“Life is the game that must be played, this truth at least, good friends, we know; so live and laugh, nor be dismayed as one by one the phantoms go” – Arthur Rubinstein

So you say you’re a Hohenzollern?

Nobody even tries to establish an imperial dynasty anymore.  It takes too much work and patience, cultivating the right aristocratic contacts, marrying upwards, and generally planning for a future you will never see.  And have you noticed the cost of castles?  When you’re down and out in 11th Century Swabia, there is nowhere to go but up, an ethos successfully embraced by the Counts of Zollern, the founding fathers of the House of Hohenzollern, a dynasty whose kin would ultimately boast titles such as Margrave of Brandenburg, Duke of Prussia, Burgrave of Nuremberg, Margrave of Bayreuth, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Prince of Neuchâtel, Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, King of Romania, and King of Prussia, culminating in the august figure of Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor until his abdication in 1918.  Basically, the Hohenzollerns have been heavy-hitters in European politics since roughly 1061 A.D.  And like any other self-respecting aristocratic family, the Hohenzollerns have a family specter that warns them of impending doom across the generations – the Weisse Frau, the White Lady.

Opinions vary as to who the White Lady of the Hohenzollerns actually was before her second career as a phantom harbinger of death.  The first Count of Zollern in the historical record was Burkhard I (d. 1091).  The second was Frederick I, who married Udihild, daughter of Count Egino of Urach.  Now, Frederick had an overpowering desire to bash heathen heads on the Crusades and headed off for the Holy Land.  Frederick hadn’t really thought this whole land war in Asia thing through, and in short order lost his companions, horses, and baggage, finding himself in quite a distressing situation in the middle of the desert.  Satan can smell desperation, so he obligingly materialized and offered Count Frederick a deal that was too good to be true (the devil can be quite the gentleman in his own way).  With no strings attached, his Satanic majesty, probably banking on the involvement of the House of Hohenzollern in World War One, provided the Count with a grey mare that could travel over land and sea, only stipulating that when he returned to Swabia and unsaddled the creature, that he turn her head to the west.  After knocking some pagan keister in the interim, Count Frederick decided it was time to scamper on back home to his beloved Udilhild.

Desiring to see Hohenzollern again and his wife and bairns, rode over land and sea, nor stayed till he reached his castle in Swabia, when he leaped from the saddle and rushed to the arms of his dear Udilhild. Presently the groom came in with a blank face to announce that the horse had disappeared like a puff of smoke. The Count knew that he had forgotten to bid the groom turn the head to the west as he unsaddled and unbridled, and said composedly, “Well, it can’t be helped; it is as God willed.” A few hours later a White Lady appeared at the castle gate and demanded admittance. When brought into the Count’s presence she said that she had been transformed into the form of a steed for some little trifle of a fault in her past history, the particulars of which she need not specify; but that now she was released through the Count having taken the loss of his grey mare so composedly, without swearing. “Mademoiselle,” said the Count, pointing to his Countess, “I have a grey mare of my own.” Then the White Lady vanished (Baring-Gould, 1911, p237-238).

Now the Countess probably didn’t take kindly to being called a “grey mare”, but the feeling among some is that this is where the White Lady attached herself to the Hohenzollern family.  Other scholars place the arrival of the White Lady at a much later date, associating her with Dorothea of Brandenburg.

But the White Lady? Dorothea of Brandenburg, wife of the Great Elector, attended the funeral of her husband in 1688. She was dressed all in white, her face covered with a white veil, her hands in a white muff. Whence comes the superstition of the Hohenzollerns that the appearance of a woman in white means death and disaster. Often, so they say, the White Lady has been seen (Fox, 1918, xii).

The White Lady has picked up a few other identities over the years.  There is of course the possibility that there is more than one Hohenzollern “White Lady”.  Agnes of Orlamonde is considered a prime candidate in the insane measures she took to try and wed a Hohenzollern Burgrave of Nuremberg, as is Bertha Von Rosenberg.

Agnes of Orlamonde killed her two children in the year 1300 that she might marry Albert of Nuremberg.  He refused to marry her because he said that ‘four eyes separated them’.  He meant the eyes of his parents, but she thought he spoke of her children and put them out of the way (New York Times, December 20, 1914).

