Vlad III Impaler life and biography

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Vlad III Impaler biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Transylvania, Kingdom of Hungary
Nationality : Romanian
Category : Historian personalities
Last modified : 2010-05-13
Credited as : Prince of Wallachia, In Search of Dracula, Dark Prince The True Story of Dracula

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Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (November 1431 – December 1476), more commonly known as the Impaler (Romanian: Vlad Ţepeș pronounced [ˈvlad ˈt͡sepeʃ]) or Dracula, was a three-time voivode of Wallachia, ruling mainly from 1456 to 1462.

Historically, Vlad is best known for his resistance against the Ottoman Empire and its expansion and for the cruel punishments he imposed on his enemies.

In the English-speaking world, Vlad III is perhaps most commonly known for inspiring the name of the vampire in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula.

Vlad was born in Sighişoara, Transylvania in the winter of 1431 to Vlad II Dracul, future voivode of Wallachia, and his wife, Princess Cneajna of Moldavia, daughter of Alexandru cel Bun. He had two older half-brothers, Mircea II and Vlad Călugărul, and a younger brother, Radu cel Frumos.

In the year of his birth Vlad's father, known under the nickname the Dragon (Romanian: Dracul) had traveled to Nuremberg, today located in Germany, where he had been vested into the Order of the Dragon. At the age of five, young Vlad was also initiated into the Order.

Like his father, who was the son of the Wallachian voivode Mircea the Elder, in the early years of childhood, the future ruling prince Vlad the Impaler got a distinguished education, and mastered German and Latin. During the first reign of Vlad II, Vlad the Impaler accompanied his father to Targoviste - capital of Wallachia at that time.

The Byzantine chancellor Mikhail Doukas showed that, at Targoviste, the sons of boyars and ruling princes got a distinguished education from either Romanian or Greek scholars, coming from Constantinople. The young prince learned for sure; combat skills, geography, mathematics, science, language; Romanian, Latin, Bulgarian (church Slavic) and the classical arts and philosophy.

In 1436, Vlad II Dracul ascended the throne of Wallachia. He was ousted in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, but secured Ottoman support for his return agreeing to pay tribute to the Sultan and also send his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu the Handsome, to the Ottoman court, to serve as hostages of his loyalty.

At eleven years of age, Vlad III was imprisoned and often whipped and beaten because of his verbal abuse towards his captors and his stubborn behavior, while his younger brother Radu the Handsome was much easier to control. Radu converted to Islam, entered the service of Sultan Murad II's son, Mehmed II (later known as the Conqueror), and was allowed into the Ottoman royal court.

These years had a great influence on Vlad's character and led to Vlad's well-known hatred for the Ottoman Turks, the Janissary, his brother Radu the Handsome for becoming an Ottoman, and the young Ottoman prince Mehmed II (even after he became sultan). According to McNally and Florescu, he was jealous of his father's preference for his elder brother, Mircea II and half brother,Vlad Călugărul. He also distrusted his own father for trading him to the Turks and betraying the Order of the Dragon's oath to fight them. It was in Turkey where Vlad first witnessed the act of impalement (the Ottomans often beheaded traitors and deserters).

Vlad was later released, corrected and taken to be educated in logic, the Quran and the Turkish and Persian languages and works of literature. He would speak these languages fluently in his later years. He and his brother were also trained in warfare and riding horses. The boys' father, Vlad Dracul, was released quickly, in 1443, and with the support of the Ottomans he returned to Wallachia and took back his throne from Basarab II.

First reign and exile

In December 1447, boyars in league with the Hungarian regent Janos Hunyadi rebelled against Vlad Dracul and killed him in the marshes near Bălteni. Mircea, Dracul's eldest son and heir, was abacinated with hot iron stakes and buried alive at Târgovişte.

To prevent Wallachia from falling into the Hungarian fold, the Ottomans invaded Wallachia and put young Vlad III on the throne. However, this rule was short-lived as Hunyadi himself now invaded Wallachia and restored his ally Vladislav II, of the Danesti clan, to the throne.

