Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Countess Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory has often been described as “Countess Dracula.” The Bathory family was an old and illustrious one—one of the oldest in Transylvania in fact. The family traced its descendency from Vid Bathory, a legendary and mighty warrior who had allegedly slain a dragon with a mace in what is now eastern Romania. This may have created the motif for the Romanian Christian knight Iorgi—also said to have killed a dragon— who later became St. George, patron saint of England. They were also related by what looks to have been incestuous marriages amongst various other members of similar clans. Her mother, Anna Bathory, was the sister of King Stephen of Poland, and her father Iorgi (George—her mother’s third husband) was the ruler of several countries. However, instances of inbreeding had led to rumours of madness and monstrous births in former years.

Elizabeth Bathory was born into this troubled lineage in 1560. Her mother was a devout Calvinist and an exceptionally strong character, and her father, George, was a hard-working man who had held several administrative posts under the Hapsburgs. She had at least one elder brother, one of the many Stephens (a popular name among the male Bathorys) and two younger sisters, Klara and Sofia, who disappeared from history without trace.

In 1571 at age 11, Elizabeth was promised in marriage to the fifteen year old Count Ferenc (Francis) Nadasdy, fabulously wealthy and reckoned to be one of the most eligible bachelors in Hungary at that time. Such young betrothals were not uncommon and were usually for political reasons rather than any sort of romantic notions. In order to acquire the notable family name, Francis changed his own to that of Bathory, giving him the tradition of that family, as well as its notoriety.

Francis and Elizabeth waited four years to marry, finally doing so on 8th May 1575. Elizabeth was sent from the Bathory castle and into the care of her mother-in-law, the formidable Lady Ursula Kasnizsai. Whilst she was at the court of Lady Nadasdy, plagues and epidemics raged through Eastern Europe, carrying away the poor and wretched in the villages of Hungary. The tides of illnesses and disease, however, simply lapped around the walls of the castle at Savarin, keeping everyone there confined. Elizabeth found herself increasingly under the control of her severe and dominant mother-in-law. It was around this time that she was, according to legend, visited by a “black stranger,” perhaps a forest demon to whom she is said to have given herself. What actually might have transpired is that she had an affair with one (or more) of the servants, leading to the supposition that she may very well have been sexually promiscuous.

When her mother-in-law died, Elizabeth joined her husband at the remote Csejthe Castle. By this time, the Muslim Turks were making advances and (as they had done in Vlad III’s time) the Christian forces were trying to limit their expansion. Count Francis was now a solider in the Hungarian army and had distinguished himself in battle becoming known as “The Black Hero of Hungary.” He was consequently away fighting against Turkish incursions for much of his time, leaving his wife alone in the gloomy fortress.

It was now that Elizabeth fell under various influences. The servants at Csejthe, for the most part, were local people, steeped in local lore and legend. The area seemed to have been superstitious and filled with old tales and practices, many of which stretched back across the centuries. Certain servants appear to have initiated Elizabeth into rather unsavoury practices. Elizabeth may well have been attracted to lesbianism (she had an aunt who was renowned throughout Hungary in this respect) and this may have played a prominent role in some of the occurrences at Csejthe. An old servant woman named Darvula—locally regarded as a witch—together with a maid named Dorottya Szentes, seem to have played a major part in the terrible acts that were to make Elizabeth Bathory’s name a by-word for evil and depravation. To these may be added the name Janos (or Johannes) Ujvary, who is described as Elizabeth’s majordomo. There seems little doubt that many of these “practices,” whilst reeking of dark witchcraft, also contained sexual elements.

