Without the great courage and patriotism of Mircea the Elder, grandfather to Vlad the Impaler, ‘Vlad Dracul‘, Vlad Draculea in Romanian or Dracula the nickname may not have existed.
Sometimes history whispers, and the tales it tells are worth listening to and passing on.
It was in 1395 on this day, March 7, when Mircea the Elder, or Mircea I of Walachia, (Mircea cel Batran in Romanian) signed a coalition treaty with Holy Roman Emperor Sigmund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary and Croatia, king of Germany from 1411, king of Bohemia from 1419 and king of Italy from 1431. The treaty was signed in the beautiful city of Brasov (then Kronstadt) and initiated a military coalition against the Ottoman Empire.
Historical conjunctures during the 14th century Europe
Try to conjure your knowledge of Medieval Europe. Around the 14th century, when The Black Death claimed million of lives, when the Kingdoms of England and France were tormented by the Hundred Years’ War, but also when chivalry was reaching its peak and knights rode in shinning armors, ready to die for an ideal.
At the very same time, Eastern Europe was facing the Ottoman Empire’s increase in power. And the one land that stood in the way of the Turkish countless invasions, fighting them off and acting as a buffer for the Western Europe was Romania, back then still split into Walachia (Tara Romaneasca), Moldavia and Transylvania (incorporated in Hungary, later Holy Roman Empire).
It was imperative for King Sigismund to strike a military alliance with the rulers of Wallachia, Mircea I at that time, if he wanted to keep his empire intact. Don’t you think so? Good planning…
Sigismund of Luxembourg and the Order of the Dragon
Inspired by the military orders of the Crusades , the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Luxembourg. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the order was awarded only to few selected members of the nobility.
One such exemplary warrior was Vlad II, the second son of Mircea the Elder. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad II in highest regard and awarded him the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
Vlad II was later known as Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia, as in Romanian language dragon had close connotations and resonance with dracul, the Romanian word for devil.
Mircea the Elder was Prince of Wallachia from 1386 until his death in 1418.
Vlad II, his son, was Prince of Wallachia from 1436 to 1442 and again from 1443 to 1447.
Vlad III Dracula, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, born in 1431 in Sighisoara (some sources state 1429), was the middle son of Vlad Dracul II and grandson of Mircea the Elder (from the Basarab Dynasty).
History whispers to us today. Mircea the Elder, through his military campaigns and political ties with King Sigismund of Luxembourg, paved the road for Vlad II to join the military coalition against the Ottoman Empire (did he even had a say?) and be awarded the Order of the Dragon later inherited by Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, and the nickname the Dragon, Dracul, was passed on.
Perhaps without Mircea the Elder we would not have Dracula, Vlad Dracul, after all…
What turns a house into a home? Is it the light that peeks inside through its windows? The scents rising from the kitchen? Or is it the people, the mingle of generations, of shared laughter and tears? While we visited the house where Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, was born, I asked myself: what was the light like inside? What street noises reached every morning to little Vlad’s room and woke him up? What childhood memories he kept locked in his heart that reminded him of his mother and home – while imprisoned by the Turks? Or when he was fighting them, surrounded by the sights and the stench of war?
Imagining the medieval Sighisoara fortress at the time Vlad Tepes was born
Imagine 164 houses and thirteen public buildings up on a hill, within the protective walls of a fortress. Tall or short, stone or wood, depending on the wealth of their owners, the houses have one floor, some two. But not more.
Well worth looking up, their roofs have sharp slopes to reduce the weight of the snow in winter, as well as a small window acting as a watchtower, for protection. One can see far away from the tiny, dark attic as well as keep an eye on whoever approaches the house. Friend or foe?
The doors are narrow and so are the windows – functionality and safety are paramount. If the house has an extra floor, then the inner stairway is narrow and most probably dark. The homes are built close together, often sharing a wall, making for narrow, dark streets and passageways. Comfort, as we know it and understand it today, meant a shelter overhead and safe, strong walls during the Middle Ages. Yet shiny stones pave the streets and there are gutters too, aiding to the drainage of rain-water, melted snow, and – how else – the household’s gray water.
The city has only eight wells for drinking water, not enough for the increasing number of inhabitants or siege or fire hazard situations. But it is fresh, clean water, and it is almost enough for their families’ usage during peaceful days, when they can also up the supply from the river.
Let’s meet little Vlad, his family and the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
The house where Vlad Tepes was born
As you leave the Clock Tower behind, just ahead and on your left, on the corner of Cositorilor Street (Tin-makers Street) stands a tall terracotta house with clean lines. Today it rises with two levels above the ground floor plus a dark attic. You will want to have a good look at it as, although not supported by plenty of historical documents but letters signed by Vlad II and written from Sighisoara , so not impossible, it is the house where Vlad Tepes was born, also known as House Paulinus after its 18th-century owner.
But when it was just built in the vicinity of the Clock Tower, out of river stones and with only one level, this house belonged to the guards protecting the main entrance into the fortress.
Vlad’s family was well-off, his father, Vlad II, a first-class member of the Order of the Dragon and lawful prince of Wallachia but without a kingdom at this stage. They settled in Sighisoara and rented guestrooms in a house of stone, awaiting the right moment to raise an army of trusted boyars and reclaim his land.
This is the house, the oldest one in the fortress and still standing because it was built of stones thus withstanding the big fire of 1676. The round vault on the ground floor is the original one, constructed with the stones picked from the nearby rivers, Tarnava Mare especially. Its second floor rose much later, during the 18th century.
