Erzsebet Bathory – blood countess?

1 August 2012

Anna Friel as Countess Nadasdy in the recent film Bathory.

Being more than a bit of a goth, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Erzsebet Bathory ever since my teens. In fact, so obsessed was I that for a long time my online screen name was ‘Erzibet’ in her honour until I decided that it didn’t really suit me and ditched it. In certain circles, however, the mere mention of the soubriquet ‘Erzibet’ still causes shudders and scandalised whisperings almost on a par to those caused by Countess Bathory herself. Almost but not quite.

The jury is still very much out on Erzsebet Bathory – for a long time her guilt was assumed but nowadays she has plenty of champions on hand, keen to argue that the charges brought against her were all part of a cynical misogynistic attempt to discredit a woman of influence, wealth and power. However, in the eyes of most, she is still regarded as one of the most prolific serial killers of all time who used her influence, wealth and power not only to attract potential victims but also to conceal her crimes and, finally, effectively avoid proper justice.

Erzsebet Bathory was born in Nyirbator, Hungary on the 7th of August 1560, the second child (she had an elder brother, Istvan) and eldest of the three daughters of Gyorgy Bathory and his wife Anna, who was also a member of the Bathory family. Her family was an illustrious one – her uncle and grandfather had both been rulers of Transylvania, while thanks to her mother, she was also the niece of Stefan Bathory, who would become King of Poland when she was sixteen.

The three Bathory girls, Erzsebet, Klara and Sofia grew up amidst considerable opulence and luxury at Ecsed Castle in Hungary, where they remained until their marriages. As the eldest, Erzsebet was the first to marry and would be united with Ferenc Nadasdy on the 8th of May 1575, when she was not quite fifteen years old. The couple had been betrothed four years earlier, when the groom was just sixteen and his affianced eleven. It was considered to be a very fine match indeed as both families were equally matched in terms of grandeur and wealth, while the handsome young groom was said to be the most eligible bachelor in all Hungary at the time. Their wedding was celebrated with typical lavishness and aplomb in front of over four thousand guests at the palace of Varanno.

Erzsebet probably considered herself very fortunate with the husband that had been chosen for her – Ferenc was handsome, dashing and well educated as well as being the adored only child of the Palantine Thomas Nadasdy and his wife. Like Louis XIV, he was conceived when his mother was in her mid thirties and his parents had pretty much given up all hope of ever having an heir and so in consequence he was pampered, indulged and adored by all. He had also cut quite a dash in Vienna, where his mother had sent him in 1567 to both complete his education and also take his place at the Imperial court, where he became friendly with the Imperial children and would take part in their hunting parties and masques. The handsome young Nadasdy caught several eyes during his time in Vienna and one chronicler, Eunonius Urbanus commented that he was probably the most promising Hungarian nobles with surely a most wonderful career ahead of him.

Meanwhile, his bride to be was being raised in the countryside at her family’s great estates, where she was not just getting a thorough education that put her on a par with her contemporaries, Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Stuart but also being taught how to look after enormous households, entertain richly and behave as a lady of high standing. By the time Ferenc claimed her as his own, she was fluent in Hungarian, Latin, Greek and German and had a composure, elegance and hauteur that was far beyond her years.

As was the custom at the time, the young Erzsebet was handed over to her husband’s family before the wedding so that she could finish her education at their court and so she duly took up residence at the huge, moated Sarvar Castle, while her fiancé was either away in Vienna or else training with the army at one of the garrisons along the Hungarian border. It’s been said that at this time, the bored Erzsebet took a peasant lover and bore an illegitimate child who was spirited away never to be seen again but this seems very unlikely considering the close watch that was made over aristocratic young girls at this time and particularly ones who were due to make an illustrious marriage. Certainly it would not have been too late for Ferenc to repudiate her should such a tale have been true plus from what little we know of Erzsebet’s character, it seems highly improbable that she would have risked her future by taking a lover and would have been too proud to have slept with anyone less than a fellow aristocrat.

The wedding of Ferenc and Erzsebet would have been a magnificent three day affair with hog roasts, cannon salutes, dancing, banquets, parades through the streets and horse racing, all designed to show off the wealth, fabulous clothes and sporting prowess of the young couple and their households. There were also fabulous gifts – the most special of all was probably the castle of Csejte and seventeen neighbouring hamlets which Ferenc presented to his bride on their wedding day.

What little we know of the marriage of Ferenc and Erzsebet can be gleaned from her letters, which are crisply formal but tinged with a respectful affection. One gets the impression that Countess Nadasdy was an austere woman, hard to know, highly intelligent, strong willed, capable and extremely mindful of her duty both to the family name and her husband and then, later, their children too. In private, of course, she may well have been very different – bubbly, talkative, affectionate and the proverbial life and soul of the party but the most famous portrait with its tensely closed lips and wide, melancholy gaze speaks otherwise.

