Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vlad the Impaler

Voivode

Dracula's first term as Prince of Wallachia lasted barely long enough for the royal tailors to refit the court vestments. Within two months, the beaten forces of Jonas Hunyadi had regrouped, this time under one of Hunyadi's vassals, Vandislas. When the latter's huge army appeared on the horizon, Dracula, greatly outnumbered, vacated the throne and sought refuge with the family of the Moldavian prince, Bogdan, a relative of his martyred mother. But, he vowed that Wallachia had not heard the last of Dracula.

"Dracula remained in exile in Moldavia for three years, until Prince Bogdan...was assassinated," explains Ray Porter in his article, "The Historical Dracula," written for a special program sponsored by Georgetown University. "(He then sought) the protection of his family enemy, Hunyadi. The timing was propitious; Hunyadi's puppet on the Wallachian throne (Vandislas) had instituted a pro-Turkish policy and Hunyadi needed a more reliable man in Wallachia. Consequently, Hunyadi accepted the allegiance of his old enemy's son."

That Dracula sided with the man whose forces killed his parents was strictly for self-survival. As well, being a politician first, the advantage suited Dracula. In turn, Hunyadi realized he had gained a fortuitous ally, for Dracula's years spent with the Ottomans in Adrianople had given him useful knowledge of how the Turks thought — and, most importantly, fought. In planning military expeditions, Dracula's input would be invaluable.

Both men were Machiavellians. And both were cognizant of the other's style. Yet, as diplomats and opportunists, they played that factor to the bone. Both men were brilliant.

Portrait of Vlad (AP)
Portrait of Vlad (AP)

If one studies their portraits, one would detect the cleverness in both their faces. From the walls of the Academy of the Romanian Socialist Republic, the White Knight's portrait looks down with a scowling, weathered, hard, ambitious countenance; he seems to want to jump off the canvas and tell us all to go to hell. Dracula's face, caught by an anonymous artist and which now hangs in a gallery in Innsbruck, reeks of a man of unbending opinions and an almost paranoid sense of observation. Dark eyes stare off in a deep, thoughtful reverie; his mind seems made up on something that he needs to do as soon as the painter dismisses him.

John Hunyadi
John Hunyadi

These two suspicious and suspecting characters met at Hunyadi's mountain castle, Hunedoara, to form a partnership and a pact. Dracula was placed in charge of a fortress at Sibiu, situated at the far southwest corner of Transylvania, guarding the frontier against possible intervention from Vandislas' forces. His immediate charge was keeping the two Transylvania duchies (counties), Faragas and Almas, out of enemy hands. 

While in Sibiu, Dracula heard of the fall of Constantinople, a severe blow to Eastern European Christians that marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Constantinople had been the city that Holy Crusades for centuries had attempted to keep out of pagan hands. Its loss prompted Pope Nicholas V to declare, "The light of Christianity has suddenly gone out."

Europe was aghast and incensed as stories of the massacre at Constantinople filtered in, tales of thousands of Christians being impaled before the city walls while the Turks laughed, celebrated and pillaged; of how churches were burned; of the Holy Cross' razing from the palace to be used as kindle wood for funeral pyres. In one voice, Romania, Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and England cried for the death of the then-sultan, Mehmed, who had replaced Murad. Hungary, leading the defense, once again called on its White Knight, Jonas Hunyadi, to strike back hard.

By the first few months of 1456, it became apparent that the Turkish faction was making a beeline for Belgrade. This main outpost, sitting on the border between Turkish Siberia and Hungary, was commanded by Hunyadi's brother-in-law. Hunyadi, with the advice of Dracula, proposed a double offensive: to 1) rush reinforcements to Belgrade while 2) attacking Vandislas in Wallachia to prevent his opening of the back door to the sultan's contingent forces. Hunyadi's crusaders galloped to Belgrade; Dracula's cavalry to Tirgoviste. Both men were successful in meeting their objective.

