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Long before tales of vampires captured the imagination, the man known as Vlad III Dracula ruled Wallachia with an iron fist. Known for his ruthless treatment of those seeking to undermine his leadership and a tendency to revel in the pain of his victims while in control of what is southern Romania today, he returned to the throne after a decade-long exile on November 26, 1476.
Named Vlad by his father, Vlad II Dracul, he received his moniker “Dracula” for literally being the “Son of Dragon” — the elder Vlad had taken an oath to defend the Christian faith in 1431 and joined the Order of the Dragon. Born in Transylvania, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the prince found himself in the arms of the Ottomans for most of his early years, held as collateral for protection from attacks by the Sultan on Wallachia as part of an agreement with his father.
Forced to learn the ways of his sworn enemies from a young age, Vlad resented his captors, his family and, perhaps most of all, his younger brother Radu. His sibling, also sent to the Sultan, gained favor among the Ottomans for his willingness to absorb their lessons without causing the problems Vlad did.
Though Vlad would later be installed on the throne of Wallachia by the Sultan’s armies around the age of 17, after his father had been killed by Hungarian king John Hunyadi, he maintained his grudge for the rest of his life.
Sent into exile when the Hungarians invaded to reclaim the territory, Vlad worked his way into the good graces of Hunyadi by sharing intimate details about Ottoman strategy and tactics — helpful information when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and began to threaten territories in Europe further to the north and west. In 1456, Vlad managed to regain the throne of his homeland while Hunyadi defended Serbia from the Sultan’s advances.
Eager to provide stability in his war-ravaged land, Vlad created trade restrictions and boosted grain exports to keep the common people from rising up against him — prosperity, he believed, was his greatest ally. Moving to secure his grip on the kingdom, Vlad ordered the murder of nobles he suspected of disloyalty and installed those he knew would remain on his side. His actions in Brasov, a stronghold of the former Boyar nobility near the Wallachian border with Transylvania, earned him his nickname, “the Impaler,” in 1459.
By that time, the Ottomans were on the march again. Though Vlad managed to repel Mehmed’s armies at first, his brother Radu would take the crown on September 8, 1462. Fleeing into neighboring Hungary in search of aid from his allies, Vlad was imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus for more than a decade.
On November 26, 1476, the man they called Dracula retook his homeland for the final time. Seizing on the upheaval after his brother’s death in 1474, Vlad used support from the Hungarians and his cousin, Steven the Great of Moldavia, to march back into Wallachia. Weeks later, he was dead.
Historians are lost when it comes to providing an explanation, as only a brief mention dated to January 10, 1477 explains he was killed. In death, he took on a whole new life: German writers circulated stories of his cruelty — as many as 100,000 people may have been executed during his reign — by creating small pamphlets describing his brutal punishments. A legend soon spread: Mehmed, the bloodthirsty Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, was turned back from the Danube by the horrifying sight of 20,000 rotting bodies impaled outside Vlad’s capital of Targoviste. The tale moved through the Balkans like wildfire.
Though Bram Stoker took some liberties with his story when writing Dracula four centuries later, Vlad remains a popular hero in Romania and Bulgaria today. Citing his ability to turn back the Ottomans (not to mention the tourism revenue), Vlad is seen as a point of pride for both nations.
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