Seems like a good reason for a haunting, although a double homicide based on a misunderstanding is still homicide (rumor is she thrust a hairpin into their brains).  Apparently they were a little lax on nobility executing their own children at the time, and allowed her to become abbess of a Cistercian convent at Himmelsthron, where she died in 1351.  Note that the standard Cistercian nun uniform is white.

Bertha of Rosenberg’s circumstances are a little less clear.  In some instances, tradition holds that in the 15th Century she was the widow of the Margrave of Brandenberg and angling to marry a local prince, she killed her children just like Agnes of Orlamonde, thereby dooming herself to wander the earth forever.  Other accounts simply credit her with an unfulfilling marriage.

Bertha, was married, in the year 1449, to John Von Lichtenstein, a rich baronet in Steyermark. But as her husband led a vicious and profligate life, Bertha was very unhappy. Her marriage proved a constant source of grief to her, and she was obliged to seek relief from her relatives. Hence it was that she could never forget the insults and indescribable distress she had endured, and thus left the world under the influence of this bitter passion. At length this unhappy marriage was dissolved by the death of her husband, and she removed to her brother, Henry IV. The latter began to reign in the year 1451, and died, without issue, in 1457 (Jung-Stilling, 1851, p222-223).

At any rate, while the identity of the White Lady seems to shift from generation to generation, as long as there has been a House of Hohenzollern, they seem to be stalked by this particular apparition, who appears to warn when someone’s death is imminent.  But nothing is ever simple.  Visitations from the White Lady in association with the death of a Hohenzollern are apparently as common as savvy folks using the story of the White Lady as a cover for covert or nefarious dealing with the Hohenzollerns.

In 1486, Albert Achilles, the third son of Frederick, the first Hohenzollern Elector of Brandenburg reported seeing the White Lady shortly before his death.  After 1488 there were numerous reports of her loitering about Castle Plassenburg (a Hohenzollern fortress and residence from which they administered their Franconian territories until about 1604).  Although, it was widely believed that the rash of 1488 sightings was actually the very live Fraulein von Rosenau, taking advantage of the folklore to visit Margrave Frederick I, who was imprisoned at Plassenburg. Presumably, Fraulein Rosenau’s night-time dalliances were more of the conjugal nature, but others had insidious intentions.

Albert Alcibiades, Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (1522-1557), known for his belligerence, extortion, and indiscriminate plunder and thusly nicknamed “Albert the Warlike”, wasn’t afraid of no ghosts in 1540 when he occupied Caste Plassenburg.  When the White Lady showed up, he went all gangster.

In 1540 she appeared again, and this time to Albert the Warlike. But this undaunted Prince, when she appeared, rushed at her, caught her by the throat, and flung her down the stone staircase. When the servants came in with lights, his Chancellor Strass was found at the bottom with a broken neck, and in his possession a dagger and papers betraying a plot to assassinate the Prince (Baring-Gould, 1911, p249).

One would think such rough treatment of the White Lady might have put off others from attempting such trickery, but apparently a scullion boy and his friends were motivated to punk the Plassenburg servants, and dressed up as the White Lady in 1544, generating a panic before the prank was discovered, and they were severely reprimanded.  Being “severely reprimanded” in 16th Century Germany undoubtedly involved a great deal of pain and no small amount of bloodletting.

During the Second Margrave War (1552-155), a little internal squabble in the Holy Roman Empire, basically involving the local princes raiding each other’s cities, Imperial troops besieged and wrecked Plassenburg.  Margrave George Frederick of Brandenburg set about rebuilding the fortress much to the financial detriment of the region.

In the Margraviate of Ansbach-Bayreuth in 1557 the debts amounted to three times as much as the revenue. And yet in the same year the Margrave George Frederick formed the plan of erecting the new Plassenburg; he spent on this building a sum larger than the whole revenue of the land could refund in four years. In 1560 the debts of the small principality had risen to 2,500,000 gulden; the court household consisted at the time of nearly 200 persons. The taxes levied on the people were so unbearable that in 1594 the town questioned whether they would not be better off under the Turks (Janssen, 1896, p321).

