Castle of the Week 26 – Bran Castle
Bran Castle is deep in the Carpathian Mountains in the area of Romania called Transylvania, about 20 miles from Brasov the second largest city in Romania. It is a good example of a gothic fairy-tale castle and today is better known as Dracula’s Castle. In fact, his castle was a few miles away and is now in ruins but for some reason the name has stuck.
The first wooden castle was built by the Teutonic Knights in 1212 and was known as Dietrichstein. It was built on a rock, 60m high, at the narrowest part of the Turcu river valley and was connected to the mountain by a viaduct which gave a great view up the valley making it hard for attackers. By the end of the century, Saxons had taken it over and used it to protect the important trade centre of Brasov and the Bran mountain pass below. In 1370 it was attacked and badly damaged by invading Turks.
In 1377 the castle was rebuilt by the citizens of Brasov and consisted of a four-storey keep with a lookout post on the top, two towers, a curtain wall and underground rooms used as a prison. The walls were built of stone from the river, bricks and some of the upper parts of wood and had rectangular firing holes as was common in Transylvanian castles. They were allowed a permanent garrison of 12 to 24 soldiers, mostly archers with a few operating ballistas.
It was added to over the years and throughout the middle ages stood as a defence against numerous invasions. By the beginning of the 1500s it was used mainly for trading by the local merchants and glass was put in the windows for the first time. They collected tolls and sold cheese, meat and wood.
In 1836 it became an official border post and housed Austrian border guards so defense was no longer a priority.
Today the castle has four towers, one of which, the Powder House tower, is from the original 13th century castle and was where gunpowder was stored. The Observation Tower and Eastern Tower, which had murder holes to drop boiling water and pitch on attackers, were added during a 15th century restoration. The Gate Tower was rebuilt in 1622, this time rectangular rather than circular and the curtain walls were strengthened until they were 11 feet thick because of the introduction of cannons.
In 1921 Queen Marie did extensive renovations to the castle to change it from a stronghold into a royal palace. The ancient Gunner’s Room was converted into the Royal Chapel and an extra floor was added to one of the towers for her secretary. The fire holes were turned into windows. She installed a lift in the well in the courtyard which descended nearly 200 feet to a maze of secret passages together with a tunnel leading to the park in the valley below. It remained a summer palace for the royal family until the abdication of King Michael in 1947. After this it was abandoned and started to fall into disrepair.
The castle was given to the town of Brasov and has been open to the public since 1956 and in 1987 restoration started again as the building was falling down. This was finished in 1993 and has displays of weapons, furniture, statues and hunting trophies.
The true Story of Dracula
Firstly can I warn people that if they have a disposition which is in the least bit squeamish, they do not read the next part. It is a greatly sanitised version of the original but is still extremely unpleasant in places.
In the middle ages, this area was the kingdom of Wallachia. The throne was hereditary, but the ruler was voted for by the nobles from all eligible members of the royal family. Although this sounds democratic, it normally ended up as bloody battles between the nobles and various royal princes.
Vlad III, sometimes known as Vlad the Impaler, sometimes known as Dracula was Prince of Wallachia in 1448, 1456-62 and 1476 and was the cruellist of these rulers. His favourite method of torture or execution was, indeed, impalement .. hence his nickname. It was an agonising way to die and Dracula improved on the original idea so that the victims suffered for hours or days.
He would arrange the stakes in geometric patterns, with the height of the stake depending on the victim’s rank and made sure it wasn’t too sharp to prevent the victim dying too quickly from shock. It would be forced through the body until it emerged through the mouth with the victim either the right way up or upside down; others were impaled through the stomach or chest with infants on the same stake that went through their mother’s chest. All were left for months. The smell and sight of 20,000 rotting corpses turned back Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1461 and legend has it that other Turkish armies turned and fled during his reign. Thousands were impaled at a time .. 30,000 of Brasov’s nobles and merchants on one occasion.
Although impaling was his favourite method of execution and torture, it certainly wasn’t his only one. Others included hammering nails into heads, boiling alive, scalping, slicing off limbs and many other creative methods which have no place on a family site. Not only did he impale his own people, but also Ambassadors from foreign countries who displeased him.
As soon as he came to the throne he set out to avenge the assassination of his father and the murder of his older brother who was buried alive. He held an Easter feast, inviting the noblemen who had been part of the conspiracy, together with their families. He had them all arrested and impaled the older nobles and their families there and then and forced the younger nobles and their families into slave labour, rebuilding the castle. Very few survived.
Despite all this, from contemporary pamphlets and Romanian verbal tradition, it is obvious that he was viewed as a hero of the ordinary people, protecting them from foreign invaders and oppressive nobles.
His nickname of Dracula came from the Romanian word Drac, meaning devil and he’s probably now best known from the 19th century novel by Bram Stoker whose ‘Dracula’ was based on him.
Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of the Brasov Travel Guide.
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