12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

Tim Flight - May 22, 2018

The fictional Count Dracula has cast a long shadow over Western Culture since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. This fictional vampire, of course, had lived in an isolated castle in Transylvania for several centuries, and was aiming to launch a campaign for widespread vampirism from the ruined abbey of Carfax in London. He is eventually stopped by a crack-team of amateurs led by Abraham van Helsing before he can succeed in his mission to spread the undead curse. Stoker’s novel however spread an undead curse of its own in the form of the vampire-trope in modern times.

In preparation for writing his magnum opus, Stoker spent a long time assiduously researching the vampire myths and superstitions of Central and Eastern Europe (popularised by John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819), and also the turbulent history of the region. His titular Count takes his name and certain biographical details from Vlad III, voivode (war-lord) of Wallachia, alias Vlad Tepes (‘the Impaler’) and Vlad Dracula, who lived between 1428 and c.1477. This article will show that the life of the ‘real Dracula’, as he is commonly known, was in many ways more fascinating than the camp villain of Stoker’s novel.


12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Vlad Dracul, father of Vlad Tepes, 17th-century copy of an unknown original found at Dracul’s home, Sighisoara, Transylvania. Ancient Pages

The Name ‘Dracula’

‘Dracula’ simply means ‘son of the Dragon’. The name, which is Slavonic, is sometimes misconstrued as ‘son of the Devil’ by scholars seduced by the mythological nonsense attached to the historical Vlad Tepes by Stoker. Vlad Tepes was ‘son of the Dragon’ because his father, Vlad II (pre-1395-1447), was known as Vlad Dracul, ‘Vlad the Dragon’. This sobriquet was not given to him for any particularly heinous crimes, however, but because he was a member of the esteemed Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order of nobility tasked with defending Christendom from its heretical enemies, especially the Ottoman Muslims.

Vlad Dracul spent much of his childhood in Buda (the ancient side of the Danube in modern Budapest, Hungary), as a gesture of goodwill from his father, the voivode Mircea I of Wallachia (c.1355-1418). Dracul was kept at Buda Castle to ensure that his father kept the alliance he had agreed with Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437), King of Hungary. Sigismund openly described Dracul as ‘educated at our court’, suggesting that he had every faith in the boy’s abilities and loyalty. When Mircea died in 1418, Dracul was free to leave, but opted to stay on as a page of Sigismund.

As Sigismund’s page, Dracul travelled widely across Europe with the Hungarian court, taking in Rome, Prague, Nuremburg, and Transylvania, and was educated in various foreign languages to prepare him for a life in European politics. However, he eventually grew tired of the petty intrigues, disputes, and pageantry he encountered, and was disappointed when Sigismund tired of crusading East and pursued his political ambitions to the West. Dracul’s aim was to regain his father’s throne in Wallachia, which had fallen into dispute amongst illegitimate half-brothers following Mircea’s death. Thus he began to make his own political alliances to achieve his aims.

Dracul was caught after leaving Buda castle under the cover of darkness to reach the Polish court at Krakow, where he intended to find a more profitable ally and sponsor in the form of King Ladislas II Jagielo, a former rival of Sigismund. The furious King of Hungary responded by confirming the then-ruling Dan II voivode of Wallachia and sending Dracul on diplomatic missions. On one of these missions Dracul spent time at Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, where he entertained thoughts of defecting to the rival empire. His time at Constantinople accounts for the Oriental garb in the depiction above.

Dracul returned to Hungary in 1429, being made a member of the Order of the Dragon by Sigismund in 1431. Dracul seized Wallachia at last in 1436 with the help of Hungary, but when his ally’s assistance diminished he was forced to pay tribute and swear loyalty to Sultan Murad II. When the invading Ottomans were defeated by John Hunyadi, voivode of Transylvania, in 1442, Dracul was imprisoned for treachery, but returned to rule Wallachia in 1443. He was killed by Hunyadi’s men in 1447. Vlad Tepes was born in 1428, while his father was living in Sighisoara, Transylvania.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
The former home of Vlad Dracul and the young Vlad Tepes, Sighisoara, Transylvania. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)


Given his posthumous reputation, it may come as a surprise that Vlad Tepes received a first-class education. Tepes’s early years at Sighisoara were spent making the early preparations for his life as a voivode: how to dress properly, basic courtly manners, and how he ranked amongst his childhood peers. Sighisoara was a female-dominated environment in which the young Tepes was constantly fussed over and was always the centre of attention. There was also a quasi-Spartan emphasis on physical fitness, in which Tepes was expected to spend time outside in storms and ride an unsaddled horse by the age of 5.