Belgrade was spared, although Hunyadi, its savior, died of a fever within a year. In Wallachia, Vandislas met sound defeat by Dracula who engaged him in the Carpathian Valley. The hand-to-hand combat was one of Romania's most bloody hours. Old, unchallenged stories tell of Dracula insisting that he kill Vandislas personally after learning that it was he who had ordered the deaths of his family. If the legends are correct, the two men faced off on the field, each with sword in hand, and while their respective armies paused to cheer them on. Dracula, after a tense moment, cleared his foe's head from his shoulders with one well-aimed slice. Vandislas' troops, seeing what had happened to their leader, threw down their weapons and retreated.

Twenty-five-year-old Dracula, without further ado, mounted the throne of Wallachia once again. This time, he would not be routed. He ordered the artisans to emblazon the Dracula Crest — the crest bearing a winged dragon (the symbol of courage) embracing the Cross (a symbol of Catholicism) — on the provincial stamp, banners, coins, public buildings, suits of armor, and on a glorious plaque hanging above his throne. Had he been known by other names — Vlad the Warrior, Prince Vlad, Vlad the Conqueror — the constant sight of the family crest now reminded everyone that he was the son of a high member of the Order of the Dragon. As his reign took effect, and as he proved to be more than just another fleeting member of a hierarchy-in-chaos, he earned the name he wanted more than anything else in the world. Son of the Dragon. Dracula.

*****

The Wallachia in which Dracula ruled was at the time formally known as the state of Tara Romenescu, "Romania's Land". In terms of size, it covered 48,000 square miles (Florescu and McNally compare it to the size of New York State) and contained 3,000-plus hamlets nestled chiefly on the pine-heavy slopes of the Lower Carpathian Mountains. Its populace, mostly peasants governed by a series of Magyar landowners, neared a half-million in numbers. Tirgoviste, where Dracula's palace stood, was the capital. Other important burghs along the Tirgoviste-to-Danube commercial-and-trading route were Tirgsor, Bucharest and Braila.

Since before Dracula's grandfather's time, the province had been ruled by a prince, or domnul. The domnul worked with the landowners, boyars, to keep commerce flowing and the right of land stationary and safe against trespassers and infidels. As well, the domnul maintained a good relationship with members of the Roman Catholic church, which dominated Romania. Of the latter partnership, both parties received parallel respect, God and Caesar kept happy, so to speak.

However, Dracula had new, what he called necessary, plans for his principality, where the Caesar would be just a trifle happier and much more powerful. He did away with the feudal system of the domnul who, he insisted, was no more than a puppet to the ruling class boyars with allegiance to other wealthy barons, and to church leaders with foreign patronage. Upon his coronation as prince, he announced that the people should look upon him rather as a voivode, a warrior prince, ruling his domain henceforth as if under martial law, where there is one sovereign, one decision-maker. Because the reality of the Turks imposed a constant threat upon the land, he considered Wallachia a war state, and a war state requires tougher government.

Up until that time, the boyars had made up their own laws of turfdom and trade; their legislative body had mandated prices; they had controlled merchandise and bargained titles for favors well done. They had even owned the propriety to interfere in the prince's justice. That would end. And those who retaliated, Dracula explained, would be dealt with — severely — from the throne at Tirgoviste.

In laying his plans, Dracula had brought to his side an entourage of strong allies, many of whom had been family champions for decades, and who had served faithfully under his father, the Dragon. Neither he, nor they, had forgotten that during the elder's reign many of the property owners in Wallachia had caused problems. Many had attempted to undermine the Dragon. Dracula had already slain those responsible for the Dragon's death, but it wasn't enough.

After his policies of transition were announced, a number of boyars retaliated by writing letters and calling meetings of protest. Dracula, who realized his message wasn't being taken seriously, called the body together — some two-hundred men — to let them air their complaints (or so he said) over a sumptuous dinner. After they were given time to voice themselves, Dracula, at the head of the table, pushed back his wineglass and spoke.

