A note on names: the woman we’re talking about here was Hungarian, and her given name in that language is Báthory Erzsébet (in the Hungarian lastname/firstname manner). But since she’s become notorious as a sort of folktale villainess under the Anglicized version of her name, and since I’m writing this in English, I’ll be referring to her as Elizabeth Báthory.
To begin with, we need to dip our toes into the history of Renaissance Hungary. Now, like the history of most places on this planet, this is very very very complex, so just to set the scene we’ll focus only on what was happening during Elizabeth’s life. When she was born in 1560, Hungary had already been partitioned into three bits: the north-west was the Kingdom of Hungary, ruled over by the Habsburg monarchs as a part of the Holy Roman Empire (this is the part where Elizabeth Báthory was from); the middle bit was “Turkish Hungary” and was overseen by the Ottoman Empire, and the eastern bit was Transylvania, which was ruled over by elected Hungarian Princes.
At the time of her birth, Elizabeth’s Uncle András was the Prince of Transylvania; during her lifetime, he would be replaced by his son and her nephew, Gábor, as Prince. There are other royal and noble connections too, but basically: being part of the Báthory family meant Elizabeth was raised in an extremely privileged way in a time and place where the rich were incredibly wealthy and the poor were extremely poor and nobody was in the middle. The Báthory family name traces back to a legendary Medieval knight named Vitus who is said to have fought a dragon and, the grateful villagers he saved, bestowed upon him the name Báthory (which means “good hero.”)
To put the year 1560 into the context of other royals you may be familiar with, the year Elizabeth was born: Queen Elizabeth I had been in power in England for two years; Charles IX had just taken over as France’s Boy King following the death of his brother Francis (who’d been Mary Queen of Scots‘s first husband), much to the delight of his mother Catherine de’Medici; and in Spain, Philip II (the widower of Queen Mary I, and the grandson of Juana of Castile) . Basically, the Renaissance was in full swing all over most of Europe, and it was happening in Hungary in its own particular manner. Female rulers were suddenly seemingly everywhere, which meant that educating women wasn’t seen as weird and unnatural, which meant that Elizabeth Báthory was provided with a well-rounded education (she was fluent in four languages!) because that was one way that the rich people differentiated themselves from the poor people around them.
Now, another sort of important background thing to know is that fairly recently, the peasants of this area had fully revolted against the upper classes. Things had simmered down once the aristocrats started brutally torturing and murdering the peasants. But the poor people, many of whom had been trained as soldiers, were known to be unhappy and there was a sense that revolution could break out at any moment. To retain this tenuous status quo, the wealthy landowners — like Elizabeth’s family — ruled in an extremely torture/murder-based sort of way. And the thing is that if they’d relented at all, pretty much for sure the peasants would have turned on them, so it was an ongoing thing where the wealthy people were constantly cruel towards the poor people who also worked as their servants. In order to survive in this environment as a young heiress, Elizabeth would have been trained and learned from example just how brutal she would need to be.
As per what happened to rich tweens everywhere in Europe at this time, Elizabeth’s family arranged her marriage when she was around eleven years old. Also as per what the usual deal was, she didn’t actually get married until she was older, probably around age fifteen. Her husband’s name was Lord Ferenc Nádasdy. At the time of his birth, Ferenc’s father was the Palatine of Hungary, which was an elected role that was basically second only in power to the King, so he came to the union with his own huge amount of money and influence.
In the later folklore surrounding Elizabeth’s life, Ferenc is often presented as an unintelligent and/or bloodthirsty oaf. In the records that remain about him, though, he was at least as well-educated as Elizabeth was herself. They spent the four years of their engagement on parallel courses of education and training, each staying in separate noble houses where they were taught the skills they’d need for life as noble adults in Renaissance Hungary. When Ferenc was seventeen years old, he was noted as perhaps the most promising young nobleman at his court and great things were expected of him. Marriage to Elizabeth would only improve his situation, as her family was even more impressive than his own and improved Ferenc’s prestige. In fact, Elizabeth’s family was so much more powerful than Ferenc’s that she continued to use the name Elizabeth Báthory, even after her marriage, rather than change her surname to match that of her husband.