In 1600, Count Francis was killed in battle against the Turks and it was now that the real period of Elizabeth’s atrocities began. She was now mistress of Csejthe and a formidable power in the locality. Since the death of her husband, she was also under the protection of her kinsman, King Matthias of Hungary, which gave her added status. However, the depravity of her life was beginning to tell on her physically—she appeared to be growing old and haggard much more swiftly than she would have liked. It is here that legend takes over. According to one popular tale, a young maidservant was brushing the Countess’s hair when she accidentally pulled it. Angered, Elizabeth struck her across the face, so sharply that she drew blood. Later, looking at the area on which the girl’s blood had fallen, the Countess imagined that the skin seemed younger and fresher than the skin around it. She consulted with the witch Darvula and learned that it was imagined in the countryside that the blood of a virgin, accompanied by certain abominable rites, had youth-giving properties. This set Elizabeth off on a bloody and murderous trail. Together with her accomplices, she began to recruit young local girls from the villages round about, ostensibly to work as servants at Csethje, but in reality to be murdered within the castle walls. Each day, the Countess would bathe in their blood in the belief that it returned at least some of her youthful looks. There were accounts of her actually drinking the blood as a restorative medicine.

Most of the girls whom Elizabeth and her cohorts murdered came from the Slovak population of Hungary—girls who were often considered of the “lower order” in society. For a while, the authorities did not overly worry about the disappearance of the girls. The official story was that they had contracted illness and died. For a number of years—roughly between 1601 and 1611—the Countess murdered innumerable servant girls with impunity and without any official enquiry. Many people, particularly in the locality, either knew or suspected what was going on within the castle but none dared voice it. Once a Lutheran pastor spoke out against her, claiming that there was a great and horrific evil going on in Csethje, including cannibal feasts and blood-drinking orgies, and although initially his words fell on largely deaf ears, some people started to pay attention. A legend says that one of the girls who the Countess was about to kill managed to escape and raised the alarm in the surrounding countryside, although this is not extremely likely. What is more likely is that the rumours surrounding the Countess continued to grow until they reached the ears of the Hungarian king, Matthias Corvenus, who had no other option but to investigate. Together with the provincial governor, Count Gryorgi Thurzo, the King invaded Csejthe early in 1611, and within the walls the two men discovered evidence of horrors almost beyond imagining.

In 1611, a series of trials conducted by the King himself were set up and the servants, Darvula and Dorottya Szentes, along with Janos Ujvary, were all found guilty of witchcraft and murder, and were executed. Elizabeth herself was not found guilty of any crime—indeed her noble rank saved her from criminal proceedings—but she was commanded to remain in Csejthe at the pleasure of the Hungarian king. To this end, stonemasons were brought in and Elizabeth was walled up in the apartments where she had committed the majority of her atrocities. Only a small aperture was left through which food could be passed into her. All the windows of that section of the castle were also bricked up, leaving her alone in the darkness. There she was to remain until she died.

On 31st July 1614, Elizabeth (then reputedly age fifty-four) dictated her last will and testament to two priests from the Estergom bishopric. What remained of her family holdings were to be divided between her children, with her son Paul and his descendants receiving the main portion. Shortly afterwards, two of her guards decided that they would try to look at her through the aperture through which she was fed—she was supposedly still the most beautiful woman in all of Hungary. When they looked through, however, they saw only the body of the Countess, lying face down on the floor. The bloody Countess was dead in her lonely, lightless world.

The records concerning Elizabeth Bathory were sealed for one hundred years and her name was forbidden to be mentioned throughout Hungary. The name “Csejthe” became a swear word in the Hungarian tongue and the Slovaks within the borders of the country referred to the Countess obliquely as “the Hungarian whore.” The shadow of Elizabeth Bathory fell darkly across her lands for many centuries after her death.

Although there is no real evidence that Bram Stoker used the idea of the “Countess Dracula” in his vampire novel, there is no reason why he should not have known about her. In fact, she may well have served as the template for another Irish writer’s vampiric tale. This was Carmilla written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, originally published in 1871 in the magazine The Dark Blue. In this tale, a vampiric older girl subtly and evilly influences the impressionable mind of her younger companion. There are, of course, undertones of lesbianism and bloodlust in the story that provide a tangible link with the “Blood Countess.” In her own way, Elizabeth Bathory was as influential to the vampire myth as Vlad Tepes.

The dark and sinister figure of the vampire has proved to be one of the most enduring motifs of horror across the centuries. And this most enduring of monsters looks set to continue its haunting of the minds of men and women for many years to come. Look out into the dark! Is there a shape, shrouded in a black cloak lurking there? The vampire might be closer than you think!

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