Vlad fled to Moldavia, where he lived under the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II. In October 1451, Bogdan was assassinated and Vlad fled to Hungary. Impressed by Vlad's vast knowledge of the mindset and inner workings of the Ottoman Empire as well as his hatred of the new sultan Mehmed II, Hunyadi reconciled with his former rival and made him his advisor.

In 1453, the Ottomans, under Sultan Mehmed II took Constantinople after a prolonged siege, putting an end to the final major Christian presence in the eastern Mediterranean, after which Ottoman influence began to spread from this base through the Carpathians, threatening mainland Europe.

In 1456, three years after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, they threatened Hungary by besieging Belgrade. Hunyadi began a concerted counter-attack in Serbia: while he himself moved into Serbia and relieved the siege (before dying of the plague), Vlad led his own contingent into Wallachia, reconquered his native land and killed Vladislav II in hand to hand combat.

Second reign

Vlad found Wallachia in a wretched state: constant war had resulted in rampant crime, falling agricultural production, and the virtual disappearance of trade. Regarding a stable economy essential to resisting external enemies, he used severe methods to restore order and prosperity.

Vlad had three aims for Wallachia: to strengthen the country's economy, its defense and his own political power. He took measures to help the peasants' wellbeing by building new villages and raising agricultural output. He understood the importance of trade for the development of Wallachia. He helped the Wallachian merchants by limiting foreign merchant trade to three market towns: Targusor, Campulung and Targoviste.

Vlad considered the boyars the chief cause of the constant strife as well as of the death of his father and brother. To secure his rule, he had many leading nobles killed and gave positions in his council, traditionally belonging to the greatest boyars, to persons of obscure origins, who would be loyal to him alone, and some to foreigners. For lower offices, Vlad preferred knights and free peasants to boyars. In his aim of cleaning up Wallachia Vlad gave new laws punishing thieves and robbers. Vlad treated the boyars with the same harshness, because they were guilty of weakening Wallachia through their internal struggles for power.

The army was also strengthened. He had a small personal guard, mostly made of mercenaries, who were rewarded by loot. Another reward for soldiers was promotion. Adding to his guard he formed ‘the lesser army’ made up of peasants called to fight when ever war came.

Vlad Dracula built a church at Targusor (allegedly in the memory of his father and older brother who were killed nearby), and he contributed with money to the Snagov Monastery and to the Comana Monastery fortifications.

War with the Ottomans

Vlad allied himself with Matthias Corvinus, Hunyadi's son who had risen to be King of Hungary. Wallachia controlled her side of the Danube and Sultan Mehmed II wanted to have control over the river, as naval attacks could be launched against his empire all the way from the Holy Roman Empire. On September 26, 1459, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the Ottomans and on January 14, 1460, at the Congress of Mantua, the Pope proclaimed the official crusade that was to last for three years. His plan, however, failed and the only European leader that showed enthusiasm for the crusade was Vlad Ţepeş, whom the Pope held in high regard.

Later that year, in 1459, Mehmed sent envoys to Ţepeş to urge him to pay the delayed tribute. Vlad refused to pay the tribute, of 10,000 ducats and 500 young boys, to the Ottomans. To provoke Mehmed, Vlad had the envoys killed, by nailing their turbans to their heads. Subsequently, the Ottomans attempted to remove him, and the Turks crossed the Danube and started to do their own recruiting, to which Ţepeş reacted by capturing the Turks and impaling them.

Personal life

The identity of Vlad's first wife is unknown. She bore him at least one son, Mihnea cel Rău, who would later rule Wallachia from 1508 to 1510. According to local legend, she died during the siege of Poienari Castle, which was surrounded by the Ottoman army led by Radu cel Frumos and the Romanian Janissary. A woodland archer, having seen the shadow of Vlad's wife behind a window, shot an arrow through the window into Vlad's main quarters with a message warning him that Radu's army was approaching. McNally and Florescu explain that the archer was one of Vlad's relatives who sent the warning out of loyalty despite having converted to Islam to escape enslavement or execution by the Turks. Upon reading the message, Vlad's wife threw herself from the tower into a tributary of the Argeş River flowing below the castle, saying she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish of the Argeş than be led into captivity by the Turks. Today, the tributary is called Râul Doamnei (the "Lady's River", also called the Princess's River).

