With Lana Popović’s new book, Blood Countess, out, we can’t help but want to learn a little bit more about one of the book’s main characters, Elizabeth Báthory. Who is she and why is she worth writing a novel about?
Elizabeth Báthory was born into Hungarian nobility in August 7, 1560. To put in perspective how powerful her family was, they controlled Transylvania and her uncle was the king of Poland – so pretty freaking powerful. In 1575, she was married to Count Ferencz Nádasdy. The Nádasdys were another powerful family, which means they gifted the newlyweds Castle Csetje for them to live in. However, Elizabeth’s family had a higher social rank, so she kept her last name. She and her husband had four children before his death in 1604, which left her in charge of all of Nádasdy’s lands. But of course, nothing is so simple.
In reality, Elizabeth Báthory was engaged to Ferencz Nádasdy around the time she was 10 or 11. Between the engagement and the marriage, Báthory had an affair with a man of a lower status that lead to the birth of a daughter. The child was sent away and the father was, reportedly, castrated and torn to pieces by dogs at the order of Nádasdy. Once that was done, they were married when Báthory was 14.
The couple split their time between the Nádasdy-gifted castles in Hungary at Sárvár and Csetje, which is located in present-day Slovakia. Nádasdy was an ambitious soldier and was frequently away, leaving his wife to her devices. She took lovers and ran the estates in her husband’s absence. Báthory also had to defend her husband’s estates, where at risk of attack from Ottomans because of their locations. Nádasdy became ill in 1601 and never fully recovered; in 1603 he became permanently disabled and finally succumbed in 1604.
While for many noblewomen, the death of a husband was a relief – these marriages were usually arranged and not very happy – for Báthory, it was a disaster. After his illness and death, word began spreading about cruelties and suspicious disappearances. First it was just servants at her castles and daughters of local peasants – women who most did not consider important enough to investigate too deeply. But things escalated to the point where women sent to Báthory from gentry families began disappearing after being sent to her to learn proper etiquette. While complaints were made as early as 1604, Báthory’s status meant the investigation did not begin until 1610. The investigation found over 300 witnesses and survivors willing to speak, some of whom claimed Báthory tortured these young women – stabbing, biting, cutting, sticking needles, burning, starving, and beating. In addition to the witnesses, mutilated bodies were found nearby, as well as dying imprisoned women. The number of women she killed was claimed to be as high as 650 women, and most were between the ages of 10 and 14.
In December of 1610, Báthory and four of her favorite servants were arrested. Three of those servants were tried and executed, while the fourth was sentenced to life in prison. Báthory herself was never tried because of her status, though there were calls for a trial and execution from locals and the king, but she was put under house arrest in Csetje Castle until her death in 1614, when she was 54.
The validity of many claims is up for debate. No mention of a daughter before her marriage came up until after Báthory’s death – possibly the result of rumors to further slander her. There were also reports that Báthory bathed in the blood of her victims (which is probably under 100, not over 600), but it was more likely she drank their blood to maintain her youth and beauty.
Some attribute Báthory’s sadism to her upbringing. As a child, Báthory had a number of seizures, leading some to believe she had epilepsy, possibly as a result of inbreeding among royalty at the time. One of the treatments for her seizures was by rubbing the blood of someone who did not have the illness and another included drinking the blood of someone who did not have the illness – in both cases, the blood was likely that of a servant’s. Her family was also reportedly cruel to their servants in general, giving Báthory a specific and problematic view of how to treat those who work for you.
It’s also possible that none of it is nearly as dramatic as it seems; there were a number of political reasons that could have acted as motives for framing Báthory. She was an unmarried, intelligent, powerful woman with highly desirable land that the king could sieze if she was killed. And the king may have owed some money to her husband – and therefore, her – that he didn’t want to pay. There are no doubts she was abusive towards her servants, but whether any were tortured is hard to confirm. Some of the witnesses probably testified under duress and the physical evidence may well have been exaggerated – we’ll never know as the case’s records were sealed for a century, making them impossible to verify.
Elizabeth Báthory was, without a doubt, well educated, powerful, wealthy, and cruel to those she saw as inferior. Just how cruel? Depends on what you believe. But Blood Countess creates a fascinating, dark look at the infamous woman and readers will undoubtedly enjoy the ride.