The noble children of Sighisoara also learned how to trap hares and spent the summer months slaying eagles with slingshots. However, beyond the formal educative requirements of his childhood, Tepes was also allowed to play with other children, and truancy from lessons was also tolerated. In 1436, when Vlad Tepes was around 8 years old, his father seized the throne of Wallachia, and the family went to live at the palace of Targoviste. There Tepes received a more refined education, learning the finer points of horsemanship, fencing, archery, and court etiquette. By all accounts, he was a fine student.

Tepes’s intellectual education is less well-attested. His first tutor was an elderly knight who taught his pupil Italian, humanities, and world history. Monks also taught him Latin, the Cyrillic script, and Old Church Slavonic. Judging from his method of ruling through terror, it seems likely that he was taught political science, too. No surviving manuscripts of Wallachian political science survive, but the early-16th-century text Teachings of Neagoe Basarab is a compilation of political maxims which match the prevalent 15th-century philosophy of leadership in Wallachia. The Teachings advocate the divine right of sovereigns and the use of terror in successful leadership.

There is a story from Tepes’s childhood at Sighisoara which, if true, casts some light on his later penchant for terror. The house at which Tepes spent his early childhood, which can still be visited by those willing to endure a kitsch restaurant called ‘Case de Dracul’, overlooks the Councilmen’s Square in Sighisoara. There was once a small jail in the square, from which criminals were led to be hanged at Jewelers’ Donjon, and it is recorded that the young Tepes displayed an unusual and morbid curiosity in watching the condemned walk their final steps to meet their fate.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Sultan Murad II, who imprisoned the young Vlad Tepes, by John Young, England, 1815. Wikimedia Commons

Prisoner of the Turks

As mentioned in the account of Vlad Dracul’s life, his lack of faith in his Hungarian allies led to him changing allegiance and paying tribute to Sultan Murad II (1404-51). Dracul accompanied Murad II’s invading army into Transylvania, where they slaughtered locals, looted treasure, and generally burned anything that took their fancy. However, when John Hunyadi began to gain ascendancy in the battle against the Ottomans, Dracul was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and attempted to appear neutral. Murad grew suspicious of his former partner in crime, and wanted to ascertain the strength of his loyalty.

Murad invited Dracul to stay with him at Gallipolli, but as soon as the voivode reached the city gates he was tied up and his two youngest sons, Tepes and Radu the Handsome, led away as prisoners. Like Dracul before them, Tepes, aged around 14, and Radu, aged 7 and ‘no taller than a bouquet of flowers’, were to serve as a surety of their father’s loyalty. For the next 6 years, Tepes was a prisoner of the Ottomans in a strange world in which he spoke not a word of his jailors’ language; Dracul was released after a year.

Contemporary Turkish chronicles document the boys’ incarceration in Anatolia and Adrianople. One comfort for the children would have been the resemblance of the mountains and forests surrounding their first prison at Egrigoz to the sub-Carpathian landscape of Wallachia. Their imprisonment was not severe, however, as the Sultan hoped to encourage their goodwill towards him in preparation for their eventual release and potential term as voivodes. They travelled with the court to Bursa and the summer palace at Manisa, but the threat of execution loomed large, and the boys knew that if their father betrayed the Sultan they would surely die.

Indeed, other boys were held hostage under similar arrangements, and one set who were caught conspiring by letter with their father against the Sultan were blinded with red-hot irons as punishment. Tepes proved a difficult student, too, and the chronicles tell us that he was frequently whipped. By contrast, Radu excelled and was a popular member of the court, which led to a lifelong mutual hatred of one another. These circumstances all led to Tepes’s hatred of the Turks, and when he became voivode of Wallachia this former intimate of the Ottoman court was to prove a disproportionately immovable adversary.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Targoviste Fortress, Tepes’s royal Wallachian seat. My Dracula

Ruler of Wallachia, not Transylvania

Bram Stoker’s version of Tepes, Count Dracula, is a native of Transylvania. It is likely that this transportation is due to the influence of Emily Gerard’s 1885 essay, ‘Transylvania Superstitions’, on Stoker. The historical Dracula, however, was voivode of Wallachia, and a frequent enemy of Transylvania, despite being born there. Wallachia was first established as a state in the early 14th century by Basarab I, though legend attributes its foundation several decades earlier to Radu the Black. Rebel landowners were certainly operating in the Wallachia area in the late 13th century, however, which makes its origins hard to determine.

