Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria (December 24, 1837 – September 10, 1898) was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia from her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I on April 24,1854 until her assassination in 1898.
Born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie on December 24, 1837 in Munich, Bavaria, she was the third child and second daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, the half-sister of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her mother was the daughter of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria and his second wife Caroline of Baden as their fifth child, The birth of Ludovika was known to be difficult.
Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria
Elisabeth was born into the royal Bavarian House of Wittelsbach. Nicknamed Sisi (also Sissi), she enjoyed an informal upbringing.
Sisi’s father, Maximilian was considered to be rather peculiar; he had a childish love of circuses and traveled the Bavarian countryside to escape his duties. The family’s homes were the Herzog-Max-Palais in Munich during winter and Possenhofen Castle in the summer months, far from the protocols of court. Sisi and her siblings grew up in a very unrestrained and unstructured environment; she often skipped her lessons to go riding about the countryside.
Emperor Franz Joseph was the eldest son of Archduke Franz Charles of Austria (the younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Franz II) and his wife Princess Sophie of Bavaria.
Young Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria
In December 1848, Franz Joseph’s uncle Emperor Ferdinand abdicated the throne at Olomouc, as part of Minister President Felix zu Schwarzenberg’s plan to end the Revolutions of 1848 in Hungary. Franz Joseph then acceded to the throne.
It was generally felt in the Imperial Court that the Emperor should marry and produce heirs as soon as possible. Various potential brides were considered, including Princess Elisabeth of Modena, Princess Anna of Prussia and Princess Sidonia of Saxony.
Although in public life Franz Joseph was the unquestioned director of affairs, in his private life his mother still wielded crucial influence. Sophie wanted to strengthen the relationship between the Houses of Habsburg and Wittelsbach—descending from the latter house herself—and hoped to match Emperor Franz Joseph with her sister Ludovika’s eldest daughter, Helene (“Néné”), who was four years the Emperor’s junior.
Duchess Helene (“Néné”) in Bavaria
Although the couple had never met, Emperor Franz Joseph’s obedience was taken for granted by the Archduchess, who was once described as “the only man in the Hofburg” for her authoritarian manner.
The Duchess Ludovika and Helene were invited to journey to the resort of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria to receive Emperor Franz Joseph’s formal proposal of marriage. The then fifteen year old Sisi accompanied her mother and sister, and they traveled from Munich in several coaches.
They arrived late as the Duchess, prone to migraines, had to interrupt the journey; the coach with their gala dresses never did arrive. Before leaving for Bad Ischl, the Bavarian court had gone into mourning over the death of the Queen-Dowager’s (Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen) brother Georg, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg so they were dressed in black and unable to change to more suitable clothing before meeting the young Emperor.
While black did not suit eighteen year old Helene’s dark coloring, by contrast, it made her younger sister look more striking.
Helene was a pious, quiet young woman, andnshe and Franz Joseph felt ill at ease in each other’s company.
Emperor Franz Joseph was instantly infatuated with her younger sister Sisi, a beautiful girl of fifteen, and insisted on marrying her instead. He did not propose to Helene, but instead, he defied his mother and informed her that if he could not have Elisabeth (Sisi), he would not marry at all.
Sophie acquiesced, despite her misgivings about Sisi’s appropriateness as an imperial consort. Five days later, their betrothal was officially announced. When Emperor Franz Joseph decided to marry Elisabeth instead of Helene, she became very distraught.
The couple was married eight months later in Vienna, at the Augustinerkirche, on April 24, 1854. Emperor Franz Joseph was 24 years old and Empress Elisabeth was 16 years old at the time of thier marriage.
The marriage was finally consummated three days later, and Elisabeth received a dower equal to US$240,000 today.
In 1858, Helene married Maximilian Anton, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis. After nearly nine years of marriage, Maximillian died due to a chronic kidney disease, leaving the Thrun and Taxis throne into the hands of Helene until their son, Prince Maximilian Maria, reached majority.
The marriage of Emperor Franz Joseph and Sisi would eventually prove to be an unhappy one; though Franz Joseph was passionately in love with his wife, the feeling was not mutual. Elisabeth never truly acclimatized to life at court, and was frequently in conflict with the imperial family.
Sisi was surprised to learn she was pregnant and gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Archduchess Sophie of Austria (1855–1857), just ten months after her wedding.
The elder Archduchess Sophie, who often referred to Elisabeth as “a silly young mother,” not only named the child (after herself), without consulting the mother, but she took complete charge of the baby, refusing to allow Elisabeth to breastfeed or otherwise care for her own child. When a second daughter, Archduchess Gisela of Austria (1856–1932), was born a year later, the Archduchess took the baby away from Elisabeth as well.
