Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554–1592)

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Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554–1592)

Austrian archduchess, queen of France, and founder of the Vienna convent of Poor Clares, Our Lady of Angels, who supported reformed Catholicism (the "Counter-Reformation") in France and the Habsburg territories of Central Europe. Name variations: Élisabeth d'Autriche; Archduchess Elizabeth; Elizabeth of Habsburg; Elizabeth of Hapsburg; Elisabeta; Isabelle d'Autriche; Isabella of Austria; Isabelle; signed her name Isabell; family name sometimes Hapsbourg, Hapsburg. Born on July 5, 1554, in Vienna, Austria; died on January 22, 1592, in Vienna; originally interred in Our Lady of Angels Convent Church, Vienna; remains transferred to crypt of St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, 1782; second daughter of Maximilian II (1527–1576), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1564–1576, son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I) and Marie of Austria (1528–1603), Holy Roman empress; educated by private tutors; sister of Anne of Austria (c. 1550–1580), Rudolf II, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1576–1612); married Charles IX (1550–1574), king of France (crowned king of France, May 15, 1560 or 1561, on October 22, 1570 (died, May 30, 1574). children: Marie Isabelle de France (born on October 27, 1572; died on April 2, 1578; godchild of Queen Elizabeth I of England).

Married at 16 to the king of France in imperial ceremony (October 22, 1570) in Speyer, Germany, officiated by the Prince-Archbishop Elector of Mainz (her uncle, Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol, served as proxy for her bridegroom); married in royal ceremony in Mezieres, France (November 26, 1570); consecrated queen of France at St. Denis (March 25, 1571), ceremony officiated by the Archbishop of Reims; made ceremonial entry into Paris (March 29, 1571); lived at French court during part of the period of the Religious Wars; eclipsed by influence of her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici; returned to Central Europe (1575) after death of her husband, leaving her daughter

Marie Isabelle in France; following example of her namesake St. Elisabeth, founded a convent and supported poor and sick; acted as an important patron of the reformed Catholic cause in Central Europe, sponsoring artistic undertakings and the collection of relics; reported to have written a devotional work on the Word of God; collected an appreciable library that she bequeathed to her brother, the emperor Rudolf II.

Many have heard of the Habsburg archduchess who became queen of France in the later 18th century, the queen popularly known as Marie Antoinette . Much of her fame is due, no doubt, to reports of her public decapitation by French revolutionaries. Approximately 200 years earlier, during a similarly tumultuous and dangerous period of French history, a period of civil war and religious violence, another young member of the Habsburg dynasty and daughter of the Holy Roman emperor and empress became queen of France. She was Elisabeth of Habsburg and called herself Isabell.

One of the best, the gentlest, the wisest, and most virtuous queens who reigned since kings and queens began to reign.

—Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantome

Elisabeth was born in the Danubian trading city of Vienna in 1554 of doubly imperial blood: her mother and her father were children of emperors and empresses of the Holy Roman Empire. Elisabeth would also become an imperial child. Her father Maximilian was elected emperor when she was ten. This archduchess grew up in a bustling, cosmopolitan court in a bustling, cosmopolitan city. Vienna was being refurbished in the new Italian styles known later as Renaissance. The city had suffered significant damage during a siege by Ottoman forces in 1529, and, as Elisabeth grew up, Italian architects and construction workers were busy on large building projects such as the modernization of the court castle, the laying out of gardens about it, the construction of a new private court residence outside the city (simply known as the "New Construction"), and the completion of the private lodgings for Elisabeth's family across from the old castle. (This building is known today as the Stallburg.)

Elisabeth's father and grandfather were both staking out claims to the imperial title in competition with her uncle Phillip II, the king of Spain. Elisabeth would grow up in the center of these rivalries. Her mother, the empress Marie of Austria , was Phillip's sister. Some of Elisabeth's brothers and sisters were sent to Spain for training and to become familiar with the rest of the Habsburg dynasty, those Habsburgs who were using discoveries and conquests in America and Africa to buttress assertions of dynastic precedence.

The archduchess' education was marked by the linguistic diversity of the Habsburgs' holdings. It is reported that the Habsburg children in Vienna were taught German, French, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, and Latin in addition to the Spanish which seems to have been Elisabeth's primary language. Her mother spoke Spanish almost exclusively, and Elisabeth's grandfather, the emperor Ferdinand I who supervised his grandchildren's education closely, had also been born in Spain. Her father had been regent in Spain for a number of years shortly before Elisabeth's birth. A note on a German copy of Elisabeth's will implies that the will was originally written in Spanish.

