Vlad the Impaler

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Vlad the Impaler’s supposed burial site at the Snagov Monestary.
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Vlad the Impaler enjoys a feast while his victims suffer in this illustration.
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A statue of Vlad the Impaler stands in Trigoviste, Romania.

Vlad the Impaler (1431–1476)

(pop culture)

Vlad the Impaler was a historical figure upon whom Bram Stoker partially built the title character of his novel Dracula (1897). Stoker indicated his knowledge of Vlad through the words of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing:

He (Dracula) must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great rivers on the very frontier of Turkey-land. If that be so, then was he no common man; for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the “land beyond the forest.” That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to the grave, and are even now arrayed against us. The Draculas were, says Arminius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, amongst the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due. In the records are such words as “Stregoica”—witch; “ordog” and pokol”—Satan and hell; and in one manuscript this very Dracula is spoken of as “wampyr,” which we all understand too well.

Here Stoker combined possible references to the historical Vlad, a folklore tradition that saw vampirism as rooted in Satan’s actions, and the modern term vampire.

Recent interest in Dracula has produced among some researchers a desire to know more about the historical figure behind the fictional character. An important breakthrough came in 1972 with the publication of In Search of Dracula, the initial findings of historians Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, who gathered the basic contemporary documents concerning the Romanian prince Vlad and visited Vlad’s former territory to investigate his career. The following year, the even more definitive Dracula: A Biography of Vlad the Impaler, 1431–1476 also by McNally and Florescu, appeared. Even though there had been earlier material drawing the connection between Vlad and Dracula, these books made the career of this obscure Romanian ruler, who actually exercised authority for only a relatively short period of time, an integral part of the modern Dracula myth.

The name Dracula was applied to Vlad during his lifetime. It was derived from “dracul,” a Romanian word that can be interpreted variously as “devil” or “dragon.” Vlad’s father had joined the Order of the Dragon, a Christian brotherhood dedicated to fighting the Turks, in 1431, shortly after Vlad’s birth. The oath of the order required, among other things, wearing the order’s insignia at all times. The name Dracula means son of Dracul or son of the dragon or devil. The actual birth date of Vlad, later called Vlad the Impaler, is unknown, but was probably late in 1430. He was born in Schassburg (a.k.a. Sighisoara), a town in Transylvania. Soon after his birth, in February 1431, his father, also named Vlad (Vlad Dracul), traveled to Nuremberg, Germany, where he was invested with the insignia of the Order of the Dragon. The accompanying oath dedicated the family to the fight against the Turks, who had begun an attack upon Europe that would eventually carry them to the very gates of Vienna. Vlad was a claimant to the throne of Wallachia, that part of contemporary Romania south of the Transylvanian Alps. He was able to wrest the throne from his half-brother in 1436.

Two years later, Vlad Dracul entered an alliance with the Turks that called for sending two sons, Mircea and Vlad, with the sultan on a raid into Transylvania. Doubting Vlad Dracul’s loyalty, the sultan had him brought before him and imprisoned. Dracul nevertheless reaffirmed his loyalty and had Vlad (Dracul had two sons named Vlad, born to different mothers) and Radu, his younger sons, remain with the sultan to guarantee their pact. They were placed under house arrest at Egrigoz. The period of imprisonment deeply affected Vlad. On the one hand, he took the opportunity of his confinement to learn the Turkish language and customs. But his treatment ingrained the cynicism so evident in his approach to life and infused in him a Machiavellian attitude toward political matters. His early experiences also seem to have set within his personality the desire to seek revenge from anyone who wronged him.

In December 1447 his father was murdered and his older brother burned alive under the orders of Hungarian governor John Hunyadi (a.k.a. Ioande Hunedoara), with the assistance of the boyars, the ruling elite families of Wallachia. The death of Mircea made Vlad the successor, but with Hunyadi’s backing, Vladislav II, a member of another branch of the family, assumed the Wallachian throne. Vlad tried to claim the throne in 1448, but his reign lasted only a couple of months before he was forced to flee to the neighboring kingdom of Moldavia. In 1451, while he was at Suceava, the Moldavian capital, the ruler was assassinated. For whatever reasons, Vlad then went to Transylvania and placed himself at the mercy of Hunyadi, the very person who had ordered his father’s assassination. The alliance between Hunyadi and Vlad may have been made possible by Vladislav II’s adoption of a pro-Turkish policy which alienated Hunyadi. Vlad fought beside Hunyadi, who in the end acknowledged Vlad’s claim to the Wallachian throne. Hunyadi died of the plague at Belgrade on August 11, 1456. Immediately after that event, Vlad left Transylvania for Wallachia. He defeated Vladislav II and on August 20 caught up with the fleeing prince and killed him. Vlad then began his six-year reign, during which his reputation was established. In September he took both a formal oath to Hungarian King Ladislaus V and, a few days later, an oath of vassalage to the Turkish sultan.

