Vlad the Impaler…not the one you think, though

In the spring of 1462 the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II (1) conqueror of Constantinople, master of psychological warfare and renowned for his cruelty, crossed the Danube at the head of an army of almost 60,000 soldiers plus an estimated 30,000 irregulars and burst into the principality of Wallachia – in present day Romania- which he considered to be a tributary of the Ottoman Empire. Confronting this formidable force was Vlad III, prince of Wallachia (2) at the head of a force of at most 40,000 men. Vlad was well aware that his forces would not be able to stop this human torrent and accordingly, decided on a strategy of small attacks and ambushes, effectively waging guerrilla warfare. At that time, the Turks were the most feared warriors, the army which took Constantinople by storm and put an end to the thousand-year old Byzantine Empire; Mehmet did his utmost to foster this fear by the cold and calculated executions of a sufficient number of his subjugated peoples. However, Vlad was not one to frighten easily, as he would soon demonstrate.

On the night of June 17, Vlad launched a surprise night attack (3) on the Turkish camp with the object of killing Mehmet; after a furious fight and the realization that the attempt had failed, Vlad withdrew his forces and disappeared into the night. The outraged Mehmet broke camp, gathered his army and marched it toward Targoviste (4) Vlad’s capital at the time; as the vengeance seeking Turks irrupted into the Targoviste plain and approached the city, they froze at the sight that confronted them. Between the army and the city stood a forest of 20,000 rotting, gut strewn bodies impaled on very tall and thick poles. The ghastly spectacle, combined with the stench of the decaying bodies unnerved the Turks to such an extent that they retreated. Mehmet II, disgusted at the sight, left his army in the hands of his immediate subordinates and did not stop until he reached Constantinople. It is said that the incident traumatized him to such an extent that it caused him to have nightmares to his dying day.

The future Vlad III was born in Sighsoara (5) Transylvania, then part of the kingdom of Hungary, in 1431, probably in the winter. His father, Vlad II, was a knight of the Order of the Dragon (6), an order founded to protect Christianity in Eastern Europe. In the Romanian language, the word for dragon is drac and since the definite article is postponed, “the dragon” comes out as Dracul. Descendant of the dragon” is Draculea. He had two brothers, Radu cel Frumas and Mircea II of Wallachia. In 1436 Vlad II Dracul became prince of Wallachia. The region was divided into rival factions and in 1442 a coalition of Wallachian boyars (nobles) and Saxon merchants allied with Hungary deposed him. Vlad Dracul secured help from the Ottomans and with their help he returned to the throne in exchange for his promise to pay tribute to the Sultan; additionally, he sent his sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages to the Ottoman court; during his stay there, Vlad was educated in logic and the Koran, learned Turkish, which he spoke fluently, warfare, horse riding, Turkish politics -and their systematic cruelty. However, hanging over his head was the Damocles sword of uncertainty as to his safety, depending as it was on the decisions and actions of others; this left psychological scars that lasted a lifetime. His brother Radu eventually converted to Islam and entered the service of the Turkish court.

In 1447, the boyars, in league with the Hungarian regent John Hunyadi (7) rebelled against Vlad II Dracul and killed him in the marshes near Balteni; in addition Dracul’s eldest son, Mircea, was blinded and then buried alive. To keep Wallachia from falling into Hungarian hands, the Turks invaded Wallachia and put Dracul’s son, Vlad on the throne, as Vlad III. This prompted a Hungarian invasion. Hunyadi deposed Vlad and in his place installed Vladislav II as prince. Vlad fled to Bulgaria under the protection of his uncle Bogdan II. When Bogdan was assassinated in 1451, he had to flee again, this time to Hungary.

In an age of uncertainty and facile alliances, Hunyadi and Vlad became reconciled, probably prompted by the shock of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which opened the doors of the Balkans to the Ottomans. Hunyadi took his army in 1456 to relieve Belgrade, besieged by the Turks and Vlad took his forces into Wallachia, reconquered his land and killed the usurper installed by Hunyadi, Vladislav II, in what some say was hand-to-hand combat.

Once again in power, Vlad’s wrath was not long in coming; he blamed the boyars and the Transylvania Saxons for the deaths of his father and brother and the constant turmoil in the land. He expelled the Saxons and had a number of them killed; he then turned on the boyars. He had the eldest among them impaled and their positions given to persons of obscure origins who would be loyal to him. The younger men were forced to work on his castle at Poenari (8) perched on an inaccessible cliff overlooking the river Arges. Today, modern visitors need to climb 1,480 steps to gain access to the castle. The unfortunate boyars worked year-round in the blistering sun and in shivering cold weather; when their clothes wore out, they worked naked until they died of exhaustion. Then, their bodies would be thrown off the cliffs into the river below.

