The figure of Elizabeth Bathory in history

Elizabeth Bathory

The figure of Elizabeth Bathory in history

Since this post had many reviews, I’m adding extra content. I have already written in another post about real facts behind vampire stories. But this time, I am going to analyze the figure of Elizabeth Bathory, a real life vampire.

A short biography

Her full name was Erzsébet Báthory of Esced, in Hungarian, Báthory Erzsébet. She was born in Nyirbátor, Hungary, on August 7, 1560, in the castle of Čachtice, present-day Trenčín, Slovakia.

She was a Hungarian aristocrat, from one of the most powerful families in Transylvania at the time, the Erdélys. Interestingly, one of her ancestors was Vlad Tepes himself (the historical Dracula who inspired the fictional character). Her father was Count George Báthory and her mother, Anna Báthory (they were cousins). Her maternal grandfather was Esteban Báthory of Somlyó and her maternal uncle was Esteban I Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and King of Poland between 1575 and 1586.

This is her family’s crest:

Bathory's Crest
Bathory’s Crest

Elizabeth spent her childhood in the castle of Csejte. Modern science suspects she used to have suffered from epileptic seizures. She received a good quality education: While other nobles were illiterate, she could read and write, and spoke Hungarian, Latin and German.

At the age of eleven, her family arranged a marriage for her with her cousin Ferenc Nádasdy, a sixteen-year-old earl. At twelve, she moved to her future husband’s castle.

She did not get along with her mother-in-law, Úrsula, a fact that will become a bit important later.

On May 8, 1575, at the age of fifteen, she married Ferenc. They held a lavish ceremony at Varannó Castle, with more than 4,500 guests, including Emperor Maximilian II, who was unable to attend. Ferenc adopted his wife’s surname (it had more prestige than his). They moved to the castle of Čachtice, with Ursula and other members of the house.

Her husband was frequently absent: The goverment used to call him to fight in different wars. During these wars, he used to impale his defeated enemies, so people began to call him “The Black Knight of Hungary.” Elizabeth exchanged letters with him. In these letters, they used to debate the most efficient ways to punish their servants. The worst thing about this is that, at that time, among the nobles of Eastern Europe, it was actually a normal thing.

But Ferenc died on January 4, 1604, leaving her alone in an immense castle, involved in all the political intrigues of the time, and without an army to defend her.

At the same time, his cousin Gábor I Báthory, became Prince of Transylvania, and started a war against Germany. With this, Elizabeth was in danger of being accused of treason by King Matthias II of Hungary.

This is where, according to her accusers, her crimes began.

The Bloody Countess was born

Čachtice Castle
Čachtice Castle

The first thing she did was kick out her mother-in-law and the rest of the Násdasdy. In the castle there were servants who were under the protection of her husband’s family. These servants were the first to end up in the cellars. There she applied the punishment that, in her opinion, they deserved.

But the real beginning was one day that one of her maids accidentally pulled her hair while she was combing it. Elizabeth slapped her and made her nose bleed. Up to this point, the servant had been fortunate: The usual punishment was to take her out into the courtyard and give her a hundred strokes with a cane. But when the blood splattered on Elizabeth’s fingers, she believed that her skin had became smoother and her wrinkles disappeared.

This is how the countess believed she had found the best kept beauty secret in history. At a time when a 44-year-old woman was already dangerously approaching old age, she didn’t think twice.

She consulted her witches and alchemists. They obviously confirmed her idea. With the help of the butler and the burly Dorottya (I’ll talk about them later), they stripped the girl, slit her throat, and filled a bathtub with her blood. Bath time for Elizabeth!

For these “beauty treatments”, between 1604 and 1610, her agents provided her with girls between 9 and 16 years old.

Already at the time when Gábor’s mistakes put her in a delicate political situation, she acquired the habit of burning the genitals of some servants with red-hot candles, coals and irons, just for fun. She also got used to drinking the blood, directly from bites on the cheeks, shoulders, and breasts. Dorottya Szentes, an older woman, but with great physical strength, helped her immobilize the girls.

A Doubtful Pastor

A local Protestant pastor heard stories that the Countess practiced witchcraft, using the blood of young women to do so.

In an attempt to keep up appearances, Elizabeth convinced him to give her victims a respectable Christian burial.

But when the number began to rise, the pastor expressed his doubts: Too many girls died from mysterious and unknown causes. Eventually, she threatened him to shut up, and began to bury the bodies in secret. But the pastor did not shut up and officially denounced her to King Matías II of Hungary through the clerical curia.

But these complaints were unsuccessful, basically because the victims were commoners and nobody cared.

A fatal mistake

But in 1609, as she was running out of commoners (partly because he had already killed almost all of them, and partly because humble people were beginning to distrust), she had no better idea, than to use her contacts to take girls and adolescents from minor noble houses, to educate them, and to keep her company.

Soon, these girls began to die. The infant mortality rate at the time was quite high, but the death toll was too high, even for the time. And because they were noble girls, people give some importance to their deaths.

The witch Anna Darvulia had prevented her from ever taking noble girls, but after Anna died, Elizabeth’s friend, Erszi Majorova, convinced her that nothing would happen. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Near the end, they hid the bodies in places where it would be very easy to find them: nearby fields, grain silos, a river that ran under the castle, the vegetable garden near the kitchen…

The final girl

Finally, one of the victims managed to escape and informed the religious authorities. Others had done it before, but since they were servants, no one listened to them.

