From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 308-310:
The nickname Dracul (‘the Dragon’) probably derives from his father’s membership of the Hungarian chivalric Order of the Dragon, although in Romanian it takes on the meaning of a devil, and Vlad was certainly to earn the name with his draconian behaviour. A member of the ruling house of Basarab, he had, like Skanderbeg, been a hostage of the Turks, then turned against them, serving with John Hunyadi, and he was related by blood to King Matthias. Becoming Hospodar (lord) of Wallachia in 1448, he was promptly ousted by a rival, but in 1456 he regained power and this time took better care to keep it.
He built up a personal army of retainers, executed a number of hostile boiars [nobles] and took harsh measures against anyone else who opposed his will. He also tried to promote commerce, established Bucharest as the country’s capital, and in 1459 responded positively to Pius II’s call for a Crusade against the Turks. He withheld the Sultan’s tribute, killed Ottoman emissaries sent to deal with him, and then, in the winter of 1461–2, carried out a devastating assault into Ottoman territory. In a night attack, he routed an Ottoman force that had driven him back across the Danube – an occasion marked by a great slaughter of Turks.
At this point Vlad’s luck began to change. The Turks supported a bid by his half-brother Radu the Handsome to replace him and the movement gained increasing support within Wallachia, partly because of party interests, not least because it promised peace. Then, late in 1462, when the reluctant crusader King Matthias at last reached the ‘Saxon’ city of Brasov in Transylvania at the head of his troops, Vlad went to meet him, expecting, as did the Pope himself, that they would launch a joint operation against the Turks. Instead, Matthias arrested Vlad, took him back to Buda and kept him imprisoned there for thirteen years.
Vlad’s diminishing support in Wallachia no doubt prompted Matthias to have second thoughts about the crusading action he had promised the Pope, though there was another consideration: in an attempt to enrich Wallachia, Vlad had tried to regain territories that had been lost and wrest control of the profitable oriental trade away from the ‘Saxon’ cities of Transylvania (which supported pretenders to his throne) and even attacked them. A new Turkish-backed regime in Wallachia promised to restore the old pattern of trade and, for his part, Matthias was anxious to reassure them, for Transylvania, and the prosperous Saxon cities in particular, constituted an important source of income to the Hungarian treasury. However, he now had to justify his actions to the Pope. This he did so by mounting a highly effective campaign of disinformation against Vlad, incidentally drawing our attention to a facet of humanist activity that is sometimes overlooked: the manufacture of propaganda. In fact the Dracula legend was largely the creation of humanist officials at Matthias’s court.
The motive was both strong and simple: Pope Pius had to be convinced that, so far from being a doughty Crusader, Vlad was an oppressor, a murderer, a sadist – a disgrace to the Christian cause, from whom he should at all costs distance himself. To this end Janos Vitez, who was to become Primate as well as Chancellor of Hungary, Janus Pannonius, later Bishop of Pecs, and other literary talents at the court of Matthias were set to work. They used the complaints made by the Saxon merchants and stories put about by Vlad’s enemies in Wallachia in their apparently successful attempts to convince Pius; and these stories were essentially true. Vlad had undoubtedly had many people impaled (it was a commonplace form of execution in the region); he had fired many villages (as part of a scorched earth policy in the war against the Turks) and put many Ottoman subjects to death (though Matthias’s own father had once slaughtered a thousand Turkish prisoners).
However, by carefully ignoring the reasons for his actions, and by inventing new tales (for example about his allegedly favourite pastime in prison: slowly picking off the limbs of live insects) they were able to create the impression that Vlad was a traitor, a capricious despot, a sadist and a psychopath. A Latin poem by Pannonius picturing Vlad as a tyrant gained wide currency, and in 1463, as part of a wider propaganda effort, the printing, in German, of the ‘Story of Prince Dracula’ was arranged. It proved highly popular and was subsequently republished many times with embellishments and in several languages. Ultimately it was to provide Bram Stoker with the inspiration to invent a modern, fictional, Dracula. Opinion manipulators of our own times would have had little new to teach a Renaissance humanist.