Empress Elisabeth of Austria is probably the most famous Austrian Empress (and also most amazing, in my humble opinion). Make sure you have some tissues for the ending.

The Duchess in Bavaria

Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi (sometimes spelled Sissi), was born on December 24th, 1837, in Munich. She was the fourth child and second daughter of Princess Ludovika of Bavaria and Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria. She had ten siblings, and eight, including her, survived to adulthood. Her parents’ marriage was unhappy, but they were amazing parents. For royals, Elisabeth and her siblings had a surprising amount of freedom, as the family spent most of their time away from court in the countryside.

Elisabeth’s father had a weird love of circuses, which I find funny. Elisabeth grew up learning how to ride horses, fish, swim, and so much more. Elisabeth would sometimes even skip her lessons to go out riding. Her mother, Princess Ludovika, had always wanted to marry her daughter off to as great of a husband as she could find, and especially wanted Elisabeth to marry a prince of Saxony, but did not think her daughter was pretty enough and wrote:

I would certainly consider it a great happiness to think of Sisi as one of you… but alas, it is likely not to happen – for the only one who could be hoped for is unlikely to consider her; first I seriously question whether he would find her attractive, and then, he is surely looking for a fortune… true, she is very pretty because she is very young and animated, but she has no single pretty feature.

Princess Ludovika of Bavaria

Even though we tend to think of Elisabeth as literally the most beautiful woman who ever lived, her mother didn’t think so. As she grew, her mother was proved wrong. Along with being extremely pretty, Elisabeth was also 5’8″, an incredibly tall woman for the time. Elisabeth soon fell in love with a count, whom she really wanted to marry, but her parents found out and sent him away. Being the granddaughter of a king of Bavaria, Elisabeth couldn’t marry an insignificant count. Soon after he returned, though, he died of an illness, leaving Elisabeth heartbroken.

Romy Schneider as Elisabeth in Sissi – The Young Empress (1956)

Princess Ludovika planned to marry Elisabeth’s older sister, Helene, to marry the Emperor of Austria, and maybe Elisabeth could find a husband on the way. Perhaps it would be the Emperor’s younger brother, who already liked her anyway. (Side note: Franz Joseph was Helene and Elisabeth’s first cousin.) Oh, and did I mention that Helene was definitely going to marry Emperor Franz Joseph no matter what, since his mother, Sophie of Bavaria, Ludovika’s sister, wanted them to get married, and what Sophie wanted, Sophie got.

Ludovika was taking Elisabeth along mainly because she was really devastated after the whole count thing, and Ludovika thought that a nice vacation would cheer her up. Ludovika hadn’t been planning to bring Elisabeth along, but that certainly wouldn’t mess up the marriage plans for Helene. Ludovika really was a great mother, no sarcasm this time.

So, when the family arrived in Bad Ischl to meet the Emperor, they were in mourning for an aunt who’d died recently, so they were dressed completely in black. They’d had the luggage with their other clothing go ahead of them, but it didn’t arrive before them, so the first time they met Emperor Franz Joseph, they were dressed head-to-toe in black. Helene didn’t look so great in black, but the fifteen-year-old Elisabeth looked stunning in it.

Helene and Franz Joseph found each other’s company very awkward, and they didn’t like each other as much as their mothers had hoped, and they definitely didn’t want to get married. Franz Joseph instead fell in love with Elisabeth. His mother, Sophie, would write:

He beamed, and you know how his face can beam when he is happy. The dear little one did not suspect the deep impression she had made on Franzi. Until the moment her mother spoke to her about it, she was filled by nothing but the shyness and timidity inspired in her by the many around her.

Sophie of Bavaria

Franz Joseph had been in love with Anna of Prussia before, too, but they couldn’t get married because of some weird 19th-century politics stuff that I’m too lazy to understand. Luckily for him, he and Elisabeth could definitely get married without any complications. Unluckily for Elisabeth, she was fifteen, nowhere near ready to become Empress of Austria. She was continuously sobbing for the next few days, crying all the way through her engagement ceremony. Poor, sidelined Helene wasn’t too happy about any of this either, but their parents were thrilled.

Franz Joseph sent her tons of gifts, but out of all the jewels, her favorite was the parrot. Elisabeth probably continued stressing and sobbing during the time between her engagement and wedding. She renounced her claim to the Bavarian throne and set off for Vienna in April of 1854. After a long journey, Elisabeth was brought to Schönbrunn Palace, where she had to meet a bunch of Franz Joseph’s relatives and attend a banquet before she was finally able to get a good night’s sleep.