Note: years after Elizabeth’s death, rumours spread that she had secretly given birth to an illegitimate child at some point during the four years of her teen engagement. There’s nothing to back up this claim, and it can likely be discredited.
Elizabeth and Ferenc were married on May 8, 1575 in the palace of Varanno (now Vranov). She was fifteen years old, he was twenty. There were somewhere in the area of 4,500 guests, not including the peasants from the nearby countryside who would have been permitted to join in the celebrations. It was an extraordinarily lavish event, and the young couple headed off for their new life and man and wife with each now owning some new castles as wedding gifts from their various super-rich friends.
Now, the point of marriages like theirs was to cement and ally family dynasties by having children. Elizabeth and Ferenc did not have a child for ten years. Medical knowledge in this time and place would certainly have blamed her for their failure to conceive, and she almost definitely would have turned to folk remedies and perhaps witchcraft to try and assist with her reproductive abilities. This was an environment where, despite Elizabeth and Ferenc’s high level of education, medical knowledge was often guided by superstition. Happily to both of them, Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Anna, in 1585. This child was followed shortly after by a another daughter, Orsolya, and a son, András, both of whom died in infancy. Elizabeth gave birth next to another daughter, Katalin, and a son, Pál.
Ferenc was often away on military campaigns against his country’s main enemies, the Turkish, because this was the sort of situation where the richest and most powerful men were also the ones on the front lines of battle. While he was away, Elizabeth very capably managed their household and estates; surviving letters of hers show that she was very direct, to the point, on top of her duties, and extremely well organized.
** A very weird historical tidbit: do you know who fought alongside Ferenc in some of these battles? Oh just an English mercenary soldier named John Smith aka the same man who’d later sail to Virginia and become famous for his involvement with the story of Matoaka aka Pocahontas!! Basically, having made his fortune and been given the title of Captain during these wars, he then went back to England and became part of the crew sent to Virginia and then he misrepresented what happened with him and Pocahontas, because he was a shitty person, and I am astonished at his connection to this whole story. Like, WHAT.
By the turn of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth’s highest-ranking household staff included two high-ranking servants whose names become super important later on: a young man named János Újváry (known as Ficzkó), an older woman named Anna Darvulia, who served as governess to the children and also, perhaps, helped oversee the female household staff.
** A note on Anna Darvulia: she’s a cipher in this whole story, and not much is known about her as a person. The name “Darvulia,” which is how she was referenced by more than one person later on in court transcripts, seems to be a nickname but which has neither Hungarian nor Slovak roots. In 1602, a minister from nearby left record of a complaint of alleged cruelty committed by Elizabeth and Ferenc, implicating another woman who was likely Anna Darvulia. Her duties may have included overseeing the young female servants of Elizabeth’s home, and it seems certain that Darvulia’s methods were exceptionally cruel. Elizabeth and Ferenc were denounced along with her because, as her bosses, they were responsible for her behaviour which — and this is all like fourth-hand information by this point — this one minister found to be inappropriate.
Around this same time, while away from home, Ferenc was afflicted by a mysterious disease which left him suddenly unable to use his legs. By 1604, he knew he was on his deathbed and, as per the usual conventions for very rich Hungarian nobles at this time, he sent a letter to the new Palatine of Hungary, György Thurzó, formally requesting that he look out for Ferenc’s wife, children, and estates. (**Thunder crashes, lighting strikes, the ghost of Elizabeth Báthory screams down from above because this is where everything all starts to go incredibly wrong**)
Everything Goes Wrong
So the thing is that, even though Elizabeth was still extraordinarily wealthy and her family and in-laws were super-powerful and well-connected, as soon as she became a widow she lost a substantial amount of her personal independence. Now forty-four years old, and having very capably run the household and estates throughout all the time Ferenc was away at war, she seems to have planned to continue on without remarrying. After all, her combined holdings included all of the Báthory lands that she owned as part of her dowry, but also all of the Nádasdy properties she’d attained through her marriage to Ferenc. She wasn’t just a landowner; she was the landowner, possessing more and bigger properties than anyone else. But of course with great power comes great risk, and as soon as she was widowed, a bunch of men all set their sights on taking over some of her property.
