following Mircea’s death, however, the castle was returned to Sigismund, as a consequence of the ensuing political instability in Wallachia. Subsequently, the castle was granted to the Voivodes of Transylvania.
In 1441, the Ottomans raided Transylvania. At that time, the Voivode of Transylvania was the famous John Hunyadi. At Bran, Hunyadi defeated an Ottoman army.
It is said that Vlad the Impaler passed by Bran Castle on several occasions but did not play a major role in the castle’s history. For instance, in 1459, Vlad, then the Wallachian voivode, passed Bran Castle on his way to Brașov. Vlad wanted to punish the city’s inhabitants for their support of his rival to the throne, and their raising of the customs taxes. Vlad managed to burn the city’s suburbs, and killed hundreds of Transylvanian Saxons, which contributed to his notorious reputation.
Apart from that, the other connection between Vlad and Bran Castle is that the voivode was once held there as a prisoner. In 1462, Vlad was captured by Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary, near Rucăr, and was imprisoned in Visegrád Castle. Prior to that, however, Vlad was taken to Bran Castle, where he was held for two months.
The courtyard of Bran Castle, looking west. (Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hungary Falls to the Ottomans But Not Transylvania
Needless to say, Vlad is also popularly thought to be the inspiration behind the character of Count Dracula. It is claimed that Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, drew inspiration from Bran Castle for the creation of his fictional vampire’s castle. This is based on similarities in the descriptions of both castles. It has been pointed out, on the other hand, that Stoker never visited Romania, and therefore would not have seen Bran Castle for himself. A counterargument to this is that Stoker referred to descriptions of Bran Castle by other writers that were available to him. Moreover, it is claimed that the etching of Dracula’s castle in the first edition of the novel are “strikingly similar to Bran Castle and no other in all of Romania.”
It may be said that Vlad was a small part of Bran Castle’s history, even though he may be the most famous historical figure connected to the castle. In any case, the castle’s history continued long after his two-month imprisonment there.
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In 1498, the right to use the castle was purchased by the inhabitants of Brașov from the king of Hungary, Vladislaus II. It seems that the king was in need of money as he had emptied the royal treasury as a result of war expenses. Although the lease was originally only for a period of ten years, it was subsequently extended. The Transylvanian Saxons were able to retain control of the castle even after the Hungarian capital was captured by the Ottomans in 1541.
During the 1620s, Gábor Bethlen, the Prince of Transylvania, carried out extensive renovations to Bran Castle, including its gate tower, round tower, and donjon. Later other renovations were also carried out on the castle, which had suffered considerable damage over the course of its history.
In addition to sieges, the castle was also damaged by general neglect, the weather, and even accidents. For instance, in 1593, an explosion in the powder mill occurred, whilst in 1617, the roofs were destroyed by a terrible storm.
Bran Castle in 2012 showing wall sections in need of restoration. (Sîmbotin / CC BY-SA 3.0 RO)
Bran Castle Loses Its Austro-Hungarian Empire Status
A major change to the role played by Bran Castle occurred in 1836. In that year, the border between Transylvania and Wallachia was shifted. Consequently, Bran Castle lost its status as a key border and customs point in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Whilst the castle lost its military and economic importance, it continued to serve as an administrative center.
During the same century, the castle suffered damage during the Revolutions of 1848, as well as during the Russo-Turkish War in (1877-1878). The inhabitants of Brașov succeeded in persuading the Austro-Hungarian authorities to repair the castle, and extensive renovations were carried out between 1883 and 1886.
Shortly after these repairs, however, Bran Castle fell into neglect. The castle’s administration was transferred by the authorities at Brașov to the region’s forestry in 1888. This arrangement was maintained for the next three decades. During this period the castle was only inhabited by foresters, woodsmen, and forest inspectors who were sent there from Brașov.
In 1918, Transylvania became part of Greater Romania. Two years later, the city of Brașov gave Bran Castle to Queen Marie, the wife of Ferdinand I, the king of Romania. The city’s council decided to give the castle to the queen as a sign of their appreciation for her efforts to unify Romania.
Bran Castle became a favorite residence of the queen. Marie had the castle restored and turned it into a royal summer residence. This work was coordinated by the Czech architect Karel Liman. In addition, Marie built the Tea House, the castle’s principal outbuilding. This building would later be turned into a restaurant. Moreover, a hydroelectric power plant was built to supply electricity to the castle. The queen also shared the electricity generated by this power plant with the villages of Bran, Simon, and Moeciu.
When Marie died in 1938, the ownership of Bran Castle was transferred to her daughter, Princess Ileana. In 1944, during WWII, Ileana built a hospital at the castle, which she named the “Hospital of the Queen’s Heart.”
This name may be taken quite literally, as four years before that, Marie’s heart was brought to Bran, and placed in a crypt chapel carved into the rock across the valley from the castle. In any case, the hospital was established after the Red Cross hospital was bombed by American aircraft. The hospital was used to treat those wounded during the war and continued to operate even after it ended.
In 1948, however, Ileana and her family were forced to leave Romania by the Communist regime that had just come to power. Consequently, Bran Castle was seized by the Communists. In 1956, the authorities turned the castle into a museum.
Ileana was able to visit Bran Castle again in September 1990, when she was 81 years old. She died not long after the visit, in January 1991. During Ileana’s visit, the castle was once again under restoration. The restoration works began in 1987 and were completed in 1993. The castle retained its role as a museum and was widely promoted as a tourist attraction.
The descendants of Queen Marie of Romania were once again declared the rightful owner of Bran Castle in 2009. (George Grantham Bain / Public domain)
Bran Castle Returns To Family Ownership and Tourism
Bran Castle was finally returned to Ileana’s heirs in 2006, following several years of legal proceedings. Nevertheless, the Romanian government continued to administer the castle provisionally for another three years. In 2009, Bran Castle was returned to Ileana’s children, her son Archduke Dominic von Habsburg, and his sisters, Baroness Maria Magdalena of Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer. Bran Castle continues to function as a museum till this day.
The current museum is dedicated mainly to Queen Marie, and there are several displays showcasing her life. Some of the queen’s personal belongings are exhibited together with video footage. Nevertheless, Bran Castle also capitalizes on the character of Count Dracula and vampire lore. According to an article on National Geographic, vampire-themed souvenirs that are sold at the foot of Bran Castle include “fanged beer steins, gory T-shirts, and bottles of Dracula’s Blood wine”. No doubt, the castle is also a popular location for Halloween events. In 2016, for instance, a competition was held, the prize being the opportunity to stay in Bran Castle on Halloween night.
Lastly, it may be mentioned that Bran Castle played a rather unique role in the current COVID-19 pandemic. The castle was used by the Romanian government in their efforts to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations amongst the country’s population. Under this innovative initiative, anyone could turn up at the castle without an appointment during the weekends in May to get jabbed. To sweeten the deal, those who got jabbed were given free entry to the castle’s exhibit of 52 medieval torture instruments. Of course, this initiative was also aimed at increasing tourist numbers at the castle, which had fallen due to the pandemic.
Top image: Bran Castle in central Romania has a long history and relates to Count Dracula too!. Source: Dobre Cezar / CC BY-SA 3.0 RO
By Wu Mingren
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