By Benjamin H. Leblanc
In less than two years from now the Count will celebrate his 100th birthday, and many Dracula enthusiasts from all around the world intend to underline this event. Of course, almost everybody has heard about this nosferatu: through movies featuring Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman; in several books - among which the recent Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice; or even in bedtime stories told to us in our childhood. We all have an idea of who or what the Count is. However, on the other hand, Vlad Tepes Dracula, the historical figure who inspired Bram Stoker for his novel, is definitely less known. The centennial of the gothic masterpiece provides us with a good pretext to dive back into the life of this machiavellian fifteenth century leader - an initiative that will enable us to better appreciate the work of Stoker.
Vlad Tepes was born in November or December 1431, in the fortress of Sighisoara, Romania. His father, Vlad Dracul, at that time appointed military governor of Transylvania by the emperor Sigismund, had been inducted into the Order of the Dragon about one year before. The order - which could be compared to the Knights of the Hospital of St. John or even to the Teutonic Order of Knights - was a semimilitary and religious society, originally created in 1387 by the Holy Roman Emperor and his second wife, Barbara Cilli. The main goals of such a secret fraternal order of knights was mainly to protect the interests of Catholicism, and to crusade against the Turks. There are different reasons why this society is so important to us. First, it provides an explanation for the name "Dracula;" "Dracul," in Romanian language, means "Dragon", and the boyars of Romania, who knew of Vlad Tepes' father induction into the Order of the Dragon, decided to call him "Dracul." "Dracula," a diminutive which means "the son of Dracul," was a surname to be used ultimately by Vlad Tepes. A second major role of this Order as a source of inspiration for Stoker's evil character is the Order's official dress - a black cape over a red garment - to be worn only on Fridays or during the commemoration of Christ's Passion.
In the winter of 1436-1437, Dracul became prince of Wallachia (one of the three Romanian provinces) and took up residence at the palace of Tirgoviste, the princely capital. Vlad Tepes followed his father and lived six years at the princely court. In 1442, for political reasons, Dracula and his younger brother Radu were taken hostage by the Sultan Murad II; Dracula was held in Turkey until 1448, while his brother Radu decided to stay there until 1462. This Turkish captivity surely played an important role in Dracula's upbringing; it must be at this period that he adopted a very pessimistic view of life. Indeed, the Turks set him free after informing him of his father's assassination in 1447 - organized by Vladislav II. He also learned about his older brother's death - Mircea was the eldest legitimate son of Dracul - and how he had been tortured and buried alive by the boyars of Tirgoviste.
At 17 years old, Vlad Tepes Dracula, supported by a force of Turkish cavalry and a contingent of troops lent to him by pasha Mustafa Hassan, made his first major move toward seizing the Wallachian throne. But another claimant, no other than Vladislav II himself, defeated him only two months later. In order to secure his second and major reign over Wallachia, Dracula had to wait until July of 1456, when he had the satisfaction of killing his mortal enemy and his father's assassin. Vlad then began his longest reign - 6 years - during which he committed many cruelties, and hence established his controversed reputation.
His first major act of revenge was aimed at the boyars of Tirgoviste for the killing of his father and his brother Mircea. On Easter Sunday of what we believe to be 1459, he arrested all the boyar families who had participated to the princely feast. He impaled the older ones on stakes while forcing the others to march from the capital to the town of Poenari. This fifty-mile trek was quite grueling, and those who survived were not permitted to rest until they reached destination. Dracula then ordered them to build him a fortress on the ruins of an older outpost overlooking the Arges river. Many died in the process, and Dracula therefore succeeded in creating a new nobility and obtaining a fortress for future emergencies. What is left today of the building is identified as Castle Dracula.
Vlad became quite known for his brutal punishment techniques; he often ordered people to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive, stabbed, etc. He also liked to cut off noses, ears, sexual organs and limbs. But his favorite method was impalement on stakes, hence the surname "Tepes" which means "The Impaler" in the Romanian language. Even the Turks referred to him as "Kaziglu Bey," meaning "The Impaler Prince." It is this technique he used in 1457, 1459 and 1460 against Transylvanian merchants who had ignored his trade laws. The raids he led against the German Saxons of Transylvania were also acts of proto-nationalism in order to protect and favour the Wallachian commerce activities.
