Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dracula’s real name was Vlad Tepes.

The most famous vampire, Dracula, though familiar to most of us as a character in a novel, is based on stories about an actual historical individual. Dracula’s real name was Vlad Tepes. In A.D. 1431, the same year that Vlad was born, his father (also named Vlad) was made a knight of the Order of the Dragon, a paramilitary organization dedicated to fighting the Turks. In Rumanian, ‘dragon’ is ‘dracul’. So, the father was given the nickname Dracul, and his son was given the nickname Dracula, which means ‘son of Dracul’. Unfortunately, ‘dracul’ also means ‘devil’. Thus, Dracula could mean either ‘son of the dragon’ or ‘son of the devil’.

Vlad Dracul was Prince of Wallachia from 1436-1442 and again from 1443-1447. The small country of Wallachia (which today comprises one-third of Rumania) lies between the lower Danube River and the Carpathian Mountains. Wallachia was nominally a Banates (frontier march) of the Kingdom of Hungary, but it had been essentially an independent country since about 1360.

At the time that Vlad Dracul was prince, Wallachia was in imminent danger of being absorbed by the Turkish Empire then overrunning most of the Balkans. Any leader of Wallachia was stuck in the middle of a power struggle between the Turks and the Hungarians. Both tried to put candidates favorable to their side on the throne, and both sent armies or assassins when they became displeased with the prince’s rule.

In 1444, Vlad Dracul and his two oldest sons, Mircea and Vlad, joined the anti-Turk crusade which led to the disastrous defeat of the Western crusaders at Varna. After the defeat, Vlad Dracul was forced to give up his second son, Vlad, and his youngest son, Radu, as hostages to the Turks. For the next four years, the young Dracula was a Turkish prisoner. While the imprisonment was not always physically harsh, it was an extreme mental ordeal since Dracula was likely to be executed at any moment if the Turks did not like his father’s policies. During those years, Dracula came to view life as fleeting and cheap. In reaction to his imprisonment, he developed a reputation for trickery, cunning, insubordination, and brutality.

By remaining on good terms with the Turkish Sultan, Vlad Dracul angered the protector of Hungary, John Hunyadi. Henchmen of Hunyadi murdered Vlad Dracul and his eldest son Mircea in December of 1447. John Hunyadi then placed his own candidate, Vladislav II, on the throne of Wallachia. Backed by the Turks, Dracula became Prince of Wallachia for two months in 1448. But the Hungarian faction was too strong. Dracula fled to Moldavia, the northernmost Rumanian principality. There, he formed a close friendship and alliance with his cousin Steven.

Politics in Moldavia were as dangerous as in Wallachia. In 1451, Steven’s father, Bogdan, was murdered, and the two cousins fled. Dracula managed to make peace with John Hunyadi and served under Hunyadi in John’s constant fight against the Turks. From 1451-1456, Dracula lived in Transylvania, which is now the third province of Rumania, but which was traditionally a part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Transylvania contained many Hungarians and Germans as well as Romanians.

Vladislav II was having the same kind of problems Dracula’s father once had. In 1456, John Hunyadi decided that Vladislav was favoring the Turks too much. He loaned Dracula the nucleus of an army and sent him to regain the throne of Wallachia. Dracula defeated Vladislav and became Prince of Wallachia again.

Now, Dracula could release all his pentup hatreds. He executed the members of the faction that killed his father. Since he couldn’t be sure exactly who was guilty, he solved the problem by killing 500 suspects, among whom were bound to be the 20 or so men responsible for his father’s death. Dracula raided the Turks, whom he hated with pathological fervor, and also raided the German merchant towns of Transylvania. The Germans had come to Transylvania hundreds of years before as immigrants from Saxony, invited by the Hungarian king to encourage commerce. To many of the Rumanians, the Germans were foreign upstarts, monopolizing trade throughout Transylvania. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1460, nearly 30,000 men, women, and children of German descent were slain on a hill outside the city of Brasov in Transylvania.

But Dracula’s main enemies were the Turks. In 1461-1462, he led a campaign against them in which he made full use of guerilla tactics and terrorism. By Dracula’s own count, his forces slew 23,809 Turks. In fact, Dracula cut off the heads, noses, or ears of the Turks to keep an accurate count, then sent them as presents to neighboring Christian rulers to enlist their aid against the infidel Turks (without success). Dracula’s favorite means of killing his victims was by impaling them on a stake. This practice gave him his second nickname, ‘Tepes’ which means ‘The Impaler’.

By the end of 1462, Vlad Tepes was driven from the throne by his younger brother Radu, who had become a Turkish puppet. When Vlad appealed to Mathias Corvinus, son of John Hunyadi and now King of Hungary, he was imprisoned. Mathias was concentrating on political manoeuvres in Europe, and he needed a quiet border with the Turks.

Vlad Tepes was still a valuable political asset. Eventually, he converted from the Orthodox to the Roman Catholic religion and married one of Mathias’ sisters. When Stephen (the Great) of Moldavia, a remarkable cousin of Vlad who managed to hold the throne for nearly 50 years, supported Dracula’s claim to Wallachia, the time was ripe for Vlad’s return. The official commander of the expedition was Stephen Bathory, Prince of Transylvania (soon to be elected King of Poland). The army was made up of Hungarians, Wallachians, Transylvanians, and Moldavians. In 1476, they defeated the Turks and set Dracula once more on the throne of Wallachia.

But Dracula had alienated too many factions among his subjects. Before he could consolidate his reign, his enemies united against him, and Dracula was slain on a hilltop outside Bucharest. His third reign had lasted barely two months.

In his own day, Dracula was notorious. Numerous writers, especially Germans sympathetic to their Transylvanian cousins, wrote about him as the ‘Blood Monster’. Bram Stoker knew some of the stories about Dracula and made them the basis for his main character in the novel of the same name. Dracula was certainly bloodthirsty with a pathological cruelty. He firmly believed in the effects of terror to intimidate his subjects and defeat his enemies. Even his favored means of torture, the stake, made him a natural candidate for the vampire legend that grew around him.

At the same time, Dracula managed to maintain some shreds of personal honor. It was his boast that a person could walk across Wallachia with a bag of gold and be completely safe from bandits (who feared his wrath too much to operate in the country). There were many cases in which Dracula personally rewarded faithful service. No one questioned Dracula’s personal courage or his prowess as a warrior. He was even something of a patriot.

So, the main character of the novel Dracula is no mere one-sided personality. He is evil, certainly, and terrifying, cruel, and merciless - yet he retains a hint of honor, his courage is undaunted, and he is still human enough to fall in love, in his own twisted way.

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