Who Was the Real Dracula?

“…a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the sky.”

—Bram Stoker, Dracula

It is highly unlikely that any more than a few historians would be paying the slightest bit of attention to Vlad Dracula today, were it not for Bram Stoker’s novel. There has been much speculation about the exact nature of the connection between Vlad and Stoker’s Count Dracula. Most assume that Stoker, inspired by accounts he had read or heard about the fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler, made a conscious decision to base the character of Count Dracula on the historical personage, Vlad Tepes, but this assumption is highly speculative. All we know for certain is that Stoker borrowed the name “Dracula” and a few scraps of information about Wallachian history from William Wilkinson’s An Account of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820).

Vlad Tepes was born in November or December 1431, in Sighisoara, Romania. His father, Vlad Dracul, at that time military governor of Transylvania, had been inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a semimilitary society created to protect the interests of Catholicism and to crusade against the Turks. The Order’s official dress—a black cape over a red garment—is credited as a source of inspiration for Stoker’s evil character. “Dracul,” in Romanian language, means “Dragon”; the boyars of Romania decided to call Vlad “Dracul” because of his membership in the Order of the Dragon. “Dracula,” a diminutive which means “the son of Dracul,” was a surname to be used ultimately by Vlad Tepes. Vlad himself used “Dracula” (or variations thereof) in a number of documents bearing his signature, and several of the printed sources of information about Vlad, published in the late fifteenth century, refer to him as “Dracula” or one of its derivatives. The majority of Romanians, however, still refer to Vlad as “Tepes” (“The Impaler”), the name first bestowed on Vlad by Turkish chroniclers.

In the winter of 1436-1437, Dracul became prince of Wallachia. Vlad Tepes lived six years at the princely court. In 1442, for political reasons, Vlad and his younger brother were taken hostage by the Sultan Murad II. This Turkish captivity surely played an important role in Dracula’s upbringing; it must be at this period that he adopted a very pessimistic view of life. The Turks set him free after informing him of his father’s assassination in 1447. He also learned about his older brother’s death: he had been tortured and buried alive.

At 17 years old, Vlad Tepes, supported by a force of Turkish cavalry, made his first major move toward seizing the Wallachian throne. Vladislav II defeated him two months later. In July of 1456, Vlad Tepes had the satisfaction of killing his mortal enemy and his father’s assassin, and began his longest reign—6 years—during which he committed many cruelties, and hence established his controversial reputation. His first major act of revenge was aimed at the boyars of Tirgoviste for the killing of his father and his brother Mircea. On Easter Sunday of what is believed to be 1459, he arrested all the boyar families who had participated, impaled the older ones on stakes, and forced the others to march fifty miles from the capital to the town of Poenari. Those who survived the march were ordered to build a fortress overlooking the Arges river. What is left today of the building is identified as Castle Dracula.

In 1462, Vlad Tepes launched a very successful campaign against the Turks. To punish him, the Sultan invaded Wallachia with an army three times larger than Dracula’s. Vlad, forced to retreat, burned his own villages and poisoned the wells along the way, so that the Turkish army would find nothing to eat or drink. Moreover, when the Sultan, exhausted, finally reached the capital city, he was confronted by a most gruesome sight: thousands of stakes held the remaining carcasses of some 20,000 Turkish captives, a horror scene which was ultimately nicknamed the “Forest of the Impaled.” This terror tactic deliberately staged by Dracula was definitely successful; the Sultan, tired and hungry, gave up and left the next phase of the battle to Vlad’s younger brother Radu, the Turkish favorite for the Wallachian throne. At the head of a Turkish army and joined by Vlad’s detractors, Radu pursued his brother to Poenari castle on the Arges river. According to the legend, this is when Dracula’s wife, in order to escape Turkish capture, committed suicide by hurling herself from the upper battlements, her body falling down the precipice into the river below. Vlad managed to escape the siege of his fortress by using a secret passage into the mountain. It was not until 1475 that he was again recognized as the prince of Wallachia. He was assassinated toward the end of December 1476.

(sources: “Dracula: The History of Myth and the Myth of History” by Elizabeth Miller, “Vlad Dracula: An Intriguing Figure in the Fifteenth Century” by Benjamin H. Leblanc)

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