The geographical location of Wallachia placed it at the forefront of confrontations between East and West. Wallachia was historically bounded by the Black Sea, across which is Turkey, making it the obvious point of invasion for the Ottomans entering Europe. The Order of the Dragon was founded in Hungary for the very purpose of fighting the Muslim armies that invaded from the East, for these confrontations represented not merely a territorial challenge but a religious conflict. Consequently, Wallachia contained many fortresses in the uplands, and few were brave enough to live in the southern area, from fear of Ottoman invasion.

Targoviste was made the capital of Wallachia in 1385, and became an important stronghold for Vlad Dracul and his successors. Wallachia itself was chiefly populated by peasants and boyars (those of upper class or free origin), who had feudal rule over their subjects on behalf of the voivode. During times of war, the boyars would follow the ruling voivode into battle, bringing peasants who worked on their estates. In Dracul’s day, the Wallachian army numbered around 50, 000 men. The position of Wallachia on the borders of Christendom bred patriotism amongst its people, and thus a fearsome army awaited invaders.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Vlad Tepes, early 17th century, probably German. Wikimedia Commons

Helped to Power by the Ottomans

When Vlad Dracul died in 1447, his son was still a prisoner at the Ottoman court. Tepes only learned of Dracul’s passing months after the event owing to the slow pace of news being spread between Wallachia and Adrianople, but the information was at least given to him in person by Murad II. We know not whether Tepes was saddened by the news, but the immediate consequence of his father’s death was to release him from captivity. He was made an officer in the Turkish army, and informed that the Sultan had been impressed by his sternness and leadership skills.

The Ottomans saw an opportunity to install a voivode in Wallachia who was loyal to them and so, in 1448, when John Hunyadi was away from Transylvania trying to muster a new Christian army after two inglorious defeats, Tepes was sent into Wallachia in the company of Turkish cavalry and infantry lent by the pasha Mustafa Hassan. He successfully took the throne after ousting Vladislav II, a loyal servant of Hunyadi whom scholars suspect was behind the slaying of Vlad Dracul. Unfortunately, Tepes was deposed after only 2 months when Vladislav invaded with support from the Hungarian army.

Whilst in exile, Tepes stayed with his uncle, Bogdan II of Moldavia, and used the time (about which we know very little) to form diplomatic alliances with Hungary. Despite his earlier associations with the Ottoman Empire, Hungary’s hated enemy, when Tepes invaded Wallachia for a second time in 1456 it was with Hungarian support, and Vladislav II was killed. His allegiance to the Ottomans lasted only as long as they were useful to him, and in his first letter as voivode he told the townsfolk of Brasov, Transylvania, that he would help them if the Ottomans invaded again.

There is another indirect way in which the Ottoman Empire helped Tepes regain the throne of Wallachia. Although Vladislav was helped to oust Tepes by the Hungarians, he began shortly afterwards to make overtures towards the Ottomans, whom he sensed were in the ascendency. Hunyadi wavered in allegiance to Vladislav when he found out, and the continued threat of Ottoman invasion meant that he needed a fierce and ruthless ally like Tepes. Hunyadi gave Tepes a role in his army and a dwelling in Sibiu, with instructions to the locals that they must tolerate his largely-unpopular presence in the town.

When the Ottomans – under Murad’s son, Mehmed II, an extravagant and high-handed ruler – sacked Constantinople in 1453, Hunyadi correctly suspected that it marked the beginnings of a march West, with the important fortress of Belgrade next in line. Once this fell, Mehmed planned to use it as a base from which to attack Hungary. Hunyadi left Tepes in Sibiu to watch the Transylvanian passes and to ensure Vladislav II (now entirely loyal to the Ottomans) did not make any movements. The miraculous defeat of the Ottoman army and Tepes’s loyalty to Hunyadi meant that Dracula’s day had finally come.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Vlad Tepes eats dinner surrounded by his impaled Saxon victims, woodcut from the title page of a pamphlet, Nuremberg, 1499. Pinterest

Massacre of Saxons

One group of people that suffered grievously from Vlad Tepes, to whom we are indebted for the gory details of his alleged crimes, were the Transylvanian Saxons. Not to be confused with the Anglo-Saxons of England, the Transylvanian Saxons were German migrants who had been encouraged to settle in the area after the region was conquered by Hungary in the mid-12th century. They were known as Saxons because they used Saxony as a staging area on their trek east, and in actual fact came from all over Germany. The Saxons were prosperous merchants who fortified several cities in Transylvania.

