The legend of Count Estruch is thought to be one of the first European vampire stories, if not the earliest that we know of. The story takes place in the 12th century, during the time of Muslim rule in southern Spain. King Alfonso II, the king of Aragon in northeast Spain, was worried that pagans in the region of Emporda might ally themselves with his Muslim enemies. The King decided to send a war hero, a count named Guifredo Estruch, to christianize the region.
After being placed in local Llers Castle, Count Estruch set to work christianizing the pagans. Unfortunately, the Count was a very vicious man, and his method of “converting” consisted of murder, torture, and witch-hunts. The Count went on his blood-spree for quite some time, until he was assassinated by one of his own soldiers in 1173. The man, a captain named Benach, poisoned the Count and his daughter Nuria. Benach had wanted to marry Nuria, so his motivation presumably came from rejection, not any disgust with the Count’s hobby of killing pagans.
Still, others say that the Count died after being cursed by one of the many witches he ordered burnt to death. The day after the witch’s execution, Count Estruch found himself so sick that he couldn’t even get out of bed. He died a short time later, and his body went missing from the castle before it could be buried.
After the Count’s death, dead cows started turning up around the castle, mutilated and drained of all their blood. The castle’s servants reported seeing their old master walking through the halls and rooms again, looking just as he was when he was a young man. Count Estruch had come back from the dead, and he haunted the people of Emporda, drinking their blood and stealing their women.
Whenever these abducted women would return, they’d come back pregnant. Nine months would pass, just like in a normal pregnancy, but their children would always come out as hideous monsters. These babies would never survive long, and most of them were born stillborn. Eventually, depending on who you ask, either an old nun or a Jewish hermit put an end to the Count’s terror by finding his hidden coffin and driving a stake into the vampire’s heart.
While Count Estruch might have died there, his story was passed down for hundreds of years among the people. Peasants warned their children of the Count, and women who delivered stillborn babies were said to have been seduced by him. Count Estruch terrified generations, but we can’t be sure how exactly true the story is. Nobody knows whether the Count was a real person, or whether he was just a legend. Unfortunately, Llers Castle was reduced to ruins during the Spanish Civil War, and all the historical documents about Count Estruch were destroyed or lost.
Some suggest that the story of Count Estruch might have originated with the persecution of the Cathars, a group of Gnostic Christians that were popular in southern France during medieval times. The Cathars were considered heretics, and were even burnt at the stake and massacred. Some of the Cathars fled for Spain, and “Estruch” might have come from the Occitan surname “Astruc.” I suppose we’ll never know for certain, but you’ve got to wonder how this story came from Spain of all places, a country not particularly known for its vampire lore.