Vlad the Impaler: The real Dracula

This portrait of Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler, was painted in the early 16th century, hangs in the museum at Castle Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria
This portrait of Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler, was painted in the early 16th century, hangs in the museum at Castle Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria (Image credit: Public Domain)

Legends of vampires go back centuries, but few names have cast more terror into the human heart than Dracula. However the fictional character, created by author Bram Stoker, was in fact based on a real historical figure called Vlad the Impaler. 

Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was a 15th-century warlord, in what today is Romania, in south-eastern Europe. Stoker used elements of Vlad's real story for the title character of his 1897 novel "Dracula." The book has since inspired countless horror movies, television shows and other bloodcurdling tales. However, according to historians and literary scholars, such as Elizabeth Miller who has studied the link between Stoker's character and Vlad III, the two Draculas don't really have much in common.

Who was the real Dracula?

Vlad the Impaler is believed to have been born in 1431 in what is now Transylvania, the central region of modern-day Romania. However, the link between Vlad the Impaler and Transylvania is a matter of some debate, according to Florin Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida.

"Dracula is linked to Transylvania, but the real, historic Dracula — Vlad III — never owned anything in Transylvania," Curta told Live Science. Bran Castle, a modern-day tourist attraction in Transylvania that is often referred to as Dracula's castle, was never the residence of the Wallachian prince, he added.

This painting, "Vlad the Impaler and the Turkish Envoys," by Theodor Aman (1831-1891), allegedly depicts a scene in which Vlad III nails the turbans of these Ottoman diplomats to their heads. (Image credit: Public domain)

"Because the castle is in the mountains in this foggy area and it looks spooky, it's what one would expect of Dracula's castle," Curta said. "But he [Vlad III] never lived there. He never even stepped foot there."

Related: Bram Stoker's Vampire victim shows 'textbook' Leukemia symptoms

Vlad III's father, Vlad II, did own a residence in Sighişoara, Transylvania, but it is not certain that Vlad III was born there, according to Curta. It's also possible, he said, that Vlad the Impaler was born in Târgovişte, which was at that time the royal seat of the principality of Wallachia, where his father was a "voivode," or ruler. There is also Castelul Corvinilor, also known as Castle Corvin, where Vlad may have been imprisoned by Hungarian Governor John Hunyadi.

It is possible for tourists to visit one castle where Vlad III certainly spent time. At about age 12, Vlad III and his brother were imprisoned in Turkey. In 2014, archaeologists found the likely location of the dungeon, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Tokat Castle is located in northern Turkey. It is an eerie place with secret tunnels and dungeons that is currently under restoration and open to the public.

Where does the name Dracula come from?

In 1431, King Sigismund of Hungary, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor, according to the British Museum, inducted the elder Vlad into a knightly order, the Order of the Dragon. This designation earned Vlad II a new surname: Dracul. The name came from the old Romanian word for dragon, "drac." 

His son, Vlad III, would later be known as the "son of Dracul" or, in old Romanian, Drăculea, hence Dracula, according to Historian Constantin Rezachevici ("From the Order of the Dragon to Dracula" Journal of Dracula Studies, Vol 1, 1999). In modern Romanian, the word "drac" refers to the Devil, Curta said. 

According to "Dracula: Sense and Nonsense" (Desert Island Books, 2020) by Elizabeth Miller, in 1890 Stoker read a book about Wallachia. Although it did not mention Vlad III, Stoker was struck by the word "Dracula." He wrote in his notes, "in Wallachian language means DEVIL." It is therefore likely that Stoker chose to name his character Dracula for the word's devilish associations. 

The theory that Vlad III and Dracula were the same person was developed and popularized by historians Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in their book "In Search of Dracula” (The New York Graphic Society, 1972). Though far from accepted by all historians, the thesis took hold of the public imagination, according to The New York Times

According to Constantin Rezachevici, the Order of the Dragon was devoted to a singular task: the defeat of the Turkish, or Ottoman Empire. Situated between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad II's (and later Vlad III's) home principality of Wallachia was frequently the scene of bloody battles as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces repulsed the invaders.

