Profiles in Royalty: Vlad Dracula
Oct 24, 2004
Author: Prince Nicholas de Vere von Drakenberg
Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 in Transylvania, in the German town of Schassburg (Sighisoara in Romanian). Schassburg is located about sixty-five miles south of Bistrita. Its castle lies on a hillside location dominating the valley of the Tirnava River. It is enveloped by thick walls of stone and brick three thousand feet long, with fourteen towers named after the guilds whose purses financed the building works -butchers, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, barbers, tailors, jewelers, furriers, rope makers. With narrow, cobbled streets and numerous stairways linking the clock tower to the upper towers on the hill the fortress burgh catered to the needs of the German merchant community that traded with other German cities. The town was a warehouse for goods moving between Germany and Constantinople; it also served the trade routes to the Poles, the Baltic Sea, and the German cities linked to the Hanseatic Union. Dracula and his brother Radu were born in a fairly nondescript three story townhouse, the likes of which one might resist paying any more than ,000 these days, even if it were situated, say, in the Dordogne.
The building is identified by a small plaque mentioning the fact that their father, Dracul, lived there from 1431 to 1435. The yellowed building served also as quarters for the small garrison assigned to Vlad Dracul. Recent restoration on the second floor revealed a painted mural depicting three men and a woman seated at a table. Of the quartet, only the central figure has survived fully intact. The figure is a fat guy with a double chin, a long, waxed moustache, arched eyebrows, and a finely chiseled nose. This may be the only surviving portrait of Dracula's father, Vlad Dracul. Dracula's mother, Princess Cneajna, was of the Musatin dynasty of neighboring Moldavia and she raised young Dracula with the assistance of her ladies-in-waiting within the household. Dracul’s mistress, Caltuna, bore a second son also called Vlad. So if you just shouted Vlad out of the window at dinner time, you could guarantee that most of the family would turn up. Caltuna eventually entered a monastery and took the name Eupraxia. Her son later followed in his mother's footsteps pursuing a religious vocation for which posterity remembers him as Vlad the Monk. Dracula grew up in a Germanic atmosphere; his father held sway over the local German townships and defended Transylvania against the threat of Turkish attacks.
Vlad Dracul was a minion of Sigismund of Luxembourg, and was educated at the Emperor's court in Nuremberg. Dracul hit the political jackpot in 1431, when two singular events took place at Court: the first was his investiture into Societas Draconis, along with King Ladislas of Poland and Prince Lazarevic of Serbia, the second was his investiture as Prince of Wallachia. This second investiture, presided over by the Emperor Sigismund himself, found Dracul bound over to the thankless and dubious enterprise of attempting to seize the insecure Wallachian throne (which included duchies of Amias and Fagaras in Transylvania). At the time this particular gilded edifice was being warmed by the backside of Prince Alexandra Aldea, who was Dracul's half brother. Thus begun the lengthy and predictable feud amongst the Basarabs, which itself was highlighted by numerous crimes, raised up and coloured for posterity by the needlepoint of fascinated horror.
Needless to say our hero eventually beat nine barrel loads of crap out of his brother and gained the throne, thus securing a suzerainty near the territory of his supporters. Transylvania had always been linked to both the Moldavian and the Wallachian principalities, so the duchies of Amias and Fagaras were handy bits of real estate. Since the Roman evacuation of Dacia in A.D. 271 Transylvania had been an ideal rocky hideout for the remaining population, and so they seemed to have survived the later ensuing hordes, golden, motley or otherwise. When all seemed quiet, from about 1200 onwards, the Romanians crept back down the mountains and started once more to occupy the plains, but since that time Transylvania has always been seen as the redoubt of last resort, remaining of the utmost strategic importance.
For Wallachia, nothing was more true and in difficult times it always turned towards Transylvania for its security. Indeed it maintained its early capital there in the city of Cimpulung, which lies on the border of the Alps. Dracula's capital, Tirgoviste, likewise also lies sheltered in the Transylvanian foothills and provided a rapid bolt hole should the going get too tough.
