Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler [Vlad Țepeș] is well-known for his stern sense of justice and for employing harsh forms of punishment. Vlad was not an innovator in this sense, but, for a variety of reasons we will not dwell on here, he became forever associated with the use of these methods of terror. While reports of his cruelty have been highly exaggerated in many sources, they helped to lay the basis for the subsequent creation of the vampire legend created by Bram Stoker in the late nineteenth century.
Leaving aside these myths, the limited documentary evidence that we possess reveals a thoughtful and principled ruler. Behind Vlad’s stern sense of justice belies a political philosophy. In many ways, the real Dracula resembles more Machiavelli’s The Prince than Bram Stoker’s monster. The evidence that we do possess gives a consistent portrayal of a thoughtful man who understood the difficult geopolitical circumstances of his principality and acted accordingly. We are fortunate to possess a letter that Vlad wrote soon after he came to power that reveals a great deal about his thinking in his own words.
Vlad came to power in the summer of 1456, having received the blessing of Hungarian royal governor John Hunyadi to take action against Vladislav II. With support from Hungarian and Transylvanian forces, Vlad invaded Wallachia in the summer of 1456. In the ensuing battle, Vladislav II was defeated and captured at the village of Târgșor. Vlad executed his rival, not only to secure his position, but also to avenge the murders of his father and brother in 1447 when Vladislav had seized the throne.
Once on the throne, Vlad now had to walk a political tightrope. His protector John Hunyadi died of the plague on August 11, 1456, after having won a great victory over the Ottomans at Belgrade in July of that year. Despite their defeat, the Ottoman threat still loomed large and the political situation in Hungary following the death of Hunyadi was uncertain.
With the change of power in Wallachia, Sultan Mehmed II now sent emissaries to demand tribute from the new prince. Faced with the tenuous situation, on the Friday after St. Mary’s Day, September 10, 1456, Vlad wrote a letter from his royal palace in the Wallachian capital of Târgoviște addressed to the burghers of Brașov, the important Saxon city in southern Transylvania. In this letter, Vlad not only discusses the political situation faced by Wallachia, bordering the two great superpowers of the day, but he also gives us a glimpse into his political philosophy.
The reason Vlad penned this letter to the Saxons officials was that Ottoman emissaries had recently arrived in his capital city: “You brethren, friends and neighbors, who are truly loved. Herewith we let you know, as we did before, that a messenger from the Turks has now come to us.”
Dracula uses this letter to remind the officials of Brașov of the agreements for mutual support they had concluded before Vlad had launched his invasion to reclaim his father’s throne: “You should understand well and keep in mind our former agreements for brotherhood and peace; what we said at that time, now and always, from the depth of our heart, we will adhere to. As we do our best and work hard on our behalf, even more so we want to work hard on your behalf.”
“Now the time and the appointed hour about which we spoke before has arrived,” Vlad continues in his letter. He tells the officials of Brașov how the Ottoman emissaries are demanding that he make peace with them and resume the tribute that Wallachian princes had paid to the Sultan on and off since the time of his grandfather Mircea the Old. He goes on to tell them that “the Turks intend to put great burdens, almost impossible to bear, upon our shoulders, forcing us to bow down before them. It is not for us or for ours that they put such a great burden, but for you and for yours; the Turks do this to humiliate us.”
Vlad makes it known to them that he could easily have agreed to peace with the Turks, but that to do so could threaten Transylvania and all of Christendom: “As far as we ourselves are concerned, we could have made peace, but, on account of you and yours, we cannot make peace with the Turks because they wish to pass through our country to attack and to plunder you; in addition, they force us to work against the Catholic faith and against you. But our strong desire is never to do anything to harm you and we will never be separated from you willingly, as we have told you and are sworn to be your faithful brothers and friends. This is why we have retained the Turkish messenger until you receive this news.”
Have informed the burghers that he has retained the Ottoman emissaries at his capital, Vlad goes on to state his political philosophy: “You can judge for yourselves that when a man or a prince is strong and powerful, he can make peace as he wants to; but when he is weak, a stronger one will come and do what he wants to him.”
He asks them to send immediate assistance to impress upon the Turks that Hungary stands ready to defend Wallachia against Ottoman attack: “This is why, herewith, we ask all of you, with sincerity, that when you read this, immediately send, for our good and for yours, without hesitation, 200 or 100 or 50 chosen men to help us by next Sunday. When the Turks see the power of the Hungarians, they will soften, and we will tell them that more men will come. And thus, we will be able to arrange our affairs and yours in a good manner until we receive orders from his majesty, the king. As I have told you, for your and our well-being and defense, hurry, as quickly as you can, because, we swear before God, that we are thinking more of your welfare and security than of ours.”
Vlad reveals characteristic sense of justice in this letter. He considers that he has abided by the agreements he had made with the Saxon city prior to reclaiming the throne and then goes on to admonish them for harboring his enemies, referring to exiles, especially Dan, brother of Vladislav II, who was plotting against him: “And you should think about what we and ours deserve, in fairness and in honor, as there may be some people who think badly of us and who are working against. You should be enemies of such men, as we are toward your enemies; do to them what we are now doing for you.”
This letter is one of few surviving letters from Vlad III Dracula that give us insight into his political philosophy and also reveals aspects of his personality highlighting his strong sense of justice. While the details of the eventul agreement are unknown, Vlad at some point resumed paying tribute to the Turks while at the same time preventing a new Ottoman assault on Transylvania. Nevertheless, his long-term desire to oppose the Ottoman advance into Europe and stand up against Islamic terror is clearly revealed in this letter and in his later actions.
Five years later, during the winter of 1461-1462, Vlad launched his offensive against the enemies of Christendom. Just as he had in 1456, he expected the support of his Christian neighbors, but to no avail. Vlad would be left to his own resources to resist the might of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad stood alone as the last crusader.
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