Vlad Dracula

A Concise Biography

Vlad Dracula oil painting
Late 15th- or early 16th-century oil painting; artist unknown. Public Domain

Vlad Dracula was born in Sighisoara, Romania, in November or December of 1431, though not even the year has ever been positively confirmed. He was the second of three sons. His father, also called Vlad, had been appointed vovoide (in this instance, the term is best described as "military governor") of Transylvania by Emperor Sigismund by the time of Vlad's birth.

Vlad, Sr., had also been named a member of the Order of the Dragon, and as such was allowed to append the title "Dracul" (which could also mean "devil") to his name.

Adding an "a" to alter Dracul to Dracula changed the meaning to "son of the dragon," a name that Vlad used during his lifetime in official documents that have survived to this day. The term "impaler" was not something he used himself; he was called such by his enemies because of his fondness for impalement as a method of execution, and the name really caught on after his death.

When Vlad was five or so, his father became vovoide of Wallachia, and the family moved to the capital at Tirgoviste. There he received the education appropriate for a Christian nobleman. But after Sigismund's death, Vlad's father had to walk a fine line between the ever-present threat of Turkish incursion and the ongoing instability among the Romanian boyars (aristocracy); as a result, he was eventually forced to hand over his two younger sons to Sultan Murad II in order to insure that he would not act against Turkish interests.

Vlad was about 11 and his younger brother, Radu, was about 7 when they were taken hostage by the sultan. Although neither boy was apparently ever physically harmed, the experience was clearly psychologically damaging for Vlad. The handsome young Radu became close friends with the future sultan, alienating the older boy, who may have been frustrated and even enraged by his father's and his own political impotence.

His captivity ended after his father was assassinated by forces of Vladislav II of Wallachia. Upon his release he also learned that his elder brother, Mircea, had been tortured and murdered by the boyars of Tirgoviste. When Vlad left the sultan, Radu chose to stay, which no doubt exacerbated the friction between the brothers.

At 17, Vlad was able to seize control of Wallachia with the help of Turkish forces, but his reign was short-lived. Only two months later he was defeated by the man who'd had his father killed, Vladislav II. For the next eight years he plotted revenge, and in 1456 he at last succeeded in killing Vladislav and taking the Wallachian throne.

The six years that followed are difficult to assess. Most of the primary sources are biased accounts by his enemies, and may have been exaggerated, but even his admirers have to admit he was excessively cruel. He used the slow, excruciating death of impalement as a method of execution for everyone from military foes to local law-breakers, but he also used numerous other brutal forms of dealing out death, including flaying, boiling, roasting, strangling and burying his victims alive. He was said to consider the poor and the sick to be thieves, taking what was given them and not giving back, and he had beggars executed and the sick burned alive.

Vlad exacted revenge on the boyars who had tortured and murdered his brother by inviting the families of all involved to an Easter feast, then surrounding them and forcing them to march 50 miles to the site of his new fortress. There, those who had survived the grueling march were compelled to build his castle at Poenari, and those who survived that ordeal were impaled.

The estimated numbers of Vlad Dracula's victims are staggering, ranging from 30,000 to more than 100,000.

Vlad's harsh measures saw results. He helped make Wallachia a strong and independent state, developed commerce, reduced lawlessness, and strengthened the army. But all of it came at great pain and loss of human life. Fortunately for his innocent victims, Vlad Dracula's second reign over Wallachia, while longer than the first, could not last.

In 1462 Vlad moved against the Turks. He'd already refused to honor a prior agreement to pay tribute of money and young Wallachian boys for the sultan's army; now he launched full-scale attacks along the Danube river. Resistance was risky but, for Christian interests, imperative; the Turks had conquered Constantinople nine years earlier, and Bulgaria was now in Turkish hands. Only Translyvania stood between the forces of Islam and the rest of Christian Europe.

How seriously Vlad Dracula took his role as a defender of Christianity is up for debate, but his hatred of the Turks is unquestioned.

Vlad's forces were greatly outnumbered, yet through guerilla tactics he managed to achieve several victories. Then Sultan Mehmed II decided to punish him for his rebellion, and invaded Wallachia. Drawing the Turks deep into Wallachian territory, Vlad poisoned wells and burned villages to leave nothing for the invaders. When the Sultan, exhausted, finally reached the capital city, he was met with the notoriously gruesome sight of what came to be known as the "Forest of the Impaled": 20,000 Turkish captives -- men, women, even children -- impaled on stakes over a field more than 2 miles long.

The sight so horrified the Sultan and his officers that he withdrew, unable, it was said, to conquer someone capable of such atrocities. But the war wasn't over. Mehmed put his support behind his good friend, Vlad's brother Radu, who led a Turkish army further into Wallachia with the help of Vlad's Romanian rivals, and pursued his brother to his castle at Poenari.

(This is where, according to legend, Vlad's first wife threw herself from the castle into the river rather than be captured by the Turks, but there is no documentary evidence to support this.)

Oral history has it that Vlad escaped with the help of local villagers. He then sought out the protection of the new king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus.

But Corvinus did not help Vlad Dracula. Instead, he took him captive and threw his support behind Radu, using as evidence some letters that Vlad had supposedly written that indicated he was plotting to support the Turks. Most historians agree that the letters were forgeries, as Vlad's previous actions conflicted so violently with such an agenda.

At first, Vlad Dracula was imprisoned at the Hungarian capital of Visegrad. After his brother had consolidated his reign and he no longer seemed a threat, Vlad was allowed to move about freely. He became a frequent presence at the Hungarian court, eventually marrying the cousin of Mathias, Countess Ilona Szilagy, who gave him two sons. In the meantime, Radu was proving a disappointment to his western supporters; he had promised he'd disassociate himself from the Turks, but he was clearly little more than a puppet of the sultan.

After Radu's death, Corvinus officially pardoned Vlad Dracula and supported him in a move to take the throne from Radu's successor, Basarab the Old, who had been appointed by the sultan. With the assistance of a force of Moldavians sent by his cousin Prince Stephen and Transylvanians under the command of Prince Stephen Bathory, Vlad Dracula and his small contingent of loyal Wallachians drove Basarab out of the country, and he retook the throne in November of 1476.

But this reign was also short. When his allies left and took their armies with them, the Turks attacked once more. Vlad Dracula was killed in battle near Bucharest in December. What happened to his body remains a mystery.


Who's Who Profile of Vlad Dracula