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The Origins of Count Dracula


Let’s face it, we have all fallen under the spell of Dracula at one point in our lives.

The sensual appeal of this sharp-toothed legend entering our boudairs in the night to embrace us and drain our lifeforce has set many a heart a flutter…….

……..are you ready to come with me as we turn around and follow this Vampire path to its beginnings………

………..in the real Castle of Dracula…..

……..the home of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, a member of the House of Draculesti

Long before the likes of the “Twilight Series”

or even the birth of Ann Rice’s New Oleans Vampire family

………..or even Bram Stoker‘s Dracula……

………..there lived the real Dracula, the father of all legends…….’Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, who was a member of the House of Drăculești, a branch of the House of Basarab, also known by his patronymic name: ”’Dracula”’. He was posthumously dubbed ”’Vlad the Impaler”’, and was a three-time Prince of Wallachia, ruling mainly from 1456 to 1462, the period of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.   His father, Vlad II Dracul, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, which was founded to protect Christianity in Eastern Europe.

Vlad III spent much of his rule campaigning against the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman wars in Europe.   During his lifetime, his reputation for excessive cruelty spread abroad, to 15th-century Germany and elsewhere in Europe.   The total number of his victims is estimated in the tens of thousands. The name of the vampire Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Vlad’s patronymic.

Vlad’s  Romanian patronymic ”Dragwlya” ”Dragulea, Dragolea, Drăculea’  is a diminutive of the epithet ”Dracul” “the Dragon” carried by his father  Vlad II Dracul, who in 1431 was inducted as a member of the  Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order  founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Hungary in 1408.

”Dracul” is the Romanian definite form.  The noun  “dragon” itself continues Latin ”  In Modern Romanian, the word ”drac” has adopted the meaning of “devil” the term for “dragon” now being  balaur or dragon.   This has led to misinterpretations of Vlad’s epithet as characterizing him as “devilish”.

A woodcut depicting Vlad Țepeș published in Nuremberg in 1488

on the title page of the pamphlet  : Die geschicht dracole waide.

Vlad was born in Sighișoara, Transylvania, Kingdom of Hungary, in the winter of 1431 to Vlad II Dracul, future voivode of Wallachia.  Vlad’s father was the son of the celebrated Voivode – Mircea the Elder.   His mother is believed to be the second wife of Vlad Dracul, Princess Cneajna of Moldavia], eldest daughter of Alexandru cel Bun and aunt to Stephen III of Moldavia- Stephen the Great of Moldavia.   He had two older half-brothers, Mircea II and Vlad Călugărul, and a younger brother, Radu cel Frumos – Radu III the Handsome.

In the year of his birth, Vlad’s father, known under the nickname ”Dracul”, had traveled to Nuremberg where he had been vested into the Order of the Dragon.   At the age of five, young Vlad was also initiated into the Order.
Vlad and Radu spent their early formative years in Sighișoara under the care and tutelage of their mother and the wives of other exiled boyars.   During the first reign of their father, Vlad II Dracul, the Voivode brought his young sons to Târgoviște, the capital of Wallachia at that time.

The Byzantine chancellor Mikhail ensured that, at Târgoviște, the sons of boyars and ruling princes were well-educated by Romanian or Greek scholars commissioned from Constantinople.   Vlad is believed to have learned combat skills, geography, mathematics, science, languages (Old Church Slavonic, German, Latin), and the classical arts and philosophy.

In 1436, Vlad II Dracul ascended the throne of Wallachia. He was ousted in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, but secured Ottoman support for his return by agreeing to pay the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) to the Sultan.

Vlad II also sent his two legitimate sons, Vlad and Radu, to the Ottoman court, to serve as hostages of his loyalty. Vlad was imprisoned and often whipped and beaten for being defiant, while his younger brother Radu was much easier to control. Radu converted to Islam, entered the service of Sultan Murad II’s son, Mehmed II (later known as the Conqueror), and was allowed into the Topkapı Palace.   Radu was also honored by the title Bey and was given command of the Janissary contingents.