Early in his reign, probably in the spring of 1459, Vlad committed his first major act of revenge. On Easter Sunday, after a day of feasting, he arrested the boyer families, whom he held responsible for the death of his father and brother. The older ones he simply impaled outside the palace and the city walls. He forced the rest to march from the capital city of Tirgoviste to the town of Poenari, where over the summer, in the most humiliating of circumstances, they were forced to build his new outpost overlooking the Arges River. This chateau would later be identified as Castle Dracula. Vlad’s actions in destroying the power of the boyers was part of his policy of creating a modern, centralized state in what is today Romania. He turned over the estates and positions of the deceased boyers to people who owed their loyalty only to him.

Vlad’s brutal manner of terrorizing his enemies and the seemingly arbitrary manner in which he had people punished earned him the nickname “Tepes” or “the Impaler,” the common name by which he is known today. He not only used the stake against the boyers, whom he was trying to bring into subservience, he also terrorized the churches, both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic, each of which had strength in his territory. He gave particular attention to the Roman Catholic monastic centers, which he saw as points of unwelcome foreign influence. His “Romania for the Romanians” policies also led to actions against foreign merchants, especially the Germans, whom he saw as preventing the development of Romanian industry. Vlad the Impaler used his position to enforce his personal moral code of honesty and sexual morality, and various stories have survived of his killing people who offended his sense of moral value. He also would, on occasion, retaliate against an entire village because of the actions of one person.

Vlad also used terrorist tactics against his foreign enemies. When he thought that merchants from Transylvania had ignored his trade laws, he led raids across the border in 1457 and again in 1459 and 1460 and used impalement to impose his will. During the latter incursion he looted the Church of Saint Bartholemew, burned a section of Brasov, and impaled numerous people. That raid was later pictured in anti-Dracula prints showing him dining among the impaled bodies. During his reign, Vlad moved to the village of Bucharest and built it into an important fortified city with strong outer walls. Seeing the mountains as protective bulwarks, Vlad built his castle in the foothills of the Transylvania Alps. Later, feeling more secure and wishing to take control of the potentially wealthy plains to the south, he built up Bucharest.

Vlad was denounced by his contemporaries, and those in the next several generations who wrote of him published numerous tales of his cruelty. He was noted for the number of victims, conservatively set at 40,000, in his brief six-year reign. He thus became responsible for the largest number of deaths by a single ruler until modern times. Ivan the Terrible, with whom he has been frequently compared, put fewer than 10,000 to death. Furthermore, Vlad the Impaler ruled over fewer than half-a-million people. Above and beyond the number who died as a result of his policies, as McNally and Florescu have noted, Vlad refined the use of methods of torture and death to a degree that shocked his contemporaries. He not only impaled people in various ways but also often executed his victims in a manner related to the crime for which they were being punished.

The beginning of the end of his brief reign can be traced to the last months of 1461. For reasons not altogether clear, Vlad launched a campaign to drive the Turks from the Danube River valley south and east of Bucharest. In spite of early successes, when the Turks finally mounted a response, Vlad found himself without allies and was forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming numbers. The Turkish assault was slowed on two occasions. First, on June 17, several hours after sunset, Dracula attacked the Turkish camp in an attempt to capture the sultan. Unfortunately, he was directed to the wrong tent, and while many Turks were slain in the attack, the sultan got away. Unable to follow up on his momentary victory, Vlad was soon on the retreat again. When the sultan reached the capital city of Tirgoviste, he found that Dracula had impaled several people outside the town, a fact that impressed the sultan and gave him pause to consider his course of action. He decided to return to Adrianople (now Edirne) and left the next phase of the battle to Vlad’s younger brother Radu, now the Turkish favorite for the Wallachian throne. Radu, at the head of a Turkish army and joined by Vlad’s Romanian detractors, pursued him to his castle on the Arges River. At Castle Dracula he was faced with overwhelming odds, his army having melted away. He chose to survive by escaping through a secret tunnel and then over the Carpathians into Transylvania. His wife (or mistress), according to local legend, committed suicide before the Turks overran the castle. In Transylvania he presented himself to the new king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, who arrested him. At this time the first publications of stories of Vlad’s cruelties were circulating through Europe.

