Woodcut of a vampire feeding on the blood of another victim.

EASTERN EUROPE OF THE Middle Ages was a turbulent place. The great Hungarian nation was its first line of defence against Ottoman forces, and the individual states that happened to be placed in ‘No-man’s land’ between the two suffered terrible unrest. It was enough to inspire Bram Stoker to write his most famous novel, although people now question which figure during this unstable period was the greatest influence on the writer. Only one name truly stands out – the real, terrible man known as Dracula. Walachia, now part of Romania, was a Hungarian province ruled by Prince Mircea the Old until 1418. In around 1390, Mircea had an illegitimate son named Vlad who was given away to be brought up in the court of Hungary’s King Sigismund. When Mircea died, Vlad was not given control of Walachia, but he was made a Knight of the Order of the Dragon, a group set up to defend the Christian world from Turkish rule. Vlad was soon given the name ‘Dracul’, meaning ‘dragon’, and was made governor of Transylvania.

Dracul had three sons. The first, named after his father Mircea, was born in 1443, with the next two called Vlad and Radu. Dracul gathered an army and took back his family’s traditional seat of power in Walachia, although only with the help of old enemy Turkey. As a sign of his loyalty, Dracul sent Vlad and Radu to live in Adrianople, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. In 1447 Dracul and Mircea were killed, and a Hungarian government again ruled Walachia. This situation made Turkey uncomfortable, so in 1448 they decided to arm the seventeen-year-old Vlad who was known as the ‘Son of Dragon’, or Dracula. Over the years and battles the protagonists continued to swap sides, but by 1456 Dracula had reclaimed his throne in Walachia. He built a capital city at Tirgoviste and was pronounced Prince Vlad III. From the beginning, he realised that to survive he would have to be shown as utterly ruthless. Shortly after he was crowned prince, he invited destitute souls from the streets of his kingdom to a great feast at his castle. After the meal, he asked the assembled poor, frail and aged if they would ‘like to be without cares, lacking nothing in the world?’ When they all cried ‘yes’ he promptly boarded up the castle and set fire to it. He said there was little place in his society for people who would be a burden, and anybody who did not contribute to the community received scant sympathy.

If killing the infirm was a sign to the public, Dracula committed a similar action with Walachia’s dignitaries. He had the older ones impaled, and sent the others to build a castle at Poenari, a mountainous area 50 miles away. In their place, Dracula organised his own set of nobles to confirm his power. His evil knew no bounds, and he particularly enjoyed watching people die after being hoisted on a sharpened pole. His people called him Vlad Tepes meaning ‘Vlad the Impaler’ and the Turkish knew him as Kaziglu Bey or the ‘Impaler Prince’. He murdered cheating wives, fraudulent merchants, anybody who committed any crime. Often he would have many victims impaled at the same time, but he also enjoyed skinning and boiling people alive. He killed children and the old, and put their bodies on public display to warn would-be miscreants. It is said that 20,000 dead bodies hung from the walls of Tirgoviste, and by the end of his reign he had killed around 50,000 people.

In 1462 when Walachia was attacked by the Turks, led by Dracula’s younger brother Radu, Dracula went into exile in Hungary. In 1476, with Radu dead of syphilis and another prince on Walachia’s throne, Dracula attempted to regain his rightful home. He succeeded, but in December 1476 was killed during another Turkish attack. The Ottoman sultan impaled Dracula’s head and had it displayed in Constantinople as evidence of his death. His body was said to have been buried as an island monastery called Snagov, although investigative digs in 1931 were unable to find the coffin. It is one final mystery to the Dracula story. Some proof of his reign does remain though. His fortress in the hills of Poenari stands today as a popular tourist destination, and there are also ruins of his palace at Tirgoviste. More important than any physical heritage is his memory in the mind of the Romanian people. But whether his life is the sole inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s story or not, we shall never know.

Subscribe to receive free email updates: