Thursday 8 July 2010

The Impaler - even Bucharest’s germ is dark, unwholesome, fascinating

File:Vlad Tepes 002.jpg

The first record of Bucharest is a document dated 1459 six years after Constantinople fell signed by Prince Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler! –so named generations after his death for his characteristic and unspeakable method of impaling his victims on pikes. And yes alas much better and erroneously known to a wider world as Dracula. If we put aside Bucur, the improbable shepherd of legend (his name means joy) who is said to have founded Bucharest, even Bucharest’s very germ is dark, morbid, unwholesome.

“From the distinctly inadequate material at our disposal it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Vlad was a man of diseased and abnormal tendencies, the victim of acute moral insanity.” 

This was the judgment of R.W Seton-Watson the great English historian of Romania writing in 1934 when it was still possible to believe in progress and enlightenment values. In fact Vlad did not invent this horrible method of killing his victims by insertion of a pike in and out of orifices. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia for example also impaled Ottoman prisoners, was acclaimed by Pope Sixtus IV as the athlete of Christ and was canonized several years ago by the Romanian Orthodox Church. (St. Stephen is also said to have fathered an illegitimate child at every town to which he lay siege). Impalement was used in Scotland and the Turks made more use of it than any other army. Nevertheless the history relates that the sight of an Ottoman army defeated by Vlad the previous year impaled on pikes in concentric circles, their leader’s modesty protected by his ceremonial robes and turban, moved to tears even Sultan Mahmud II the conqueror of Constantinople he who had lived all his life among abstruse and elaborate methods of killing.

Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept. What Homer accomplished for Agamemnon Gutenberg did for Vlad Tepes whose deeds were saved from oblivion by a squib printed there several years after his death.

It was Vlad who a few hundred dingy yards from my flat built the Old Court whose ground floor was brought to light in the 1950s, the only building in Bucharest old enough for an Englishman to consider truly old. The Impaler was a Wallachian ruler who swore allegiance but then fought against the Turk in the period immediately after the fall of Constantinople. A distant parallel can be drawn with Artorius a millennium earlier fighting English pagan invaders after the Roman legions left Britain. Both men obscure enough and scarcely recoverable for history became important myths: the one King Arthur and the Matter of Britain, the essence of chivalry which inspired Malory, the other by the grace of an Irish hack writer and the silent films Dracula.

Footnote stuff. American historian Kurt Treptow was sentenced to prison for much graver offences but his coining ‘Vlad III Dracula’ is also difficult to forgive. Patrick Leigh Fermor was stretching things as far as they could be stretched when he opined that Draculea was just allowable. (The Impaler’s father was Vlad Drac, Vlad the Dragon, and Dracul could be a diminutive, the little dragon).

That there is no link between Vlad and Dracula has finally been put beyond all doubt by the publication of the wretched Stoker’s notes. But in any case, Dracula is a fictional character in a cheap horror story who is a Szeckler (cousins to the Hungarians) vampire and resembles if any historical figure Elizabeth Báthory the beautiful Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of the village virgins she sadistically murdered. (Another digression: the Countess Bathory always puts me in mind of a beautiful Romanian lady I once knew.) The Impaler was indeed born in Transylvania but he ruled Wallachia and waged war against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. He was a cruel and perverted killer of a very different kind. But the times were brutal. His father was assassinated on the orders of his uncle John Hunyadi, his elder brother, Mircea, was buried alive by the Saxons after they gouged out his eyes with red hot pokers. His wife (or mistress) committed suicide by defenestrating herself when she learnt that the Turks had surrounded his castle in Tirgoviste. Vlad had his illegitimate half–brother, Vlad the Monk, killed after he tried to seize the throne.

Tepes's ruined palace in the Old Town in Bucharest

What to make of the Impaler this bizarre if not very momentous figure of whom only a few facts are known, an exotic and terrifying figure to begin the line of rulers whose capital was Bucharest that leads through Greeks, Russians, fascists and communists to Mr Ion Iliescu and Mr Traian Basescu? He was considered a great man, a progressive force and national hero, in Communist Romania. (I recall my surprise in 1990 to find myself walking down Vlad Tepes Street in Brasov but I should not have been surprised. I already knew Attila the Hun was a Hungarian hero though he was not a Hungarian.) And indeed Romanian history is full of curious parallels. Legend says that Vlad forced the members of boyar (noble) families who were implicated in the deaths of his father and brother to build a castle for him with their bare hands a project in which many died. Four centuries later the new rulers in Bucharest in the early 1950s - the young Ion Iliescu the leader of the Communist students’ association among them? -sent many thousands of enemies of the people to build the never completed Danube-Black Sea canal, the canal of death. To admire murderers like the Impaler and Attila is shocking but then in what does greatness consist? And what was St. Constantine or Napoleon? Or Stalin?