It appears that in the basement of this house there was a coin mint at that time – when the coinage was only the monopoly of the Hungarian Kings ruling the Kingdom of Hungary. This is another proof of Sigismund’s trust and respect towards Vlad Dracul II as Vlad II minted his own silver ducats, the “new ducat”. He did this in preparation for his expected ruling. These coins were first used in Transylvania, then in Wallachia too (yay!). They had the eagle on the head side and a winged dragon on the coin’s tail.
It was now, during the time Vlad Dracul II spent in exile in Sighisoara preparing for his rule over Wallachia, that the Romanian name of the fortress appears in writing for the first time. Double yay!
Vlad Tepes was born in 1431 (or some sources state 1429), the middle son of Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia and son of Mircea cel Batran (Mircea the Eldest) from the Basarab Dynasty. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad Dracul II in high regard, awarding him, as mentioned before, the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg, for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
The Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry order awarded only to selected members of the nobility. Founded in 1408 by the Hungarian King Sigismund von Luxembourg (later Holy Roman Emperor), it was similar to the military orders of the Crusades. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Ottoman Empire.
I liked the dragon featured on the sign above the door, I thought it is a great reference to the Order of the Dragon.
The symbol of the Order was a dragon with the tip of its tail coiled around his neck and a red cross on his back, the Red Cross of Saint George.
Calling him Vlad Dracul, correct or not?
Before 1475 Vlad III signed his name simply Vlad. But from 1475, before his third ruling as Prince of Wallachia, he signs as Ladislaus Dragwlya (or Dragkwlya, Drakulya) which appears on his seal too.
Hence Vlad the Impaler’s nickname Dracul (and identical with the Romanian word for devil) or Draculea, his ancestors named Draculesti, from dragon, or Drachen in German.
Vlad’s mother was also of Romanian royal blood, Chiajna Musatin, a Moldavian Princess and the eldest daughter of Alexandru cel Bun as well as aunt of Stefan cel Mare (Stefan the Great), of the Musatin Dynasty.
So, Vlad Tepes and his parents hopefully lived in Sighisoara until 1436. Just imagine, young Vlad might have used one of these cups to drink fresh milk.
Vlad would have been five or seven years old when his parents moved to Targoviste when his father took over Wallachia (the principality located south of Transylvania) and was – finally – crowned the rightful Prince of Wallachia.
In the middle of the 20th century, a hidden mural was discovered in the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, that of a man resembling his father, Vlad II.
A Sad Reality
Without saying too much, here are some pictures from the upper level of Vlad’s house as it looked when we visited. No skulls here, just misunderstood advertisement.
A Secret Entrance into Vlad the Impaler’s House
Most tourists are familiar with the front entrance of the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
Yet if you play “what if” and follow the narrow street on the left, walking underneath the arch connecting the two buildings and feeling tiny compared to their height…
You will soon discover the back entrance, through a small, walled yard:
We took this way in.
Sighisoara City: Coat of Arms and blazon symbology
Sighisoara’s coat of arms is so fitting for its rich medieval ancestry. It depicts a rampant golden lion and a silver fortress with three towers on a red shield topped with a silver crown with five crenelated towers. The lion, facing right, dexter (with respect to the person carrying the shield), wears a gold crown, his tongue sticks out and holds a gold sword.
The fortress on the shield symbolizes the medieval Sighisoara and its crucial economical and military strengths as well as the cultural and religious roles it played. The lion, through the way it is depicted on the shield, symbolizes the judicial autonomy Sighisoara held, having the right to decree the death penalty, the right of the sword, jus gladii. The lion also symbolizes strength, generosity, and beauty. The crown shows that today, Sighisoara is a municipality. It is worth noticing that the lion’s hind legs are apart, symbolizing stability.
Medieval Sighisoara has much more to reveal besides the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, with its history and secrets.
Moving on from it, our eyes fell upon a beautiful building with clean lines and… a pair of horns.
Started as a rumor, the story that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes or Dracula, a Romanian medieval prince, loved to feast on blood and not wine, snowballed along the centuries to such an extent that it is accepted as truthful today.
Before we dress up and attend Vlad’s medieval feast to find out the truth by ourselves, what’s in his cup, wine or blood, we owe it to the historical facts to acknowledge his bravery in battle.
When my children were young, as a loving mother I was the one in charge of pouring their drinks; at least most of the time. But if we would have been a royal family living during medieval times, we would have had a personal cup-bearer. Not too bad, isn’t it? Not to mention drink wine with most meals, as the water was too unclean to be consumed. Oh, not so sure about this…
The first documentation of such a job, cup-bearer or paharnic in Romanian (from pahar meaning cup) dates back to 8 January 1392. The paharnic was also responsible for the royal cellar. From the same time dates the first documented stolnic job, or the King’s seneschal, responsible with his food and meals. And making sure there was plenty of! In Romania’s former principalities, Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldovia, these jobs were filled by boyar aristocrats. Always a source of conspiracies, double cheats and overturn.
It was this piece of information tht reminded me of some stories about Vlad the Impaler and his medieval feast on blood… As a Romanian born, I do know this is not true, but how many of you know the real story?
Vlad the Impaler and his medieval feast. Blood or wine?
Vlad the Impaler, born in Sighisoara, ruled Wallachia over three terms during his life. Considered one of Romania’s national heroes, Vlad is the hero of plenty of terrifying accounts. Some true, some lost in translation. Let’s see the known resources of the time.