These years presumably had a great influence on Vlad’s character and led to Vlad’s well-known hatred for the Ottoman Turks, the Janissary, his brother Radu for converting to Islam and the young Turkish prince Mehmed II (even after he became sultan).   He was envious of his father’s preference for his elder brother, Mircea II and half brother, Vlad Călugărul.   He also distrusted the Hungarians and his own father for trading him to the Turks and betraying the Order of the Dragon’s oath to fight the Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was later released under probation and taken to be educated in logic, the Quran and the Turkish language and works of  literature.   He would speak this language fluently in his later years.   He and his brother were also trained in warfare and riding horses.   The boys’ father, Vlad Dracul, was awarded the support of the Ottomans and returned to Wallachia and took back his throne from Basarab II and some unfaithful Boyars.

Vlad’s first wife was Jusztina Szilagyi of Moldavia, with whom he had two sons: Mihnea I “the Bad”  and Mihai.

According to local legend, she died during the siege of Poenari Castle, which was surrounded by the Ottoman army led by his brother Radu Bey and the Wallachian Janissary.   A woodland archer, having seen the shadow of Vlad’s wife behind a window, shot an arrow through the window into Vlad’s main quarters with a message warning him that Radu’s army was approaching.   McNally and Florescu explain that the archer was one of Vlad’s relatives who sent the warning out of loyalty despite having converted to Islam and served in the ranks of Radu.   Upon reading the message, Vlad’s wife threw herself from the tower into a tributary of the Argeș River flowing below the castle, saying she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish of the Argeș than be led into captivity by the Turks.   Today, the tributary is called Râul Doamnei, the “Lady’s River”, also called the Princess’s River.

Gradually winning back King Matthias’s favour, Vlad married Ilona Szilágyi of Wallachia,  a sister or cousin of the king,  and in the years before his final release in 1474, had her as a companion in his captivity.

Two of Vlad Tepes’ sons, Vlad Țepeluș and Mihnea I “the Bad”, have been claimed to be ancestors of Mary of Teck, grand-mother of Elizabeth II,  Queen of Great Britain.   In October 2011, Prince Charles publicly claimed that genealogy shows that he is a distant relative of Vlad the Impaler.   The claim accompanied his announcement of a pledge to help conserve the forested areas of Transylvania.

In December 1447, boyars in league with the Hungarian regent,  John Hunyadi,  rebelled against Vlad II Dracul and killed him in the marshes near Bălteni. Mircea, Dracul’s eldest son and heir, was blinded and buried alive at Târgoviște.

To prevent Wallachia from falling into the Hungarian fold, the Ottomans invaded Wallachia and put young Vlad III on the throne; however, this rule was short-lived as Hunyadi himself now invaded Wallachia and restored his ally Vladislav II of Wallachia, of the House of Dănești clan, to the throne.

Vlad fled to Moldavia, where he lived under the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II.   In October 1451, Bogdan was assassinated and Vlad fled to Hungary.   Impressed by Vlad’s vast knowledge of the mindset and inner workings of the Ottoman Empire as well as his hatred of the new sultan Mehmed II,  Hunyadi reconciled with his former rival and made him his advisor.

After the Fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II in 1453, Ottoman influence began to spread from this base through the Carpathians, threatening mainland Europe, and by 1481 Ottoman wars in Europe conquering the entire Balkans peninsula.  Vlad’s rule thus falls entirely within the three decades of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.

In 1456, three years after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, they threatened Hungary by besieging Belgrade.   Hunyadi began a concerted counter-attack in Serbia: while he himself moved into Serbia and relieved the siege (before dying of the plague), Vlad led his own contingent into Wallachia, reconquered his native land and killed Vladislav II in hand-to-hand combat.
Vlad found Wallachia in a wretched state: constant war had resulted in rampant crime, falling agricultural production, and the virtual disappearance of trade. Regarding a stable economy essential to resisting external enemies, he used severe methods to restore order and prosperity.

Vlad had three aims for Wallachia: to strengthen the country’s economy, its defense, and his own political power. He took measures to help the peasants’ well-being by building new villages and raising agricultural output.   He understood the importance of trade for the development of Wallachia.   He helped the Wallachian merchants by limiting foreign merchant trade to three market towns: Târgșor, Câmpulung and Târgoviște.