Vlad was imprisoned at the Hungarian capital at Visegrád, although it seems he lived under somewhat comfortable conditions after 1466. By 1475 events had shifted to the point that he emerged as the best candidate to retake the Wallachian throne. In the summer of 1475 he was again recognized as the prince of Wallachia. Soon thereafter he moved with an army to fight in Serbia, and upon his return he took up the battle against the Turks with the king of Moldavia. He was never secure on his throne. Many Wallachians allied themselves with the Turks against him. His end came at the hand of an assassin at some point toward the end of December 1476 or early January 1477. The actual location of Vlad’s burial site is unknown, but a likely spot is the church at the Snagov monastery, an isolated rural monastery built on an island. Excavations there have proved inconclusive. A tomb near the altar thought by many to be Vlad’s resting place was empty when opened in the early 1930s. A second tomb near the door, however, contained a body richly garbed and buried with a crown.

Knowledge of the historical Dracula has had a marked influence on both Dracula movies and fiction. Two of the more important Dracula movies, Dracula (1974), starring Jack Palance, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 production directed by Francis Ford Coppola, attempted to integrate the historical research on Vlad the Impaler into the story and used it as a rationale to make Dracula’s actions more comprehensible.

Several movies have been made about Vlad, from semi-documentaries to historical drama. Christopher Lee portrayed Vlad in the 1975 Swedish documentary, Vem var Dracula?, released in the English speaking world as In Search of Dracula, not to be confused with two more recent American productions In Search of Dracula with Jonathan Ross (1996) and In Search of History: The Real Dracula (2000). They have been joined by The Impaler: A Biographical/Historical Look at the Life of Vlad the Impaler, Widely Known as Dracula (2002).

Even as Vlad’s fame has risen, Dracula scholars have begun to downplay the roll of Vlad in informing Stoker while writing his novel. It appears that he knew little more than that Vlad existed and his name/title which was put on the novel after it was completed. Scholars were especially scornful of the 2000 biographical drama Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000), not so much for the acting, but for the scripts departure from the facts of Vlad’s life. The 2003 film simply titled Vlad, was, of course, intended as nothing more than a fictional tale that included the historical Vlad as a character.


Florescu, Radu, and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula: A Biography of Vlad the Impaler, I4I3–I476. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973. 239 pp.
———. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. 261 pp.
Giurescu, Constantin C. The Life and Deeds of Vlad the Impaler: Dracula. New York: Romanian Library, 1969.
Goldberg, Enid, and Norman Itzkowitz. Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula. Franklin Watts: New York, 2007. 128 pp.
McNally, Raymond T., and Radu Florescu. In Search of Dracula. 1972. Rept. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1973. 247 pp.
Treptow, Kurt W., ed. Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad Tepes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 336 pp.
Trow, M. J. Vlad the Impaler: In Search of Dracula. Thrupp, Shroud, Gloucs., UK: Sutton Publishing, 2003. 280 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Vlad the Impaler


(in Rumanian, Vlad Tepeş; surnamed Dracula [literally, “Son of the Devil,” with reference to his father, Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Devil]). Year of birth unknown; died 1476. Hospodar of Walachia from 1456 to 1462 and in 1476.

Vlad the Impaler struggled with the boyars over the centralization of state power. He acquired the nickname of “the Impaler” on account of his savage reprisals against his enemies, whom he impaled. To combat domestic and foreign peril, he armed the free peasants and the townsmen. In 1461, Vlad the Impaler refused to pay tribute to the Turkish sultan. In 1462 he forced the retreat of a Turkish army led by the sultan Mehmed II, which had invaded the Principality of Walachia. As a result of the treachery of the boyars, Vlad the Impaler was compelled to flee to Hungary in 1462. He again became hospodar in 1476 but was killed by the boyars.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Vlad the Impaler

(c. 980–1015) prince of Walachia; called Dracula; ruled barbarously. [Eur. Hist.: NCE, 2907]
See: Cruelty
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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