It was a sight designed to break the spirit of even a battle-hardened sultan — some 20,000 corpses skewered on a forest of poles planted in a muddy field, a hideous display left by a retreating army as a warning. The tallest spike was reserved for the sultan’s general, still ceremoniously robed. Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, reputedly recoiled in horror, perhaps even wept, and turned back, his campaign to subjugate central and Western Europe temporarily thwarted.
The bestial glade at Targoviste in what is now southern Romania was the handiwork of Vlad III, who came honestly by his sobriquet, Vlad Tepes — aka Vlad the Impaler. Starting in 1448, he had practiced his signature torture and terror tactic while consolidating his control over the lands of his father, Vlad II, in Wallachia and mountainous Transylvania to the north.
In 1462, the sultan sent envoys to secure Vlad’s loyalty; he responded by having them impaled.
The trouble was that he commanded a vassal state — one that had accepted the suzerainty of the Ottomans in 1417 and was allowed limited self-rule in exchange for fealty, taxes and troops. If geography is destiny, then Wallachia was destined for conflict, given its location on the northern frontiers of the empire. When Vlad eventually decided to fight back against his overlord, he pitted himself against the most powerful military force on earth.
Legend has it that Vlad III was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, Transylvania, in a house that still stands, although local historians remain skeptical. His father, a member of the Basarab dynasty that ruled the region for almost three centuries, was granted the surname Dracul (“dragon”) after his induction into the Order of the Dragon, a group of independent noblemen who had vowed to repel the Ottoman infidels. His son later became known as Dracula (“son of the dragon”).
In 1442, when Sultan Murad II summoned Vlad II to Edime, then the Ottoman capital in what’s now northern Greece, he was told to bring along his sons Vlad III and Radu. It was a trap, and Vlad II was released only on the condition that he leave his sons behind as hostages. Treated more as guests than prisoners, the boys were tutored in the sciences and arts, and trained as horsemen and warriors. It is believed that one of the lessons young Vlad learned was the Ottoman practice of impalement.
Five years later, when the boyars (warlords) of Wallachia overthrew and killed Vlad II and his eldest son, the hostage sons were released and returned home, expected to rule as loyal vassals. By 1456, Vlad III had seized the throne — and then began exacting revenge. A year later, on Easter Sunday, he invited the boyars to a banquet in the great hall of his fortress-palace in Targoviste, where he had them stabbed and then impaled outside the redoubt’s walls. In 1459, he delivered the same fate to dozens of Saxon merchants in Transylvania who opposed his rule.
As the legend of Vlad’s ferocity spread across Europe — even Pope Pius II was reportedly impressed — the Ottomans continued advancing. Murad II’s son, Mehmet II, had conquered the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1453, renaming it Istanbul. And now he attempted to regain control of the restless Balkans, Greece and Vlad’s principality, strategically situated on the northern banks of the Danube. “The Danube gave transport, communication and easily defensible ports,” says A.K. Brackob, historian and publisher of Histria Books. “It was key strategic territory as Mehmet II focused on moving into Western Europe.”
In 1462, the sultan sent envoys to secure Vlad’s loyalty; he responded by having them impaled. Vlad’s refusal to pay taxes to the empire or send Wallachian boys to become janissaries (elite infantrymen in the sultan’s household troops) meant that war was inevitable.
Mehmet, himself a formidable warrior, marched north that same year with an army that outnumbered Vlad’s by three to one. In response, Vlad turned to guerrilla warfare. He conducted night raids, poisoned wells, even paid men infected with bubonic plague to infiltrate enemy ranks — anything to slow the Ottoman advance. And, retreating from his fortress in Targoviste, he left behind the gruesome forest of thousands of impaled enemies.
Vlad escaped capture by the Ottomans only to be intercepted by Hungarian troops and imprisoned by Matthias I of Hungary. In 1476, he regained his seat. Setting out on yet another foray, Vlad and his vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and the prince was slain. According to legend, Vlad’s head went south to Istanbul as a trophy for Mehmet, and his body ended up in a sarcophagus in Snagov Monastery outside Bucharest — except, of course, the tomb is empty. As for the vampire connection, Irish novelist Bram Stoker tapped into the Vlad legend as well as other medieval lore to create Count Dracula, depicted so memorably by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film that the strands of the impaler and the bloodsucker may never be untangled. “[W]hen ‘Dracula’s Castle’ is pointed out to a charabanc-load of tourists,” writes Patrick Leigh Fermor in Between the Woods and the Water about his trek through Europe just prior to World War II, “I suspect that it is not the historical figure that appears before their minds’ eye …” Instead, he reckoned, the wide-eyed visitors were imagining “a natty Count in an opera hat and a satin-lined cape with a queer look about his incisors …”
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