Abraham Stoker and a Wallachian Prince
Abraham Stoker published his profound horror novel Dracula on May 26, 1897. The titular Count gradually became what some posit as the ultimate symbol of evil in Western Society –
Stoker was able to use him to embody almost every fear and insecurity of the late Victorian British Empire. He was the old feudal lord encroaching on the capitalist London; he was the foreign other who could degenerate good young British women into promiscuous vamps who reacted violently against children; he was the “man” who descend the evolutionary ladder into lower orders of being; he was anti-Christ who threatened staunch Christian society.1
Since then, the vampire Dracula has faced nearly every permutation film can subject him to – whether it is the cadaverous interpretation of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or the immortal lover in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Every generation on the planet has had a Dracula movie to see since 1929. Nearly everyone on the planet knows his name. And nearly all of us have grown up with the assumption that Dracula was based on a real historical man.
I invite you to wear his boots, just for an evening, and I bid you welcome into his house.
To Dine in the House of Dragons
On or around April 17, 1457, the newly installed prince of Wallachia hosted an Easter banquet in Targoviste for all the prominent Boyar families. These Boyars made up an informal council of nobles who could elect their prince from a list of eligible heirs – not necessarily by raising a hand and saying “aye” but to whomever they funneled money and support. All those gathered understood, especially the prince at hand, that the election was typically not for the remainder of the candidate’s natural life.
This prince, this Vlad III known as son-of-the-Dragon or Dracula, had been prince once before. He reigned for a mere two months in 1448, when he was 17, and narrowly escaped capture and death (Jens, 48).2
It may have been simple luck that delivered him from the deadly machinations of Wallachian politics that first time. Returning as he had in the summer of 1456 with a small but elite retinue of seasoned warriors, Vlad must have understood with absolute clarity the precarious nature of his position (65-6).2 Wallachian princes lived and died by the sword. Dracula was a chained dragon if a dragon at all, fit for display on the heraldry of the Wallachian principality and little else.
This feast included as many as 500 guests. A great many of the families in attendance had been behind a recent Wallachian Vote of No Confidence – that is, the betrayal, mutilation and murder of another duly elected prince some ten years before (Scutts, 6).3 This is not to say this is the only prince in the past decade to take The Long Dirt NapTM prematurely. Material to the story is that Dracula’s father, Vlad II Dracul, was the prince violently deposed in 1447. Vlad III’s older brother, Mircea Dracula, also perished in the purge, and badly. As the story goes, his eyes were gouged out by the Boyars of Targoviste before they thought better of their mercy and buried him alive (Jens, 38).2
Sometime that evening Vlad Dracula “casually asked if any of the Boyars knew how many rulers Wallachia had had during their lifetime” (70).2 The “vast majority” of Boyars assembled could not accurately answer the question (70).2
For the sake of our discussion we’ll take a stab at answering Vlad ourselves. Arbitrarily consider the age of the oldest Boyar at the feast to be 50, which brings us back to the turn of the 15th century. The list of Wallachian rulers maintained at Wikipedia would suggest the total to be nine, including Vlad III Dracula himself.4 This count, however, does not allow for several princes on that list having several periods of rule within their lifetime. If you include each prince’s tenure in office at various times, the count rises to 15.
Perhaps the Boyars simply couldn’t keep track – inherent in such a fractured system of government is the assumption that one side doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the other sides’ elections – here we strain the definition of that hallowed pillar of western society. Was there an argument at the table, a sincere attempt to answer? Probably not. Likely some of them scowled and wondered what Dracula was on about. Perhaps their count was off because they didn’t consider Mircea to be a true prince – he had only held down the throne as regent in his father’s absence, a technicality – but like most others he had paid the Iron Price for his crown nonetheless.
The Boyars would regret their inability to give a satisfactory answer to this most loaded of questions. So the story goes.
A Fractured Principality
Sir Jens details the internecine struggles of 15th century Wallachia in his concise and accessible In the Shadow of Empires. There are no fewer than four significant layers of contributing factors to Wallachian instability, any one of which would be a critical failing by itself. To characterize Wallachian politics as Shakespearean would come close to an adequate description, if only to give a hasty generalization regarding the depth and breadth of various plots, double-crosses, and generalized morbid intrigues. I should say sexagintuple or centuple-crosses but let’s keep the number low, our scope is mercifully limited.5 And I say close to Shakespearean because I don’t know if the Bard ever tried something this complicated. You just can’t put butts in seats this way. No one would watch the resultant slayings, torture and blood letting for any length of time as each potentate reaches deeper toward the bottom of the bottomless barrel to out-horrify his opposition. There are limits to popular discourse, especially that which is considered entertainment. Even Tarantino would turn this script away.
