The Old Curiosity Shop

The Order of the Dragon
Vlad the Impaler

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 honour.

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!...

The 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

Back To Articles
Gothic Literature
Gothic Directory
Black Art Gallery
Gothic Forum
Gothic Downloads
Dracula's Mirror
Gothic Links