12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

Tim Flight - May 22, 2018

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Impalement, as depicted in a French book,1593. Wikimedia Commons

Stopping the Ottoman Empire with a Stake up their Collective Bottom

At the same time as putting down the Saxons, Tepes was also threatened by his erstwhile-captors and allies, the Ottoman Empire. Tepes had actually grown up alongside Sultan Mehmed, and had a good idea of his ruthless character and desire to emulate the all-conquering Alexander the Great. He thus prepared for the inevitable Turkish invasion by brokering peace with the Saxons 6 months after the execution of Dan III, the terms of which were nevertheless heavily in favour of Wallachia, in order to avoid a conflict on 2 fronts. As Wallachia’s neighbouring countries fell to Mehmed, Tepes prepared for war.

Another man fearful of the Ottoman invasion was Pope Pius II (1405-64), who gave a 2-hour address to the dignitaries of Europe in 1459, exhorting them to ‘take up the cross’ and join a new crusade against the attacking East. Most rulers pursued a policy of appeasement, but Tepes was virtually the sole European ruler who planned a positive response to the Pope’s plea. More countries and city-states gave way without a struggle, and Mehmed sent emissaries to visit Tepes, confident that he, too, would give way in the light of much of Europe surrendering with barely a blow exchanged.

Another reason for Mehmed’s confidence was that Wallachia had paid the Ottomans a hefty annual tribute of 10, 000 ducats since Vlad Dracul’s reign, though in 1462 Tepes was 3 years in arrears. In addition to the back-payments, which now had to be delivered to the Sultan by Tepes himself, the emissaries also demanded 500 boys for the Ottoman army. Buying himself time, Tepes negotiated an alliance with the Hungarian king, and then answered Mehmed’s demands by nailing the emissaries’ taqiyahs (skullcaps) to their heads. This was a move calculated to provoke an attack from the vainglorious Mehmed.

Mehmed responded by attempting to ambush Tepes on his way to the Ottoman fortress of Giurgiu. Seeing through the plot, Tepes captured the conspirators, whom he later impaled at Targoviste. He next captured Giurgiu by dressing up as an Ottoman and giving orders for the gates to be opened in fluent Turkish, at which his men stormed the edifice and slaughtered the garrison. In the winter of 1461-62, Tepes launched a daring and successful campaign of guerrilla warfare, splitting his army into small sections and attacking the Ottoman strongholds with a mixture of utter boldness, speed, and bloody ruthlessness.

Eventually, Mehmed sent 60, 000 men armed with a plethora of advanced weapons to invade Wallachia. Tepes’s army numbered only 24, 000, and so he adopted a new tactic of scorched earth, strategic retreat, and more guerrilla attacks. When the Ottomans were encamped outside Targoviste in 1462, Tepes launched the famous Night Attack at Targoviste, killing around 5, 000 enemies. When the Ottomans went to launch their attack on Targoviste, they encountered the notorious ‘forest of the impaled’, a mile-long semicircle of 20, 000 impaled Ottoman prisoners decomposing in the sun. The next day, Mehmed ordered his forces to retreat.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Bran Castle, Transylvania, is the castle of Count Dracula, but not Vlad Tepes. Alexandru Savu

Dracula’s Castles

In the novel Dracula, Castle Dracula is perched high on a rock in the Transylvanian Carpathians, and Bran Castle, pictured above, has been suggested as Stoker’s model for this. However, there is no record of the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, ever visiting the castle, though he certainly knew of it, since it was positioned to protect one of his main targets, Brasov. This hasn’t stopped the current managers of Bran Castle marketing it as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, nevertheless. In truth, Dracula patronised several different castles, sometimes as the overlord, at other times as a guest, and still others as a prisoner.

If any building can be called ‘Dracula’s Castle’, it is Targoviste Fortress. Tepes lived here until he became an Ottoman hostage, and again when he became voivode of Wallachia. Vlad Dracul had fortified the formerly-wooden stronghold in stone after assuming the much-disputed Wallachian throne in 1436, simultaneously making it a residence worthy of a great voivode. Tepes himself added the Chindia Tower, which even today stands at 27 metres high, in order to strengthen the fortress and to allow a vantage point over the surrounding area. Tepes spent most of his time at Targoviste when not imprisoned or at war.

In terms of defence, Tepes’s most important possession was Poenari Castle, located on the high plateau of Mount Cetatea overlooking the Arges River and an important path through the southern Carpathians. It is said that when Tepes saw the ruined 13th-century fortification, he asked local boyars for money to refortify it against the Turks. When they refused, Tepes forced them to work day and night until they had done the work themselves. Although it was captured by the great Ottoman army that invaded Wallachia in 1462, Tepes managed to escape via an underground tunnel leading north through the mountains.

