In 1459, Pope Pius II called on Christendom to summon a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Mehmed II – the Sultan known as ‘the Conqueror’, who six years earlier had conquered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire – had extended Ottoman rule deep into the Balkans, occupying Bosnia, Serbia, and Peloponnesian Greece, while Albania continued to resist. But despite Pius’ invitation to take up arms, every major European state made its excuses. The French King could do nothing until relations with England had improved. The German Emperor could not depend on his princes. The Polish King was fighting the Teutonic Order. The Venetians asked for too much money.
Only Vlad Dracula was prepared to face the Turkish hordes. He was the voivode (military governor, or prince) of Wallachia – the historical region north of the Lower Danube and south of the Carpathian mountains, and one of four neighbouring provinces (with Transylvania, Moldavia, and Dobrudja) that make up present-day Romania. Born in 1431, Dracula was the son of Vlad Dracul, or ‘Vlad the Dragon’ – a loyal and successful knight who gained his sobriquet when he was made a member of the Order of the Dragon by his powerful patron, Sigismund of Luxembourg (the holder of several Central European crowns, including that of King of Hungary, and later also to be Holy Roman Emperor); Dracula simply means ‘son of Dracul’. As a teenager, the younger Vlad had been given as a hostage to the Turks to ensure his father’s loyalty, and during his captivity he learned much about the ways of Turkish warfare.
By the spring of 1462, Mehmed II had raised a 60,000-strong army to strike back at the defiant Wallachian prince. It included elite units known as Janissaries (from the Turkish word for ‘new soldier’) and Turkish soldiers from Asia Minor, as well as 4,000 auxiliary Wallachian horsemen, among them exiled boyars (members of the highest rank of the feudal nobility), led by Radu, Dracula’s younger brother, who had also been held hostage by the Turks and had remained loyal to them. The Sultan considered Dracula’s submissive brother an excellent candidate for the Wallachian throne. The realisation of what faced him spurred Dracula to gather an army of some 30,000 in number. His own boyars and their retainers were augmented by Wallachian and Bulgarian peasants. Men who distinguished themselves in battle were instantly promoted to officer rank. These viteji, or ‘braves’, shaped the unprofessional mass into an army.
The Turks advanced in two parts. The main force, led by the Sultan Mehmed, sailed up the Danube. A supporting land force marched from Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) in Bulgaria. They met at the port of Vidin, one of the few Danube towns not destroyed by Dracula in preparation for the campaign. As the Turks moved along the river, Dracula’s horsemen kept them shadowed. When the Ottomans prepared to disembark on the northern bank, the Wallachians burst from the forest and let fly with their bows, forcing the Turks back into their boats. A few miles further on, the Turkish army finally crossed the Danube under cover of night and numerous cannon.
‘A few of us first crossed the river and dug ourselves in trenches,’ remembered Constantin of Ostrovitza, a Serbian Janissary. ‘We then set up the cannon around us. The trenches were to protect us from their horsemen. After that, we returned to the other side to transport the rest of the Janissaries across. When all the foot-soldiers were over, we prepared to move against the army of Dracula together with all our artillery and equipment. But, as we set up the cannon, 300 Janissaries were killed by the Wallachians. The Sultan could see a battle developing across the river and was saddened that he could not join us. He feared we might all be killed. However, we defended ourselves with 120 cannon and eventually repelled the Wallachian army. Then the Sultan sent over more men called azapi and Dracula gave up trying to prevent the crossing and withdrew. After crossing the Danube himself, the Sultan gave us 30,000 ducats to divide among us.’
With a far smaller army, Dracula realised the impossibility of confronting the Turks in open combat, and decided instead on a guerrilla war with a scorched-earth withdrawal. Crops were burned, wells poisoned, livestock and peasants absorbed within the army. The Turks were slowed down by the lack of food and the intense summer heat. It was so hot, the Turks were said to cook shish kebab on the sun-heated rings of their mail armour. At night, the Sultan insisted on surrounding his army with earthworks. The Janissary Constantin recalled the frequent raids made by Dracula’s warriors: ‘With a few horsemen, often at night, using hidden paths, Dracula would come out of the forest and destroy Turks too far from their camp.’
The psychological strain of the guerrilla warfare began to tell. ‘A terrible fear crept into our souls,’ continued the Janissary. ‘Even though Dracula’s army was small, we were constantly on guard. Every night we used to bury ourselves in our trenches. And yet we still never felt safe.’ In the Carpathian mountains, overlooking his capital at Tîrgovis‚te, Dracula planned his most famous night-raid. He gathered several thousand of his finest horsemen. Captured Turkish warriors were subjected to hideous torture, and precise information extracted from them. Dracula wanted to capture the Sultan.
Prince of darkness
At nightfall, Dracula’s forces assembled in the dim forest. Through ferns and brush-wood, they trod silently. Turkish guards were strangled. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Swinging sabres, yelping like wolves, shooting bows, the Wallachian horsemen descended on the Turkish camp. Slashing through tents and warriors slumped by fires, Dracula’s forces were everywhere. They searched for the Sultan’s tent. A particularly grand structure caught their attention, and they tore down the rich material. Cutting down its defenders, two viziers were slaughtered, but they were not the Sultan.