By contrast, Tepes’s Romanian countrymen in Transylvania had decidedly fewer rights, and were chiefly of the peasant class. This was partially owing to religious observance: the Saxons were Catholic, like their Hungarian overlords, whereas the Romanians belonged to the Romanian Orthodox Church. The ultimate cause of Tepes’s hatred of the Saxons, however, came from a schism between the Hunyadi family and the Hapsburg king of Hungary. Whilst Tepes supported the Hunyadis who had helped him seize his throne, the Saxons supported the king of Hungary. Despite the Saxon propaganda against him, Tepes was motivated by loyalty rather than irrational hatred.

His first violent encounter with the Saxons came in 1457 when they protested against the rule of Hunyadi’s widow, Erzsebet Szilagy, in Bistrita. Tepes helped the Szilagy forces enter Bistrita, where they looted and burned the houses of the suspected ringleaders. The Saxon cities of Brasov and Sibiu rose up in ire, and a rival claimant to the Wallachian throne, Dan III, was crowned at Brasov, with another, Tepes’s half-brother Vlad the Monk, crowned at Sibiu. Tepes responded by placing trade restrictions on Saxon goods in Wallachia, and attempting to solve the issue through diplomacy. He received no response.

Thus Tepes declared war on the Saxons, and immediately burned several villages to the ground along with the entire possessions of Vlad the Monk’s supporters. Moving against Dan III’s supporters near Brasov, Tepes wiped out the village of Bod, and took several prisoners whom he had impaled at Targoviste. At Talmes, Tepes burned the city and had the people ‘hacked to pieces like cabbage’, according to contemporary German sources. Back in Wallachia, he impaled all Saxon merchants who circumvented his trade restrictions, and had some boiled in a huge cauldron. He also impaled 41 Saxon students he suspected of espionage.

A diplomat sent by the Saxons to negotiate with Tepes was entertained at a dining table surrounded by impaled victims. Trying to whittle out Dan III’s supporters, Tepes burned crops around Brasov, and had the inhabitants of Dan III’s suburb impaled and hacked to pieces while he ate dinner. Allegedly, he was seen dipping bread into the victims’ blood, which he said gave him courage, an anecdote which perhaps came to Bram Stoker’s attention. Tepes finally captured Dan in 1460, forcing him to dig his own grave while a priest read the burial mass, after which the pretender was beheaded.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Impalement, as depicted in a French book,1593. Wikimedia Commons

Stopping the Ottoman Empire with a Stake up their Collective Bottom

At the same time as putting down the Saxons, Tepes was also threatened by his erstwhile-captors and allies, the Ottoman Empire. Tepes had actually grown up alongside Sultan Mehmed, and had a good idea of his ruthless character and desire to emulate the all-conquering Alexander the Great. He thus prepared for the inevitable Turkish invasion by brokering peace with the Saxons 6 months after the execution of Dan III, the terms of which were nevertheless heavily in favour of Wallachia, in order to avoid a conflict on 2 fronts. As Wallachia’s neighbouring countries fell to Mehmed, Tepes prepared for war.

Another man fearful of the Ottoman invasion was Pope Pius II (1405-64), who gave a 2-hour address to the dignitaries of Europe in 1459, exhorting them to ‘take up the cross’ and join a new crusade against the attacking East. Most rulers pursued a policy of appeasement, but Tepes was virtually the sole European ruler who planned a positive response to the Pope’s plea. More countries and city-states gave way without a struggle, and Mehmed sent emissaries to visit Tepes, confident that he, too, would give way in the light of much of Europe surrendering with barely a blow exchanged.

Another reason for Mehmed’s confidence was that Wallachia had paid the Ottomans a hefty annual tribute of 10, 000 ducats since Vlad Dracul’s reign, though in 1462 Tepes was 3 years in arrears. In addition to the back-payments, which now had to be delivered to the Sultan by Tepes himself, the emissaries also demanded 500 boys for the Ottoman army. Buying himself time, Tepes negotiated an alliance with the Hungarian king, and then answered Mehmed’s demands by nailing the emissaries’ taqiyahs (skullcaps) to their heads. This was a move calculated to provoke an attack from the vainglorious Mehmed.

