Lady Báthory Erzsébet (1560-1614)

Báthory Erzsébet (1560-1614)

The bad reputation: an artificial myth

Below, I would like to share with you the post written about Báthory Erzsébet, the wife of Nádasdy Ferenc. I translated the Hungarian article of the Nádasdy Ferenc Bandérium which is a Hungarian re-enactor club from Sárvár castle. Their professional historical presentation of 16th-17th century life is well recognized and famous throughout Hungary as all their work is based on profound historical research. You can read about them in my article here: 

Unfortunately, the truth about Lady Báthory Erzsébet has not been told in the English-speaking world. Some people like the tabloid tales that connect Dracula with Transylvania and they persistently think Lady Báthory was a Blood Countess.

However, it would be more favorable if people learned more about the real significance of the Transylvanian Principality as well as about the Hungarian heroes’ (like Nádasdy Ferenc) role in history. I admit that it is less exciting than Count Dracula that Transylvania was the place first time in Europe where Religious and Conscience Freedom was declared in the Diet of Torda in 1568.

You can read this script on the wall of Torda’s church

Also, the heroic fights of Nádasdy Ferenc should be discussed, illustrating the Hungarians’ lion-share in stopping the Ottoman Empire that tried to overrun Western Europe, rather than the made-up charges that were fabricated to deprive his widow, Báthory Erzsébet. (Note, I am using the Eastern name order for Hungarian names where the family name comes first.) For example, here is a deed of Lord Nádasdy that is worth reading: how he and Zrínyi György (Juraj Zrínski) defeated the Ottomans at Kacorlak in 1587: 

Lord Nádasdy Ferenc (1555-1604)

The article of the Nádasdy Ferenc Bandérium:

Báthory Erzsébet was the eldest daughter of Lord Báthory György of Ecsed, Judge of the Kingdom. Her mother was Lady Báthory Anna of Somlyó who came from another branch of the Báthory family, she was the sister of King Báthory István of Poland. (My note: they were NOT blooded relatives.) She was born in Nyírbátor, the town that gave the name to the famous Báthory family, in 1560.

Nyírbátor, Hungary; the Báthori palace (Photo: Civertan)

Erzsébet had an elder brother, István and two younger sisters, Zsófia and Klára. She became a (half) orphan at the age of 10 when her father died. We know little about her upbringing, her education must have been similar to the daughters of contemporary aristocrats. She may have acquired more knowledge from her well-educated mother than mere writing and reading skills, though. According to a few of her biographers, she spoke in Latin, Greek, and German but it cannot be proven. However, it is supposed that she must have had some knowledge of Latin. It is thought that she was also educated by Reformed preachers of the “true faith”.

Nyírbátor (Photo: Civertan)

Her parents and Lady Kanizsai Orsolya agreed in 1570 that their children would be married. The dowry of Erzsébet was ready in 1572 and the wedding between the 15-year-old Erzsébet and 20-year-old Nádasdy Ferenc took place on 8 May 1575 in Varannó, in Zemplén county. We do not know whether she remained in the Reformed faith after the wedding because it is likely that she may have been converted to the Lutheran faith. We know that Nádasdy did not tolerate any Reformed preachers in his domains after 1591.

Their marriage was childless for a long time or their first children may have died right after their birth. Their eldest daughter, Anna was born in about 1585. We know they had five children but only three grew up: Anna, Katalin (Kató), and Pál. Orsolya died early while András died in 1603. We know little about the relationship between Nádasdy and Erzsébet, their correspondence is (mostly) unknown but we predict that they must have had a balanced and harmonic marriage because they had a child after 22 years. The husband was worried about his wife’s sicknesses and the few letters we have from Erzsébet tell us how much she worried about her children when they fell ill. (…) 

Báthory Erzsébet

She took good care of the education of her son, Pál. She may have been a good mother because her daughters were visiting her regularly after their marriages. Nádasy was also expecting the news about his children, as we can read in his letters. While he was fighting the Turks, his family spent their days in Sárvár, Léka, Sopronkeresztúr, or in the castle of Csejte (now Čachtice) in the Upper Parts of Hungary. Erzsébet, similar to her mother-in-law, was running the properties and she had a renowned fruit tree nursery. When she became a widow, she often visited bath places in the Upper Lands. Here you can read more about Csejte (Čachtice) castle: 

Báthory Erzsébet was often lacking the company of her husband so she was involved not only in running their domains but she was actively taking part in maintaining political connections as well. Her nephew, Báthory András was a high priest in Poland and when he became the Prince of Transylvania, he often informed her of his political plans. (…) Of course, Erzsébet was living the life of the wealthy: young noblemen and women were being educated in her court, like the niece of her husband, Nádasdy Orsolya. In the few letters where Erzsébet’s name occurred, we have never read that a contemporary person would have viewed her as a cruel or weird person. She paid a visit to Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg) just like in Vienna. She was in Vienna in 1604 when Nádasdy Ferenc died.