History is true as long as it is based on credible, unbiased resources.
German stories about Vlad the Impaler
During the Autumn of 1462, a Saxon chronicler from Brasov compiled a collection of over thirty horror stories about Vlad the Impaler and his most uncommon endeavors, Geschichte Drakole waide – The History of Prince Dracula (Istoria lui Drăculea vodă). According to this, Vlad ordered the impaling of approximately three hundred Saxon merchants from Transylvania and had others burned alive.
There are no other known written accounts of the same genre left by the Saxon writers from Brasov to better understand the style of the time, only the ones about Vlad.
Why they did it?
Killing and torture were pretty common during Medieval Times, still, Vlad’s endeavors seemed to stand above the rest and to have the right frightening impact on the peasants. The fascination with death, under all its aspects, is certainly deeply rooted in human nature. From here was but a short distance to Vlad and his medieval feast on blood.
It is worth considering that, at the time when this collection of horror stories was compiled, Matei Corvin (Matthias Corvinus, son of Iancu de Hunedoara) was King of Hungary. Matei Corvin and Vlad the Impaler had a secret agreement to become allies and start an anti-Ottoman crusade and free Constantinople, as well as block the spread of the Ottoman Empire westward. Even Pope Pius II supported them by giving Matei 40 000 gold coins for soldiers and warships. But Matei Corvin needed the Pope’s moral and financial support for his own political struggles, to rally to his cause the nobility of his country, even under the banner of the Crusade. In fact, he pursued his main goal relentlessly: to be recognized king of Hungary by the emperor. Matei Corvin changed his mind at the last moment (after receiving the Pope’s financial contribution) mainly due to extreme political changes in the Holy Roman Empire and Corvin’s wish to keep the Holy Crown of Hungary at all cost. Thus he used the Pope’s money to pay for it, fulfilling his own pland and did not joined Vlad the Impaler in the anti-Ottoman crusade.
This entire game of Matei Corvin led to Vlad the Impaler facing the army of Mohamed II alone in the famous Night Attack at Târgoviște on Thursday, June 17, 1462. Here, Mehmed came with an army ‘in which in numbers and armaments must have been equal to that which he had employed on the siege of Constantinople.’ The Sultan wrote of 150 000, chroniclers of the time mention 400 000. Vlad the Impaler, while still awaiting Matei Corvinu’s support that never arrived, mustered an army of 30 000 (22,000 and 30,900 chroniclers say) men, women, and children over the age of twelve. It was in this battle that Vlad ordered that 23,844 Turks be impaled.
Vlad the Impaler, between a rock and a hard place
After the retreat of the Turks, the situation did not improve for Vlad. His younger brother, Radu the Handsome, Radu cel Frumos, had the Turk’s protection (situation going back twenty years to the time when both Vlad and Radu were held hostages there to secure their father’s loyalty). The Saxons of Transylvania, instead of supporting Vlad, conflicted him because Vlad had limited their economic freedom in Wallachia in his attempt to support the local merchants. So the Saxons of Transylvania compile an account of Vlad’s acts and complain to Matei Corvin who sees this as the best opportunity to please them as well as solve his own problems, thus turning Vlad the Impaler into a scapegoat.
Matei Corvin ordered that Vlad the Impaler be captured and imprisoned by the end of 1462. And then Matei Corvin sent ambassadors to Venice and to the Pope to explain his acts and his financial spending. The ambassadors brought along texts containing evidence of treason and “inhuman cruelty” of Dracula. The texts were compiled by the Saxons of Transylvania, Die Geschichte Dracole waide (The Story of Prince Dracula).
You can see how Matei Corvin, having all these horror stories about bloody Vlad the Impaler, so un-Christian like, could explain his last-minute abandon of a Christian Crusade.
At the same time, Gutenberg’s press, although still brand new, was very much in operation. Before 1500 there were already over fourteen editions (surely each one revised and improved) of Vlad’s horror stories circulating Germany. By the end of the 16th century, thirty such editions were in print.
The Story of Prince Dracula, as written by the Saxon merchants
The accounts included here refer to Vlad the Impaler’s main reign from 1456 to 1462. The text was recorded almost at the same time by three witnesses. Thomas Ebendorfer, professor at the University of Vienna, wrote Latin chronicle, Cronica Regum Romanorum (Kaiserchronik) and he considers the events as taking place between May and August 1463. Pope Pius II mentioned it in his Commentaries and considers that the stories took place between April and July 1463. Lastly, the accounts of the German minstrel Michel Beheim who composed his 1070 verses long poem. Beheim used the Saxon tales and new information provided to him by a monk, Jacques de Gorrion (Gornji Grad).
The sequence of events in the three sources is identical, proving the existence of a common source, the Saxon stories, brought by the Hungarian delegation and put in circulation June-August 1463 in Vienna. A renowned printer of that time was Ulrich Han who worked in Mainz with Gutenberg and had already published an Almanach, Almanack in Vienna during 1462
Further printings only began in 1488 and lasted until 1559-1568 in Nuremberg, Lübeck, Bamberg, Leipzig, Augsburg, Strasbourg, and Hamburg. Yet, there are great differences between the first edition from 1463 and the 1488 texts, with regards to the order and the content of the events described.
