1584: Samuel Zborowski, dangerous precedent

Add comment May 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Samuel Zborowski was beheaded at Krakow’s Wawel Hill for treason and murder committed ten years before.

A monument to the timeless abuse of the prosecutor’s discretion, Zborowski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a powerful nobleman who got into a snit when nobody of equal stature would enter the lists with him at a tournament.

Instead, his challenge was answered by a common trooper in the retinue of the castellan of Wojnice,* one Jan Teczynski. Pissed at the affront, and doubly so when his own retainer was defeated by Teczynski’s, Zborowski went right after Teczynski right there in the presence of the newly elected Polish king, Henry de Valois.** The affront of lese-majeste was compounded when Zborowski’s flailing mace mortally wounded another castellan who attempted to intervene.

The outlawed Zborowski fled to the protection of Stephen Bathory,† Voivode of Transylvania.

That might have been that, and left Zborowski to join Europe’s forgettable ranks of exiles, adventurers, and pretenders playing out the string under the patronage of some foreign prince.

But when the elective throne of mighty Poland came open soon thereafter, Zborowski’s patron decided that he liked the look of it — and he obtained the result, with the help of a dynastic marriage into Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty of illustrious memory.

Since the Zborowskis had been big supporters of Stephen Bathory, Samuel returned as well, justifiably anticipating not merely pardon but elevation. To their dismay, they found themselves frozen out … and they responded with a series of insubordinations: plotting with the invading Russians, fomenting an unwanted diplomatic crisis with freelance attacks upon the Ottomans.

In the end, our man was undone by the same violent highhandedness that had forced his flight from Poland in the first place. Zborowski’s ill treatment of the young lute composer Wojciech Dlugoraj left the latter so desperate to escape Zborowski’s court that Dlugoraj stole some treasonable correspondence between Zborowski and his brothers and sent it to Zborowski’s enemy, Jan Zamoyski.‡ Those letters indicated that Samuel was contemplating assassinating the king.

Zamoyski found, and Bathory agreed, that the most expedient way to remove this troublemaker was simply to execute the 1574 sentence, from that bludgeoned castellan. The new regime had conveniently never bothered to lift it.

Although legal, Zborowski’s execution was obviously quite irregular and it outraged many in the nobility who perceived it a potential precedent for absolutism; recrimination over the action tore apart the 1585 meeting of the Polish Sejm. (In later years, this body formally endorsed Zamoyski’s actions but only after enacting a Lex Zborowski to better govern the handling of treason cases.)


Jan Matejko‘s 19th century rendering of Samuel Zborowski en route to beheading.

* At the time an important fortified city, Wojnice or Wojnicz was ravaged by a Swedish army in the 1650s and never recovered; today, it’s a town — having only re-promoted itself from “village” status in 2007 — of fewer than four thousand souls.

** This youngest son in the French royal house had seemed to the Valois safe to make available on the transfer market for foreign sovereigns. However, his brothers’ uncanny talent for dying young without issue very soon required his return to his homeland to take up the throne of France as Henri III during that country’s Wars of Religion. There Henri proved not to be exempt from the family curse: we have previously explored the circumstances of his own violent death — which was also the end of the House of Valois — during the War of the Three Henrys.

† A legendary surname in the annals of horror. This Stephen Bathory was the maternal uncle of the infamous “Countess of Blood”.

‡ The gambit did indeed get the scared lutenist free from Zborowski’s control, but he had to flee to Germany for fear of Zborowski kinsmen’s vengeance.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1611: Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countess of Blood

9 comments January 7th, 2011 Headsman

Four hundred years ago today, on Jan. 7 1611, three servants of the legendary “Countess of Blood” Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet, in the Hungarian) were tried, convicted, and immediately put to death for the noblewoman’s stupendous career of homicide.

This date’s entry is occasioned by the deaths of three subalterns — manservant Janos Ujvary, beheaded; and female attendants Ilona Jo and Dorottya Szentes, fingers ripped off and burned — but the headline attraction is their employer, who was never tried or condemned.

Not, at least, juridically. Posterity’s condemnation of this classic vampire inspiration has been little short of … voluptuous.


A 1971 film based on Elizabeth Bathory’s exploits. Horror star Ingrid Pitt later reprised her “role” with guest vocals on a Cradle of Filth concept album devoted to the Countess, Cruelty and the Beast.

Bathory was rarefied Hungarian nobility, the niece of the King of Poland, which is also the biography of countless aristocrats you’ve never heard of.

The world remembers Elizabeth Bathory because she exploited her rank to butcher hundreds of peasant girls, allegedly to bathe in their rejuvenating blood.

On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in [Elizabeth Bathory’s] head-dress, and as a recompence for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spirted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful — whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.

Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.


McFarlane Toys figurine of Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathory from its grotesque “Faces of Madness” series.

These scrub-ups are what the Countess of Blood is best remembered for, but however striking the visual, it’s an atrocity that actually doesn’t turn up in the trial records.

But she could hardly complain of the embroidery, having given her interlocutors so much material.

Elizabeth Bathory is supposed to be responsible for over six hundred deaths, starting while her husband was away on campaign, and then carrying on into a wholesale operation after he died. When she and her servants were finally busted at Csejte Castle the end of 1610, their captors found a dead girl, a dying girl, and several others imprisoned and awaiting that fate.


Elizabeth Bathory, a sexually charged 1893 painting by Hungarian impressionist Istvan Csok depicting one of the countess’s victims being drenched in icy water for death by exposure.

So although the confessions the servants made this date to seal their own fates were undoubtedly torture-adduced, the documentary record turns out to be amazingly strong for such a fantastical spree. Hungarian King Matthias II convened a tribunal that examined 200 to 300 witnesses.

One can postulate that the woman ran afoul of a patriarchal culture affronted by her exercise of power or that she became a parable for the “unnatural” lust of a middle-aged woman … but so far as we are left to understand, Erzsebet Bathory really did lure young girls to her castle, and then inflict (pdf) a Nazi doctors’ litany of sadism on them … like jabbing them with needles to drain out their blood. She even kept a log of the victims in her own hand.

So, locals disappearing into the creepy castle, never to be seen again, or possibly to turn up pallid and dead. (Disposing of all those corpses became a logistical problem for the creepy castle.) No surprise to find it associated with the vampire legend.*

And no surprise that the tale became magnified, twisted, and reconfigured by popular culture.

In 1817, as accounts of the testimonies about the alleged murders and sadistic tortures were published for the first time, national and international headlines sensationalized the already misconceived story. From that on [sic], the literary countess took on a life of her own: the Grimm brothers wrote a short story about her, the romantic German writer, Johann Ludwig Tieck (1774 – 1853), cast her as a Gothic femme fatale, Swanhilda, in his short story Wake Not the Dead. It is alleged that Sheridan le Fanu shaped his female vampire Carmilla on Elizabeth Bathory. If we can believe some etymological explanation the compound English word blood-bath is of mid-nineteenth century origin possibly connected to the bloody countess’ rising popularity in England.

-László Kürti, “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous — The Elizabeth Bathory Story,” Croatian Journal Of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Jan. 2009

A few books about Erzsebet Bathory

To say nothing of the death porn (link not safe for work).

The noblewoman never faced an executioner herself, owing to her rank; she was shut up in the castle.

* As it turns out, a Bathory ancestor actually fought with the “original Dracula” Vlad the Impaler in the 15th century.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Hungary,Infamous,Language,Murder,Myths,Nobility,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Serial Killers,Torture,Women

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