The first written proof of the existence of Vlad the Impaler dates back to 1432. His father, Vlad Dracul was proud to mention the existence of „my first born sons Mircea and Vladul” in a document conferring fiscal exemptions for some Romanian noblemen in Făgăraş. In 1439 Vlad Dracul had a third son, Radu, also included in official documents.
How old must have been Vlad the Impaler in 1432? Most probably an infant at that time. His father was about forty and was fighting his brother Alexandru Aldea for the throne of Wallachia. The politics of the time were harsh and brutal and brothers often contended for the throne of their father. Being a ruler of Wallachia during the 15th century was a tricky business: one had to carefully balance between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, choosing and switching sides being a common recurrence. The concept of neutrality was still to be invented and there was no lack of princes willing to risk their lives for a crown.
Prisoner at an early age
Born in Sighişoara around 1430, Vlad the Impaler had the usual childhood of a prince raised to rule, sharing at the same time the dangers of this position. In 1442 Vlad Dracul was asked by Sultan Murad the Great to present his homage and was imprisoned in Gallipoli fortress, while his sons Vlad and Radu („not of age” according to a Turkish chronicler) were sent to Egrigoz fortress in Anatolia. Vlad Dracul’s oldest son Mircea most probably found refuge in Transylvania. In 1443 Vlad Dracul was allowed by the Sultan to rule again Wallachia under the condition to remain faithful to the Ottoman Empire, while his children stayed „in service of the Sultan Court”, basically hostages guaranteeing the good conduct of their father. I almost felt the pain of Vlad Dracul in a letter to the Senate of Braşov in 1444, writing „I left my little children to be slaughtered for the peace of Christians”. It seems that Vlad Dracul considered his two younger sons as dead and had no refrain in sending his oldest son Mircea to take part along a few thousands knights in the battle of Varna. During the winter of 1447 Vlad Dracul was killed by the regent of Hungary John Hunyadi who suspected him of siding with the Ottomans. During the battles of this time, his oldest son Mircea was captured, first blinded and then buried alive by the citizens of Târgovişte. In the end it proved to be safer for Vlad the Impaler and his brother Radu to be hostages.
The Imperial Rape
Life for high born hostages at the court of the Sultans was not that hard – except for the permanent danger of being killed in case the father did not behave. At the same time those hostages were regarded as possible replacements for ruling the vassal countries. In all other respects a hostage prince would have a luxurious life and be educated for a military and ruling career. There are no references on the life of Vlad the Impaler at the court of Sultans, but the contemporary Greek historian Laonic Chalkokondiles tells us a story regarding his brother Radu, happened around 1451-1452:
(…) The Emperor had with him the brother of Vlad, son of Dracul, and was his favourite, living with him. And so it happened that when he began to rule, the Emperor wanted to have a relation with this boy that almost killed him. Because he liked the boy, he invited him to parties and raised the cup with lust asking him into his bedchamber. And the boy was taken by surprise to see the Emperor rushing on him for such a thing and stood against it and did not concede to the Emperor’s craving. But the Emperor kissed him against his will and the boy sheathed a dagger and cut the Emperor’s thigh and then ran away. The doctors healed the Emperor’s wound. And the boy climbed a tree nearby and stayed hidden. Only after the Emperor left, the boy descended and walked away and then came back to the court and again he was the Emperor’s favourite. (…)
It’s not clear if Radu became in the end Mehmed the Conqueror‘s lover – most probably he did. The sharp tongued Romanians nicknamed Radu „the Handsome”, an ironic reference to his past as the Sultan’s favourite. (Radu the Handsome got eventually married to a Serbian princess and had a daughter that married the ruler of Moldova, Stephen the Great). One cannot refrain to speculate what the history would have been if Radu the Handsome had managed a deeper cut into Mehmed the Conqueror’s thigh – perhaps Constantinople would have had a chance against the Ottomans.
First time without luck
Even if we have no such details about the life of Vlad the Impaler at the Sultan’s court we can assume that he shared the life of other noble youngsters. Probably he trained intensely as he would later prove to be a capable military leader, probably he studied a little since he was fluent in Turkish and Latin. Life among though Turkish officers, with harsh punishments and a keen sense of duty moulded Vlad the Impaler into more of a commander and less of a politician.
He had his first chance to rule Wallachia in 1448. According to a Janissary officer of Serbian origin:
„Hearing of the death of the Wallachian prince, the Turkish Emperor bestowed gifts upon his oldest son: money, horses, jewellery, tents as fit for a ruler and sent him in Wallachia to rule instead of his father under the condition that he should pay homage every year and pay tribute as his father. And the second son, this one’s brother, the Emperor kept at his court”.
It is not known why Vlad the Impaler did not succeed to retain his throne in 1448. Vladislav II, a distant cousin, managed to chase away the younger pretender and rule Wallachia until 1456.
A fugitive and a pretender
Vlad the Impaler was forced to seek refuge in Moldova, at the court of his uncle on his mother’s side, Bogdan II. He remained here until 1451, the year when his uncle lost his life. In February 1452 Vlad the Impaler was in Transylvania trying hard to gather an army to invade again Wallachia and regain his father’s throne. John Hunyadi, the killer of his father, sent a letter around this time to the Senate of Braşov asking the city not to provide any kind of support for Vlad the Impaler who without his „knowledge and permission” tried to invade Wallachia. The senators of Braşov were asked to capture Vlad the Impaler if possible and send him back to Moldova. In September same year, Vladislav II was furious because the city of Braşov was helping his enemy – Vlad the Impaler. Even they were cousins sharing the same great-grandfather, Vladislav II had no restrain in sending assassins to kill Vlad. We have no detailed reference on this, only that two Hungarian noblemen from Transylvania – Gereb de Wingart and Nicolaus de Vizacna – attacked Vlad the Impaler in the town of Geoagiu with the intention to take his life „out of love for Vladislav”. Maybe Vlad the Impaler crossed his sword with those of the assassins, all we know for sure is that he kept his life.
Somehow the young prince managed to become part of John Hunyadi’s court and was mentioned as such accompanying him through Hungary. During the summer of 1456 John Hunyadi appointed Vlad the Impaler as the commander of the military forces in southern Transylvania. While Hunyadi marched to his death at Belgrade, Vlad the Impaler made a sudden move and crossed the mountains into Wallachia. He managed to capture Vladislav II in the town of Târşor and put him under the sword: after many years of wandering he got his prize – the crown of Wallachia.
The youth of a medieval prince
Born in Sighişoara, Vlad the Impaler had a tumultuous childhood and youth, partly in Wallachia, then in Anatolia following the Sultan’s court, turned back to Wallachia, compelled to seek refuge in Moldova and then in Transylvania, afterwards in Hungary. He must have become aware of the perils of his stature as a prince, having his father beheaded and his older brother buried alive. He must have understood some of the brutal politics of his time, being forced to seek refuge and support from John Hunyadi, the killer of his own father. Beginning with the first attempt to regain the throne in 1448 until 1456 Vlad the Impaler was constantly up in the saddle, probably sword in hand most of the time. His reign would be one to travel over the centuries.