There are many anecdotes about the philosophy of Vlad Tepes Dracula. He was for instance particularly known throughout his land for his fierce insistence on honesty and order. Almost any crime, from lying and stealing to killing, could be punished by impalement. Being so confident in the effectiveness of his law, Dracula placed a golden cup on display in the central square of Tirgoviste. The cup could be used by thirsty travelers, but had to remain on the square. According to the available historic sources, it was never stolen and remained entirely unmolested throughout Vlad's reign. Dracula was also very concerned that all his subjects work and be productive to the community. He looked upon the poor, vagrants and beggars as thieves. Consequently, he invited all the poor and sick of Wallachia to his princely court in Tirgoviste for a great feast. After the guests ate and drank, Dracula ordered the hall boarded up and set on fire. No one survived.
In the beginning of 1462, Vlad launched a campaign against the Turks along the Danube river. It was quite risky, the military force of Sultan Mehmed II being by far more powerful than the Wallachian army. However, during the winter of 1462, Vlad was very successful and managed to gain many victories. To punish Dracula, the Sultan decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Wallachia. Of course, his other goal was to transform this land into a Turkish province and he entered Wallachia with an army three times larger than Dracula's. Finding himself without allies, Vlad, forced to retreat towards Tirgoviste, burned his own villages and poisoned the wells along the way, so that the Turkish army would find nothing to eat or drink. Moreover, when the Sultan, exhausted, finally reached the capital city, he was confronted by a most gruesome sight: thousands of stakes held the remaining carcasses of some 20,000 Turkish captives, a horror scene which was ultimately nicknamed the "Forest of the Impaled." This terror tactic deliberately stage-managed by Dracula was definitely successful; the scene had a strong effect on Mehmed's most stout-hearted officers, and the Sultan, tired and hungry, admitted defeat (it is worth mentioning that even Victor Hugo, in his Legende des Siecles, recalls this particular incident). Nevertheless, following his retreat from Wallachian territory, Mehmed left the next phase of the battle to Vlad's younger brother Radu, the Turkish favorite for the Wallachian throne. At the head of a Turkish army and joined by Vlad's detractors, Radu pursued his brother to Poenari castle on the Arges river.
According to the legend, this is when Dracula's wife, in order to escape Turkish capture, committed suicide by hurling herself from the upper battlements, her body falling down the precipice into the river below - a scene exploited by Francis Ford Coppola's production. Vlad, who was definitely not the kind of man to kill himself, managed to escape the siege of his fortress by using a secret passage into the mountain. Helped by some peasants of the Arefu village, he was able to reach Transylvania where he met the new king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. However, instead of providing some help, Matthias arrested Dracula and imprisoned him at the Hungarian capital of Visegrad. It was not until 1475 that Vlad was again recognized as the prince of Wallachia, enjoying a very short third reign. In fact, he was assassinated toward the end of December 1476.
We do not know exactly why Bram Stoker chose this fifteenth century Romanian prince as a model for his fictional character. Some scholars have proposed that Stoker had a friendly relationship with a Hungarian professor from the University of Budapest, Arminius Vambery (Hermann Vamberger) , and it is likely that this man gave Stoker some information about Vlad Tepes Dracula. Moreover, the fact that Dr. Abraham Van Helsing mentions his "friend Arminius" in the 1897 novel as the source of his knowledge on Vlad seems to support this hypothesis. It should also be kept in mind that the only real link between the historical Dracula (1431-1476) and the modern literary myth of the vampire is in fact the 1897 novel; Stoker made use of folkloric sources, historic references and some of his own life experiences to create his composite creature. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that Vlad Dracula's political detractors - mainly German Saxons - made use of the other meaning of the Romanian word "Dracul" - "Devil" - in order to blacken the prince's reputation. Could the association of the words "Dragon" and "Devil" in Romanian language explain an earlier link between Vlad Tepes and vampirism?
Today, as Romania opens itself to the tourism industry, many "Dracula Tours" are being offered throughout the country. Two months ago, the author of this article attended one of them, organized by Bravo Group and designed by the Transylvanian Society of Dracula. This particular Tour includes the most important historical places related with Vlad Tepes, such as 15th century town of Sighisoara - Vlad's birth place; the Snagov Monastery - where, according to legend, Vlad is said to have been buried after his assassination; Castle Bran - which has been in the past erroneously described by officials of the Romanian Tourist Ministry as Castle Dracula; the Poenari fortress; the village of Arefu - where many Dracula legends are still told; the city of Brasov - where Vlad led raids against the German Saxons; and, of course, Curtea Domneasca - Dracula's palace in Bucharest. The Tour also covers the folklorical aspects of the fictional Dracula. For instance, one will find oneself eating the meal Jonathan Harker ate at The Golden Crown in Bistrita, and sleeping at Castle Dracula Hotel - built no so long ago on the Borgo Pass, approximately where the fictional castle of the Count is supposed to be. If you have another trip to the Bahamas planned for next Christmas and are a fan of Stoker's literary work, maybe should you reconsider your decision?