Matthias Corvinus had received from the Pope a consistent financial support to fight against the Turks. But he had spent the money on completely different purposes. He now had the Ottomans at his borders, and needed someone to use as a scapegoat.

When Vlad came to him to ask for his help with fighting the war, Matthias Corvinus arrested him using false documents: a forged letter, in which Vlad pledged loyalty to Mehmed II and promised to strike an agreement with the Ottomans over Wallachia.

Vlad was imprisoned at Oratia, a fortress located at Podu Dambovitei Bridge. A period of imprisonment in Visegrad, near Buda followed, where the Wallachian prince was held for 10 years. Then he was imprisoned in Buda.

The exact length of Vlad's period of captivity is open to some debate, though indications are that it was from 1462 until 1474. Diplomatic correspondence from Buda seems to indicate that the period of Vlad's effective confinement was relatively short. Radu's openly pro-Ottoman policy as voivod probably contributed to Vlad's rehabilitation. During his captivity, some sources say Vlad also converted to Catholicism, in contrast to his brother who converted to Islam, if the conversion happened at all.

Gradually winning back King Matthias's favour, he married Ilona Szilágyi, a cousin of the king, and in the years before his final release in 1474, lived with her in a house in the Hungarian capital.

Around 1465, Ilona bore him two sons: the elder, Vlad IV Dracula, who spent most of his time in king Matthias' retinue and later was an unsuccessful claimant to the Wallachian throne. The younger, whose name is unknown, lived with the Bishop of Oradea in Transylvania until 1482, when he fell ill. He returned to Buda, where he died in his mother's presence. The descendants of Vlad and Ilona married into Hungarian nobility.

On 26 November 1476, the High Council decided Vlad was to be enthroned. Vlad began preparations for the reconquest of Wallachia and in 1476, with Hungarian support, invaded the country. Vlad’s third reign lasted little more than two months when he was killed on the battlefield against the Ottomans near Bucharest in 1476.

The Turks decapitated his corpse and sent the head to Constantinople, where the Sultan had it displayed on a stake as proof that the Impaler was finally dead. The exact location of his remains is unknown. One theory is that Vlad's remains may be located at the Comana monastery. The other theory is that Vlad is buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest.


When he came to power Vlad ruled with the intention of exacting revenge on the boyars for killing his father and eldest brother. Though Vlad took nearly a decade to do so, he fulfilled this vow, completing the task on an Easter Sunday around 1457. The older boyars and their families were immediately impaled. The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north from Târgovişte to the ruins of Poienari Castle in the mountains above the Argeş River, 40 miles north of Târgovişte. Vlad was determined to rebuild this ancient fortress as his own stronghold and refuge so he might monitor the movements of the Hungarians coming through Transylvania and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The enslaved boyars, their families and some master masons were forced to labor until their deaths, rebuilding the old castle with materials from another nearby ruin. According to tradition, they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. None survived the construction of castle Poienari, as those who did not die from exhaustion were impaled.

Vlad the Impaler's reputation was considerably darker in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe and Romania. The fame of his cruelty spread in the form of a pamphlet, seriously exaggerated, and promoted by Mathias Corvinus. Matthias tarnished Vlad’s reputation and credibility for a political reason: as an explanation for why he had not helped Vlad fight the Ottomans in 1462, for which purpose he had received money from most Catholic states in Europe. Mathias employed the charges of Southeastern Transylvania, and produced fake letters of high treason, written on the 7 November 1462.In the West, Vlad III Ţepeş has been characterized as a tyrant who took sadistic pleasure in torturing and killing his enemies. The number of his victims ranges from 40,000 to 100,000. According to the German stories the number of victims he had killed was at least 80,000. In addition to the 80,000 victims mentioned he also had whole villages and fortresses destroyed and burned to the ground. These numbers are most likely exaggerated.