Three years after their marriage, the twenty three year old Ferenc became chief commander of the Hungarian army and from that point on was rarely to be found at home. In his absence, Erzsebet, who was still in her teens assumed the role of head of the household and wielded total power over the couple’s shared estates, which she appeared to do with considerable maturity and ability. Certainly, Ferenc had no complaints about his wife’s management of their court and lands as he continued to put his faith in her until his premature death.

However, Ferenc’s frequent absences must have taken their toll on his young bride especially as she was to remain childless for the first ten years of their marriage. It was at this time, we are told, that the bored young Countess sought to entertain herself by torturing servant girls with, perhaps, impatient slaps turning into stabbings with hair pins and then gradually worse. Certainly, we are also told that she and her husband were in the habit of swapping tips about the most effective methods of torture, with it being suggested that it was Ferenc, that golden, adored boy whom no one could say no to, who first led her astray.

Whatever the truth, Erzsebet’s reputation remained unimpeachable throughout their marriage and it was only afterwards that whispers began to spread about dark deeds both at Csejte and their other estates. The only activities that we know she definitely partook in during this time are fishing, needlework of the innocent variety, hunting, copious amounts of letter writing, reading and, charmingly, a spot of cookery when her husband returned from the battle line as it was the custom for noblewomen to welcome their husbands with food cooked by their own hands.

During this period, Erzsebet and her husband clearly managed to share a bed frequently enough to have five children – Anna, Kata, Orsolya, Andras and Pal. Sadly, Orsolya and Andras did not survive infancy but the others reached adulthood and would in time marry and have families of their own. Erzsebet appears to have been a dutiful and not unaffectionate mother and her letters to her husband included reports on their children’s progress and health, in the same way as a mother nowadays would write about teething pains, bumps, scrapes and small triumphs to a father away on business so as to both discuss it with someone else equally concerned and also make sure that he still feels included in the everyday and intimate business of their family.

In her dealings with other people, however, Erzsebet was haughty, demanding and cold. She does not appear to have made friends easily and instead preferred the company of various older women in her household such as the sinister and enigmatic Anna Darvulia, Ilona Jo and others who would later be implicated in her crimes as her accomplices in the procurement, torture and murder of young women. It was also said that the Countess was fascinated by magic and that these crones were her sorceresses who performed spells and created potions and poisons for her use. Possibly this is where the old tale about Erzsebet bathing in the blood of virgin maidens in order to retain her youthful good looks originated – in the pungent and mysterious elixirs of Anna Darvulia which claimed to make anyone who used them beautiful as the sun and unbelievably alluring to all men.

However, in January 1604 there came terrible news from the front after Ferenc succumbed to a mysterious illness at Sarvar. His heir, Pal was just nine years old and so Erzsebet retained her control over the family estates until he reached maturity. A year later, her eldest daughter, twenty year old Anna would marry Count Nicholas Zrinyi on the 22nd of December 1605, while her other daughter, Kata would marry Count George Drugeth. Her son, Pal, would remain with her while being carefully tutored to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestors.

The six years that followed the death of Erzsebet’s husband are the most controversial and hotly debated and discussed of her entire life as it is speculated that during that time she committed the vast majority and most dreadful of the crimes for which she would later be imprisoned. It is during the period of Erzsebet’s early widowhood that the mythical image of the dreaded, remorseless and terrible Blood Countess, torturing young women in the vaulted chambers of her castle and smearing herself with their blood while surrounded by a gaggle of horrible crones bedecked in black fraying robes, the stench of death and black magic amulets belongs. How true is this image though? Witnesses would later go into great detail about the horrible tortures involving cannabilism, sexual abuse, freezing, mutilation and burning that Erzsebet’s victims endured before they were beaten to death but then some witnesses also claimed to have seen the Countess having sex with the devil and a lot of the ‘witness’ accounts proved to be second hand hearsay.

What we do know is that by December 1610, there were enough rumours about the savage behaviour of the Countess Nadasdy for King Matthias II of Hungary to ask the Palatine of Hungary, Gyorgy Thurzo to discreetly investigate the wild stories that were beginning to surround Erzsebet. On the evening of the 29th of December, Thurzo arrived at Csejte and immediately took her into custody before searching the castle. We don’t know precisely what he found but he later displayed a dead girl who had all the signs of torture and violent death and another girl who had been tortured almost to death before the noblemen that he had brought with him. He claimed to have found several more victims, both alive and dead both in the castle itself and its immediate precincts.

The theory is that Mathias II and Thurzo were seizing their golden opportunity to slap down an uppity, intelligent, strong willed woman and put her sixteen year old son and rapacious sons in law in charge of the enormous domains and wealth that she had hitherto governed almost single handedly during first the absence of her husband and then in the aftermath of his death. It’s said that the witnesses were all bought, the evidence so sensationally found by Thurzo planted or conjured up out of nothing much like the black magic that she and her ladies were said to practice. It’s also pointed out that amongst the hundreds of depositions presented at the trial of Erzsebet’s alleged accomplices, there were none from her surviving maids and ladies in waiting who would presumably have made excellent first hand witnesses to the actual treatment handed out by the Countess.