King Stephen the Great also impaled many infidels and he is the greatest Romanian hero. Pope Sixtus IV called him 'the athlete of Christ' - popes in those days were less bothered about interfaith dialogue. Stephen was canonised a few years back by the Romanian Orthodox Church despite having been said to have fathered an illegitimate child in every town to which he laid siege. I mentioned this to an extremely, in fact passionately devout Romanian lady I know and she replied 'Well, he was  a man.' As Eugene Ionescu said, 

'Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries'.

I picked up a couple of years ago in a second hand bookshop an essay by Mircea Eliade and idly opening it I had an odd experience. As I read Eliade say the historical destiny of Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians was to spill their blood to protect an ignorant and ungrateful Europe from the danger of Muslims I recognised that I had heard similar ideas many times in guide books and inscriptions in places as far apart as Poland and Greece. They were the kind of local patriotic white noise one shut out but now the words had a chilling clarity. The war that the Impaler fought for the religion of Jesus of Nazareth with a perverse savagery which moved even the infidel army to grudging respect is one that was fought by Charles Martel at Tours, by the Impaler’s patron John Hunyadi at Belgrade, by Jan Sobiesky at Vienna, by John Buchan and his colleagues in Milner’s kindergarten during the Great War and in Afghanistan today.

Adolf Hitler holding forth in Berlin as recorded by Martin Borman said: 

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the Seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.”

And Gibbon in a simpler age in which Anglican divines knew nothing of comparative religion mused that had Martel lost, 

“Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”


  1. Te lingering reputation of dismiss-able allies?

  2. Paul,

    I believe that there is one surviving document with Vlad III's signature, and its signed "Dracula" or "Draculea" - "ea" being one of the Romanian "son of" variants regionally competing with "escu." I remember reading a serious study of this written by Florin Constantinu - recently deceased mediaeval and contemporary historian - back in the 1980s. If I am not misremembering and if the signature does exist then "Dracula" would be the more legitimate appellation (despite Stoker), given that the Turks meant "the Impaler" monitor to denigrate the prince when they managed to impose it on chroniclers everywhere.

  3. Some (I hope) useful details:
    1. Prince Vlad father, Vlad the second, was the first Wallachian feudal honored with the chivalric order of Dragon ( The popular (oral) spelling of Dragon in Romanian is “dracul” (that means “the devil”). This seems to be the reason for which the father and, later on, the son were known as Vlad the devil (Dracul). It is very probable that this name was the origin for “Dracula”, the character of Stoker.
    2. Violence was a common thing in that period/that this part of Europe; You may find it difficult to identify some local dynasty’s (Polish, Romanian - Walachia/Transylvania/Moldavia -, Hungarian) with no violent deaths (murders, poisonings, etc) so I would say that family tragedy of prince Vlad is some different from other nobleman’s of the region/time
    3. Impalement was common across Holy Roman Empire, Central and Eastern Europe during that period (
    4. The main reasons for which Prince Vlad is considered “a great man, a progressive force and national hero” are pretty much related to:

    a) The communism had to find (or to invent) some emblematic figures in the Romanian history in order to wake up and maintain “patriotism & nationalism” of people, and Vlad was one of those figures. 50 years of brain washing are a lot.
    b) The conservative, local Orthodox Church had pretty much to do the same thing, and they identified him as being a hero of the war of protecting national religion against Islam (funny because Vlad was actually catholic)
    c) The most important one, in my opinion, is the legend of a fair and just prince that protected the pours against the corrupt nobleman’s, that set up a fair justice system where everyone was treated equal no matter the social class.
    In a endemic corrupt society Vlad represents a symbol of the rule of law, of justice (I imagine, it is pretty much like the figures of founding fathers of USA for the Americans)

    Flaviu C.

  4. Hi Paul

    What a godawful article (in a historical sense)! Since that time so many things have been discovered. Such as his real castles in the Carpathians. Castle Bran in the Borgo Pass, was built by him but rarely used.

    Queen Marie of Rumania in the early 19th Cent made it her summer home so that made it much more famous than Vlad.It was also the vague setting for Castle Dracula.

    The "Order of the Dragon", a Christrian organization strictly for Boyars (Nobility) was a Masonic-like organization DID exit, and membership could be passed down to inheritors hence Dracul and then Dracula. So "Dracula was just a tag line at the end of the real Vlad Tepes name, which included all his honors of courage, impaling etc, Dracula (meaning Son of the Dragon) only being one of them.

