Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Princes of Wallachia: Dracula's Legacy

It is the beginning of a new year and I feel like crap. What a better environment could there be, then, to discuss one of the most terrifying and well-remembered, if not historically accurate, monarchs in history? For that matter, let's just explore the entire dynasty and leave the best part for last.

This royal house began in the terrible years of the Mongolian invasion of Europe. Up until this time, the region we know of today as Romania was divided between three states, Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia. The three states were possessions of the Kingdom of Hungary though they were often occupied by Mongols and (later) Ottomans. In 1330, King Charles I of Hungary invaded Wallachia to reassert his authority over the region from the land-hoarding magnate Basarab, a man of probable Turkish descent. At the Battle of Posada, the Hungarians lost badly against Basarab and he declared Wallachia an independent principality. Basarab established a tradition of marrying children in with the Bulgarian royal family. His son, Nicholas Alexander, failed to defeat the Hungarians in 1354 and agreed to pay tribute to Hungary annually in exchange for Wallachia's independence. Through the next few reigns, Wallachia became increasingly a vassal of both Hungary and Bulgaria, even if nominally independent.
Romania under Mircea I, c. 1390.
It was not until around 1400 that Wallachia was able to assert itself as a truly independent country. Under the wise rule of Mircea the Great, Wallachia throve. Mines were delved in the Carpathian mountains and the Danube's defenses were built up. Trade increased with Poland and Lithuania, allowing Mircea to build the largest army the country had been able to gather thus far. He formed an alliance with the Prince of Moldavia and the King of Poland, and he even managed to work out an agreement with the Kingdom of Hungary, a move strengthened because of the increasing threat of the Ottoman Empire in the south. In 1394, Mircea led the first of many guerrilla wars on the Ottoman Empire as the empire attempted to push into Romania. He continued these skirmishes until 1417 when he signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire, halting their northward expansion in exchange for a heavy tribute.

Vlad II Dracul, voivode of Wallachia
In spite of Ottoman expansionist goals, Wallachia could not avoid civil war in the aftermath of Mircea's death. Two rival factions of the family, the Danesti and the Draculesti, competed for the throne. Interestingly, these civil disturbances did little to hinder the war effort against the Ottomans. Warfare with the princes of Transylvania also shook up Wallachian politics during this time. The Hungarian kings of this time were constantly at war with the Ottoman Empire and criss-crossed Romania constantly to do so. In return, the Ottomans were known to invade Romania to attack Hungarian lands. As before, the princes of Wallachia continued their fight to assert their independence by attacking anyone who got in their way. At one point, the Hungarian king supported the assassination of a prince, Vlad II, and placed his favorite, Vladislav II, on the throne instead. He was deposed once by Vlad III, regained his throne for another eight years, and then was killed in hand-to-hand combat by the same Vlad III.

The civil war became more serious in the 1470s as Vlad II's son Radu converted to Islam. While Vlad III was tortured by Ottoman prison guards, Radu found favor with the future sultan Mehmet II. Over the period 1462 to 1473, Radu sat on the Wallachian throne on four separate occasions, placed there by the Ottoman Empire. At first he had replaced Vlad III, but he was deposed three times by Basarab III, who was elected by the boyars (electoral council). When Radu died, Basarab briefly retook the throne before being overthrown by Vlad III.

Such intrigues continued for another fifty years. Vlad IV was replaced by Radu IV who was replaced by Mihnea. Few of these monarchs died on the throne. Most were deposed and lived a short life before being killed.

Saint Neagoe Basarab was the first of the Craiovesti dynasty and he sought to increase the wealth and culture of Wallachia like Mircea the Great. He patronized Orthodox churches and brought in traders from Venice and the Papal States. But his reign was too short to see lasting change. During the reign of Radu, the Ottoman Empire occupied Hungary and surrounded Romania. His eventual successor, Moise, was a tradeoff between the Ottoman appointee, Basarab V, and the boyars. Moise kept a close relationship with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificant as well as the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I.

The Drasculesti family resumed importance in sixteenth century, but they were nominal rulers, rogues, or rebels. The Ottoman Empire was in firm control of the Wallachian government, and most of the rogue and rebel princes fought from the hills for their country. The west still recognized most of them and often aided them in their fight against the Ottomans. One of the chief problems of the princes was their desire to appease both sides. They did not want to be deposed by the Ottomans, so often did rash things such as with Mihnea II who converted to Islam. But at the same time, they wanted the support of the west and were often forced to flee into the Carpathian Mountains, leaving their country to a random relative installed by the Ottoman Sultan. This back-and-forth process became standard from around 1415, when the Ottomans first began occupying parts of Wallachia, to 1715 when the Ottoman Empire formally annexed it.

Michael the Brave's brief Romanian Empire of 1600
The only light in this darkness was with the reign of Michael the Brave. For just six months, he ruled the entire region of Romania, simultaneously ruling Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania. He was first and foremost a Wallachian ruler and a member of the Drasculesti branch of the House of Basarab. Between 1593 and 1599, he fought the Long War against the Ottoman Empire with the aide of Austria(-Hungary-Bohemia), Spain, the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire, and most of the minor states of Italy. A short war between Wallachia and Transylvania in 1599 earned Michael the Transylvanian throne. Moldavia was invaded soon after and also added to Michael's realm. All three states rebelled against him and Transylvania and Moldavia deposed him quickly. He was then assassinated in 1601 by an Austrian general that he had worked with only months before in suppressing a Hungarian revolt. Despite his short reign, Michael briefly unified the people of Romania and gave them the first glimpse of a national consciousness.

