Personally, I have always found the palette of medieval history somewhat dull – a succession of dates unilluminated by anything but stereotypical images. There are shafts of light, though, and certain characters hold a special – I won’t say ‘charm’ – fascination for me. Here is one of my favorites!
In 1560 Elizabeth I Was Queen in England, and the Treaty of Berwick paved the way for English troops to expel the French from Scotland in time for Mary Queen of Scots, French King Francis II’s widow, to return home.
In or around 1564 on Henley Street in a little town called Stratford, William Shakespeare was born. Late in 1582 he was to marry. Before 1595 he had established himself in London as a successful playwright, by which time the English fleet and the English weather between them had repelled a Spanish armada, Raleigh had brought the humble potato and much-prized tobacco back from the Indies, Drake had circumnavigated the globe.
The Elizabethan age was at its cultural zenith; driven by an English Court which often formed the backdrop for Shakespeare’s work. In short, the reformation of English art and society was in full swing.
In 1560, in the ‘Land Beyond the Forest’ we know as Transylvania, another Elizabeth was born. She was Elizabeth Bathory Nadasdy, daughter to George and Anna Bathory, spawned into the cesspool of inbreeding customary to the nobility of that land, and probably not a natural child. She could count among her relatives a dipsomaniac brother, a Satan-worshipping uncle and a bi-sexual aunt with a penchant for torturing her servants. Elizabeth spent a lot of time with her aunt.
Elizabeth was raised as member of a noble line infamous for its immorality. She witnessed many of its excesses before she came of age. Still an infant, legend has it, she evaded her governesses to watch from a balcony as a gypsy miscreant was put to death. Only allowing his head to protrude, his executioners stitched him inside a disemboweled horse’s belly. The man, it was said, took three days to die.
Atypical of the female model for her time, Elizabeth was extremely intelligent: she was literate in and spoke three languages. She could write and spell at a stage in history when many of the nobility could not. So she had one advantage at least over Ferenc, her warrior husband (who was also a Bathory, by the way). She married him in 1575 at the age of fifteen, after a four year engagement. Ferenc rather enjoyed wars and promptly returned to them. While he pursued endless battles and feats of arms Elizabeth stayed at home and managed Cachtice, the family castle. History would seem to suggest she found domesticity difficult.
The kindest construction to place upon the conduct of the Cachtice household would be to say that Elizabeth was a strong disciplinarian. She punished misdemeanors on the part of her servants by clubbing them down with her Transylvanian baseball bat or sticking pins beneath their fingernails, or into their upper and lower lips. Serious offenders were taken outside in the snow and pegged out naked while Liz and her acolytes poured cold water over them until they froze to death.
In the eyes of Elizabeth Bathory’s dissolute class this behavior was almost condoned, because little worth was put on the lives of servants. She was very insistent her victims receive Christian burials, and this was enough for the time, but it depicts a character rather far removed from the ideal wife and mother. Yet as mother to her four children she was reputed to be loving and protective.
Bisexual Aunt Klara entertained her on frequent occasions. They became close, mainly because Klara always had an ample supply of girls available. When Ferenc was home, which was rarely, he was hardly a beneficial influence – in fact, though stopping short of murder, he shared his wife’s predilection for servant torture. He joined in. It was only after Ferenc’s death, however, that Elizabeth assembled her cabal of henchmen, Ficzko, her manservant, Helena Jo, her wet nurse, Dorothea Szentes (or Dorka), and Katarina Beneczki. Together they formed the catalyst that released Elizabeth’s most gruesome Bathory traits – including her apparent taste for human blood.
Her reputation began to grow.
There is a great deal of unproven legend around Elizabeth’s reputed belief that human blood would prevent ageing. She was obsessed by a fear of old age, and believed blood kept her skin youthful. Did she really take baths in blood? Certainly she was sometimes found to be so saturated in gore she had to completely disrobe and dress in fresh clothes. Certainly the servants were regularly employed spreading cinders over floors soaked with the stuff. And who was the enigmatic Anna Darvulia, whose imaginative tortures so engaged the Countess in her most sadistic years? History suggests Darvulia and the Countess were lovers, so maybe Darvulia’s eventual death caused Elizabeth to become completely unhinged?
Elizabeth became less careful, so nobody’s daughters, even those of the nobility, were safe. Cachtice Castle’s desirability as a place of employment waned and the supply of peasant servants dwindled for obvious reasons. Her victims would disappoint her if they died too quickly. An entry in her diary commented upon the over-rapid demise of one girl, stating cynically: ‘she was too small’.
One day when the Countess was ill and in bed she had a servant girl brought to her. Szentes held the girl as Elizabeth rose up from her pillows to bite chunks of flesh out of her shoulder with her bare teeth, before biting into the girl’s breast and holding on ‘like a bulldog’. Whether this had the desired medicinal effect is unknown, but, rather unfortunately, the Countess recovered.
Evidence of her excesses grew. The land around the castle was strewn with shallow graves and un-buried bodies of her victims. It was the tossing of four murdered girls from the castle ramparts as food for wolves, witnessed by local villagers, which finally laid the foundation for her undoing.
Complaints about the Blood Countess could no longer be ignored, and at last reached the ears of Count Thurzo, a cousin and fellow member of the Bathory clan. In fear of the damage her exploits were doing to his family name, he organized a raid on Cachtice Castle. Evidence was plentiful: the raiding party had to step over the body of a servant to get inside, and found further corpses within.
Elizabeth’s henchmen, those who had procured her victims, and those who had restrained them while she practiced her ‘arts’, were sentenced to death. Elizabeth was not. Already old and ill, she was sentenced to be walled up in her own castle, with just necessary sustenance until her life expired; which it did, in the August of 1614, at the age of fifty four. In England at that time, Elizabeth 1st was long dead, James 1st was arguing with his parliament about the right of Kings to rule, and Sir Walter Raleigh was preparing to embark upon his search for El Dorado. William Shakespeare had retired from public life and gone, so we would like to believe, home – to spend his last years with his beloved Anne.
There is little that is good to be said of Elizabeth Bathory. Estimates of the number of servants who fell prey to her blood lust vary from 850 to a mere 80! Yet she is remembered because she was a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, and possibly more a source for inspiration than Vlad himself when Bram Stoker conjured up his definitive vampire. Was she, herself, a vampire? Probably not, but her fetish for biting and tearing flesh does qualify her for consideration as a werewolf.
In her time Elizabeth, Countess of Bathory was called many things – witch, satanist, wild animal, the Blood Countess. She was, certainly, one of the least charismatic characters that peopled the history of the Middle Ages, and possibly one of the least remembered. Perhaps because we would prefer to forget….