Some tales said Vlad ordered his victims to be chopped like the cabbage. Others depicted Vlad boiling his victims alive, in huge cauldrons, only their heads sticking out. Others were so horrible and unbelievable, I won’t even mention them. But some are worth sharing.
After the old governor ordered that old Dracul be killed, Draculea (Vlad the Impaler) and his brothers gave up their Islamic believes and promised to protect the Christian faith.
The same year, Vlad was made governor of Wallachia. Immediately he orders the murder of Vladislav Voda, the previous ruler.
Vlad ordered that Saxon villages and fortresses near Sibiu, in Transylvania, be burned to the ground. The Transylvanian villages of Klosterholtz, Nuwdorff, Holtznetya were turned to soot.
It is worth mentioning here that although I don’t approve of Vlad’s crimes, some of the places Vlad set alight – if not all – harbored boyars who wished to take Vlad’s place as ruler of Wallachia.
Dracula ordered that all the thrives of his kingdom be caught and he had them all impaled
When the Turk ambassadors arrived at his court and, according to their tradition, did not remove their headdresses, the turbans, Vlad ordered that they are nailed to the ambassadors’ heads. As a lesson.
One of the first things Vlad did was to order that all the boyards who cheated his father and contributed to his death be caught and impaled.
Once a priest came by, preaching that sins can never be forgiven. Vlad invited him to his place, to share his meal. So Dracula breaks bread and starts eating, all the time beckoning the priest to take a bite, knowing that it was before sundown the priest should fast. And the priest ate. Enraged, Vlad asked him how he can preach about sins when he sins himself?
Another story speaks of a great feast Vlad organized for all the lazy, old, sick or generally non-working people of his kingdom. He first ordered that a great hall be built, then he had a banquet table set inside, filled with mouth-watering food and drinks. And invited them all to the feast. When they were enjoying themselves the most, he ordered the doors shut and the whole place set on fire. To teach everyone a lesson about the value of work.
Once, a foreign merchant complained to Vlad that, while he spent the night at an inn, 160 ducats have been stolen from his cart. Vlad ordered a hunt of the thief who was later impaled. Then he repaid the merchant but ordered that 161 ducats be returned. When the merchant came to Vlad to thank him for his help, he also returned the extra coin. Vlad appreciated the man’s honesty and admitted to his plans of impaling the merchant, should he had not come clean.
At a major crossroads, where there was a well for thirsty travelers, Vlad ordered that a golden cup be placed, for everyone’s usage. The cup stood there as long as Vlad was the ruler of Wallachia, as a testimony of Vlad’s love for honesty and order.
Vlad’s life included in the Cosmography by Sebastian Münster
The stories of Vlad the Impaler are also included in the 1544 Cosmography by Sebastian Münster, the earliest German-language description of the world.
What exactly did Vlad the Impaler dip in the blood?
Michael Beheim’s song about Vlad the Impaler
In a time when reading was not an option for everyone, these stories were further spread by troubadours or minstrels, Minnesänger. One such troubadour was Michael Beheim who compiled ‘Story of a Violent Madman Called Voïvode Dracula of Wallachia’ or Ainem wutrich der heis Trakle waida von der Walachei, a 1070 verse long song. Beheim first sang his poem at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III during a long winter in 1463. Here is a tiny small extract:
Translating to: 'It was his pleasure and gave him courage To see human blood flow And it was his custom To wash his hands in it As it was brought to the table While he was taking his meal.' (Translated by German scholars Clemens Ruthner and John Buffinga)
Well, hands, not bread dipped in blood.
I try to imagine the people listening to this song, perhaps having already heard of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, imagining how Vlad would enjoy a (medieval) feast on blood.
I wanted to mention this detail of hands / bread, as there was an entire dispute between two Boston Professors, McNally and Florescu, and the Canadian Professor Emerita Elizabeth Miller, leading expert on Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula – over what exactly did Vlad the Impaler dip in the blood, bread or his hand? Bottom line is:
Bram Stoker, when he wrote Dracula (1895 – 1897), might have been familiar with Beheim’s poem about Vlad Tepes.
1972, McNally and Florescu used a liberal translation of Beheim’s poem to tie Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the real Vlad the Impaler, Dracula III. This translation stated that Vlad dipped his bread in the blood.
Elizabeth Miller states that Stoker only borrowed the name and bit of historical information and that there was no mention of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula III in Stoker’s notes.
More bloody stories about Vlad the Impaler
Russian stories about Vlad the Impaler
in 1490 the monk Eufrosin translated into Russian a collection of 19 such horror tales of Hungarian origin: Stories about Prince Vlad. We know the origin of the author because he mentions ‘King Mátyás, using Matthias Corvinus Hungarian name. We also know that their writer was a Christian believer. These stories do depict Vlad’s bravery against the Ottomans. But do they mention of Vlad enjoying a medieval feast on blood?
This collection was less spread in the East since here Gutenberg’s print was not used yet. Thus, mostly the monarchs, the monks, and the clerics had the chance to read it. But it reached the hands of Ivan the Terrible who, they say, was inspired by Vlad the Impaler. We are familiar with the Tsarist autocracy of byzantine inspiration, and how the Russian people stayed loyal to their Church, thus revering their Byzantine heritage. Remember, this happened shortly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, an event considered by many as a sign the End time was near. Also, a time when the idea Moscow as a Third Rome was of great appeal.
These stories read today as historical fictional accounts, making Vlad the Impaler a mythical character.