While the majority of Turks panicked, Mehmed’s Janissaries picked up their arms and assembled around their master’s tent. If only Dracula’s other commander joined the attack, then the loyal but small force could be overcome, but the boyar had lost his nerve. The Janissaries raised their bows and handguns. The majority of the Wallachians were content to massacre the more vulnerable Turks and load themselves with loot, before disappearing back into the forest. Dracula was furious. The Sultan had been within his grasp. Mehmed survived the night of slaughter, but he had lost several thousand of his men in a traumatic combat. It was the nearest the two forces would come to a major battle throughout the campaign.
Shaken but undeterred, the Turks advanced on Tîrgovis‚te. Just outside the city, Mehmed came across a mile-long gorge. It was filled with the most terrible of sights. More than 20,000 contorted, rotting bodies, many of them Turkish, were perched on a forest of stakes – impaled on the orders of Dracula. The Sultan was revolted by the scale of the horror. Dracula had finally pierced the Sultan’s brutal mind with his terror. ‘Overcome by disgust,’ wrote the Byzantine chronicler Chalcondylas, ‘the Sultan admitted he could not win this land from a man who does such things.’
The main Turkish army was ordered to withdraw eastwards. The night attacks and the spread of disease among his soldiers were probably the main reasons for Mehmed’s reluctance to assault Tîrgovis‚te, but Dracula’s terrorism should not be underestimated. Throughout Christendom, the Turkish withdrawal was received as Dracula’s victory.
Before leaving Wallachia, however, Mehmed gave Radu permission to seize Dracula’s crown. He left a small force of Turkish warriors under Radu’s command. By this stage, Dracula was exhausted. His guerrilla warfare had damaged his own people as much as the Turks. Many of his loyal boyars were disappointed that Dracula had not achieved an outright victory and finished the Turkish menace completely. Radu realised that most Wallachians were desperate for a return to peace, and talked with the leading nobles. They were happy to become a tribute-paying ally of the Turks in return for an end to hostilities. Radu built on Dracula’s resistance of Mehmed to gain greater independence for his country, but chose reconciliation to secure a rapid peace. The boyars proclaimed that a ‘victory can sometimes be more harmful to the victorious than the defeated’.
‘The Impaler’: how vlad dracula earned his gruesome nickname
Dracula made Tîrgovis‚te in central Wallachia his capital. Within his palace, he plotted his revenge against the Wallachian nobility – the boyars – whom he felt had betrayed his family. On a terrible Easter Sunday in 1457, the boyars were dragged out one by one and impaled on stakes outside his palace. The political reasoning was revealed in a question he asked the noblemen before execution: ‘How many princes have ruled Wallachia in your lifetime?’ None were so young that they had not known at least seven. At this Dracula grew angry. ‘It is because of your intrigues and feuds that the principality is weak.’ Dracula replaced the massacred boyars with a new nobility.
Despite his control over the nobility, Dracula never felt completely secure. Wallachian subjects were impaled for the most trivial reasons, earning him the Romanian nickname T‚epes‚ — ‘the Impaler’. A German print of 1499 records Dracula dining among the dead and dying bodies of Saxon merchants captured in a raid. No execution was too revolting for Dracula to witness with pleasure.
The German settlers of Transylvania, and especially the Saxon merchants of Bras‚ov, wielded great economic power. Whenever they refused Dracula’s one-sided treaties, however, the Wallachian brutally destroyed their communities. They never forgave Dracula and relentlessly conspired against him, spreading their illustrated printed accounts of his atrocities to Western Europe. At a time of many bloodthirsty warlords, even his contemporaries considered him excessively violent.
By the end of the year, Radu had been recognised as prince of Wallachia by most boyars and the new King of Hungary, Matthias I. The Turks were happy. Rejected by his people and with few resources, Dracula escaped northwards to the mountains of Transylvania. There, he licked his wounds in the fortress of Arges‚. Perched among the craggy Carpathian range, this was Dracula’s Castle. According to local folklore, Radu pursued his brother along the valley of the Arges‚ river. He set Turkish cannon on a hill opposite Dracula’s Castle and began to pound it. A final assault was prepared for the next day.
During the night, it is said, a slave who was a distant relative of Dracula crept out of the Turkish camp to warn the former prince. He attached a message to an arrow and shot it through a window of the castle. Informed of their fate, Dracula’s wife declared she would rather have her ‘body eaten by the fish than become a Turkish slave’, and threw herself from the battlements, plummeting into the river below. Dracula decided on a less self-destructive escape. Slipping out of the castle, he climbed the rocky slopes, and rode for the mountain city of Bras‚ov, where Matthias I had made his headquarters during this crisis. But the arrival of the ragged, exhausted, desperate Wallachian was nothing but an embarrassment to the King. Having already recognised Radu as the new prince, the King had Dracula escorted to a prison in Buda, Hungary’s historic capital.