Years of captivity

When Vlad II was called to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Ottoman Sultan Murad II, he brought his young sons Vlad III and Radu along. But the meeting was actually a trap: All three were arrested and held hostage. The elder Vlad was released under the condition that he leave his sons behind. James S. Kessler ("Echoes of Empire," Lulu Publishing, 2016) argues that Vlad II "sent Vlad Junior and his brother Radu cel Frumos as 'royal hostages' to the Ottoman court."

"The sultan held Vlad and his brother as hostages to ensure that their father, Vlad II, behaved himself in the ongoing war between Turkey and Hungary," said Miller, a research historian and professor emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

Under the Ottomans, Vlad and his younger brother were tutored in science, philosophy and the arts. According to Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, Vlad also became a skilled horseman and warrior. 

"They were treated reasonably well by the current standards of the time," Miller said. "Still, [captivity] irked Vlad, whereas his brother sort of acquiesced and went over to the Turkish side. But Vlad held enmity, and I think it was one of his motivating factors for fighting the Turks: to get even with them for having held him captive."

Vlad the Prince

Bust of Vlad III

A bust of Vlad III that sits in the centre of Sighisoara, Romania, one of the many locations that claims to be the birthplace of the prince of Wallachia. (Image credit: David Greedy / Stringer via Getty)

While Vlad and Radu were in Ottoman hands, Vlad's father was fighting to keep his place as voivode of Wallachia, a fight he would eventually lose. In 1447, Vlad II was ousted as ruler of Wallachia by local noblemen (boyars) and was killed in the swamps near Bălteni, halfway between Târgovişte and Bucharest in present-day Romania, according to John Akeroyd ("The Historical Dracula", History Ireland, Vol 17 No.2, 2009). Vlad's older half-brother, Mircea, was killed alongside his father. 

Not long after these harrowing events, in 1448, Vlad embarked on a campaign to regain his father's seat from the new ruler, Vladislav II. His first attempt at the throne relied on the military support of the Ottoman governors of the cities along the Danube River in northern Bulgaria, according to Curta. Vlad also took advantage of the fact that Vladislav was absent at the time, having gone to the Balkans to fight the Ottomans for the governor of Hungary at the time, John Hunyadi.

Vlad won back his father's seat, but his time as ruler of Wallachia was short-lived. He was deposed after only two months, when Vladislav II returned and took back the throne of Wallachia with the assistance of Hunyadi, according to Curta.

Little is known about Vlad III's whereabouts between 1448 and 1456. But it is known that he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict, giving up his ties with the Ottoman governors of the Danube cities and obtaining military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary, who happened to dislike Vlad's rival — Vladislav II of Wallachia — according to Curta. Meanwhile, Vladislav II sought aid from Ottoman ruler Mehmed II.

Vlad III's political and military tack truly came to the forefront amid the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the fall, the Ottomans were in a position to invade all of Europe. In July 1456, as the Ottomans and Hunyadi’s forces were locked in battle, Vlad led a small force of exiled boyars, Hungarians and Romanian mercenaries against his old enemy Vladislav II at Târgoviște, according to McNally and Florescu in "Dracula, Prince of Many Face" (Little, Brown and Company, 1990). "He had the satisfaction of killing his mortal enemy and his father’s assassin in hand-to-hand combat," they wrote.

Vlad, who had already solidified his anti-Ottoman position, was proclaimed voivode of Wallachia in 1456, according to Elizabeth Miller ("A Dracula Handbook," Xlibris, 2005). One of his first orders of business in his new role was to stop paying an annual tribute to the Ottoman sultan — a measure that had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Ottomans.

Why is Vlad called "The Impaler"?

A woodcut from a 1499 pamphlet depicts Vlad III dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. (Image credit: Public Domain)

To consolidate his power as voivode, Vlad needed to quell the incessant conflicts that had historically taken place between Wallachia's boyars. According to Constantin Rezachevici ("Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad the Impaler" Center for Romanian Studies, 2019) "during a banquet given by him at the palace in Târgoviște, Vlad the Impaler ordered the impaling of some 500 Boyars (perhaps only really 50) with the accusation that their ‘shameless disunity’ was the cause of the frequent changing of the princes in Wallachia". 

This is just one of many gruesome events that earned Vlad his posthumous nickname, Vlad the Impaler. This story, and others like it, is documented in printed material from around the time of Vlad III's rule, according to Miller.