However, the testimonies at the trial are compelling stuff as you read through accounts written by families missing young daughters who were last seen trotting up the mountain pass to Csejte or the nervous accounts of country priests called upon to bury several young women who had been in the service of the Countess. Perhaps there was an epidemic of sickness, the Countess’ defenders say, that cut a swathe through the young girls, both peasants and from the minor nobility who made up her household. Perhaps there was. This was the early seventeenth century after all.

Even the amount of victims ascribed to Erzsebet is open to speculation – when two of her suspected accomplices were tortured before their trial, they admitted to helping her murder around thirty six young women. Other figures mooted around the trial varied between fifty to eighty and even up to two hundred. However, one witness, a young woman called Susannah, brought the proceedings to a sensational temporary standstill when she reported having seen a diary written in the Countess’ own hand which included a list of around six hundred and fifty names, presumably those of her victims. What happened to this extremely incriminating piece of evidence, assuming that it ever existed, is anyone’s guess.

Erzsebet remained in custody at Csejte from this point on but was never actually brought to trial. However, her alleged accomplices: Dorotya Semtesz, Ilona Jo, Kataínka Benicka, and Janos Ujvary were tried at Bicse in January 1611 and all found guilty. Semtesz, Jo and Ujvary were all horribly tortured before being burnt while Benicka was sentenced to life imprisonment as she was found less culpable than the others.

Erzsebet herself made no appearance at the trial, which created a sensation in Hungary and indeed throughout Europe as the Countess Nadasdy had long been famed throughout the known world for her beauty, intelligence and fabulous wealth and a willingness to revel in the downfall of the beautiful and rich has always been one of the least charming facets of human nature.

In fact, after her arrest, Erzsebet was never to leave Csejte again. After it was decided that to bring her to public trial would create a most immense scandal and also bring shame upon the very highest families of Transylvania, Hungary, Poland and even further afield, all of whom were related to the Countess by either blood or marriage, it was therefore agreed that she would henceforth be declared legally dead so that her estates could be distributed between her children and held in solitary confinement in one of the towers at Csejte.

It’s part of the legend of the Blood Countess that she ended her days walled up in a room at Csejte, with no contact at all with the outside world and all food and necessary items passed to her through a narrow slit in the wall. This doesn’t actually appear to have been the case as contemporary records make mention of priests visiting her shortly before her death and also of Erzsebet talking to her guards to complain about how cold she was. The actual conditions of her imprisonment are not known but it’s likely that she was confined to at least one room in the tower at Csejte and allowed to live there with some of her own possessions around her. However, her confinement meant that she was unable to prevent the rapacious wife of her arch enemy, Thurzo arriving at Csejte shortly after her imprisonment and helping herself to all of Erzsebet’s remaining jewels and valuables to the indignation of her children. An action, I might add, that surely casts some doubt over Thurzo’s motivation to find Erzsebet guilty and get her out of the way.

Erzsebet was to remain imprisoned at Csejte for four years until her death shortly after her fifty fourth birthday on either the 21st or 25th of August 1614. She had already felt herself to be ailing before being taken into custody as the existence of a will made shortly beforehand proves (or perhaps she knew that the game was nearly up?) but there are rumours, of course, that the haughty Countess starved herself to death rather than endure her imprisonment.

It’s not known where her final resting place was to be. It’s said that her body was initially buried in the church at Csejte but that the villagers, already infuriated by their association with the woman who was known in some circles as the Tigress of Csejte, demanded that it be removed elsewhere. It’s likely that her body was therefore buried in one of the Bathory family vaults either at Ecsed or elsewhere.

I find the story of Erzsebet Bathory absolutely fascinating because it gives us a vivid glimpse into the savage, exotic and extremely opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the high aristocracy of eastern Europe in the seventeenth century, where clearly luxury, refinement and a rigorous and erudite education for both sexes was as highly prized as it was amongst their western European counterparts in England, France, Italy and elsewhere. I don’t know if I believe the more exaggerated tales of Erzsebet’s crimes both in terms of the methods employed or the numbers involved. Clearly something at her court was giving rise to scandal and uneasy whisperings though and it seems to me that the most likely scenario involves the least lurid charges made about her and the most modest estimate of victims. The fantastical gore fests involving hundreds of young women and the most macabre torture and murders seems to me to be completely unfeasible when you consider the huge size of Erzsebet’s household all of whom were potentially witnesses to what went on, the lack of privacy that women of her class had to contend with and also the fact that it apparently took so long for her to be brought to any sort of justice despite the fact that if all the stories were true then families all over Hungary would surely have been baying for her immediate arrest and yet that doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Further reading:

Countess Dracula: Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess

The Bloody Countess: Atrocities of Erzsebet Bathory

The Blood Countess

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