When the World Turns Against You – Erdody Castle & the Lost World of Hungary’s High Aristocracy

The small village of Doba, northwest of Lake Balaton in western Hungary is home to the Erdody Castle.  A fine example of neo-classicism, the castle has the look and feel of a giant manor house. The bright white façade and stately exterior would look just as much at home in Western Europe as it does in a small Hungarian village. Is it any wonder that the designer was French? The castle, constructed between 1836 and 1839, was designed by Frenchman Charles Moreau a leader in classicist architecture. Moreau had been instrumental in the redesign of Schloss Esterhazy, still one of the grandest palaces in Austria today. The Erdody’s were friends – and social competitors – of the Esterhazy’s. They decided to co-opt Moreau to design their own residence at Doba. The result was splendid enough, but the grand façade can hide the humanity that used this palatial residence. Who exactly were the Erdody’s and what happened to them?  In short, they were one of the oldest and most noble families in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like so many aristocrats, the changes wrought by revolution and war over the past two centuries put an end to their immense wealth and fantastical lifestyle.

Aerial view of Erdody Castle

Aerial view of Erdody Castle (Credit: Civertan)

Land & Power – The Erdody’s Vast Wealth
The Erdody’s first obtained noble titles in the 15th century for service to the Kingdom of Hungary in what is today part of Croatia. In succeeding centuries they sided with the Habsburgs who came to rule over Hungary after the Ottoman Turks were thrown out in the late 17th century. The early Erdody’s fought with valor and courage against the Turks. They were richly rewarded for their loyalty by the Austrian royal family. They were given many large and fertile tracts of land.  As the 18th and most of the 19th centuries passed in peace, the Erdody’s became less warriors and more socially refined aristocrats. Their wealth and power was based upon vast landholdings. From the Middle Ages, up until the latter half of the 19th century, land was power. It was the principle means of securing wealth in central Europe. Prior to the industrial revolution those who controlled the land, held almost complete power over the people. Land owners were many levels above the masses of peasantry.

Large estate owners like the Erdody’s held an even more exalted status. They were the privileged elite. The country was run for their sake, not for the masses. Viewing the Erdody castle at Doba it is easy to imagine that this massive manor would have been more than enough of a home for an entire family. Yet it is shocking to discover that Erdody castle was meant to be used as a summer residence. In today’s terms this was just a vacation home. Obviously they don’t make holiday villas the way they used to. The castle was part of an entire complex that included 260 acres of landscaped gardens and woods. This was one of many estates the family owned, spread across what are today three separate countries, Hungary, Croatia and Austria.

Portrait of Joseph Haydn - musical genius & servant of the Esterhazy's and Erdody's (Credit: Ludwig Guttenbrunn))

Portrait of Joseph Haydn – musical genius & servant of the Esterhazy’s and Erdody’s (Credit: Ludwig Guttenbrunn))

The Erdody’s main use of these estates was to impress their fellow aristocrats. They were influenced by each other’s tastes and whims of fancy. This was not only an age of excess, but also of entitlement. The famous House of Esterhazy was a direct influence upon the Erdody’s. Besides sharing one of the same architects for their palaces and castles, the famous Esterhazy court musician Joseph Haydn also had patrons among the Erdody clan. He went so far as to compose an Erdody quartet. Haydn may have been a musical genius, but he owed his livelihood to the Erdody’s and Esterhazy’s of the world. These families were so rich and powerful that they even held men such as Haydn in virtual servitude.

The End of the Age of Entitlement
Like the Esterhazy’s though, the Erdody’s power declined as mass movements and radical upheaval took hold across much of Europe. The liberation of people and the liberation of land were in many ways inseparable. The industrial revolution freed many from the yoke of virtual serfdom, revolutions did the rest. For all their wealth, the Erdody’s of the world could not control the forces of change wrought by war. Men such as Istvan Erdody who mediated the historic Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and Tamas Erdody who was an aide to Emperor Karl IV, the final Habsburg Monarch, were forgotten in the maelstrom of social change. The Second World War proved to be the final death knell to the family’s glory in Hungary. The Erdody’s eventually fled westward, though this flight offered little refuge from the vicissitudes of war. The family palace in Vienna had to be demolished due to bomb damage. Meanwhile, in Hungary all of their wealth was expropriated by the Communist regime. They could not take their land with them, but at least they were able to escape with their lives. Then again, what is an aristocrat without landed estates? What is an aristocrat without servants, lavish balls and gilded chambers?

The village of Doba Hungary was once owned by the Erdody's - the family has vanished but the village remains

The village of Doba Hungary was once owned by the Erdody’s – the family has vanished but the village remains

Scores of Erdody heirs were left to answer those questions by the middle of the 20th century. Their answers have been less than resounding. The Erdody name has been all but forgotten. Like so many others who once owned most of Hungary and Central Europe, they have faded into anonymity and been swallowed by oblivion. The world of the Erdody’s is just as lost to us as that of the ancient Romans. Perhaps this is only fitting, this was a world that was only theirs, it was never meant for the rest of us. All that is left today are slowly crumbling castles and manor houses full of drafty rooms. Restoration may bring a structure back to a rough approximation of its former self, but it will never bring back the humanity that gave it life. The best that can be hoped for an Erdody castle today is to become an echo chamber for tourist’s footsteps or a fantasy fixer upper for modern day dreamers trying to reimagine the past. Imagination is a beautiful thing, but in comparison to Erdody castle’s fantastical past it would hardly come close to replicating the gilded reality of that lost world.

Erdody Castle today - now home to a psychiatric institution

Erdody Castle today – now home to a psychiatric institution

A Century Later & Gone Forever – The Lost World of Aristocracy
Today the Erdody castle is almost forgotten along with the village of Doba. The only residents at Erdody are psychiatric patients, as it is now used as a mental institution. Tourists do not yet ply its vast halls, but can still drive or walk up to the castle and have a look. Viewing the castle reminds us of an age that was so much different from our own. It is hard to imagine that age was alive and well only a hundred years ago. It is even harder to imagine that age is gone forever.

 

7 thoughts on “When the World Turns Against You – Erdody Castle & the Lost World of Hungary’s High Aristocracy

  1. ”What is an aristocrat without servants, lavish balls and gilded chambers?”. Well he is still an aristocrat. It is a mindset as much as anything else. Here in Hungary the old noble families still make a contribution. A Karolyi Count is ambassador to Paris, a Perenyi Baron is ambassador to Vienna and there are dozens of other examples of the Hungarian nobility in public service here. As indeed they always were. In Transylvania many of old Hungarian families were given back castles and estates and many have restored them, for example Count Tibor Kalnoky, the Mikes family at Zabola, several Banffy’s are in the process of restoring former family properties – even Boncida itself is under restoration. A Barcsay de Nagybarcsay – direct heir to the Great Prince of Transylvania has returned to Gilau. The problem in Hungary is there was no restitution of castles to the nobility. The Romanians took a more pragmatic approach which is why they are now benefiting from ‘aristo tourism’. But don’t write off the Hungarian nobility yet, they may be down but they certainly are not out!

    • Atticus, If you have not read Comrade Baron by Jaap Scholten I highly recommend it. The aristocracy of Eastern Europe is but a shadow of its former self, even if it is a beautiful and elegant shadow.

  2. I have not only read Comrade Baron but helped Jaap Scholten, who is a very good friend of mine, with the book. I am about to publish a book on the pre war Hungarian nobility but it relates to a very specific point in time and has a very unique individual as its central focus.
    Keep up the good work on behalf of dear old Mittle Europa, we appreciate your efforts here in Hungary.

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