Hunedoara Castle, also known as Corvin Castle, was visited by Tepes in two different capacities. On his first visit, he was made a commander in John Hunyadi’s army and granted his residence at Sibiu. On his second visit, he was imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus, who wished to avoid further warfare with the Ottomans, who by now had returned to capture Wallachia with the assistance of Tepes’s hated brother, Radu the Handsome, a Muslim convert who had convinced much of the Wallachian army and mercenaries to switch sides. A series of blatantly-forged letters were produced to show Tepes conspiring with Mehmed.

Hunedoara Castle is by far the best-preserved and most impressive of all Dracula’s castles. A mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, Hunedoara occupies a lofty position on a rocky precipice surrounded by a deep moat, and is entered by a great, stone bridge across a chasm. There is an interesting story attached to the 30-metre-deep well: it was dug by 12 Turkish prisoners over 15 years, who were promised freedom if they reached the water below the rock. Their captors reneged on the promise, and graffiti on the well’s wall records some of the names of the unfortunate prisoners.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Christianity did not stop Vlad burning and looting the Black Church, Brasov, in his campaign against the Saxons. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)

Toast of the Christian World

From his surviving correspondence, it is clear that Vlad Tepes was a man of faith. A typical extract from his letters – regarding his near-ambush on the way to Giurgiu — demonstrates this point: ‘by the grace of God… I found out about their trickery and slyness, and I was the one who captured Hamza Bey in the Turkish district’. His Christianity sits uncomfortably with his burning of churches in Brasov, but perhaps he justified this with the thought that they had been built by the Saxons who were challenging his Divine Right to sovereignty in Wallachia, and hence were not sacred.

Until his betrayal and imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, Tepes’s exploits against the Turks made him a hero in Christian Europe. Christian diplomats were in awe of his achievements, and moreover grateful that someone was taking the initiative against the invading Muslim army. Pope Pius II himself spoke of Tepes in glowing terms after reading dispatches from his representatives, and sent subsidies from Rome to help his camaign. Te deums rang out in praise of Tepes’s victories, and the inability of Mehmed’s army to cross Wallachia into Central Europe saved a great many cities and countries from being conquered themselves.

Rome and Venice, who saw Tepes as a crusader and had spent vast sums provisioning his army, expressed their deep concern about his arrest. This is why the forged letters had to be produced: only by portraying Tepes as a Christian traitor could Corvinus persist in his plan to avoid the expenses of fighting Mehmed, which the popular Tepes would surely scupper if freed. The official explanation regardless failed to convince the Pope, and so an emissary was sent to meet the incarcerated Dracula. The emissary left us with a description of Tepes which corresponds closely with his Renaissance portraits.

Ultimately, he was kept in prison as a bargaining chip to achieve and maintain an armistice with Mehmed. With the threat of releasing the ‘impaler king’ (as the Ottomans knew Tepes), who was present at negotiations, Corvinus ended hostilities. Though this was fairly short-lived, it was only 12 years after his capture that Tepes was finally released when Radu the Handsome died of syphilis in 1475. As voivode of Wallachia, Radu had pursued a policy of balancing his duties to the Sultan and Corvinus, but his successor, Basarab Laiota, defected wholly to the Ottoman side. Tepes was needed once more.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Purported grave of Vlad Tepes, Snagov Monastery. Wikimedia Commons

How did he die, and where is he buried?

When Corvinus released Vlad Tepes, he acknowledged him as voivode of Wallachia, but did not provide any military assistance to depose Basarab Laiota. Tepes’s release was met with loud approval across Europe, as few had been convinced of his guilt on the basis of the clumsy, forged letters. A year later, in the face of Ottoman aggression against Hungary’s neighbours, Corvinus made Tepes a captain of his army, and the ‘impaler king’ was once more fighting the Turkish army, this time in Bosnia. Incarceration clearly had not changed Tepes’s modus operandi one iota, and the campaign was widely successful.

‘He tore the limbs off the Turkish prisoners and placed their parts on stakes… and displayed the private parts of his victims so that when the Turks see these, they will run away in fear!’, gushed Gabriele Rangoni, the papal legate, after the recapture of Srebrenica in 1476. Tepes was again using his knowledge of the Ottoman character, gained from his teenage years at the court of Murad II, which evidently had not changed much in the 12 years of his imprisonment as the terror-tactics worked. Tepes was once again a celebrated hero of the Christian resistance to Ottoman invasion.

His importance to the successful campaign in Bosnia gained Tepes enough support from the Hungarian court, and even Transylvania, to convince Corvinus to give him military support to regain Wallachia. With a 21, 000-strong army of Hungarians and Transylvanians, Tepes first liberated Moldavia from Turkish occupation, before defeating Basarab Laiota’s army on the Transylvania/ Wallachia border, and gaining control of Wallachia in November 1476. Unfortunately, Basarab Laiota remained at large, and when his great army had left Wallachia, Tepes was exposed to attack and unable to defend himself. Inevitably, Wallachia was invaded, and Tepes was killed in January 1477.