Vlad considered the boyars the chief cause of the constant strife as well as of the death of his father and brother.   To secure his rule, he had many leading nobles killed and gave positions in his council, traditionally belonging to the greatest boyars, to persons of obscure origins, who would be loyal to him alone, and some to foreigners.   For lower offices, Vlad preferred knights and free peasants to boyars.   In his aim of fixing up Wallachia, Vlad issued new laws punishing thieves.   Vlad treated the boyars with the same harshness, believing them guilty of weakening Wallachia through their personal struggles for power.

The army was also strengthened.   He had a small personal guard, mostly made of mercenaries, who were rewarded with loot and promotions.   

He also established a militia or ‘lesser army’ made up of peasants called to fight whenever war came.

Vlad Dracula built a church at Târgșor (allegedly in the memory of his father and older brother who were killed nearby), and he contributed with money to the Snagov Monastery and to the Comana Monastery fortifications.

Since the Wallachian nobility was linked to the Transylvanian Saxons, Vlad also acted against them by eliminating their trade privileges and raiding their cities.   In 1459, he had several Saxon settlers of Brașov] (Kronstadt) impaled.   In 1459, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the Ottomans, at the Council of Mantua.   In this crusade, the main role was to be played by Matthias Corvinus, son of John Hunyadi,  the King of Hungary.   To this effect, Matthias Corvinus received from the Pope 40,000 golden coins, an amount that was thought to be enough to gather an army of 12,000 men and purchase 10 Danube warships.    In this context, Vlad allied himself with Matthias Corvinus, with the hope of keeping the Ottomans out of the country.

Later that year, in 1459, Ottoman Empire Sultan Mehmed II sent envoys to Vlad to urge him to pay a delayed Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) of 10,000 ducats and 500 recruits into the Ottoman forces.   Vlad refused, because if he had paid the ‘tribute’, as the tax was called at the time, it would have meant a public acceptance of Wallachia as part of the Ottoman Empire.   Vlad, just like most of his predecessors and successors, had as a primary goal to keep Wallachia as independent as possible.   Vlad had the Turkish envoys killed on the pretext that they had refused to raise their “hats” to him, by nailing their turbans to their heads.

Meanwhile, the Sultan received intelligence reports that revealed Vlad’s domination of the Danube.   He sent the Bey of Nicopolis, Hamza Pasha, to make peace and, if necessary, eliminate Vlad III.   Pasha planned to set an ambush.   Hamza Pasha, the Bey of Nicopolis, brought with him 10,000 cavalry and when passing through a narrow pass north of Giurgiu, Vlad launched a surprise attack.   The Wallachians had the Turks surrounded and defeated.   The Turks’ plans were thwarted and almost all of them caught and impaled, with Hamza Pasha impaled on the highest stake to show his rank.


In the winter of 1462, Vlad crossed the Danube and devastated the entire Bulgarian land in the area between Serbia and the Black Sea.   Disguising himself as a Turkish person,  he infiltrated and destroyed Ottoman camps.   In a letter to Corvinus dated 2 February, he wrote:  “I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, 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 him Sultan Mehmed II.

In response to this, Sultan Mehmed II raised an army of around 60,000 troops and 30,000 irregulars, and in spring of 1462 headed towards Wallachia.   Commanding at best only 30,000 to 40,000 men,  Vlad was unable to stop the Ottomans from crossing the Danube at June 4, 1462 and entering Wallachia.   He constantly organized small attacks and ambushes on the Turks, such as The Night Attack when 15,000 Turks were killed.  This infuriated Mehmed II, who then crossed the Danube.   With the exception of some Turkish references all the other chronicles at the time that mention the 1462 campaign state that the Sultan was defeated.    Apparently, the Turks retreated in such a hurry that by July 11, 1462 the Sultan was already in Adrianopolis.   According to the Byzantine historian Chalcocondil,  Radu, brother of Vlad III and ingratiate of the Sultan, was left behind in Targoviste with the hope that he would be able to gather an anti-Vlad clique that would ultimately get rid of Vlad as Voivode of Wallachia and crown Radu as the new puppet ruler.