Elisabeth grew up in a household with 16 children (although many of them did not survive infancy or childhood.) Her brothers and sisters would become emperors (both her brother Rudolf and her brother Matthew were elected Holy Roman emperor), heads of religious orders, kings, a queen, governors, military commanders, and so on. As one of the oldest daughters, Elisabeth was destined to play a role in the Habsburg dynasties' plans. The main way in which the Habsburgs had accumulated the vast array of titles and rights across Europe and America which they enjoyed during Elisabeth's life was via marriage. Her prospects were part of a balancing act. The Central European Habsburgs needed allies, allies versus the other Habsburgs, and allies versus the expanding Ottoman Empire which had so nearly captured Vienna a few years before. Negotiations and discussions concerning marriage plans for the archduchess began while she was quite young. It was decided that Elisabeth's older sister Anne of Austria would marry King Phillip of Spain (her uncle) and Elisabeth would marry her father Maximilian's godson, Charles of Valois (Charles IX), the 20-year-old king of France. These two marriages were celebrated in 1570.

Elisabeth traveled to the important administrative and trading center, the Imperial City of Speyer, for her wedding by proxy. Here in the cathedral where important imperial and Habsburg predecessors lay buried, the empire would be tied to France. The Reichstag, the empire's assembly of notables, was meeting in the city and the wedding could be used to display the rights and claims of the Habsburgs. Since 1555, an uneasy truce between battling political units in the empire was keeping further religious wars on hold, but revolts in Habsburg territories in the Low Countries called Habsburg rights and prerogatives there into question. Also, various German princes had been assisting Protestant-minded leaders both in the Netherlands and in the kingdom of France. Imperial officials questioned French appropriation of the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, too. When the prince-arch-bishop elector of Mainz, archchancellor of the Holy Roman Empire and imperial coronator, officiated at Elisabeth's wedding on October 22, 1570, in the Speyer cathedral, he did so in a contentious context, a context in which each of Elisabeth's actions would take on special significance. Would she represent the moderate policies of her father who sought to placate the religious discontents, or would she join with the advocates of a "harder line" versus religious dissidents?

At the ceremony, Elisabeth's uncle, the Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol, served as proxy for her new husband. After celebrations and festivities that lasted a number of days, she left Speyer on November 4 accompanied by many of the most notable and prestigious courtiers and officers of the empire, including the prince-arch-bishop elector of Trier. With a train of a reported 1,600 riders, the young bride was escorted through the contended borderland where the empire and the kingdom met. She entered into a kingdom that was again at peace. In August, a new treaty had ended the Third War of Religion, and it seemed as if King Charles and his influential mother Catherine de Medici might maintain this peace through a marriage alliance with the Central European Habsburgs. This alliance could conceivably split them from their Iberian dynastic rivals who played a role in the religious battles going on in the kingdom.

As Elisabeth entered the kingdom of France to meet her new spouse, she also came to fill the empty position of queen in the French constitution. Since her sister-in-law Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), consort of Charles' late brother King Francis II, had left to return to Scotland (and eventual execution at the order of Queen Elizabeth I of England), the queen's throne had remained vacant. Now Elisabeth would have the opportunity to use the powers of this office.

The royal wedding ceremony took place in the border town of Mezieres on November 26. An account of the wedding discloses that Charles was so curious to see his bride that he slipped, disguised, into the town to get a glimpse of her before the ceremony. Reports also detail Elisabeth's finery, complete with an immensely long train on her gown. Four months after the ceremony, and the festivities that accompanied it, the process of the new queen's ceremonial integration into the French body politic continued with her consecration as queen of France by the archbishop of Reims at St. Denis on March 25, 1571. Four days later, she officially entered the city of Paris to an elaborately choreographed welcome. The decorations for Elisabeth's royal entrance procession stressed the themes of peace and underlined her imperial ties. Printed accounts of the entrance procession, together with similar ones of the wedding, served to publicize the crown's ties and prestige.

Marie of Austria (1528–1603)

Holy Roman Empress. Name variations: Maria or Mary of Hapsburg; Marie d'Autriche. Born on June 21, 1528, in Madrid, Spain; died on February 26, 1603, in Villamonte, Spain; daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) and Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539); sister of Phillip II, king of Spain (r. 1556–1598), and Joanna of Austria (1535–1573); half-sister of Margaret of Parma (1522–1586); married Maximilian II, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1564–1576); children: Anne of Austria (c. 1550–1580, who married Philip II of Spain); Rudolf II (1552–1612), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1576–1612); Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554–1592, who married Charles IX); Matthew (1557–1619), king of Bohemia, also known as Matthias, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1612–1619); Archduke Ernst (governor of some Austrian duchies).

