Perhaps the first question in terms of family intrigues we should look at is the question of sons and brothers. Succession to the throne in both Wallachia and in the Ottoman Empire was not necessarily by primogeniture or by legitimacy. Vlad Dracula the Impaler’s father, Vlad II Dracul, was the illegitimate son of Mircea I of Wallachia. In fact, of the many sons born to Mircea, only one, Mihail, was conceived in the marriage bed. Mihail ruled from 1408 to 1418 as co-ruler with his father but Romanian custom, which ‘allowed’ for concubinage, meant that Vlad II Dracul’s bastardy did not impede him from also claiming the throne. Another one of the illegitimate offspring of Mircea, Alexander, ruled between 1431 and 1436 as Alexander I Aldea.
Vlad Dracula was certainly the legitimate son of Vlad II Dracul but this did not stop his father abandoning him to the ‘care’ of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II – both Vlad and his brother Radu were held as hostages by the Ottomans in Edirne as a guarantee of their father’s continued loyalty. Dracula’s brother would later become his chief opponent in the fight for the Wallachian princedom as Vlad Dracula’s claim was backed by the Hungarians and Radu became the pawn of the Ottomans. Vlad Dracula also faced challenges from other sons of Vlad II Dracul such as the somewhat exotically named Vlad the Monk, and from the family line of the Dnesti which was descended from an uncle of Vlad II Dracul. The Saxon towns of Transylvania backed the claims of the Dnesti pretenders and Vlad Dracula’s revenge upon them with his mass impalements of men women and children, in addition to other atrocities, are the chief source of his undying infamy.
Any Ottoman prince faced a similar problem. Turko-Mongolic steppe tradition gave each son an equal share of the lands and possessions of the father. I have written elsewhere of how this ‘patrimonial share-out’ was a primary cause of the rapid breakdown of the Mongol ‘world empire’ following the death of Chinggis Khan, and of the dissolution of the state created by the great Kurdish warrior sultan Saladin soon after his demise. The Ottoman ‘solution’ to this issue was truly brutal but also fairly efficient. It was for the prince to, very rapidly, eliminate all possible pretenders upon his accession to the throne. Mehemmed II had his younger brother Kucuk Ahmed strangled immediately after he was recognised as the new Sultan by the army and court in 1451. (Kucuk means ‘little’ in Turkish so we can assume that Ahmed had not attained manhood before being killed). Mehemmed’s other brother Orhan had already fled to exile in Constantinople. He was captured when the great city fell to Mehemmed in 1453 and quickly executed.
The ‘system’ did not always work and troublesome siblings often ‘popped up’ such as Cem, the brother of Sultan Bayezid II, who kept turning up like a bad penny under the care first of the Mamluk sultans and later as a houseguest of the Vatican and of the Venetian Republic, all of whom were the enemies of Bayezid.
So, if blood relatives are not to be trusted then who else can we turn to for loyal support? We see several ‘surrogate’ families in the medieval age, it was after all an age characterised by feudalism. Vlad II Dracul and his son Vlad Dracula were both inducted into the Order of the Dragon. This was a prestigious honour as members came from the royalty of Europe and included such luminaries as King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples, Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia, Prince Witold of Lithuania, and King Ladislaus Jagiello of Poland. The insignia of the Order included golden collars carrying medallions of a dragon hung dead upon a cross bearing the Order’s mottos: ‘O quam misericors est Deus’ and ‘Justus et Pius’. The medallion, so the stories go, was to be worn at all times until the member's death, and after death it was to be interred with the wearer’s body. The order was the initiative of King Sigismund I of Hungary and members also took an oath to protect Catholicism but also to the heirs of Sigismund. We also see such attempts to build a second layer of security beyond that of kith and kin in English history with the creation of the Order of the Garter by the Black Prince and a more desperate version during the failing reign of Richard II with the Order of the White Hart.
Vlad Dracula famously impaled many men of the higher Wallachian aristocracy, the boyars, shortly after ascending the throne. He evidently viewed these men as being the most likely to cause rebellion in his newly acquired princedom but his massacre of the boyars at the famous Easter Feast of 1457 left him with the need to replace these feudal lords, whose forces were essentially only loyal to them and not to the crown directly. Vlad Dracula achieved this, to some degree, through the creation of a new ‘household’. He offered confiscated lands to new men; these new boyars were often of very low birth and owed their fortune entirely to Vlad Dracula. Vlad Dracula also placed another government body above the council of Boyars, the arma. The arma was constituted in the main of well-paid mercenaries with complete loyalty to Vlad Dracula. Finally there were the men of Vlad Dracula’s standing army, or bodyguard, the sluji.
