The real Rapunzel wasn't just a beautiful woman locked in a tower – she was a literal saint. Or, at least one of the early inspirations for the folktale that would become Rapunzel was. The actual story is even darker than the Grimm Brothers version, in which the prince seduces Rapunzel instead of saving her. Just like the true story behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney had to change a lot in the Rapunzel story before turning it out as a children's film.
Saint Barbara was the daughter of a rich Roman merchant in the third century. Her own father locked her into a tower so that she wouldn't convert to Christianity, but Barbara found a way. She also resisted marriage, just like the Christian saints who protected their virginity with some extreme measures. But as a punishment for her faith, Barbara's pagan father grabbed her by the hair and beheaded her.
The links between Saint Barbara and Rapunzel go beyond both being locked in towers. Like Saint Barbara, Rapunzel was an independent woman who refused to listen to authority. But luckily for Rapunzel, she didn't suffer the same gruesome fate as the stories that were inspirations for Rapunzel.
There are multiple versions of the Rapunzel story, but they share one common feature: the heroine is a beautiful woman locked in a tower. And one story that provided partial inspiration for the tale of Rapunzel was most likely about Saint Barbara, an early Christian martyr who was also locked in a tower. Her tale was compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, in 1275 CE.
But Barbara's story has a key difference from the Rapunzel stories: rather than a magical captor who trapped her in a tower, the evil person in Barbara's life was her own father. In the early years of Christianity, Barbara secretly converted to the new faith, but her father, who practiced the Roman religion, locked his daughter in a tower so that she couldn't be a Christian.
In the Rapunzel story, the heroine is locked in a tower by an evil witch – or an ogre or fairy, depending on the version. But in the legend of Saint Barbara, the woman was locked in a tower by her own father. Saint Barbara's legend holds that her father shut her up in a tower for two reasons. For one, Barbara was so beautiful that her father was tired of fighting off unsuitable suitors. He wanted to pick her husband, so he limited the competition by hiding Barbara away.
But the story also claims that Barbara's father feared the influence of a new religion, Christianity. He was a wealthy Roman merchant and worried about the faith's emphasis on helping the poor. So, he also put Barbara in a tower so that she wouldn't convert to Christianity, because he already knew that she cared for the poor.
But Barbara managed to learn about Christianity anyway. Even though she spent years in the tower, getting her food and clothes delivered with a basket on a rope, somehow the new religion found a way to reach her. According to the legend, a stranger snuck a book in Barbara's basket. It taught about Christianity, and Barbara instantly converted. She even tricked her father into sending a priest to her by pretending to be ill and requesting a doctor (priests were known as doctors of the soul), so that she could secretly receive baptism.
In the saints' tales, Barbara's conversion is treated as a miraculous accomplishment. But it also led to her downfall.
Saint Barbara secretly practiced her Christian faith against her father's wishes. And one sign of her hidden faith was build into the tower where she was trapped. When Barbara's father was out of town, she asked the men working on her tower to make one change: instead of putting two windows in the tower, she wanted three.
The architectural modification wasn't because Barbara wanted to make sure she got enough light. Rather, the windows were a reminder of the Holy Trinity, one window each for the father, son, and Holy Spirit. Or, as Barbara explained to her father, "three windows lighten all the world and all creatures, but two make darkness." It was as good as a confession that she was secretly a Christian.