One such story depicts Dracula enjoying his lunch beneath a forest of impaled bodies. A servant was seated opposite Vlad, invited to share in the King’s meal. When the henchman could not stand enveloping reek of death anymore and covered his nose, Vlad was seized by murderous rage and ordered that the servant be impaled. ‘On the height of the stake the air is clean and so no stench will reach your nose’, he is supposed to have said.
Another time, an emissary of King Matei Corvin arrived to see Vlad the Impaler. It was an important delegate, a high Polish nobleman. He, too, was invited by Vlad to share his feast among the impaled bodies. Nearby, a brand new, gold spike stood. Vlad asked the emissary how he finds the spike. Whose was it? What would you answer? The Polish nobleman said that perhaps a boyar upset Prince Vlad and he, as a good Prince that he is, wants to show his respect for the man’s position at his court, impaling him into a stellar spike. Vlad liked the emissary’s answer but explained that the spike had been custom made for the Polish nobleman. The man accepted his fate, coming from such a fair and expert judge, admitting that he, alone, is to be blamed for his death and not Prince Vlad. Dracula liked the man’s answer, stating that he is a true emissary who knows how to speak to a sovereign and even granted his clemency.
Other stories also mention Vlad’s dislike for emissaries, Kings or any Sovereign who came to see him but were not dressed according to their rank or could not answer his riddles. He would simply order their death by impaling, stating that it wasn’t his fault, but their own, or their King’s, for not educating them before coming to speak to him.
Vlad’s black and white vision of the world
One of the stories translated into Russian speaks of Vlad the Impaler after he was released from Matei Corvin’s imprisonment (1462 – 1475), depicting his righteousness and character. Vlad was given a house in Pesta to live in, before his return to Wallachia. One day, a thief, running from local guards, sought refuge in Vlad’s yard. After him, the Hungarian guards rushed in. Vlad arrived in the yard at the moment a Hungarian sentry took hold of the thief. In one motion, Vlad cut the sentry’s head. The Hungarian King, Matei Corvin, later asked Vlad why he killed the guard. At which Vlad replied that it had been the guard’s fault entierly since he entered the house of a great ruler and inflicted pain one a human being. If the sentry would have asked to speak with Vlad first and presented him with the facts instead of taking the law into his hands – he would have still been alive and Vlad would have ceased the thief himself.
Along the centuries, some kings feasted from gold plates, drinking from silver goblets adorned with jewels, while sitting on thrones nailed in silver, covered in expensive brocade sewn with gold thread, on silk pillows. Others had banquets with countless courses of food, barrels of wine and beer that everyone was expected to drink, eating hundreds of animals cooked just for that one meal. Perhaps this is another reasonas to why Vlad , living at the end of the ruthless medieval era, was imagined to feast on blood.
Throughout his life, Vlad the Impaler had one thought on his mind, to protect his country from Ottoman invaders, to assure its autonomy, to build its economic strength, to be recognised as a Great King. Judged harshly by his contemporaries, Vlad was often stood alone in his confrontation of the biggest political power of his time, the Ottoman Empire.
It was this struggle that allowed him to cast one of the biggest shadows throughout history, perhaps as big as the fame he wished to have during life.
My latest book is SILENT HEROES. How far would you go to save strangers in need? Who really are the Marines’ most trusted allies? What if help came from the most unexpected sources, would you still accept it?
If you journey through Transylvania, ‘the land across the forest’, (searching for Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula) and head towards Brasov along the banks of the Big Tarnava River, you will surely spot from quite afar the pointy towers of medieval Sighisoara City, with its centuries old fortress and churches. We traveled there by train one winter.
I give you the ‘Pearl‘ and the ‘Nürnberg‘ of Transylvania, Sighisoara!
A brief history of Sighisoara
Nearly two millennia ago here rose a Roman castrum, a military fortified camp for guarding the roads. But more proof of local human settlements dates back to the Bronze Age.
Sighisoara as we know it took shape during the 12th century when Saxon merchants and craftsmen settled here for a few reasons…
First, to defend against Tatar invasions the eastern and southern borders of the Hungarian Kingdom, formed at the beginning of the Middle Ages on the Pannonian Plain. This border was none other but the line of River Târnava Mare.
Second, in search of a better life. These settlers, who chose the banks of the slower Saes river to build their homes, were soon known as the Transylvanian Saxons. By the 14th century, Sighișoara was a well known royal center with the status of an urban settlement, Civitas de Segusvar, and by the 15th century its guilds had received the sole right to its administration.
As it was the custom during the Middle Ages, captains ruled such territories, or royal citadels, and these captains obeyed the Prince of Transylvania which, in turn, was a vassal of the King of Hungary.
Yet there was a third, less known reason. As the people already living in this land were Christians and the Pope loved converting new territories to Catholicism, the plan of populating this area with Saxons emerged. So, over the centuries, in Transylvania arrived first the military contingents, then the Saxon merchant settlers.
Dominican monks also settled here at the end of the 13th century, followed by the Franciscans.
Today, a journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara is time-travel at its best, as this is one of the few preserved medieval cities still found in Europe and the only one fully inhabited found in Romania.
Sighisoara – the etymology of a town’s name
Castrum Sex, Castle Six, was the name of the fortress that existed here prior to the apparition of the first Hungarian military contingents. This fortress was first attested at the beginning of the 13th century, before being almost completely destroyed by Tatars. Later we hear the name Castrum Sches, from Hungarian seges, or citadel, although it makes more sense to connect the fortress’ name with that of one of the rivers that run through it, river Şaeş.
