Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Sonia Velton, Author of The Nightingale's Castle: An evocative gothic historical novel

10 June 2024

Special Guest Post by Sonia Velton, Author of The Nightingale's Castle: An evocative gothic historical novel

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US
(US Paperback released 30th July)

1610, Hungary: Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous 17th century Hungarian noblewoman, has a cult following of horror fans. Even those who don’t know her by name may well have heard of the Blood Countess who murdered numerous young virgins and bathed in their blood to 
preserve her youthful looks.
I first came across Báthory in Guinness World Records which describes her as the most prolific female serial killer of all time; she allegedly tortured and murdered more than 600 girls. That seemed like a pretty full-on slaughtering schedule for a busy countess, so I decided to find out more. What I discovered was so extraordinary it inspired my new novel, The Nightingale’s Castle.

Elizabeth Báthory (Wikimedia Commons)

Countess Báthory lived in Čachtice Castle, situated in what is now western Slovakia. Far from being a depraved killer, she appears to have been a well-educated patron of the arts, who was proficient in Hungarian, Latin, Greek and German. In her surviving letters, she comes across as intelligent and spirited, tackling a range of issues from seeking justice for abused women, to berating staff for stealing her cannabis crop. How, then, did she go down in history as such a diabolical character?

Čachtice Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

For a start, she was a rich and powerful woman. When she was widowed, at the age of 44, she continued to manage her estates with characteristic independence and efficiency in an age when women were valued primarily as wives and mothers. By the time Báthory was almost 50, and still hadn’t ceded her vast wealth to her male heirs, she had truly ruffled the feathers of the men who ruled Hungary.

Meanwhile, there were strange goings-on in Čachtice Castle. Girls were dying, sometimes many at the same time. Pastor Ponikenus, the vicar of Čachtice and one of Báthory’s most vocal detractors, described nine maidens being buried in one night, all of whom had died of “unknown and mysterious causes”. Tales of welts and wounds, bruises and burns began to proliferate. No one was particularly bothered about the odd dead servant, but when noble girls began to die — the high-born young ladies who attended the countess’s Gynaeceum where they learned social graces and wifely duties — something had to be done.

The campaign to bring down Báthory was orchestrated by György Thurzó, the Count Palatine of Hungary for the Habsburg King Matthias. Thurzó began an investigation into the unexplained deaths of so many girls. Dozens of serfs were interviewed, many of whom had never been anywhere near Čachtice Castle. They all repeated the same rumours, but could not speak to anything they had witnessed themselves.

Portrait of György Thurzó 1607 (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most challenging aspects of my research for The Nightingale’s Castle was trying to understand the different motivations key players might have had for desiring Báthory’s downfall. When Pastor Ponikenus preached from his pulpit that she was a jezebel, was he influenced by religious tensions arising out of the fact that he was a Lutheran and she, a Calvinist? When King Matthias wanted Báthory to be tried and executed, did he have in mind the huge debt the royal treasury owed Báthory, which would not need to be repaid if she were found guilty? And what of the Count Palatine himself? Why did Thurzó pursue his case against her so doggedly?
We are fortunate that some of the original letters passing between Thurzó, the king and Báthory’s powerful sons-in-law survive. They provide a fascinating insight into the scheming that went on, behind the scenes, before Báthory’s spectacular arrest. I began to see parallels between Erzsébet Báthory and Anne Boleyn. Both were women whose very existence, albeit for very different reasons, simply became inconvenient to the powerful men around them, at which point, they were both accused of crimes bordering on the preposterous. The go-to allegation against women in that era — sexual impropriety — was not available in relation to Báthory (a woman of 50!) so her trial took an even more sinister turn.

Báthory was arrested on 27 December, 1610. It was a bitterly cold and snowy evening when the Count Palatine and his men trudged up the winding dirt track towards the looming Čachtice Castle. The countess was having dinner in her manor house when the soldiers burst in on her. Later, Thurzó would claim that he happened upon her in the very act of murdering a girl. In order to obtain further evidence, he gave his men the macabre task of digging up the bodies of the dead girls.
The countess was not arrested alone. Her four “accomplices” were also taken: a servant, a washerwoman, the former wetnurse to the countess’s children and a boy who was the castle factotum. A rather unlikely group of mass murderers, perhaps. When the show trial began, it was only her accomplices who gave evidence. Despite her many requests, the countess never succeeded in persuading Thurzó to allow her to defend the allegations against her. And what a trial it was. Like a perfectly-scripted courtroom drama, just when it seemed the case against the countess couldn’t get any more grisly, someone came forward with the startling revelation that the countess owned a secret box, and that inside was a list of all the hundreds of girls she had murdered…

But when did the countess become a vampire, draining her victims of their precious blood? Like the portraits of her that still exist, our lasting image of Erzsébet Báthory has been layered up over time. After the trial, the records were locked away in archives. There they remained for two hundred years until they were discovered by a Jesuit priest in 1720, and the long-forgotten Blood Countess was unleashed into 18th century society where vampires and gothic horror were all the rage.

It is now almost impossible to know whether Báthory was guilty or not. In The Nightingale’s Castle I simply put forward an alternative narrative, thereby giving Countess Báthory the voice that she, like so many women in history, was always denied.

Sonia Velton

(A version of this article first appeared in Historia Magazine.)

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About the Author

Sonia Velton, a former lawyer, is the author of two other books. Her historical debut, Blackberry and Wild rose was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Prize, optioned for film and was longlisted for the HWA Debut Crown Award. She spent eight years being an expat Mum of three in Dubai and now lives with her children in Kent. Find Sonia on Instagram and Twitter @soniavelton

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