The life of the real world Vlad the Impaler who ruled as Voivode ("Prince" or "Count") of Wallachia (an area that includes Transylvania in modern Romania) three different times, in 1448 CE, from 1456 CE to 1462 CE, and from 1476-1477 CE, is in many ways more interesting that the story of the fictional vampire Count Dracula, that drew upon Vlad the Impaler's personal details. Indeed, his own real life has a lot in common with that of Daenerys Targaryen of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, which is set in a world with a similar level of technology and a similar political environment.
The same can be said for Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560 CE to 1614 CE) a Hungarian noblewoman who lived two generations after Vlad Dracula died with parents of Transylvanian origins from both her father and mother's side. She is believed to have been (and was tried and convicted in a royal Hungarian court as) a serial killer who took more lives than any other female serial killer in recorded history, who also spawned many stories of vampirism and witchcraft. She bears some general similarities to Game of Thrones character Cersei Lannister.
Both of these brutal historical figures have their lives unfold on the European border between the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Christian Southeast Europe, a conflict that created a ruling class so used to death that life became cheap to them.
Vlad the Impaler a.k.a. Vlad III, really was known as Vlad Dracula, which in the Slavonic language, means "son of the Dragon." He was described this way since his father was known as Vlad Dracul ("Vlad the Dragon") after becoming a member of the Order of the Dragon founded by the King of Hungary in 1408 CE as a group of Christian noble warriors united against the Muslim Ottomans in an imitation of the chivalric military orders of the Crusades.
Vlad Dracula spent several of his young adult years as a hostage in the court of the Ottoman Empire's ruler after he and his father were captured in a campaign against the Ottomans, after which his father was released with a pledge of loyalty and tribute payments to the Ottomans secured by his son's life. This experience left him with mixed loyalties and a fluent mastery of Turkish and understanding of both Ottoman and European ways of life that he used to his advantage for the rest of his life.
In 1448 CE, Vlad Dracula, arguably the successor to the Voivode position after his father and elder brother died, led an Ottoman army against Hungarian forces, defeated them in Kosovo, and briefly ruled the land before he was defeated and fled back to the Ottoman Empire. But, by 1456 CE, Vlad Dracula had changed sides and led a Hungarian army into Wallachia promising to defend its residents against the Ottoman armies he had led eight years earlier. At this point Vlad earned his title as Impaler, slaughtering thousands of people in order to consolidate control from rebellious factions in Wallachia.
Dracula then spent two years in a bloody war with Ottoman forces including forces led by his brother Radu leaving tens of thousands of people dead, cities and tracts of land ruined in a scorched earth policy designed to deny the Ottoman's any benefit from their conquests. He held them at bay until a Czech bounty hunter hired by a European king captured and imprisoned him for many years, only to return him as Voivode in the last years of his life when he became useful again, with the fig leaf of justification that he had converted to Roman Catholicism.
Báthory was engaged to a nobleman when she was 11 and he was 15, had a child out of wedlock who was spirited away at 13, and was married when she was 15. For many of the early years of her marriage, her husband was away fighting Ottoman forces in ongoing border wars that were centuries old, while she was in charge of troops at their homestead defending it from possible Ottoman invasions. She spoke four languages, acted as amateur doctor for her subjects at times and ruled the estate in her husband's many long absences.
There were several instances 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.
She ultimately had six or seven children during her twenty-nine years of marriage (many of whom ended up in noble families), and her husband died when she was 48 years old.
Rumors of her own alleged atrocities started to circulate a couple of years before her husband died, and eight years later, in 1610 CE she and many of her servants were arrested. According to the case against her:
Báthory's 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, she is said to have begun to kill daughters of the lesser gentry, who were sent to her gynaeceum by their parents to learn courtly etiquette. Abductions were said to have occurred as well. The atrocities described most consistently included severe beatings, burning or mutilation of hands, biting the flesh off the faces, arms and other body parts, freezing or starving to death. The use of needles was also mentioned by the collaborators in court. There were many suspected forms of torture carried out by Elizabeth. According to the Budapest City Archives, the girls were scalded with hot tongs and then placed in freezing cold water. They were also covered in honey and live ants. Elizabeth is also suspected of cannibalism.