Wallachia bordered the Catholic Kingdom of Hungary to the west and the Muslim Ottomans to the east and both played a veritable game of “ping pong with the Wallachian throne [as] family turned on family in bloody coups…”(Jens, 32).2 Both empires had learned dutifully from the Byzantine habit of maintaining a quiver of potential rivals to the Wallachian throne, alternately sheltering some or holding others hostage to ensure their relatives’ continued good behavior. These young men, even the hostages, were educated and groomed for power from the time of their youth, ready to be loosed across the porous border into Wallachia and to establish a new, if not long-lived, regime.
If Wallachia was so weak, why not conquer it outright and be done with it? Jens argues that both empires profited from having Wallachia as a buffer state:
If Wallachia had been annexed, the competing Hungarian and Ottoman empires would have had a wide and direct border… such a border would have been high maintenance, demanding high concentrations of troops and providing little warning should one or the other empire attack (25).2
Add to this the fickle and dissembling Boyars within Wallachia itself. They could be relied upon to act in their own short term interests and their fractured status only served the strategic goals of major regional powers.
Further complicating matters were the Saxon cities in Southern Transylvania who profited from trade in Wallachia and therefore needed favorable agreements, low taxes and a prince who would support these conditions. Saxon lobbyists could flood the coffers of influential Boyars who could nominate another prince of their choosing and “readily support successive armed revolts and regime changes as long as the price [was] right” (26).2
The situation was exponentially more complex considering the Boyars felt no compulsion to obey primogeniture, the idea that the eldest son alone inherits the lion’s share of his father’s estate. Rather, succession “was determined as a choice between eligible royal heirs,” which included “all male royal offspring” produced “in or out of wedlock” (26).2 Gathering a pool of murderous bastards was never so easy. Considering other principalities have fallen into disaster and ignominy with only two brothers striving for supremacy it’s no wonder that Wallachia in the 14th and 15th centuries teetered constantly on the knife edge of disaster.
Thus armed with an ample supply of royal candidates, two mighty empires, powerful semi-autonomous merchant cities and a corrupt class of Boyars, Wallachia was a regular scene of regicide and fratricide, leaving the country in a constant state of unrest, disorder and unlawfulness (26).2
What sort of man could hope to rule in this dumpster fire of political intrigue, assassination, and revolt?
The Drăculești Dynasty
Vlad II took the surname Dracul or Dragon when he joined the Societas Draconistarum, “the society of Dragonists,” around 1430 (34).2,6 First formed by King Sigismund of Hungary and “fashioned after the military orders of the Crusades,” the order required “its initiates to defend the cross and fight the enemies of Christianity, in particular the Ottoman Turks.”6 This knightly order is known simply as the Order of the Dragon and its intended meaning was that of the defeated dragon. The foundation of this order was an attempt by Sigismund to cement the support of the Pope in Rome, hence their sworn enemies were all those groups considered heretics by the Holy See, including Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians.6
Dracul had thrown the balance of his hope for survival on his association with Sigismund and he had chosen a powerful ally. By 1433 the once-embattled king of Hungary had emerged from nearly two decades of frequent unrest at home and warfare abroad to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. Being a man inducted into the Order of the Dragon by 1430, Dracul had the proverbial benefit going forward of being Sigismund’s friend before it was fashionable. Thus, when Dracul’s brother, Alexandru, “the current [prince] of Wallachia, died in 1436, King Sigismund ordered [Dracul] to form an army and take the vacant throne” (Jens, 34).2 He did so, encountering no resistance from the Boyars and effectively preempting a similar move by the Ottomans.
Sigismund died a year later, at the age of 69. Transylvania, directly to Wallachia’s north, immolated herself in revolt. The Ottomans, under the leadership of Murad II, capitalized on this instability and launched a devastating raid. In 1438 Dracul turned cloak and joined the Ottoman incursion into Transylvania.
…despite his obligations as a member of the Order of the Dragon… [he made] a choice very much dictated by realpolitik… and an appreciation of the situation rather than the kind of brave loyalties that would commonly get people killed (35).2
Hungarian strongmen sifted one another like wheat and quickly reformed their power base. Dracul found himself stuck between the regional powers, regarded as a traitor to Hungary and a coerced ally of convenience to the Ottomans. He had to play a delicate game of Both Sides Against the Middle for the remainder of his life, resisting an ever-tightening noose. He played the game as well as any flesh and blood man has, ever.
