The real Dracula? The bloodthirsty life of Vlad the Impaler
From burning the old and sick alive to impaling tens of thousands of enemy soldiers, earning his fearsome nickname, Vlad the Impaler’s bloodlust and cruelty was said to have inspired the most famous vampire of literature. But how much of him is in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and why has Vlad been remembered by some as a national hero? Richard Sugg explores the true story of the 15th-century tyrant…
Vlad the Impaler: few names in European history conjure such a weight of myth and brutality as this three-time ruler of Wallachia (in modern-day Romania). A surviving woodcut from Nuremberg in 1499 shows him seated at his meal enjoying the sight of men and women speared through their torsos on stakes just feet away, while the severed heads and limbs of other victims lie at his feet. The accompanying text tells of how he roasted, boiled and flayed people, or forced mothers to eat their own children.
Along with the legend of his seemingly pathological cruelty, Vlad is now remembered as the inspiration for Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, which was first published 125 years ago in 1897. Behind this thumbnail sketch, however, there is a host of gruesome facts about Vlad the Impaler that are often stranger than the wildest Gothic fiction.
Who was Vlad the Impaler?
The man who would become Vlad the Impaler was born in 1431, the second son of nobleman Vlad II Dracul. He was raised in a world of violent instability, in a zone of Christian Europe under continual threat of Ottoman invasion in the aftermath of Constantinople falling to the Turks in 1453. At just 11, the young Vlad was held hostage in the Ottoman empire along with his brother Radu to force the allegiance of their father.
Vlad II was a member of the Order of the Dragon, and voivode (local governor) of Wallachia until his murder in 1447 on the orders of John Hunyadi, ruler of Transylvania and a major military and political figure in Hungary. That same year, the young Vlad’s eldest brother Mircea II was buried alive by Hunyadi. Vlad III, as he was styled, would go on to reign over Wallachia briefly in the autumn of 1448; then again from April 1456 to July 1462; and finally in 1476 until his death – probably in December of that year. During this time, he earned the nickname ‘Vlad Țepeș’ – Vlad the Impaler in Romanian.
Why was he called that?
The name was literal: in his short life, Vlad impaled thousands of men and women. In June 1462, during his epic battle against the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the Turkish army approached the city of Târgoviște and had the breath slammed out of it by a scene from hell. Across roughly one mile, 23,844 captives had been impaled in a semi-circle. In the intense summer heat, the stench of death alone was unbearable – except to the birds of prey feasting on the living and dead, or nesting in older skulls and carcasses.
Across roughly one mile, 23,844 captives had been impaled in a semi-circle
Vlad’s use of impaling as a form of execution was not unique to him; Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, authors of several books on Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, point out that it was also used during the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). Yet the sheer scale of slaughter achieved by Vlad seems to have been epic even by the standards of his day, and may have aided him in ultimate victory against Mehmed. He is thought to have killed between 40-100,000 people in just six years.
So what about his other name, Dracula?
Vlad’s father, Vlad II, bestowed upon him the famous Dracula name, which meant ‘son of the dragon’. Aptly enough, ‘dracul’ in Romanian could mean both ‘dragon’ and ‘devil’. McNally and Florescu have suggested that the Wallachian nobility took Vlad II as an honoured opponent of Turks and heretics, whilst the peasantry associated the name more strongly with its devilish side.
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Did Vlad the Impaler live in Transylvania?
Although Vlad was born in Sighisoara in Transylvania, his Castle Dracula (also Castle Poenari) was located in a commanding position north of the city of Curtea de Arges, around 200 miles to the south. After returning to power in 1456, for his second reign as ruler of Wallachia, he rebuilt the castle from its ruins, using the forced labour of captive Romanian nobility, both men and women. This was part of a deliberate strategic purge of the nobility, which began with the impaling of elderly aristocrats deemed unfit for heavy labour. The building is thought to have claimed many lives, given the gruelling work and dangerous location of Castle Dracula.
Was he insane?
In modern terms, many of Vlad’s acts of cruelty might well be defined as those of a high-functioning sociopath. His ruthlessness in war certainly helped him achieve a stunning victory over the Turks in 1462. He not only slaughtered animals to deprive the enemy of transport and food, but used germ warfare by encouraging those afflicted with leprosy, syphilis, tuberculosis and plague “to dress in Turkish fashion and intermingle with the [enemy] soldiers”.
Many of Vlad’s acts of more private cruelty have elements of purely pathological malice. In one instance, infuriated by the disrespect of Italian ambassadors who kept their skullcaps on in his presence, he responded to this perceived insult by nailing the caps to their heads. On another occasion, he invited masses of the old, sick, poor, lame and blind to a great feast in a Târgoviște dining hall, before locking them in and burning them alive. He later exulted in this elimination of the socially inferior, in a way that could now recall the Nazis. Both men and women fell victim to his viciousness and cruelty; in fact, the extremes of his misogyny have caused McNally and Florescu to wonder if he was impotent.
Was Vlad a ‘vampire’?
