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The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler

Updated on February 8, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

The village was unusually quiet. The invading Ottoman Turks led by Mehmed II, believed that they would roll through the Wallachian frontier with some resistance; however, nobody met and fought them on the road outside the town. The march toward conquest was easy -- possibly too easy. Being a cautious man, Mehmed felt this situation was too ominous -- especially in a principality ruled by a worthy -- yet ruthless -- adversary such as Prince Vlad Dracul.

Mehmed II discovered the mystery of the silent town. In a nearby field a strange forest lined the town's entrance. He couldn't make out the shape of these trees until he and his troops moved closer to it.

To his horror, he discovered they weren't trees. Instead, they were sharpened, greased and bloodied poles. And within this "forest" he discovered the fate of several hundred villagers and captured Ottoman soldiers. All were impaled in the most horrific way possible.

Suddenly, Mehmed realized he was not fighting a Prince and his people. He was fighting the devil himself. Vlad the Impaler had made his first move, and it was enough to send the terrified Ottomans back over the border. They realized that if a man can do that to his own people, there was no telling what he could do next.


Most people around the world don’t know him as a prince; however, they know him as the inspiration to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This was the legacy of the man known as Vlad “Tepes” or Vlad the Impaler. He would later go by a more sinister name: Dracula (translated as son of Dragon). Born 1431 in Schatburg, Transylvania (now Romania), Vlad would live on as the inspiration for one of the most notorious villains in movie and literature.

In reality, his rule was no more than eight nonconsecutive years over a 28 year period. But those may have been the most terrifying eight years for citizens of Wallachia.

Most people around the world don’t know him as a prince; however, they know him as the inspiration to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While the fictional Dracula struck fear in the hearts of his victims, Vlad was, literally, running a huge poles through those hearts. And this sadist relished every moment of his depravity.

Troubled Childhood

To understand Vlad Dracula, one must examine his past. Vlad’s father, (Vlad II Dracul ) belonged to a group of knights known as the Order of the Dragon (Vlad III joined it when he was five). They were in league with the Holy Roman Emperor of Hungary, and were devoted to keeping the Ottomans and their religion out of Europe. However, in the complicated game of politics, Vlad II was ousted from power in 1442 by a rival faction in league with Hungary.

As a result, he sought help from his sworn enemies, the Ottomans, to regain his throne. He did this by agreeing to pay tributes to the Sultan. The tribute wasn't money. He sent his two younger sons, Vlad and Radu, to the Ottoman court, to serve as hostages.

The stay was less than hospitable. First, Vlad III attempted to kill some Ottoman soldiers. His action failed and he was locked up in prison where he was systematically abused, physically and sexually.

His stay in the Ottoman Empire would have profound effects on him. His deep hatred for the Ottoman started. So did his hatred for his little brother Radu; he had converted to Islam and rose through the ranks of the Ottoman to become a member of the royal court. He also despised his father for trading him to the Turks and betraying the Order of the Dragon’s oath to fight them

Ironically, Vlad's confinement in the Sultan's home, led to better educational advantages. He learned to become a military leader. Also, he began to develop his sense of ruthlessness, which he would later use against the Ottomans.

The Morbid Art of Impalement

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There was another thing he learned as a hostage of the Ottoman. Vlad was exposed to the morbid “art” of impalement. He was first exposed to this form of capital punishment by seeing prisoners of the Turks executed in this fashion.

His confinement in a cell helped to hone this particular lesson. Legend has it he began impaling bugs and rats in his prison cell. Many scholars speculated that he did this to relieve the pent up anger he had during these dark times of his youth.

Impalement -- especially Vlad's version of it -- was vicious. His method was to use a crude wooden stake with a dull tip and a greased shaft. The stake was inserted through the victim’s anus, and - while still alive - the victim and the shaft would be erected in an open court for all to see. Death was slow and agonizing. Victims of the impalement ended up sliding down the pole, which punctured their organs along the way. Sometime, the death was quick. Most times, it was agonizingly slow, lasting several days.

This form of torture/ execution was not the only tool Vlad used. In one account, Vlad invited all the boyars (nobles of Transylvania) to the ruins of Poienari Castle where he had a special surprise for them; he forced them to rebuild the castle. The boyars were responsible for his father’s overthrow and death, and the blinding of his older brother. He worked most of them to death. And of those who didn’t die of exhaustion, they were impaled.

Another ghastly form of capital punishment culminated from his love/hate relationship with Ottoman Turks. Two Turkish emissaries came to visit Vlad on a diplomatic mission. Vlad insisted that the men remove their turbans. In terms of religious custom, the Turks were not allowed remove their turbans.That didn’t matter to Vlad, who insisted all guests adhered to his rule. In this case, however, Vlad allowed them to keep the turban on by having them nailed to their heads.

Legend has it he began impaling bugs and rats in his prison cell.

Men, women, children and the elderly within his principality were not immune to his terror. There are several accounts -- as was witnessed by Mehmed II's invading Janissary troops -- in which entire towns were impaled in mass executions.

His reasoning for the executions were trivial, at best. As mentioned, Vlad executed the entire inhabitant of a village that was in the path of an invading army for the sole purpose to unleash psychological war on the Turks.

In another case, he condemned a servant who had reacted in horror upon seeing a child being impaled to the same fate. This incident supposedly occurred at the doomed village, in which Vlad witnessed the mass executions while having his breakfast (the scene was depicted in a famous German woodcut carving made in 1499). The unfortunate servant was serving him breakfast at the time he made his disgust known.

Legacy

Surprisingly, not everyone loathed him. Much of Christian Europe considered him a hero for keeping the Ottomans in check. The Russian account of Vlad’s life is somewhat favorable. Even today in present-day Romania there are those who see him as a national hero for taking on the Turks and establishing strict laws to cut down on crime.

Vlad also found ways to stay in power. His first reign (1448) lasted one year before being overthrown and forced into exile by a group in league with Hungary. He came back, killing this group’s chosen leader, Vladislav II in hand-to-hand combat in 1456.

His second reign lasted six tumultuous years, in which he turned against the Ottoman and allied himself with his other enemy, the Hungarians. That reign ended when he was arrested by the Hungarians and imprisoned for high treason. Also, about this time, the Turks took control of Wallachia.

Finally, in 1476, Vlad’s fortune changed again, this time, with the support of Hungary. He invaded Wallachia and briefly wrested power from the Ottomans. This third reign didn’t last long, however.Two month in, he was killed. It's not clear if he died in battle or was assassinated by his own men.

After his death, the Ottomans found his body near a battlefield; they decapitated his head and sent it back to Mehmed as proof of his demise. This should have been the end of Vlad's bloody story. However, his legacy proved otherwise.

In 1897, Vlad Dracula simply became Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel and play. Later, in 1931, Dracula made it to the big screen in which the vampire – not the inspiration – became an iconic character in horror.

Still, the fictional Dracula is tame in comparison to Vlad Dracul.His legacy, outside those who viewed him as a hero, will always be marked by pure evil. The forces that drove Vlad will forever cement him in history as one the most feared individuals of all time.

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© 2014 Dean Traylor

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