Bad Decisions in History – featuring Vlad the Impaler

Welcome to a new recurring feature called “Bad Decisions in History.”

That title pretty much sums it up, but it won’t be the obvious ones, like Titanic going too fast through iceberg infested waters, or Decca not signing the Beatles. I’m more interested in historical tidbits that might surprise you. And sometimes be more violent. (Today’s feature is violent). So, without further ado:


Bad Decision: Asking Vlad Tepes for money.

Of course, there is a great deal of context and background leading up to this decision and its consequences.

When Vlad was five, his father (also named Vlad) inherited the throne of the Principality of Wallachia, which bordered the Ottoman Empire. In 1442, Vlad the Elder, driven out by rival factions and in danger of losing his throne, turned to the Turks for aid. In return, he promised to pay a tribute, and also sent two of his sons, Vlad and Radu, aged eleven and seven, to the Ottoman Empire as hostages. The boys were educated in logic, literature, and history. Radu made friends easily and flourished in the Ottoman court. In opposition, Vlad resented being a hostage and hated the Turks. Allegedly his attitude resulted in beatings and other instances of victimization that his brother did not experience, and some historians have suggested these brutal years helped shape Vlad into the vicious leader he later became. (Either that, or he became a vampire, since he’s also the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula).

A crusade was called against the Turks, and as a vassal of Hungary, Vlad the Elder had to support it. However, he allowed the Turks to reoccupy a strategic fortress, in order to protect his hostage sons. This prompted the Hungarian regent, a man called John Hunyadi, to invade. Vlad the Elder was killed in battle, which seems lucky in comparison to his eldest son Mircea, who was blinded by hot pokers and buried alive.

In retaliation, the Turks invaded and placed Vlad, now sixteen, on the throne. It wasn’t to last, however; the Hungarians invaded again and replaced the man Hunyadi had appointed to rule, and Vlad fled to his uncle in Moldovia. After his uncle’s death, he went to Hungary and gave himself to the mercy of Hunyadi, rather than return to the Ottomans. Hunyadi was impressed with his bravery, and with his intimate knowledge of the Turks, who were expanding their empire dangerously close to Hungary, Vlad became a valuable advisor. Eventually, Vlad returned to Wallachia, invading it and defeating the current ruler in hand-to-hand combat.

Statue of Vlad

Statue of Vlad as a heroic leader and soldier.

In 1459, the Sultan Mehmed sent envoys to Wallachia to seek payment of the tribute long owed by Vlad’s father for the aid of the Ottomans in securing his throne. Vlad knew Mehmed from his days as a hostage at the Ottoman court, and apparently hated him. His dislike of the man and a reminder of the trials of life as a hostage might have been enough reason to avoid the tribute, but there were politics involved, as well. Paying the tribute would have earned the bitter enmity of Hungary, and most of Christian Europe (remember that crusade?), and this likely cemented Vlad’s decision to refuse paying the tribute.

Under the pretext that he was offended by the envoys unwillingness to remove their hats, Vlad brutally ordered their hats to be nailed to their heads. Of course, after growing up in the Ottoman court, he would have been perfectly aware of the Turkish custom to always cover the head in public. It was a harsh message, made even clearer to Mehmed through the return of the envoy’s corpses, complete with steel spikes driven through their turbans into their skulls.

It was an insult that could not be ignored. However, Vlad controlled a key stretch of the Danube river, so Mehmed sent a thousand men to meet with him, still hoping for an alliance. If Vlad seemed disinclined to make peace, he was to be killed. Vlad ambushed the soldiers on their way, killing them all and impaling the bodies afterward.

Portrait of Vlad where he looks extremely capable of torture and impalement.

In what is probably one of the creepiest portraits of all time, Vlad appears all-too-ready for torture and impalement.

In years to come, Vlad seemed to use impalement as his preferred method for dealing with the Turks. He also began to infiltrate Turkish camps, easily disguising himself as a soldier since he spoke excellent Turkish, allowing his men to rush in and for a murderous rampage. Determined to defeat Vlad, Mehmed sent more troops, and battles were waged for some time.

Outcome: Poor envoys had stakes driven through their heads, and war was declared.



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