Concise history with fangs – part three

I didn’t manage to fit two interesting bios into the second part of my fanged history, although chronologically they belonged there. Their stories are too important to be simply skimmed and be done with, especially if you want to understand the further fate of vampire myths in the 20th and 21st century. These two people were highborn, influential and rich but certainly weren’t affected by vampirism. Why did they become the modern vamps’ templates, portrayed and copied in many books and movies? It seems mainly because of a propaganda campaign implemented by a sly and dishonest king and also because we like horror stories too much to care whether they are true or not. Let me present today...

Part three

Two ultimate vampires who weren’t vampires at all.

Ladies first – the life and legend surrounding Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (Báthory Erzsébet in Hungarian, 7 August 1560 – 21 August 1614) is dark and strange indeed. She has been labeled the most prolific female serial killer in history and, of course, a vampire. It is difficult to explain why a noblewoman like her turned a cruel murderer.

Erzsébet BáthoryElizabeth Bathory via Wikipedia

Her early life promised well. Elizabeth came from the renowned Báthory family of Hungarian nobility with a dragon adorning their family crest. Through her mother, Elizabeth was the niece of Stefan Báthory, King of Poland and Duke of Transylvania. She was a well-educated woman who could read and write in four languages – as a young girl she learned Latin, German and Greek. She was also interested in science and astronomy – something not very common among highborn ladies, especially at that times. There were several instances mentioned where she intervened on behalf of destitute women, including a woman whose husband was captured by the Turks and a woman whose daughter was raped and impregnated by a Turkish soldier– it might prove that she was kind and compassionate. Young Elizabeth got engaged to Ferenc Nádasdy, and the couple married on 8 May 1575. Right afterwards Elizabeth moved to Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár and spent much time on her own, while her husband studied in Vienna. Nádasdy’s wedding gift to Elizabeth was his home, Csejte Castle, situated in the Little Carpathians near Trencsén; the castle itself was surrounded by a village and agricultural lands, bordered by outcrops of the Little Carpathians. It shows that Elizabeth was highly appreciated. In 1578, Nádasdy became the chief commander of Hungarian troops, leading them to war against the Ottomans. With her husband away at war, Elizabeth Báthory managed business affairs and the estates instead. That role usually included providing for the Hungarian and Slovak peasants. During the height of the Long War (1593–1606), she was even charged with the defense of her husband’s estates, which lay on the route to Vienna. She was trusted and skilled, a woman you could rely on in those hard times.