In 1443 Murad II pinned Dracul down at last and summoned him to the Ottoman capital in Edirne. Dracul was forced to leave his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, as hostages. The boys were twelve and ten, respectively. He also had to agree to send a yearly tribute of gold and also hundreds of Wallachian boys destined for the Sultan’s Janissary corps (36-7).2
…in a letter to the Senate of Braşov in 1444, [Vlad Dracul wrote] “I left my little children to be slaughtered for the peace of Christians.”7
Life in the Ottoman Court
Vlad III and Radu would have received an education fitting their high-born status, being “regarded as possible replacements for ruling the vassal countries” of the Ottomans.7
It was a classic ploy. Throughout its history, the exploitation of dynastic rivalry among adjacent states had been a cornerstone of Byzantine diplomacy. The Ottomans had had a prior taste of these tactics… when [their] dynasty had almost collapsed in a civil war shrewdly promulgated by the [Byzantine] emperor… (Crowley, 54-5).8
The Ottomans became experts at destabilizing the buffer states in their immediate reach in almost perfect replication of the millennia-old Byzantine technique. If outright control of the Balkans could not be immediately achieved, then destabilization of the region would have to suffice. In this particular case the Ottomans maintained a brace of potential claimants to the Wallachian principality.
Vlad and his brother lived under the cloud of immediate execution should their father misbehave badly enough to anger the Sultan. It is permissible to speculate that their captivity was equally a reinforcement of their privileged status and a constant reminder that they were disposable. This environment is an age-old setup for the manipulation of young men. Boys missing their daddy, and that is exactly the age at which Vlad and Radu were deposited in Edirne, would naturally seek a powerful male role model for guidance and approval.
Mehmed II the Conqueror
By the end of his life Mehmed would be known as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Caesar in Rome, Lord of the Two Lands and Two Seas, and Padishah, an ancient Persian title meaning Master of Kings.9 He took the reigns of a mighty and warlike people from his father, a masterful ruler in his own right, and continued in the family tradition of relentlessly crushing his enemies. Even if we consider the tendency to say much nicer things about the dearly departed than they deserve, or our temptation to harken back to more golden times, Mehmed’s resume is overpowering and resists casual revisionism. He conquered and subsequently rebuilt Constantinople, turned her harbors into a manufactory of warships and consolidated his control over the Balkans. In all historic and public measures he was great and considered such even by his enemies.
He was also a sexual predator. Historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles was a Byzantine Greek writing in the time of Mehmed. He details the grooming, assault and subsequent homosexual affair Mehmed carried on with Vlad’s younger brother, Radu:
The Emperor had with him the brother of Vlad, son of Dracul, and was his favourite, living with him… [Mehmed] invited [Radu] to parties and raised the cup with lust asking him into his bedchamber. And the boy was taken by surprise to see the Emperor rushing on him for such a thing and stood against it and did not concede to the Emperor’s craving. But the Emperor kissed him against his will and the boy sheathed a dagger and cut the Emperor’s thigh and then ran away. The doctors healed the Emperor’s wound. And the boy climbed a tree nearby and stayed hidden. Only after the Emperor left, the boy descended and walked away and then came back to the court and again he was the Emperor’s favourite.7
Mehmed, born in 1432, was 11 when the Drăculești boys were brought to court (Jens,40).2 He inhereted the Ottoman throne from his father, Murad, when the latter retired roughly a year later, “though in practical terms the empire would have been run by a council led by the Grand Vizier Halil Pasha” (40).2 All of this to say it’s a safe assumption that Vlad and Radu “would have met the young Ottoman crown prince…” and “at times would have shared education at the palace in Edirne” (40).2
Chalkokondyles’ account is confirmed in contemporary rumors. “The sharp tongued Romanians nicknamed Radu „the Handsome,” or “Cel Frumos” which can also be translated “the beautiful.”7 This was a veiled reference to bisexual tendencies if not outright homosexuality (Jens,110).2 A favorite of Mehmed, Radu would be the Sultan’s choice to succeed the Wallachian throne nearly two decades later, in the 1460’s – far outside our current scope. By then their affair had likely ceased. Radu had gotten old. Mehmed’s lust was for young boys (110).2
If Vlad was protective of his younger brother to any degree it would have been difficult, if not excruciating, to watch Radu gradually fall to Mehmed’s predatory advances. Alternately, historians don’t know to what extent homosexuality and pederasty existed in the Ottoman court and can’t rule out whether Vlad himself was another victim, and not necessarily of Mehmed’s.
