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Vlad the Impaler / Vlad III Dracula / Vlad Tepes


Wikimedia Commons

Vlad the Impaler at an Impalement - 15th Century Woodcut

Wikimedia Commons

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad III was a fifteenth century ruler of Wallachia, an east European principality within modern Romania. Vlad became infamous for his brutal punishments, such as impalement, but also renowned by some for his attempt to fight the Muslim Ottomans, even though Vlad was only largely successful against Christian forces. He ruled on three occasions – 1448, 1456 – 62, 1476 - and experienced a new fame in the modern era thanks to links to the novel Dracula.

Youth of Vlad the Impaler: Chaos in Wallachia

Vlad was born between 1429 - 31 into the family of Vlad II Dracul. This nobleman had been allowed into the crusading Order of the Dragon (Dracul) by its creator, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, to encourage him to defend both Christian east Europe and Sigismund’s lands from encroaching Ottoman forces and other threats. The Ottomans were expanding into eastern and central Europe, bringing with them a rival religion to that of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians who had previously dominated the region. However, the religious conflict can be overstated, as there was an old fashioned secular power struggle between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottomans over both Wallachia – a relatively new state - and its leaders.

Although Sigismund had turned to a rival of Vlad II’s soon after initially supporting him, he came back to Vlad and in 1436 Vlad II became ‘voivode’, a form of prince, of Wallachia. However Vlad II then broke with the Emperor and joined the Ottomans in order to try and balance the rival powers swirling around his country. Vlad II then joined the Ottomans in attacking Transylvania, before Hungary tried to reconcile. Everyone grew suspicious, and Vlad was briefly ousted and imprisoned by the Ottomans. However, he was soon released and he reconquered the country. The future Vlad III was sent along with Radu, his younger brother, to the Ottoman court as a hostage to ensure that his father stayed true to his word. He didn’t, and as Vlad II vacillated between Hungary and the Ottomans the two sons survived simply as diplomatic collateral. Perhaps crucially for Vlad III’s upbringing, he was able to experience, understand and immerse himself into Ottoman culture.

Struggle to be Voivode

Vlad II and his eldest son were killed by rebel boyars – Wallachian noblemen – in 1447, and a new rival called Vladislav II was put on the throne by the pro-Hungarian governor of Transylvanian called Hunyadi. At some point Vlad III and Radu were freed, and Vlad returned to the principality to begin a campaign aimed at inheriting his father’s position as voivode, which led to conflict with boyars, his younger brother, the Ottomans and more besides. Wallachia had no clear system of inheritance to the throne, instead all the previous incumbent’s children could equally claim it, and one of them was usually elected by a council of boyars. In practice, outside forces (mainly the Ottomans and Hungarians) could militarily support friendly claimants to the throne.

The resulting confusion is best expressed by Treptow, who defined twenty nine separate reigns, of eleven separate rulers, from 1418 to 1476, including Vlad III thrice. (Treptow, Vlad III Dracula, p. 33) It was from this chaos, and a patchwork of local boyar factions – that Vlad sought first the throne, and then to establish a strong state through both bold actions and outright terror. There was a temporary victory in 1448, when Vlad took advantage of a recently defeated anti-Ottoman crusade and its capture of Hunyadi to seize the throne of Wallachia with Ottoman support. However Vladislav II soon returned from crusade and forced Vlad out.

It took nearly another decade for Vlad to seize the throne as Vlad III in 1456. We have little information on what exactly happened during this period, but Vlad went from the Ottomans to Moldova, to a peace with Hunyadi, to Transylvania, back and forth between these three, falling out with Hunyadi, renewed support from him, military employment and in 1456 an invasion of Wallachia in which Vladislav II was defeated and killed. At the same time Hunyadi, coincidentally, died.

Vlad the Impaler as ruler of Wallachia, not as Communist

Established as voivode, Vlad now faced the problems of his predecessors: how to balance Hungary and the Ottomans, and keep himself independent. Vlad began to rule in a bloody manner designed to strike fear into the hearts of opponents and allies alike. He really did order people to be impaled on stakes, and his atrocities were inflicted on anyone who upset him, no matter where they came from. However, his rule has been misinterpreted.

During the communist era in Romania, historians outlined a vision of Vlad as a socialist hero, focused largely around the idea that Vlad attacked the excesses of the boyar aristocracy, thus benefiting the ordinary peasants. Vlad’s ejection from the throne in 1462 has been attributed to boyars seeking to protect their privileges. Some chronicles record that Vlad bloodily carved his way through the Boyars to strengthen and centralise his power, adding to his other, horrific, reputation.

However, while Vlad did slowly increase his power over disloyal boyars, this is now believed to have been a gradual attempt to try and solidify a factionalised state beset by rivals, and neither a sudden orgy of violence – as some of the stories claim (see below) - or the actions of a proto-communist. The existing powers of the boyars were left alone, it was just favourites and enemies who changed position, but over years, not in one brutal session.

Vlad the Impaler’s Wars

Vlad attempted to the restore the balance of Hungarian and Ottoman interests in Wallachia, and came to terms with both swiftly. However, he was soon assailed by plots from Hungary, who changed their support to a rival voivode. War resulted, during which Vlad supported a Moldovan noble who would both later fight him, and earn the epithet Stephen the Great. The situation between Wallachia, Hungary and Transylvania fluctuated for several years, going from peace to conflict, and Vlad tried to keep his lands and throne intact.
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