A legend is born
Vlad Dracula was born in November or December 1431 at the fortress in Sighisoara in Transylvania. His father was Vlad Dracul and his mother, Cneajna of the ruling Musatin family in Moldavia. Dracul hailed from the Basarab dynasty that had ruled Wallachia since the early 1300′s. When his father, Mircea the Old, died in 1418 the family split into two factions, Draculesti and Danesti.
Earlier in 1431 Dracul had been initiated into the Order of the Dragon. This was a fraternity of knights established by the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxemburg, to preserve the Catholic faith. In that same year Sigismund appointed him the commander of the southern frontier in Transylvania where he guarded the border into neighbouring Wallachia.
Taking the throne
In December 1436 Dracul seized the throne in Wallachia from his half-brother, Alexandru. He took up residence in his capital, Tirgoviste, where the young Dracula spent his early years.
It was a turbulent time with Sultan Murad II looking to expand the mighty Ottoman Empire into Eastern Europe. Dracul had an uneasy alliance with him to preserve his autonomy. Because he did not involve himself in the conflict in 1442 between the Ottomans and Hungary, under the command of John Hunyadi, he fell foul of both sides. Murad took the young Dracula as a hostage with his younger brother, Radu.
The mighty fall
This prevented Dracul from joining the Christian crusade of 1443 and 1444, which culminated in the crushing defeat of the Christian forces at Varna in 1444. It deepened the rift between him and John Hunyadi. In 1447 Hunyadi ousted him from power. In the fall of Tirgoviste, Dracula’s mother and older brother, Mircea, were brutally slain. Dracul was killed in battle soon after. Hunyadi placed Dracul’s half-brother, Vladislav Basarab, on the throne in his place.
Dracula received a sound military schooling during his time in captivity. He showed an incredible ability as a swordsman and archer and proved himself a capable leader. After his release he seized the Wallachian throne for a two-month period late in 1448. However, circumstances forced him to flee again to Anatolia. He moved on to Moldavia where his uncle, Bogdan, still ruled. Bogdan was assassinated in a coup in 1451, which forced Dracula to flee the country with his cousin, Stephen. They moved into Transylvania in 1452 where John Hunyadi still held the reins of power. They agreed an alliance in 1453, which saw Dracula take command of the fortress at Sibiu.
In 1456 his army crushed Vladislav Basarab near Tirgsor in one of the bloodiest episodes in Romanian history. Basarab died by Dracula’s own hand. He seized the throne a second time. In the same month Hunyadi defeated a mighty Ottoman army on the Danube at Belgrade. Two weeks later he died from the plague that the Ottoman army had brought with it from Anatolia. This period up to 1462 saw Dracula’s most famous and brutal reign. He waged a vicious campaign on the Saxon cities in southern Transylvania in 1457 and 1458. In this conflict it is believed 30,000 Saxons lost their lives in the district of Amlas alone.
Dracula came down on his own people with equal ferocity. Most crimes he punished by death. His favoured method of execution was impalement, though this was not unique to him. Nevertheless it saw him become nicknamed Tepes, or the Impaler.
He took a vicious revenge against the boyar, or landowning, class. Many of these he implicated in the plot to bring down his father. He impaled large numbers of them, while many more died in the building of his fortress in the Carpathian Mountains, overlooking the Arges River. Dracula built a strong economy and an excellent army in Wallachia. He did this in preparation for the war with the Ottomans, which he knew was sure to come. Mehmed II succeeded Murad II in 1451. In 1453 he conquered Constantinople. The setback Mehmed suffered at Belgrade in 1456 allowed Dracula the time he needed to prepare.
In the summer of 1462 Mehmed finally invaded Wallachia. Dracula fought a brilliant campaign and enjoyed several great victories against a superior invading force. But it was not something he could sustain over time. When Dracula’s own brother, Radu, laid siege to his fortress in July of that year he was forced to flee. He met with Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary, at Konigstein. Matthias was the youngest son of John Hunyadi. He arrested and imprisoned Dracula at Buda, where he held him for thirteen years.
Pope Sixtus IV began a new crusade in 1475. This saw Matthias release Dracula again. Dracula led a Christian alliance through Bosnia and eventually into Wallachia. He won back his throne for a third time later that year.
Late in 1476 Basarab Laiota launched a campaign against him. Despite a great victory at Snagov, Dracula died from his wounds.
It is clear that the writer, Bram Stoker, would have read pamphlets about the life of Vlad Dracula. Stories of his brutality and military exploits, as well as the exaggerated tales of his bloodlust were widespread across Europe in the 19th Century. It certainly gave him the basis for his famous vampire character. It should be noted however, that Stoker modelled the image of Dracula most common to us, on the 19th Century stage actor, Henry Irving.