At this point, science and legend seem to be converging: There may have been a real-life Snow White figure, and her name was Margaretha. Born in 1533 at Castle Altenwildungen, she was the daughter of Count Philipp IV of Waldeck (1493–1574), and actually experienced a fate surprisingly similar to that of the fairy tale princess. The facts are: She was considered extraordinarily pretty. She died in 1554 at 21 years of age under mysterious circumstances, beyond the Seven Mountains in faraway Brussels, the capital of Brabant Province at the time. And she had a stepmother, Katharina von Hatzfeld, who apparently had reason to persecute her with jealous vehemence.
Margaretha was the sixth of 11 children from the count’s first marriage with Margarethe von Ostfriesland and was sent to the Habsburg court in Brussels at the young age of 16 for two reasons. At the time, Maria of Bohemia and Hungary, sister of Emperor Charles V, ruled there as proconsul of the Spanish Netherlands. As an honorable maiden, the young woman from Wildungen was sent on the one hand to look out for a worthy husband, and on the other hand to help effect the release of Hessian Landgrave Philipp (1504–1567, later called the “The Magnanimous”) from his imprisonment by the emperor. Both Philipps – Margaretha’s father and the landgrave – had early on given strong support to the Reformation in their home territories. Back in 1521, Philipp von Waldeck had actually met Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms and became an instant and fervent follower. Philipp von Hessen later established the first Protestant university in Marburg, in 1527, but 20 years later, after being defeated in the Schmalkaldic War, he was incarcerated by the Catholic emperor. Enter Snow White.
Death by arsenic?
There are conflicting theories. Did Margaretha’s beauty perhaps beguile the wrong men? Crown Prince Philipp II of Spain (1527–1598) is said to have been close to her, but he was to marry his much older aunt, Mary I of England (1516–1558), who had sentenced hundreds of Protestants to be burned at the stake as heretics, hence her ignominious nickname among the common people: “Bloody Mary”. Did Margaretha need to be “removed” for reasons of dynastic integrity? Or was it jealousy? Lamoral, Count of Egmont (1522–1568) in the Netherlands, was also madly in love with the young beauty and even gifted her a portrait of himself. Or was it really the actions of her stepmother whose marriage would remain childless? The chronicles tell of arsenic, and toxicologists would agree that the slow-working poison may have been the explanation for the shaky handwriting in Margaretha’s will. That document, notarized with seven seals, is in the Hessian Office of Public Records in Marburg, file 115.1, number 251. Chills may run down your spine when you read it!
Dwarves in the mines
As is often the case in science, every theory has its rivals. In the now Bavarian town of Lohr on the Spessart, 200 km (130 mi) south of Bad Wildungen, there is a mirror that apparently once whispered to the chatelaine Claudia von Venningen that her stepdaughter Maria Sophia von Erthal was much more beautiful than she. And the “Snow White Walking Trail” leads from the castle to Bieber by Gelnhausen in Hesse, where dwarves once worked in the mines. Today, the legend that was collected, distilled and composed by the Grimms has been published in 75 versions around the world. Snow White is a global household name. The castle in Lohr now houses the Spessart Museum, where the masterpiece of Electoral Mainz mirror manufacturing is still on display for all to see. The mirror, however, is quiet on the subject.
The story of the dwarves, on the other hand, is authentic. In Bergfreiheit, a rather rural part of Bad Wildungen, the table-high copper mine shafts could only be accessed by very small people back in the 16th century. Typically they were children, but that was normal in many mines at that time. After years of crawling around in the damp, cold, cancerous, radon-gas-filled darkness they came into the light of day in a pretty withered state. Robbed of their childhoods, they came out deformed, pale and aged well beyond their years. Mining has greatly shaped the history of the town, and one sees this in the Snow White House. Some of the houses in Bergfreiheit still look as if the seven dwarves could come home at any minute, sit down at the table in front of their plates and …
The small town of Bad Wildungen is a true gem. High above the village, where the old Altenwildungen once stood, is the baroque castle Friedrichstein with its collections of primarily hunting and military history. The only remains of the original castle, completely rebuilt in 1714, is the tower. The magnificent winged altar in the Protestant church is a masterpiece by late-Gothic painter Conrad von Soest. The spa gardens are Europe’s largest and the city features an unusual contrast of half-timbered houses and magnificent buildings from Bad Wildungen’s heyday as a spa resort. Bad Wildungen was also important for Charlotte Grimm, who spent a lot of time here with brother Ludwig Emil trying to battle ill health. During those stints they stayed with relatives of the Wild family from Kassel. Jacob and Wilhelm also visited regularly. And so things came full circle once again … The fairy tale forest is at your doorstep. Kellerwald-Edersee National Park is a massive birch forest covering 57 sq km (22 sq mi) and featuring creeks, glades and bizarre rock formations, a paradise for hikers and a natural wonder for children and researchers. The national park administration is in Bad Wildungen. Since June 25, 2011, the area has been a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site and in the middle of it all is Waldeck Castle, ancestral seat of the Waldecks, high above Lake Eder and rising out of a sea of birch trees. An ideal fairy tale landscape.