Vlad the Impaler / Vlad III Dracula / Vlad Tepes

Vlad III was a fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia, an east European principality within modern Romania. Vlad became infamous for his brutal punishments, such as impalement, but also renowned by some for his attempt to fight the Muslim Ottomans, even though Vlad was only largely successful against Christian forces. He ruled on three occasions—1448, 1456 to 1462, and 1476—and experienced new fame in the modern era thanks to links to the novel Dracula.

Youth of Vlad the Impaler: Chaos in Wallachia

Vlad was born between 1429 - 31 into the family of Vlad II Dracul. This nobleman had been allowed into the crusading Order of the Dragon (Dracul) by its creator, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, to encourage him to defend both Christian east Europe and Sigismund’s lands from encroaching Ottoman forces and other threats. The Ottomans were expanding into eastern and central Europe, bringing with them a rival religion to that of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians who had previously dominated the region. However, the religious conflict can be overstated, as there was an old-fashioned secular power struggle between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottomans over both Wallachia—a relatively new state—and its leaders.

Although Sigismund had turned to a rival of Vlad II’s soon after initially supporting him, he came back to Vlad and in 1436 Vlad II became ‘voivode’, a form of prince, of Wallachia. However, Vlad II then broke with the Emperor and joined the Ottomans in order to try and balance the rival powers swirling around his country. Vlad II then joined the Ottomans in attacking Transylvania, before Hungary tried to reconcile. Everyone grew suspicious, and Vlad was briefly ousted and imprisoned by the Ottomans. However, he was soon released and he reconquered the country. The future Vlad III was sent along with Radu, his younger brother, to the Ottoman court as a hostage to ensure that his father stayed true to his word. He didn’t, and as Vlad II vacillated between Hungary and the Ottomans the two sons survived simply as diplomatic collateral. Perhaps crucially for Vlad III’s upbringing, he was able to experience, understand and immerse himself into Ottoman culture.

Struggle to be Voivode

Vlad II and his eldest son were killed by rebel boyars—Wallachian noblemen—in 1447, and a new rival called Vladislav II was put on the throne by the pro-Hungarian governor of Transylvania, called Hunyadi. At some point, Vlad III and Radu were freed, and Vlad returned to the principality to begin a campaign aimed at inheriting his father’s position as voivode, which led to conflict with boyars, his younger brother, the Ottomans and more besides. Wallachia had no clear system of inheritance to the throne, instead, all the previous incumbent’s children could equally claim it, and one of them was usually elected by a council of boyars. In practice, outside forces (mainly the Ottomans and Hungarians) could militarily support friendly claimants to the throne.

The resulting confusion is best expressed by Treptow, who defined twenty-nine separate reigns, of eleven separate rulers, from 1418 to 1476, including Vlad III thrice. (Treptow, Vlad III Dracula, p. 33) It was from this chaos, and a patchwork of local boyar factions, that Vlad sought first the throne, and then to establish a strong state through both bold actions and outright terror. There was a temporary victory in 1448 when Vlad took advantage of a recently defeated anti-Ottoman crusade and its capture of Hunyadi to seize the throne of Wallachia with Ottoman support. However, Vladislav II soon returned from crusade and forced Vlad out.

It took nearly another decade for Vlad to seize the throne as Vlad III in 1456. We have little information on what exactly happened during this period, but Vlad went from the Ottomans to Moldova, to a peace with Hunyadi, to Transylvania, back and forth between these three, falling out with Hunyadi, renewed support from him, military employment and in 1456 an invasion of Wallachia in which Vladislav II was defeated and killed. At the same time Hunyadi, coincidentally, died.

Vlad the Impaler as Ruler of Wallachia, Not as Communist

Established as voivode, Vlad now faced the problems of his predecessors: how to balance Hungary and the Ottomans and keep himself independent. Vlad began to rule in a bloody manner designed to strike fear into the hearts of opponents and allies alike. He really did order people to be impaled on stakes, and his atrocities were inflicted on anyone who upset him, no matter where they came from. However, his rule has been misinterpreted.

During the communist era in Romania, historians outlined a vision of Vlad as a socialist hero, focused largely around the idea that Vlad attacked the excesses of the boyar aristocracy, thus benefiting the ordinary peasants. Vlad’s ejection from the throne in 1462 has been attributed to boyars seeking to protect their privileges. Some chronicles record that Vlad bloodily carved his way through the Boyars to strengthen and centralize his power, adding to his other, horrific, reputation.

