The famous White Lady had a difficult life but returned after death to look after the Rožmberk family and property
Not all ghosts are frightful. One of the more benign Czech phantoms is Perchta z Rožmberka, whose spectre still visits castles across Bohemia.
Noble women who haunt their ancestral lands tend to appear dressed in white, and collectively are called White Ladies, and they usually saw their share of tragedies during their lives.
Perchta z Rožmberka, also called Perchta von Rosenberg, was definitely a real person, though how much of her tale is fact and how much is legend is hard to determine. She lived in the 15th century, when the plight of women, even those of noble birth, was often less than ideal.
The Lords of Rožmberk had vast holdings in South Bohemia, including castles or estates in Český Krumlov, Jindřichův Hradec, Rožmberk nad Vltavou, Telč and towns in between. The family symbol is the five-petaled red rose on a silver background, which can be seen throughout the region.
The tale starts in Český Krumlov, where Perchta was born around 1429 to Oldrich II. z Rožmberka and his wife Kateřina z Vartmberka. Oldrich’s long-range plan was to maneuver the family into a higher social standing among the noble rivals.
By all accounts, Perchta had a happy and privileged childhood in an idyllic setting. She was taught by clergy and could read. She also picked up skills typical of the time — embroidery, sewing and spinning, as well as culinary arts.
She set her eyes on a dashing local knight named Petr ze Šternberka (Peter von Sternberg), and intended to make him what at the time was considered an ideal wife.
But her dreams all came to a crashing end when her father decided to use her as a pawn to forge an alliance with the powerful Lichtenštein (Lichtenstein) family.
From the start it was not a happy match. Jan V. z Lichtenšteina was already a widower, and known for his sour disposition, while Perchta was just 20 years old. She begged her father not to make her a bartered bride, but instead to let her marry for love.
Oldrich would not be swayed. In fact, the deal was already done by the time Perchta found out about it. The wedding was a mere formality that, from the point of view of Oldrich and his future son-in-law Jan, didn’t really concern Perchta that much at all. They frankly had no idea why Perchta thought she would have any say in whom her husband would be.
After a joyless wedding, the situation just got worse as both sides bought a pig in a poke. Jan, it turns out, for all of his fancy airs was flat broke. His interest in Perchta extended no further than her promised dowry. Oldrich had expected money to eventually flow the other way as he was also caught a bit short, having two other daughters to provide dowries for (as well as three sons). Perchta’s dowry would be delayed.
Jan and Perchta, after the three-day wedding, went to live at Jan’s castle in Mikulov, and moved around a bit to other family estates before settling in Vienna.
Perchta found out she was not to be mistress of her own house. Jan’s mother and sister were in charge of domestic affairs, and had no intention of handing over the keys to the castle. Neither Jan, his mother nor his sister-in-law had any use for the unexpectedly penniless Perchta. So to at least get some value out of the deal they treated her like a servant.
To save money, they decided to feed her only kitchen scraps and leftovers. Her room wasn’t heated in winter, and instead of warm furs she was given worn out rags. Even though the dowry was eventually paid off — in installments — Perchta’s plight did not improve. Nor did her giving birth to a daughter, and later a son, gain her any benefits.
Perchta wrote to her father and other relatives begging to be rescued from her tragic situation, but divorce was all but unknown at the time, and neither side would want to bear the shame and scandal. Her father, her brother Jindřich and one-time suitor Petr ze Šternberka all promised to help somehow, but it never materialized. Instead, they sent her letters telling her to be patient and to look for the bright side of things.
Even when there were weddings or funerals of her relatives in the Rožmberk line, she was seldom allowed to attend and even when she could go she was kept under close watch by her husband’s servants in case she tried to run away.
Jan finally grew ill, and Perchta nursed him. As the end drew near, Jan begged Perchta for forgiveness. She refused to give it. Jan then cursed her before his death in 1473.
But her newfound freedom was short-lived. She died in Vienna during an epidemic three years later at the age of 46, and was buried in the Lichtenstein family tomb on the same city. Over time her grave has been lost — but that is not the end of her story.
Due to the curse, her spirit was trapped on Earth. Her spectre, all dressed in white, was seen at the castles in Rožmberk nad Vltavou and Český Krumlov, and other family estates. She is one of the most well-traveled ghosts, as most White Ladies stick to one castle, or even one room.
She has been particularly concerned with the welfare of the Rožmberk children, turning up to comfort them when the nanny has fallen asleep or otherwise neglected her duty. She also had knowledge of the future. If she turned up wearing black gloves, that meant someone in the family was soon to die, while white gloves meant good tidings. If she looked at someone and smiled it meant that person would be particularly favored.