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. Two witnesses (court officials Benedek Deseő and Jakab Szilvássy) actually saw the Countess torture and kill young servant girls. According to the testimony of the defendants, Elizabeth Báthory tortured and killed her victims not only at Csejte but also on her properties in Sárvár, Németkeresztúr, Pozsony (today Bratislava), and Vienna, and elsewhere. In addition to the defendants, several people were named for supplying Elizabeth Báthory with young women, procured either by deception or by force.
Thurzó went to Csejte Castle on 30 December 1610 and arrested Báthory and four of her servants, who were accused of being her accomplices: Dorotya Semtész, Ilona Jó, Katarína Benická, and János Újváry ("Ibis" or Fickó). Thurzó's men reportedly found one girl dead and one dying and reported that another woman was found wounded while others were locked up. . . .
Dozens of witnesses and survivors, sometimes up to 35 a day, testified. All but one of the Countess's servants testified against her. In addition to the testimony, the court also examined the skeletons and cadaver parts found as evidence.
The exact number of Elizabeth Báthory's victims is unknown, and even contemporary estimates differed greatly. During the trial, Szentes and Ficko reported 36 and 37 victims 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 and 200. One witness, a woman named Susannah, who spoke at the trial mentioned a book in which Báthory supposedly kept a list of a total of over 650 victims, and this number has passed into legend. As the number of 650 could not be proven, the official count remained at 80. Reportedly, the location of the diaries is unknown but 32 letters written by Báthory are stored in the Hungarian state archives in Budapest.
Two years later, she and her co-conspirators were found guilty. Three of her alleged co-conspirators were executed (two after being tortured and burned alive at the stake), while Báthory (because she was a noble who family ruled Transylvania) and one other less culpable servant were sentenced to life in prison. The large debts that the King owed to Báthory were cancelled. Three years later, Báthory died in her cell at age 54.
Perhaps this was a Salem witch trial (1692 CE - 1693 CE) style case of mass hysteria. But, there also seems to have been a lot of evidence that would have been considered credible even by modern standards, that she was a powerful and cruel woman who tortured young girls and often killed them with as little regard for individual human live as earlier rulers in the region like Vlad Dracula.
Sidonia von Borcke
Sidonia von Borcke
Another notorious contemporary of Elizabeth Báthory, Sidonia von Borcke (1548 CE to 1620 CE), lived further North, near the Baltic Sea coast of Pomerania, the persona she was described at in her witchcraft trial would have been very comfortable in the world of Game of Thrones (perhaps as the Red Woman).
In reality, however, the witchcraft charges against her were trumped up against her for the true crimes of being disagreeable and contentious, while having an insufficient number of allies. In the end she was beheaded for witchcraft. The evidence against her (which was well documented and preserved), much of it obtained by torture, would never have held up in a modern court of law.
She was a child of a wealthy noble family whose father died when she was three and whose mother died when she was twenty. She apparently lived with her sister who died in 1600 CE (when she was 52 years old), and ended up in a convent for unmarried noblewomen four years later. This tenure was rife with feuds and litigation that would ultimately led up to her execution for witchcraft 15 years later, at the age of 72. She ended up serving as a scapegoat for the probably natural but ill-timed deaths of at least seven powerful people in the region.
She sued her brother and the Duke of Pomerania for support payments in several lawsuits including on in the imperial court in Vienna, had conflicts some of which escalated into lawsuits with her fellow residents and administrators of the convent where she served as sub-prioress until 1606 (resulting in a wrongful firing lawsuit) before the Duke of Pomerania's representative that somehow erupted into a feud that ended when the Duke (in 1606), the prioress (in 1609), the Duke's representative (in 1609), and the prioress's chief security officer (in 1609) dead.