family coat of arms of the BáthorysFamily crest of the Bathorys via Wikipedia

In 1585, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Anna. A second daughter, Ursula, and her first son, Thomas, both died at an early age. After this, Elizabeth had three more children so I suppose her marriage was quite happy. Elizabeth’s husband died in 1604 at the age of 47, reportedly due to an injury sustained in battle. The couple had been married for 29 years. After the death of Ferenz Nadasdy strange killings started to happen around his widow. Somewhere between 1602 and 1604, a Lutheran minister called István Magyari complained about some horrible atrocities, allegedly occuring on the lands governed by Elizabeth and with her consent; he did it both publicly and with the court in Vienna. The Hungarian authorities took some time to react but finally, in 1610, as the situation deteriorated, King Matthias II of Hungary (ETA: not the same ruler as King Matthias Corvinus – thanks Tracy for spotting it!!!) assigned György Thurzo, the Palatine of Hungary and Elizabeth’s cousin, to investigate. Thurzó ordered two notaries to collect evidence. Even before obtaining the results, Thurzó debated further proceedings with Elizabeth’s son Paul and two of her sons-in-law. A trial and execution would have caused a public scandal and disgraced more than one noble and influential family; also Elizabeth’s considerable property would have been seized by the crown. Thurzó, along with Paul and her two sons-in-law desperately wanted to control the damage – they originally planned for Elizabeth to be hidden in a nunnery, but as accounts of her murdering  the daughters of lesser nobility spread, it was agreed that Elizabeth Báthory should be kept under strict house arrest. I really wonder whether they believed in her guilt or allowed her to explain herself. It was also determined that king Matthias would not have to repay his large debt to her, for which he lacked sufficient funds. In 1610 and 1611, the notaries collected testimony from more than 300 witnesses. The trial records include the testimony of the four defendants, as well as thirteen witnesses. Priests, noblemen and commoners were questioned.. According to all this testimony, initial victims were the adolescent daughters of local peasants, many of whom were lured to Csejte by offers of well-paid work as maidservants in the castle. Later, Elizabeth allegedly started killing off daughters of the lesser gentry, who were sent to her gynaeceum by hopeful parents to learn courtly etiquette and find good husbands. Abductions were said to have occurred as well. The descriptions of torture that emerged during the trials were often based on hearsay. The atrocities described most consistently included burning or mutilation of hands and faces, biting the flesh of different body parts, freezing to death, starving, sexual abuse, and finally surgeries on victims. Horrible, nasty deeds of a deranged mind. Some witnesses named relatives who died while at the gynaeceum. Others reported having seen traces of torture on dead bodies, some of which were buried in graveyards, and others in unmarked locations. According to the testimony of the defendants, Elizabeth Báthory tortured and killed her victims not only at Csejte but also on her other properties. In addition several other people were named for supplying Elizabeth Báthory with young women. A little-known figure named Anna Darvulia was rumored to have influenced Báthory, but Darvulia was lucky and dead long before the trial so unable to comment. Thurzó went to Csejte Castle on 30 December 1610 with his men. They reportedly found one girl dead and one dying. Another woman was found wounded, others locked up. King Matthias had urged Thurzo to bring Elizabeth to court and two notaries were sent to collect further evidence, but in the end no court proceedings against her were ever commenced. Her family had seen to that. The countess was bricked in a set of rooms (and remained so until her death) but her associates were brought to court. A trial was held on 7 January 1611 at Bicse, presided over by Royal Supreme Court judge Theodosious Syrmiensis de Szulo and 20 associate judges. All of the defendants were found guilty and condemned to death, the sentence being carried out immediately. The exact number of young women allegedly tortured and killed by Elizabeth Báthory is unknown, though it is often speculated to be as high as 650, between the years 1585 and 1610. During the trial and before their execution, Szentes and Ficko reported 36 and 37 respectively, during their periods of service. The other defendants estimated a number of 50 or higher. Many Sárvár castle personnel estimated the number of bodies removed from the castle at between 100 to 200. One witness who spoke at the trial mentioned a book in which a total of over 650 victims was supposed to have been listed by Elizabeth herself. This number became part of the legend surrounding Báthory. Reportedly, the location of the diaries is unknown but 32 letters written by Báthory are stored in the Hungarian state archives in Budapest. On 21 August 1614, Elizabeth Báthory was found dead in her castle. Since there were several plates of food untouched, her actual date of death is unknown. She was buried in the church of Csejte, but due to the villagers’ uproar over having “The Tigress of Csejte” buried in their cemetery, her body was moved to her birth home, where it is interred at the Báthory family crypt. Several theories have been suggested concerning perpetrators of these horrible crimes and their motives. Most people think that Elizabeth was guilty and her sadism was a result of a considerable amount of intermarriages and inbreeding among the Bathory family with the usual problems of this practice. Allegedly she had a degenerate aunt, Clara Bathory, who used to invite young, bored, lonely Elizabeth to her castle to have “fun” and might have taught her a thing or two about sadistic pleasures. László Nagy has argued that Elizabeth Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy, though. The conspiracy theory is consistent with Hungarian history of the reign of Mathias II – there was great conflict between religions, including Protestant ones, and this was related to the extension of Habsburg power over Hungary. As a Transylvanian Protestant aristocrat, Elizabeth belonged to a group generally opposed to the Habsburgs and some powerful people might have arranged a case against her. Elizabeth’s life inspired numerous stories during the eighteenth and 19th centuries. The most common motif of these works was of course that of the evil countess drinking and bathing in her victims’ blood in order to retain her beauty or/and youth – a real “Bloody Countess” or even a “Bloody Queen” – in short a female vampire extraordinaire. It remains to be proven whether she was a sadist or an innocent victim of some major set-up.