Dracula's brother, Radu the handsome, was supposedly a shirt-lifter in the service of Mehmed, heir to the Ottoman throne and, as Mehmed’s boyfriend, so the salacious rumours went, he needed to be near him. Because of this, but probably because the Sultan would have had his nuts in a vice in five minutes flat otherwise, Radu’s later reign marked the decline of Wallachia into servitude to the Turks. At this point in the story we are faced with numerous and might I say boring episodes peppered throughout with treaties agreed and treaties broken between the Sultan and the Wallachian Prince. Dracul and his kids were sucking up and decapitating Jennesariats, then ending up in the Sultan's palace in chains. Suffice to say, they were troubled times in which any sane person would have needed a course of anti-psychotic drugs to stave off the paranoia and remain sane. A 180-degree rotating neck would also have been advantageous, or eyes in the back of your head.
Anyway, eventually everyone agreed that Turkish Delight was worth doing wholesale in Wallachia and so Prince Dracul signed on the dotted line. The Sultan, to ensure good faith, took Dracula and Radu as hostages and Dad went back home with the cases of said sweetmeats, etc. At this point we learn how Dracula got a taste for impaling whilst in Gallipoli, and I'm sure everyone is familiar with this bit of the story as well. It's been done often enough. Radu ended up smiling at Mehmed a lot and Dracula ended up in the arse end of Asia Minor at a place called Egrigoz. Never heard of it. Dracula stayed as the Sultan's personal house guest for six years, from 1442, when the Sultan had first conned old man Dracul into a punch up across the Danube. Whilst the weak minded Radu was being trained nicely as an Ottoman puppet whose reign would send Wallachia into aforesaid decline, Dracula thought otherwise and resisted the indoctrination of Ottoman sophistry. Doubtlessly seeing the petty intrigues all about him, he held human nature in very low esteem, an attitude, some say, that was to shape his thinking in years to come. And quite bloody right too. The chap was a damn good judge of character.
Dracula became adept at the Turkish language and observed matters political with a keen eye. During the years of his captivity he tasted the delights of the harem and developed a tendency towards cruelty that, it is often recounted, even frightened his own guards. He also became very suspicious and honed for himself a nature bent on avenging any offence.
In 1447 a person named called John Hunyadi ordered that Dracula’s father be put to death because of his association with the Turks. Furthermore Hunyadi had Dracul's eldest son Mircea tortured and buried alive. Dracul had simply tried to save his sons and to this end refused to take up arms against the Sultan once he had been freed, resuming his position as prince of Wallachia. However, during that period we will remember that he had also sworn an oath of allegiance to Sigismund, which he hesitantly resumed. One could say that he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, not least by having to participate, in 1443’s Hunyadic Balkan crusades against the Ottomans. These campaigns resulted in the immolation of the Serbian prince Brankovic’s sons and Dracul assumed that the same fate awaited his own two kids. Remarkably it didn't and the young Dracula survived to develop a hatred for the Hunyadi dynasty that helped to shape politics in the region for years to come.
Dracula was bound to Transylvania, but his associations with Wallachia are a major part of the story because Dracula's ancestors came from Wallachia. It was here that he ruled three separate times, in 1448; from 1456 to 1462; and in 1476 for eight weeks. It was here also that Dracula's capital was situated and it was thus the center of his political power. Many of his horrors were staged there, and Wallachia was the official headquarters of the Orthodox Church. Dracula built his monasteries in this province, and fought many campaigns against the Turks both on its southern frontier along the Danube and within the borders of Wallachia.
On the northern frontier, facing Transylvania, Dracula erected his legendary castle. On a tributary of the Danube, the Dimbovita, he built another fortress covering 800 square meters. Dracula was killed in 1476 close to Bucharest and was buried at the island monastery of Snagov, twenty miles north of the city. From Wallachia come sources concerning Dracula which confirm the narratives written in German, Russian, and Hungarian. In Wallachia, Dracula is commemorated in popular ballads and peasant folktales, particularly in mountain villages surrounding Castle Dracula itself, the region where he is best remembered.
