The Real Dracula (Part 3)

In spite of such reported atrocities, Vlad Ţepeş is a significant figure in Romanian history. For one thing, he was one of a number of voivodes who contributed to the building of a strong, independent Wallachian state. He stood up against the powerful nobles and assured law and order in what were lawless times. But most of all he is remembered for standing up against the Ottoman Empire, at a time when other principalities around him were falling under Turkish control. He is perceived as something of a David facing a Goliath. As for the brutality of his punishments, his defenders point out that his actions were no more cruel than those of several other late-medieval or early-Renaissance European rulers such as Louis XI of France, Ferdinand of Naples, Cesare Borgia of Italy, and Ivan the Terrible of Russia.

Today, Vlad Ţepeş is still remembered. In the village of Aref, near the fortress at Poenari, the locals depict him as a hero and friend to the people:

"My grandfather used to tell me that during the reign of Vlad the Impaler, Romanians paid tribute to the Turks in exchange for peace. This tax included one to two hundred young people a year to serve in the mercenary corps of the Turkish army. Some of these lads came from the village of Aref. Vlad the Impaler decided to put a stop to it. The mighty Sultan, on hearing that Vlad refused to pay tribute, sent an army to capture him alive and bring him to Turkey. When the Turkish army crossed the Danube, Vlad retreated through this village to his fortress. When he arrived at Castle Poenari, he sent word to the village asking the elders for advice. Vlad told the elders, 'The Turks have surrounded this fortress and I want you to take me across the border into Transylvania, by morning.' One of the elders who was an iron smith said, 'I have a plan. Let us reverse the shoes of the horses so that when we leave the fortress and the Turks come, they will think we have entered when we have actually gone away' So they reversed the shoes and escaped through a secret passage, and crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania. When they reached the border, Vlad asked how he could compensate them for their loyalty. The elders of Aref replied, 'Your Highness, give us not gold or silver because these can be spent. Give us land because the land is fertile and will keep us alive for all time.' So he asked for a rabbit skin and wrote on it, 'I give you, the elders of Aref, fourteen mountains and nine sheepfolds which you will have forever.' And we still have a couple of the mountains from that time. And as children, listening to our grandfather, we rejoiced at how Vlad fooled the Turks".

The villagers keep these stories alive to this day.

Less than two months into his final reign (probably near the end of December, 1476) Vlad was killed in battle in a forest just north of Bucharest. The circumstances are unclear. A Russian source claims that he was mistaken by one of his own men for a Turk and consequently killed. More likely is that he was attacked by a rival claimant, Basarab Laiotă (who succeeded him as voivode), and killed by a hired assassin. One story goes that he was beheaded, and his head was taken back to the Sultan in Constantinople and displayed as a trophy. Tradition has it that his body was taken by monks to the Snagov Monastery and buried there close to the altar, in recognition of the fact that he had supplied funds for the rebuilding of the monastery years earlier. However, excavations on the site during the early 1930s failed to uncover a burial site. Where are his remains? Some suggest that he was buried elsewhere on the monastery site where indeed remains were found but have since disappeared. Others contend he is buried near the altar, but at a greater depth than was excavated. Yet others suggest he may have been interred in a different monastery altogether. We may never know.

As for Vlad's immediate family, we know practically nothing certain about his first wife (assuming they were even married), except that she was a Transylvanian noblewoman. Her name is unknown. She is, however, preserved in this surviving oral narrative in Aref:

"It is said that Vlad the Impaler had a kind and humble wife with a heart of gold. Whenever Vlad took his sword and led his army into battle, his wife's heart grew sad. One night a strange thing happened. An arrow entered through one of the windows of the fortress and put out a candle in their bedroom. Striking a light, she discovered a letter in the point of the arrow which said that the fortress was surrounded by the Turks. Approaching the window she saw many flickering fires in the valley. Thinking that all was lost, and without waiting for her husband's decision, she climbed up on the wall of the fortress and threw herself into the Argeş River". This cannot be verified through historical documents.

We do know that Vlad later married Ilona Szilagy, who was related to Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary who had placed Vlad under arrest following his escape from Wallachia in 1462. It appears that Corvinus made an arrangement with Vlad to restore him to his throne. To strengthen the bond, Vlad was offered a royal bride. After his death, Vlad's wife was left with his three sons. Mihnea, the eldest, was from his union with the Transylvanian noblewoman. He had two sons by his Hungarian wife -- Vlad, and a second whose name is unknown. Only Mihnea succeeded in gaining the Wallachian throne. During his brief rule from 1508-1509, he showed signs that he could be as atrocious as his infamous father; nicknamed "Mihnea the Bad", he is reputed to have cut off the noses and lips of his political enemies. He was assassinated in 1510 on the steps of a church in Sibiu.

According to genealogical research conducted by historians Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (published in their 1989 book Dracula: Prince of Many Faces), the Romanian male line died out in 1632. As for the Hungarian lineage, the last male descendant died late in the sixteenth century, though a female line can be traced for an additional hundred years. As for indirect descendants, it has been verified that Professor Constantin Bălăceanu-Stolnici of Bucharest is descended from Vlad Dracula's half-brother, Vlad the Monk. According to researchers at the Institute of Genealogy of the Romanian Academy, other claims are unsubstantiated.

Whatever Vlad might have been, nowhere is it stated that he was (or was believed to have been) a vampire. While some of early negative reports aligned Vlad with the devil (playing on the alternative meaning of "dracul"), this was not a vampiric association. The word "vampire" was never used in connection with Vlad until long after Bram Stoker's novel appeared and it became popular to assume (incorrectly) that Vlad was Stoker's inspiration for his vampire Count.