The real-life people behind 6 famous fairy tales

Snow White might have been based on one of two potential German women. Disney
  • Fairy tales are stories that have been passed down through generations, many of which have inspired some of the most beloved movies of all time.
  • However, some of these magical stories might not have come out of nowhere – many have some relation to real historical figures and events.
  • Rapunzel’s story can be traced back to the tragic tale of Saint Barbara.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

You may think you know the story of Rapunzel, but did you know that she’s partly based on martyr Saint Barbara? Or that the Beast of “Beauty and the Beast” actually existed?

These six beloved fairy tales and nursery rhymes all have something in common: Their roots come from real people, places, and objects.

Keep scrolling to learn more about the facts behind your favourite fiction.

The story of “Beauty and the Beast” was probably based on the tragic life of Petrus Gonsalvus.

‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Disney

According to Refinery 29, in 1537 there was a young boy named Petrus Gonsalvus who was regularly called a beast. Reportedly, this was most likely because he had a case of hypertrichosis, a condition that causes a person to grow hair all over their body, often referred to as “werewolf syndrome.”

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Gonsalvus was just 10 years old when he was taken from his native country, Spain, and sent to the King of France to operate as a type of court jester. “King Henry decided to take on Gonsalvus as his little pet project,” Refinery 29 wrote, “the king groomed Gonsalvus to be a nobleman.”

Eventually, King Henry’s wife, Catherine de’Medici (who took over after the king died), found Gonsalvus a wife – coincidentally another woman named Catherine. Though it took some getting used to, the beauty fell in love with “the beast.” They were married for 40 years and had seven kids together, four of which also had hypertrichosis.

There are theories that Snow White is based on one of two real women: Margaretha von Waldeck or Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal.

‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Disney

According to Mental Floss, von Waldeck lived in the German town of Waldeck (of course) during the mid-1500s. When she was 17, she left her father’s home, perhaps due to friction with her new stepmother, and moved to Brussels. There, she attracted the eye of Spain’s king, Philip II.

Soon thereafter she fell ill, and many believe she was poisoned, as the couple had their fair share of detractors who believed that marrying a coalminer’s daughter was beneath a king. Unfortunately, there was no true love’s kiss to cure her, and she died at 21.

The other potential inspiration? Deep breath: Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal. The young woman also lived in Germany, according to the Independent, in a town called Lohr am Main. Born in 1729, she was the daughter of Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, whom she lived in a castle with. Turns out, her father owned a mirror factory. In fact, the castle they lived in is now open to the public as a museum, and inside one of the rooms is a “talking mirror,” aka a toy that the prince gave to his second wife: the young baroness’ stepmother, whom she is said to have had a rocky relationship with.

While the Pied Piper may not have been real, scholars generally agree that something in the German town of Hamelin happened that may have inspired the tale.

‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ Culture Club/Getty Images

According to the fairytale, in 1284, the German town of Hamelin was experiencing a rat infestation, and thus hired a man to take care of it, the Pied Piper. However, the town double-crossed him and refused to pay him, so in retaliation he played his pipe and kidnapped all the kids in town, never to be seen again.

The first instance of this story is said to have been on a now-destroyed stained glass window from around 1300 AD. The oldest written account that survived simply states that “In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colours, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.”

Clearly, the story has changed and evolved over time, but there are a few theories that try to explain what actually happened. Some think the kids died of the plague, and that the Pied Piper was the personification of death, others that the kids were sent away by their parents due to their extreme poverty, while others again posit that the children were part of the “Children’s Crusade,” a doomed, child-led mission aimed at converting Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity.

As Mental Floss wrote, “nearly all of the theorists seem to agree that the Pied Piper and his rat-whispering abilities were the personification of a force that those left behind in Hamelin could not control.”

“Frozen” is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Snow Queen,” and Elsa’s icy powers can be traced back to Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.

‘Frozen.’ Disney

“Frozen” is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Snow Queen.” The main similarity? There’s a queen with winter/snow/ice powers.

But the fairy tale might not have just dropped into Andersen’s imagination. Rumour has it, the acclaimed Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind was the inspiration for the titular queen. Allegedly, after Lind rejected Andersen’s romantic pursuits, he turned her into the Snow Queen, a woman with a heart made of ice.

The story of “Rapunzel” is based on the tragic life of Saint Barbara, who is thought to have lived in the third century.

‘Tangled.’ Disney

The true story of Rapunzel is thought to be about a young woman in Italy named Barbara who was so beautiful that her father locked her away in a tower so no men could get to her. Though many asked for her hand in marriage, Barbara dedicated herself to God and a newfound Christian faith, and refused them all.

Her father, however, was a pagan, and not pleased about her Christianity. The story goes that when she prayed for help when he drew his sword on her, God created a hole in the tower for her to escape. Unfortunately, she was soon discovered, and eventually beheaded by her father – who was then struck by lightning.

Little Jack Horner, who stars in a nursery rhyme, was a real steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury in the 1500s.

‘Little Jack Horner.’ Culture Club/Getty Images

In the nursery rhyme, a little boy named Jack finds a plum inside a Christmas pie. Metaphorically speaking, it’s about opportunism and greed – but some historians believe it originally had a much more literal meaning.

According to NPR, “Jack” Horner was actually Thomas Horner, a steward to the Abbot of Glastonbury. At the time, King Henry VIII was taking property from the church for himself, so Horner was sent to bribe the king with deeds to other plots of land, so the church could keep their own land. And where were these deeds? Baked inside a pie, to conceal them (that said, the pie could have simply been a metaphor for concealment, not an actual pie).

Apparently, Horner decided to take a deed for himself, sticking his thumb into the pie to grab one for Mells Manor, a home in Somerset. The Horners went on to live there for hundreds of years.