Vlad the Impaler's thirst for blood was an inspiration for Count Dracula

The ruthless brutality of Vlad III of Walachia, forged by the 15th-century clash between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, would partly inspire Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel centuries later.

Published 1 Nov 2021, 13:28 GMT
The voivode of Walachia
This well-known portrait of Vlad III—wearing a princely cap adorned with pearls and precious stones—is a copy of one painted during his lifetime (1431-1476) now displayed in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.
Photograph by Erich Lessing/Album

Dracula, prince of darkness, lord of the undead! This mythical character leaped onto the page from the fevered imagination of Irish writer Bram Stoker in 1897. But the historical figure who shares a name with the literary icon was no less fearsome. Vlad III Draculea was the voivode (a prince-like military leader) of Walachia—a principality that joined with Moldavia in 1859 to form Romania—on and off between 1448 and 1476. Also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula (son of the Dragon), and—most famously—Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes in Romanian), he was a brutal, sadistic leader famous for torturing his foes. By some estimates he is responsible for the deaths of more than 80,000 people in his lifetime—a large percentage of them by impalement.

Vlad III was likely born in Sighisoara, a small medieval city founded by Saxon settlers in the Transylvania region of present-day Romania, pictured here. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Photograph by Doug Pearson/Getty Images

Vlad III’s cruelty was real, but his reputation as a villain spread through 15th-century Europe thanks to the printing press, whose rise coincided with his reign. Propagandist pamphlets written by his enemies became best sellers. Centuries later, the sinister reputation of Vlad the Impaler took on new life when Stoker came across the name Dracula in an old history book, learned that it could also mean “devil” in Walachia, and gave the name to his fictional vampire. Yet today Vlad III is something of a national hero in Romania, where he is remembered for defending his people from foreign invasion, whether Turkish soldiers or German merchants.

(How did 18th-century vampire hunters identify the undead? Blood and fingernails.)

Family history

Vlad III, the second of four brothers, was likely born in 1431 in Transylvania, a craggy, verdant part of present-day Romania (it officially became part of that country in 1947). His mother was Princess Cneajna of Moldavia. His father, Vlad II, was an illegitimate son of a Walachian noble who spent his youth at the court of Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary and future Holy Roman emperor.

A 1440 saddle is pictured bearing the symbol of the Order of the Dragon. It's housed at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

The same year that Vlad III was born, his father was admitted to the Order of the Dragon. Like other chivalric orders, this Christian military society, founded in 1408 by Sigismund, was modelled broadly on the medieval crusaders; its members were 24 high-ranking knights pledged to fight heresy and stop Ottoman expansion. Upon joining the order, Vlad II was granted the surname Dracul (Dragon). His son Vlad III was known as Vlad Draculea, or Dracula, “son of the Dragon.” In 1436 Sigismund made Vlad II voivode of Walachia, but Vlad II did not stay loyal. He soon switched sides and allied himself with Ottoman leader Sultan Murad II. To guarantee loyalty, Murad required Vlad II to hand over two of his sons, Vlad III and Radu the Fair.

Also known as Matthias Corvinus, Matthias I (pictured in a ca 1485 marble relief housed at the Hungarian National Gallery) held Vlad III captive for 12 years on the false grounds that he had collaborated with the Ottoman Turks to attack Hungary.
Photograph by BPK/Scala, Florence

In 1447 Vlad II was ousted as ruler of Walachia by local boyars, or aristocrats, and subsequently captured and killed. That same year, Vlad III’s older brother, Mircea II, was blinded and buried alive. Janos Hunyadi, regent of Hungary, who had instigated Vlad II’s assassination, appointed Vladislav II, another Walachian nobleman, to be the new voivode. Historians cannot say for sure if these events motivated Vlad III’s thirst for revenge, but one thing is clear: Soon after he was released from Ottoman captivity, around 1447, Vlad III began his fight for power.

(Why the Ottoman empire rose and fell.)

In 1448, with Ottoman help, Vlad III, then 16 years old, expelled Vladislav II from Walachia and ascended the throne. He lasted only two months as voivode before the Hungarians reinstated Vladislav. Vlad III went into exile; little is known about his next eight years, as he moved around the Ottoman Empire and Moldavia.

Sometime during this period he seems to have switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict, gaining the military support of Hungary. Vladislav II changed allegiances, too, and joined the Turks—a move that set up a clash between the two claimants to the throne of Walachia. Vlad III met Vladislav on the outskirts of Targoviste on July 22, 1456, and beheaded him during hand-to-hand combat. Vlad III’s rule had begun.

Rule of terror

Walachia had been ravaged by the ceaseless Ottoman-Hungarian conflict and the internecine strife among feuding boyars. Trade had ceased, fields lay fallow, and the land was overrun by lawlessness. Vlad III began his reign with a strict crackdown on crime, employing a zero-tolerance policy for even minor offences, such as lying. He handpicked commoners, even foreigners, for public positions, a move to cement power by creating officials who were completely dependent on him. As voivode, he could appoint, dismiss, and even execute his new officials at will.

