📸 "THE BATTLE WITH TORCHES" BY PAINTER THEODOR AMAN (1831-1891). IT DEPICTS THE THE ATTACK OF TÂRGOVIŞTE, A SKIRMISH FOUGHT BETWEEN FORCES OF VLAD III AND MEHMED II OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE ON THURSDAY, JUNE 17, 1462.
Vlad Tepes III, Prince of Wallachia, and member of the house of Drăculești, is best known today for two things: impalement and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The connection between Bram Stoker’s vampire Count Dracula and the historical Vlad Dracula is often taken as a given, but two’s association is more complicated. In researching his novel, Stoker drew from An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia but the work has little information on Vlad Dracula and makes no mention of his use of impalement. Vlad Dracula is absent from Stoker’s notes though in the novel, the vampire describes him: "Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivode crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground? This was a Dracula indeed!"
Who was this figure? Beyond the shadow of the vampire myth lies a deeper tale of royalty and bloodshed, just as gripping as Stoker's novel but far more real.
📸 The ever-shifting borders of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia
Vlad III was born in 1431 in Transylvania, what is now part of Romania, a tense borderland on the fringes of Europe and Asia. The Ottoman Empire invaded in 1353 but mainland Europe, splintered between papal crises and the Hundred Years War, did little to confront the invaders and left the region to fall under Ottoman subjugation.
When the Ottomans conquered neighboring Bulgaria in 1391, Mircea the Elder, the current Voivode of Wallachia and Vlad III's grandfather, conceded the fight and began to pay tribute to the empire.
📸 Vlad II Dracul
Micrea’s illegitimate son, Vlad II (Vlad III's father, born around 1395,) was held as a royal hostage to Mircea’s ally, Hungarian King Sigismund, the future Holy Roman Emperor. He was raised in the royal court as a diplomat for the kingdom but harbored plans to seize the Wallachian throne from his half-brother Mihail.
In 1431, Vlad was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, a Catholic fraternal society, and declared by Sigismund to be the rightful prince of Wallachia. This ceremony proved to be merely symbolic; Vlad was appointed military governor of Sighișoara, Transylvania while his other half-brother Alexandru Aldea ruled in neighboring Wallachia.
📸 VLAD TEPES III, VOIVODE (WARLORD) OF WALLACHIA 1448, 1456–1462, AND 1476
It was during Vlad II's exile in Sighișoara that his sons were born, among them Vlad III. As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad II was often called Vlad Dracul, the Romanian translation of “the dragon.” His son was given the name Vlad Dracula, the suffix “-a” indicated him as “the son of the dragon.”
In 1436, Dracul raised an army and overthrew his dying half-brother, installing himself as prince of Wallachia. Dracul finally had the throne he had craved, but his nation was still a vassal state under the Ottomans. In 1442, Dracula and his brother Radu were taken as royal hostages by Sultan Murad II to secure their father’s loyalty.
📸 John Hunyadi at the Battle of Varna, who helped overthrow Dracula
His sons taken, Dracul could do little to resist Ottoman control, though he contributed some troops to the doomed Varna Crusade that saw the Europeans beaten back by Murad’s armies. Dracul and his other son Mircea were later killed by the Hungarian John Hunyadi, one leader of the failed crusade, who installed Dracul’s cousin Vladislav II on the Wallachian throne.
When he learned of his father’s death, Dracula swore vengeance on his cousin, vowing to kill him and take the throne for himself. With his father dead, he was granted freedom from bondage and soon set out for revenge.
📸 "Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys" by Theodor Aman
Sponsored by the Ottomans, Dracula seized the throne from Vladislav in 1488 but was usurped again upon his cousin’s return to Wallachia. Dracula lived in exile for a few years before returning again, this time killing Vladislav and cementing his claim to the throne.
Once in power, Dracula massacred the boyar elites who had sponsored Vladislav and later killed two Ottoman emissaries, breaking the link with the empire that had allowed him to seize control of his homeland. When he captured a group of Saxons who were loyal to Vladislav, Dracula impaled them all. This is likely where his moniker Țepeș (Impaler) came from.
📸 WOODCUT IMAGE FROM A GERMAN PAMPHLET PUBLISHED IN 1499. IT DEPICTS VLAD III "THE IMPALER" DINING AMONG THE IMPALED CORPSES OF HIS VICTIMS.
While his acts of torture are clearly documented, there is contention as to whether Dracula was truly cruel for his time or whether he was just one of many equally violent rulers. Folktales about the bloodthirsty voivode of Wallachia were circulated by his enemies, though some scholars believe these tales were exaggerated for political effect. Other stories are known to be true. When he declared war on the Ottomans, Dracula once left an army of over 20,000 Turks impaled, forcing the invading Ottomans to retreat back into their own territory. He eventually died in battle against the Ottoman forces, but the stories of Dracula’s cruelty live on to this day.
This barbarism’s influence on Bram Stoker’s novel is clear, but there are few direct links between Dracula the man and Dracula the character. Stoker never visited Transylvania himself and his knowledge of Vlad III’s impalement was limited. Still, Vlad III’s legacy hangs over the Dracula legend, with later iterations of the story (like 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula) retroactively incorporating more of the historical figure. If nothing else, Stoker’s Dracula acts as a personification of antiquity manifest in the modern world, a glimpse into a violent region and time caught in the middle of warring armies and sprawling empires.
📸 Dracula fighting the Ottomans, depicted in 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (source: Columbia Pictures)
📸 Cetatea Poenari
Now that you know the story of Vlad Dracula, explore his castle home of Cetatea Poenari! This cliffside stronghold was one of Dracula's main forts during his reign. The structure was originally built in the 13th century by the Wallachians, but control of the castle moved from group to group until it was abandoned.
Despite its disrepair, Poenari was in a very advantageous position. The craggy hilltop it stood on was easily defensible against invaders and it was placed near the border of Wallachia and Transylvania. Dracula saw the strategic possibilities of this ruin and ordered the reconstruction of the fort in the 15th century.
After its completion, Poenari was used by Dracula for the rest of his life and beyond until its abandonment over 100 years later.
In the 20th century, several earthquakes in the region caused damage to the original site and brought pieces of the castle to the ground around the cliff. However, after slight repairs, the castle still stands today as imposing as ever.
Mini Museum travelled to this iconic castle ruin to collect an incredible specimen of historic and literary interest: Soil and Stone from Dracula's Castle.
For the Halloween season, we're excited to offer these three specimens in our haunted history collection: Cetatea Poenari Brick, Dracula Soil Vial, and the Sterling Silver Dracula Necklace.
All three of these items were collected from the foot of the ruins at Cetatea Poenari, one of Vlad III's favorite haunts. You can see all the specimens, learn more about the history of the castle, and even see the story behind our trip!
Collins, Andrew. “The Originality of Bram Stoker’s Character Count Dracula.” Notes and Queries, vol. 58, no. 4, 2011, pp. 570–76, https://doi.org/10.1093/notesj/gjr148.
Florescu, Radu., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times / Radu R. Florescu, Raymond T. McNally. 1st ed., Little, Brown, 1989.
Rezachevici, Constantin "Punishment with Vlad Tepes - Punishments in Europe Common and Differentiating Traits," Journal of Dracula Studies: Vol. 8 , Article 4, 2006.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Reviews and Reactions, Dramatic and Film Variations, Criticism. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, W.W. Norton, 1997.
Treptow, Kurt W. Vlad III Dracul: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula / Kurt W. Treptow ; with Original Illustrations by Octavian Ion Penda. Center of Romanian Studies, 2000.