The peasant view of Dracula's heroic deeds was probably a whitewash or a necessary flattery, lest he come back from the dead and exact revenge on the impolite! Having said that, Dracula was a brave warrior. This counted with the peasants, and helped offset Dracula's wholesale massacre of the boyars who were, in any case, a self-regarding waste of space who were sapping the life blood of the region. It may also have helped them to forgive Dracula’s attempts to snuff the crippled and the down and out, who could not usefully serve the state, especially in times of conflict, which seem to have been every third Thursday in any month that had a “R” in it. In villages near Dracula’s castle, there are folk who claim to be descendants of the soldiery who fought with Dracula against the Turks, who defended him at his crucial hour, helped him to safety across the mountains of Transylvania, and were rewarded by him.
The elderly peasants who still recount the old Dracula tales are slowly all falling off the perch, and when the present generation is gone, the saws may well die too. Wallachia in general is Dracula country, from the mountains to the Danube, from the plain to the Black Sea. The main sites associated with this crazed loon are his capital of Tirgoviste, the fortress of Bucharest, the church cathedral at Curtea de Arges, his old castle which lies a few miles up the road, and last but not least his quasi-mystical burial place in the island abbey at Snagov.
Many other places have been said to have some link with Dracula. Among them are: Comana, which was thrown up near the Danube following a complete pasting Dracula gave the Turks; a small grotto at Cetateni by the river Dimbovita, where Dracula was holed up after his escape from the Turks in 1462; and the abbey of Tismana, where Dracula was an often a regular visitor and patron. Dracula also gave land and kick-backs to other religious foundations such as Cozia, Govora, Rusicon and Filoteu on Mt. Athos in Greece, which we may view as a kind of salvational belt and braces insurance policy, just in case there was a God.
It is said that if you are going to do the Dracula tour you should check out Braila, the biggest mercantile centre in the country. Apparently the Turks brazed it in 1462; following this there is the fortress of Giurgiu, built by Vlad's gramps on the Danube, the scene of Dracula's least unsuccessful campaign; Chilia, which is a bit further upstream on the river, a strategic fortress that Dracula held precious enough not to yield even to his cousin Stephen of Moldavia; the castle of Floci, a bit beyond that; and last of all Enisala on the Black Sea, an older fortress also knocked up by Dracula's grandpa, the remains of which are still extant.
Dracula’s famous castle on the Arges considered, he also built fortifications such as Gherghita in the Carpathians. Dracula's religious foundations are still being discovered. There are three villages scattered throughout the country which bear the name Vlad Tepes. Life is still cheap there. Today you can buy someone's daughter for a packet of Marlboro, things are so bad.
In Dracula’s day the capital, Tirgoviste was more impressive than it is today, spreading beyond its walls. Tirgoviste was not only the seat of power, but the hub of the nation's social and cultural life. Immanent to the ostentatious palace were the Byzantine-style houses of the boyars and their more diminutive chapels. Enjoying the snug safety of the walled courtyard, the upper class attempted to ape the etiquette of the imperial court at Constantinople. Beyond these dwellings, and interspaced with courtyards bearing floral, pargitter-like decorations, which are an abiding characteristic of modern Romanian cities, there stood the less swanky houses of the merchants, artisans, and other dependents of the princely and boyar courts. Tirgoviste, like Bucharest later on, was a city of churches, remains of which survive to this day, reflecting the religious enthusiasm (the desire not to get roasted in Hell) and piety of an earlier age. The inner sanctuary, containing most of the aristocratic homes, was surrounded by the defensive walls characteristic of the feudal age, though these were built on a far less impressive scale than the walls of the German-inspired fortresses in Transylvania. Shortly after ascending the throne in the spring of 1456, so we are told, Dracula ordered several hundred of the great boyars to gather in the hall of the Tirgoviste palace, along with the five bishops, the abbots of the more important foreign and native monasteries, and the archbishop. As Dracula surveyed the rubbish collected before him, he knew that among the guests were his father's and brother’s assassins.
He then gave all assembled a speech that, for a Wallachian prince who was more often than not the hapless puppet of his wheedling aristocracy, was probably the least thing they were either accustomed to or wishing to hear. “How many reigns,” enquired Dracula, “have my loyal subjects, personally experienced in your lifetime?” There were chuckles and grimaces, then a moment of silence. “Seven, my Lord,” was the reply of one man. “I,” said another, “have survived thirty reigns.” “Since your grandfather, my liege,” retorted a third, “there have been no less than twenty princes. I have survived them all.” Of the younger men several admitted having witnessed at least seven. With a jaunty turn of phrase, each boyar stood his ground and tested Dracula's mettle. They were obviously taking the piss. Dracula, with his eyes flashing in a way that was to become characteristic, gave an order. Within minutes, his faithful attendants surrounded the hall. 500 boyars, along with their wives and rug rats, were impaled that day, and others who hadn’t attended the meeting certainly got the message: “Don’t mess with me.”