As for the boyars—the high-ranking figures who had killed his father and older brother— Vlad III had a retributive plan. In 1459 he invited 200 of them to a great Easter banquet, together with their families. There, he had the women and the elderly stabbed to death and impaled; the men he forced into slave labour. Many of these workers would die of exhaustion while building Poenari Castle, one of Vlad III’s favourite residences.

To replace the boyars, Vlad III created new elites: the viteji, a military division made up of farmers who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield, and the sluji, a kind of national guard. He also liberated Walachia’s peasants and artisans, freeing them from the tributes that they used to pay to the Ottoman Empire.

Which is not to say that Vlad III’s domestic policies were benevolent. The brutal justice meted out to his enemies was sometimes applied to his own people as well. To get rid of homeless people and beggars, whom he viewed as thieves, he invited a large number to a feast, locked the doors, and burned them all alive. He exterminated Romanies or had them forcibly enlisted into the army. He imposed heavy tax burdens on the German population and blocked their trade when they refused to pay.

Denunciations of Vlad III (as in this 1488 pamphlet) tended to stem from the voivode’s detractors and political enemies—either German sources or the court of Matthias I, king of Hungary.
Photograph by Rue des Archives/Album

Many of the Germans under Vlad III’s aegis were Saxons. Not to be confused with the Anglo-Saxons of England, these were German migrants who had settled in Transylvania in the 12th century after the region was conquered by Hungary. They were mostly well-to-do merchants, but to Vlad III, they were allies of his enemies.

Over the next few years, Vlad III razed entire Saxon villages and impaled thousands of people. In 1459, when the Transylvanian Saxon city of Kronstadt (today Brasov) supported a rival of Vlad III’s, the voivode’s response was savage. After initially placing trade restrictions on Saxon goods in Walachia, he had 30,000 people impaled—and reportedly dined among them so he could witness their suffering personally. He also had Kronstadt burned to the ground. Back in Walachia, he impaled Saxon merchants who violated his trade laws.

Although Vlad continued to identify himself with the prestigious Order of the Dragon, signing his name Wladislaus Dragwlya (“son of the Dragon”), his enemies at this time gave him the less noble sobriquet Tepes—“the Impaler.”

Vlad III mounted several bloody attacks against Catholic communities, too, and had the support of many of his people who, as Orthodox Chris- tians, felt discriminated against by Hungarians and Saxon Catholics in Transylvania. Cities including Sibiu, Tara Barsei, Amlas, and Fagara were targeted and suffered many losses before surrendering in 1460. These reprisals came to the attention of Pope Pius II, who produced a report in 1462 claiming that Vlad III had killed some 40,000 people.

Drastic measures

Vlad III’s foreign policy differed from that of his father, and from many other leaders of the time. He never stopped opposing the Turks—in this he had the support of Matthias Corvinus, aka Matthias I, son of Janos Hunyadi, and king of Hungary.

Vlad III’s tactics, both on and off the battlefield, against the Turks were extraordinarily brutal. In 1459 Mehmed II sent an embassy to Vlad III, claiming a tribute of 10,000 ducats and 300 young boys. When the diplomats declined to remove their turbans, citing religious custom, Vlad III saluted their devotion— by nailing their hats to their heads. In 1461 the Turks offered to meet Vlad for a peace parley; in reality they intended to ambush him. Vlad III responded with a foray into the Turkish dominions south of the Danube.

Vlad III’s archenemy Sultan Mehmed II had this portrait painted in 1480 by Gentile Bellini, an Italian painter of the Venetian school. It's now at the National Gallery in London.
Photograph by Mary Evans/Age Fotostock

In the spring of 1462, Mehmed II assembled an army of 90,000 men and advanced on Walachia. After conducting a series of night raids and guerrilla warfare, Vlad III employed his trademark tactic, impaling more than 23,000 prisoners with their families and putting them on display along the enemy’s route, outside the city of Targoviste.“There were infants affixed to their mothers on the stakes,” writes the French historian Matei Cazacu, “and birds had made their nests in their entrails.”The sight was so horrifying that Mehmed II, after seeing the “forest” of the dead, turned around and marched back to Constantinople. Vlad III wrote to Matthias I explaining that he had “killed peasants, men and women, old and young . . . We killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers.” To prove the truth of his words, he produced sacks full of severed noses and ears. As Vlad III himself recognised, most of the victims were simple peasants—Serbian Christians and Bulgarians who had been subjugated by the Turks.

The Turks ultimately prevailed because the Walachian boyars had defected to Radu, Vlad III’s brother. Radu guaranteed the aristocracy that by siding with the Ottomans, they would regain the privileges that Vlad III had stripped from them. Radu attracted support from the Romanian population, who were tired of Vlad III’s bloodlust.