Now the time for the most famous vampire aristocrat -Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476), more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler (Romanian: Vlad Tepes) or simply as Dracula. His Romanian surname Drăculea (also spelled “Drakulya”), means “son of the dragon”. It was a reference to his father, Vlad II Dracul, who had joined the Order of the Dragon (lat. Societas Draconistrarum). This institution was highly respected and elitist – a monarchical chivalric order for selected nobility. The Order primarily flourished in Germany and Italy. According to a surviving copy of its statute, the Order required its initiates to defend the Cross and fight the enemies of Christianity, in particular the Ottoman Turks. Theoretically all its members should have supported each other and fight one common enemy but in reality they often kind of forgot about their allegiances for the sake of politics and greed. In 1436, Vlad II Dracul ascended the throne of Wallachia but soon he was ousted in 1442 by rival factions in league with Hungary, his Christian ally. He had no choice and secured Ottoman support for his return agreeing to pay tribute to the Sultan and also send him two legitimate sons, Vlad III and Radu to the Ottoman court. They were to serve as hostages of his loyalty. Vlad III Dracula was the ferocious one – he was often imprisoned, whipped and beaten because of his verbal abuse towards his trainers and stubborn behavior; his younger brother, Radu, was meeker and much easier to control – he converted to Islam, entered the service of Mehmed II (later known as the Conqueror), and was allowed into the Topkapi Palace, honoured by the title Bey; later he was even given command of the Janissary contingents. A total failure from Vlad’s point of view. In December 1447, boyars in league with the Hungarians rebelled against Vlad Dracul again, and killed him in the marshes near Bălteni. Mircea, Dracul’s eldest son and heir, was captured, blinded and buried alive. To prevent Wallachia from falling into the Hungarian fold, the Ottomans invaded the country and put young Vlad III on the throne. It must have been painful and humiliating for the young prince, being installed on the throne as his greatest enemies’ puppet. Beggars are not choosers though. Still his rule was short-lived as Hungarians invaded Wallachia defending their interests. Vlad fled to Moldavia, where he lived under the protection of his uncle, Bogdan II, but it seems bad luck followed – in October 1451, Bogdan was assassinated and Vlad fled to Transsylvania, then under the Hungarian rule. In 1456, three years after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, they threatened Hungary by besieging Belgrade. The Hungarian king began a concerted counter-attack in Serbia with Vlad fighting by his side. While the king moved into Serbia and relieved the siege Vlad led his own contingent into Wallachia, reconquered his native land and killed its Hungarian-affiliated ruler, Vladislav II, in an epic hand-to-hand combat (I would love to see that). Vlad found Wallachia in a wretched state: constant war had resulted in rampant crime, falling agricultural production, and the virtual disappearance of trade. Regarding a stable economy essential to resisting external enemies, he used severe methods to restore order and prosperity. Vlad considered the boyars the chief cause of the constant strife as well as of the death of his father and brother. To secure his rule, he had many leading nobles killed and gave positions in his council, traditionally belonging to the greatest boyars, to persons of obscure origins, who would be loyal to him alone, and some to foreigners. For lower offices, Vlad preferred knights and free peasants to boyars. In his aim of cleaning up Wallachia Vlad gave new laws punishing thieves and robbers. Vlad treated the boyars with the same harshness, because they were guilty of weakening Wallachia through their internal struggles for power. The older boyars and their families were immediately impaled. The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north to the ruins of Poienari Castle in the mountains above the Arges River. Vlad was determined to rebuild this ancient fortress as his own stronghold and refuge so he might monitor the movements of the Hungarians coming through Transylvania and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The enslaved boyars, their families and some master masons were forced to labor until their deaths, rebuilding the old castle with materials from another nearby ruin. According to tradition, they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. None survived the construction of castle Poienari, as those who did not die from exhaustion were impaled. This cruel policy was bound to backfire in the future but for the time being it seemed to be a right thing to do. In 1459, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade against the Ottomans. The only European leader that showed enthusiasm for the crusade was Vlad of Wallachia. Later that year, in 1459, Mehmed sent envoys to Vlad urging him to pay a delayed tribute. The sultan had every right to demand it as he supported Vlad earlier but the prince refused to pay 10,000 ducats and send 500 recruits into the Ottoman forces. In order to provoke and instigate war with the Sultan Vlad, who knew Muslim culture very well, demanded the Turkish envoys raise their “hats” to him and, when they refused for religious reasons, he killed them by nailing their turbans to their heads. Subsequently, the Ottomans attempted to remove him – the Turks crossed the Danube and started to do their own recruiting by force of adolescent Romanians into the Janissary. Vlad allied himself with Matthias Corvinus , son of John Hunyadi (János Hunyadi), the King of Hungary, his former enemy. In the winter of 1462, Vlad crossed the Danube and devastated the entire Bulgarian land in the area between Serbia and the Black Sea. Disguising himself as a Turkish Sipahi, he infiltrated and destroyed Ottoman camps. In a letter to the Hungarian king, Corvinus dated 2 February he wrote: I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Bulgars without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmet II) In response to this, Sultan Mehmed II raised an army of around 60,000 troops and 30,000 irregulars and in 1462 headed towards Wallachia. Commanding only 40,000 men, Vlad was unable to stop the Ottomans from entering Wallachia and occupying the capital Târgoviste but he never stopped guerrilla attacks and ambushes on the Turks, such as The Night Attack when 15,000 enemies were killed. The strategy proved to be very successful. Vlad III defeated Ottoman Sipahi commanders such as Iosuf Bey, Turkhanbeyoglu Omer Bey and Evrenos Bey. This instigated Mehmed II, who then crossed the Danube.