    The characterization of Bram Stoker as a "hack" is partly a gross injustice, partly correct.. If a book is judged purely by its impact on future generations then it is one of the great books of Victorian England. Stoker, a Dublin University graduate, like the great J.S.Le Fanu, was not a writer per se (like Le Fanu) but an early example of an actor's agent representing the most famous actors in the UK, while writing at night.
    I am a consistent reader of Victorian Lit of all types and if you take the invariably stiff language with all it's irritatingly elaborate courtesies in stride is one of THE masterpieces of the age.

    Unfortunately Stoker had never been to Rumania and used guidebooks for his sources. The result is a bit of a hokey pastiche of a lot of parts of the Carpathian area in the southern Rumania of today. He also, unfortunately, wrote more supernatural novels several unreadable even by me,and I can read REAL hack stuff like the mid-19th cent "Varney the Vampire" "Penny Dreadful" series with relish.

    Back to the subject: Vlad did live in the 15th cent., was a Prince of Wallachia
    Impaled his enemies (as well as restless Boyars) did spend 12 years in a Hungarian Prison and started out life as a child hostage to The Ottoman Court. He was a smart and incredibly brave warrior throwing back the Hungarians AND the Ottoman several times with his tiny Wallachian army.

    And he did all this before the age of 40, when he died.Guys like him rarely lasted long back then.

    I also believe that Rumanian archeologists and anthropologists, during the 1970's and 80's, have proven he did exist and is REAL hero to Rumanians today. But that may be because he is a HUGE tourist attraction. Dracula Schnitzel anyone? Rare of course.
    JLK .

  5. We must all have our little hobbies, a sort of lepidopterist with a leaning towards larger specimens.

  6. Below a few more facts about Vlad's life/times.

    1. We're talking about turbulent times. Wallachia was a buffer zone between the Ottomans and the Hungarians. There was also an ongoing war for the throne between the two major boyar families. Between 1400 and 1600 Wallachia had 69 reigns, while France had 12 reigns. An average reign in Wallachia lasted 3 years. An average reign in France lasted 19 years. This went on for 200 years.

    2. At 11 Vlad is given to the Ottomans, together with his younger brother, as a warranty for a peace treaty his father has signed. He is groomed at the Ottoman court for a future general / governor role (which his younger brother later becomes). It is possible that he was abused during this time.

    3. After the second battle of Kosovo in 1448 Vlad then 17 is sent by the Ottomans to take over the throne of Wallachia. He lasts one month before being ousted by Vladislav II who had earlier killed his father.

    4. Vlad does not run back to the Ottomans, instead he finds his way to Modova and later to Transylvania where he is a guest of John Hunyadi, who's trust he gains.

    5. By 1456 and Vladislav II is now friendly with the Ottomans. Vlad, now 25 years old, is sent by John Hunyadi (on his way to Belgrade) with a small contingent to take over the throne of Wallachia. He kills Vladislav II in hand to hand combat. His 6 year reign begins.

    6. Vlad raids on the German cities in southern Transylvania (Sibiu and Brasov). These cities controlled commerce over the Carpathians and had come into conflict with Wallachian kings over taxes and meddled into Wallachian politics. To retaliate the cities started a smear campaign against Vlad. This smear campaign later turns into a series of gory best sellers in the German speaking world. This is what Bram Stoker must have come across (if anything).

    7. On flimsy reassurances from the king of Hungary, Vlad rebels against the Ottomans. He annihilates a couple of small armies, crosses the Danube and raids northern Bulgaria. Vlad treats the Ottomans very cruelly everywhere. He uses terror as a strategic weapon.

    8. Sultan Mehmed II raises a large army (50-60K) to come after Vlad. The size of Vlad's forces is in the thousands. He avoids direct battle and uses guerilla tactics. He tries to kill the sultan himself in a night raid on the Ottoman camp. Eventually the sultan goes home. The Ottoman army is deep in Wallachia.

    10. Vlad takes refuge with the Hungarians and is arrested. Some fabricated letters emerge accusing Vlad of planning to sign a treaty with the Ottomans. Mathias Corvinus had earlier received a large sum of money from the Pope to fight the Ottomans. Instead he used it to plug the holes in his treasury. The king paints Vlad to justify not taking action.

    11. Vlad is a guest of the Hungarian king, living in one of his houses in Buda, and marries a cousin of the king with whom he has two sons. Prince Charles recently claimed that Vlad is an ancestor ( Unclear if that was a stunt or real. This life in Buda (14 years) would have not happened had he really been a traitor.

    12. Vlad returns to take the throne of Wallachia for a third time after 14 years and is killed in unclear circumstances.

    Some of my interpretations:

    1. He ingratiated himself with his captors three times and convinced them to support his bids for the throne. His military actions were impeccable. He avoided getting killed in many sticky situations. All this points to him being very smart.

