Vlad the Crusader

Revenge, terror, Christianity, and Dracula


Much has been said lately about President Obama’s remarks that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” I think this is simplifying things too much, however.

Throughout history, people have committed terrible deeds for many causes, but sometimes the “official” cause was just one of many reasons why they did what they did. Instead of focusing on the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or ISIS, I’ll consider one person who did terrible things to his fellow humans, supposedly in the name of Christianity. The reality, as far as we know, is much more complicated.

Many people are familiar with Vlad III (1431–1476/77), the former ruler of Wallachia, which is now part of Romania. He was known particularly for impaling and otherwise torturing large numbers of people (Christian and non-Christian alike), thus his nickname “Vlad the Impaler” (Vlad Tepes in Romanian). His family name may be even more famous for inspiring the title of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. However he may have been more of a monster than Stoker’s vampire.

There is one story about Vlad dining with a Polish noble near a group of impaled, decaying bodies, as he liked to do to from time to time (the blood of his victims made a good dipping sauce for his bread, apparently). The noble complained that the smell of the putrefying flesh was difficult to bear. Vlad told the noble that he would take care of the problem, and proceeded to impale the noble on a higher pole than the others. Vlad reportedly later remarked the noble should no longer be bothered by the smell since he was up where the breezes blow.

Vlad didn’t get the nickname “The Impaler” for nothing. Having steaks and stakes at the same time didn’t seem to bother him.

Vlad’s father, Vlad II Dracul (died 1447), was a member of the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum), thus the name “Dracul” meaning “dragon” or more recently “devil”. The Order of the Dragon was a chivalric order set up in 1408 by Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor (1368–1467), modeled largely after the Order of St. George, which inspired the name and the dragon emblem that members were expected to wear.

Sigismund, next to the Order of the Dragon’s emblem. You’d think that the Holy Roman Emperor could have had a better logo made.

The order’s statutes were written with language such that the group could defend against any anti-Christian enemies, regardless of what their faith may be. The primary enemy in mind was the Ottoman Turks, who were advancing into the Balkan region, but the order could fight against other groups such as the Bogomils, a heretical Christian group that Sigismund defeated just before the order was created. Vlad II, however, was too busy making deals with the Ottoman Turks in order to maintain his power, and so he wasn’t too inclined to actually fight them.

Vlad Dracul, Vlad’s father. The Dracul name was the basis for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad Dracul seems to have been the model for the Pringles guy however.

In fact, as part of the deal with the Ottoman Turks, Vlad Dracul had to provide boys from his realm for the Ottoman Janissary Corps, in which they were taught Turkish language and customs, educated about Islam, and trained to fight for the Sultan. Vlad Dracul’s own sons (Vlad Tepes and Radu) were also held hostage to make sure that Vlad Dracul kept his part of the deal. Although Vlad Tepes and Radu were probably treated relatively well, Radu may have been treated a bit better. It’s speculated that the treatment by the Ottomans is thought to be a major factor in Vlad Tepes’ later cruelty.

These Knights Hospitaller don’t look too worried about the Janissaries attacking them at the Battle of Rhodes, maybe because of the Janissaries’ festive uniforms. However the knights eventually had to surrender and take the last boat to Crete.

So it’s not too surprising that after Vlad got control of Wallachia, he used some of the techniques he learned from the Turks, including impalement, to control and terrorize his own people, particularly criminals and opponents. Vlad would kill indiscriminately so that could achieve a god-like dominance over his people. It’s said that he kept a golden cup in several town squares and although many people drank from the cups, none were stolen for fear of reprisal by Vlad himself.

Meanwhile, Pope Pius II became worried about the Ottoman advances in the Balkans, and called for a new “crusade”. Unlike many earlier crusades, which involved various bands of troops that traveled to the Holy Land with the primary goal of liberating it (and secondary goal of spiritual and material rewards), this crusade was a defensive one, to stop the Ottoman Turks from getting further into Europe.

Vlad was more than happy to sign up. Unfortunately for the Pope, however, Vlad was Orthodox Christian (not Catholic), Vlad was just about the only one that was willing to join, and Vlad didn’t have any troops to spare. But the Pope wasn’t going to let little things like a lack of resources or a difference in ideology stop Vlad’s participation in the crusade.

Pope Pius II. “OK guys, Vlad Tepes has signed up for my crusade. Can I get a second volunteer? Anyone?”

And participate Vlad did, mainly to get some of the gold that the Pope gave to the King of Hungary’s son, Matthias Corvinus, who was meant to organize the crusade. How much of this Vlad actually got is anyone’s guess.

When Sultan Mehmed II sent two envoys to Wallachia to collect the unpopular non-Muslim tax (as well as a new supply of boys for the Sultan), Vlad claimed that the envoys didn’t respect his authority and failed to remove their turbans in deference. Vlad sent a “no” response back to the Sultan by nailing the envoys’ turbans to their heads and sending them on their way (or killing them, according to some accounts). So much for “don’t kill the messenger”.

See the push into Wallachia? The Pope wasn’t too happy about it and neither was Vlad.

Vlad followed that bold move by ambushing an Ottoman army of 1,000 troops led by Hamza Bey, killing them.

Vlad then proceeded to destroy lands between Serbia and the Black Sea as part of a “scorched earth” policy. He also sometimes impersonated an Ottoman calvalryman to infiltrate and destroy Ottoman camps. By Vlad’s own account, his forces killed 23,884 Turks, “men and women, old and young.”

Vlad:“Excuse me, is this the way to the Ottoman camp? Yes, I should know it already but I think this broom on my helmet has swept away my memory. Get it? Swept?”

Of course, the Sultan was less than happy about this and accompanied somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000 troops to set Vlad straight. Vlad staged several ambushes, most notably the Night Attack, in which Vlad’s forces tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the Sultan but killed 15,000 Turks nevertheless. The Sultan escaped, and when he and his men reached the Wallachian capital, they found around 20,000 more impaled bodies. Hamza Bey’s rotting body was impaled on the tallest stake, either in order to show his rank or because he too had complained about the stench of the other impaled corpses. Because of this horrifying display, and because the city was otherwise deserted, the Sultan left in disgust.

Vlad was later betrayed by the Hungarians and imprisoned for up to eight years. After being released, Vlad was eventually killed (probably by the Sultan’s assassins), beheaded, and his head presented to the Sultan encased in honey (for preservation). The Ottomans managed to retake Wallachia. However, Vlad Tepes still has somewhat of a reputation as a hero in Romania for weeding out evil and fighting the Turks. So what to make of all this?

The main lesson is that yes, Vlad Tepes killed many Muslims in the name of Christianity. And he killed many non-Muslims for no good reason. But he also fought for the independence of Wallachia and its people. And he was also getting revenge on the people who held him hostage when he was a boy and forced him to learn Turkish. And possibly he was a psychopath. It’s complicated.

Vlad was considered as such a good “Christian” after his death that his likeness was used to represent Pontius Pilate. Well, at least he is still close to Jesus.

Maybe the more shocking lesson from recent events is that humans seem to keep treating other humans in terrible ways. The best we can do is try to stop it, without letting ideology get in the way. However sometimes it is difficult to tell the heroes from the villains.

Note: For a good biography of Vlad Tepes, check out Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times. For a fictional biography of Vlad Tepes, with vampires, just watch Dracula Untold.

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