Most of the nannies and other servants learned to accept her presence and stay out of her way. A nanny looking after young Petr Vok z Rožmberka, born in 1539, got into a dispute over child raising techniques. Perchta said some sharp words and told the nurse she would be leaving for good if she wasn’t appreciated. On her way out — through a solid wall — she turned and told the nurse to one day tell Petr that she at least tried to look after him.
When Petr Vok grew up and heard the tale, he is alleged to have tried to investigate where she went to, and found a treasure hidden in the wall where she vanished.
Her huff lasted a little over 400 years, as her next appearance was during World War II. There are several variations on this episode, but a popular one is that the castle at Rožmberk nad Vltavou in 1944 was being used for the League of German Girls, a part of the Nazi youth movement.
Two of the young women were hanging long red banners with swastikas in white circles from the tower of the castle. Perchta’s ghost showed up and angrily pointed an accusing finger at them. In fear, the women dropped the banners. Several other attempts to unfurl the banners were also unsuccessful. The young women then all suffered from temporary bouts of insanity.
Investigators were called in to examine what looked like group insubordination, but they didn’t want to report back to Berlin with a ghost story told by seemingly hysterical girls, so the matter was quietly dropped.
The White Lady was seen again during the Rožmberk nad Vltavou castle renovations in the late 1990s, apparently curious about the changes.
She has also appeared in Český Krumlov a few times, unhappy with the noise and appearance of some tourists. She even shouted from a window, telling people to turn a loud portable radio off. She hasn’t been seen since people switched to individual portable music players with ear buds. Or at least nobody heard her shouting.
There are several paintings of her in the various family castles, but they were most likely made after her death as they all feature her in her ghostly white outfit. The one in Rožmberk nad Vltavou has her pointing at an inscription in a magic circle on the ground in Enochian writing, the language of the angels touted by roving alchemists Edward Kelley and John Dee at the end of the 16th century.
Whomever deciphers the text will free her from her curse and also receive some sort of Rožmberk treasure. Someone claimed to have broken the code in 2010. He says the message recounts that Petr ze Šternberka was her true love, and then there are some significant dates and the number of years of her unhappy marriage. No word on whether he got the treasure.
Dozens of Perchta z Rožmberka’s pleading letters to her relatives still exist, and are in an old form of the Czech language — it is not clear if she also spoke German. The letters are in an archive in Třeboň, and they confirm the years of abuse and mistreatment that Perchta faced. Some of the letters were displayed in the Sternberg Palace of the National Gallery in Prague in 2018.
A surprising amount of information can’t be traced. She apparently had two children, a girl named Alžběta z Lichtenšteina and a boy whose name is uncertain. What happened to them isn’t clear, but some sources say she outlived them both.
Jan V. z Lichtenšteina — V. is for the fifth — is also an enigma, and not even the date of his birth is certain, though he seems to have been older than Perchta as he already had a previous wife.
Czech historian Petr Hořejš points out that Perchta in German is Berta, the name of a figure in Central European folk tales who unexpectedly appears in white robes to right injustices and punish wrongdoers. The ghost tales are first mentioned in print in the 17th century, but seem to have already been well-established in oral tradition by that time.
Petr Vok was one of the last major figures in the Rožmberk family, and after him the fortunes of the clan went into a steep decline.
The Rožmberk family by the time of Emperor Rudolf II in the late 1500s was heavily interested in alchemy and the occult, and would get into bidding wars to attract the services of promising practitioners such as Edward Kelley and John Dee.
The town of Český Krumlov is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the state-owned chateau and castle is one of its main attractions. There are several tours of the complex, including one with its unique Baroque theatre, one with its masquerade hall and gilded carriage, another with its portrait gallery, and yet another with its tower and historical collections.
Rožmberk nad Vltavou is an even smaller town, with little more than the castle and surrounding buildings. There are also several tours to chose from, with the main route including the painting of the White Lady with the Enochian inscription and the Knights Hall.
The castle Jindřichův Hradec likewise offers several routes showcasing different historical eras, plus the black tower and the “black kitchen,” the latter of which would have been darkened by endless smoke from preserving meat.
A satirical movie called Bílá paní (White Lady) came out in 1965, dealing with a generic benevolent noble female ghost, not specifically Perchta, who emerges from a painting to fix problems in society. The film was banned in the era of Normalization, which lasted from the 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, due its subversive subtexts.
Czech writer and historian Eda Kriseová in 2001 published the book Perchta z Rožmberka aneb Bílá paní (Perchta von Rosenberg or the White Lady), based on decades of archival research into the life of the real character, including the archival letters and other historical documents. It has not been translated.