On June 17, 1462, Vlad III, prince of Wallachia, attacked the Ottoman army by night. He later impaled 20,000 prisoners; shocked by the carnage, the Turks retreated.
Vlad Repels Turks With “Night Attack” and Impalement
The small principality of Wallachia lay between two powers, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Its leader, Vlad II Dracul (the Dragon), agreed to send his younger two sons, Vlad and Radu, to the Ottoman Turks as a sign of good faith in 1443. In his five years as a virtual prisoner, young Vlad developed an intense hatred of Islam and the Turks.
Vlad III, or Vlad Dracula, was installed as the ruler of Wallachia in 1448, following the death of his father. His reign was brief, but he returned to the throne in 1456. He employed brutal methods to consolidate his control; he was especially fond of impalement as punishment, later earning the name Vlad Ţepeş (Vlad the Impaler).
The Turks, under Mehmed II, had conquered Constantinople and land in Eastern Europe. He gathered his army—probably consisting of 60,000 soldiers and 20,000 auxiliaries, though historians have estimated the number as high as 300,000—at the Danube River in the spring of 1462 and prepared to invade Wallachia.
Vlad’s outnumbered army engaged in battle around the Danube, then launched a strategic retreat to the capital of Targoviste. Vlad employed a scorched-earth policy, ordering food stores to be burned and wells to be poisoned. His men launched guerilla attacks on Mehmed’s tired, hungry army as they advanced to Targoviste.
On the night of June 17, as Mehmed was camped south of Targoviste, Vlad decided to strike. Between 7,000 and 10,000 of his soldiers attacked the Turkish camp, intending to assassinate Mehmed. Though they could not kill the sultan, the “Night Attack” inflicted further damage on his army.
Mehmed decided to continue his army’s advance to Targoviste. When they arrived, they were greeted with a gruesome sight. Vlad, as a psychological warfare tactic, had ordered the impalement of the 20,000 mostly Turkish prisoners outside the capital.
Laonicus Chalcondyles, a 15th century Greek historian, described, “the Sultan's army came across a field with stakes, about three kilometers long and one kilometer wide. And there were large stakes on which they could see the impaled bodies of men, women, and children, about twenty thousand of them, as they said; quite a spectacle for the Turks and the Sultan himself! The Sultan, in wonder, kept saying that he could not conquer the country of a man who could do such terrible and unnatural things.”
Vlad’s Arrest and Death
Mehmed ordered his men to retreat. Vlad had defended Wallachia from the Turks, but his victory was short-lived. Radu, who had embraced Turkish culture, was determined to overthrow Vlad and take over as prince of Wallachia. With the support of Mehmed, Radu allied himself with the boyars, the Wallachian gentry, and led his forces to Dracula’s castle.
Dracula fled toward Hungary, while his wife committed suicide by leaping from the castle into the Arges Rivee. Dracula asked Hungarian King Matthius Corvinus for help, but was instead arrested; he would spend the next 12 years in Hungarian captivity, marrying a member of the royal family. Radu would reign as prince of Wallachia for much of the next 13 years until his death in 1475.
After his release, Dracula returned to Wallachia and reclaimed his throne in 1476 from a Turkish-supported leader. His reign was brief; he died in battle in December 1476 while defending his throne from the Turks.
The Life and Legacy of Vlad Dracula
Sources in this Story
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Vlad III (ruler of Wallachia)
- Dr. Elizabeth Miller: Vlad The Impaler: Brief History
- Eskimo North, Inc.: The Historical Dracula—An Essay by Ray Porter
- Exploring Romania: Vlad the Impaler
- TruTV Crime Library: Vlad the Impaler
- Time: Is Dracula Really Dead?
- PBS: Frontline/World: Dracula: The Metamorphisis of a Fiend
- Curious Expeditions: The Whipping Boy
Vlad II took the name Dracul, derived from the Latin “draco,” meaning “the dragon,” when he entered the Order of the Dragon, an order dedicated to protecting Christianity. Vlad III took the name Dracula, indicating that he was the son of Dracul.
Vlad Dracula’s brutality is legendary. According to Time magazine, he “was fond of dining outdoors, surrounded by a veritable forest of impaled men, women and children.” He also famously invited the poor to a feast in a castle, then set the castle on fire so “there should be no more poor in my realm, leaving only the rich.”
Both Ray Porter and Dr. Elizabeth Miller, author of “A Dracula Handbook,” tell anecdotal stories of Vlad’s cruelty, describing how he allegedly had the hats of ambassadors nailed to their head after they refused to take them off, and how he impaled a nobleman who complained of the smell of dead bodies on a high stake so that he would be above the smell.
Many Romanians regard Dracula as a national hero who brought law and order to the region and saved Romania from the invading Muslim Turks. “He is perceived as something of a David facing a Goliath,” notes Miller.
In 1977, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, himself a totalitarian leader, honored Dracula among national heroes in Romania’s Hall of Fame, reported Time. “Vlad was a good Christian and he loved the truth,” said one Romanian priest. “If he impaled people it was just to put a stop to injustice by noblemen at home and Turks from abroad. Traitors have to be punished, and Vlad was very efficient.”
“Dracula” Novel and Films
In 1897 Irish author Bram Stoker released the novel “Dracula,” loosely basing the villain on Vlad III the Impaler. The book, which portrayed Dracula as a blood-sucking, undead fiend, has been adapted in hundreds of literary works, plays, television series, and feature films.
Stoker’s Dracula bears little resemblance to the real-life Vlad Dracul. Romanian historian Radu Florescu, author of “Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times,” documented the differences between the two in the 1970s, and concluded that “Bram Stoker seems to have been only dimly aware of Vlad III’s actual history.”