House Of Unspoken Horrors: The Black Knight & The Blood Countess at Sarvar Castle

I can safely say I went to Sarvar, a small city in western Hungary, for one reason only. That was to see Sarvar Castle, which was once home to the notorious “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time. What I found at the castle was quite different than what I came expecting to see. There was not much mention of the “Blood Countess” or the horrific acts she carried out on numerous young girls. Instead the castle’s historical exhibits focused on the exploits of her husband Ferenc Nadasdy, also known as the Black Knight. His feats are not for the faint of heart. While the castle focuses on his military deeds against the Ottoman Turks, Nadasdy was in some ways as cruel off the battlefield as he was on it. Some believe this was due to the influence of his wife. He is said to have both shared and learned many techniques of torture from her. This diabolical husband and wife team, made their home at Sarvar Castle for many years. Behind the stout, stone walls of the castle, inhuman cruelty and murder was carried out. This has left a tainted legacy. While Elizabeth Bathory today is a national shame, her husband is considered a national hero. The latter’s glorious history is what Sarvar Castle promotes, but this is at the expense of telling the frightful truth about a dark and deeply disturbing individual

Sarvar Castle

Sarvar Castle – beautiful but shadowed by a dark and disturbing past

A Match Made In Hell – Ferenc Nadasdy & Elizabeth Bathory
It is a strange thing to consider that among the regal splendor of Hungarian and Viennese high nobility one of the most violent warriors of the sixteenth century was reared.  Ferenc Nadasdy was brought up in the age of the Renaissance, but he turned out to be a destructive product of that time.  He was the only son of Tamas Nadasdy I, otherwise known as the Great Palatine. Tamas was given a splendid education at Graz, Bologna and Rome. He rose through the ranks to become the closest councilor to the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand.  He was among the elite of the 15th century in education, military and diplomatic skill. His son Ferenc would only surpass the father in military terms. Ferenc had some of the best tutors in Europe educating him at Sarvar, but his real interest was in soldiering. After years of what can only be described as the finest schooling, Ferenc had just a basic understanding of German and Latin, the lingua francas of that time. As for Hungarian, he could only speak it in the most rudimentary sense.

At the tender age of sixteen Ferenc was married to the twelve year old Elizabeth Bathory. Their marriage united two of the most powerful noble families in Central Europe. The newlyweds would turn out to be a match made in hell. The difference between them was stark, the prepubescent Elizabeth and the fast maturing Ferenc. Elizabeth was truly a learned, Renaissance woman. She could speak five languages fluently including classical Greek. Ferenc was a warrior to his very core. She was known for her sharp intelligence, while he was interested in martial affairs. The one common trait between them was a streak of sadism that united the young couple in macabre matrimony. Many innocents suffered at the hands of the couple, but Elizabeth also suffered at her husband’s hands.

They would be married for over a decade before Elizabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, but this was not her first child. At the age of thirteen she is said to have become impregnated by a servant and table waiter (other sources say he was a young nobleman) at a property in Trnava located in Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia). The story goes that a furious Ferenc had the servant castrated. The unfortunate man and his private parts were thrown to a pack of wild dogs. As for Elizabeth, she was allowed to give birth to the baby at another of the Nadasdy properties, but the infant was taken from her and never seen again. It is believed that the baby may have been murdered on the order of Ferenc.

Ferenc Nadasdy (the Black Knight)

Ferenc Nadasdy (the Black Knight) – husband of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory

Degrees of Depravity – Methods of the Macabre
Ferenc and Elizabeth spent a good deal of their marriage apart as he won fame and infamy while campaigning successfully against the Ottoman Turks who occupied the central and southern portions of Hungary. Elizabeth was left behind at Sarvar or one of the 20-odd castles they owned together to manage their vast estates. The couple’s combined wealth was greater than that of the Habsburg King. Ferenc gained power and prestige due to his military acumen. He was nicknamed the Black Knight by his enemies. His appearance on the field of battle chilled the blood of the Ottoman Turks. He was especially feared for his methods of dealing with prisoners. He was known to dance with their dead bodies. He would also take the heads of prisoners and play catch or kickball with them. On occasion he ordered that they be impaled on stakes so as to die in slow and agonizing pain that could last for days on end.

When Ferenc and Elizabeth were together sparks literally flew in the most depraved sense. He showed his wife a punishment method that could be used on idle servants. This involved inserting pieces of paper soaked in oil between their toes then lighting them on fire. They would kick and scream wildly. The lesson to be learned was to work harder. One gift he brought his wife back from the battlefront was a claw like contraption that could be placed over the hand to tear, stab and cut victims. Together the two of them compared torture methods. Elizabeth had been practicing these on young servant girls to the point of killing them while her husband was off fighting the Turks. This led to scandals. Ferenc had to pay off the authorities to quiet the stories that abounded of his wives murderous behavior. Though he was said to have disapproved of her brutality, he also believed that harsh and painful punishment of offending servants was justified. The difference between the two was that Ferenc stopped short of murdering them.

The entrance to Sarvar Castle

The entrance to Sarvar Castle – a walk you would not have wanted to make when Ferenc Nadasdy and Elizabeth Bathory were living here (Credit: Tamas Janos)

Selective Memories –The Horror Vanishes
In 1604 Ferenc died at the front. It is not known for certain what killed him, but he had been having trouble with pain in his legs. The Black Knight was a shadow of his former self. He was crippled up and bedridden on several occasions in the years prior to his death. Whatever the disease, it finally took his life on January 4th. In a cruel irony, the death of Ferenc sent Elizabeth into a spiral of sadism that eventually led to her downfall. She began to murder and torture on an unprecedented scale. Some accounts put her victims in the hundreds. She was arrested in 1610 and imprisoned until her death in one of her houses of horror, a castle in western Slovakia. Her days and deeds, along with her husband at Sarvar, were long in the past. The couple would live on in the pages of history, but as Sarvar shows, they are remembered or deliberately forgotten for quite different reasons. Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess who tortured and killed countless young women is nearly invisible, while Ferenc Nadasdy, the Black Knight, is extolled for his glorious deeds.

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