Many fairytales are based on real persons and events. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm made it their mission to preserve Germanic folktales.
One of the most popular tales is for sure Snow White. But few people now that the story is based on a cause célèbre that took place in royal circles. It involves star-crossed lovers, child labor and death by poison.
The tantalizing tale starts with the beautiful Margaret, daughter of Count Philipp IV of Waldeck-Wildungen and Margareta of Eastern Friesland. Margareta was Philipp’s sixth child. Her mother died when she was four. Her father remarried. His second wife Catherine of Hatzfeld was a strict stepmother. She died childless a few years before Margaret herself passed away.
Margaret grew up in Freidrichstein Castle near the German town of Waldeck. Life for many was far from a fairytale exisance.
For one, the area was known for its mining activities. The Waldeck family owned gold, silver, copper, lead and iron mines. In the local copper mines, much of the work was done by small children. The brutal working conditions and malnutrition stunned their growth. They were referred to as “dwarfs”.
Furthermore, Margaret’s hometown was the hunting ground of a grisly murderer. A local man suspected some children of stealing from him, decided to take matters in his own hands by giving the little suspects poisoned apples.
By the time Margaret turned 16, her relationship with her stepmother had turned so bad, that her father decided to send her abroad. She went to live at the court of Brussels under the protection of Mary of Hungary. Needless to say, her father also sent her there to marry well.
The young beauty got the eye of two prominent suitors: the Spanish Crown Prince Philipp and the Dutch Count of Egmont. Both suitors showered her with gifts and attention. Margaret and Philipp became lovers and he contemplated marrying her. That created a major problem for Philipp’s father; Margaret was not eligible enough. Marriages at that time were alliances between families, not love matches. Margaret could not offer the future King of Spain Philipp II any interesting political ties or benefits.
Soon after, Margaret’s health started slowly to deteriorate as she mentioned in letters to her father. She also wrote her last will and testament in shaky handwriting resulting from tremors due to poisoning. When she passed away at the tender age of 21, rumor circulated that she had been poisoned by or someone who hated her or by the Spanish court to prevent Philipp from marrying her.
Her life might have been short, but her legend will live on for many more centuries to come!
(Image courtesy of the Royal Library in Bad Arolsen, Reference: Genealogica iconica seu picturata comitum in Waldeck, antehac in archivo asservata ca.1580)