Who were these men? They were: György Thurzó, the Palatine of Hungary; Imre Megyery, the guardian and tutor of Elizabeth’s son and heir Pál (Pál himself was just ten years old); and her two sons-in-law, her daughter Anna’s husband Count Miklós Zrinyi, and her daughter Katalin’s husband, György Drugeth of Homonna. (And Anna and Katalin don’t seem to have been opposed to this plan either, so basically everyone wanted Elizabeth’s money).
Of this group of terrible men, Thurzó was already the most powerful and best-placed to begin an operation to force her from her home. He had another reason for wanting to get rid of her: he was enemies with her nephew, Gábor Báthory the Prince of Transylvania, because Thurzó wanted to take over that region and make it part of the Kingdom of Hungary, ideally with himself as the new Prince. By weakening the Báthory family, he may have seen a way to force Gábor from his throne. Note: Thurzó also, and this has been proven, schemed to have Gábor assassinated but the plot was foiled at the last minute.
A point to remember as we go on with this story: EVERYONE in this story is AWFUL. And György Thurzó is THE WORST ONE OUT OF EVERYONE.
** A note on György Thurzó: He, along with John Smith, had also fought in battle alongside Ferenc Nádasdy, was perhaps even more thoroughly educated than Elizabeth or Ferenc had been, and was A HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE PERSON. To compare him to a fictional character, he’s like if Littlefinger from Game of Thrones had been also incredibly wealthy and powerful, far more evil, and somehow even more ruthless. By the time he set his sights on destroying Elizabeth Báthory, he had left a string of ruined nobles behind him — most of whose possessions and property he himself had taken over because he was AWFUL. But at the same time, everyone around him also seem to have been awful, so he was just sort of the being at being the worst, if you see what I mean.
** ALSO!! A note in 17th century Hungarian law: basically, it was not against the law to mistreat or even kill lower-class people such as servants. This is a horrible law OBVIOUSLY but also just bear that in mind as things unfold. Like, likely lots of rich people were responsible for the deaths of lots of poorer people, and while awful it was not against the laws of the time. This isn’t the story of some morally upright person storming in and demanding a change to this law in order to protect lower class people from murder. This is the story of Thurzó sneakily finding a way to condemn Elizabeth for allegedly killing people, even though that act itself wasn’t illegal, and finding a way that her downfall would make him more rich and powerful. So nobody’s goals here are HONORABLE.
Despite it being totally legal for rich people to kill poor people, Elizabeth seems to have suspected what Thurzó was up to because she went to a local authority with the mother of a servant who’d died in her care to explain that the girl had been ill. Now this is interesting because, as noted above, it wasn’t at all illegal for Elizabeth to have killed this girl in the first place, so why would she go to the trouble of stating her innocence? Also, if anyone dared to bring charges against Elizabeth, she was so rich she could counter-sue and/or have that person killed, so why would she have been concerned someone was bringing charges against her? But then we look at the four-dimensional chess Thurzó was up to, and it all makes a bit more sense.
See, despite Thurzó’s role as Palatine and his own personal wealth and power, Elizabeth was still richer and more powerful than he was. So he knew if he brought charges against her he’d be putting himself at risk from her counter-suing him. And so, Thurzó found a loophole in this law which was that, if a rich noble person was caught red-handed committing a crime, they could be punished without ever having to be put on trial. And so Thurzó began planting seeds for his masterwork, a really complicated and truly awful scheme to ruin Elizabeth Báthory’s reputation and steal all of her land and property.
It was based on the old complaint about her servant Anna Darvulia, as well as other gossip he’d learned about regarding the allegedly cruel treatment of young female servants in the Báthory home. So the thing is that, pretty inarguably, some girls seem to have been treated poorly while employed in this home. I will note at this point that lots of servants were treated poorly in a lot of other places in Renaissance Hungary too, because that’s just what this society was like. Remember the whole thing about how the rich people had to be extra-firm and cruel to their servants to prevent them from rebelling? That’s just kind of how everyone operated, not that that’s a good thing, but it means that the way servants were treated in Elizabeth’s home wasn’t necessarily wildly different from how they were treated elsewhere. BUT THEN AGAIN, the minister had written up his concerns about their mistreatment, which means maybe things were worse in her home than in other places.