Dracula remained in prison for 12 years. One chronicler relates that even in his cell he inflicted pain on others, by catching mice and impaling them. But this is propaganda. In reality, Dracula resided at the Hungarian court under house arrest. King Matthias considered it useful to have a claimant to the Wallachian crown among his court. Besides, Dracula’s brutal talents might one day be needed in another crusade against the Turks.
Dracula remarried – this time into the Hungarian royal family. He also renounced Greek Orthodoxy to become a Roman Catholic. In Wallachia, this conversion was considered a heresy, and all such heretics were said to become vampires after death. Catholicism eased Dracula’s path to freedom, however, and he was given the rank of captain in the Hungarian army. King Matthias would have Dracula presented to visiting Turkish envoys to assure them that he could be unleashed at any time. The Turks still feared him.
Return to power
By 1475, Stephen III, Prince of Moldavia – commonly known as Stephen the Great – was keen for an alliance with Hungary. He saw little difference between the Turks and the Wallachians, and wished to secure his western and southern borders against them. He proclaimed a crusade, and invited the King of Hungary to join him. King Matthias was happy to receive funds for this campaign from the Pope, but created more noise than action. By himself, Stephen moved against Radu and deposed him – but Radu fought back with Turkish help.
To protect the Transylvanian border against Wallachian raids, Dracula was placed in command of frontier forces. Once in the saddle, he resumed his war of terror. A papal envoy reported that Dracula cut the Turks to pieces and impaled the bits on separate stakes. At the Battle of Vaslui, Stephen, possibly with Dracula in his ranks, won a great victory against a large army of Wallachians and Turks. The triumph was followed by a formal alliance between Stephen and Matthias. The following year, the Hungarian King declared Dracula his candidate for the throne of Wallachia.
In the autumn of 1476, an army of 25,000 Hungarians, Transylvanians, Wallachians, and Serbs assembled in southern Transylvania. Ultimate command lay with Stephen Bathory, a loyal retainer to King Matthias, but the object was to place Dracula on the throne of Wallachia. At the same time, a force of 15,000 Moldavians prepared to invade eastern Wallachia under Stephen III. In November, Dracula descended from the Carpathians and besieged Tîrgovis‚te.
Before this massive army, the Wallachian citizens could do little. The capital fell, and the army moved southwards. With the capture of Bucharest, Dracula became prince of Wallachia again. The boyars were seemingly behind him, but the apparent submission of Wallachia to the old tyrant was just that. Within a couple of months, a mutilated, headless body was discovered in marshes near to the monastery of Snagov. The corpse was that of Dracula. The boyars could not forget the horror of his reign. With a small bodyguard of Moldavians, Dracula had been surprised in a skirmish outside Bucharest. Whether it was Wallachians or Turks who delivered the final blows is unknown. Indeed, the exact circumstances of the assassination remain a mystery. What is certain is that Dracula’s head was cut off and sent to the Sultan at Constantinople. The Turks rejoiced.
The death of Vlad Dracula did little to improve the state of Wallachia. It most certainly weakened its anti-Ottoman stance. Princes came and went, and Wallachia depended increasingly on the energetic Stephen III to preserve the Danube frontier against the Turks. In the next century, the battle was lost – and the Turks surged across the river to Hungary.
To the Romanians, Vlad Dracula has remained a national hero, a staunch defender of Christianity against the Turks. In Western Europe, however, his image has undergone a devilish transformation, from triumphant crusader to bloodthirsty vampire. The latter is a creation of the 19th-century imagination, consolidated in books and films (see box left), but by the late 15th century, Western writers had already forgotten Dracula’s crusading triumphs and repeated only horrific accounts of his cruelty. German woodcut pamphlets were the principal agents of this image, showing Dracula dining among impaled victims. The Saxon merchants of Transylvania and their German neighbours never forgave Dracula for his raids and crimes against their people. Through their history, they forever damned Dracula as the cruellest of medieval warlords. •
Fact versus fiction
‘Within, stood a tall old man, clean- shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.’ Thus it was that Count Dracula entered the modern imagination through Bram Stoker’s famous novel, published in 1897.
In Dracula, the vampire count is portrayed as a Hungarian gentleman with a great interest in England, and this vision of him as a cultured and highly sophisticated man of the world was reinforced by a number of hugely successful movies during the 20th century. From Bela Lugosi in the 1930s to Christopher Lee in the 1950s and ’60s, a succession of actors wore the black evening wear of a 19th-century gentleman in their performances. As explained on these pages, however, the real Dracula was a 15th-century Romanian warlord with a story just as chilling as that of his distant black-cloaked descendant.
Stoker himself was aware of his character’s military heritage, and gives the fictional Dracula a passionate speech in which he boasts of his martial background. ‘What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?’ he proclaims, holding up his arms. ‘Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race; that we were proud; that when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back?’ It is here perhaps that Stoker comes closest to the spirit, at least, of Vlad Dracula.
Tim Newark is the author of numerous books about military history, and was the editor of Military Illustrated magazine for 17 years.