Elisabeth, Empress of Austria

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Elisabeth, Empress of Austria

The German-born Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (1837-1898), was the beloved “Sisi,” one of the most famous royal celebrities of her day. As the consort of the emperor of Austria—a land that dominated the map of Europe at the time—Elisabeth was a wellknown figure whose exploits were avidly chronicled in the nineteenth-century press much in the same way that Britain's Diana (1961-1997), Princess of Wales, would be a hundred years later.

The future empress was born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie von Wittelsbach on December 24, 1837, in Munich, Bavaria. Her father was Maximilian Joseph, a duke from one of Germany's oldest aristocratic families, the House of Wittelsbach. In possession of vast estates throughout southern Germany, the von Wittelsbachs had been the ruling dynasty in the area since 1180, and played a key role in shaping the region's political destinies. During Elisabeth's lifetime, Bavaria was a kingdom ruled by perhaps the most famous Wittelsbach, her cousin King Ludwig II (1845–1886), often referred to as “Mad Ludwig.” Eight years her junior, he ascended to the throne in 1864 and built the fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein, later used as the model for the castle of Sleeping Beauty in the Disney theme parks. As cousins, Elisabeth and Ludwig were close, and though she later defended him when he was declared mentally ill, she reportedly feared that she had inherited the same strain of mental illness that ran through their side of the family.

Whirlwind Courtship

There is some speculation that such genetic conditions may have been exacerbated by a tradition of intermarriage in the royal dynasty. Elisabeth's father, for example, married his cousin, Ludovika, Royal Princess of Bavaria and daughter of King Maximilian I. The pair raised their family at Possenhofen Castle on Lake Starnberg outside Munich, and would have ten children in all. Elisabeth was close to her older sister, Helene, who married into an equally powerful old German family, the Thurn und Taxis. Helene was dubbed “Nene” as a child, while Elisabeth bore the nickname “Sisi.”

In the summer of 1853, when Elisabeth was 15, she and her sister, accompanied by their mother Ludovika, traveled to Bad Ischl, the Austrian resort. Ludovika made notable matches for nearly all of her children, and was eager to introduce 18-year-old Helene to the new Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef (1830–1916). The handsome young emperor, who had ascended to the throne in 1848, was the son of Ludovika's sister, Princess Sophia and was a popular young ruler also considered to be Europe's most eligible bachelor at the time. He was instantly smitten with Elisabeth, not her sister, and their engagement was announced just a week later. The wedding took place in Vienna on April 24, 1854, and Elisabeth would later say that she deeply regretted accepting the marriage proposal after such a whirlwind romance. Franz Josef's mother, Princess Sophia, was also reportedly uneasy with the plan to marry the younger Wittelsbach niece, but gave her permission anyway.

After a honeymoon that included a tour of Austria and Hungary, Elisabeth—now the Empress of Austria—settled into life at the Habsburg court. The Habsburg dynasty had the richest, most opulent royal court in Europe at the time, in an era when nationalism and the ideas of the Enlightenment were giving way to liberal reforms elsewhere on the continent, and clung dearly to its long-cherished protocols and rigid etiquette. Still a teenager, Elisabeth disliked the stiff formality that regulated her public appearances, and her unease was compounded by the disdain that many Austrian nobles at court held for Bavarians, whom they considered inferior. One such custom that she found tiresome concerned her boots: the empress was expected to wear a pair just once, and then give them to one of her ladies in waiting. Instead, Elisabeth wore hers for a month. On one occasion, she shocked an aristocrat seated near her at a formal dinner by removing her gloves. When the older woman asked why she did so, Elisabeth replied, “Why not?” to which the woman answered, “Because it is a deviation from the rules.” At that, cognizant of her power as empress, Elisabeth retorted, “Then let the deviation henceforth be the rule,” according to A. De Burgh's biography, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria: A Memoir.

Devastated by Daughter's Death

Elisabeth produced three children in the first four years of her marriage: Archduchess Sophie, born in March of 1855; Archduchess Gisela, born in July of 1856, and Crown Prince Rudolf, born in August of 1858. Sophie died while the family was on an official visit to Hungary, which was part of Franz Josef's empire. It was in May of 1857 when both royal infant daughters fell ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered, but Sophie died in Budapest. The empress was reportedly grief-stricken over the loss of her first child, and sunk into a deep depression that was only alleviated by the birth of Rudolf, the longawaited male heir, in the summer of 1858.

It was uncommon for parents among Europe's royalty to actively participate in the rearing of their children, and Elisabeth's family was no exception. The care and supervision of Gisela and Rudolf were largely given over to a team of staffers supervised by her mother-in-law, Princess Sophia. Elisabeth was thus free to travel, and she eagerly seized any opportunity to be away from the stifling protocol of the Habsburg court. She spent time in England, and on the Mediterranean isle of Corfu, and also on Madeira, an island in the Atlantic Ocean midway off the coasts of Portugal and West Africa. Hungary was also a rather unexpected favorite destination, for there was strong nationalist sentiment against the ruling Habsburgs in the country and a concerted independence movement. Elisabeth's husband had even been the target of a political assassination by a Hungarian activist just months before they met, but the stiff, high collar of his uniform apparently saved him from bleeding to death from the stab wound.

