Vampire lore has long-standing roots in European culture and stories proliferate of these 'undead' creatures, who can be warded off with a crucifix or garlic and killed with a stake through the heart. Perhaps the best-known image of a vampire is that of the Transylvanian Count Dracula, the villain of the horror novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker in 1879.
Is there a man behind the myth?
The controversial man whose name and deeds particularly helped inspire the legend of Count Dracula is Vlad III Dracula, prince of Wallachia, known as Vlad Tepes or 'the Impaler' because he favoured this method of punishment (ruled 1448, 1456-62 and 1476). The history of Wallachia in the fifteenth century is very poorly documented, with most sources produced by Vlad Tepes' opponents. At this time, Wallachian princes were under continual pressure from the expanding Ottoman empire, and there were also many internal disputes and usurpations. As a result, Vlad Tepes is remembered both for his atrocities, and for fighting bravely against the threat of invasion by the Islamic Ottoman enemy. But Vlad Tepes' father, Vlad II Dracul, also played his part in the creation of our legends.
Vlad II's chequered reign (ruled 1431, 1436-42 and 1444-7) included periods in exile in the German towns of Transylvania, then part of the Hungarian kingdom. Vlad Tepes is believed to have been born in Sighisoara (German Schassburg, Hungarian Segesvar) in Transylvania in 1431, during Vlad II's first exile, and this perhaps helps explain our association of Count Dracula with Transylvania.
The numismatic evidence from Vlad II Dracul's reign helps reveal the origins of the name Dracula. The reverse of this very rare coin - only about eight are known - shows a dragon, and commemorates Vlad II's acceptance into the prestigious Order of the Dragon in 1431. The Order of the Dragon was established by King Sigismund of Hungary (1387-1437) to defend Christianity against the Ottoman threat. Vlad II was admitted to the Order by Sigismund to encourage him to fight against the Turks, and after 1431, Vlad II also adopted the name Dracul (from the Latin draco meaning 'dragon') in commemoration of the event. The dragon on the coin is thus a symbol not only of Vlad II, but of his mission to defend his faith. 'Dracula' became a family name, which was used by Vlad's son, Vlad Tepes, in his letters and documents. The obverse of the coin shows an eagle looking back at a cross, which is a traditional symbol of Christian Wallachian rulers.
How has a man sworn to uphold Christianity become depicted as the vampire Count Dracula, cowed by the sight of a crucifix?
For more information on the use of eagles on coins, see our virtual exhibition.