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The Story Of Margaretha Von Waldeck, The Real Snow White

Medieval History | June 27, 2021

Priscilla Presley portrayed the evil stepmother, complete with magic mirror and poisoned apple, in 'Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs' at The Savoy Hotel London in 2012. (Danny Martindale/Getty Images)

The Brothers Grimm may have been master storytellers, but like many of today's fantasy writers, evidence suggests that they borrowed from history. Specifically, their tale of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs appears to have been based on a real royal beauty.

Margaretha Von Waldeck

Margaretha von Waldeck was a German countess who was born in 1533 as the second daughter of Philip IV, Count of Waldeck-Wildungen, and his first wife. She was an exceptional beauty, with—you guessed it—fair skin and ruby lips but blonde rather than dark hair, as depicted in later versions of the story. When she was just four years old, her mother died, and shortly thereafter, Philip married the beautiful but vain and shallow Katharina von Harzfeld. According to stories, Katharina enjoyed admiring her own reflection so much that Philip gave her a large, ornate mirror as a wedding gift. Disappointingly, there's no evidence it talked.

Portrait of Katharina von Harzfeld. (National Museum in Warsaw/Wikimedia Commons)

Out Of A Fairy Tale

Katharina resented her new husband's children with his previous wife, especially the beautiful and beloved Margaretha, so when the girl was 16 years old, her father and stepmother sent her away to find a suitable husband at the royal court of Brussels, where she proved as popular as she was at home. She and the future King Philip II of Spain fell in love, but their relationship was troubled, as Spanish authorities hoped for a more political advantageous match. Katharina, too, resented the possibility that Margaretha may surpass her in matrimonial success as well as beauty.

Luckily for them, the 21-year-old countess fell ill and soon died in 1554 of a mysterious illness. It was widely speculated that she was poisoned, either by Spanish authorities or her stepmother. Historically, the former is the most likely suspect, but the "evil stepmother" made for a better fairy tale.

Poisoned apple in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. (The Walt Disney Company)

Poetic License

While Margaretha von Waldeck's story makes no mention of a tainted apple, a man in her German hometown was arrested and tried for giving apples injected with poison to local children as revenge for stealing from his orchard several decades later. Additionally, the region of Germany where she was from was rich in copper deposits. Children who worked in the cramped mines often never grew to their full height, and their spines became permanently curved, leading townspeople to refer to them as "dwarfs." Waldeck's family owned seven of them (mines, not "dwarfs").

Tags: disney | Fairy Tales | medieval europe

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.