The fact that she had not produced a male heir made Elisabeth increasingly unwanted in the palace. One day, she found a pamphlet on her desk with the following words underlined:
…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire…
Her mother-in-law is generally considered to be the source of the malicious pamphlet. The accusation of political meddling referred to Elisabeth’s influence on her husband regarding his Italian and Hungarian subjects. When she traveled to Italy with him, she persuaded him to show mercy toward political prisoners.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia
In 1857, Elisabeth visited Hungary for the first time with her husband and two daughters, and it left a deep and lasting impression upon her, which many historians attribute to the fact that in Hungary, she found a welcome respite from the constraints of Austrian court life.
It was “the first time that Elisabeth had met with men of character in Franz Joseph’s realm, and she became acquainted with an aristocratic independence that scorned to hide its sentiments behind courtly forms of speech… She felt her innermost soul reach out in sympathy to the proud, steadfast people of this land…” Unlike the Archduchess, who despised the Hungarians, Elisabeth felt such an affinity for them that she began to learn Hungarian. In turn, the country reciprocated in its adoration of her.
Sisi is known as one of the most beautiful women of 19th century Europe. In addition to her rigorous exercise regimen, Elisabeth practiced demanding beauty routines.
At 173 cm (5 feet 8 inches), Elisabeth was unusually tall. Through fasting and exercise such as gymnastics and riding, she maintained her weight at approximately 50 kg (110 pounds) for most of her life.
In deep mourning after her daughter Sophie’s death, Elisabeth refused to eat for days – a behavior that would reappear in later periods of melancholy and depression. Whereas she previously had supper with the family, she now began to avoid this; and if she did eat with them, she ate quickly and very little.
Whenever her weight threatened to exceed fifty kilos, a “fasting cure” or “hunger cure” would follow, which involved almost complete fasting. Meat itself often filled her with disgust, so she either had the juice of half-raw beefsteaks squeezed into a thin soup, or else adhered to a diet of milk and eggs.
Elisabeth emphasised her extreme slenderness through the practice of “tight-lacing”. During the peak period of 1859–60, which coincided with Franz-Joseph’s political and military defeats in Italy, her sexual withdrawal from her husband after three pregnancies in rapid succession, and her losing battle with her mother-in-law for dominance in rearing her children, she reduced her waist to 40 cm (16 inches) in circumference.
Daily care of her abundant and extremely long hair, which in time turned from the dark blonde of her youth to chestnut brunette, took at least three hours. Her hair was so long and heavy that she often complained that the weight of the elaborate double braids and pins gave her headaches.
Elisabeth was an emotionally complex woman, and perhaps due to the melancholy and eccentricity that was considered a given characteristic of her Wittelsbach lineage (the best-known member of the family being her favorite cousin, the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria), she was interested in the treatment of the mentally ill. In 1871, when the Emperor asked her what she would like as a gift for her Saint’s Day, she listed a young tiger and a medallion, but: “…a fully equipped lunatic asylum would please me most”.
On August 21, 1858, Elisabeth finally gave birth to an heir, Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria (1858–1889). The 101-gun salute announcing the welcome news to Vienna also signaled an increase in her influence at court. This, combined with her sympathy toward Hungary, made Elisabeth an ideal mediator between the Magyars and the emperor.
Her interest in politics had developed as she matured; she was liberal-minded, and placed herself decisively on the Hungarian side in the increasing conflict of nationalities within the empire.
At the young age of sixteen the marriage thrust her into the much more formal Habsburg court life, for which she was unprepared and which she found uncongenial. Early in the marriage, she was at odds with her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who took over the rearing of Elisabeth’s daughters, one of whom, Sophie, died in infancy.
The birth of a son to the imperial couple, Crown Prince Rudolf, improved Elisabeth’s standing at court, but her health suffered under the strain. As a result, she would often visit Hungary for its more relaxed environment. Since she had developed a deep kinship with Hungary she was instrumental in helping to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867.
The death of Elisabeth’s only son and his mistress Mary Vetsera in a murder–suicide at his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 was a blow from which the Empress never recovered. She withdrew from court duties and travelled widely, unaccompanied by her family. In 1890, she had the palace Achilleion built on the Greek island of Corfu.
The palace featured an elaborate mythological motif and served as a refuge, which Elisabeth visited often.
In 1897, her sister, Sophie, died in an accidental fire at the Bazar de la Charité charity event in Paris. While travelling in Geneva in 1898, Elisabeth was mortally wounded by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Her tenure of 44 years was the longest of any Austrian Empress.