Empress Elisabeth of Austria is a quite tragic figure. Her husband, who had a slew of royal titles and lands, was the last major ruler of the Habsburgs and she was immortalized as one of the most beautiful women of the nineteenth-century, perhaps of all time. Her name is a byword for glamour and her life has been the subject of various films, plays, and novels. She inspired fashion, looks, and etiquette in her own time like no other. Yet, although she was envied by thousands of women for her status and loveliness, this powerful consort was one of the most depressed royals to ever live. But it was her terrible and untimely death that truly immortalized her as a historic and romantic icon.
Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, was the fourth child of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria, and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, the daughter of King Maximilian Joseph I of Bavaria, as well as the half-sister of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Elisabeth, who was affectionately named “Sisi”, was born on December 24, 1837 in Munich. Because of her father’s personality and her parents’ shaky marriage, Elisabeth and her siblings had a relaxed and carefree childhood that was unrestricted by governesses, tutors, or any sort of rules and regulations. Elisabeth’s father never wanted to be a duke and often skipped out on his noble duties by visiting the circus, setting up his own drinking club, writing poetry, riding, and socializing with artists and gypsies. He was also very unfaithful to his wife and had numerous illegitimate children with different women. His marriage to Ludovika was a constant cycle of him cheating on her or displeasing her in some way and her becoming angry and moving to a different part of the family palace until he charmed his way back into her good graces.
|Elisabeth, Empress of Austria|
(Amanda Bergstedt, 1855)
Elisabeth shared her father’s wistful personality and was very close to him. She often skipped out on her lessons to ride horses with him. He even told her that had they not been “princely born”, they “could have performed in a circus”. But Elisabeth’s ambitious mother had greater plans for her daughter than to let her become a performer – she wanted all of her children to make advantageous marriages into regal families, as her own sisters had done. So, she arranged for Elisabeth’s older sister, Helene, to marry her first cousin, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria. Franz Joseph’s controlling and possessive mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, wanted her son to marry a relative instead of a complete stranger, so she made arrangements with her sister, Ludovika, for the cousins to meet and agree to the betrothal. In 1853, the fifteen year old Elisabeth traveled with her mother and sister to the resort of Bad Ischl in Upper Austria to see Franz Joseph and his mother, and, more importantly, to hear the young Emperor formally propose to Helene. But when the cousins met, Franz was not attracted to the quiet and pious Helene at all. Instead, he was charmed by the great beauty of his younger cousin, Sisi. Though Sisi was shy and awkward in her royal cousin’s presence, Franz was instantly captivated by her almond-shaped brown eyes, fair complexion, perfect facial features, and her flowing locks of auburn hair, which fell to her knees when not tied up. Franz focused all his attentions on Sisi and completely ignored Helene, who he didn’t feel comfortable with at all. At a ball the cousins attended, Franz gave Elisabeth not just a single bouquet of flowers but all the other flowers that were supposed to go to the other ladies at the ball. Franz disobeyed his mother (a shocking feat, considering the fact that he once described her as “the only man in the Hofburg” for her dictatorial character) and announced that if he couldn’t have Elisabeth, then he would never marry anyone. The Archduchess gave in and permitted the marriage. Five days after their first meeting, the betrothal of Sisi and the Emperor of Austria was announced. When Sisi was told of the arrangement, she was not as happy as one might have expected. Though she was fond of her cousin, she was not at all prepared to be a royal consort of a great empire and didn’t feel that she was well suited for her new role. But she had no choice – if Franz wanted her, then she would have to marry him.
|Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria|
Before the wedding, Sisi undertook a quick period of training in history and other subjects to prepare her for her future position. Eight months after meeting Franz, she traveled to Vienna where she married him on April 24, 1854 in St. Augustine’s Church. At the time of her marriage, the new Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Croatia, Queen of Bohemia, and Queen of Lombardy-Venetia was just sixteen years old while her spouse and first cousin was twenty-three. But, even with all her new, impressive titles and lavish lifestyle as an empress and queen, Elisabeth was unhappy from the start. Poor Sisi was naturally shy and introverted, so now that she was being thrust into the spotlight as the consort of one of the most powerful men in Europe, she was never comfortable being constantly scrutinized. She also had a very hard time getting used to the strict protocols and rigid mannerisms of the Habsburg court, which was known for its restrictive decorum. Sisi, who had grown up under a carefree and informal upbringing, was now tossed into a stifling, inflexible royal court where structure and rules meant everything. Not to mention that she had to undergo this transition with little preparation or training. To put it simply, she was not born to be an empress.
|Elisabeth on the day of her coronation as |
Queen of Hungary
In her adopted home, Elisabeth had basically nothing to remind her of home. She was completely surrounded by strangers, as she had been forbidden to bring anyone from Bavaria with her to the Austrian kingdom. Her new mother-in-law, also her maternal aunt, was no easy woman to deal with either, to put it lightly. She has often been described as a “mother-in-law from hell”. She was not happy with her son’s choice in his wife and was always on hand to disparage her nervous daughter-in-law in everything from her appearance to her hobbies. The stress of this nightmarish scenario gave Elisabeth health problems early on in her marriage. She began to suffer from coughing fits and became extremely anxious whenever she had to go down a tight, steep staircase. Just ten months after the wedding, the young Empress gave birth to her first child – a daughter named Archduchess Sophie of Austria. Of course, the elder Archduchess Sophie berated Sisi for not having a son and didn’t even let her name her own daughter; she named the infant girl after herself. She also made sure that Sisi had almost nothing to do with the upbringing of her own children. She outright refused to allow Elisabeth to care for her daughter in any way or even breastfeed her. A year later, Sisi gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Gisela, who was taken away from her by the elder Sophie as well.
|Empress Elisabeth of Austria|
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865)
Although Sisi, who was still just a teenager at this time, had given birth to two healthy girls, she was looked down upon by her own courtiers because she had not yet given birth to a son and an heir. Sisi’s own mother-in-law most likely put a hateful pamphlet on her desk that reminded Sisi rather cruelly of her royal duty to have a son. Elisabeth, who was overwhelmed by everyone – her people, her courtiers, and even her own family – tried to take control of the only thing she still could command – herself. To control her weight, especially after having children, she barely ate and heavily restricted what she did put in her stomach. Although she was a tall woman at 5’8”, she was determined to keep a slim figure and weighed herself three times a day to make sure her weight was at a constant 105 pounds. She exercised everyday by having a gymnasium put in her rooms and when she wasn’t in her gym, she was fencing, walking, or riding for up to eight hours a day. But the physical feature she was most proud of was her famously long and gorgeous hair. She treated her hair as if it was her own child; her locks were placed under a silk cloth when it was brushed daily and was then washed with a mixture of brandy and egg whites. After, the brushing was complete Sisi would count exactly how many of her hairs had fallen out. If she found too many, she had a breakdown. She also accentuated her acute slimness by “tight-lacing” with dangerously narrow corsets and at one time her waist was a sickly sixteen inches in circumference. But Elisabeth would always remain in a state of depression for the rest of her life and when she was in a rather dark state, she would refuse to eat for days. In her later years, she became even more obsessed with her appearance and wasted away to near emaciation (her lowest weight was 95.7 pounds). Unsurprisingly, she developed anorexia and displayed signs of binge eating.
