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Vlad III, the second of four brothers, was probably born in 1431 in Transylvania, a rugged, lush region that is now legally part of Romania (it was annexed in 1947). Moldavian Princess Cneajna was his mother. Growing up, Vlad II, his father, attended the court of Sigismund of Luxembourg, the future Holy Roman emperor and king of Hungary. He was the illegitimate son of a Wallachian nobleman.
His son Vlad III was known as Vlad Draculea, or Dracula, “son of the Dragon.” In 1436 Sigismund made Vlad II voivode of Wallachia, but Vlad II did not stay loyal. He soon switched sides and allied himself with Ottoman leader Sultan Murad II. To guarantee loyalty, Murad required Vlad II to hand over two of his sons, Vlad III and Radu the Fair.
The boyars (local aristocracy) of Wallachia deposed Vlad II in 1447, and he was later taken prisoner and executed. Mircea II, Vlad III's older brother, was blinded and buried alive in the same year. Vladislav II, a Wallachian aristocrat, was named the new voivode by Janos Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary who had ordered Vlad II's murder. Although historians are unable to definitively determine if these incidents stoked Vlad III's desire for vengeance, one thing is certain: at the time of his release from Ottoman captivity in 1447, Vlad III started to assert his dominance.
Vlad III's father joined the Order of the Dragon in the same year his son was born. Sigismund established this Christian military society in 1408, modeled after the crusaders of the Middle Ages. Its twenty-four high-ranking knights were sworn to combat heresy and halt Ottoman expansion. After entering the order, Vlad II was given the surname Dracul, which means "Dragon."
In 1448, with Ottoman help, Vlad III, then 16 years old, expelled Vladislav II from Wallachia and ascended the throne. He lasted only two months as voivode before the Hungarians reinstated Vladislav. Vlad III went into exile; little is known about his next eight years, as he moved around the Ottoman Empire and Moldavia.
Sometime during this period he seems to have switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict, gaining the military support of Hungary. Vladislav II changed allegiances, too, and joined the Turks—a move that set up a clash between the two claimants to the throne of Wallachia. Vlad III met Vladislav on the outskirts of Targoviste on July 22, 1456, and beheaded him during hand-to-hand combat. Vlad III’s rule had begun.
Wallachia had been ravaged by the ceaseless Ottoman-Hungarian conflict and the internecine strife among feuding boyars. Trade had ceased, fields lay fallow, and the land was overrun by lawlessness. Vlad III began his reign with a strict crackdown on crime, employing a zero-tolerance policy for even minor offences, such as lying. He handpicked commoners, even foreigners, for public positions, a move to cement power by creating officials who were completely dependent on him. As voivode, he could appoint, dismiss, and even execute his new officials at will.
As for the boyars—the high-ranking figures who had killed his father and older brother— Vlad III had a retributive plan. In 1459 he invited 200 of them to a great Easter banquet, together with their families. There, he had the women and the elderly stabbed to death and impaled; the men he forced into slave labor. Many of these workers would die of exhaustion while building Poenari Castle, one of Vlad III’s favorite residences.
To replace the boyars, Vlad III created new elites: the viteji, a military division made up of farmers who had distinguished themselves on the battlefield, and the sluji, a kind of national guard. He also liberated Wallachia’s peasants and artisans, freeing them from the tributes that they used to pay to the Ottoman Empire.
Vlad III’s foreign policy differed from that of his father, and from many other leaders of the time. He never stopped opposing the Turks—in this he had the support of Matthias Corvinus, aka Matthias I, son of Janos Hunyadi, and king of Hungary.
Vlad III’s tactics, both on and off the battlefield, against the Turks were extraordinarily brutal. In 1459 Mehmed II sent an embassy to Vlad III, claiming a tribute of 10,000 ducats and 300 young boys. When the diplomats declined to remove their turbans, citing religious custom, Vlad III saluted their devotion— by nailing their hats to their heads. In 1461 the Turks offered to meet Vlad for a peace parley; in reality they intended to ambush him. Vlad III responded with a foray into the Turkish dominions south of the Danube.
In the spring of 1462, Mehmed II assembled an army of 90,000 men and advanced on Wallachia. After conducting a series of night raids and guerrilla warfare, Vlad III employed his trademark tactic, impaling more than 23,000 prisoners with their families and putting them on display along the enemy’s route, outside the city of Targoviste. The sight was so horrifying that Mehmed II, after seeing the “forest” of the dead, turned around and marched back to Constantinople. Vlad III wrote to Matthias I explaining that he had killed 23,884 Turks, without counting those whom he burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers. To prove the truth of his words, he produced sacks full of severed noses and ears.
The Turks ultimately prevailed because the Wallachian boyars had defected to Radu, Vlad III’s brother. Radu guaranteed the aristocracy that by siding with the Ottomans, they would regain the privileges that Vlad III had stripped from them. Radu attracted support from the Romanian population, who were tired of Vlad III’s bloodlust.
Vlad III’s power, money, and troops had ebbed away so much that Matthias I was able to take him prisoner in 1462. Vlad was imprisoned in Hungary for 12 years, while power changed hands several times in Wallachia. Around 1475 Matthias I sent Vlad III to recover Wallachia for Hungary. In November 1476 Vlad III scored an initial victory, but one month later suffered a brutal defeat. His rival, backed by Ottoman troops, ambushed, killed, and beheaded him. By most accounts his severed head was sent to Mehmed II in Constantinople to be put on display above the city’s gates.