Mehmed responded by attempting to ambush Tepes on his way to the Ottoman fortress of Giurgiu. Seeing through the plot, Tepes captured the conspirators, whom he later impaled at Targoviste. He next captured Giurgiu by dressing up as an Ottoman and giving orders for the gates to be opened in fluent Turkish, at which his men stormed the edifice and slaughtered the garrison. In the winter of 1461-62, Tepes launched a daring and successful campaign of guerrilla warfare, splitting his army into small sections and attacking the Ottoman strongholds with a mixture of utter boldness, speed, and bloody ruthlessness.

Eventually, Mehmed sent 60, 000 men armed with a plethora of advanced weapons to invade Wallachia. Tepes’s army numbered only 24, 000, and so he adopted a new tactic of scorched earth, strategic retreat, and more guerrilla attacks. When the Ottomans were encamped outside Targoviste in 1462, Tepes launched the famous Night Attack at Targoviste, killing around 5, 000 enemies. When the Ottomans went to launch their attack on Targoviste, they encountered the notorious ‘forest of the impaled’, a mile-long semicircle of 20, 000 impaled Ottoman prisoners decomposing in the sun. The next day, Mehmed ordered his forces to retreat.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Bran Castle, Transylvania, is the castle of Count Dracula, but not Vlad Tepes. Alexandru Savu

Dracula’s Castles

In the novel Dracula, Castle Dracula is perched high on a rock in the Transylvanian Carpathians, and Bran Castle, pictured above, has been suggested as Stoker’s model for this. However, there is no record of the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, ever visiting the castle, though he certainly knew of it, since it was positioned to protect one of his main targets, Brasov. This hasn’t stopped the current managers of Bran Castle marketing it as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, nevertheless. In truth, Dracula patronised several different castles, sometimes as the overlord, at other times as a guest, and still others as a prisoner.

If any building can be called ‘Dracula’s Castle’, it is Targoviste Fortress. Tepes lived here until he became an Ottoman hostage, and again when he became voivode of Wallachia. Vlad Dracul had fortified the formerly-wooden stronghold in stone after assuming the much-disputed Wallachian throne in 1436, simultaneously making it a residence worthy of a great voivode. Tepes himself added the Chindia Tower, which even today stands at 27 metres high, in order to strengthen the fortress and to allow a vantage point over the surrounding area. Tepes spent most of his time at Targoviste when not imprisoned or at war.

In terms of defence, Tepes’s most important possession was Poenari Castle, located on the high plateau of Mount Cetatea overlooking the Arges River and an important path through the southern Carpathians. It is said that when Tepes saw the ruined 13th-century fortification, he asked local boyars for money to refortify it against the Turks. When they refused, Tepes forced them to work day and night until they had done the work themselves. Although it was captured by the great Ottoman army that invaded Wallachia in 1462, Tepes managed to escape via an underground tunnel leading north through the mountains.

Hunedoara Castle, also known as Corvin Castle, was visited by Tepes in two different capacities. On his first visit, he was made a commander in John Hunyadi’s army and granted his residence at Sibiu. On his second visit, he was imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus, who wished to avoid further warfare with the Ottomans, who by now had returned to capture Wallachia with the assistance of Tepes’s hated brother, Radu the Handsome, a Muslim convert who had convinced much of the Wallachian army and mercenaries to switch sides. A series of blatantly-forged letters were produced to show Tepes conspiring with Mehmed.

Hunedoara Castle is by far the best-preserved and most impressive of all Dracula’s castles. A mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, Hunedoara occupies a lofty position on a rocky precipice surrounded by a deep moat, and is entered by a great, stone bridge across a chasm. There is an interesting story attached to the 30-metre-deep well: it was dug by 12 Turkish prisoners over 15 years, who were promised freedom if they reached the water below the rock. Their captors reneged on the promise, and graffiti on the well’s wall records some of the names of the unfortunate prisoners.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Christianity did not stop Vlad burning and looting the Black Church, Brasov, in his campaign against the Saxons. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)

Toast of the Christian World

From his surviving correspondence, it is clear that Vlad Tepes was a man of faith. A typical extract from his letters – regarding his near-ambush on the way to Giurgiu — demonstrates this point: ‘by the grace of God… I found out about their trickery and slyness, and I was the one who captured Hamza Bey in the Turkish district’. His Christianity sits uncomfortably with his burning of churches in Brasov, but perhaps he justified this with the thought that they had been built by the Saxons who were challenging his Divine Right to sovereignty in Wallachia, and hence were not sacred.