But then again, if it was just servants being killed, why would anyone be investigating that? Which is why that’s not what Thurzó began investigating her for; he alleged that she’d, yes, murdered lots of servants but also had murdered some wealthy girls, too. Luckily for him, Elizabeth (like other rich women did) had regularly taken in young noblewomen for the same sort of schooling and training that she herself had received as a teenager. If Thurzó was able to claim that Elizabeth had harmed — or even killed — one of these rich young women, that would be a crime he could prosecute her for. But, again, he had to somehow catch her in the act.
Now, legend has it that he walked in on her in the act of killing a young girl, but that’s likely not the case. What seems to have happened is, on December 30, 1609, as Elizabeth was sitting down for a post-Christmas feast with her nearest and dearest, Thurzó burst into her castle and arrested her. He also apprehended four of her servants: Helena Jó, Dorothy Szentes (known as Dorkó), Katalin Benecká, and the young man called Ficzkó. He claimed to have seen her killing a girl, and when asked what happened to that girl, was like “… hang on” and 24 hours later, he presented the body of one dead girl and one injured but still alive girl. The dead girl (probably) been dug up from outside because servants who died of plague etc were buried like that. But of course, Thurzó claimed this was the body of the girl that Elizabeth had murdered and secretly buried. He further claimed that the injured girl was the one he himself had caught Elizabeth attempting to murder. And with this “evidence” and the other secret plots he’d put into motion, Elizabeth Báthory was arrested for the murder of multiple young woman.
The Trial, Such As It Was, Of Elizabeth Báthory
So, what Thurzó was doing was something that he had personally done before to other enemies of his bosses the Hapsburgs, and also something that the Hapsburgs had done to others of their enemies. Basically, when someone was arrested for something, they sort of became an unperson; someone without rights at all. So you could do whatever you wanted with them, as long as they were arrested. Show trials, in which the accused person wouldn’t have the opportunity to appear or testify on their own behalf, were a way to control public perception of the person and their crimes. So Thurzó’s plan was to arrest Elizabeth, keep her hidden away, and put on an incredibly public show trial in which her reputation would be destroyed. Even without the trial coming to a conclusion, as long as she was under arrest, she was effectively powerless.
So, again, to be clear: Elizabeth very possibly was responsible for the death/s of some young women who’d been in her care, either as servants or as houseguests. But that wasn’t a crime, in that time and place. And if she really was guilty, why would Thurzó use such underhanded means to arrest and try her for her actions? Both things can be true: Elizabeth killed people, and Thurzó was working to ruin her reputation. But the thing that gets me is how single-minded Thurzó was in ensuring she was cut off from all of her power and money. He wasn’t putting her on trial from a sense of justice; he was doing it so that he could do away with her and divide up her money among other nobles. Whether or not she was guilty, what he was doing was shitty on its own.
Upon the arrest of Elizabeth and her four servants, Thurzó began a series of interviews/interrogations. Between the four servants, a consensus fell that between 36-50 young women died during the ten or so years in which they worked for Elizabeth. Given the way that the plague rolled through town more than once, and the overall shitty health conditions for anyone (let alone lower-class servants), this number is not necessarily damning at all. When asked about the cruelty towards young women, the servants mostly seem to have blamed Helena Jó and Dorkó, along with the mysterious Anna Darvulia. Jó and Dorkó, whose work included overseeing the female servants, would likely have been the ones in charge of punishment meted towards these young women. Katalin noted that she refused to adopt some of the more cruel practices, for which Jó and Dorkó then punished her.
A few weeks later, in early January 2011, the four servants were put on public trial. The transcripts of their interviews were taken as confessions of guilt, and all four stated that any crime they had committed had been at the request of Elizabeth. More than three hundred witnesses testified, many of whom were related by blood or marriage to György Thurzó but I’m sure that’s just a wild coincidence. Also totally just a coincidence? That the many of Elizabeth’s servants offered contradictory evidence and the fact they’d been tortured before making witness statements was hidden from the records before Thurzó sent his report off to the King. Almost like Thurzó knew that a bunch of tortured servants weren’t the most convincing of witnesses, especially when the other witnesses were his friends and relatives.
Also note: servants, who weren’t considered people, didn’t usually get to testify anyway, so the fact they were called upon was REALLY STRANGE.