Anne of Austria (c. 1550–1580)

Queen of Spain. Name variations: Anne or Anna Habsburg. Born around 1549 or 1550; died in 1580; daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1564–1576), and Marie of Austria (1528–1603, daughter of Charles V, Holy Roman emperor); sister of Rudolf II (1552–1612), Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1576–1612), Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554–1592), and Matthew (1557–1619), king of Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor as Matthias; became fourth wife of Philip II (1527–1598), king of Spain (r. 1544–1598), in 1570; children: Philip III (1578–1621), king of Spain (r. 1598–1621).

Elisabeth's stay in France was short and tragic. Within a year and a half, the peace disintegrated into the religious violence of the St. Bartholemew's Day massacres and their aftermath. Her delivery of a baby girl two months later did little to strengthen her political position at court. A female heir to the throne could not be as successfully advanced in the succession struggles that marked the last decades of the rule of the Valois dynasty. Elisabeth's daughter, the precocious Marie Isabelle, godchild of Queen Elizabeth I of England, would die in unhappy circumstances in the royal château of Amboise on April 2, 1578. King Charles preceded her. He died on May 30, 1574. Elisabeth returned to Central Europe soon after her husband's death, leaving her daughter in the care of her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici.

As queen of France, Elisabeth received various rights and properties such as those associated with the duchies of Berry and Bourbonnais. She apparently used her position at court to advance the reformed Catholic cause associated with the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. She helped support a Jesuit college in Bourges, a controversial move in a kingdom where the Paris Parlement had only recently (1562) even permitted the Jesuits' legal presence. (Elisabeth's grandfather Ferdinand had called the Jesuits to Vienna in the early 1550s.) Little is known of Elisabeth's other activities in France. A member of the court, the seigneur de Brantome, reports that she took her religious responsibilities very seriously. She seems to have had a particular devotion to various icons and relics. When she left France, she is reported to have taken a number of devotional objects with her. These included a finger from St. John the Baptist, a reliquary of St. Christina "the Astonishing" , and a copy of the famous Mater admirabilis painting from Maria Maggiore in Rome which had been sent to the French court by the reformed Catholic leader St. Charles Borromeo.

After her husband's death, Elisabeth chose not to remarry. She followed instead the example of her 13th-century namesake St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231), dedicating her life to helping the poor and sick and sponsoring other pious undertakings. The one-time imperial ambassador to the Ottoman court, Ogier-Ghislain de Busbecq, was given the task of administering her holdings in France. He was not very successful: in her will, written in 1592, Elisabeth mentions monies owed her from France. Some accounts write of how Elisabeth assigned many of her French incomes to support her sister-in-law Margaret of Valois (1553–1615). Others were used for the college at Bourges, for the poor, and particularly to provide dowries for underprivileged girls, enabling them to marry. Similar concerns are seen in her will: there she mentions care of the ill and indigent, poor girls, and soldiers fighting in the Hungarian wars against the Ottomans.

In her widowhood, Elisabeth was active in two of the Habsburgs' main Central European court centers: Prague and Vienna. At first, she seems to have participated in the court of her mother, Empress Marie of Austria. Marie had become a widow in 1576. The relations between the empress and her moody son, the emperor Rudolf II, led the empress to return to Spain in 1581. There, like her daughter Elisabeth and many other Habsburg widows and archduchesses, she dedicated her last years to supporting Franciscan nuns.

The 1580s were busy years for the widow Elisabeth. She actively supported the efforts of the reformed Catholic clergy. In Prague, Elisabeth sponsored the reconstruction of the All Saints Chapel in the castle hill complex. It, like much of the city's "small side," had been heavily damaged in a 1541 fire. At Elisabeth's request, the relics of the Slavic saint Prokopius were transferred to Prague from their location at the Benedictine monastery of Sazava which he had founded. Elisabeth's actions in Prague could bear some relation to the decision of Elisabeth's brother Emperor Rudolf to permanently locate his court in the city.

Another of Elisabeth's brothers, the archduke Maximilian, had become coadjutor of the Teutonic Knights and as such had gained control of the relics of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. These had been at the order's church in Marburg. One of the Middle Ages' most popular pilgrimage sites, Marburg and the relics of St. Elizabeth had been used by Lutherans to attack the type of relic veneration characteristic of Elisabeth's (and reformed Catholicism's) piety. Maximilian gave these relics of the patron of widows and orphans to his sister Elisabeth in 1588.