Vlad III’s younger renegate brother, the highly capable Radu Bey and his Janissary battalions, were given the task of leading the Ottoman Empire to victory at all expense by Sultan Mehmet II. After the Sipahis incursions failed to subdue Vlad, the few remaining Sipahis were killed in a night raid by Vlad III in 1462, killing possibly 4,000 of Radu’s troops. However the war raged on, Radu and his formidable Janissary battalion was well supplied with a steady flow of gunpowder and money, this advantage allowed them to push deeper into the realm of Vlad III. Radu and his well equipped forces finally besieged and captured Poenari Castle the famed lair of his brother. With the siege of this castle comes the first mention of Vlad’s first wife who, according to local legend, was a noblewoman of unknown name and origin. She died during the siege. Allegedly a woodland archer, having seen the shadow of Vlad’s wife behind a window, shot an arrow through the window with a message warning her that Radu’s army was approaching. Some historians (McNally and Florescu) explain that the archer was most probably one of Vlad’s relatives who sent the warning out of loyalty despite having converted to Islam and served in the ranks of Radu Bey – it was kindness, not a threat. Upon reading the message, however, Vlad’s wife threw herself from the tower into a tributary of the Arges River flowing below the castle, saying she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish of the Arges than be led into captivity by the Turks. A total pessimist but she was right – the castle was taken by the Turks. Today, the tributary is called “the Lady’s River”. After his difficult victory Radu was then given the title Bey of Wallachia. Vlad III was defeated because the Boyars had been alienated by Vlad’s policy and disliked him as he was undermining their authority, and weakening their control over Wallachia. They joined Radu and believed that Ottoman protection was better than Hungarian occupation. Others had their families contained by the Ottomans and thus also sided with Radu in order to reunite with their loved ones. Until 8 September, Vlad obtained another three victories but continuous war had left him without any money and he could no longer pay his mercenaries. Vlad travelled to Hungary to ask for help from his former ally, Matthias Corvinus. But instead of receiving help he found himself arrested and thrown into the dungeon for high treason. Matthias Corvinus feared that Vlad III and his forces might devastate the rural countryside of Hungary and instigate an Ottoman invasion. The king was also jealous of Vlad’s military successes, although they didn’t cost him a lot; after all he was also supposed to fight with the Turks but so far all the dirty work had been done by Dracula and his men. The exact length of Vlad’s period of captivity is open to some debate, though indications are that it was from 1462 until 1474. Diplomatic correspondence from Buda seems to indicate that the period of Vlad’s effective confinement was relatively short. Radu’s openly pro-Ottoman policy as voivode probably contributed to Vlad’s rehabilitation. Gradually winning back King Matthias’s favour, he married Ilona Szilágyi, a cousin of the king, and in the years before his final release in 1474, lived with her in a house in the Hungarian capital. Around 1465, Ilona bore him two sons: the elder, Vlad IV Dracula, spent most of his time in the king’s retinue and later was an unsuccessful claimant to the Wallachian throne. The younger, whose name is unknown, lived with the Bishop of Oradea in Transylvania until 1482. On 26 November 1476, Vlad III declared his third reign and began preparations for the reconquest of Wallachia. In 1476, with Hungarian support, he invaded the country crossing the river Danube. It was a short campaign – it lasted little more than two months – Vlad was killed on the battlefield, during a fierce confrontation with the Ottoman Sipahis near Bucharest in 1476. Vlad III was buried in the Snagov monastery, and his head is believed to be in Istanbul. The Sultan finally got his tribute of a kind.

