The Legend of The White Lady

In medieval times, many royal families believed that they were God’s representatives on earth and that their special link with God, which became known as the divine right of kings, gave them special powers and privileges.  The divine right of kings theory could be considered in part responsible for the legend of la Dame Blanche, who was also known as the Weisse Frau and the White Lady.  She was a mysterious ghost who haunted the House of Hohenzollern and other ruling families for centuries.  Her appearances were a warning of a death in the royal family, a national disaster, or both.

According to the legend and eyewitness reports about her appearances, the ghost always wore a white dress and veil, the ancient color of royal mourning, as she silently strolled through the palaces of her victims.  The House of Wittelsbach vehemently disagreed with the common herd and said that the ghost always wore a black dress and veil when she walked to warn them of deaths and disasters.  Things went even further downhill from there in terms of consensus about her appearance.  Some said that the ghost didn’t have a face; some said that she had the face of a rotting corpse; and some said that she was a young and beautiful or an elderly and haggard woman.  Some said that her hair was black or white while others said that her veil covered her hair entirely.   Some said that she carried a gigantic bunch of keys or a broom and it was also claimed that she swept the floors of the rooms of her royal targets.  Others said that she wore a black or scarlet letter H on her chest and claimed that that letter stood for Hohenzollern.  It was also claimed that that letter had been written in blood or that there were other bloody symbols on her dress.  As time passed, several German ruling families who owned ancient portraits of unnamed women wearing white clothing proudly announced that they owned portraits of the White Lady, but none of those portraits were genuine.  Just as no one agreed about her appearance, no one was certain what the White Lady’s origin story was.

According to the most popular origin story, the widowed Countess Cunigunde von Orlamunde and Albert “The Handsome” von Hohenzollern fell in love in the thirteenth century, to the great displeasure of his parents.  Albert’s parents had the power to disinherit him and he didn’t want to work for a living, so he decided to break up with her.  Rather than be honest about what was going on, he cryptically told her that two sets of eyes were keeping them apart.  Cunigunde thought he was referring to her two children.  Some sources say that she was a widow and that her children had been fathered by her late husband, while other sources claimed that she and Albert had had two illegitimate children.  At any rate, in the misguided belief that it would please Albert, she poisoned her children, or stabbed them, or drove a golden pin through their skulls, or threw them out of a high window, or starved them to death.  When it was realized what she’d done and why she’d done it, it was sometimes said that Albert murdered her himself, sometimes by throwing her down an oubliette in a Hohenzollern castle, or that he turned her over to the authorities, who hanged her.  It was also claimed that she crawled on her hands and knees from Germany to Rome as penance for her sins and was sent to a convent, or founded a convent, and spent the rest of her life there.  For reasons that are unclear, long after her death, her vengeful spirit began punishing the Hohenzollerns by appearing whenever one of them was about to die and terrifying everyone in the process.  Alternatively, it was claimed that her penitent spirit compassionately warned the Hohenzollerns of their imminent deaths so that they could prepare themselves to face God’s judgment.  As the Hohenzollerns married into other ruling families, she began haunting those families too.  Many people researched this origin story and found problems with it but they were unable to come up with a better explanation for the haunting, so it still stands as the most popular origin story.

Another and far less popular origin story claimed that the White Lady was the ghost of Bertha, or Perchta, von Rosenburg.  Bertha was a Bohemian noblewoman who was connected to many ruling German families by blood and by marriage, including the Hohenzollerns.  The story goes that she bequeathed the income from some land in perpetuity to the poor.  When the Hohenzollerns acquired that land and disavowed her bequest, she began haunting them and, later, their descendants, out of revenge.  Others said that Rosenburg haunted families that were allied to hers but don’t give a reason for her motivations for the haunting.  Bertha was a battered woman who eventually returned to her own family after her abusive husband died.  She was known as a kind and charitable woman, not the kind of woman who would haunt anyone, much less an entire royal House.

The royals themselves never knew who the White Lady was or why she haunted them.  They were also never quite sure whether she was doing them a favor or punishing them by appearing.  They realized that she didn’t walk for every royal death but couldn’t figure out how she chose whose death to walk for and whose death to ignore. They did figure out that whenever she appeared, it could be up to a year, but no more, before her target died.  They also realized that she sometimes walked only once for more than one target.  As years passed, the appearances of the White Lady were documented in royal memoirs, in the diaries of courtiers, the memoirs of ambassadors and their wives, and even in newspapers.

The Hohenzollerns were the ghost’s favorite victims.  They would have loved to talk to her and find out why this was so but she only spoke on two occasions.  Her first speech came in 1598 when she told a horrified Hohenzollern, in Latin, that she’d come to judge the living and the dead and that her own fate was uncertain: “Veni, judicos vivos et mortuos: judicium mihi adhuc superest.”  On the second occasion that she spoke, her target, an unnamed princess, was doing paperwork when the ghost appeared.  The target thought that the White Lady was a servant and, without looking up from her papers, casually asked the ghost if she knew what time it was.  The White Lady politely told her: “It is ten o’clock, my dear.”  The target was startled by the unfamiliar voice and looked up just in time to see the White Lady vanish.  The poor princess died a few weeks later.

The White Lady’s last known walk took place in 1914, when she was said to have appeared in the Hofburg Palace in Vto Kaiser Wilhlem II.  She seems to have been trying to warn him about the outbreak of World War I, which would have devastating consequences for Germany and for its ruling families, almost all of whom fell from power as a result of the war.