Elizabeth Báthory. Her name alone conjures images of great stone castles and fangs pressed against the necks of virgins – whose emotions are expressed solely with the rise and fall of their bosom, of course.
The countess is considered the female counterpart of Dracula himself, but just how much of her gruesome legend is true? Does Báthory truly deserve the vampiric reputation that has slandered her for centuries?
Was she a cruel mistress, driven by vanity, sadism and just a smidge of lust, or a victim of political unrest? Could she have been innocent all along?
The Life of Elizabeth Báthory
On August 7th 1560, Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was born on the family estate in the Kingdom of Hungary, at the time part of the Habsburg Monarchy. Her family were intertwined in European nobility, which included the King of Poland and the Voivode of Transylvania – the highest ranking position within the region.
In childhood, she was prone to seizures, which modern scholars suspect was a result of epilepsy. The historical remedy for this was rather macabre, and involved rubbing the blood of a non-epileptic onto the lips of the patient – an interesting note given her later accusations.
As is often the way, Elizabeth was betrothed to marry Count Ferenc Nádasdy, part of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Hungry at the time. Their marriage commenced in 1575 when the two were 15 and 19 years old respectively. Ferenc’s gift to his teenage bride was his household – the glorious Čachtice Castle, and the surrounding land and villages. Rather than sacrifice her family name, which held more providence than Nádasdy’s, the couple agreed that Ferenc would adopt the name Báthory, an indicator of just how influential her family were.
Elizabeth was a well educated and undoubtedly intelligent young lady. She was fluent in Latin, German, Hungarian and Classical Greek, unlike her husband, who was barely literate in his mother tongue, and had only a passing understanding of Latin and German. However, what Ferenc lacked in brains, he certainly made up for in brawn, as he became a well respected military leader, integral in the Ottoman-Hungarian Wars.
These wars kept him away from his bride for much of their married life, and during that time, Elizabeth took control of household affairs and their estates. This would have been no easy task, as it included responsibility for those living on her land and responding to the ongoing conflicts in the area. This included defence of the family estates, which held strategic significance and provided a rout to Vienna – the seat of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1604, Ferenc died and Elizabeth inherited his properties and fortune. This left her as one of the most powerful women in the Kingdom of Hungary. Before he died, Ferenc tasked György Thurzó, another powerful noble, with the protection of his wife and their 3 surviving children. Unfortunately, this wasn’t his best move, as Thurzó went on to become an integral part of the Báthory downfall.
Around the time of Ferenc’s death, dark rumours began to swirl. A Lutheran minister, István Magyari, was amongst the first to speak out against Elizabeth. He is said to have become suspicious of the amount of burials coming from the castle – the majority of which were servant girls.
However, it wasn’t until 1610, when daughters of the lower gentry began to disappear, that King Matthias II assigned none other than the aforementioned György Thurzó to investigate the claims. By 1609, Thurzó had been designated Palatine of Hungary – the highest ranking position in the kingdom, which saw him as a representative of the monarchy itself. Interestingly, he was also a cousin of Báthory, but there seemed to be no love lost between them, despite his promise to the late Ferenc .
What he found upon entering the castle has been embellished to the point of uncertainty, but the outcome remains fixed: Báthory and four of her servants were arrested.The crimes of the accused have also been infiltrated by folklore, but commonly includes the following claims:
- It is said that the Countess was prone to inflicting unusually sadistic punishments upon her servants.
- Her preferred victims were girls between the ages of 10-14, many of whom were sent to Báthory to learn etiquette.
- Her torture methods included beatings, burnings and submerging in freezing water.
- She would have her victims covered in honey and leave them to be bitten by insects.
- She would jam needles under her victims fingernails.
- She was known to bite into the flesh on the neck or breast of the victim.
- She had up to 650 victims. This number originates from a servant of Báthory’s who claims to have seen the number in a book belonging to the Countess. This book allegedly included the names of each of her victims, although the it was never presented as evidence and the literacy of the servant is dubious.