Vlad the Impaler’s attack was celebrated by the Saxon cities of Transylvania, the Italian states and the Pope.   A Venetian envoy, upon hearing about the news at the court of Corvinus on 4 March, expressed great joy and said that the whole of Christianity should celebrate Vlad Țepeș’s successful campaign.   The Genoese from Caffa also thanked Vlad, for his campaign had saved them from an attack of some 300 ships that the sultan planned to send against them.

Vlad’s younger brother, Radu cel Frumos and his Janissary battalions were given the task of leading the Ottoman Empire to victory at all expense by Sultan Mehmet II. After the Sipahis’  incursions failed to subdue Vlad, the few remaining Sipahis were killed in a night raid by Vlad III in 1462.   However, as the war raged on, Radu and his formidable Janissary battalions were well supplied with a steady flow of gunpowder and dinars; this allowed them to push deeper into the realm of Vlad III.   Radu and his well-equipped forces finally besieged Poenari Castle,  the famed lair of Vlad III.   After his difficult victory Radu was given the title ”Bey of Wallachia” by Sultan Mehmed II.

Vlad III’s defeat at Poenari was due in part to the fact that the Boyars, who had been alienated by Vlad’s policy of undermining their authority, had joined Radu under the assurance that they would regain their privileges. They may have also believed that Ottoman protection was better than Hungary.   It was said as well that Radu (through his spies or traitors) found the place where some Boyars’ families were hidden during the war (probably some forests around Snagov) and blackmailed them to come to his side.

By 8 September, Vlad had won another three victories, but continuous war had left him without any money and he could no longer pay his mercenaries. Vlad traveled to Hungary to ask for help from his former ally, Matthias Corvinus.   Instead of receiving help, he found himself arrested and thrown into the dungeon for high treason.   Corvinus, not planning to get involved in a war after having spent the Papal money meant for it on personal expenses, forged a letter from Vlad III to the Ottomans where he supposedly proposed a peace with them, to give an explanation for the Pope and a reason to abandon the war and return to his capital.

Vlad was imprisoned at Oratia, a fortress located at Podu Dâmboviței Bridge.   A period of imprisonment in Visegrád near Buda followed, where the Wallachian prince was held for 10 years.   Then he was imprisoned in Buda.

The exact length of Vlad’s period of captivity is open to some debate, though indications are that it was from 1462 until 1474.   Diplomatic correspondence from Buda seems to indicate that the period of Vlad’s effective confinement was relatively short.   Radu’s openly pro-Ottoman policy as voivode probably contributed to Vlad’s rehabilitation.   Moreover, Steven the Great, a relative of Vlad intervened on his behalf to be released from prison as the Ottoman pressure on the territories north of the Danube was increasing.

The Final Chapter……………
After Radu’s sudden death in 1475, Vlad III declared his third reign in 26 November 1476.   Vlad began preparations for the reconquest of Wallachia in 1476 with Hungarian support.   Vlad’s third reign had lasted little more than two months when he was assassinated.   The exact date of his death is unknown, presumably the end of December 1476, but it is known that he was dead by January 10, 1477.
The exact location of his death is also unknown, but it would have been somewhere along the road between Bucharest and Giurgiu.
Vlad’s head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy, and his body was buried unceremoniously by his rival, Basarab Laiota,  possibly at Comana, Giurgiu, a monastery founded by Vlad in 1461.   The Comana monastery was demolished and rebuilt from scratch in 1589.