In 1459, the Sultan Mehmet II sent envoys to Vlad to urge him to pay the delayed tribute of 10,000 ducats and 500 young men as recruits into the Ottoman forces. When the envoys refused to uncover their heads to him, citing religious reasons, Vlad responded by nailing their turbans to their heads. Mehmet retaliated by sending a force of 1,000 cavalry, under the command of Hamza Pasha to either make peace with Vlad or eliminate him. Vlad ambushed this force and had them all impaled, with Hamaz on the highest pole to honor his rank.

In 1462 he crossed into Bulgaria and devastated the area between Serbia and the Black Sea. In a letter to the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvinus (9) -son of John Hunyadi- he wrote:

I have killed peasant men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Nosovelo, where

the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up

to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we

burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers. Thus, your Highness, you must

know that I have broken the peace with Mehmet”

Mehmet responded by sending a larger army under the command of Radu cel Frumas, Vlad’s brother, no expense spared. Initially, he failed to subdue Vlad and most of Radu’s cavalry was destroyed, but as the war raged on, he was able to push deeper into Vlad’s territory and laid siege to Poenari castle. The Turkish Janissaries inspired such fear that Vlad’s wife, terrified at the prospect of Turkish tortures and gripped by blind panic, climbed onto the castle’s parapets and threw herself over the cliffs and into the river. To this day, it is known as the Princess River.

Vlad and his meager forces escaped; legend has it they turned their horses’ shoes around to give the impression that they were riding in the opposite direction. He fled into Hungary. Mattias Corvinus had meanwhile turned against him and using a forged letter, allegedly from Vlad to Mehmet proposing peace, had him imprisoned for close to 10 years. In the meantime, Mehmet had Radu installed as voivode of Wallachia. Years later. Ottoman pressure north of the Danube was a strong factor in Vlad’s eventual release.

Radu’s sudden death in 1475 prompted Vlad to declare his third reign in 1476. He started preparations for the reconquest of Wallachia but sometime between the end of October and the end of December 1476, he was killed in battle against the Turks in an unknown location somewhere near Bucharest. His head was cut off and sent to Constantinople, to be exhibited as a trophy; his body was buried in an undetermined location, some say at the monastery of Comana (10) , which he had generously endowed in years past. Some modern historians point to Snagov (11), an island monastery near Bucharest, as his burial place; however, it has been established that there was no tomb under the alleged tombstone of Vlad III; only the bones of numerous horses.

The number of his victims range from 40,000 to 100,000 and his preferred method of execution was impalement, which earned him the moniker of “Vlad the Impaler”, or “Vlad Tepes” in Romanian. The Turks called him “Kaziki Bey” (Sir Impaler). The Turkish soldiers, the terror of Europe, turned back in fright when they encountered thousands of corpses rotting on stakes along the banks of the Danube.

Vlad’s reputation for cruelty was legendary, though some think it was somewhat exaggerated by the German chroniclers who had no reason to love him; it was also promoted by king Matthias Corvinus as an explanation for his failure to help Vlad in his fight against the Turks in 1462. Corvinus had received large sums of money from the Pope and from most Catholics states for the fight against the Turks; instead, he diverted the money for personal purposes. There were numerous pamphlets and etchings of Vlad, some of them depicting him seated at an outdoor meal table amid a forest of impaled bodies, dipping his bread in blood; these were mostly Saxon etchings.

Vlad was undoubtedly a most cruel man, even in an age of cruelty; confronted with a brutal enemy, he outdid them in brutality and inspired fear, if not terror, in an army notorious for its vicious depredations and tortures. Conversely, in Romania he is regarded as a folk hero for his protection of the Romanians north and south of the Danube; a great number of Romanian and Bulgarian common people and even some boyars moved north of the Danube to be under his care following his raids on the Turks. His birth place in Sighsoara is now a restaurant and a plaque is affixed to the building.

Though he was very well-known in the 15th and 16th centuries he was eventually forgotten. In 1820, William Wilkinson, British Consul to the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia wrote a book with the lengthy title of “Accounts of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them” This book served Bram Stoker (1847-1912) as inspiration for the title of the most famous Gothic novel of all time “Dracula”.


  1. Mehmet II

  2. Wallachia

  3. The Night Attack

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Târgoviște

  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sighișoara (Scroll down to see photos of Vlad’s birthplace)

  6. Order of the Dragon

  7. John Hunyadi

  8. Poenari Castle

  9. Matthias Corvinus

    1. Comana Monastery

    2. Snagov Monastery


One comment

  1. Pingback: The Meister Chronicles

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