Other names used for Sighisoara during the Middle Ages were Segusvar and Segeswar, as well as the German Schägesburh.
Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia, was the first one to use the Romanian transcription of the town’s name, Schegischone, in a document from July 1st, 1435.
Sighisoara City – a layout with a purpose
One of the things I enjoyed about our journey around the medieval city of Sighisoara was that everything is within walking distance. Although the train station’s location is in the Lower City, Sighisoara’s modern area, it is easy to spot the walled fortress, atop a hill in the Upper City. The medieval citadel rises, colossal and gray, yet within close range, accessible through a bridge spanning across Tarnava Mare River.
Encircling Sighisoara fortress, one can very well admire the original defensive wall with its towers and bastions.
To recognize the craftsmen’s importance, each guild – and there were ten such associations in Sighisoara – received a tower of the citadel’s fortification. Thus, each guild was responsible for its own administration and it is still easy to guess which guilds were the most productive ones, as their towers are the best-preserved ones, and the biggest: Tailors’ Tower, Tin-makers’ Tower, and Goldsmiths’ Tower. But, above all, stands the 14th century Clock Tower and through here we made our entrance into the Sighisoara fortress.
The guilds were important as they fought against those who practiced the profession illegally. Also, their members enjoyed privileges with the Wallachian rulers.
The story of the fortresses’ ramparts and towers
Apart from its 164 houses, what we admired the most during our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara were its 930 meters long defense wall and towers. Why so many – for such a small fortress?
During the Late Middle Ages, sadly, the danger of the Ottoman Empire escalated. Therefore, the first mention of a wall around Sighisoara fortress dates back to 1490. The very first wall elevation showcased crenelations and rose only 3-4 meters in height, principally intended for arbalesters (crossbowmen).
16th century came and the bastion rose by two extra meters. Meurtrieres were now built in the wall, either as floor-holes (for dropping hot substances onto the attackers) or as loopholes (arrow slits or cannoniers). After the big fire of 1676, the fortress’ wall was 8 – 10 meters in height.
Let’s make our way inside this incredible medieval fortress.
The Clock Tower
Placed on the eastern side of Sighisoara’s defense system of walls and towers, closer to sunrise, to mark its value, the Clock Tower was the first to welcome us on our journey. On a follow-up blog post we’ll have a detailed look at the other towers, each one with its own incredible history, but for now let’s start here.
The Clock Tower is the main entrance in the fortress and the first spot we visited during our journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara. The Tailors’ Tower, on the opposing wall of the fortress, is the second way into the citadel.
Yet it is the Clock Tower that hides a few symbols.
Massive and everlasting, the Saxons built their Clock Tower out of a myriad of humble river stones handpicked from the banks of the nearby rivers. Each stone is insignificant on its own, their strengths coming from their number, much as a king’s army. Erected with the intention of being the main entrance in the fortress the Clock Tower, fortified accordingly, had only two levels. Its walls are 2.3 meters thick and three gates defend it, while its belly protects the stairway connecting the Upper City with the Lower City.
Only a handful of visitors know that the Clock Tower is a symbol of Transylvanian Saxons’ pride and craftsmanship. They desired to build the biggest, tallest clock tower in the principality – as horology had a long tradition here, since the 14th century.
The only path into the fortress takes you underneath the tower itself. It is the Front Gate ensemble and part of the tower’s barbicane, a fortified outpost.
In 1844, inside the barbicane a courtyard appeared, the Old Ladies’ Corridor that you can see here. This is a wooden passage meant to ease the aged peasants’ access into the fortress, during heavy winters.
Into the fortress we go, underneath the Clock Tower, through the belly of the beast:
And emerging into the fortress. The visitors’ entrance in the Clock Tower is immediately on the right-hand side. The ground level of the tower dates back to the 14th century.
Similar to the second gate tower, the Tailor’s Tower, the Clock Tower has a rectangular floor plan and a ground floor with two vaulted gates over the passageway.
Hard to guess, but the Clock Tower, or the Big Tower of the Front Gate, reaches a height of 64 meters, of which 34 meters is the roof alone!
I admired the central, pointy roof with its baroque embellishments and its own main tower surrounded by four smaller ones, each rising at 12.5 meters. These four towers are a symbol of the city’s own judicial autonomy, right of the sword, meaning that back in the Middle Ages the Sighisoara City Council could give the death sentence and executions were also performed in the City Square.
Unlike the other wall towers, each belonging to a guild, the Clock Tower belonged to the public authorities serving as headquarter for the City Council. Master builders added the upper levels during the 15th and 16th centuries and when the great fire of 1676 destroyed the roof, Austrian craftsmen built a new one in 1677.
At the very top is a golden sphere, atop which a wind vane in the shape of a rooster still stands. The bulb-shaped roof stands as the oldest proof of Baroque influence in Transylvania. The golden sphere is a symbol of local power and has a diameter of 1 meter. Why? Because it is a time capsule hidden in plain sight. Inside you would find a copy of the Chronicles of the Clock Tower by Georgius Krauss as well as documents pertaining to the history of Sighisoara and that of the Transylvanian Saxons.