"You speak of your loyalties to Wallachia, to Romania, and some even to me. But, yet, you have had many princes in your land, including my father. How can you account for that?"

The assembly glanced at each other, waiting for a constituent among them to play spokesperson. When the response was slow in coming, the voivode leapt to his feet:

"Dare any of you admit the truth! I will tell you why princes have come and gone here: because of your shameful intrigue!"

With that, he motioned to a courtier awaiting at the hall door; he, in turn, signaled a number of guards waiting in the vestibule beyond.

"You will be escorted out!" Dracula told his guests. "Get out of my sight!" Toasting them in mockery, he watched as they left, flanked by armed custodians. When the company reached the courtyard, the boyars were speared after a nod from Dracula who appeared on a balcony overhead. Still twitching, their bodies were impaled outside the walls of the palace, overlooking the town below.

Dracula's castle (CORBIS)
Dracula's castle (CORBIS)

A 15th Century Romanian manuscript records another episode of Dracula's revenge. On an Easter Sunday morning not long after the banquet incident, a brigade of soldiery stomped into the town cathedral during High Mass and yanked some three-hundred boyars and their families from the pews. They were chained, women and children too, and delivered to Dracula's private castle overlooking the Arges River where "they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked."

Greek historian Chalcondyles explains in more detail how the captives were forced to work on the refurbishing of the castle, reinforcing its battlements by mixing mortar, heaving heavy stones and timberwood up steep precipices, digging a moat — all this until many of them succumbed to duress, fatigue and fever. Chalcondyles' estimate of prisoners far exceeds the three hundred chronicled in the Romanian text. The line of manacled peoples, says he, stretched miles from the small villages to the castle gate.

Castle Bran, typical Transylvanian castle often confused with Dracula's (AP)
Castle Bran, typical
Transylvanian castle often
confused with Dracula's (AP)

Dracula's castle should not to be confused with the palace at Tirgoviste. The castle, thirty miles north, was fitted for a long siege in case the district fell under Turkish attack. It was originally built by Mircea in the 1300s, but was left to Dracula to refortify. It consisted of high, deep walls of natural stone, an exterior defensive wall called a barbican, barracks, tall parapets, rectangular battlements, cannon batteries, watchtowers, a prison, a dungeon, an escape tunnel (or salle-port) to the river edge, a moat, a drawbridge and a great-house reserved for the prince. Although no description of the latter exists, it was probably akin to the fictional Transylvanian castle that Bram Stoker describes in Dracula — of studded doorways, great fireplaces, timber floors, winding stairwells, arched columns and cornices, and ceilings that disappeared into the darkness of height. Tapestries, murals or mosaics, and friezes probably decorated the sober walls.

"Everywhere in Europe in the High Middle Ages, the castle played a crucial role: military, political, social, economic, cultural," to quote Joseph and Frances Gies' Life in a Medieval Castle. This home-away-from-home of Dracula's reign often attracted large parties of royal game huntsmen or served to house huge celebrations that the palace could not accommodate. Dracula kept his mistresses there. Plus, it was always reassuring to the prince to know that he had a sanctuary from times of insurrection and war.

By the time Dracula came to power, much of the century-year-old structure had fallen into disrepair and decay, and required a thousand hands to mend its broken condition. These hands belonged to the boyars, whose slave labor, Dracula claimed, taught them humility, if nothing else.

To strengthen his cornerstone of power, Voivode Dracula reestablished a local church hierarchy that would be more apt to resign itself to his customized government. Princes in those days often had the say-so to manipulate the ministerial organizations, and Dracula wasted no time, for instance, replacing foreign abbots with Wallachian priests. To balance his interference, he paid tribute by erecting beautiful friaries throughout his domain. The most ornate of these was the monastery at Snagov, where he would be eventually buried.

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