Here is a testimony of the time

“Autumn 1609:

… A twelve-year-old girl named Pola managed to escape from the castle in some way and sought help in a nearby village. But Dorka and Helena found out where she was from the bailiffs, and taking her by surprise at the town hall, they took her back to Čachtice Castle by force, hidden in a cart of flour. Dressed only in a long white robe, Countess Erzsébet welcomed her back home with kindness, but flames of fury came from her eyes; the poor thing did not imagine what awaited her. With the help of Piroska, Ficzko and Helena tore off the twelve-year-old’s clothes and put her in a kind of cage. This particular cage was built like a sphere, too narrow to sit on and too low to stand. On the inside [face], it was lined with blades the size of a thumb. Once the girl was inside, the cage was jerked up with the help of a pulley. Pola tried to avoid cutting herself with the blades, but Ficzko manipulated the ropes in such a way that the cage swayed from side to side, while from below Piroska stabbed her with a long spike to make her writhe in pain. A witness affirmed that Piroska and Ficzko engaged in carnal treatment during the night, lying on the ropes, to obtain an unhealthy pleasure from the torment that the unfortunate suffered with each movement. The torment ended the next day, when Pola’s flesh was torn to pieces on the ground.”

The investigation

Rumors reached the ears of King Matías II of Hungary. He looked for one of Elizabeth’s cousins, but not just any cousin. He chose the Palatine Count George Thurzó, who was at enmity with her. On December 30, 1610, George entered the castle without any resistance (as we said before, she had no army). But there was no one to receive them either.

The first thing they saw was a maid in the stocks in the courtyard. She was dying from a beating she had been given, which had broken all the bones in her hip. But that did not appeal to them because at that time, as we said, it was normal.

But then they entered the room, and found a girl bled and another alive, but with several new holes in the body. Then they went to the dungeon and found more women, who were still breathing, but had cuts and piercings, which had been done to them over the last few weeks.

Beneath the castle, they managed to unearth 50 more dead women.

Everywhere, they found tons of ash and sawdust, which were used to dry the blood. This compulsive bloodshed had left dark stains and a faint smell of putrefaction throughout the castle.

Elizabeth’s diary contained in great detail what she did to her victims, counting a total of 612 women tortured and murdered over six years.

It was also said that while her husband was away, she had sexual relations with male and female servants. They rumored that she liked to savagely bite the girls.

The trial

In 1612, the king started a trial in Bitcse. But she refused to stand trial, relying on her privileges as a noble. The king could not force her, because this would cause all the nobles to act corporately, to defend their privileges. But he could not ignore the charges against her, so the he held trial in her absence.

But they were able to force their accomplices to testify: John Ujváry, the butler, declared that in his presence, at least 37 unmarried women between the ages of eleven and twenty-six had been murdered. Six of them he had personally recruited to work at the castle.

But the accusations focused on the murder of noble women. Those of the maids were not important.

The punishment

They found guilty all of them, of different crimes: some of witchcraft, some of murder and others of cooperation.

The witches Dorotea, Helena and Piroska had their fingers torn off with red-hot pliers (for having soaked them in Christian blood) and burned alive.

The rest of the accomplices were beheaded and their corpses burned.

And what was the punishment for Elizabeth?

The law prevented prosecution, but the king had tod do something. So they locked her in her own castle. They took her to her room and sealed doors and windows, leaving a small hole for food to pass through.

Later, the king tried to ask for her head, but Elizabeth’s cousin convinced him to delay the sentence.

What they did do, was to confiscate all her properties (something that the king had longed for, for quite some time).

On June 31, 1614, Elizabeth made her last will and testament. She asked them to divide what was left of her possessions among her children.

Her final destiny

On August 21, 1614, one of the jailers saw her, face down on the ground. After four years of confinement, Elizabeth had died.

They tried to bury her in the Čachtice church, but the townspeople found it an aberration. So they took her to the Báthory family crypt in Ecsed. The current location of her body is unknown.

They stamped all of her documents for more than a century and banned talking about her across the country.

To this day, she is the woman who has murdered the most people, with 650 deaths.

Her legend

Psychiatrists disagree as to exactly what was wrong with this woman. As I have already mentioned, in Eastern Europe at the time, it was common to cruelly punish servants and execute petty criminals in gruesome ways.

Maybe she was a psychopath or just a sadist, who pushed her sexual appetites too far. This was not really news to the nobles of the time, accustomed as they were to being untouchable by the law.

His political enemies may have taken something from the truth and exaggerated it. It happens in politics today, much more so in other times. Who knows how many more cases there were (even worse ones), of which we know nothing about, because it was not in the interest of the aristocracy of the time to let them be known.

There is no doubt her crimes were horrible. The question thar remains unanswered is: How much from this story is true, and how much is just a smear campain done by her enemies?

What do you think? Was she as monstrous as they said or did her enemies take advantage of one single mistake to destroy her completely? Leave me your impressions in the comments.

In literature

The Argentine writer Alejandra Pizarnik wrote “The Bloody Countess”: A mixture of narration, essay and poetic prose, based on texts and stories by Valentine Penrose.

Here is a trailer for a movie based on her:


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