The true story this beloved tale is based upon took place 460 years ago. It is a far darker story than Disney’s retelling and our two leads had very little to sing about.
The story began in 1547 and our couple are not named Belle and Beast, but Catherine and Pedro.
A Gift For the King
France’s King Henry II was given a captured boy in 1547. They believed he was an example of the fabled “wild man”. Today, we might say Big Foot or sasquatch. In truth, the boy only had a genetic condition called hypertrichosis which caused hair to grow thickly over his entire face and body.
The beliefs of the 16th century regarding wild men and werewolves were very similar and might have been two terms for the same myth. At any rate, they kept their gift in an iron cage until Henry decided to see whether his scholars could educate Pedro and make a gentleman out of him.
As the boy grew up, Henry treated him somewhat like a nobleman. Though Henry’s ignorance led to cruel treatment of the boy in the beginning, Pedro eventually led a good life under Henry’s protection — until the king died in a jousting accident.
A Cruel Queen Plays Matchmaker
After King Henry II’s death, the crown went to his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici, whose rule led to the word massacre being added to the English language.
She is most remembered by history because of her involvement in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The gruesome event took place after a failed effort for peace during the Christian wars between Catholics and Protestants.
The failed assassination attempt Queen Catherine ordered against the Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny led to secret meetings among Catholic leaders. History records Catherine as having submitted the idea for the massacre. The butchering of Protestants began and the death toll reached around 10,000. Though the savage scene caused a small split among Catholics, some seeing it as un-Christian, its result was that many thousands of Protestants converted to Catholicism in terror.
Pedro went from being an experimental play thing of the king to being the queen’s new toy.
When not busy with the massacre of Protestants, one of Queen Catherine’s hobbies was matchmaker. She was tremendously successful at matching people to be married, partly due to the fact that she ordered the execution of the unhappy couples if they refused her.
Looking for a challenge, her thoughts drifted to Pedro. The question she wanted answered was whether a “wild man” could produce children with a woman and, if so, what sort of children they might be. After ruminating on the question, she supposed that the woman involved ought to possess profound beauty.
This conclusion came from her mistaken belief that Pedro was a member of a different species. She reasoned that while an average looking woman could arouse any man, it would take a woman of overwhelming allure to arouse a male from a different species.
Many young women were brought to her for inspection, none of them knowing who their potential groom was.
Queen Catherine eventually chose the daughter of a servant, also named Catherine.
A Forced Marriage
Queen Catherine cleverly arranged things so that the young bride would not lay eyes upon her soon-to-be husband until moments before the I do’s. After walking down the aisle, seeing Pedro for the first time, the Beauty knew the Queen would order her death if she refused the union.
According to the Smithsonian Institute's documentary on the subject, on their wedding night, the queen’s men observed the couple through peepholes in the walls, wanting to find out if a woman could survive mating with a wild man.
What they recorded was that Pedro was hopeful and nervous, as a young man might be expected to feel when alone with a young woman and a bed for the first time. Also as expected, the Beauty Catherine was afraid of him.
What surprised them however, was Pedro’s reaction to her fear. Instead of taking notes while the young bride was ravished by a wild man, the queen’s peeping Toms saw Pedro gently cover her with a blanket before going to sit alone by the window.
An Unexpected Love
The Beauty Catherine watched her new husband very closely over the following weeks. She began to see past his condition to discover that he was a kind and gentle man. The two became close and soon fell in love.
The couple had a few children together. They did not inherit their father’s genetic disorder. Queen Catherine was losing patience with Beauty Catherine.
In an age where the woman alone was blamed or praised for the gender of her children, the responsibility of manifesting genetic disorders was apparently hers as well, and Queen Catherine wanted wild man babies.
It is likely that Beauty Catherine was running out of chances and might have been executed so that a new wife could give it a try. As it turned out, the couple’s next two children did have Pedro’s genetic disorder and the Beauty’s life was spared.
The delighted, maniac queen ordered a family portrait be painted — minus those children without the genetic condition.
The family was forced to go on tour throughout Europe so that others could see the result of Queen Catherine’s experiment.
The couple eventually had four children with their father’s genetic condition. Queen Catherine took all four of them away from the couple and presented them as gifts to royalty throughout Europe. The rest of the family eventually became the property of an Italian duke.
Pedro and the Beauty Catherine were married for about 40 years. The exact number is lost to history because Pedro was not allowed to have a Christian burial and the date of his death was not recorded. It is believed that both he and the Beauty Catherine were buried in unmarked graves and very little is known about what happened to their children.
The caged lives of the real Beauty and the Beast were plagued by injustice and heartbreak in an ignorant age ruled over by monarchs, but one thing they did have in common with their cartoon counterparts was love.