The real life historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler,” is most often remembered for the extreme bloodletting he unleashed in Transylvania and Wallachia – both parts of present day Romania – in the 15th century. During Vlad’s multiple reigns as Prince of Wallachia he displayed a level of cruelty unmatched in medieval history, which considering the times is really saying something. The list of those who suffered his wrath was long and notable. These included rich landowning boyars, Saxons, Ottoman Turks and Hungarian nobles. Vlad’s macabre designs were not only reserved for elites and foreigners. Peasants and the destitute were also among the many thousands of his victims.
Betrayal & Confinement– The Prince of Darkness at Peace
The popular conception of Vlad’s life might lead one to believe that he was forever at war, constantly engaged in torturing or killing his many enemies. To be sure there was plenty of that, but there was also a long period he spent in confinement, far from his homeland. During this time, he did not engage in warfare or for that matter much of anything. This period is much less well known and even less discussed. It took place along the Danube in Hungary. Beginning in 1462 he would spend a decade under house arrest in Visegrad at the summer palace of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. During this time he was the political prisoner of the king. For ten years Vlad’s life was sedentary and domesticated. This is the polar opposite of the usual image of him as a bloodthirsty avenger. Vlad Tepes spent one-fifth of his life in relative solitude waiting for the moment when he could return to the warpath.
Why was Vlad imprisoned at Visegrad? The simplest explanation of Vlad Tepes’s imprisonment at Visegrad is that he was betrayed. In 1462 he had traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary seeking money from King Matthias to continue his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. At this point, constant warfare had nearly bankrupted Vlad who was no longer able to pay his mercenary forces. Unbeknownst to Vlad, the king was in no position to loan him money. Matthias had his own financial worries. He had already spent a large sum of money that had been given to him by the Papacy for the purpose of carrying out expeditions against the Turks. He was more interested in cultivating the Renaissance in his homeland, rather than fighting yet another war.
Matthias took Vlad prisoner and had a letter drawn up showing that Vlad had actually proposed peace with the Turks. Thus Matthias had made it look as though Vlad had committed treason. This letter soon made its way to the pope. The upshot was that Matthias imprisoned Vlad for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the king had distracted the papacy with this incident. To the point, where they forgot about the debts Matthias owed them. As for Vlad, he was now a vassal of the Hungarian king. Confined to a palace in Visegrad, the feared Vlad would become a useful political tool.
Frozen In Fear – The Domesticated Impaler
What was Vlad Tepes up to during all those years? Was he plotting revenge? Planning an escape? Wondering if he would ever regain power? Did he spend his time walking in the lavish courtyard of the palace, staring at its magnificent hanging gardens, visiting with other guests who were staying in one of the palace’s 350 rooms? Did he examine the ongoing work at the palace? This might have brought about a stinging realization. The money which could have funded Vlad’s campaigns against the Turks was instead being used to adorn the palace with Renaissance style flourishes. What little information is available about Vlad’s time at the palace seems to confirm that he had not changed much. He was still able to satisfy his lust for torture. According to a Russian Ambassador to the court, Vlad occupied himself capturing birds, then cutting off their heads or plucking them free of their feathers. An Italian bishop reported that Vlad cut up mice and then impaled their body parts on small sticks.
In the hands of King Matthias, Vlad also became a political weapon against the Turks. When the Sultan’s diplomats arrived at Visegrad to talk over the terms of an armistice that had went into effect, they could not help, but notice that Matthias had Vlad present. The emissaries must have frozen in fear. This would have sent shivers through the entire Ottoman leadership. Almost certainly, the news of Vlad’s presence was relayed all the way back to Sultan Mehmed. After all, in 1462 Mehmed had ordered his army to retreat when he came upon a horrific sight, a forest of 20,000 impaled corpses left behind by Vlad and his mercenary forces at Targoviste in Wallachia. Eventually Matthias moved Vlad to a house further down the Danube at Pest before finally freeing him from twelve years of captivity. Vlad was sent back to Wallachia to deal with local forces that had allied with the Turks.
An Uneasy Peace – A Paradox at Visegrad
Most likely the years at Visegrad extended Vlad’s life. He was assassinated a mere two years after he had regained his position as Prince of Wallchia. He was forty five years old when he died. Vlad Tepes had lived longer than most of his kinsmen. Then again he had been singularly responsible for lowering the life expectancy in any area he occupied for long. The only exception in his life was his time at Visegrad. There, on the banks of the sullen gray Danube, amid the splendor and refinement of a Renaissance palace, the Prince of Darkness was confined to a life of uneasy peace.