In the  19th century, Romanian historians cited a “tradition”, apparently without any kind of support in documentary evidence, that Vlad was buried at  Snagov,  an island monastery located near Bucharest.   To support this theory, the so-called ”Cantacuzino Chronicle” was cited, which cites Vlad as the founder of this monastery.   But as early as 1855, Alexandru Odobescu had established that this is impossible as the monastery had been in existence before 1438.   Since excavations carried out by Dinu V Rosetti in June & October of 1933,  it has become clear that Snagov monastery was founded during the later 14th century, well before the time of Vlad III.   The 1933 excavation also established that there was no tomb below the supposed “unmarked tombstone” of Vlad in the monastery church.   Rosetti (1935) reported that “Under the tombstone attributed to Vlad there was no tomb.   Only many bones and jaws of horses.”   In the 1970s, speculative attribution of an anonymous tomb found elsewhere in the church to Vlad Tepes was published by Simion Saveanu, a journalist who wrote a series of articles on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Vlad’s death.  Most Romanian historians today favor the Comana, Giurgiu  monastery as the final resting place for Vlad Tepes.


The Legacy Lives on………….

Even during his lifetime, Vlad III Țepeș became famous as a tyrant taking  sadistic  pleasure in torturing and killing.   He is shown in cryptoportraits made during his lifetime in the role of cruel rulers or executioners such as Pontius Pilate ordering the torture and execution of Jesus Christ,

 or as Aegeas, the Roman proconsul in Patras, overseeing the crucifixion of Saint Andrew.

 Estimates of the number of his victims range from 40,000 to 100,000, comparable to the cumulative number of executions over four centuries of European witchhunts.  According to the German stories the number of victims he had killed was at least 80,000.   In addition to the 80,000 victims mentioned he also had whole villages and fortresses destroyed and burned to the ground.

Impalement was Vlad’s preferred method of torture and execution.  Several woodcuts from German pamphlets of the late 15th and early 16th centuries show Vlad feasting in a forest of stakes and their grisly burdens outside Brașov,  while a nearby executioner cuts apart other victims. It was reported that an invading Ottoman army turned back in fright when it encountered thousands of rotting corpses on the banks of the Danube.   It has also been said that in 1462 Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, a man noted for his own psychological warfare tactics, returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses outside Vlad’s capital of Târgoviște.

Allegedly, Vlad’s reputation for cruelty was actively promoted by Matthias Corvinus,  who tarnished Vlad’s reputation and credibility for a political reason: as an explanation for why he had not helped Vlad fight the Ottomans in 1462, for which purpose he had received money from most Catholic states in Europe.   Matthias employed the charges of Southeastern Transylvania, and produced fake letters of high treason, written on 7 November 1462.

……..enter the modern day Dracula thanks to the great Bram Stoker………………..

The connection of the name “Dracula” with vampirism was made by Bram Stoker, who probably found the name of his Count Dracula character in William Wilkinson’s book, ”An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: with various Political Observations Relating to Them”.   It is known that Stoker made notes about this book.   It is also suggested that Stoker may have heard of Vlad through his friend, Hungarian professor Ármin Vámbéry, from Budapest.   The fact that character Dr. Abraham Van Helsing states in the 1897 novel that the source of his knowledge about Count Dracula is his friend Arminius appears to support this hypothesis, although there is no evidence that Stoker and Vambéry (they met twice) ever talked about Wallachian history.

Unlike the fictional Dracula films, there have been comparatively few movies about the man who inspired the vampire.   The 1975 documentary ”In Search of Dracula” explores the legend of Vlad the Impaler.   He is played in the film by Christopher Lee,  known for his Hammer Films productions of Dracula of the fictional Dracula in films ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In 1979, a Romanian film called ”Vlad Țepeș” (sometimes known, in other countries, as ”The True Story of Vlad the Impaler”) was released, based on his six-year reign and brief return to power in late 1476.   The character is portrayed in a mostly positive perspective, though the film also mentions the excesses of his regime and his practice of impalement.   The lead character is played by Ștefan Sileanu.

Perhaps my most favorite reference to this great historical place is from The Rocky Horror Picture Show….

……you remember the marvelous Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter…..the one from Transexual Transylvania..

…Let’s do the Time Warp again………….oh you forgot the steps…

………….I have to run get out my costume and put on the music…….just for a moment……..


………….aaahhhhemmmmm……pardon me………I did digress a bit…..back to Dracula……
I hope you have enjoyed this journey through time to explore a wonderful bit of history, pop culture and the basis for a smashing tourist success for a small town in Romania…