A woman known only as Susannah appeared at this point, who stated that her friend had seen a list that Elizabeth kept, listing the names of 650 people she’d murdered. Another witness stated that she believed Elizabeth practiced witchcraft, and had been secretly plotting to kill the King and Thurzó himself using poison. Again, no evidence was provided to support these claims. Witnesses both spoke about Elizabeth’s purported acts as well as those of her servant Dorkó; at the conclusion of this trial, all four servants were found guilty. Three of them were executed for their crimes. The fate of the fourth, Katalin Benecká, is not known. She was of a slightly higher class than the others, so may have been returned to her family.
Later that same month, Elizabeth’s longtime healer and wise-woman, a farmer’s wife named Erzsi Majorosné, was burned at the stake for her alleged complicity in Elizabeth’s crimes — specifically, for allegedly assisting Elizabeth in baking a magic cake intended to destroy her enemies. Erzsi was not given a trial or a chance to defend herself, but was taken and killed immediately based on evidence from the servants’ trial and from the increasing anti- Báthory momentum building around the scandal.
And what of Elizabeth Báthory? Although the Hungarian King requested, repeatedly, over three years that Thurzó hold a new trial in which Elizabeth would be able to defend herself, Thurzó never did. Why? Well, partly because her various male relatives had agreed that in exchange for her never being put on trial, they and Thurzó would divide up her money and estates. So she was kept in house arrest in her own beloved castle home. But not just house arrest, no, it was the gruesomest thing where she was literally bricked into a room without a door, and just a little hole for plates of food to be slid under. And who moved into her castle while she was trapped in there? Oh just Thurzó and his wife, who literally got a citation for being gross people and taking all of Elizabeth’s jewels and things??
Everybody in this story is terrible.
Elizabeth died on August 21, 1614, aged fifty-four, having spent the last four years of her life bricked into a room while her lands and wealth were divided between her family members and her enemies. She had never been actually convicted of any crimes against her or even put on trial. One year before her death, her nephew Gábor, the Prince of Transylvania, had been murdered — likely murdered either by Thurzó, or by someone working on Thurzó’s instruction. His death marked the end of the Báthory family’s power and influence in Eastern Europe.
The Afterlife of Elizabeth Báthory
More than a century after Elizabeth’s death, a man named László Turóczi recounted this story, including for the first time the detail about Elizabeth allegedly bathing in the blood of her “murder” “victims”. Of note: László Turóczi was a Jesuit, ie a Catholic, ie someone with a vested interest in making the Protestant Elizabeth sound like a horrible villain. To be sure, this claim of blood-bathing didn’t come up AT ALL throughout the three testimonials given by three hundred tortured witnesses, all of whom were actively defaming Elizabeth. Like, even “Susannah” didn’t suggest this. But today, this is a key part of the myth of Elizabeth Báthory: mass murderess.
The myth of Elizabeth Báthory basically goes like this: she was sort of a real-life version of Snow White’s evil stepmother, an aging woman desperate to cling to youth and murderously jealous of younger women. And so, she murdered 650 of them (that random number from the witness known as “Susannah”) and would then bathe in their blood. Sometimes, she’s presented as a vampire as well. She is still, as of this writing, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific female murderer, based again on Susannah’s third-hand testimony.
Yet, if not for György Thurzó’s scheming, we’d likely not know her name today nearly as much as we do. In popular culture, “Elizabeth Báthory” has appeared as a character inspiration for numerous books, films, video games, and more. But who she was as a real person, and what may truly have happened to her, is even more interesting to me than the numerous lesbian vampire properties inspired by her myth.
Čachtice Castle, the estate where Elizabeth Báthory lived her final years, was abandoned in 1708 and its ruins are now a tourist destination in modern-day Slovakia. The nearby town of Čachtice also offers a museum, and is also home to the church where Elizabeth’s body was originally interred.
The main source I used for research was Tony Thorne’s biography Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess, which I absolutely recommend to really dig into all of the secondary people involved here, and how the socio-cultural context of Hungary at this time set the stage for all of what happened.
I also recommend the essay on Elizabeth Báthory from Rejected Princesses, which both balances her myth with what truly seems like her unjust treatment.
The films Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008) and The Countess (2009) are both retellings of Elizabeth’s story; the first is a horror movie that leans into the folklore/horror aspect, while the second is more of a straight-up biography without the paranormal bits.