However, while Vlad did slowly increase his power over disloyal boyars, this is now believed to have been a gradual attempt to try and solidify a fictionalized state beset by rivals, and neither a sudden orgy of violence—as some of the stories claim (see below)—or the actions of a proto-communist. The existing powers of the boyars were left alone, it was just favorites and enemies who changed position, but over years, not in one brutal session.

Vlad the Impaler’s Wars

Vlad attempted to the restore the balance of Hungarian and Ottoman interests in Wallachia and came to terms with both swiftly. However, he was soon assailed by plots from Hungary, who changed their support to a rival voivode. War resulted, during which Vlad supported a Moldovan noble who would both later fight him, and earn the epithet Stephen the Great. The situation between Wallachia, Hungary, and Transylvania fluctuated for several years, going from peace to conflict, and Vlad tried to keep his lands and throne intact.

Around 1460/1, having secured independence from Hungary, regained land from Transylvania and defeated his rival rulers, Vlad broke off relations with the Ottoman Empire, ceased paying his yearly tribute and prepared for war. The Christian parts of Europe were moving towards a crusade against the Ottomans, and Vlad may have been fulfilling a long-term plan for independence, he may have been falsely buoyed by his success against his Christian rivals, or he may have simply planned an opportunistic attack while the Sultan was east.

The war with the Ottomans began in the winter of 1461-2, when Vlad attacked neighboring strongholds and plundered into Ottoman lands. The response was the Sultan invading with his army in 1462, aiming to install Vlad’s brother Radu on the throne. Radu had lived in the Empire for a long time, and was pre-disposed to the Ottomans; they did not plan on establishing direct rule over the region. Vlad was forced back, but not before a daring night raid to try and kill the Sultan himself. Vlad terrified the Ottomans with a field of impaled people, but Vlad was defeated and Radu took the throne.

Expulsion from Wallachia

Vlad did not, as some of the pro-communist and pro-Vlad historians have claimed, defeat the Ottomans and then fall to a revolt of rebel boyars. Instead, some of Vlad’s followers fled to the Ottomans to ingratiate themselves to Radu when it became apparent that Vlad’s army could not defeat the invaders. Hungary’s forces arrived too late to aid Vlad, if they had ever really intended to, and instead, they arrested him, transferred him to Hungary, and locked him up.

Final Rule and Death

After years of imprisonment, Vlad was released by Hungary in 1474-5 to seize back the Wallachian throne and fight against a forthcoming invasion by the Ottomans, on the condition he converted to Catholicism and away from Orthodoxy. After fighting for the Moldavians he regained his throne in 1476 but was killed shortly after in battle with the Ottoman claimant to Wallachia.

Reputation and ‘Dracula’

Many leaders have come and gone, but Vlad remains a well-known figure in European history. In some parts of Eastern Europe he is a hero for his role in fighting the Ottomans—although he fought Christians just as much, and more successfully—whereas in much of the rest of the world he is infamous for his brutal punishments, a byword for cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Verbal attacks on Vlad were spreading while he was still very much alive, partly to justify his imprisonment, partly as a result of human interest in his brutality. Vlad lived at a time when print was emerging, and Vlad became one of the first horror figures in printed literature.

Much of his recent fame has to do with the use of Vlad’s sobriquet ‘Dracula’. This literally means ‘Son of Dracul’, and is a reference to his father’s entry into the Order of the Dragon, Draco then meaning Dragon. But when British author ​Bram Stoker named his vampire character Dracula, Vlad entered a whole new world of popular notoriety. Meanwhile, the Roman language developed and ‘dracul’ came to mean ‘devil’. Vlad was not, as is sometimes assumed, named after this.

Stories About Vlad the Impaler

It would be fitting to mention a few of the stories about Vlad, which some sources take more seriously than others.

  • In one he has all the poor and homeless in Wallachia gathered together for a great feast, locks all the doors as they drank and ate, and then burns the whole building down to rid himself of them.
  • In another he is confronted by foreign emissaries who refuse to remove their headgear, as is their custom, so Vlad has the hats nailed to their heads.
  • There’s the story of a high-ranking member of Vlad’s government who made the mistake of appearing to complain about the smell; Vlad allegedly had him impaled on a longer spike so he would be above any fumes.
  • Vlad supposedly exerted his control over the boyars by gathering together several hundred of the leaders and impaling them, or impaling the elderly and marching the younger off to work on fortifications in harsh conditions.