Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula?
In 1897, Bram Stoker, an Irish writer, wrote a novel called Dracula, which has since become one of the classics of the Gothic horror genre. Despite the fact that Dracula is a fictional character, Stoker did not pull him out of thin air. Instead, Dracula is believed to be based on at least one real, historical figure. The most popular candidate for the inspiration for Dracula is Vlad the Impaler, though how much of a “vampire” he was will be decided by the readers.
The Son of Vlad II Dracul, a Member of the Order of the Dragon
Stoker’s Dracula is generally thought to have been based on the 15th century Prince of Wallachia (modern day Romania), Vlad III. Vlad was born sometime between 1428 and 1431, probably in Sighişaora, Transylvania. His patronymic, ‘Dracul’, means Dragon, derived from the membership of his father, Vlad II Dracul, in the Order of the Dragon. This was an order of chivalry founded by Sigismund, the King of Hungary, for the defense of Christianity in Eastern Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
The Ambras Castle Portrait of Vlad III. (Public Domain)
In 1442, Vlad and his brother, Radu, were taken as hostages by the Ottomans to ensure the loyalty of their father. In 2014, archaeologists in Turkey believe they found the dungeon the young men were kept in Tokat Castle. That find also increases the chance of the castle becoming more popular with tourists, given the events that followed after Vlad III was released from the dungeon.
In ‘ The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead,’ J. Gordon Melton explains that Vlad’s captivity in Turkey had a deeply negative impact on him. “His treatment ingrained the cynicism so evident in his approach to life and infused in him a Machiavellian attitude toward political matters.” This also encouraged his strong desire to seek revenge against any who wronged him, according to Melton.
In 1448, Vlad was released, and with Ottoman support, he occupied the Wallachian throne before he was overthrown in the autumn of the same year. However, Vlad regained his throne in 1456 after “being been orphaned, betrayed, exiled, and chased through central Europe’s forests by his enemies,” according to Ashley Cowie. Vlad III remained the Prince of Wallachia until 1462, when the Ottomans took the upper hand once again.
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, VS the Ottomans
In 1462, the Ottomans, under Mehmed II (the same Sultan who conquered Constantinople), invaded Wallachia, but were driven back by Vlad’s use of guerrilla warfare. His power was well-known, for example, in one letter to King of Hungary, Vlad Dracul allegedly “boasted that he had taken [the Zishtova fort] after a fierce battle, and that about 410 Turks were killed during the siege.”
Vlad’s triumph did not last long, however, as Mehmed II left Vlad’s brother, Radu, with the task of subduing Wallachia. Despite winning a couple more victories against the Ottomans, Vlad was soon short of cash and sought the help of the Hungarians, or he was intercepted by them while retreating.
Consequently, Vlad was arrested and thrown into prison once again. He would only be released from captivity 12 years later. Radu’s sudden death in 1475 enabled Vlad to claim the Wallachian throne once more in 1476.
‘The Battle With Torches’ by Romanian painter Theodor Aman. It depicts the The Night Attack of Târgovişte, a skirmish fought between forces of Vlad III the Impaler of Wallachia and Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on June 17, 1462. (Public Domain)
How Did Vlad the Impaler Die?
Historians believe Vlad the Impaler died between October and December in 1476, when he disappeared in battle against his long-standing enemies, the Ottomans. After death, it is said that Vlad the Impaler’s head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy.
However, in 2014 scholars from the University of Tallinn proposed a different story. They said the “discovered evidence that suggests the count was taken prisoner, ransomed to his daughter in Italy and then buried in a church in Naples.” Their evidence comes from an ancient headstone covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian ‘Carpathians’ found in Naple’s Piazza Santa Maria la Nova. This is the same graveyard where his daughter and son-in-law were buried.
“When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said.
17th century painting of Vlad Tepes. (Public Domain)
The Children of Vlad Tepes
Vlad III Tepes had a daughter named Maria, who was brought to the Neapolitan court because the ruling family there were allies. She married a Neapolitan nobleman. He also had three known sons.
The first son, Mihnea I cel Rǎu (1462 - 1510), was born to an unknown Transylvanian noblewoman and was probably illegitimate. He was said to have been as cruel as his father. The other two sons were born within wedlock.
