Life in eastern Europe during the Middle Ages was a chaotic period in time, especially due to the Ottoman wars taking place. Messy enough to inspire Bram Stoker to publish his most famous novel, Dracula, in 1897. Most are unaware to notice that Dracula the vampire was based on a prominent member of a Romanian court in European history, and was much more terrifying than the fictional character could portray. This infamous, terrible man was Prince Vlad or came to be known as Dracula.
In 1386, Walachia, which was a Hungarian province was ruled by Prince Mircea the Elder. In 1390, Mircea had an illegitimate son named Vlad, who he gave up to Hungary’s King Sigmund’s court. When Mircea perished, Vlad did not succeed as ruler of Walachia but was made a Knight of the Order of the Dragon, which was a group set up to defend the Christian society from Turkish control. Not too long after, Vlad was given the name ‘Dracul’, meaning ‘dragon’, or ‘devil’, and was appointed the governor of Transylvania.
Dracul’s firstborn son, Mircea, was named after his father, while the other two were called Vlad and Radu. With help from Turkey and a gathered army, Dracul took back the family’s long-established seat of power in Walachia. As a signal of allegiance, Dracul sent his second and third born sons, Vlad and Radu to reside in Adrianople, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Dracul and his firstborn son, Mircea were overthrown and killed in 1447, by the Hungarian government which took reign over Walachia. This unfortunate event made Turkey uneasy, so they armed the seventeen-year-old Vlad who was known as Dracula, or ‘Son of Dracul’.
As the years went by, numerous battles ensured, and by 1456 Dracula had reclaimed the throne as ruler of Walachia. He constructed a capital city at Tirgoviste and was crowned Prince Vlad III. From the very beginning, he discerned the notion that in order to survive the fierce times, he had to become ruthless to the very core. Not too long after he was pronounced prince, he invited impecunious souls from the streets to a great feast at his castle. Upon finishing the meal, he locked them in the castle and set fire to it stating that there was no place in his kingdom for burdensome people who did not contribute to the community. This would mark the beginning of his ruthless rampage.
In order to completely secure his reign from an overthrow, he killed off the notables in Walachia and had the older ones impaled while sending the rest to construct a castle 50 miles away at Poenari. Dracula assembled his own set of nobleman to assure his power, as his evil had no boundaries. He enjoyed watching people suffer and die, especially after being hoisted on a sharpened pole. His people would come to refer to him as Vlad Tepes meaning ‘Vlad the Impaler’. He sought out to murder anyone who perpetrated any misdeed such as fraudulent merchants and cheating wives. He enjoyed using various means of torture such as cutting off limbs, blinding, burning, mutilation of sexual organs, skinning, scalping, cutting off noses and ears, exposure to wild animals, and boiling alive. He specifically enjoyed death by impalement since it was slow and painful, sometimes lasting for hours or days. Vlad often had stakes arranged in geometric patterns, where the height of the spear would indicate the rank of the victim. The decaying remains were left up for months to warn would be wrongdoers. It is believed that 20,000 dead bodies were impaled and put on display on the walls of Tirgoviste, and by the end of his reign, he had killed around 80,000 people through various means.
In 1476, Dracula regained his rightful throne in Walachia but didn’t hold the position very long as several months later he was killed during a Turkish attack. The Sultan of the Ottoman empire impaled Dracula’s head and displayed it in Constantinople as evidence of his demise. His body was buried at Snagov Monastery in Bucharest, Romania. An archaeological dig in 1931 found a casket covered in a purple shroud stitched with gold. The skeleton was covered in pieces of faded silk, similar to a shirt depicted in an old painting of Dracula. The contents were taken to a history museum in Bucharest, but have since disappeared leaving the mystery of Dracula unsolved.
Not all evidence of Dracula’s reign is lost though. The castle in the hills of Poenari is still standing acting as a popular tourist attraction, and there are still ruins of his palace in Tirgoviste. Whether Vlad the Impaler was the sole inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s book will never be known, but he will be remembered as one of the most ruthless men in history.