Vlad the Impaler is alleged to have committed even more impalements and other tortures against invading Ottoman forces. It was reported that an invading Ottoman army turned back in fright when it encountered thousands of rotting corpses impaled on the banks of the Danube. It has also been said that in 1462 Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, a man noted for his own psychological warfare tactics, returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses outside Vlad's capital of Târgovişte. Many of the victims were Turkish prisoners of war Vlad had previously captured during the Turkish invasion. The total Turkish casualty toll in this battle reached over 40,000. The warrior sultan turned command of the campaign against Vlad over to subordinates and returned to Constantinople, even though his army had initially outnumbered Vlad's three to one and was better equipped. Vlad was also a courageous man - he led from the front; he never let his soldiers do all the fighting. Vlad's blood-lust was deeper than impalement; he desired to be in battle as well.

German stories about Vlad the Impaler

The German stories circulated first in manuscript form in the late 15th century and the first manuscript was probably written in 1462 before Vlad's arrest. The text was later printed in Germany and had major impact on the general public becoming a best-seller of its time with numerous later editions adding and altering the original text.

In addition to the manuscripts and pamphlets the German version of the stories can be found in the poem of Michel Beheim. The poem called "Von ainem wutrich der hies Trakle waida von der Walachei" ("Story of a Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia") was written and performed at the court of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor during the winter of 1463.

To this day four manuscripts and 13 pamphlets are found as well as the poem by Michel Beheim. The surviving manuscripts date from the last quarter of the 15th century to the year 1500 and the found pamphlets date from 1488 to 1559–1568.

Eight of the pamphlets are incunabula: they were printed before 1501. The German stories about Vlad the Impaler consist of 46 short episodes, although none of the manuscripts, pamphlets or the poem of Beheim contain all 46 stories.

All of them begin with the story of the old governor, John Hunyadi, having Vlad's father killed, and how Vlad and his brother renounced their old religion and swore to protect and uphold the Christian faith. After this, the order and titles of the stories differs by manuscript and pamphlet editions.

The German stories were written most likely for political reasons, especially to blacken the image of the Wallachian ruler. The first version of the German text was probably written in Braşov by a Saxon scholar. According to some researchers, the writer expressed the general feelings of the Saxons in Braşov and Sibiu who had borne the brunt of Vlad’s wrath in 1456–1457 and again in 1458–1459 and 1460.

Russian stories about Vlad the Impaler

The Russian or the Slavic version of the stories about Vlad the Impaler called "Skazanie o Drakule voevode" ("The Tale of Warlord Dracula") is thought to have been written sometime between 1481 and 1486. Copies were made from the 15th century to the 18th century, of which some twenty-two extant manuscripts survive in Russian archives. The oldest one, from 1490, ends as follows: "First written in the year 6994 of the Byzantine calendar (1486), on 13 February; then transcribed by me, the sinner Elfrosin, in the year 6998 (1490), on 28 January". The Tales of Prince Dracula is neither chronological nor consistent, but mostly a collection of anecdotes of literary and historical value concerning Vlad Ţepeş.

There are 19 anecdotes in The Tales of Prince Dracula which are longer and more constructed than the German stories. It can be divided into two sections: The first 13 episodes are non-chronological events most likely closer to the original folkloric oral tradition about Vlad. The last six episodes are thought to have been written by a scholar who collected them, because they are chronological and seem to be more structured. The stories begin with a short introduction and the anecdote about the nailing of hats to ambassadors heads. They end with Vlad's death and information about his family.

Of the 19 anecdotes there are ten that have similarities to the German stories. Although there are similarities between the Russian and the German stories about Vlad, there is a clear distinction with the attitude towards him. The Russian stories tend to give him a more positive File: he is depicted as a great ruler, a brave soldier and a just sovereign. Stories of atrocities tend to seem to be justified as the actions of a strong ruler. Of the 19 anecdotes, only four seem to have exaggerated violence. Some elements of the anecdotes were later added to Russian stories about Ivan the Terrible of Russia.

