15th Century wax seal, official symbol of the knights of the Dragon
|The Order of the Dragon was one of a number of
forgotten chivalric brotherhoods that arose in Central and Eastern
Europe in the Late Middle Ages. Founded in the late 14th Century by
the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund I, the Order has earnt itself a place
as a sinister footnote in the blood and iron history of the conflict
between East and West. Modelled in part on the orders of military
monks founded during the Crusades – such as the notorious Knights
Templar (1120-1312) – later fraternities, like the Order of the Dragon,
had a more overtly political than religious agenda.
The public face of the Draconists (as members were known) was of a
chivalrous society dedicated to defending Christianity from the infidel,
while defending the innocent, and promoting fraternal loyalty between
members. But – just as with the controversial Templars – there was
another shadowy side to this elite Order. Indeed, many regard it as
more of a secret society than a benevolent brotherhood of pious knights
– a cabal dedicated to dark conspiracy rather than holy crusade.
A woodcut portrait of Vlad tepes from a 16th Century German chronicle
| For one thing, it was a highly
exclusive club, whereby only royalty and the most distinguished nobles
were welcome among the ranks of its inner circle, which consisted
of around 24 Draconists. For another, the Order was deeply involved
in the tempestuous political arena on the Eastern borders of Christian
Europe. It was rumoured members were just as interested in plotting
against rival Christian princes as they were in combating the threat
of invasion from the Islamic East. Certainly, the curious rituals
and customs of the Order of the Dragon suggest the exotic ceremonies
of a secret society of some kind.
A complex system of coloured robes and secret insignia was instituted
for members. For example, some circumstances called for a green robe
(symbolising the dragon – their fearless mascot), to be worn over
a red robe (symbolising the blood of Christian martyrs). While costumes
and rites varied according to custom and the calendar, the Draconist
symbol remained constant. A medallion that hung from a collar, it
featured a dragon holding a double-armed crucifix, the cross emblazoned
with the mottoes ‘Oh how merciful is God’ and ‘Just and Faithful’
in Latin. This medallion was to be carried by Draconists at all times,
a symbol of their eternal membership and loyalty to the Order, and
was buried with the member at death.
A 16th Century oil painting of Vlad Tepes from the Kunsthistorisches
Museum in Vienna
| Though by no means the most distinguished, a mere
local prince among kings and emperors, one Draconist was to earn the
Order an ominous place in history and folklore. That Draconist was
Vlad II, Voivode (a local term meaning ‘warlord’) of the province
of Wallachia. His lands lay at the border between the Catholic kingdoms
to the west and Turkish Empire to the east, forming a gateway for
either side should they wish to invade. To survive as a ruler on this
blood-soaked boundary required not only military flair, but great
cunning and well-honed diplomatic skills. By accepting membership
of the Order of the Dragon in 1431, Vlad was not only accepting a
great honour, but binding himself to the Christian side.
His membership of the esteemed Order did not go unnoticed at home
in Wallachia. Vlad made sure it didn’t by putting the Order’s symbol
of a dragon on his armour and the local currency. It earnt him the
nickname ‘Dracul’, meaning dragon in Romanian. According to contemporaries,
Vlad earnt the title, being ‘a righteous and unconquerable man, the
mightiest and bravest in battle, since with only a few men at his
disposal and due solely to his own heart and wisdom, he waged a long
war with the Turks’.
A 16th Century woodcut showing Vlad the Impaler enjoying a feast whilst
his victims slowly died.
| But matters in the treacherous border territories
were seldom straightforward, and Vlad was forced to change sides on
several occasions, placating first the Catholics and then the Turks
in order to survive. Finally, in 1442, the Turkish Sultan seized his
two youngest sons, Vlad and Mircea as hostages, to ensure the elder
Vlad’s co-operation. Five years later valiant Vlad Dracul died in
battle, almost certainly the victim of one last betrayal by his Christian
‘allies’. His son and namesake Vlad, bitter and vengeful both against
his Turkish ‘hosts’ and those that had betrayed his father at home,
finally escaped incarceration and began his own violent progress to
the throne, becoming Voivode of Wallachia in 1448 and, in the process,
establishing a reputation as both a brutal tyrant and war hero.
His favourite form of punishment involved impaling the victim upon
a long sharpened pole. It was a very painful death, one which Vlad
III resorted to frequently, creating forests from the impaled bodies
of those he thought had betrayed him, might betray him, or just were
not sufficiently respectful. Thus Vlad became known as ‘Tepes’ (pronounced
‘tsepesh’) meaning ‘impaler’. His other nickname referred to his ancestry,
and established the Voivode a place in international folklore. While
never a Draconist himself, many remembered his father’s distinctive
insignia, and dubbed Vlad III ‘little dragon’ or ‘son of the dragon’
– in Romanian, ‘Dracula’. Though notoriously cruel, most Wallachians
admired the Voivode’s bold campaigns against the Turkish invaders
and savage, but uncompromising, attitude to law and order at home.
For them, ‘Dracula’ was a title they conferred upon the ruler as an
Vlad Dracul's modest fortified palace in Sighisoara. Here Vlad Dracula
was born in 1431,
the same year his father was initiated into the Order of the Dragon.
|But not everybody saw it that way. Some of those
persecuted by the Impaler in Wallachia and neighbouring kingdoms –
most notably German monks – headed back west with tales of Vlad III’s
excesses. They exploited the double meaning of ‘Dracul’ – it could
mean both ‘dragon’ or ‘devil’ in Romanian. While still a hero in his
homelands to this day, to many shocked Western Europeans who heard
rumours or read fifteenth century pamphlets about this bloodthirsty
warlord, Dracula came to mean ‘Son of the Devil’. Four centuries later
an Irish author came across one of these pamphlets in the British
Museum while researching a horror novel. The author, Bram Stoker,
liked the name and gave it to the undead villain of his 1897 masterpiece.
That novel was, of course, Dracula.
The bloodline that has led a medieval secret society to inspire the
name of the modern world’s most popular fictional villain is a crooked
and obscure one. The distinctive dragon insignia of the Order of the
Dragon still manifests in modern culture in various mutilated forms.
For example, the British Satanic metal band Cradle of Filth adopted
a customised version of the Draconist seal as their own unofficial
logo. Ironically, like most of those invoking Vlad Dracul and his
notorious son Dracula, the band’s stance is different, or even the
direct opposite, of that of the original Order of the Dragon. Draconists
were bound by oath to crusade against heretics, heathens and other
enemies of the Church – like, one is tempted to observe, Cradle of
Filth. Quite what Vlad Tepes would have made of his posthumous renown
is impossible to say – though it’s a fair guess that his response
would have involved a sharpened stick!...
Transylvanian walled town of Sighisoara which Vlad Dracul made his
base between 1431-35.
While his son Vlad Dracula is commonly associated with Transylvania,
like his father, he actually ruled the neighbouring province of Wallachia
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