    2. He must have hated the Ottomans and it looks like he desperately tried to scare them out of Wallachia. His actions toward the Ottomans are way too aggressive for the means he had and his cruelty left no way out.

    3. His reign marks a tipping point. After his reign Wallachia moves firmly in the Ottoman sphere of influence. He was the last (only?) Romanian ruler to take offensive / aggressive actions against the Ottomans.

    1. Thank you for such an interesting comment - I wish you had left your name! I understood for decades that the Queen of Great Britain is related to Vlad. According to someone writing on the net it goes like this:

      Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of Vlad II - Vlad III The Impaler's father. That makes Queen Elizabeth Vlad II's 15th great-granddaughter and Vlad III's first cousin fourteen times removed.
      The line of descent from Vlad II to Queen Elizabeth through one of the lines:
      Vlad II ---> Vlad Calugarul ---> Radu IV ---> Mircea III ---> Stanca Basarab ---> Zamphira Logo de Szazsebes ---> Adam Racz de Galgo ---> Peter Racz de Galgo ---> Christina Racz de Galgo ---> Catherine Kuun de Osdola ---> Baroness Agnes Kendeffy de Malmoviz ---> Baron Gregor Inczedy von Nagy-Varad ---> Baroness Agnes von Nagy-Varad ---> Countess Claudine Rhedey von Kis-Rhede --> Frances, Duke of Teck ---> Mary of Teck ---> George VI ---> Queen Elizabeth II

      Claudine Rhedey von Kis-Rhede may actually have been a descendant of Vlad III The Impaler as well through his son Mihnea. That would make Claudine Vlad the Impaler's 10th great-granddaughter, which, in turn, would make Queen Elizabeth his 14th great-granddaughter. This particular ancestry, however, is unconfirmed and disputed.

    2. Knew I could trust Prince Charles on genealogy matters.


  7. Once included in the Dragon’s Order, Vlad II was so proud of such honor being given to him that he ordered a big dragon to be painted in his throne hall. His subjects, seeing that, interpreted it as being the image of the Devil, so spreading the word, the crowds (very superstitious by nature), eventually called him “Dracul” = “The Devil”.

    Florin G

  8. Terror was a tool understood by steppe nomads like the Ottomans and was employed by all steppe peoples from antiquity through the Ottoman takeover of Asia Minor (Sarmatians, Huns, Alans, Mongols, etc.). Vlad used that tool - as well as the terrain advantages he had - to defeat successive attempts by the Ottomans to overrun his country.

  9. Dracula's fame spread throughout Europe due to those hard working Saxon merchants who of course were his enemies, and their recently invented printing presses!

  10. I don't really buy this self-pitying line from Balkan or Russian nationalists, Paul. Half the time, for example, Serb warlords were fighting _for_ the Turks, not against them.

    One Hungarian girl once invited me to lunch with her family in the early 1990s and before we sat down at the lunch table suddenly blurted out << Why didn't you help us against the Turks? >> (she was referring to a battle in the 1540s)

    Quite apart from being downright weird, it bears pointing out that

    1) Hungary didn't help Britain against the Spanish in 1588, a _more recent_ event (as I replied to her at the time, to her amazement);

    2) Hungary (like other Balkan nations) never even fought against the Turks themselves until the Turks were right on their doorstep - they were far more short-sighted & cowardly than western Europeans / each Balkan nation would laugh as the next one down the line fought Ottoman armies only to suddenly start snivelling for help a century later when they in turn faced the Ottomans alone / only the Venetians showed any foresight in this and they made plenty of blunders too;

    3) As I already said, Balkan Christian nations frequently helped the Turks in order to fight some local rival instead of showing solidarity against the Islamic tide;

    4) Britain _did_ help Hungary against the Turks. Several thousand English knights, always up for a rumble, came out to fight alongside Hungarians at several points in the couple of centuries fighting the Turks. Yet seemingly totally forgotten - beyond ingratitude to the point of insulting and fantasising.

    So I have zero sympathy for this we-protected-you-against-the-eastern-hordes nonsense. Far closer to the truth is those nations (<< Scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar >>, as the Russians themselves say: Exhibit A, half-Tartar Vladimir Lenin) were and _are_ still the eastern hordes. They decided they like Europe but they sulk that we don't buy this stuff. This bizarre story they all have about being invading looters one century and then suddenly one or two centuries later staunch defenders of Europe's Christian feudal values in need of our help to oppose the next lot of invading looters.
    Mark Griffith

  11. David in Banja Luka20 May 2016 at 08:37

    My favourite Vlad Tepes story is the one about the Turkish envoy.

    When the Turkish Sultans envoy refused to uncover his head in front of Vlad, his turban was nailed to it.

    When the Sultan received the news of this incident, he smiled.

    Most probably an apocryphal story but resonant of the period.