This again was not unusual (though few European monarchs would have dug so deep down into the social hierarchy to find their ‘new men’ as Vlad Dracula did). The core of any king’s army was his household – the men directly dependent upon his favour – and the individuals who made up this force were in many ways closer to the monarch than his family. Richard II’s alienation from the lords of England forced him to rely on a mercenary force, the Cheshire Archers. Vlad Dracula’s destruction of the aristocracy of Wallachia required that he create a whole new stratum of Romanian military society.
For the Ottomans there were the men of the kapikulu, the ‘military-slaves’ that ran the porte or headquarters of the sultan to act as their household. In order to enforce the superiority of the kapikulu over the tribal elements of the Ottoman army, and thereby the rule of the sultan over the empire the Ottoman sultans actively restricted the dissemination of firearms across the state. The akinje or tribal troops of the empire were restricted to bow and sword whilst the Janissaries’ went from being supreme bowmen to supreme riflemen during the reign of Murad II and Mehemmed II. Both the men of the kapikulu and the Janissaries came from the devshirme, the harvest of young Christian boys captured from Balkan lands during Ottoman raids and invasions. The porte took these boys as the traditional one-fifth of war booty that was a sultans’ right. Without any other family tie these men could be converted to become ‘automatons’ with no other loyalties than those to their corps and to the sultan.
If you feel you can trust in-laws more than you can trust your own blood then an advantageous marriage should perhaps be sought? Certainly Vlad II Dracul’s marriage to Cneajna, who was a Princess of the house of Alexander the Good of Moldavia in 1425 and the mother of Vlad Dracula, was to be of enormous benefit to the House of Dracul – the young Vlad Dracula sought refuge at the court of Bogdan II of Moldavia in 1448 after his first abortive attempt to claim the crown of Wallachia. During this time he bonded with his cousin Stephen who would later become Stephen the Great of Moldavia, be given the title of Athletae Christi or Champion of Christ by the pope for his victories over the Ottomans, and who would later reseat Vlad Dracula on the throne of Wallachia.
Marriage among the Ottoman sultans was somewhat different. Of course polygamy was the standard and concubines could also produce sons that might take the throne. What is more interesting about the brides of many of the sultans, however, was that they were commonly Christian princesses, either from the Byzantine court or from the various kingdoms of the Balkans. This arrangement had several advantages. The Ottoman Sultans, like the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad and the Umayyad Caliphs of Spain, may have preferred marriage or concubinage with Christian women simply because marriage to Muslim women ran the risk of subsequent divorce and the ex-wife’s family then being able to claim a dynastic link and even make claims on the succession. Indeed, it is notable how many Caliphs and Sultans were the offspring of concubines.
Some Ottoman marriages with Christian royalty were, however, much more like dynastic marriage alliances than any mere addition to the Sultan’s harem. For example the marriage between Bayezid I and Olivera Despina, the Serbia Despot Lazar’s daughter, essentially made her brother, Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia, the sultan’s most trusted vassal. The entry of Stefan Lazarevic and his cavalry, ‘fifteen-thousand men and many bannerets’, overwhelmed the Hungarian heavy cavalry as it was on the point of pushing Bayezid I’s army off the field during the climactic battle of the 1396 Crusade of Nicopolis. Hence a sultan was saved from disaster by his Christian brother-in law.
How far one could really trust ‘the in-laws’ is however a debatable point. When the Serbian despot George Brankovic briefly rebelled against his vassal lord Murad II the Ottoman Sultan had both of Brankovic’s sons blinded despite the insistent pleading of their sister who was also Murad II’s wife…
Signing off on this, I cannot help but think of the many plays of Shakespeare where both loyalty and deceit come from within the family, with King Lear being the most explicit. But perhaps the loneliness of a prince, and of all those who hold power only as long as they keep the support of those closest to them, is best summed up by Herod’s advice to the friend he is soon to betray in Robert Grave’s classic story of power politics and family intrigue, I Claudius: ‘Trust no one, my friend, no one! Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one!’
By James Waterson