Romanian attitudes

Romanian folklore and literature, on the other hand, paints Vlad Ţepeş as a hero. His reputation in his native country as a man who stood up to both foreign and domestic enemies gives him the virtual opposite symbolism of Stoker's vampire. In Romania he is considered one of the greatest leaders in the country's history, and was voted one of "100 Greatest Romanians" in the "Mari Români" television series aired in 2006.

A contemporary portrait of Vlad III, rediscovered by Romanian historians in the late 19th century, had been featured in the gallery of horrors at Innsbruck's Ambras Castle. This original has been lost to history, but a larger copy, painted anonymously in the latter half of the sixteenth century, now hangs in the same gallery. This copy, unlike the cryptoportraits contemporary with Vlad III, seems to have given him a Habsburg lip, although he was not a member of the Habsburg lineage.

His image in modern Romanian culture clashes with foreign perceptions. It is the last part of a rather popular 19th century poem by Mihai Eminescu, "Scrisoarea a III-a", that helped turn Vlad's image into modern legend, by having him stand as a figure to contrast with presumed social decay under the Phanariotes and the political scene of the 19th century (even suggesting that Vlad's violent methods be applied as a cure). Notably though, the first author to depict Vlad as a Romanian heroic character was a Transylvanian who probably never travelled to Wallachia, Ioan Budai-Deleanu. Around 1800 he wrote a Romanian epic heroicomic poem, "Ţiganiada", in which prince Vlad Ţepeş stars as a fierce warrior fighting the Ottomans. Well in advance of Romanian literature at that time, this work, unlike Eminescu's, remained unpublished and ignored for a century, and did not exert any influence.

All accounts of his life describe him as ruthless, but only the ones originating from his Saxon detractors paint him as sadistic or insane. These pamphlets continued to be published long after his death, though usually for lurid entertainment rather than propaganda purposes. It has largely been forgotten until recently that his tenacious efforts against the Ottoman Empire won him many staunch supporters in his lifetime, not just in modern day Romania but in the Kingdom of Hungary, Poland, the Republic of Venice, the Holy See, and the Balkans. A Hungarian court chronicler reported that King Matthias "had acted in opposition to general opinion" in Hungary when he had Dracula imprisoned, and this played a considerable part in Matthias reversing his unpopular decision. During his time as a "distinguished prisoner" before being fully pardoned and allowed to reconquer Wallachia, Vlad was hailed as a Christian hero by visitors from all over Europe.

Film adaptations

Unlike the fictional Dracula films, there have been comparatively few movies about the man who inspired the vampire. The 1975 documentary In Search of Dracula explores the legend of Vlad the Impaler. He is played in the film by Christopher Lee, known for his numerous portrayals of the fictional Dracula in films ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In 1979, a Romanian film called Vlad Ţepeş (sometimes known, in other countries, as The True Story of Vlad the Impaler) was released, based on his six-year reign and brief return to power in late 1476. The character is portrayed in a mostly positive perspective though the film also mentions the excesses of his regime and his practice of impalement. The lead character is played by Ştefan Sileanu.

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, a film released in 2000, tells the life story of Vlad the Impaler mostly accurately while ending fictionally with Vlad rising from the grave and gaining eternal worldly life as well as supernatural abilities, implying that he has now become the fictional Dracula. Vlad is played in the film by Rudolf Martin.

Numerous film adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula and original works derived from it have incorporated Vlad the Impaler's history into the fictional Count Dracula's past, depicting them as the same person, including, among others: the 1972–1979 comic book series The Tomb of Dracula from Marvel Comics, the 1973 film Dracula, starring Jack Palance, and the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as Dracula, apparently making a likeness to Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad will be put up against Sun Tzu in an upcoming season 2 episode of Spike's Deadliest Warrior.

In Kouta Hirano's manga series, Hellsing, it is strongly implied that the vampire Alucard is Vlad III.

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