Friday, January 4, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Dracula

Branching out a little, this week’s famous Catholic is better known in his highly-fictionalized version, at least outside his native Romania, where he is hailed as a hero for his brutal resistance to the advancing Ottomans. Allow me to introduce Count (actually Prince) Dracula!

No, not that one;
That one!
Catholic Credentials: a life-long Catholic, devout in his religious duties (less so in his moral life); a Crusader; arguably helped save Christendom from conquest.

Nerd Credentials: Um, he’s Dracula! What more do you want?

Now, considering that he helped inspire one of the greatest villains of modern fiction, you’d probably think that Vladislaus Dracula (also known as ‘Vlad Tepes,’ meaning ‘Vlad the Impaler’) was not a particularly nice guy. That would be a gross understatement, as Dracula was, in fact, an absolutely ruthless man, a tyrant who, even in his lifetime, became a symbol of sadism and cruelty (his likeness was often used in woodcuts of martyrdom scenes as the executioner. He even played Pontius Pilate in one!). Granted, we’re pretty sure he wasn’t actually a vampire, but he was certainly bloodthirsty enough. On the other hand, the hard truth is that he arguably played a large role in saving Christendom from conquest by the Ottoman Turks.
                Prince Vladislaus Dracula was born in Transylvania in 1431 to Vladislaus II Dracul, a member of the Order of the Dragon; a chivalric order founded to protect Christendom from invasion by the Turks (‘Dracula’ is the diminutive form of ‘Dracul,’ so it basically means “Son of Dracul”). Young Vlad joined the Order when he was five years old.
                Vlad II ascended to the throne of Wallachia (in modern-day Romania) that same year, but was ousted shortly thereafter. To secure his return, Vlad II sought support from the Ottomans. They agreed to help him regain his throne on two conditions; first, that he should pay the Jizya: the tax non-Muslims must pay to their Muslim rulers; second, that his sons, Vlad III and Radu, should be sent as hostages to the Ottoman court. No doubt to his eldest son’s dismay, Vlad II agreed.
                In the Ottoman court, Vlad and Radu were educated in the Muslim way, learning literature, Arabic, and the Koran, as well as warfare. During their time there, Radu found great favor with the Sultan and converted to Islam. Vlad, however, was furious with his father for betraying the Order and hated every minute of his time there. It was there that he developed his intense loathing of everything Ottoman, up to and including his own brother.   
                But Vlad didn’t let his hatred show. He bided his time, learning everything he could from and about his enemy. Until finally, when he was sixteen years old, his father was murdered by his Hungarian rivals and the Ottomans, hoping to secure the puppet state they had bought, placed Dracula on the throne. He lasted less than a year before his father’s old enemies returned and forced him to flee for his life. After years of travel and hiding, he finally sought refuge from the very same enemies who had sought his life. Bargaining his vast knowledge of the Ottoman Empire for support, he found favor with the Hungarians and was brought on as an advisor.
                For things had gone very badly in the East. The mighty Ottomans, after seven centuries of ascendency (which, in the East, was only checked briefly by the small handful of successful Crusades), now had only one last obstacle between them and Europe: the impregnable city of Constantinople. But the unbreakable walls broke, the unwinnable gate was won, and Constantinople fell. The eastern door of Europe, so long locked and bolted, had been broken in. Islam had come to the Balkans.
                In the wake of this disaster, the Hungarians rode out against the Turks. Meanwhile, Vlad returned to his homeland, slew the puppet ruler the Hungarians had placed on the throne, and retoke his kingdom.
                He found it in a very sorry state. War and intrigue had ravaged the land, and its economy was almost non-existent. He removed the Boyars (nobles), either killing or exiling them from his court and replaced them with commoners, knights, and free peasants who would be loyal to him alone. His methods were harsh and occasionally of questionable necessity (such as his brutal attacks on the Transylvanians), but they worked. His nation finally had the stability and resources it needed for the struggle ahead.
                In 1459, Pope Pius II called for another Crusade to push back the Ottomans, the main role of which was to be played by Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary. Vlad allied himself with the king, and with the help of Papal gold, set to work raising an army.
                That same year, Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople (whom Vlad had known during his time in Turkey, and who commanded his brother, Radu), sent envoys to Vlad, requesting that he pay his overdue Jizya, as well as send soldiers to the Ottoman army. Vlad responded by nailing the envoys’ turbans to their heads (on the pretext that they ‘did not remove their hats in his presence’). 