The precise details of his death are unknown. The Austrian chronicler, Jacob Unrest, writes that a Turkish soldier disguised himself as a servant, infiltrated Tepes’s court, and quite literally stabbed him in the back when Basarab Laiota’s men attacked the voivode’s small army near Snagov Monastery. A Russian narrative claims that Tepes was in disguise as a Turk, and mistaken for an enemy by his own men. All we really know is that he died in battle, fighting an army twice the size of his own, and had been severely let down by his myopic allies who left him undefended.

Jacob Unrest also claims that Tepes’s head was cut off and displayed (with deliberate irony) on a stake in Constantinople, to prove that the feared warrior was finally dead. Though it is entirely possible that his body was left to rot or buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield, there is some credence to the story that his mortal remains were found by monks from the nearby Snagov Monastery, and buried at the altar. The monks’ alleged respect for Tepes’s remains can be attributed to his and his family’s significant financial contributions to Snagov Monastery over the years.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Statue of Vlad Tepes, Bucharest Castle, 20th Century. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)

National Hero

Like many countries in Europe, Romania underwent a national awakening in the 19th century, as the then-divided country was continually threatened by the Ottomans and Romanian people were given few rights by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled them. Hemmed in by enemies from both sides, and resentful of the Saxons, who were viewed as foreign despite their residence having lasted around 700 years, a sense of a Romanian national identity emerged, defined against Hungary, Slavic nations, and of course the hated Ottoman Empire. After a series of bloody uprisings, Romania was officially made a country in 1859.

Discovering a sense of national identity naturally required that great figures of history were celebrated, the most prominent of which was Vlad Tepes. His slippery political alliances during his lifetime meant allowed him to be reinterpreted as a hero who fought bravely against Romania’s enduring enemies: the Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hungarians. His ruthless administration of justice was also seen sympathetically as a necessity for rule. He was celebrated in art, poetry, and legend, with even the lurid tales of his brutality spread in contemporary pamphlets seen as evidence for his patriotism and effectiveness as a ruler.

For instance, the 15th-century allegation made in German pamphlets that he burned the slothful, poor, and physically disabled out of sheer cruelty was reinterpreted in a positive light by Mihai Eminescu:

You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.

Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;

Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle ’em,

Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum. (The Third Letter)

Fighting off Romania’s perennial enemies to preserve its independence whilst maintaining order at home, Vlad Tepes was made into a Romanian Braveheart.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Frontispiece of Die geschicht dracole waide, a Saxon pamphlet describing Vlad Tepes’s awful deeds, Nuremberg, 1488. Wikimedia Commons

Victim of Saxon Propaganda?

Now that we have divorced the 15th-century voivode Vlad Tepes, alias Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s fictional, camp vampire, what can we make of the man? It is clear that he was a shrewd politician who changing alliances when it suited him but, somehow, too, a man of honour, holding grudges and avenging the deaths of his friends or his own subjugation when first possible. He was also extremely resourceful and realistic, using the topography of Wallachia to his advantage against his enemies, altering his military tactics when outnumbered, and using psychological warfare against those who had wronged him.

And, yet, there are countless contemporary accusations of his motiveless cruelty. These originate in the pamphlets printed at the time of his imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, and though later the source of positive legends about him in 19th-century Romania, they are successful in portraying Vlad Tepes as a cruel and bloodthirsty man. Tales such as him dipping his bread into the blood of the impaled and eating dinner surrounded by dying prisoners on stakes turn him into a monster, and are lent plausibility by his known and widely-attested penchant for impaling his enemies. But should we believe the accusations?

Let us consider the title of the pamphlet from which the famous woodcut of Tepes’s meal surrounded by impaled corpses above is derived.

Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract.

This pamphlet was published at the instigation of his great enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons.

The crimes listed above are lurid but to the modern eye seem wildly exaggerated. The accounts of cannibalism are only present in Saxon sources, and we need not belabour the fact that they had an axe to grind with a man who disrupted their trade and killed them for opposing his throne in Wallachia. Though he punished the Transylvanian Saxons without mercy, we should also remember that they opposed his rule, and he first tried to settle the dispute through trade restrictions and then diplomacy, but was ignored. The policy of impalement was very much the last resort for Tepes.

In summary, the real Dracula was an effective leader who did what was necessary to protect his throne and territory. His political machinations and actions in war were motivated not by irrational hatred but the need for survival and the brutal culture of his time: as voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes ruled the vulnerable gateway to Europe from the East which was hotly-contested even from within Europe. Far from being the only member of the aristocracy guilty of using cruelty to maintain power in the bloody 15th century, Vlad Tepes was just one of the most successful.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Andreescu, Ștefan. Vlad the Impaler: Dracula. Bucharest: The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1999.

Baddeley, Gavin, and Paul A. Woods. Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People. Hersham: Ian Allan, 2010.

Florescu, Radu R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.

Treptow, Kurt W. Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula. Portland, OR: The Centre of Romanian Studies, 2000.

Trow, M. J. Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula. Stroud: The History Press, 2015.

Waterson, James. Dracula’s Wars: Vlad the Impaler and his Rivals. Stroud: The History Press, 2019.