Vlad Dracula (c. 1431 – c. 1476), Prince of Wallachia, is to Romanians a national hero, revered for his resistance to the Ottoman Turks, but to the world, he is famous as the bloodthirsty inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.
Was Vlad a victim of the propaganda of his enemies, or was he deserving of the nickname history has given him - Vlad the Impaler?
As with much of history, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Here, though, we are going to look more toward the villainous side and recount some of the grisly atrocities that were attributed to Vlad.
These are seven times Vlad Dracula was unspeakably cruel.
1. The gory sacking of Brașov
Growing up, Vlad had learned about the art of governing through fear and cunning. Ottoman Sultan Murad II had held a teenage Vlad, and the powerful Hungarian nobleman John Hunyadi, under whose flag Vlad fought battles against the Ottomans in his twenties, as hostages.
It was in these initial battles in the early 1450s that Vlad began to acquire his reputation for cruelty, and after Hunyadi’s death in 1456, Vlad’s strength and brutality grew.
In April 1459, Vlad attacked the Transylvanian city of Brașov, burning buildings, pillaging, and having large numbers of men, women, and children impaled on the hill by the chapel of St Jacob.
According to an illustrated account published in Nuremberg in 1499, at the bloodbath of Brașov, Dracula requested that a table be set up outside in the midst of those being impaled. There, next to where his victims were writhing and moaning on wooden stakes, he sat down for an al fresco lunch. It is said that he ate some bread after dipping it in the blood pouring down from one of the sufferers.
2. The burning of the beggars
Vlad loved to burn things, living up to his last name which means ‘son of the dragon'. There were many occasions when Vlad was said to have had enemy combatants, or the people of towns and villages he was sacking, roasted alive.
One particularly nasty example did not occur on the battlefield, though – it happened at a banquet in a great hall in Vlad’s capital of Târgoviște.
According to a story found in several 15th-century chronicles, Vlad invited a large group of local people who have been variously described as ‘old’, ‘lame’, or ‘beggars’. He lavished his unsuspecting guests with a feast, and they ate and drank long into the night. The prince then locked the diners inside the hall and told his guards to set the building on fire.
Vlad was said to have remarked at the time: ‘These men live off the sweat of others, so they are useless to humanity.’
3. The forest of the impaled
In 1462, about 60 miles from Târgoviște, Sultan Mehmed II (who had led his army west to destroy Vlad) and his men were stopped in their tracks by a grisly sight. It was what one contemporary historian called a ‘field of stakes’ and must have resembled a forest of impaled Ottoman men, women, and children. Babies were impaled with their mothers and rotting corpses had birds nesting in their entrails.
There were about 20,000 of these dead or dying victims of the Impaler, covering an area three miles long and one mile wide.
Mehmed was said to have been dumbstruck, and his men terrified. One of the slaughtered souls was a leading Ottoman, Hamza Pasha, who had been impaled on a stake taller than anyone else’s, owing to his high rank. Before being punctured on the pole, he had had his arms and legs cut off.
Typically, impalement involved either being skewered horizontally (front to back), or vertically (through a bodily orifice and eventually exiting through the upper body or mouth). Often the stake was rounded at the end rather than pointy, to avoid a quick death. Sometimes those who had really upset Vlad were impaled upside down.
4. The feet-flaying torture
A favourite method of torture of Vlad’s that he would mete out to Turkish prisoners was to have their feet flayed (the skin removed). The raw, bloody limb was rubbed in salt, and goats were brought up to lick the salt off with their rough tongues.
5. The massacre of the Boyars
One of Vlad’s most infamous acts of brutality was his purge of the boyars. The boyars were an aristocratic ruling class in many parts of Eastern Europe, including Wallachia. Vlad, once he became prince in 1456, saw the corrupt and scheming boyars as a potential threat to his position. In Easter 1457, Vlad summoned the principality’s boyars to an audience at his castle in Târgoviște.
The 500 nobles gathered in their prince’s great hall and were asked by Vlad how many princes they had seen in their lives. Some said seven, others said 20 or, and even 30. At Vlad’s command, the boyars and their attending family members were all seized and impaled alive, all together, in the palace’s courtyard.
The sea of rotting corpses was left on display, for a while, as a warning to those who were thinking of opposing him.
6. The impalement of the monk
In about 1490, a Russian monastery compiled a set of nineteen stories about the life of Vlad. One of these tales concerned two Hungarian monks who paid a visit to the prince at his capital.
Vlad, according to the account, proudly showed the monks a gruesome display of some of his dead victims' mangled bodies broken on wheels and ‘countless people on stakes’.
Vlad asked the friars if they approved of his brand of justice. The first said that he did not, condemning the prince as merciless. The second monk said that he was pleased to see Vlad punishing evildoers.
Dracula had the second brother sent home with gold, and the first one ‘impaled from the bottom up’.
7. The cauldron of death
One medieval chronicle describes a truly awful method of execution that Vlad employed from time to time.
The wicked nobleman had, according to the story, a huge copper cauldron in his castle topped with a wooden cover. In the centre of the wooden lid was a hole big enough for a man’s head to fit through. The pot was filled with water, a fire was lit underneath it, and an unfortunate prisoner was tipped upside down and his head thrust through the hole and into the water. Vlad had men boiled in this way, the story says.
Vlad hated it when anybody he cooked to death went to waste, and this was often a monstrous part of his monstrous plan.
In another story from a contemporary chronicle, Vlad had 300 locals boiled and roasted alive in batches, forcing the others to eat the fresh meat of their fellows until none of them were left. Other terrible tales from the 15th century tell of atrocities where Vlad had young children roasted alive and force-fed to their mothers, who in turn had their breasts cut and force-fed to their husbands.