"In the 1460s and 1470s, just after the invention of the printing press, a lot of these stories about Vlad were circulating orally, and then they were put together by different individuals in pamphlets and printed," Miller said.

Whether or not these stories are wholly true or significantly embellished is debatable, Miller added. After all, many of those printing the pamphlets were hostile to Vlad III. But some of the pamphlets from this time tell almost the exact same gruesome stories about Vlad, leading Miller to believe that the tales are at least partially historically accurate. Some of these legends were also collected and published in a book, "The Tale of Dracula," in 1490, by a monk who presented Vlad III as a fierce, but just ruler.

Vlad is credited with impaling dozens of Saxon merchants in Kronstadt (present-day Braşov, Romania), who were once allied with the boyars, in 1456, according to Kristen Wright ("Disgust and Desire: The Paradox of the Monster," Brill Rodopi, 2018). Around the same time, a group of Ottoman envoys allegedly had an audience with Vlad but declined to remove their turbans, citing a religious custom. 

Commending them on their religious devotion, Vlad ensured that their turbans would forever remain on their heads by reportedly having the head coverings nailed to their skulls, according to McNally and Florescu.

"After Mehmet II — the one who conquered Constantinople — invaded Wallachia in 1462, he actually was able to go all the way to Wallachia's capital city of Târgoviște but found it deserted. And in front of the capital he found the bodies of the Ottoman prisoners of war that Vlad had taken — all impaled," Curta said.

The Battle With Torches

The Battle With Torches by Romanian artist Theodor Aman depicts the nighttime raid of Vlad III against Mehmed II as he sought to end the Ottoman invasion of Wallachia. (Image credit: Public Domain/Muzeul Theodor Aman)

In one battle on June 17th, 1462, known as the Night Attack at Târgoviște, Vlad III and Mehmed II’s forces fought from three hours after sunset until about four in the morning, at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, according to McNally and Florescu. The attack was an attempt to assassinate Mehmed II, but using only torches and flares, the Wallachian forces were unable to locate his tent and the alarm was raised. McNally and Florescu estimate 5,000 of Vlad men were lost to 15,000 Ottomans, but point out that it was, "an act of extraordinary temerity, which is celebrated in Romanian literature and popular folklore."

Vlad's victories over the invading Ottomans were celebrated throughout Wallachia, Transylvania and the rest of Europe — even Pope Pius II was impressed.

"The reason he's a positive character in Romania is because he is reputed to have been a just, though a very harsh, ruler," Curta said. 

How did Vlad the Impaler die?

Not long after the impalement of Ottoman prisoners of war, in August 1462, Vlad was forced into exile in Hungary, unable to defeat his much more powerful adversary, Mehmet II. Vlad was imprisoned for a number of years during his exile, though during that same time he married and had two children.

Vlad's younger brother, Radu, who had sided with the Ottomans during the ongoing military campaigns, took over governance of Wallachia after his brother's imprisonment. But after Radu's death in 1475, local boyars, as well as the rulers of several nearby principalities, favored Vlad's return to power, according to John M Shea ("Vlad the Impaler: Bloodthirsty Medieval Prince," (Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2015).

In 1476, with the support of the voivode of Moldavia, Stephen III the Great (1457-1504), Vlad made one last effort to reclaim his seat as ruler of Wallachia. He successfully stole back the throne, but his triumph was short-lived. Later that year, while marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans, Vlad and a small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed.

Tomb of Dracula in Naples

The church of Santa Maria La Nova in Naples is one of a number of locations where the remains of Vlad III are claimed to have been buried. (Image credit: Marco Cantile / Contributor via Getty Images)

There is much controversy over the location of Vlad III's tomb, according to Constantin Rezachevici in a study published in 2002 in the Journal of Dracula Studies. It is said he was buried in the monastery church in Snagov, on the northern edge of the modern city of Bucharest, in accordance with the traditions of his time. But recently, historians have questioned whether Vlad might actually be buried at the Monastery of Comana, between Bucharest and the Danube, which is close to the presumed location of the battle in which Vlad was killed, according to Curta.

One thing is for certain, however: unlike Stoker's Count Dracula, Vlad III most definitely did die. Only the harrowing tales of his years as ruler of Wallachia remain to haunt the modern world. 

Additional reporting by Jessie Szalay and Callum McKelvie Live Science Contributors.

Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.