All that one can now see of Dracula’s Tirgoviste are the remains of the princely palace, which was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Dracula’s grandfather, the redoubtable Mircea the Old, laid the first foundation stone at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Nearby is the reconstructed sixteenth-century Chindeia watchtower built by Dracula himself to watch the atrocities. From the principal portico the tourist can still survey the whole city, if he has the heart to climb a steep and narrow winding staircase. Looking down on the courtyard below, one can clearly discern the remains of the palace’s foundation which indicate a structure of modest size. The cellar was probably used for the princely supply of wine. Here, too, would have been the prison or torture chamber where the unfortunate Gypsy slave or boyar opponent lucky enough to escape impalement was given the traditional bastinado.
The notorious throne hall was evidently located on the ground floor. This was where Dracula, Dracul, and Mircea the Old were invested as princes of the land following a religious ceremony. Here Dracula also entertained the boyars, received audiences and petitions, and held official councils of state with the divan, an upper chamber which included every member of the higher aristocracy - bishops abbots, and the metropolitan, or head of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
In this throne hall occurred a famous scene described in almost all the Dracula narrations: envoys of the Sultan had come to officially greet the prince and refused to take off their turbans when they bowed to him. Dracula asked them: “Why do you do this toward a great ruler?” They answered, “This is the custom of our country, my Lord.” Dracula then answered, “I too wish to strengthen your law so that you may be firm,” and he ordered that their turbans be nailed to their heads with small iron nails. Then he allowed them to go, telling them: “Go and tell your master that while he is accustomed to endure such shame, we are not. Let him not impose his customs on other rulers who do not wish them, but let him keep them in his land.” The point of this act of vengeance was not intended to teach the Turks a lesson in international good manners, for as a hostage of the Turks, Dracula was fully aware of their custom of wearing a turban on all occasions. Rather, given the poor relationship which existed between the two courts from 1461 onward, incidents such as these were deliberately aimed at provoking the Turks to war.
Many such cruel scenes occurred in the throne room of Dracula's palace at Tirgoviste. Some of the luckier victims escaped the pale by slavish adulation, confessions, and self-incrimination. Dracula took particular delight in ensnaring the unwary in a compromising statement. The following incident is typical: in September 1458, Dracula was entertaining a Polish nobleman, Benedict de Boithor, who had come as the ambassador of an alleged ally, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. The usual trivial conversation was pursued in the dining hall of the palace at Tirgoviste. At the end of the repast, a golden spear was brought in by some servants and set up directly in front of the envoy, who watched the operation cautiously, having heard of Dracula s reputation. “Tell me,” said Dracula, addressing the Pole with some amusement, “why do you think that I have had this spear set up in the room.” “My lord,” he answered with verve, “it would seem that some great boyar of the land has offended you and you wish to honor him in some way.” “Fairly spoken,” said Dracula. “You are the representative of a great king. I have had this lance set up especially in your honor.” Maintaining his savoir faire, the Pole replied: “My Lord, should I have been responsible for something worthy of death, do as you please, for you are the best judge and in that case you would not be responsible for my death, but I alone.” Dracula burst into laughter. The answer had been both witty and flattering. “Had you not answered me in this fashion,” said Dracula, “I would truly have impaled you on the spot.” He then honored the man and showered him with gifts.
Of Dracula's married life in this period, far too little is known. His first wife or mistress (it mattered little since all male descendants were considered legitimate claimants to the throne) was a Transylvanian commoner with whom he had fallen in love following his escape from the Turks in 1448. From the native Romanian Dracula tales, it would appear that their marriage was not a happy one, for the prince was often seen wandering alone at night on the outskirts of the city, usually in disguise, seeking the company of the beautiful but humble women who in time became his mistresses. Such relationships indicated both Dracula’s distrust of the boyars and his plebeian instincts.
