The fictional Count Dracula has cast a long shadow over Western Culture since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. This fictional vampire, of course, had lived in an isolated castle in Transylvania for several centuries, and was aiming to launch a campaign for widespread vampirism from the ruined abbey of Carfax in London. He is eventually stopped by a crack-team of amateurs led by Abraham van Helsing before he can succeed in his mission to spread the undead curse. Stoker’s novel however spread an undead curse of its own in the form of the vampire-trope in modern times.
In preparation for writing his magnum opus, Stoker spent a long time assiduously researching the vampire myths and superstitions of Central and Eastern Europe (popularised by John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819), and also the turbulent history of the region. His titular Count takes his name and certain biographical details from Vlad III, voivode (war-lord) of Wallachia, alias Vlad Tepes (‘the Impaler’) and Vlad Dracula, who lived between 1428 and c.1477. This article will show that the life of the ‘real Dracula’, as he is commonly known, was in many ways more fascinating than the camp villain of Stoker’s novel.
The Name ‘Dracula’
‘Dracula’ simply means ‘son of the Dragon’. The name, which is Slavonic, is sometimes misconstrued as ‘son of the Devil’ by scholars seduced by the mythological nonsense attached to the historical Vlad Tepes by Stoker. Vlad Tepes was ‘son of the Dragon’ because his father, Vlad II (pre-1395-1447), was known as Vlad Dracul, ‘Vlad the Dragon’. This sobriquet was not given to him for any particularly heinous crimes, however, but because he was a member of the esteemed Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order of nobility tasked with defending Christendom from its heretical enemies, especially the Ottoman Muslims.
Vlad Dracul spent much of his childhood in Buda (the ancient side of the Danube in modern Budapest, Hungary), as a gesture of goodwill from his father, the voivode Mircea I of Wallachia (c.1355-1418). Dracul was kept at Buda Castle to ensure that his father kept the alliance he had agreed with Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437), King of Hungary. Sigismund openly described Dracul as ‘educated at our court’, suggesting that he had every faith in the boy’s abilities and loyalty. When Mircea died in 1418, Dracul was free to leave, but opted to stay on as a page of Sigismund.
As Sigismund’s page, Dracul travelled widely across Europe with the Hungarian court, taking in Rome, Prague, Nuremburg, and Transylvania, and was educated in various foreign languages to prepare him for a life in European politics. However, he eventually grew tired of the petty intrigues, disputes, and pageantry he encountered, and was disappointed when Sigismund tired of crusading East and pursued his political ambitions to the West. Dracul’s aim was to regain his father’s throne in Wallachia, which had fallen into dispute amongst illegitimate half-brothers following Mircea’s death. Thus he began to make his own political alliances to achieve his aims.
Dracul was caught after leaving Buda castle under the cover of darkness to reach the Polish court at Krakow, where he intended to find a more profitable ally and sponsor in the form of King Ladislas II Jagielo, a former rival of Sigismund. The furious King of Hungary responded by confirming the then-ruling Dan II voivode of Wallachia and sending Dracul on diplomatic missions. On one of these missions Dracul spent time at Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, where he entertained thoughts of defecting to the rival empire. His time at Constantinople accounts for the Oriental garb in the depiction above.
Dracul returned to Hungary in 1429, being made a member of the Order of the Dragon by Sigismund in 1431. Dracul seized Wallachia at last in 1436 with the help of Hungary, but when his ally’s assistance diminished he was forced to pay tribute and swear loyalty to Sultan Murad II. When the invading Ottomans were defeated by John Hunyadi, voivode of Transylvania, in 1442, Dracul was imprisoned for treachery, but returned to rule Wallachia in 1443. He was killed by Hunyadi’s men in 1447. Vlad Tepes was born in 1428, while his father was living in Sighisoara, Transylvania.