Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898)
Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898)
Empress of Austria and Hungary. Name variations: Elizabeth of Austria; Elisabeth von Habsburg or Hapsburg; Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary; (nickname) Empress Sisi or Sissi. Born Elizabeth Amélie Eugénie on December 24, 1837, at the castle of Possenhofen on Lake Starnberg; died of stab wounds on September 10, 1898, in Geneva; daughter of Maximilian Joseph, duke of Bavaria, and Ludovica (1808–1892); married her cousin Francis Joseph (Franz Joseph I), emperor of Austria (r. 1848–1916), on April 24, 1854; children: eldest daughter died in infancy; Gisela (1856–1932); Marie Valerie (1868–1924); crown prince Rudolf (1858–1889, who died at Mayerling).
Elizabeth of Bavaria inherited the lively intelligence and artistic taste of the Wittelsbach royal house. Her education was unconventional, and she became an adroit rider and climber while accompanying her father, Maximilian Joseph, duke of Bavaria, on his hunting expeditions. She called on the peasants in their cottages and enjoyed bucolic pleasures.
In August 1853, when the emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, met the Bavarian ducal family at Ischl, he immediately fell in love with 16-year-old Elizabeth who was reputedly the most beautiful princess in Europe. The marriage took place in Vienna on April 24, 1854. Elizabeth's attempts to modify court etiquette, and her extreme love of horses and frequent visits to the imperial riding school, scandalized Austrian society, and in the early days of her marriage, she frequently encountered Viennese prejudice.
Her predilection for Hungary and for all things Hungarian also cut into her popularity. She had first visited Hungary in 1857. Ten years later, she and Franz Joseph were crowned its queen and king with the advent of the Dual Monarchy which created the kingdom of Hungary, east of the river Leith, and the kingdom of Austria, west of the river Leith. Each kingdom had its own constitution and parliament, but they shared rule and a common ministry for finance and foreign affairs. Elizabeth's appeal for the Hungarians remained unchanged throughout her life, and the castle of Gödöllö, presented as a coronation gift, was one of her favorite residences.
Intellectually independent and freedom-loving, Elizabeth was thought to be much brighter than her plodding husband, the emperor. She did not believe in the monarchical form of government, regarding it as "a ruin" that had become obsolete in her own time. Outside of Hungarian affairs, she took little interest in politics, but she was one of the most charitable queens. In the Seven Weeks' War with Prussia in 1866, Elizabeth's popularity with her Austrian subjects was more than restored by her diligent care of the
wounded after the defeat at Königgrätz. Besides her public altruism, she was also privately charitable.
Her eldest daughter died in infancy; her daughter Gisela (b. 1856) married Prince Leopold of Bavaria; and her youngest daughter Marie Valerie (1868–1924) married the Arch-duke Francis Salvator. The tragic death of her only son, the crown prince Rudolf, in 1889, was a shock from which Elizabeth never truly recovered. Rudolf, the heir apparent, killed his lover Marie Vetsera and committed suicide at a hunting lodge outside of Vienna at Mayerling. Elizabeth was also deeply affected by the suicide of her cousin Louis II of Bavaria and by the death of her sister Sophie of Bayern , who perished in the fire of the Paris charity bazaar in 1897. Events, it seems, conspired against the house of Habsburg. Elizabeth's brother-in-law, Archduke Karl Ludwig, also known as Charles Louis (1883–1896), drank from the river Jordan while on a pilgrimage and died from an intestinal infection; her other brother-in-law Maximilian, emperor of Mexico, was shot by a firing squad (1867); and her sister-in-law Carlota was driven mad.
Experiencing symptoms of lung disease in 1861, Elizabeth spent some months recuperating in Madeira, but she was soon able to resume her outdoor sports and, for some years before 1882, when she had to give up riding, was a frequent visitor on English and Irish hunting fields. In her later years, her dislike of publicity increased. Much of her time was spent in travel or at the Achilleion, the palace she had built in the Greek style in Corfu.
On September 10, 1898, as she walked from her hotel to the steamer at Geneva, she was stabbed by the anarchist Luigi Luccheni and died within a few hours. The random, senseless assassination completed the list of misfortunes of the Austrian house and aroused intense anger throughout Europe. On learning of his beloved wife's death, Franz Joseph remarked, "Nothing has been spared me in this world."
de Burgh, A. Elizabeth, Empress of Austria: A Memoir. London, 1898.
Friedmann, E., and J. Paves. Kaiserin Elisabeth. Berlin, 1898.
Murad, Anatol. Franz Joseph I of Austria and his Empire. Twayne, 1968.
Redlich, Joseph. Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography. Macmillan, 1929.
Gabrielle Dorziat appeared as Elizabeth in the film Mayerling, 1936.
"Sisi," a 26-segment work for Hungarian television by Márta Mészáros , 1992.