A 1515 portrait by Quentin Massys has long been thought to show Margaret Maultasch. It is also said to have inspired John Tenniel's depiction of the Ugly Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Ugliest Princess of all?
In 1342, Europe was rocked by a marriage scandal involving Countess Margaret of the Tyrol. The countess became legendary for her hideous appearance and appalling morals. But was she really the innocent victim of a smear campaign?
In 1282, the Tyrol, a mountainous region in the eastern Alps that straddles the present-day border between Italy and Austria, came under the control of Meinhard II. Four years later he acquired the neighbouring province of Carinthia. But it was not long before his new territories came under threat.
Meinhard's son, Duke Heinrich VI of the Tyrol and Carinthia, produced no male heir. His younger daughter Margaret was the only possible candidate to succeed him. But it was unheard of at that time to have a woman on the throne. The powerful ruling dynasties
(At Runkelstein Castle, Bolzano, the 'castle of pictures' in the South Tyrol region, there is a renowned cycle of frescoes from the 14th century depicting myths, legends, games, jousting, giants and dwarves. This fresco of a lady with a golden plait is thought to depict the real Margaret)
of the region - the Wittelsbach, Habsburg and Luxemburg families - already had their eyes on the Tyrol and eagerly sought an opportunity to seize the kingdom.
But in 1330 Heinrich concluded a treaty with the Holy Roman 'Margaret
(Maultasch ... got her popular name from the fact that she had such a big mouth.'
Emperor, Louis IV of Bavaria from the House of Wittelsbach, allowing female succession in his domain. The 13-year-old Margaret was then married to Prince Johann Heinrich of Bohemia from the House of Luxemburg who was five years her junior.
When Heinrich died five years later, it was soon clear that the treaty was worthless. Louis IV had also secretly concluded an agreement with the Habsburgs whereby Tyrol-Carinthia was to be divided between him and Margaret's Habsburg cousins on Heinrich's death.
But Margaret was ready to defend her territory. With the help of her brother-in-law Charles (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV), she managed to safeguard the Tyrol from seizure. She was less successful with neighbouring Carinthia, which was lost to the Habsburgs.
Margaret grew increasingly discontent. The Tyrol was under the control of the Luxemburgs and her husband had barely reached puberty. In 1341, Margaret had the doors of the castle barred against him on the grounds that the marriage had not been consummated. A year later, in 1342, Margaret took a second husband and was excommunicated by the Pope. Her new spouse, the widower Louis of Brandenburg, was the son of that same Louis who had betrayed her father so shamefully. It was no love-match, but rather a ruthless and decisive checkmate move against the Luxemburg family.
A SMEAR CAMPAIGN
A full-blown scandal ensued. Margaret's first husband, Johann Heinrich, could not let the slur that he was impotent go unchallenged. The Luxemburg dynasty and the Pope started to spread tales about Margaret's dissolute lifestyle, including her sexual proclivities.
The propaganda spread by the Luxemburgs soon became fixed in popular imagination. As early as the 14th century, medieval writers claimed that she was hideous with a large, deformed mouth. A famous 16th-century portrait by Quentin Massys shows a very ugly woman who is alleged to be Margaret.
Margaret's supposed appearance is not the only derivation of the disparaging nickname 'Maultasch' or 'ugly old bag'. Both 'Maul' and 'Tasch' ('pocket') were slang terms for the vagina. So the nickname also branded her a prostitute, a slander that helped restore Johann Heinrich's reputation.
But the story has a happy ending. In 1347 the Luxemburgs renounced their claim on the Tyrol and in 1359 the Pope revoked Margaret's excommunication. She was free to marry Louis with the blessing of the Church. In 1363 the Habsburg Rudolf IV persuaded Margaret to cede Tyrol to his control. She retired to Vienna, where she died six years later on October 3, 1369 - very probably an ordinary looking woman who had nevertheless bequeathed to the world the term 'ugly old bag'.
The enduring Maultasch myth
In Margaret's lifetime
The historian Hugo Spechtsart compares the scandal of her marriage with the abduction of the beautiful Helen of Troy in classical mythology.
It is falsely claimed that she married Rudolf IV of Habsburg.
In 1816, Jacob Grimm published the story of Margaret Maultasch in his German Sayings.
In 1923, Margaret was the subject of Lion Feuchtwanger's novel The Ugly Duchess.