After the death of Vlad the fame of his cruelty spread in the form of a pamphlet which tone was seriously exaggerated. The whole thing was promoted by none other than Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary. You can ask why a former ally would do such a thing to his dead protégé and it is a very good question. Apparently Matthias tarnished Vlad’s reputation and credibility for a political reason: as an explanation for why he had not helped Vlad fight the Ottomans in 1462, for which purpose he had received (and embezzled) money from most Catholic states in Europe. His smear campaign once again was very successful – to these days in the West, Vlad III has been characterized as a tyrant who took sadistic pleasure in torturing and killing his own people. According to the German stories the number of victims he had tortured and murdered was at least 80,000 – he allegedly had whole villages and fortresses destroyed and burned to the ground. These numbers are most likely exaggerated as all his life Vlad wanted to rebuild his country, not ruin it. Two tragic stories full of cruelty and blood but devoid of any vampiric traits – next time I am going to improve that. In the final installment, most likely published next week, I will try to find out why these false legends and accusations proved to be so popular and how the vampires and werewolves are presented in popular culture nowadays. There will be also a paragraph or two about real illnesses which might make people look like vampires and/or werewolves.   Sources:

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12 Responses to Concise history with fangs – part three

  1. Bram Stoker did not do much research for Dracula. Most of his info about vampires came from his imagination which is why Dracula bears no resemblance to Vlad. I have heard of Bathory but did not know she was owed money. Interesting when one considers things like how the Templars or the Cathars disappeared.

  2. Tracy says:

    And both involving a King Matthias, though over a hundred years apart.

  3. anachronist says:

    Yes, the evil King Matthias seems to loom over both fates although he died in 1490…seems that you can never be too careful with the sources. His successor was Vladislas II, also known as Ladislaus Jagiellon, King of Hungary from 1490 until his death in 1516 and also a knight of the Order of the Dragon but I couldn't find his name connected with the trial of Elizabeth's servants so I left it as it was originally stated.There was also another King Matthias of Austria (24 February 1557 – 20 March 1619) the Holy Roman Emperor from 1612, King of Hungary and Croatia from 1608 (as Matthias II) and King of Bohemia from 1611. He was a member of the House of Habsburg and the most likely the monarch who dealt with Elizabeth but most often he gets mixed up with the first Matthias and nothing connects him with the Countess.

  4. I has heard of Vlad the Impaler. I'd never heard of Bathory though.

  5. Blodeuedd says:

    I do wonder about Elizbeth, crazy or I did try to read a book about her once but it was just disgusting, and she was only 12 at that incident in the book.

  6. anachronist says:

    Elizabeth Bathory is definitely less known than Dracula Brooke, maybe because nobody has written a good book about her so far.Blodeuedd she was definitely older than 12 – her children were already adult and married at the time of the trials. I am also in two minds about her guilt. There must have been something – otherwise her relatives would immediately declared her innocent, not kept her in house arrest – but most probably we will never know the full story

  7. Bathory had to be crazed. Perhaps it is the house arrest that finally made her snap? I don't remember having her as an official fictionized vamp. Might be interesting. I also like the new fiction that takes more facts about Vlad and weaves it into the fiction. Makes it more interesting.

  8. anachronist says:

    There are plenty of books revolving aroung the fictionized life of Elizabeth but they are not that famous. Here are some of them (from Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu The Blood Confession by Alissa LibbyInfamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory by Kimberly Craft to give you just a few examples.

  9. There have been some documentaries on tv about Bathory. She is somewhat well known over here. Thing about names is that they run in families so it makes it very difficult to determine who did what when there was only one name and they all had to share it.

  10. anachronist says:

    Thing about names is that they run in families so it makes it very difficult to determine who did what when there was only one name and they all had to share it. Yes, it was a blunder from my part – I had got sidetracked by the story itself. I edited the text inserting the right king where he belongs – thanks Tracy!

  11. … but do any of those books sparkle? (just kidding) I'll check out those books!

  12. anachronist says:

    These books sparkle only if you cover them with your sparkling nail varnish ;p.

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