Until his betrayal and imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, Tepes’s exploits against the Turks made him a hero in Christian Europe. Christian diplomats were in awe of his achievements, and moreover grateful that someone was taking the initiative against the invading Muslim army. Pope Pius II himself spoke of Tepes in glowing terms after reading dispatches from his representatives, and sent subsidies from Rome to help his camaign. Te deums rang out in praise of Tepes’s victories, and the inability of Mehmed’s army to cross Wallachia into Central Europe saved a great many cities and countries from being conquered themselves.

Rome and Venice, who saw Tepes as a crusader and had spent vast sums provisioning his army, expressed their deep concern about his arrest. This is why the forged letters had to be produced: only by portraying Tepes as a Christian traitor could Corvinus persist in his plan to avoid the expenses of fighting Mehmed, which the popular Tepes would surely scupper if freed. The official explanation regardless failed to convince the Pope, and so an emissary was sent to meet the incarcerated Dracula. The emissary left us with a description of Tepes which corresponds closely with his Renaissance portraits.

Ultimately, he was kept in prison as a bargaining chip to achieve and maintain an armistice with Mehmed. With the threat of releasing the ‘impaler king’ (as the Ottomans knew Tepes), who was present at negotiations, Corvinus ended hostilities. Though this was fairly short-lived, it was only 12 years after his capture that Tepes was finally released when Radu the Handsome died of syphilis in 1475. As voivode of Wallachia, Radu had pursued a policy of balancing his duties to the Sultan and Corvinus, but his successor, Basarab Laiota, defected wholly to the Ottoman side. Tepes was needed once more.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Purported grave of Vlad Tepes, Snagov Monastery. Wikimedia Commons

How did he die, and where is he buried?

When Corvinus released Vlad Tepes, he acknowledged him as voivode of Wallachia, but did not provide any military assistance to depose Basarab Laiota. Tepes’s release was met with loud approval across Europe, as few had been convinced of his guilt on the basis of the clumsy, forged letters. A year later, in the face of Ottoman aggression against Hungary’s neighbours, Corvinus made Tepes a captain of his army, and the ‘impaler king’ was once more fighting the Turkish army, this time in Bosnia. Incarceration clearly had not changed Tepes’s modus operandi one iota, and the campaign was widely successful.

‘He tore the limbs off the Turkish prisoners and placed their parts on stakes… and displayed the private parts of his victims so that when the Turks see these, they will run away in fear!’, gushed Gabriele Rangoni, the papal legate, after the recapture of Srebrenica in 1476. Tepes was again using his knowledge of the Ottoman character, gained from his teenage years at the court of Murad II, which evidently had not changed much in the 12 years of his imprisonment as the terror-tactics worked. Tepes was once again a celebrated hero of the Christian resistance to Ottoman invasion.

His importance to the successful campaign in Bosnia gained Tepes enough support from the Hungarian court, and even Transylvania, to convince Corvinus to give him military support to regain Wallachia. With a 21, 000-strong army of Hungarians and Transylvanians, Tepes first liberated Moldavia from Turkish occupation, before defeating Basarab Laiota’s army on the Transylvania/ Wallachia border, and gaining control of Wallachia in November 1476. Unfortunately, Basarab Laiota remained at large, and when his great army had left Wallachia, Tepes was exposed to attack and unable to defend himself. Inevitably, Wallachia was invaded, and Tepes was killed in January 1477.

The precise details of his death are unknown. The Austrian chronicler, Jacob Unrest, writes that a Turkish soldier disguised himself as a servant, infiltrated Tepes’s court, and quite literally stabbed him in the back when Basarab Laiota’s men attacked the voivode’s small army near Snagov Monastery. A Russian narrative claims that Tepes was in disguise as a Turk, and mistaken for an enemy by his own men. All we really know is that he died in battle, fighting an army twice the size of his own, and had been severely let down by his myopic allies who left him undefended.