Elisabeth's exploits were avidly chronicled in the burgeoning new journalism aimed at a newly literate, massmarket readership. Her fashion sense, exuberant lifestyle, and rumors of romantic liaisons were all reported on in great detail, and the time she and Franz Josef spent apart spurred rumors that their union was over in all but name. In this respect, Elisabeth shared many similarities to Princess Diana of England, whose marriage similarly imploded after a spectacular 1981 royal wedding to the most eligible bachelor in Europe. Like Diana, Elisabeth was also plagued by rumors that she suffered from an eating disorder. The empress was indeed conscious about maintaining her figure and reported 20-inch waist, and did daily gymnastic exercises, including stunts on flying rings. She also studied Greek and wrote verse, giving herself the literary pen name of Titania, from Shakespeare's Fairy Queen, and some of her poems featured sly rebukes to the Habsburgs. In her later years she became one of the most widely traveled European royals of her day, venturing into the Middle East and North Africa.

Mysterious Death of Son

Elisabeth and Franz Josef had a brief reconciliation, occasioned by his decision to establish a double monarchy, which created the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. She was given a new title, Queen of Hungary, in addition to that of Empress of Austria. A coronation was held for both in Budapest, and their fourth child, Archduchess Marie Valerie, was born in April of 1868. Elisabeth took a much more involved parenting role this time, and she and her youngest child became quite close. There were rumors that Marie Valerie was perhaps the result of an extramarital affair, but she strongly resembled Franz Josef. The gossip likely stemmed from the fact that both the parties conducted extramarital affairs during the course of their marriage. The emperor was linked for many years to Austria's best-known actress, while Elisabeth carried on with a dashing British noble, George Middleton, who was an attendant to an ancestor of Princess Diana's. He and Elisabeth—an accomplished equestrienne—met while riding at the Spencer estate, Althorp. He visited her at her Hungarian summer estate, Gödöllö, on at least two occasions between their first meeting in 1876 and his 1882 marriage.

The spectacular Gödöllö, an immense Baroque palace, was located outside Budapest. Elisabeth also began building a castle, called Achilleion, on Corfu, which was completed in 1890. This was the year that Marie Valerie married the man of her choice, the Archduke of Austria-Tuscany, rather than one of the more powerful dynastic scions of Europe which might have cemented a new diplomatic alliance for the Austro-Hungarian throne. Elisabeth backed Marie Valerie's choice of spouse, and their intransigence was said to have angered Crown Prince Rudolf, who had several years earlier complied with pressure to marry the daughter of the King of Belgium. On January 30, 1889, the 31-year-old Rudolf and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, were found dead at his Mayerling hunting lodge in Lower Austria in what was claimed to have been a double suicide. Revelations in the 1990s, however, suggest that a third party may have been involved, which is tied to speculation that the more liberal-minded Rudolf was planning to seize the throne from his father with the help of foreign conspirators.

Rudolf's death plunged the Empress into a period of deep mourning. She spent the remaining eight years of her life clad in a long black gown, with a white leather parasol and a fan to hide her face from the public. Her final years were spent at Gödöllö or aboard her steamer, the Miramar. She died at age 60 on September 10, 1898, in front of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, in one of the more bizarre incidents of nineteenth-century European history: a 25-year-old anarchist named Luigi Lucheni rushed at her with a needle file in hand, and delivered a fatal stab wound to her heart. In an eerie similarity with the assassination attempt on her husband years before, Elisabeth's corset stanched the bleeding, but once physicians removed the tightly laced undergarment, the bleeding intensified and she died. Lucheni claimed to have not known who she was, only that she was royal and he intended to kill a member of that class.

The “Sisi” Cult

Elisabeth's assassination is viewed by many historians as the foreshadowing of a more famous one 16 years later, the 1914 shooting of her nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The archduke's death unleashed World War I (1914–18), which finally brought down the Habsburgs. News of Elisabeth's death prompted an outpouring of public mourning in Hungary, for many Hungarians considered her the only member of the royal family worthy of their respect. In the decades to follow, the Empress Elisabeth has become a sentimental icon in both Austria and Germany. A 1955 film which starred a young Romy Schneider enshrined her in the public imagination as Sissi and became an instant classic, along with its two equally successful sequels, “Sissi: The Young Empress” and “Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress.” In a less kitschy 1968 movie, Elisabeth was portrayed by Ava Gardner in the tale of Rudolf's doomed romance, Mayerling, which also starred Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve. Even in the twenty-first century Elisabeth's iconic status seemed to endure, with her life becoming the subject of a 2003 stage musical in Vienna.


De Burgh, A., Elizabeth, Empress of Austria: A Memoir, Lippincott, 1899.

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