Reports that he screamed "THIS! IS! TRANSYLVANIA!" before doing so remain unconfirmed.
                Mehmed heard of this, and send one of his nobles, together with one-thousand cavalry, to get rid of Dracula. Dracula ambushed the force and impaled every last one of them (in case you’re wondering, ‘impaled’ means exactly what you think it means: you stick a big stake in the ground, stick the person you want to kill onto it, and let him hang there until he bleeds to death). A few years later, Vlad crossed into Ottoman-occupied territory and laid waste to the entire land, butchering (by his own count) 23,884 Turks. He concluded his report by saying, somewhat unnecessarily, “I have broken the peace with [the Sultan].”
                Furious at this humiliation, Mehmed raised an army of 90,000 men and marched on Wallachia. Dracula, unable to stop the advance, turned to guerilla tactics, striking out at small and unsuspecting groups of Turks, at one point killing an estimated 15,000 in a daring night raid. His methods were so brutal, so merciless, that when Mehmed himself led reinforcements to the Danube and saw the ‘forest’ of impaled corpses that lined the other side, he and his men were so unnerved that they fairly ran all the way back to Turkey.
                Mehmed was no stranger to psychological warfare. The Conqueror of Constantinople had dealt mercilessly with his foes, executing and enslaving thousands of civilians along with soldiers and commanders. But in terms of brutality, determination, and tenacity he was no match for Dracula.
                Mehmed had retreated, but not given up. He still had one secret weapon up his sleeve: Radu. Vlad’s brother was given an army and the order to stop Dracula at all costs. His brother’s match in strategy, and backed up by a powerful army, Radu pressed into Wallacia. Radu had a steady stream of supplies: gunpowder, money, and arms. In addition, the dispossessed boyars, some furious at Vlad’s treatment of them, others blackmailed with their families held hostage, joined forces with Radu. Dracula, meanwhile, was all but broke, and his jealous ally, King Matthias of Hungary, had abandoned him, despite the orders of the Pope. Desperate, Vlad traveled to Hungary to beg support from his supposed-ally. Instead, Matthias betrayed and arrested him.
                While Vlad languished in prison, Radu finally reached Dracula’s castle, where Vlad’s wife was waiting for him. Seeing her waiting in her husband’s room, an archer shot a message, telling her to surrender to her brother-in-law so that she might be spared. In response, she threw herself out of the tower and into a river, declaring that she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish of the Arges than be a captive of the Turks. Today, that same river is called “the Lady’s River.” Radu now ruled Wallacia under the sultan.
                For twelve long years, Dracula rotted in prison, while king Matthias, seeing Radu on the throne of Wallacia, slowly came to regret his actions. The Ottomans were advancing. Hungary was hard pressed. Finally, Matthias gave in; Dracula was released. The very next year, Radu died suddenly.
                Vlad rushed home and declared himself Prince again. With the support of Hungary, at last, he began preparing to retake his homeland yet again. But, alas, it was too late. He had less than two months on the throne before he was assassinated.
                The Ottomans continued their advance into central Europe. It would be another hundred years before they were stopped at sea in the Battle of Lepanto, and two hundred years before their advance by land was halted in the Siege of Vienna.
                But Dracula’s efforts were not wholly in vain. He checked Mehmet’s momentum following the fall of Constantinople. He halted the Muslim advance, buying Europe time to build up its resistance. The Ottomans may have beat him in the end, but their victory was too costly, too unnerving to press immediately. At a time when Christendom faced one of its greatest perils and few were willing to stand up to defend her, Vlad Dracula became a one-man wall to replace the fallen Constantinople, if only for a little while.
                I should be clear: I am not in the least condoning Dracula’s actions. He was a horrifically cruel, evil, and sadistic man, merciless in war and brutal at home. He was assuredly no Saint, but he was a tool of God nonetheless. You might say that he was something like a force of nature unleashed rather than directed by God to stem the rising tide of Islam. He teaches us that God can use even the most evil among us for His own purposes. In the face of Sultan Mehmet, Europe needed either a rare and charismatic military genius or someone who could beat the sultan at his own game by being even crueler and more ruthless than he. God supplied; He gave the world Dracula. 

Vive Christus Rex!

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