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Legend of the White Lady

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 13.1, March 2003

It is said that every town in Franconia (the northern region of the state of Bavaria in Germany) has a legend of Die Weisse Frau - “The White Lady” - a ghostly figure that walks about at night terrifying people.

Perhaps it is she who is referred to in the local jokelore: As I was told by a guide during a midnight ghost tour of old Bamberg, a visitor approached a lady and asked if there were ghosts in the city; she replied, “I've lived here 500 years and never seen one.”

But the White Lady’s saga is most firmly attached to the old fortress high above the town of Kulmbach known as the Plassenburg. Originally built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was a residence for the Frankonian princes. It was torched by marauding Bavarians in 1554 but rebuilt and enlarged, beginning about 1560 (Plassenburg n.d.). Remarkable especially for its uniquely ornamented courtyard (figure 1: Courtyard of the Renaissance castle known as the Plassenburg, located in Franconia.), it has been termed “the most important Renaissance castle in the country” (Knight 2002, 208)

According to tradition, the White Lady was a woman named Kunigunde von Orlamonde (figure 2: The Countess Kunigunde, before her death), whose husband’s ancestors built the castle. After his death, she wished to marry a certain Albrecht von Hohenzollern, who said he would if there not “four eyes between us.” Supposedly his cryptic reference was to his parents, but Kunigunde thought he meant her two children. She determined to kill them, but so it would appear that they died naturally she used a needle - a “golden needle” in one of the many variant accounts - to pierce their skulls.

Afterward, punished by her conscience, she went to Rome where the Pope promised her forgiveness if she devoted her life to monastic work. Thereafter, she walked on her knees from the Plassenberg to the valley of Berneck to establish a monastery. In some versions, she fell dead in the attempt; in others, she did found a monastery, called “Heaven’s Crown,” but died in her early thirties. Ever since, she haunts all the castles of the dynasty of the Hohenzollern - even appearing at various family castles simultaneously! - and brings bad luck or foreshadows misfortune (Wachler 1931; Die sage 2002). (See figure 3: The Countess Kunigunde, after her death, when her malevolent specter began to haunt certain Franconian castles.)

As noted, there are many variant tales (one giving the protagonist’s name, for example, as Katharina von Orlamonde [Die sage 2002]), which is evidence of an oral tradition at work. One such version was told to me (with my colleague Martin Mahner translating) by our castle guide, who acknowledged the existence of the variants while noting that they contained many similarities, invariably including the motif (story element) of the potential marriage.

The castle’s gift shop attendant told us that the story was quite old, dating back to a time when people believed strongly in such things. Indeed, the first known mention of the saga of the White Lady is from 1486 at the old castle of Bayreuth, and the account is revealing. Apparently whenever the cavaliers wanted to get rid of the visiting ruler and his court, the White Lady tended to show up! Particularly gullible was a Count Friedrich, whom the castle inhabitants enjoyed fooling. Two years later, a ghost arrayed in a white gown began to roam the dark corridors and chambers of the Plassenburg. Actually, however, one of the court ladies had dressed up to play the role and others then began to imitate her (Wachler 1931).

One such role player (according to our guide) was a man who dressed in white and appeared at night to chase members of the Hohenzollern dynasty from the castle. There are two versions of what happened next: either he fell down the stairs, probably drunk, or he was pushed by the man he was attempting to scare; both versions agree that he broke his neck.

Of course we cannot be certain that these first accounts of ghostly hoaxing are true, but surely they have as much right to be credited as do later reports of the White Lady’s appearances. Besides, as skeptics well know, once the idea is planted that a ghost exists, the expectancy may cause it to take on (if you will) a life of its own. The power of suggestion - especially among certain imaginative people - is well attested and can easily be augmented by the ambiance of old castles (Nickell 2001).

Moreover, the historical record casts doubt on the very basis of the White Lady tale. The only historical person who could be the legendary child killer and penitent was the Countess Kunigunde who was married to Count Otto von Orlamonde-Plassenburg in 1321. Two years after his death (which occurred ca. 1341), she did enter a monastery. However it was named “Heaven’s Throne” not “Heaven’s Crown” and she had actually founded it earlier. She died there in 1385 - not in her thirties as the legend holds but in her seventies (Wachler 1931, 31-32).

Most significantly, her two-decades marriage to Count Otto had remained childless. If there was a proposed second marriage to Albrecht von Hohenzollern, its failure to transpire obviously had nothing to do with her nonexistent children nor, probably, with his parents. According to our guide at the Plassenburg, the real story is that Albrecht didn’t want her because she was impoverished. (By a treaty, another count inherited Otto’s estate and she was apparently left virtually penniless [Wachler 1931, 32].) For that reason, reportedly, she was placed in the monastery.

Given the facts in the case, it is not surprising that the Plassenburg’s gift shop attendant - in noting that she had not herself seen the specter and that there were no recent sightings - stated that she believed the White Lady was “only a legend.”

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.