Sidonia started a lawsuit against the new prioress addressed to the new Duke Philip a couple of years later, which he had invested by Jost von Borck, "a relative of Sidonia's who had already been humiliated when he was involved in prior lawsuits brought by Sidonia." He didn't manage to end the dispute and described the situation at the convent, "Marienfließ as one of chaos, mistrust, name-calling, and occasional violence. Philip II died in 1618 and was succeeded by Duke Francis I under whom Jost von Borck continued to serve.
In July 1619, a dispute between Sidonia and Unterpriorin (sub-prioress) Dorothea von Stettin escalated out of control during a mass, and both women were arrested. Dorothea von Stettin then accused Sidonia of witchcraft, specifically of forcing a former Marienfließ factotum, Wolde Albrechts, to ask the devil about her (Sidonia's) future.
Wolde Albrechts made her living from fortune-telling and begging after she lost her position at Marienfließ (this loss was a consequence of the death of Johannes von Hechthausen [the security officer who died in 1609]). She had travelled with gypsies in her youth, was known to have had several unstable sexual relationships, and was unmarried with an illegitimate child.
Dorothea von Stettin persuaded Anna von Apenburg, her Marienfließ roommate, to support her accusation of Sidonia. According to contemporary law, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, two eyewitnesses were sufficient to convict both Sidonia and Wolde. Anna, however, withdrew her support of the accusation when she was asked to repeat her statement under oath.
The trials of Sidonia von Borcke and Wolde Albrechts were held at the court in Stettin. These trials are well documented, with more than a thousand pages of the original trial record available in an archive in Greifswald (Rep 40 II Nr.37 Bd.I-III). The recent unexpected deaths of several Pomeranian dukes, along with widespread superstition, had created an atmosphere in which the public was prepared to blame the dukes' deaths on Sidonia's alleged witchcraft. This bias was strengthened when the Pomeranian dynasty became extinct in 1637.
The trial of Wolde Albrechts was a preface to the trial of Sidonia.
Albrechts was arrested on 28 July 1619. On 18 August, she was charged with maleficium and Teufelsbuhlschaft (i.e., sexual relations with the devil).
On 2 September, torture was admitted as a legitimate means of interrogation by the supreme court at Magdeburg.
On 7 September, Albrechts confessed under torture and accused Sidonia and two other women of witchcraft. She repeated these confessions in the presence of Sidonia during Sidonia's trial, which began on 1 October 1619.
Albrechts was burned at the stake on 9 October 1619.
Sidonia, who had been imprisoned in the Marienfließ Abbey, attempted to escape but failed. She also attempted suicide, but this also failed.
On 18 November 1619, she was transferred to a prison in Stettin.
In December, 72 charges were brought against her. The most important of these were:
* murder of her nephew, Otto von Borcke* murder of a priest, David Lüdecke* murder of duke Philip II of Pomerania-Stettin (died 1618)* murder of Magdalena von Petersdorff, prioress of Marienfließ* murder of Matthias Winterfeld, gatekeeper at Marienfließ* murder of Consistorial Counsellor Dr. Heinrich Schwalenberg* paralyzation of Katharina Hanow, a noblewoman at Marienfließ* consultation with soothsayers* knowledge of future and distant events* sexual contacts with the devil (who allegedly materialized in animals, such as Sidonia's cat, whose name was Chim)* magical practices, such as praying the "Judas psalm" (Psalm 109) and crossing brooms beneath a kitchen table
In January 1620, a man named Elias Pauli was appointed as Sidonia's defender. Although he presented a defense showing that those allegedly murdered had died natural deaths, he also dissociated himself from statements of Sidonia which had incriminated Jost von Borcke and other officials.
About fifty witnesses were questioned at the trial.
On 28 June, the Magdeburg court permitted the Stettin court to use torture. When torture was applied on 28 July, Sidonia confessed. The verdict of death was read to her when she was dragged to the execution site and her body was "ruptured" four times with pliers.When Sidonia recanted her confession, she was tortured anew on 16 August.
On 1 September 1620, the final verdict was rendered. Sidonia was sentenced to death by beheading and subsequent burning of her body. The sentence was carried out in Stettin, outside the mill gate. The exact date of her death is not known.