The second son of Vlad, Mircea, disappears from history after 1483, but he is said to have served the Catholic bishop of Oradea, John Filipecz. The third son was called Vlad and he contended for the Wallachian throne in Radu cel Mare. It is likely he also had more illegitimate children.
Vlad III in a mural at the Calvary of Christ, 1460, Maria am Gestade, Vienna. (Public Domain)
The Infamy of Vlad the Impaler
Although Vlad was infamous throughout Europe for his cruelty, it is perhaps his favorite mode of execution that ensured his place in history. Vlad III was known after his death as Vlad Țepeș (the Impaler). He was not the only one employing impalement at the time, but the grand scale he undertook this method of torture and death made Vlad the Impaler infamous.
The most gruesome example is said to have occurred after he retreated from a battle against the Ottomans in 1462. He impaled and put on display some 20,000 people outside the city of Targoviste as a deterrent to the pursuing Ottoman forces. This psychological attack worked, as it is claimed that the sight was so repulsive that Mehmed II, after seeing the scale of Vlad's carnage and the thousands of decaying bodies being picked apart by crows, turned back and retreated to Constantinople.
Colored version of a woodcut from the title page of a 1499 pamphlet published by Markus Ayrer in Nuremberg. It depicts Vlad the Impaler dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. (Public Domain)
Another alleged example of Vlad the Impaler’s cruelty comes from a 1521 AD pamphlet which says “He let children be roasted; those, their mothers were forced to eat. And (he) cut off the breasts of women; those, their husbands were forced to eat. After that, he had them all impaled.”
The number of his victims has been conservatively estimated at about 40,000. But whether these gory events actually happened, or not, and how many people he actually impaled is still a cause of debate.
This is also just one side of the story. Vlad III has been hailed by Romanians as a national hero for defending the country against the invading Ottomans. Even during his time, he was seen as a defender of Christendom, in spite of the atrocities that he is said to have committed.
- Maria Balsa, Daughter of the Dragon: The Long-Lost Illegitimate Child of Vlad the Impaler?
- Dracula’s Balls: Weapons of Hyper-Violence Used by Vlad III Discovered Under Bulgarian Fortress
- Historians claim to have tracked down remains of Vlad the Impaler
How Did Vlad the Impaler Influence Dracula?
Although It has been popularly speculated that the character of Dracula is based on Vlad the Impaler, there are people who believe that it was Irish folklore, rather than Romanian history that inspired Stoker’s Dracula. Specifically, Stoker may have found more inspiration for his novel in the legendary story of Abhartach, a 5th century Irish chieftain known for his bloodsucking habits.
Nevertheless, the link between Vlad III and Dracula has stuck. It is perhaps Stoker’s Dracula that has propelled Vlad to international stardom as well. In this modern day, Dracula has become a brand name that fueled the development of ‘Dracula tourism’ in Romania.
In 2001, for example, Romania intended to construct a ‘Dracula Land’, a theme park based on Dracula. Domestic and international opposition to this project, however, resulted in its suspension and eventual abandonment. Yet, this was not a complete loss for Romania, as it brought Romania into the attention of the world and successfully highlighted what that country had to offer tourists, apart from the dramatic story of Vlad the Impaler.
Top Image: An artist’s depiction of Vlad the Impaler as Dracula. Source: FabianMonk/Deviant Art
Updated on July 17, 2020.
Beresford, M., 2008. From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth. London: Reaktion Books.
Cowie, A., 2019. ‘Dracula’s Balls: Weapons of Hyper-Violence Used by Vlad III Discovered Under Bulgarian Fortress.’ Ancient Origins. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/dracula-0012114
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. Vlad III. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/631524/Vlad-III
Holloway, A., 2014. ‘Historians claim to have tracked down remains of Vlad the Impaler.’ Ancient Origins. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/historians-claim-have-tracked-down-remains-vlad-impaler-001755
Lallanilla, M., 2013. The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/40843-real-dracula-vlad-the-impaler.html
Light, D., 2012. The Dracula Dilemma: Tourism, Identity and the State in Romania. Farnham: Ashgate.
Volterri, R., 2019. ‘Maria Balsa, Daughter of the Dragon: The Long-Lost Illegitimate Child of Vlad the Impaler?’ Ancient Origins Premium. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/maria-balsa-0012513