But as one might expect, loving Dracula could be a dangerous thing, and so it turned out for one particular young woman. Romanian peasant tales state that the luckless mistress was assassinated by her suitor for infidelity, though she met a far more cruel death than Anne Boleyn. She was impaled and had her sexual organs cut out.
Like a good medieval pietist, Dracula was most concerned with the survival of the soul in the afterlife. He had particular qualms concerning those victims for whose death he was personally responsible, and presumably he gave his mistress a Christian burial, a reflection of the morbid religiosity inspired by the enormity of his crimes.
He took the precaution of surrounding himself with priests, abbots, bishops, and confessors, whether Roman Catholic or Orthodox. He often spent long moments of meditation within the saintly confines of monasteries, such as Tismana in western Wallachia, where he was known as a generous donor. All the Draculas seemed intent upon belonging to a church, receiving the sacraments, being buried as Christians, and being identified with a religion. Even the famous apostate Mihnea in due course became a devout Moslem.
Like the average penitent of pre-Lutheran times, these men felt that good works, particularly the erection of monasteries, along with rich endowments and an appropriate ritual at the moment of death, would contribute to the eradication of sin. Mircea, Dracul, Dracula, Radu, Vlad the Monk, and Mihnea were collectively responsible for no less than fifty monastic foundations or endowments. (Dracula alone was responsible for five.)
Even the degenerate Radu erected a monastery, Tanganul, and was probably buried there. Monastic interest was, of course, a perfect pretext for interfering in and controlling the affairs of both Catholic and Orthodox churches in Wallachia.
Dracula had a close relationship with the Franciscan monks in Tirgoviste and with the Cistercian monastery at Carta, and he frequently received monks from both orders at the palace. But the religious of various orders-Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, and Capuchins - sought refuge in German lands after they had incurred Dracula's wrath by refusing to toe the line.
Dracula’s crimes - the refinements of his cruelty - deserve a chapter unto themselves. Impalement, hardly a new method of torture, was his favourite means of imposing death. A strong horse was usually harnessed to each leg of the victim, while the stake was carefully introduced so as not to kill instantly. Sometimes Dracula issued special instructions to his torturers to have the pales rounded-off, lest gaping wounds kill his victims on the spot. Such quick death would have interfered with the pleasure he received from watching their agonies over time. This torture was often a matter of several hours, sometimes a matter of several days. There were various forms of impalement depending upon age, rank, or sex.
There were also various geometric patterns in which the impaled were displayed, which demonstrates that Dracula was conversant with Feng Shui long before fat, new age career lesbians were. Usually the victims were arranged in concentric circles on the outskirts of cities where they could be viewed by all. There were high spears and low spears, according to rank. Victims were impaled and left either feet up or head up, or they might be impaled through the heart or navel. Victims were subjected to nails driven into their heads, maiming of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, the hacking off of noses and ears, the hacking out of sexual organs in the case of women, scalping and skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals, and boiling alive.
Dracula’s morbid inventiveness may well have inspired the Marquis de Sade, who was no doubt familiar with his crimes. In regard to the cruel techniques practiced in our so-called enlightened twentieth century, Dracula set another shining precedent. Prior to punishment he generally demanded confessions, the nature of which could result in his victims escaping some violence or even death. And often he scaled the severity of the punishment to the instinctively self-preservative wit of his potential victim. As with the Polish nobleman, there were instances when the doomed were able to save their lives with a happy or flattering phrase.
In summary we might conclude by saying that today Dracula is a national hero who got his priorities right and knew that, as far as long pigs are concerned, the only way to govern was through terror. But in this he was not really very different from any other ruler of his time. Catharine de Medici, amongst several others, favoured impaling as the de riguer punishment, and hundreds lost their lives in this fashion during the St. Bartholomew's day massacre. Dracula's mistake was to target the Saxon merchants, who sent copious amounts of wailing sob stories back home. This gave rise to another industry, that being the penny dreadful woodcut, in which Vlad was blamed for everything, including, perhaps the Biblical Flood. So our view of Dracula is overstated. Yes he was a complete bastard, but then so was everyone else. He was just better at it than most, being by far the best social tactician the world has ever seen. God bless ‘im.