The statue of Nádasdy Ferenc in Sárvár

Her son, Pál was just 6-7 years old at that time so it became Erzsébet’s job to run the immense Nádasdy domains. On behalf of her son, she wore the post of the Chief Comes of Vas County until 1610. She received reports regularly about her domains from her Vice-Comes, Kisfaludy Balázs. Lord Batthyány Ferenc was her neighbor who often helped the widow with his advice but mostly she made her own decisions in questions of trade and business. During the uprising of Bocskai István, her lands were attacked in 1605, German mercenaries plundered the town of Keresztúr. Here is more about Prince Bocskai:

She had an inventory of her lands around Léka and Sárvár made in 1608 that is a very important source for historians. Just like Nádasdy, she was supporting the studies of talented students. Famous preachers like Lethenyei István and Kis Bertalan learned from her money in Wittenberg. She was a resolute and firm woman with a strong will, and this (supposedly) Reformed widow was not liked by many people. She hasn’t remarried and wore a name that was not very popular in Royal Hungary. Her nephew, Gábor was on the throne of Transylvania and the relations between the Habsburgs and him were not very good.

Prince Báthory Gábor of Transylvania

 Erzsébet lived in a hostile world, surrounded by many enemies. The protestant preachers and some of her employees living on her lands were spreading gossip about mystical deaths and witchcraft connected to her. It is true, that some servant girls died in her court and were quickly buried in secret. It was Palatine Thurzó György who accused her of murder and cruelty against her servants in 1610. Several witness reports were recorded and even the husbands of the Nádasdy girls were summoned. Many people accused a woman called Darvulia or Darbulia who allegedly persuaded the lady to commit the crimes.

 The men of Thurzó arrested Báthory Erzsébet and her inner servants in her castle at Csejte on 29 December 1610. Her servants,  Újvári aka Fickó János, Beniczky Katalin, Joó Ilona, and Szentes Dorottya were tortured and they were forced to admit “crimes”. When the widow heard of this, she said: “What would you do if you were tortured by fire?” Fickó, Ilona, and Dorottya were quickly executed after their testimonies were made and Báthory Erzsébet was imprisoned in the castle of Csejte, without any trial or judgment that she should have had right to have, being a noblewoman. 

Palatine Thurzó György (1567-1616)

 Although Emperor Habsburg Matthias II has several times ordered Thurzó to make a proper trial, the Palatine kept postponing it until the death of Báthory Erzsébet, on 21 August 1614. Her daughters, Anna and Katalin, and their husbands Drugeth György and Zrínyi Miklós had visited her sometimes in her custody. She was buried in Csejte but we do not know where exactly. We just try to find out the motivation of Palatina Thurzó: his reason may have been getting more money and lands or political things but it is also thought that he may have taken revenge on her because she had refused his marriage proposal. Some historians tend to think that there was a conspiracy in the Báthory family against Thurzó Erzsébet, and the Palatine wanted to prevent it like this.

It is worth noting that it was the same age when Prince Bethlen Gábor of Transylvania accused Báthory Anna of witchcraft, which was clearly about to get her huge domains. There was a Jesuit monk in Hungary in 1729, he was called Thuróczi László. He was the one who wrote first about the cruel Báthory Erzsébet of Csejte, in his book that described Hungary. He claimed that she slapped her maidservant when she pulled her hair while combing it. The girl’s nose began to bleed and a drop fell on Erzsébet’s skin, and she noticed that the blood made her skin look younger.

As a result of this, she killed several hundreds of girls (sometimes 300 or 600) to bathe in their blood to regain her youth. In the book of Thuróczi, stories of medieval blood accusations are mixed with gossip and witchcraft. Thus, the Jesuit monk has created an evil, cruel woman, the pal of the Devil who was on the Reformed faith top of that, a kind of “Hungarian Dracula”. This myth later became the source of many novels and paintings, not forgetting the films. However, modern historians think that Erzsébet was only an innocent victim of a well-planned conceptual process. 

The original article in the Hungarian language can be read here:

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