The White Lady promptly put in an appearance, reportedly making a terrible ruckus, slamming doors, rattling chains, assaulting maids, and strangling the cook.  George Fredrick hastened to find lodgings elsewhere and never returned.  Even ghosts disapprove of financial mismanagement.  By the close of the 16th Century, the White Lady seems to have taken a keener interest in when a Hohenzollern was about to die.  “She appeared in 1589, eight days before the death of the Prince Elector John George, and again in 1619, twenty-three days before the death of Sigismund” (Lombroso, 1909, p286).

The year 1667 was one of tragic significance in the House of Hohenzollern. The wife of the great Elector, Louise Henriette, was lying ill in the full bloom of her age. All at once a panic spread through Berlin. The sick lady had seen the White Lady sitting at her writing-desk. The Electress was generally loved, and everyone who believed the report felt confident that her end was near. A few days later the bells were tolling to announce that she was no more. The year before that, 1666, the spectre had been seen by the Master of the Horse, Von Burgsdorf; then he used some coarse expression towards the apparition, whereupon he was flung to the ground, but without material injury. At one and the same hour in 1670 the White Lady appeared in Berlin to the Margrave Christian Ernest, and to his wife Erdmuth Sophia, at Baireuth. In 1688 she appeared before the death of the Great Elector. In 1713 King Frederick I declared that he had been forewarned by her of approaching decease. In 1677 the Margrave Erdmann Philip of Brandenburg had quitted the Austrian service. One day he saw the White Lady sitting in his armchair as he entered his chamber in Baireuth. He started back, and left the room in terror. Next day he mounted his horse in the castle court, when the brute reared and plunged, as though seeing something that alarmed it, and threw the Prince. He picked himself up and, unassisted, mounted to his chamber, but in two hours was dead (Baring-Gould, 1911, p249-250).

Now, if you’re a distinguished member of the House of Hohenzollern, you really prefer to avoid the White Lady, since her presence inevitably spells your doom.  The list of her visitations is fairly impressive and she is credited with heralding the 1810 death Duchess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Queen Consort of Prussia), the 1861 death of Prussian King Frederick William IV, not to mention a host of lesser Hohenzollern personages.  The Hohenzollerns had lorded over the Principality of Kulmbach-Bayreuth since about 1260 A.D., and Hohenzollerns eventually moved their primary palace from Plassenburg to Bayreuth in the 15th Century.  As one can see, the White Lady tagged along.  In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte got around to defeating Prussia, and reduced Bayreuth to a heavily-taxed province of the French Empire.  In 1812, Bonaparte reportedly spent a night in the former Bayreuth Palace of the Hohenzollerns, and was so disturbed by experiences that night that he left the next day and referred to it as le maudit chateau (“The cursed castle”).

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go out and work towards your dream of founding your own imperial dynasty, should the spirit move you.  Just be aware that it usually entails an entourage that includes a phantom predictor of your demise.  When your personal goals include world domination, this is probably of little consequence.  Plus the trade-offs are pretty good — palaces, fabulous riches, beautiful or handsome consorts, and all the assorted perks of lordship or ladyship.  Given the positives, specters aside, one might echo dramatist Pierre Corneille, who said, “I agree to, or rather aspire to, my doom”.

Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. The Land of Teck and Its Neighborhood. London: John Lane, 1911.
Fox, Edward Lyell, b. 1887. Wilhelm Hohenzollern & Co. London: Hurst and Blackett, ltd., 1918.
“Ghost Traditions of Hohenzollerns”.  New York Times.  December 20, 1914.
Janssen, Johannes, 1829-1891. History of the German People At the Close of the Middle Ages. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., Ltd., 1896.
Jung-Stilling, Johann Heinrich, 1740-1817. Theory of Pneumatology: In Reply to the Question, What Ought to Be Believed Or Disbelieved Concerning Presentiments, Visions, And Apparitions, According to Nature, Reason, And Scripture. 1st American ed. New York: J. S. Redfield, 1851.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death–What?: Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1909.