Menaced by the Turks to his front and by rebellious nobles to his rear, bled by German merchants in Transylvania monopolizing trade and ignoring his customs duties, Vlad, cruel though he might have been, had a motive for ruthlessness. On the other side, German pamphleteers, informed by refugees that German merchants were being persecuted, had every reason to depict Vlad as a bloodthirsty sadist. In any event, as owners of newly invented printing presses quickly discovered, sensationalism sold.
We are on firmer ground, thanks to Ottoman chronicles, when war between the Wallachians and the Turks resumed between 1461 and 1462. Here, Dracula proved himself an exceptionally able commander, raiding deep into Ottoman territory and waging daring attacks by night. But his forces were greatly outnumbered, and as he retreated deeper and deeper into Wallachia, he engaged in scorched-earth tactics: burning villages, poisoning wells, and sending plague victims in disguise to sow pestilence in the Turkish camps.
The harried Janissaries crumpled beneath their crescent banners. The final straw was apparently the sight of the “Forest of the Impaled”—the rotting corpses of thousands of Turkish prisoners that stood outside the city of Tirgoviste. Sultan Mehmed II, never one to quail easily, was so sickened by the sight of ravens nesting inside the putrid carcasses that he abandoned the campaign and returned to Constantinople.
Savior or psychopath, it seems unjust that Vlad would be arrested soon afterward by the Hungarian king. Preferring a policy of appeasement toward the Ottomans, the king schemed to replace Vlad with his younger, pro-Turkish brother. After that brother died in 1476, Vlad returned to Wallachia and resumed his campaign against the Turks. Forsaken by his allies, however, he was forced to march with fewer than 4,000 men against a far larger Ottoman army. It would be his last fight.
Yet, even Vlad’s death and burial have their legendary elements. Dracula was most likely assassinated by a Turkish agent in the marshes of the Vlasia Forest near Bucharest in the last days of 1476. By all accounts, his severed head was then sent to the sultan. Whatever further indignities may have been inflicted on his body, it was said that monks eventually claimed it and ferried it across the deep waters of a lake to the island monastery of Snagov (reminiscent of the dying King Arthur’s journey to the Isle of Avalon). There, Vlad was buried in the chapel, at the foot of the altar beneath a stone slab polished smooth by generations of piously shuffling feet.
Between 1931 and 1932, Romanian archaeologist Dinu Rosetti removed that slab and found a tomb containing nothing but scattered animal bones and a few bits of ceramic. Then another—and nearly identical—stone slab was discovered near the church doors. After removing it, Rosetti beheld a coffin covered by the remains of a gold-embroidered purple pall. Inside the coffin was a headless skeleton. It was clothed in disintegrating silk brocade, and in place of the missing skull were the remains of a crown, worked in cloisonné and studded with turquoise. There was also a ring such as the sort of token a 15th-century noblewoman might have bestowed upon her favorite knight—and indeed one did bestow such a prize on Vlad II Dracul, the father, on the night of his 1431 investiture in the Order of the Dragon, and he is believed to have passed it on to his son.
Rosetti, understandably, believed he had found Dracula’s remains. Perhaps some abbot, discomfited by the notion of that man so near the altar, had moved the remains from their original crypt? However they got there, they were now transported to the Bucharest History Museum. From there, they disappeared during the chaos of World War II. They have not been seen since.
And the head? Reportedly, it was taken to Constantinople and displayed high atop a stake before the sultan’s palace, where all might behold the Impaler impaled.