|Elisabeth and her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I|
Unfortunately, on a trip to Hungary in the spring of 1857, little Sophie and Gisela both acquired diarrhea and seriously high fevers. While Gisela, who was ten months old, recovered quickly, the two year old Sophie could not and she died in her mother’s arms late in the evening on May 29, 1857. Her death was either from dehydration due to the diarrhea or from convulsions because of the high fever. Elisabeth suffered a mental breakdown after her young daughter’s death and was plagued by the grief of the loss for the rest of her life. The elder Sophie even blamed Sisi for her granddaughter’s death, as Sisi had been the one who wanted to visit Hungary with her family. Then, on August 21, 1858, Elisabeth finally gave birth to the long-awaited male heir Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria. Even though she delivered the son she had been expected to produce for years, her relationship with her husband had fallen apart by this time. Once she found out that her husband had been and continued to be constantly unfaithful to her with various mistresses (it is proposed that he even gave her a venereal disease that he himself got from one of his lovers), she had another nervous breakdown. After the couple’s falling-out, Elisabeth lived mostly away from her husband in her residences in Hungary. She had loved Hungary even before her marriage and now that she was its queen, her passion for the country and its people (who adored her) only increased. She even surrounded herself with Hungarian aristocrats at court. After the birth of her son, she became a more decisive woman and forced her way into her children’s lives, despite her venomous mother-in-law’s protests. She began participating more in her duties as an empress and also began to act more like a regal monarch.
|Empress Elisabeth of Austria|
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864)
Sisi’s love for Hungary was apparent in her tireless efforts to help improve the country. She started a riding school there and visited hospitals and mental asylums as well. While she was in Hungary, she was comfortable and happy. But back in Austria, she experienced fits of paranoia and hated to be looked at by the people, who had an unfavorable view of her (which she was well aware of). She also continued to be estranged from her husband since the birth of their son, a separation that lasted about a decade. However, Franz wanted to secure the succession by having another son in case anything happened to young Rudolf. At first, Sisi was adamant in her refusals to become pregnant for a fourth time. Her defiance towards her husband and mother-in-law had risen to new heights after Rudolf’s birth. Sisi wouldn’t allow her very sensitive son to get a military education, which his father wanted, as she knew he wasn’t at all suited for that type of training. Rudolf was a lot like his mother and the two shared the same personality as well as an inability to fit in at court. Sisi didn’t want to have another child that she would be taken away from her by her horrible mother-in-law. But, Sisi’s main reason for not wanting to have another child was because of her vanity; she wanted to preserve her beautiful, youthful appearance.
Eventually, Sisi gave in and decided to give her husband what he wanted, for she knew that if she did have another child, she could use this as leverage to raise Hungary’s status to match that of Austria’s (a desire she had always pushed for). When she did become pregnant in 1867, she got her wish with the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which created the double monarchy of Austria-Hungary. In June of the same year, Franz and Elisabeth were officially crowned as the King and Queen of Hungary (they had always been its rulers but now that it was a separate kingdom under their control and was no longer considered to be a part of Austria, the couple had to be specifically crowned). To thank the royal couple, Hungary gave them a country residence in Gödöllő as a coronation gift. Elisabeth lived here for most of her pregnancy, which irritated the Austrians, and on April 22, 1868, Elisabeth gave birth to her last child – a girl named Archduchess Marie Valerie. Unfortunately for Franz, Marie was not the second son he longed for but Elisabeth loved her daughter dearly, who was called the “Hungarian child” because of her birthplace. Elisabeth was firm in her desire to care for and raise her last child herself since her mother-in-law’s influence at court had faded by this time (thankfully for Sisi, the Archduchess Sophie died in 1872). Because Sisi had been unable to take part in any of her children’s childhoods, she transferred all her suppressed maternal emotions on little Marie to the point of essentially oppressing her. Now, Sisi was done having children for good, having produced three daughters and one son over a period of thirteen years (although little Sophie had died young).