Things continued to go downhill for Wallachia after Michael. The Long War ended in 1606 and Wallachia resumed it decline. In 1632, the last of the House of Draculesti died. For the past thirty years, various dynasties had briefly ruled the principality including Báthorys of Poland and Movilestis (a noble family). After the fall of the Drasculestis, Brânovenstis, Ghicas and Cantacuzenes ruled Wallachia, in addition to the Movilestis. Most were Ottoman sympathizers and some converts to Islam. In 1715, Stefan Cantacuzino briefly rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and made an alliance with Austria. He was quickly deposed and arrested, then executed in Istanbul. After this, the position of Voivode (Prince) of Wallachia (and Moldavia) was placed mostly in the hands of the loyal Ottoman Mavrocordato family, of Greek origin, until 1834 when the first vestiges of a Romanian state began to form.

The Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III, c. 1560,
supposedly based on a lost original
I have already mentioned a man named Vlad III a few times in "The Civil War in Wallachia" section. What I did not mention is that this man is also popularly known as "Dracula". Of his many names and translations, "Dracula" is actually one of the least common throughout history. Bram Stoker can be thanked for brining his name to fame. In reality, he was known posthumously as Vlad Țepeș, or Vlad the Impaler. The "Dracula" name comes from the Romanian "Dracul" (dragon) and the diminutive "-a" (little). Thus, Vlad III's father was Vlad II Dracul, Vlad the Dragon. Thus Vlad III Dracula could be called alternatively, Vlad the Little Dragon. Cute, isn't it? The reason his father was called Dracul was because he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order licensed to fight against the Ottoman Empire and Muslims in general.

So what's so important about this guy? Not a ton, actually. He only reigned collectively for eight-ish years over three periods. His ruthlessness scared away many of his supporters. But his aggression is also his fame, for he was such a thorn in the side of the Ottomans that his fame spread like wildfire. In childhood, he was sent as a hostage to the Ottoman Empire and was regularly beaten for his stubbornness and back talking. He distrusted his father and the Hungarians for making treaties with the Ottomans even after declaring total war on them. He allied with the Hungarian regent, John Hunyadi, in 1447 and became an advisor to him. When Hunyadi invaded Serbia to fight against the Ottomans, Vlad led his own army into Wallachia, killed Pinrce Vladislav II in hand-to-hand combat, and successfully claimed the throne for the longest of his three reigns. (He had briefly held the throne in 1448 but was quickly ousted.)

By the end of the fifteenth century, Vlad's fame for
impaling victims had spread to Germany
Vlad rapidly made moves to improve the Wallachian government by executing and assassinating nobles and politicians who had supported the previous reigns. He gave the positions to people of obscure origin who would remain loyal to him. He strengthened laws turning Wallachia into almost a police state in order to secure a defense against the approaching Ottomans. But it paid off. When Ottoman tax-collectors came to demand Wallachia's tribute, Vlad nailed their turbans to their heads. Two Ottoman generals were sent into Wallachia to make peace or eliminate Vlad, but Vlad set an ambush and destroyed them: 10,000 cavalry and foot soldiers. He impaled the majority of them as a sign of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. In early 1462, Vlad invaded Bulgaria, now occupied by the Empire, and destroyed Ottoman camps all spring. The Sultan finally retaliated with a 90,000 troop army that he sent across the Danube to destroy Vlad. Vlad switched tactics and became a guerrilla fighter in the hills. Despite significant victories over the course of the 1462 war, Vlad finally lost and was replaced by his Ottoman-ally brother Radu. 

Vlad was imprisoned in Hungary on trumped up charges and held there for over a decade. He finally was released and reclaimed the throne for a final time in 1476, but he was assassinated two months later by Ottoman sympathizers. His fame spread over the centuries and was reinvigorated by Bram Stoker's Dracula novel which mixed Vlad's history with that of vampires. Interestingly, "Count" Dracula was never a correct title for the historical figure. Counts were directly responsible to another monarch, while "Princes" (or Voivodes) were sovereign, at times, as in the case of Vlad III.

As can be read above, the history of Wallachia is vast and extremely complex. Their dynastic history alone could fill many textbooks. Vlad the Impaler himself is a noted member of Queen Elizabeth II's ancestry through her mother, Mary of Teck. Prince Charles recently used that ancestry as a justification for donating to a fund to save Transylvanian forests. And although Vlad III, or most Wallachian monarchs for that matter, never ruled Transylvania, their histories, as well as that of Moldavia (modern-day Moldova), are all linked to the eventual fate of the modern state of Romania. Today, Wallachia comprises nearly half the modern Romanian state. Yet for many years, Wallachia was the very fringe of the Ottoman frontier, the place where battles were fought between Christians and Muslims in Europe and where the status quo was drawn on maps. The region, so ignored today, was once the place where the fate of Europe was decided on an annual basis.

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