- Some claim an uncle and aunt of Báthory introduced her to sadism and satanism as a child. Other’s claim it was her husband who encouraged Elizabeth’s torturous punishments.
- She was accused of practising Witchcraft and Satanism – Witnesses even went as far as to claim Báthory had copulated with the Devil himself.
- As well as her rumoured sadism, Báthory began to kill the girls in order to bathe in their blood. This is now known to be a myth, and was first mentioned around 100 years after her death.
The servants arrested along with the Countess confessed to their alleged crimes and were executed. Báthory herself was imprisoned in her own castle, passing away at the age of 54.
A Royal Conspiracy?
Given the notoriety of Elizabeth Báthory, her guilt is seemingly ubiquitous. The king of Hungary himself practically demanded her execution.
However, given the passage of time, Elizabeth’s monicker -The Blood Countess – seems less and less deserved.
And why is that? I hear you cry.
Well, there’s actually very little evidence to prove any of these allegations were true, and many modern scholars believe the claims were politically motivated. She was never even brought to trial.
Like all headstrong women in positions of power, Elizabeth Báthory was a threat to the establishment. There’s plenty of reason for Matthias, who was not only King of Hungary, but the Holy Roman Emperor, to be threatened by her influence.
The political landscape of Hungary at the time was a mess. Between the Ottoman Empire, the spread of Protestantism which threatened the Catholic King and other nobles Matthias had his hands full, but what made Elizabeth herself so important?
The Báthory’s and Nádasdy’s were one of the few protestant noble families, and Elizabeth signalled their merger. Not to mention, the Prince of Transylvania, who was himself eager to expand his own territory into Hungary, was none other than Elizabeth’s beloved cousin, Gabor Báthory. The threat of his invasion was very real, but would only be possible with Elizabeth’s support.
Báthory had extensive wealth and owned a large part of Hungary. A sizeable fortune by any means, especially due to the strategic location of the estate, but particularly useful to Matthias himself, as he was in debt to Elizabeth and her late husband.
How better to discredit the Báthory family and destroy their political influence in a way that risked labelling any remaining supporters as co-conspirators in these ghastly crimes.
The servant’s confessions? They were given under torture. Witnesses? Testified based on accusations and hearsay as well as threat of torture. Physical evidence? Minimal.
It is possible Elizabeth ruled her household with an iron fist. After all, there’s no smoke without fire, as they say. She certainly wouldn’t have been the first noble to abuse her position of power – In fact even her husband, Ferenc, was renowned for his documented brutality towards his prisoners, yet was celebrated as a war hero until Báthory’s fall from grace. So why is it her story that has been cemented in folklore, earning infamy across the globe centuries later?
Is it due to the nature of her alleged crimes? We can’t discuss Elizabeth Báthory without touching upon vampirism. Some claim that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was inspired by this tale, but like her crimes themselves, there’s no trustworthy evidence to support this.
Still, the tale is fodder to our imagination in the way gruesome events often are, serving as inspiration to film, literature and other forms of media even today.
Then again, we can compare the Báthory story to the horrific crimes of Gilles De Rais, which took place 100 years earlier and remains largely unknown in popular culture, despite his guilt still being accepted by today’s historians. Maybe these crimes are too ghastly to describe, overshooting the boundaries of what we creatives consider “fair game”.
Will We Ever Know The Truth?
Much of Countess Elizabeth Báthory’s life has been lost to time, but during her reign, she allegedly intervened in disputes on behalf of “destitute” women who lived within her estate. She was also rumoured to have given birth to a child before her marriage. She would have been around 13 years old.
Elizabeth Báthory was undoubtably one of the most powerful, well educated women of her era, and she paid for it. Once vilified by a regime that saw her as a threat, she remains sexualised by a modern audience fascinated with the image of a lusty, busty vampiric beauty and her virginal victims.
Her alleged body count of 600+ awarded her a Guinness World Record as most prolific female murderer, but does she truly deserve it?
Who can say, but I’m inclined to remember the African proverb – “until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter”.
– Dr LJ Hawthorn
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