These relics eventually ended up in the church of the convent of Poor Clares which Elisabeth founded in Vienna in the early 1580s. Elisabeth had wanted to reopen Vienna's St. Anne's cloister, but this house—like many female houses in the empire—had been closed in the course of the 16th century. Later, their revenues were transferred to Jesuit foundations. Elisabeth had to look elsewhere for incomes to support her new house. After some investigation, the government supervisory board responsible for church property incomes (the Klosterrat) implemented Elisabeth's brother Archduke Ernst's (governor of some of the Austrian duchies) order to transfer rights over properties associated with the closed Benedictine house Erlakloster to support Elisabeth's foundation. These, tied with rights associated with a handful of properties scattered about the city of Vienna, would become the sources of income for the new convent Our Lady of Angels which Elisabeth had built around the corner from where she had grown up, and next door to her home at the time. In this city house, she led a modest court and kept a small chapel.

This convent, sometimes known as Queen's Cloister, St. Claire's Cloister, or (erroneously) King's Cloister, benefitted from Elisabeth's close ties and interest in the later years of her life. Most likely designed by the Italian painter and architect Pietro Ferbosco, the convent church was consecrated on August 2, 1583. After her death at age 38 on January 22, 1592, Elisabeth was buried under a simple marble slab in the choir of this church. In 1782, the church and convent were closed by Marie Antoinette's brother, the Holy Roman emperor Joseph II. Elisabeth's body was transferred to one of the crypts beneath Vienna's Cathedral of St. Stephen. Ironically for Elisabeth, a pious supporter of reformed Catholicism, a Protestant denomination later purchased the church and currently holds services there.

Elisabeth's will and a posthumous inventory of her library reveal a cultivated, religious woman tied to France and Spain as well as to Vienna and Prague. Her last testament donates money for many purposes, including the holding of Masses in the convent church for her deceased spouse, the king of France, who, the will reads, "has gone to his glory." The Jesuits of Vienna were to receive funds to support students. The pattern of donation shows a concern for the sick and the poor, as well as dedication to Mary the Virgin , St. Michael, St. Christina the Astonishing, and the Holy Cross. (Her mother had given Elisabeth a piece of the True Cross. This she donated to the convent.)

The widowed queen's library contained books in Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Italian. The largest single number are devotional works in Spanish. A goodly number are German works by the Jesuit Georg Scherer, the court preacher at the Archduke Ernst's court in Vienna. French works dating from Elisabeth's reign in France include a book of prognostications by Nostradamus for the year 1571. Sophocles' tragedy "Antigone," as well as reports about the Indies and Japan round out the collection, which reportedly was donated to Elisabeth's older brother, the emperor Rudolf, after her death. Her wedding ring she gave to her brother Ernst.

While the seigneur de Brantome, one of the primary sources for Elisabeth's life in France, mentions that she wrote both a devotional work on the Word of God and a history of events in France during her reign, neither of these sources seems to be extant. For that reason, and because Elisabeth left almost no sources in her own hand aside from a few documents with her signature attached, this article, like all discussions of this archduchess and queen, necessarily must create Elisabeth as an object of description and interpretation.


Brantome, Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de. Illustrious Dames of the Court of the Valois Kings. Translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley. NY: Lamb, 1912.

Czeike, Felix. Historisches Lexikon Wien. Vol. 3. Vienna: Kremayr & Scheriau, 1994.

Darlem, Clary. Elisabeth d'Autriche, reine de France. Paris: A. Franck, 1847.

Evans, R.J.W. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Graham, Victor E., and W. McAllister Johnson. The Paris Entries of Charles IX and Elisabeth of Austria. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Hamann, Brigitte. Die Habsburger: Ein biographisches Lexikon. Munich: Piper, 1988.

Lauzinner, Maximilian, ed. Deutsche Reichstagakten: Reichsversammlungen 1556–1662. Der Reichstag zu Speyer 1570. Göttingen: V & R, 1988.

Strakosch, Marianne. Materialien zu einer Biographie Elisabeths von Österreich, Königin von Frankreich. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Vienna, 1965.


Some of Elisabeth's papers are to be found in the Habsburg Family Archives in the Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchiv, Vienna. These include lists of payment for her court officials, documents concerning the administration of the properties associated with the convent in Vienna, and the last will and testament.

Joseph F. Patrouch , Assistant Professor of History, Florida International University, Miami, Florida

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Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554–1592)

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