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The Real Dracula

His name has inspired fear, horror and revulsion throughout the centuries. He has been immortalized in books, film and television series. Vampires are mostly myth; but, Dracula is indeed real. Prince Vlad III was born in either November or December of the year 1431 in the town of Sighisoara in Transylvania. His father was the son of Mircea cel Batrin (Mircea the Elder). He was an important ruler of Wallachia, an area of Southern Romania which is situated north of the Danube and south of the Carpathian Mountains.

When Mircea died, his crown did not immediately pass to his descendants. The leader was elected by the boyars, the highest rank of the nobility. Vladís father was Mirceaís illegitimate son. Since Mircea had no legitimate heirs, his brother Dan II, contested the senior Vladís right to rule. The elder Vlad married Cneajna Musati, the daughter of King Alexandru cel Brun (Alexander the Kind) of the kingdom of Moldova. They had three sons. Vlad III was their youngest.

The year that Vlad III was born, his father, who had been brought up in the Hungarian court of King Sigismund of Hungary, was made governor of Transylvania. Previously, he had been inducted by the same Sigismund into the Order of the Dragon, a secret order of knights that were supposed to defend Christianity against the Ottoman Turks.

Because of his fatherís involvement with the Order of the Dragon, Vlad III became known as Dracula, ďThe Son of the DragonĒ. His father became known as Vlad Dracul. In 1436, Vlad Dracul killed the Danesti king, Alexandru I Aldea (he came after Dan II, the very man who originally opposed Vladís first attempt at kingship). Then, Vlad II crowned himself King of Wallachia.

Vlad II didnít have an easy reign. He was both a liege of the Hungarian king and subject to paying tribute to the Ottoman Turks. In 1442, he was accused by Hungaryís new king, Ulaszlo I, of failing to defend Wallachia from the Turks. He was ousted. Vlad II appealed to the Ottoman sultan, Murad II, for help. He regained his throne but was forced to give the Ottoman his two youngest sons, Radu the Handsome and Vlad Dracula. Vlad Dracula was only 13 at the time.

Dracula spent the next four years as a prisoner of the Ottomans. During that time, there was a crusade against the Turks. Vladís dad sent his oldest son, Mircea, to fight for Hungary and hoped it wouldnít anger the Turks. This upset the powerful Hungarian warlord, John Hunyadi, as well as the Hungarian king. After the Hungarians lost the Crusade of Varna, Vlad and his oldest son, Mircea, were killed. A puppet king ruled in their stead.

The Turks released Dracula at this time (1448). They gave him an army with the intent that he would overthrow this new king. He got the throne but, in the fashion of the time, didnít keep it very long. By the end of 1448, he was living in exile in Moldavia. The Hungarians put back their puppet ruler, Vladislav II.

Three years into his exile, Prince Bogdan of Moldavia was assassinated. That kingdom was thrown into turmoil. Vlad Dracula fled and sought shelter in John Hunyadiís court. Although Hunyadi was his familyís enemy, Vlad Dracula and he now had a common enemy, Vladislav II. Yes. Vladislav had recently begun implementing pro-Turkish policies which angered Hunyadi and the Hungarian court.

Dracula became Hunyadiís vassal. Hunyadi presented him as the Hungarian candidate for the kingship of Wallachia. He remained in Transylvania for several more years, under Hunyadiís protection before retaking Wallachia in 1456. That same year, Hunyadi led an unsuccessful campaign against the Turks, to whom Constantinople fell in 1453. Hunyadiís failure would impact Vladís successes. He would only rule Wallachia until 1462 when the Turks laid siege to his castle. During that siege, Draculaís first wife committed suicide so as not to be captured by the Turks.

Dracula escaped and became a prisoner of the Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadiís son). He was held in a tower at one point; but, towards the end of his imprisonment, he had married a cousin of the Hungarian King, Ilona Szilagy. They eventually struck an agreement to return Vlad to the throne. Interestingly enough, Vladís older brother, Radu, was King of Wallachia during this time. Vladís return to the throne was accomplished in 1475; however, Dracula would not remain there long. He was murdered during a battle yet under suspicious circumstances in 1477. Some say that the bogyars, perhaps led by Radu or inspired by revenge, had him killed.

Of course, this confusing but basic history doesnít really explain where Dracula got his reputation from does it?

During his lifetime, Vlad was known for his brutality. He enjoyed impaling people. Legend has it that he began impaling rats while a teenager in the Turkish prisons. One account says that he had impaled over 20,000 men, women and children and left them on the battlefield so that the Turks could see his cruelty. Of course, many of these stories are exaggerated and perhaps even fabricated.

But, there is still some truth to the fact that he was a bit on the blood-thirsty side.

On Easter Sunday of 1457, Vlad, who had just reclaimed the throne of Wallachia a year before, invited the bogyars (nobles) to an elaborate Easter feast. After their meal, his soldiers rounded up the able-bodied and marched them to Poenari to build his castle. Those that survived the arduous construction process were then impaled.

In fact, even minor transgressions in his kingdom were punishable by death. Thieves and adulterers were subject to the stake. So were the poor. One story distributed via a German pamphlet in the late 15th century mentions that he invited a group of beggars to his castle. He had them all burned so that no one would be poor in his lands. Those merchants he thought that had ignored his trade laws would often find their towns raided; and, in some cases, burned to the ground. He did not discriminate between man, woman, or child. All were subject to his punishments.

Another story says that he nailed a turban to the head of a Turkish emissary from the Ottoman sultan when the man refused to remove his turban from his head in the Wallachian kingís presence. Other rumors say that Vlad would often eat while watching his victimsí die. Others say he even drank their blood or at their flesh. It does seem that impaled bodies often surrounded the king in his banquet hall.

Although Bram Stokerís classic novel Dracula tells the story of a Transylvanian noble, it has become quite clear in recent years that Stoker didnít base his story on any particular historical figure. He used an amalgam of a bunch of these old wivesí tales and legends from the region. It so happens that this blood-thirsty Romanian noble of the latter 15th century, gets the credit for being the ultimate blood-drinker, a vampire we still fear and desperately want to believe in.

To the Romanian people, however, Vlad Tepes has become somewhat of a national hero. He is the man who united Wallachia and tried to keep foreign influences i.e., Hungarian and Turk, out of his realm. He is credited by many as the father of the modern Romanian state; and, his memory was revamped and revitalized in Romania during the time of Ceausescu.

Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that Dracula is a myth that has grown above and beyond any one historical figure. Vampires are part of our Halloween lore and legend. To some, the truth is scarier Ė and stranger Ė than the fiction; however.

By Deanna Couras Goodson

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