The Real Dracula: 10 Facts About Vlad the Impaler

Léonie Chao-Fong

5 mins

27 Jan 2020

Vlad III Dracula (1431-1467/77) was one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history.

He was also known as Vlad the Impaler for the brutality with which he dispensed with his enemies, gaining him notoriety in 15th century Europe.

Here are 10 facts about the man who inspired fear and legends for centuries to come.

1. His family name means “dragon”

The name Dracul was given to Vlad’s father Vlad II by his fellow knights who belonged to a Christian crusading order known as the Order of the Dragon. Dracul translates to “dragon” in Romanian.

In 1431, King Sigismund of Hungary – who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor – inducted the elder Vlad into the knightly order.

Albrecht Dürer Kaiser Sigismund

King Sigismund of Hungary by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1509-16 (Credit: Germanisches Nationalmuseum).

The Order of the Dragon was devoted to one task: the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

His son, Vlad III, would become known as the “son of Dracul” or, in old Romanian, Drăculea, hence Dracula. In modern Romanian, the word drac refers to the devil.

2. He was born in Wallachia, present-day Romania

Vlad III was born in 1431 in the state of Wallachia, now the southern portion of present-day Romania. It was one of the three principalities that made up Romania at the time, along with Transylvania and Moldova.

Situated between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire, Wallachia was the scene of a great number of bloody battles.

As Ottoman forces pushed westward, Christian Crusaders marched eastward toward the Holy Land, Wallachia became the site of constant turmoil.

A battle scene from the Ottoman–Hungarian wars (Credit: Public domain).

3. He was held hostage for 5 years

In 1442, Vlad accompanied his father and his 7-year-old brother Radu on a diplomatic mission in the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

However the three were captured and held hostage by the Ottoman diplomats. Their captors told Vlad II that he could be released – on condition that the two sons remain.

Believing that it was the safest option for his family, Vlad II agreed. The boys were held in a citadel atop a rocky precipice over the town of Eğrigöz, now Doğrugöz in present-day Turkey.

Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys

‘Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys’ by Theodor Aman (Credit: National Museum of Art Romania).

During the 5 years of captivity in the fortress, Vlad and his brother were taught lessons in the art of war, science and philosophy.

However some accounts state that he was also subjected to torture and beatings, and it was thought that it was during this time that he developed his hated of the Ottomans.

4. His father and brother were both killed

Upon his return, Vlad II was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by local war lords known as the boyar.

He was killed in the marshes behind his house while his oldest son, Mircea II, was tortured, blinded and buried alive.

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5. He invited his rivals to dinner – and killed them

Vlad III was freed shortly after his family’s death, however by then he had already developed a taste for violence.

To consolidate power and assert his dominance, he decided to hold a banquet and invited hundreds of members of his rival families.

Poenari Castle

Poenari Castle in Romania, home of Vlad the Impaler (Credit: Nicubunu / CC).

Knowing his authority would be challenged, he had his guests stabbed and their still-twitching bodies impaled on spikes.

6. He was named for his preferred form of torture

By 1462, he had succeeded to the Walllachian throne and was at war with the Ottomans. With enemy forces three times the size of his own, Vlad ordered his men to poison wells and burn crops. He also paid diseased men to infiltrate and infect the enemy.

His victims were often disembowelled, beheaded and skinned or boiled alive. However impalement came to be his killing method of choice, largely because it was also a form of torture.

Impalement

Impalement scene by Juste Lipse (Credit: Public domain).

Impaling involved a wooden or metal pole inserted through the genitals to the victim’s mouth, shoulders or neck. It would often take hours, if not days, for the victim to finally die.

His reputation continued to grow as he inflicted this type of torture on foreign and domestic enemies alike. In one account, he once dined among a “forest” of spikes topped with writhing bodies.

His penchant for impaling his enemies and leaving them to die earned him the name Vlad Țepeș (‘Vlad the Impaler’).

7. He ordered the mass killing of 20,000 Ottomans

A scene from the night of Vlad’s mass killing of 20,000 Ottomans (Credit: Theodor Aman / Muzeul Theodor Aman).

In June 1462 as he retreated from a battle, Vlad ordered 20,000 defeated Ottomans to be impaled on wooden stakes outside the city of Târgoviște.

When the Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481) came across the field of the dead being picked apart by crows, he was so horrified that he retreated to Constantinople.

On another occasion, Vlad met with a group of Ottoman envoys who declined to remove their turbans, citing religious custom. As the Italian humanist Antonio Bonfini described:

whereupon he strengthened their custom by nailing their turbans to their heads with three spikes, so that they could not take them off.

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8. The location of his death is unknown

Now long after the infamous impalement of Ottoman prisoners of war, Vlad was forced into exile and imprisoned in Hungary.

He returned in 1476 to reclaim his rule of Wallachia, however his triumph was short-lived. While marching to battle with the Ottomans, he and his soldiers were ambushed and killed.

Sultan Mehmed II

Sultan Mehmed II in a painting by Fausto Zonaro (Credit: Public domain).

According to Leonardo Botta, the Milanese ambassador to Buda, the Ottomans cut his corpse into pieces and paraded back to Constantinople to the hands of Sultan Medmed II, to be displayed over the city’s guests.

His remains have never been found.

9. He remains a national hero of Romania

Vlad the Impaler was an undeniably brutal ruler. However he is still considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania.

Vlad III the Impaler

Vlad III the Impaler (Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie).

His victorious campaigns against the Ottoman forces which protected both Wallachia and Europe have won him praise as a military leader.

He was even praised by Pope Pius II (1405-1464), who expressed admiration for his military feats and for defending Christendom.

10. He was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

It is believed that Stoker based the title character of his 1897 ‘Dracula’ on Vlad the Impaler. However the two characters have little in common.

Although there is no concrete evidence to support this theory, historians have speculated that Stoker’s conversations with the historian Hermann Bamburger may have helped provide him with information on Vlad’s nature.

Despite Vlad’s infamous bloodthirstiness, Stoker’s novel was the first to make the connection between Dracula and vampirism.