Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Vlad Tepes: Dracula the Legend

In the 15th century, Eastern Europe was in turmoil. Christianity found itself under threat from a rapidly expanding sphere of influence controlled by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. Indeed, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christendom found itself under almost constant threat from the forces of Mohammed the Conqueror, who sought to extend the Muslim faith throughout all of Eastern Europe. Desperately, Christianity sought some form of response to the steadily growing Ottoman expansion.

The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (elected in 1410) created a semisecret organization known as the Order of the Dragon to defend the eastern lands from the advancing Turkish threat. Its emblem was a dragon, clinging to a cross, its wings outstretched. From around 1431, a certain warlord or Voivode (local ruler), Vlad II of Wallachia, was brought into the Order and had the dragon emblazoned on his coinage. The Wallachian name for dragon was “Drac” and he became known locally as Vlad Dracul. Interestingly enough, the word “drac” can also mean “devil” or “evil spirit.”

Wallachia was a tiny territory, but it was important. It had been founded in 1292 by Radu Negru (Radu the Black) but for many years it was dominated by Hungary who laid claim to part of neighbouring Transylvania and Moldavia. It broke free of Hungarian influence in 1330, becoming virtually an independent kingdom. It still, however, maintained strong links with Transylvania, and in fact Vlad II’s wife was a Transylvanian noblewoman. In fact, Sigismund was to make Vlad II military governor of Transylvania in 1431. Wallachia was also strategically important, forming a kind of “buffer” between the Christian states and the expanding Muslim powers. This was why Christendom considered Vlad II’s support so important.

Vlad II, however, was a skilled politician and sought a kind of “middle way” between the two factions. He was in a dangerous position and had no wish to see his country either invaded by the Turks or used as a frontier for a Christian battleground. From time to time, he struck up alliances with both, however as Turkish influence increased, he began to side with them. When the Turks invaded Transylvania in 1442, he remained neutral, greatly angering the Hungarians under their leader John Hunyadi, the White Knight of Hungary. Hunyadi attacked the Turks and drove them out of Transylvania before turning his attention on Vlad II and forcing him to flee his throne. However, Vlad regained it in 1443 with Turkish support, but was forced to hand over two of his sons—Vlad and Radu—as hostages to the Turkish administration. An uneasy peace existed between Wallachia and Hungary with Hunyadi demanding that Vlad II fulfill his obligations as a member of the Order of the Dragon, but Vlad II resisting for fear of inflaming the Turks.

Eventually, Vlad II died in 1448. On hearing of his death, the Turks immediately released his second son Vlad and supported him as Voivode of Wallachia. Hunyadi, fearing Turkish domination of the region immediately placed his own candidate Vladislav II or Vladislav Dan, backed by the Hungarian Army, on the Wallachian throne. However, he angered his Hungarian overlords by adopting slightly pro-Turkish policies and the situation became even more tense.

In 1456, the Hungarians invaded Turkish Serbia. It was a disastrous campaign during which Hunyadi was killed and, in the resulting political confusion, Vlad was prompted to make his bid for the Wallachian monarchy. He ousted Vladislav and had him murdered before taking the throne as Vlad III or Vlad Dracula(Drac-ula—son of the dragon). His reign was a despotic one, during the course of which he stood up to the Turks and systematically began to destroy the old local landowner system that had existed in Wallachia. This may have been because the Hungarian-backed land owners of Tirgoviste had burned his elder brother Mircea to death—Vlad III was to exact a terrible revenge upon them, arresting, torturing, and eventually executing them. His cruelty became legendary.

In 1462, the Turks forced Vlad III to flee the throne by aiding a popular uprising against him, placing his younger brother Radu the Handsome (who had remained in Turkish custody after Vlad had been released) on the Wallachian throne. It is said that Vlad’s wife leapt to her death into a foaming river near his castle at Arges to avoid being captured by Turkish soldiers. Vlad himself managed to escape and fled to the Hungarian court for safety. Here the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvenus (John Hundyadi’s son), had him imprisoned as a traitor. It is not known how long he was held, but he was released perhaps around 1474 by marrying into one of the Hungarian noble families. He then formed an alliance with Count Stephen Barthory to reinvade Wallachia and get his throne back, which their combined forces did in 1476. By this time, Radu was dead and had been replaced by another Turkish puppet, Basarab the Old. Basarab’s forces were easily defeated and Vlad took the throne once more. However, several months later, Count Bathory’s armies departed for Transylvania leaving Vlad in a rather weak position. Taking advantage of this, a massive Turkish army entered the country and Vlad was forced to take up arms to defend his country with only a skeleton army. He was killed in battle near present-day Bucharest. His decapitated body was recovered from the Turks and was taken inland to be buried at the monastery at Snagov.

There is little doubt that Vlad III was a cruel man, but he may have been not so different from many other rulers around him. Some of his methods of torture and execution may seem extremely barbaric to us today, but we must remember that Vlad was forced to maintain a strict and authoritarian rule to protect his country from the forces that surged around it—namely Hungarian and Turk. Nevertheless, some of his methods appear to be quite unique as well as being incredibly draconian and brutal. For example, one of his favourite methods of torture and death was to place Turkish prisoners on the top of high stakes and let the forces of gravity pull them down as the point of the stake disembowelled them. This earned him the nickname “Vlad Tepes” (pronounced Tep-esh) or “Vlad the Impaler.” A number of grizzly anecdotes are told about him as well. The most common tale is how he received three Turkish ambassadors at his court, each one of them wearing a fez. In accordance with their own custom, they did not remove their headgear when they entered his presence. Vlad took this as a sign of disrespect and instructed that the fezs be nailed to their foreheads. In a similar anecdote, a Saxon merchant was caught either cheating or stealing from a poor man. Vlad had him placed against a wooden door and had a bag of gold nailed to his hand. The merchant’s eyes were then gauged out so that he could not see his wealth.

Aware of the vast armies of beggars and diseased persons that traversed his territory demanding alms, Vlad devised a novel way of alleviating the problem. He invited many of the beggars and invalids to a great banquet held in a barn and when they were inside, he had all the doors locked and the building set alight, burning those inside to death. In this way he solved the country’s destitute problem “at a stroke.” However, it should be noted that although he appears as an often cruel and barbaric man, there is no record of Vlad III actually drinking human blood. Nevertheless, from our own 21st century point of view, he seems to have been a horrific despot.

Vlad Tepes is celebrated and remembered in his native Wallachia as a good prince, a defender of his country (now part of Romania) against foreign invaders—the Turks and the Saxons. He is fondly remembered as a friend of the poor and a champion of the common man—a ruler who protected his subjects, (through the laws that he enacted), from scheming foreign merchants and vicious Turkish interlopers. In this respect, he is regarded as a national hero.

The legends surrounding this admittedly bloodthirsty Wallachian warlord must have attracted Bram Stoker when he came to write his novel. Although not familiar with the area itself, he had heard some of its legends through friends who had connections with that part of the world. In 19th century England, Romania was a remote and exotic land—perhaps something like Tibet appeared during the 1950s and 1960s. Transylvania—the land beyond the forest—had a mysterious ring to it, and where better to set a story of horror and mystery than in the mist-shrouded forests that swathed the lower slopes of the Carpathian Mountains? Stoker may also have been aware of the tales and legends concerning vampires that had emerged from Hungary during the 1700s and this may have influenced his decision to set his novel—its content perhaps influenced by Irish and American elements—in the Transylvania/ Moldavia areas. And although we have no evidence that he knew anything about her, another person from the same region may have coloured his perspective. This was the nightmarish Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

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