Vlad III’s power, money, and troops had ebbed away so much that Matthias I was able to take him prisoner in 1462. Vlad was imprisoned in Hungary for 12 years, while power changed hands several times in Walachia. Around 1475 Matthias I sent Vlad III to recover Walachia for Hungary. In November 1476 Vlad III scored an initial victory, but one month later suffered a brutal defeat. His rival, backed by Ottoman troops, ambushed, killed, and beheaded him. By most accounts his severed head was sent to Mehmed II in Constantinople to be put on display above the city’s gates.

Vlad III dines amid impaled victims following his assault on Brasov (then known as Kronstadt). Printed in Nuremberg in 1499, this engraving, and others like it, helped spread Vlad III’s gruesome reputation across Europe.
Photograph by Mary Evans/Age Fotostock

Despite all that, Vlad III might have been a mere footnote of the Middle Ages if it were not for a book published in 1820. Written by William Wilkinson, the British consul to Walachia, An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: With Various Political Observations Relating to Them delves into the region’s history and mentions the notorious warlord Vlad the Impaler.

Bram Stoker never visited Vlad’s homeland but was known to have come across Wilkinson’s book in 1890. Afterward, he wrote the following: “Voivode (Dracula): Dracula in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.” While the life of Vlad the Impaler had long since ended, the enduring legend of Dracula was just beginning.

A monstrous reputation

Was Vlad Dracula the only inspiration for Bram Stoker’s best-selling vampire?

Irish writer Bram Stoker published a novel in 1897, set in Transylvania, with a mysterious vampire as its hypnotic villain. Dracula thrilled readers who began to speculate on the source of Stoker’s inspiration. Many theorised that the bloody life of Vlad the Impaler, the medieval Walachian ruler also known as Dracula, was Stoker’s sole basis for the character, but Stoker drew on many sources for his most infamous creation.

Vampires were in vogue in the late Victorian period, and Stoker would have likely been familiar with earlier Gothic works such as Goethe’s poem The Bride of Corinth (1797); “The Vampyre” (1819), a short story by John W. Polidori; and the novella Carmilla (1872), by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The notable connections between Dracula and Captain Vampire (1879)—a novel written 18 years before Stoker’s book, by 19-year-old Marie Nizet, a Belgian woman related to Romanian exiles—have also been pointed out.

Bram Stoker is pictured in a 1906 colorized photogavure.
Photograph by Granger Collection/ACI

Stoker had certainly read about vampirism in the Carpathians, and in 1890 was writing a novel called The Un-Dead, about a fictional character he called Count Wampyr. While on vacation that year in Whitby, England, Stoker found a rare book in the local library titled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820), written by British diplomat William Wilkinson. It mentioned the voivode Dracula, explaining in a footnote that in the Walachian language, dracul means “devil,” while in Hungarian it means “dragon.”

Stoker soon transformed his Wampyr into Dracula. In the course of the novel, when the titular character sketches a historical panorama to his guest Jonathan Harker, it is surely Wilkinson’s account that lies behind it. Given all these connections, it seems highly likely that Vlad III’s life must have provided some material for Stoker’s novel.

More recently, however, some scholars and historians have advanced an intriguing alternative theory for the primary source for Dracula: a 19th-century cholera epidemic that killed up to 1,000 people in the town of Sligo, in western Ireland. Stoker’s mother, Charlotte Thornley, survived it as a 14-year-old girl and later described it for her son in grisly detail.

In 2018 Irish researchers, led by Marion McGarry of the Sligo Stoker Society, studied Thornley’s writing. “Bram as an adult asked his mother to write down her memories of the epidemic for him,” wrote McGarry, “and he supplemented with his own research of Sligo’s epidemic.”

Bela Lugosi (né Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko), a Hungarian-born actor, first played Count Dracula on Broadway, before starring as the vampire in the iconic 1931 Universal film.
Photograph by Allstar Picture Library Ltd./ACI/Alamy

The outbreak caused pandemonium. To stop people from fleeing Sligo and spreading the plague, officials dug trenches around the town and blocked off the roads. Corpses lay in the street. Doctors and nurses took cholera patients, stupefied by opium or laudanum, and prematurely placed them in mass graves.

Stoker was fascinated by his mother’s description of cholera victims who were buried alive—a link, perhaps, to Dracula’s undead state. In a rare interview about Dracula, the famously private Stoker acknowledged that his story was “inspired by the idea of someone being buried before they were fully dead.”

Stoker’s horror novel inflamed imaginations, and decades later, Bela Lugosi’s iconic 1931 portrayal of Count Dracula on the silver screen made the word Dracula synonymous with vampire. The Hungarian actor’s accent and dark good looks brought the Transylvanian count to life and inspired countless imitations.

Bran Castle is pictured in Transylvania in northwestern Romania.
Photograph by DEA/Album

Places associated with the Dracula legend are popular destinations. Some, like Poenari Castle in Romania, which was an important fortress for the voivode, are associated with Vlad III. Other locations, like Bran Castle (popularly known as Castle Dracula) in Romania have no connection with Vlad III. Some argue that Bran Castle was Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula’s home in the novel, but Stoker never visited Romania, so he could not have seen it in person.

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