Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria (July 5, 1554 – January 22, 1592) was Queen of France from 1570 to 1574 as the wife of King Charles IX. A member of the House of Habsburg, she was the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, and Infanta Maria of Spain, daughter of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (King Carlos I of Spain) and Infanta Isabella of Portugal.
Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria was the fifth child and second daughter of her parents’ sixteen children, of whom eight survived infancy. During her childhood, she lived with her elder sister Archduchess Anna and younger brother Archduke Matthias in a pavilion in the gardens of the newly built Stallburg, part of the Hofburg Palace complex in Vienna.
With her flawless white skin, long blonde hair and perfect physique, she was considered one of the great beauties of the era. She was also regarded as demure, pious, and warmhearted but naive and intensely innocent because of her sheltered upbringing. Still, she was intellectually talented.
Very early on, around 1559, a match between Elisabeth and Charles, Duke of Orléans, was suggested. In 1562, the Maréchal de Vieilleville, a member of the French delegation sent to Vienna upon seeing the eight-year-old princess, exclaimed: “Your Majesty, this is the Queen of France!”
Although Vieilleville was not entitled to make an offer, Elisabeth’s grandfather Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor appeared interested: gifts were exchanged and contacts initiated between the two courts – but no one bothered to teach French to the young princess.
Queen of France
Only in 1569, after the failure of marriage plans with King Frederik II of Denmark and Sebastian of Portugal, the French offer was seriously considered. Catherine de’ Medici, mother of the Duke of Orléans and the power behind the throne, initially preferred Elisabeth’s elder sister Archduchess Anna; but the latter was already chosen as the new wife of her uncle King Felipe II of Spain.
Catherine de’ Medici finally agreed to the marriage with the younger Elisabeth, as France absolutely needed a Catholic marriage in order to combat the Protestant party, the Huguenots, as well as to cement an alliance between the House of Habsburg and the French Crown.
Elisabeth was first married by proxy on October 22, 1570 in the cathedral of Speyer. Her uncle, Archduke Ferdinand of Further Austria-Tyrol, was standing as proxy for Charles. After long celebrations, she left Austria on November 4 accompanied by high-ranking German dignitaries, including the Archbishop-Elector of Trier.
Because of bad weather upon her arrival in France, whereas constant rain had made roads impassable, the decision was taken to have the official wedding celebrated in the small border town of Mézières in Champagne. Before reaching her destination, Elisabeth stayed in Sedan, where her husband’s two younger brothers Henri, Duke of Anjou and François, Duke of Alençon greeted her.
Curious about his future wife, Charles dressed himself as a soldier and went to Sedan, where he mixed in the crowd of courtiers to observe her incognito while his brother Henri was showing her the architecture of the fortress of Sedan. Charles was reportedly delighted with the sight of her.
King Charles IX of France and Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria were formally married on November 26, 1570 in Mézières; Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon performed the ceremony. The occasion was celebrated with immense pomp and extravagance, despite the dire state of French finances. The new queen’s wedding dress was of a cloth of silver sprinkled with pearls, and her tiara was studded with pearls, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and rubies.
Because of the difficult journey and the cold weather, at the beginning of 1571 Elisabeth fell ill. Since the wedding took place far away from Paris, it was only in the spring that the German-French alliance was celebrated once again with magnificent feasts in the capital. On March 25, 1571, Elisabeth was consecrated as Queen of France by the Archbishop of Reims at the Basilica of Saint-Denis. The new queen officially entered Paris four days later, on March 29. Then, she disappeared from public life.
Elisabeth was so delighted about her husband that she, to general amusement, did not hesitate to kiss him in front of others. However, Charles IX already had a long-term mistress, Marie Touchet, who famously quoted: “The German girl doesn’t scare me” (L’Allemande ne me fait pas peur); after a brief infatuation with his teenage bride, Charles IX soon returned to his mistress.
However, the royal couple had a warm and supportive relationship. Charles realised that the liberal ways of the French Court might shock Elisabeth and, along with his mother, made an effort to shield her from its excesses. In addition, Catherine de’ Medici made sure that her new daughter-in-law was kept out of the affairs of state.
Elisabeth spoke German, Spanish, Latin and Italian with fluency, but she learned French with difficulty; also, she felt lonely in the lively and dissolute French court; yet, one of her few friends was her sister-in-law, Margaret of Valois, who was not known for her virtue. Busbecq, her former tutor who accompanied her to France, was made Lord Chamberlain of her Household, and Madeleine of Savoy was appointed her Première dame d’honneur.
Elisabeth, shocked with the licentious ways of the French court, dedicated her time to embroidery work, reading and especially the practice of charitable and pious works. She continued to hear mass twice a day, and was appalled at how little respect was shown for religion by the supposedly Catholic courtiers.
Her one controversial act was to make a point of rejecting the attentions of Protestant courtiers and politicians by refusing the Huguenot leader, Gaspard II de Coligny the permission to kiss her hand when he paid homage to the royal family.
Despite her strong opposition to Protestantism in France, she was horrified when she received news of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre begun on 24 August 24, 1572, and which continued for several days afterwards, when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in Paris.
According to Brantôme, the following morning, shocked upon learning from someone in her entourage about the massacre, she asked if her husband knew. Told that he not only knew about it, but was its initiator, exclaimed: “Oh, my God! What is this? Who are these counselors who gave him such advice? My God, I ask of you to forgive him…”
Then she asked for her book of hours and began to pray. During those days, Elisabeth was given petitions to speak for the innocent, and she managed to assure a promise to spare the lives of the foreign (especially numerous German) Protestants. Quite advanced in pregnancy at the time, (she was seven months pregnant), she did not publicly rejoice at so many deaths – like other prominent Catholics did.
Two months later, on 27 October 1572, Elisabeth gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter, in the Louvre Palace. The child was named Marie Elisabeth after her grandmother, Empress Maria, and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who were her godmothers.
By the time of her birth, the health of Marie Elisabeth’s father was deteriorating rapidly, and after long suffering, in which Elisabeth rendered him silent support and prayed for his recovery, Charles IX died on 30 May 1574; Elisabeth wept “tears so tender, and so secret,” according to Brantôme, at his bedside.