Son of the Dragon

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My historical mood continues, and finds my attention returning to one of my favorite misunderstood stories. Of especial interest at the moment due to the increased time I have been spending in Winterfell of late, the story of the dark prince of Wallachia always fascinates me.

I am always interested in the way fact slowly becomes fable, and history becomes legend….and certainly no fact more sucessfully became fable then that of Vlad Dracul. A rather typical warload and terror of his time and place, Vlad III somehow became the modern day nightmare of Dracula, and the repository for thousands of years of Eastern European Vampyr tradition.

The following is reprinted from the always wonderful Curious Expeditions.

The Whipping Boy

In the list of stars vaulted into fame during the seventies, he is an unlikely candidate. His lank black hair, unkempt eyebrows, overgrown mustache and stern dark green eyes hardly fit in with the feathered blonds dominating the silver screen.

But along with the bouncy beauty of Farah Fawcet and dreamy teen-idol, David Cassidy, the seventies also propelled a forgotten 15th century Romanian prince into international stardom.

In 1972, Radu Florescu, a Romanian academic and historian, published “In Search of Dracula.” Rather than an exploration into the mythology of vampires, the book focused on the possible link between the real Prince Vlad III and Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula. Thanks to the popularity of the best seller, the historical Romanian Prince Vlad III became a household name. The world now a had real Dracula to contend with.

No longer was Bela Lugosi the face of Dracula. Vlad III Dracula, aka “Son of the Dragon” aka “Impaler Prince” aka “Vlad Ţepeş” had stepped onto the stage.

How much Bram Stoker actually based Dracula on Vlad III is still a matter of debate. Though he chose the name Dracula (a much better choice then his original, rather obvious, “Count Wampyr”) Bram Stoker seems to have been only dimly aware of Vlad III’s actual history. Regardless of how much Stoker did or didn’t know, it seems clear that he intended his character Dracula to more then simply a fictionalized version of Vlad III.

Though previous to “In Search of Dracula” Vlad Tepes was unknown to most of the world, he was never forgotten by Romanians. In a country ruled by Germans, Turks, Ottomans, and Hungarians, Vlad was an exception. Vlad was a native Romanian (or more specifically a Vlach or Wallachian, from the area of Romania next to Transylvania). Vlad was one of their own. Loved by Popes and peasants alike, Vlad Tepes was a folk hero.

M and I had the chance to visit a few of the places where Vlad III had cast his shadow while on our travels in Transylvania. One was the dark and beautiful medieval town of Sighişoara, where Vlad was born in 1431. (Vlad’s supposed birth house now sports a Vlad Tepes plaque, and a medieval theme restaurant on the second floor, where I had the chance to sample the local specialty of breaded brains.)

Vlad was the 3rd of four brothers. Vlad’s father, Vlad II, was a governor but he quickly claimed the throne of ruler of Wallachia under the authority of the Hungarian Kingdom. Known simply as “the Dragon” or “Dracul”, he came to be called the dragon after being initiated into the Order of the Dragon; an order established by the King of Hungary, made up of European rulers with the unified intention of stopping the Ottoman Empire’s advance.

Little Vlad III was initiated into the “Order of the Dragon” at the tender age of five, and was henceforth known as “Son of the Dragon” or “Dracula”.

Things were not easy for young Vlad. At 13, he was offered by his father to the Ottomans as part of a peace offering. The Ottomans were to keep Vlad and his younger brother as leverage over his father. From 13 to 17, Vlad grew up in Adrianople, as a house pet of the 12 year old Sultan Mehmed II. Vlad learned to know Mehmed like a brother, and an abusive one at that, as Vlad lived under the lash of the young sultan’s whip. It no doubt stung Vlad all the more that the pain should be delivered by the younger Mehmed. But Vlad was not destined to feel the sting for long. One a Prince, the other a Sultan; the personal hostility between the two teenage boys would eventually take on epic proportions.

Vlad’s six year old brother “Radu the Handsome”, however, was treated with kindness and love. The young Radu adapted well to life in Adrianople, and never left. He would eventually convert to Islam, and fight for the Sultan against his brother Vlad. (So close was their relationship that Radu was rumored to have become Mehmed’s lover later in life.)

Betrayed by father, brother and surrounded by enemies of the Order of the Dragon, the brooding teenage Vlad was alone. After his father and older brother were killed in battle, there was an attempt to install Vlad as a puppet ruler to the Wallachian throne. Puppet to no one, Vlad eventually escaped into Moldovia. But there was one other thing besides resentment and pain that the 17 year old Vlad took away from these Adrianople years. It was there that Vlad learned of an interesting Asian torture and execution practice, known as impalement.

Impaling, like crucifixion, had been used since since the pre-Roman ages as a means of inflcting an unpleasent death on one’s enemies. (Curious Expeditions asks that gentler readers skip the next paragraph) From wikipedia

The victim was stripped and an incision was made in the groin between the genitals and rectum. A stout pole with a blunt end was inserted. The blunt end would push vital organs to the side… The pole would often come out of the body at the top of the sternum and be placed against lower jaw so that the victim would not slide farther down the pole. Death could take many days.

As the world knows, Vlad found that he rather had a taste for impalement.

In 1456, when Vlad was 25, he made his big move. While Hungary invaded Serbia against the Ottomans, Vlad invaded Wallachia, declaring himself rightful heir to the throne. Vlad III, “Son of the Dragon”, was at last victorious. “The Impaler Prince” was born.

Wallachia and Transylvania were in poor shape. Wedged between the Ottoman empire and the Hungarian kingdom, they found themselves under constant threat. In addition the wealthy Boyar class was constantly threatening the stability from within city walls, and Vlad’s little brother, Radu, was after the throne on behalf of the Ottomans. Vlad decided to impose order.

