The life and deeds of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess to you and me, read like a real-life Game Of Thrones. Her ancestral line included a dragon slayer which is why her coat of arms includes three dragon’s teeth. She was an absolute, unaccountable ruler in Central Europe at a time where the leader of a peasant revolt was roasted alive on an iron chair and had a red-hot crown pressed on his head. She sadistically tortured a number of peasant girls, some say 50, others 100, while the Guinness Book of Records lists her as the most prolific female murderer of all time with 650. She owned a real-life iron maiden. A later legend has it that she bathed in blood to keep her skin looking young. Oh, and to top it all, she was helped by two old hags, a witch and a deformed dwarf. No, he wasn’t called Tyrian.
Roll forward 2014, when 21 August marks the 400th anniversary of her death. She died in a typically Poesque manner, being immured alive in a room in her own castle with only a few small slits left for food, water and air circulation. In the meantime, she’s been an inspiration to the Brothers Grimm, to Bram Stoker, to a Swedish heavy metal band named after her and to every vampire fan page on the Internet. She even has an active Facebook group devoted to her memory.
Unsurprisingly, she’s also been the subject of numerous books and three major films. The first, Countess Dracula, is a Hammer horror with a great hammy performance by Ingrid Pitt. The second, The Countess, starring Julie Delpy, dives head-on for the legend that has her bathing in the blood of virgins to keep her skin looking young, while the third, Bathory, with Anna Friel, claims it was all a conspiracy to deprive a strong-minded Renaissance woman of her land. None are historically accurate.
The village of Čachtice in today’s Slovakia has long been associated with Countess Báthory. It has, after all, the locations. She lived in a grand manor house behind the church. (Only the remains of an external wall can still be seen, but astonishingly her original cellars survive and are today used to store wine by the local co-op.) She died at Čachtice castle. Finally, she was buried in the village church of St Ladislav, although, in true vampire spirit, her grave has never been found; she was likely moved later to the family seat in Nagyecsed in today’s Hungary.
During the Communist era Elizabeth Báthory was airbrushed completely. It could be because she was Hungarian and the victims Slovak peasants, a touchy subject for the eternally fraternal bonds between sister Socialist states. It could also be because the tales of kings and aristocrats didn’t feature much in the Marxist view of history.
After the fall of Communism, Čachtice found itself the centre of sudden and unwelcome attention from Báthory enthusiasts worldwide, culminating in the theft of an original portrait of the Countess from the local museum. The immediate reaction of the villagers was surprise and shame, which, however, matured slowly into a more entrepreneurial credo: if you can’t fight them, join them.
Nowadays, Čachtice revels in Báthoriana, and we are not talking subtle. A wooden statue of the Countess stands in the main square. The restaurant opposite sports a mural depicting her making a pact with the Devil. The village museum has expanded and now devotes several rooms to the Countess, including a faithful reproduction of the dress she is seen wearing in paintings.
Not to be outdone, the local co-op has launched a new wine, sporting her portrait on the label. “Brand Báthory”, a Blauer Burgunder, was introduced in 2004 and discontinued in 2011, but was re-introduced this year after pressure from tourists who wanted to buy the bottles as souvenirs. There is, of course, a 2014 “Báthory Blood” special vintage, a red Dornfelder commemorating the 400 years from her death. You can contact the co-op through their website.
Finally, after centuries of neglect –a complete tower collapsed in the 1980s – Čachtice castle reopened with a lot of fanfare on 20 June 2014 after a two-year restoration. Since the Countess conveniently died on 21 August, it has become the centre of a summer village fete around that date with music, craft workshops, fencing competitions, medieval tortures, a mock trial and – nice touch that – a call to volunteers for the Slovak blood transfusion service.
In the words of Miroslav Dobiaš, a local Báthory buff in his forties who runs a website devoted to the Blood Countess in Slovak: “We’re not overwhelmed by her legend anymore. I’m glad she’s finally paying her dues to the village by attracting tourists who come here because of her.”
After 400 years it was about time.
I have also published a more extensive article on Elizabeth Bathory for CNN travel.