|The Family of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria|
Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s children:
- Archduchess Sophie of Austria (1855-1857) died at the age of 2 after falling ill with diarrhea and a high fever
- Archduchess Gisela of Austria (1856-1932) married: Prince Leopold of Bavaria – had issue
- Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (1858-1889) married: Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – had issue
- Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria (1868-1924) married: Archduke Franz Salvator of Austria-Tuscany – had issue
|Empress Elisabeth of Austria|
After Marie’s birth, Sisi and Franz remained married but separated for the rest of their lives. They only came together for royal functions or trips. Sisi even encouraged her husband’s close relationship with his confidante, the actress Katharina Schratt. Schratt’s influence over the Emperor became so immense that she was dubbed “the uncrowned Empress of Austria” by the people. While Elisabeth herself had a countless number of admirers, she was always faithful to her husband. Given her position and the fact that she was constantly studied by her husband’s subjects; she couldn’t afford to have any privacy, which meant it would have been unfeasible for her to have a lover. She did have a close male friend in George “Bay” Middleton, a handsome Scottish soldier who also happened to be one of her many admirers. She spent so much time with Middleton (although they only ever rode and hunted together) that her people were astounded over their regal Empress’s friendship with a lowly commoner. Her son, Rudolf, was especially unhappy about the fact that his mother would mingle with the lower class. His disgust was so profound that a permanent falling-out occurred between Sisi and her son.
As Elisabeth grew older, her obsession with maintaining her beauty reached new heights. She started living on a diet of just meat juice, fresh milk, and egg whites mixed with salt. She slept with hot towels wrapped around her waist and a silk mask of raw veal on her face. To keep her fair complexion, she would coat her cheeks with purified honey and a protective ointment of strawberries compressed in Vaseline. Her beauty and exercise regimes became so popular that a cult of beauty was developed around her and newspaper articles were written dedicated to detailing her fashion, diet, and exercise routines. When she had to give up hunting in her later years due to the effects of sciatica, she walked for hours instead, no matter the weather. After she turned thirty-two, she refused to have any more portraits made or photographs taken of her since she wanted to preserve her beautiful, youthful image. Of course, her wishes were not respected entirely and a few photographs were taken of her without her knowledge after her request.
|Elisabeth's son, Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, with his fiancée,|
Princess Stéphanie of Belgium
In 1889, Elisabeth lost another child, her son Rudolf, when he was found dead with his young lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his hunting lodge in Mayerling. The incident was most likely a murder-suicide that both parties agreed to. Elisabeth, who had also lost her father a year before, sank into a deep depression that she never fully recovered from. Her grief only worsened when her sister, Helene, died a year later with Sisi at her side, and her mother’s passing in 1892. After Rudolf’s death, it was said she wore black for the rest of her life, although a few dresses of color were found in her possession at this time. The only way Sisi could escape from her melancholy and the prying eyes of the Austrian people was through travel. She visited places in Africa and the Middle East, which were not typically vacation destinations for European royals at the time. She also became closer to her estranged husband in her later years, although she spent essentially no time in Vienna with him. They did, however, talk more often and their once cool and distant relationship became a warm, comfortable friendship.
|Elisabeth's daughter, Archduchess Gisela of Austria|
Elisabeth met her tragic and unexpected end on September 10, 1898 when she was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. She was visiting Geneva at the time and was taking a walk with her lady-in-waiting when her assassin caught sight of her and took her life. He had never planned to target the sixty year-old Empress; he had initially planned to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans, the pretender to the French throne, but the Prince had just left Geneva. Lucheni read that the Empress was in the city in a newspaper and decided to kill her insteaad. He later said of the murder: “I am an anarchist by conviction...I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill...It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view”.
|Elisabeth's youngest daughter,|
Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria
Sisi’s eldest surviving daughter, Gisela, married her second cousin, Prince Leopold of Bavaria (who was ten years her senior), in 1873. They had a happy marriage and had four children, two daughters and two sons. Sisi’s late son, Rudolf, had one daughter with his wife before his death – Archduchess Elisabeth Marie. In 1900, she married a man ten years her senior and far below her rank named Prince Otto Weriand of Windisch-Graetz. They had three sons and a daughter, although their marriage was a troubled one. She divorced Otto in early 1948 and just a few months later remarried a man named Leopold Petznek. Both she and her second husband were socialists and members of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Sisi’s youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, married her cousin, Archduke Franz Salvator of Austria-Tuscany, in 1890 and had ten children, six daughters and four sons, with just one daughter dying in infancy.