Vlad first attended to the threat at home. He had experienced the danger of the Boyars, a wealthy land-owning class who often served Ottoman interests, personally; it was Boyars who had assassinated his father and brother. (Though they had probably done so on orders from Hungary.)

In one of the more famous folk stories, after taking control of Wallachia, Vlad gathered all the Boyars together for a great Easter Sunday brunch. When he asked how many different Wallachian Princes they had seen rule and die, they all answered that it was very many. The youngest had seen seven different rulers overthrown, while the oldest had seen over thirty. Vlad had them impaled on the spot. (A few were left alive to rebuild the crumbling Poienari Castle. They died during the labor.)

With the threat from within taken care of via mass impalements, Vlad turned to the outside enemy. Vlad had not forgotten the lashes he received from the Ottoman Prince Mehmed II as a child.

Meanwhile, Mehmed II had transformed from the frightened boy-Sultan into “the Conquerer Sultan”. At 21, Mehmed II had invaded Constantinople, ending the Byzantine empire and declaring himself Caesar. It was rumored that upon sacking Constantinople, Mehmed II promised his men “the women and boys of the city” and ordered the Grand Duke to deliver his 14 year old son for his own personal pleasure. When the grand duke refused, Mehmed had both the duke and his son decapitated.

Vlad himself was a frightening and difficult ruler. It seems that his zeal for law and order knew no bounds. His “punishments” were extended not only to political threats, but to immoral women, petty thieves, and dishonest shop keepers. Among Vlad’s many punishments were, from a Papel report;

breaking them under the wheels of carts; others, stripped of their clothes, were skinned alive up to their entrails; others placed on stakes, or roasted on red-hot coals placed under them; others punctured with stakes piercing their head, their navel, breast, and, what is even unworthy of relating, their buttocks and the middle of their entrails, and, emerging from their mouths.

When political envoys refused to remove their customary skullcaps in Vlad’s presence, he said “In all fairness, I want to strengthen and recognize your customs” and had the hats nailed to their heads. The forests of Transylvania were growing thick with the impaled, and the unnerved turks dubbed him “Kazıklı Voyvoda“, the Impaler Prince.

With both the “Impaler Prince” and “The Conquerer Sultan” now older, more confident, and in positions of power, there were old scores to settle. While it was in the best interest of both to keep the peace, peaceful communication between Vlad and Mehmed nevertheless broke down quickly.

Vlad refused to pay tribute to Mehmed and refused to give him 500 boys to be trained as Jannissaries. No strangers to torture themselves, the Ottomans responded by sawing Vlad’s friend in half. Vlad killed Mehmed’s political envoys, and when Ottoman forces started coming into Transylvania to take taxes and boys, Vlad had them impaled. A seriously annoyed Mehmed sent a 1000-man-strong ambush to kill Vlad, only to have the ambush ambushed.

It was Vlad however, who would start war. He stormed the Ottoman controlled region between the Black Sea and Serbia, beheading and impaling thousands of Ottoman soldiers and Bulgarian Muslims. Vlad wrote a letter to Mattias Corvinus, the Hungarian king, saying

I have killed men and women, old and young… We killed 23,884 Turks and Bulgars without counting those whom we burned in homes or whose heads were not cut by our soldiers.” Vlad ended with the rather obvious “thus your highness must know that I have broken the peace with Mehmed

Mehmed responded in kind by assembling 100,000 troops, the same amount he used to conquer Constantinople. Vlad’s little brother Radu was put in charge of 4000 horsemen. Vlad, who had hoped to force Europe’s hand into an all out crusade against the Ottoman Empire, was left out in the cold by the Hungarian king, despite promises and an alliance. Vlad was able to raise only 30,000 troops made up mostly of farmers, gypsies, women, and anyone over the age of 12.

Despite the uneven odds, Vlad’s troops put up a good fight. Waging a guerilla war, he infiltrated the Ottoman troops dressed as a Turk, with plans to find and assassinate Mehmed. He and his troops mounted a vicious night attack on the Ottomans, killing Turks 3 to 1. An early adopter of chemical and biological warfare, Vlad also poisoned the Ottoman force’s drinking water, set aflame any food sources they might use, and sent bubonic plague victims into the Turkish encampments. Vlad certainly didn’t give up easily.

Nonetheless, Ottoman troop numbers were too great, and Vlad was overwhelmed and fled into Hungary. During this Vlad’s wife, fearing the Turks, committed suicide, and Vlad’s young son was accidentally dropped and left to the Turks while the escape party was riding away. All in all it was a bad day for Vlad.

Mehmed himself though did not stay to see his victory in Wallachia. Shortly after the night attack, he came upon the sight of thousands of impaled Turkish corpses outside the city of Târgovişte. Not an easily upset man, at this sight of this “forest of the impaled” the warrior Sultan blanched, handed over control of the attack to his general, and headed back home. Vlad’s hated younger brother Radu was installed to the Wallachian throne.

Vlad spent the next few years in Hungarian prison, sentenced for political reasons, by his one time ally Mattias Corvinus. Once released, Vlad took some time to father a few more children and eventually he mounted another attempt at the Wallachian throne.

Vlad was finally killed in a suicidal battle against Ottoman troops. Vlad marched with his few thousand remaining troops against tens of thousands of Ottomans. Vlad was decapitated and his head was preserved in honey. The head was sent to Constantinople and humiliatingly displayed by Mehemed II. The Impaler Prince, and Mehmed’s whipping boy, was finally dead.

Despite having little to do with Vampires, save for a name and a penchant for cruelty, one thing that Vlad does share with the Nosferatu is an empty grave. When excavations were made where his grave was supposed to be, no human remains were found.

It would be better that those who think of death should not follow me

~Vlad III Dracula

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