The Sphere, the Crescent and the Double-headed Eagle of Sighisoara
At the very top of the Clock Tower is a rooster weather-vane. But underneath, between the rooster and the golden sphere, now this is an entirely different story. We now see the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Austrian Empire between 1867 and 1915. During the tower’s refurbishing from 1677 the three builder masters placed here a Turkish crescent, surely under political orders, meant to remind the people of Sighisoara of the Ottoman Empire’s ruling. The crescent got damaged in 1704 by local insurgents or curuti, from Hungarian kuruc. New work on the Clock Tower was only possible in 1776. Then the double-headed eagle, in a nod towards the Austrian Empire’s authority, replaced the crescent.
The roof, as we see it today, dates back to the 19th century. It uses hexagonal, glazed shingle tiles in shades of red, yellow, blue, green, and white. Mostly birds, able to fly this high, can enjoy such intricate details.
Yes, we climbed to the very top, to the balcony you see above – the sixth level of the Clock Tower.
Imagine living here in the late Middle Ages. The Tower, the tallest structure for miles, protecting you, and beside the sun, the keeper of time and your only measure for the time of day and the day of the week. Yet the tower was much more than that, for during important celebrations an orchestra would climb to the balcony placed at its very top and perform music that reached every corner of the fortress as well as those living outside its walls, in the Lower City.
And looking up at this medieval giant you will want to watch out, as the slits and murder holes are still visible:
The two faces of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Well worth noticing as you journey towards and through the medieval city of Sighisoara are the two faces of the Clock Tower, on its fifth level.
The best feature of the Clock Tower is on the fifth level, its 17th-century clock mechanism. In 1648 craftsman Johann Kirtschel even improved its system. He included a minute hand, added quarter-hour chimes and the one-meter tall wooden statues representing the days of the week.
Facing the Upper City or the inner fortress we can see a niche carved in the tower, holding statues and located to the left side of the 2,4-meter diameter clock dial. Here, Peace holds a trumpet and an olive branch, near a Drummer who marks quarter hours and full hours. Also, two statues in blue dresses symbolize Righteousness, with her eyes covered, holding a raised wooden sword and Justice, with laurels on her head, holding a scale. Yes, here Righteousness has her eyes covered and not Justice.
Later, two more statues appeared here, placed right at the top, two angels. At 6 AM the Angel of Day shows up, with flames above his head, holding a burning heart, replaced at 6 PM by the Angel of the Night, holding a torch in each hand.
On the clock’s side facing the Lower City, we can admire a horse and a drummer as well as seven 80 cm tall statues depicting seven Roman gods, symbols of weekdays: Diana / Artemis, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the Sun.
The Seven Statues of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Diana / Artemis, the goddess of hunting, depicted in a blue dress holding a bow and arrow; she has a half-moon over her head, the alchemist’s symbol for silver. Mars / Ares god of war, holds a spear and wears a helmet with a feather, and above is the chemical symbol for iron, also a symbol for the star sign Ares. Mercury / Hermes, the god of commerce, holds a caduceus in his right hand and a bag with money in his left and has a pair of wings at his helmet and another pair at his heels. Above his head is the symbol for mercury or quicksilver – just like his temper.
Jupiter / Zeus, the god of sky and the King of gods, depicted with his right foot resting on a globe, holds a lightning rod in his right hand and a thunder in his left. Above his head we find the alchemy symbol for tin, looking like a 24. Venus / Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, has the alchemy’s symbol for copper, passion, above her head and a winged cupid. Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance, has the symbol for lead above his head. Sun / Sol / Helios, depicted as a female goddess with a crown of golden rays, the symbol for gold.
The Warning Statue, a Vestige of Sighisoara’s Medieval Past
But the traveler is also warned on his journey, long before he approaches the medieval city of Sighisoara. Can you read the signs? Two lone statues are easily spotted underneath the seven peaceful ones, depicting days of the week and crafty symbols. One of these two statues is a drummer, matching the one on the other side of the clock tower, and hammering away as the bells chime. Lo and behold for next to him stands an executioner, who once held in his hands a whip and a hatchet…
Going up into the medieval Clock Tower of Sighisoara
220 years old, the Clock Tower’s museum is a place worth visiting. One can admire coins, weapons, medieval pharmacy equipment and a detailed layout of the fortress.
Up until 1566, the rooms located on the tower’s first floor accommodated the Council’s City Hall.
But what you do want to visit is the roofed gallery at the very top, hugging the clock tower all around.
Up here a 360 degrees panoramic view of Sighisoara unfolds in front of your eyes.
If you dare count, you will see over 150 medieval houses clustered in the old town, their red roofs and the stone-paved streets where once kings, artisans, and even Vlad Tepes strolled.
There, on the left, below, is the house where Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, was born. We’ll go there soon. Meanwhile, have you noticed the slanted roofs powdered with snow?
From the top of the Clock Tower, we even had a glimpse back in time, through the history of Sighisoara. The Church on the Hill, dating back to the beginning of the 14th century, was one of the first constructions the Transylvanian Saxons built:
From the Clock Tower’s top balcony one can get a panoramic view of the world as well. How good is your eyesight? Can you see as far as Moscow?
Measuring from the Clock Tower, Vienna is 656 km away, Rome 1.096 km, Paris 1.680 km, London 1.872 km, New York 7.431 km, Tokyo 8.890 km, and Sydney 15.438 km away.
It looks like someone has left a secret message for us. Can you decipher it?
As a child, Vlad would have played hide-and-seek through this passageway when he was a lad of five. Lucky times as later, during the 18th century, this small space became a prison. For when the Clock Tower was first built there were two dark passageways running through it – what better place for children to play?