Jacob Unrest also claims that Tepes’s head was cut off and displayed (with deliberate irony) on a stake in Constantinople, to prove that the feared warrior was finally dead. Though it is entirely possible that his body was left to rot or buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield, there is some credence to the story that his mortal remains were found by monks from the nearby Snagov Monastery, and buried at the altar. The monks’ alleged respect for Tepes’s remains can be attributed to his and his family’s significant financial contributions to Snagov Monastery over the years.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Statue of Vlad Tepes, Bucharest Castle, 20th Century. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)

National Hero

Like many countries in Europe, Romania underwent a national awakening in the 19th century, as the then-divided country was continually threatened by the Ottomans and Romanian people were given few rights by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled them. Hemmed in by enemies from both sides, and resentful of the Saxons, who were viewed as foreign despite their residence having lasted around 700 years, a sense of a Romanian national identity emerged, defined against Hungary, Slavic nations, and of course the hated Ottoman Empire. After a series of bloody uprisings, Romania was officially made a country in 1859.

Discovering a sense of national identity naturally required that great figures of history were celebrated, the most prominent of which was Vlad Tepes. His slippery political alliances during his lifetime meant allowed him to be reinterpreted as a hero who fought bravely against Romania’s enduring enemies: the Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hungarians. His ruthless administration of justice was also seen sympathetically as a necessity for rule. He was celebrated in art, poetry, and legend, with even the lurid tales of his brutality spread in contemporary pamphlets seen as evidence for his patriotism and effectiveness as a ruler.

For instance, the 15th-century allegation made in German pamphlets that he burned the slothful, poor, and physically disabled out of sheer cruelty was reinterpreted in a positive light by Mihai Eminescu:

You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.

Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;

Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle ’em,

Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum. (The Third Letter)

Fighting off Romania’s perennial enemies to preserve its independence whilst maintaining order at home, Vlad Tepes was made into a Romanian Braveheart.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Frontispiece of Die geschicht dracole waide, a Saxon pamphlet describing Vlad Tepes’s awful deeds, Nuremberg, 1488. Wikimedia Commons

Victim of Saxon Propaganda?

Now that we have divorced the 15th-century voivode Vlad Tepes, alias Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s fictional, camp vampire, what can we make of the man? It is clear that he was a shrewd politician who changing alliances when it suited him but, somehow, too, a man of honour, holding grudges and avenging the deaths of his friends or his own subjugation when first possible. He was also extremely resourceful and realistic, using the topography of Wallachia to his advantage against his enemies, altering his military tactics when outnumbered, and using psychological warfare against those who had wronged him.

And, yet, there are countless contemporary accusations of his motiveless cruelty. These originate in the pamphlets printed at the time of his imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, and though later the source of positive legends about him in 19th-century Romania, they are successful in portraying Vlad Tepes as a cruel and bloodthirsty man. Tales such as him dipping his bread into the blood of the impaled and eating dinner surrounded by dying prisoners on stakes turn him into a monster, and are lent plausibility by his known and widely-attested penchant for impaling his enemies. But should we believe the accusations?

Let us consider the title of the pamphlet from which the famous woodcut of Tepes’s meal surrounded by impaled corpses above is derived.

Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract.

This pamphlet was published at the instigation of his great enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons.

The crimes listed above are lurid but to the modern eye seem wildly exaggerated. The accounts of cannibalism are only present in Saxon sources, and we need not belabour the fact that they had an axe to grind with a man who disrupted their trade and killed them for opposing his throne in Wallachia. Though he punished the Transylvanian Saxons without mercy, we should also remember that they opposed his rule, and he first tried to settle the dispute through trade restrictions and then diplomacy, but was ignored. The policy of impalement was very much the last resort for Tepes.

In summary, the real Dracula was an effective leader who did what was necessary to protect his throne and territory. His political machinations and actions in war were motivated not by irrational hatred but the need for survival and the brutal culture of his time: as voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes ruled the vulnerable gateway to Europe from the East which was hotly-contested even from within Europe. Far from being the only member of the aristocracy guilty of using cruelty to maintain power in the bloody 15th century, Vlad Tepes was just one of the most successful.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Andreescu, Ștefan. Vlad the Impaler: Dracula. Bucharest: The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1999.

Baddeley, Gavin, and Paul A. Woods. Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People. Hersham: Ian Allan, 2010.

Florescu, Radu R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.

Treptow, Kurt W. Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula. Portland, OR: The Centre of Romanian Studies, 2000.

Trow, M. J. Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula. Stroud: The History Press, 2015.

Waterson, James. Dracula’s Wars: Vlad the Impaler and his Rivals. Stroud: The History Press, 2019.