Vlad the Impaler
Vlad III Dracula is alternately known as Vlad Tepes, or the Impaler, as it is reputed to be his “most favored means of execution” (Scutts, 5).3
Impalement, as a method of execution and also torture, is the penetration of a human by an object such as a stake, pole, spear, or hook, often by complete or partial perforation of the torso.10
I wholeheartedly encourage you, the reader, not to research the various means and methods of impalement. There are many pits of darkness in the human soul and this punishment arises from one of the deepest. The roots of this practice extend to the dawn of recorded history. The Babylonians used it as a form of capital punishment for adulteresses who themselves had murdered their husbands for the sake of their lovers.10 Hammurabi’s Code is famous for the principle the severity of punishment matches the severity of the crime. Here is one place where the viciousness of the punishment far exceeds the physical transgression of the offense; the code calls for an utterly sadistic form of naked revenge against the adulteress.
For the Neo-Assyrians, mass executions seem to have been not only designed to instill terror and to enforce obedience, but also, it can seem, as proofs of their might that they took pride in.10
It is arguable that Vlad combined what he saw as fitting punishment for sex crimes and the desire to shock and disgust his enemies beyond any threshold they were willing to countenance. Julian Scutts views Dracula – the historical man and not Bram Stoker’s demon – as the unequivocal “embodiment of quintessential evil” in Western society and speculates that his “fascination with one of the most obscene, degrading and cruel forms of torture may have been initiated by a desire for revenge” (5,8).3
Whether Vlad was sending a message to all Ottomans or Mehmed specifically is unknown. Whether Vlad seized upon the punishment in revenge for the violation of Radu or an assault he experienced himself is also unknown. What is known is that Dracula succeeded in crafting a remarkable reputation for obscene cruelty in what is universally acknowledged as a dark, obscene and cruel time.
An Unfinished Banquet
As stated before, most of the Boyars assembled at the feast in Targoviste could not answer what, in more stable principalities, would amount to an elementary question: precisely how many rulers have sat on the throne in your lifetimes?
Those who did not know, and that was the vast majority, were impaled in the courtyard of the palace, with their families. And those that were not impaled were put in irons, again with their families, and marched to Poenari to work as [slaves] on the renovation of the hilltop castle ‘until their clothes fell off their backs’ (70).2
If Alexis de Tocqueville had been around to see this, perhaps he might have remarked that this is what I meant when I said that people get the government they deserve. His comment was about democracies, strictly speaking. Loosely speaking, Wallachia was a form of cruel and tumultuous democracy where the strong were elected by the powerful and survival flowed from a man’s fitness – also cunning and cruelty – to rule .
We’ve already taken Shakespeare’s name in vain once already, why not do so again for twice the price? If the Bard could have seen this display of cruelty and known the guilty players all, he may have pointed out, even prior to the night’s bloody conclusion, that the throne and courts in hell are empty: the devil and all his angels are here.11
Dragons Live Forever, Not so Wallachian Boys
Vlad was killed in a minor skirmish with the Ottoman-backed candidate for his throne sometime in late 1476 or early 1477. By all reckoning he should have faded entirely from history, lost in a heap of petty tyrants who supplanted one another with dizzying frequency. Even the smear campaign of minnesinger Michel Beheim in the late 15th century, culminating in “The Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia,” which came complete with its own set of salacious woodcut prints, couldn’t make this vilest of men live forever.
For Vlad Dracula, immortality would have to wait another 420 years.
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- Greene, Lydia. "Why is the Character of Dracula so Popular?" Accessed October 16, 2018.
- Jens, Sir. In the Shadow of Empires: the Historic Vlad Dracula, the Events He Shaped and the Events that Shaped Him. First Break Publishing, 2012.
- Scutts, Julian. Dracula, the Pied Piper & Co. and the Question of Evil in the World. lulu.com press, 2017.
- List of Rulers of Wallachia, Wikipedia article. Accessed September 1, 2018.
- Tuple, Wikipedia article. Accessed September 1, 2018.
- Holy Roman Empire Association: Order of the Defeated Dragon - Ordo Draconum. Accessed September 1, 2018.
- Damian, George. "The childhood and youth of Vlad the Impaler: an Imperial Rape." Historice.ro, March 7, 2017. Accessed September 1, 2018.
- Crowley, Roger. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Hachette Books, August 2006.
- Mehmed the Conqueror, Wikipedia article. Accessed September 10, 2018.
- Impalement, Wikipedia article. Accessed September 10, 2018.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Act 1, Sc. 2. The words of the bound spirit Ariel.