Yes and no. He does not seem to have habitually drunk blood (and there were gallons flowing if he so wished). There is an account, though, of him burning a whole Transylvanian suburb in a winter raid and having captives impaled, then watching as his men cut off victims’ limbs while he sat at table and dined. Here we are told that he “dipped his bread in the blood of the victims” since “watching human blood flow gave him courage” (Dracula). This apparently factual blood-drinking would feed into best-selling pamphlets that spread his legend following his death.
Like the murderous and sadistic Elizabeth Báthory (1560–1614) in nearby Hungary, Vlad’s inventive and almost artistic excesses of cruelty were so extreme that soon drinking blood had become part of the popular imagination surrounding him. Similarly, Báthory was believed to bathe in blood to restore her skin – though in truth biographer Tony Thorne has argued that this was about the only insane thing that the so-called Countess Dracula did not do.
How did Vlad die?
It was probably in late December 1476, having just begun his third phase as ruler, that Vlad was killed in a skirmish with both Turkish forces and those of his Romanian rival, Basarab III Laiotá. A Turk was hired to pose as one of his servants, and seems to have attacked him from behind. While Vlad was defended fiercely in his final moments by bodyguards, he was ultimately killed and beheaded. The Turks carried his head back to Constantinople and had it spiked aloft as a final act of revenge.
Local monks found Vlad’s torso in a clearing of the forest near Bucharest and carried it into their crypt on the island monastery of Snagov. The act symbolises Dracula’s longstanding reputation as a great, almost lone, defender of European Christendom. By contrast, contemporary Russian observers deemed him a heretic for turning from Orthodox Christianity to Roman Catholicism. This meant that soon after his death some suspected his corpse would not rest in his grave: an early version of the vampire legend was born.
How has he been remembered?
There are two seemingly opposed branches to Vlad’s reputation:
The bloodthirsty tyrant
The 1499 Nuremburg woodcut of Vlad dining beside a small copse of impaled bodies typifies one side of his legend. Florescu and McNally found that, in a Viennese painting of Christ's progress to crucifixion, one of the satisfied onlookers looks eerily like Vlad Dracula. With lurid pamphlets about his heinous acts becoming bestsellers in the 15th and 16th centuries, the real-life Dracula offers an intriguing example of a popular horror genre long before the age of the novel. This kind of factual dark entertainment was probably furtively enjoyed by some who read the hugely popular Protestant classic, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563.
The national hero
For much of the 15th century, almost no rulers in European Christendom were prepared to fight their greatest political and religious enemies, the Muslim Turks. The formidable Ottoman empire had taken the ancient holy site of Constantinople in 1453 and besieged the gates of Vienna in 1529. Vlad's campaigns against Mehmed II were partly a result of Romania's geographical position, and were almost certainly as pragmatic as the many battles and atrocities he waged against fellow Christians, including a number of slaughtered monks. But his status as Saviour of Romanian Christendom was formidable and enduring.
McNally and Florescu point out that his dualistic reputation has been so great as to fool some western readers into thinking the hero and villain were actually two different people. Still more bizarrely, he featured in an epic poem in 1875 in which he and his army fought and defeated evil spirits, including vampires. Some 20th-century Romanians have believed the Vlad Dracula vampire to be the result of a Hungarian plot, aided by the iconic Hungarian actor of Dracula, Bela Lugosi.
Was Vlad really an inspiration for Bram Stoker?
It's true that Stoker did read about Vlad before he wrote his iconic novel. But, as with so much great fiction, inspirations were diverse and slow to fuse into the final book. Notes for Dracula were begun in 1890, and Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest (originally the first chapter of the novel) glances at Sheridan Le Fanu, who in 1871–2 published the brilliant tale of aristocratic and quasi-lesbian vampiress Carmilla. The setting of Whitby arose from Stoker’s holidays there, and a trip to Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire showed him the ruined Slains Castle, which fired his imagination.
It has been rightly emphasised that one of the most important inspirations for the character of Dracula was, in fact, Henry Irving: the legendary Victorian actor with whom Stoker enjoyed an ambiguous friendship. Roger Luckhurst talks of Irving's “demonic control” over Stoker, and the author would write, in the drama Vanderdecken, of how Irving “gave a wonderful impression of a dead man fictitiously alive” with eyes “like cinders glowing red”. Irving also played Mephistopheles – a role in which he is still seen on the cover of Penguin editions of Dracula.
On 1 June 1897, the Daily Mail reviewed Dracula as a work “more appalling” than Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights (the latter being about as horrifying as The Exorcist to Victorian readers). At this stage, Stoker’s vampire classic made a relatively small impact, but time was on its side. Like the Count himself, Dracula will never die.
Richard Sugg is the author of Fairies: A Dangerous History (Reaktion, 2018), The Real Vampires (Amberley, 2019), Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (3rd edn 2020), and Bloodlust: the Soul of the Vampire (2020), as well as host of the podcast Dark Histories from the Secret University.
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