After the great fire of 1676, when the tower was rebuilt, one of these passageways became a torture chamber / jail. In this very space the convicts had their hands and feet tied in chains. As a way of torture the convicts were tied to the infamy pole, in the city square, with 6 kilograms river stone hanging around their necks, for all to see.
Go ahead, take a peek:
I am sure that, as a child, Vlad would have engaged in snowball fights and even built animals out of snow. On the patch of snow you see above, we built a dragon to honor Vlad’s name derived from the Order of the Dragon awarded to his father:
I hope you enjoyed our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara thus far.
Next in exploring Romania and its top locations is Corvin Castle, a fortress fit for a movie – and a book *wink*! While we were able to spot the elegant Peles Castle in various movies after visiting it for quite a few times, for Corvin Castle we decided to watch the movie before planning the visit. The reason was that Corvin Castle is tucked away in Hunedoara County, at a significant distance from major railway stations or airports.
To visit Corvin Castle we traveled by train from Bucharest to Brasov where we planned a stop over and allowed an entire day only to visit Corvin Castle, including traveling to and returning to Brasov by car. We couldn’t have done it without the amazing support and advise of Mr Cornel and Mrs Cristina, the owners of Guesthouse Casa Cristina in Brasov, always welcoming, offering the same top accommodation and a hearty breakfast for the past ten years that we’ve been visiting them (this endorsement is not backed by any financial gain).
Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire, the movie shot at Corvin Castle
You might be familiar with the sight of dark marbled towers topped with pointy, burgundy roofs – a result of the smoke and red dust produced by the industrial furnaces of nearby Hunedoara’s Iron foundries. This stern looking fortress is often associated with Vlad Tepes, although his true presence here still fuels debates between historians.
Welcome to medieval Corvin Castle, or Hunyadi Castle / Hunedoara Castle.
This fairy-tale castle of Gothic-renaissance architecture, built on an old Roman fortification, is a stunning sight with a three pointed drawbridge and high battlements. Five marble columns with delicate ribbed vaults support two halls, the Diet Hall above and the Knight’s Hall below, both from 1453 – what you first see as you look at the castle.
Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire is the third in the Dragonheart movie series. When the king of Brittania dies, the dragon who shares his heart must find a new ruler. We meet the monarch’s twin grandchildren, twin boy and girl who bear the mark of the dragon, thus had to be hidden away at birth. To save the kingdom, Drago the dragon (voiced by Patrick Stewart) must forge a bond between the estranged twins and locate the Heartstone, the source of his power, stolen by a common enemy.
Above, Edric (Tom Rhys Harries), the twin boy, a young man with incredible strength, enters Corvin Castle. Below, the entrance in the castle as we saw it.
On the right side of the main entrance is the original torture chamber. On the left side, the torture bastion and above it the gold chamber.
The castle wall was built out of 30m solid rock by Turkish prisoners. The fortress was extensively restored by Iancu de Hunedoara (Janos Hunyadi in Hungarian) from 1452 onward. The castle’s last restoration dates from 1952.
On the far right of the picture above are the Neboisa Gallery and the Neboisa Tower.
But what would you do if a dragon suddenly lands in front of you, as you approach the castle’s gate tower?
The new gate tower (above) was built during Iancu de Hunedoara’s first stage of construction (1440-1444) on the North-West side of the fortress. At that time it was only a rectangular defense tower, with three levels. During the 17th century its defense floors were turned into bedrooms and a new entrance into the castle was opened through its ground level, still in use today. Believe me, it is well worth exploring Romania and its castles, especially the medieval Corvin Castle.
This stream is as old as the fortress, Zlasti Stream, and the hills profiling behind are part of the Poiana Rusca Mountains. Something tells me that this stream was running with more force back in medieval Romania, a true defender of Corvin Castle.
Below, the main courtyard of Corvin Castle today. Right in front is the Matia wing. The same stairs as above can be viewed on the right side – leading to the Chapel Complex and the Neo-Gothic gallery. On the left are the Knights Hall (ground level) and the Council Hall or Diet Hall (first floor).
But when night falls, dragons return to Corvin Castle:
Looking less scary during daylight, I admit. Right in front is the administrative palace and the Bethlen palace on the left (the square-ish building).
Below, a view of the main court of Corvin Castle, looking towards the Bethlen palace and the administrative palace, while standing on the first floor balcony of the Matia wing.
Initially built by the Anjou family on a Roman camp, in a zone dating from the Bronze age and rich in iron, along trade routes between Alba Iulia, Hunedoara and Hateg, Corvin Castle changed rulers, fought the Ottoman Empire, and it still stands, one of the seven wonders or Romania.
Corvin Castle, the history of a name
Its name derives from the regents who built it, Iancu de Hunedoara (aka John Hunyadi), and his son, Matthias Corvinus (King of Hungary between 1458 and 1490). The Corvin family was renowned for stopping the Ottoman Empire from conquering Belgrade and advancing towards Western Europe during the 15th century.
Not many know, but Vlad Tepes’ father, Vlad Dracul II, supported Iancu de Hunedoara’s campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. Later, his son, Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, won great, significant battles against the Turks. The Corvin family was related to Vlad the Impaler, sharing a tumultuous history fitting for those dark times and filled with passions, conspiracies and betrayals…
I hope you enjoyed exploring medieval Romania and Corvin Castle. We left the door to Corvin Castle open – as we wish to return there. If not by train, then surely in the pages of a book…