The Teenage Empress

On the evening of April 24th, 1854, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth married. She didn’t want to be Empress, and when ladies were to kiss her hand, she just ran off to sob even more, which she’d been doing for months by now. She saw her cousins and ran to them to hug them, but the evil mother-in-law entered and didn’t let Elisabeth hug her cousins, instead insisting that they kiss her hand, no matter how much Elisabeth protested. Elisabeth, who’d been used to all the freedom she’d had back in Munich with her family, was miserable in Austria, and her mother-in-law, Sophie, wasn’t helping.

And to make matters worse, Sophie followed them to their bedroom to consummate their marriage, and wrote of it:

Ludovika and I led the young bride to her rooms. I left her with her mother and stayed in the small room next to the bedroom until she was in bed. Then I fetched my son and led him to his young wife, whom I saw once more, to wish her a good night. She hid her pretty face, surrounded by the masses of her beautiful hair, in her pillow, as a frightened bird hides in its nest.

Sophie of Bavaria
Karlheinz Böhm as Franz Joseph and Romy Schneider as Elisabeth in Sissi – The Young Empress (1956)

Because Sophie couldn’t leave them alone, they didn’t consummate their marriage until the third night. And Sophie was pretty much spying on her daughter-in-law every moment of her day, so she knew exactly what Elisabeth did all day. The morning after they consummated their marriage, Sophie asked to hear all the details. Elisabeth didn’t want to say anything understandably, but completely not understandably, Franz Joseph went ahead and told his mom everything.

Elisabeth found life in Vienna frustratingly formal. She was only allowed to wear a pair of shoes once in Vienna, though in Bavaria she probably ran through the grass without any shoes at all. Even with her mother-in-law constantly spying on her, Elisabeth had ways to try and stay happy. For example, she would talk to Helene, who thankfully didn’t hate her, in English, so Sophie couldn’t understand them. But no matter how much she tried to get her mother-in-law off her back, she couldn’t.

Because her mother-in-law was the worst, and because nobody likes getting married and becoming an Empress when you’re sixteen, Elisabeth wasn’t doing that well. She would have panic attacks most times she had to go down stairs, and frequently had coughing fits. It wasn’t helping that Sophie would point out every single one of her flaws and constantly tell her how she was supposed to do things.

Soon, Elisabeth found out she was pregnant. Sophie insisted on putting the nursery near her rooms instead of Elisabeth’s, even though their rooms were far apart. Elisabeth was not allowed to go riding or have her parrots near her, but she was supposed to go and show off her pregnancy at court because the evil mother-in-law Sophie told her to.

Elisabeth gave birth to a daughter ten months after the wedding. Sophie, being Sophie, just named the daughter Sophie without even asking Elisabeth. Saying that Elisabeth was just a “silly young mother”, Sophie took baby Sophie away from Elisabeth and refused to allow Elisabeth to see her baby. Elisabeth begged Franz Joseph to make his mother give her her baby, but he didn’t want to say anything to his mother.

The next year, Elisabeth gave birth to another daughter, Gisela (fun fact: her name was actually Gisella, but she never used that spelling), and Sophie the evil mother-in-law took that child away from Elisabeth as well, and Franz Joseph wouldn’t do anything about it again, leaving Elisabeth lonely and miserable.

In 1857, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth visited Hungary with their daughters, Sophie and Gisela. They didn’t take Evil Sophie along, so Elisabeth must have been relieved. That’s when both their daughters fell ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered quickly, but Sophie didn’t and she died at the age of only two. The family returned to Vienna immediately. Elisabeth was devastated, refused to eat, and spent her days crying in her rooms. She didn’t pay much attention to Gisela at the time, and Evil Sophie raised her, something that Gisela never forgot.

Even though she’d lost a daughter, Evil Sophie couldn’t leave Elisabeth alone. Sophie left a pamphlet on Elisabeth’s desk that said:

…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…

Sophie of Bavaria’s Weird Pamphlet

In case you were too lazy to read that, Sophie was basically saying to Elisabeth: your job is to have a son, and once you have a son, don’t even try getting involved in politics. Having a son is the only thing you could ever wish for, and if you don’t have one, you’ll try and meddle in politics using any means necessary, and that makes you a dangerous foreigner who should be sent away.

Karlheinz Böhm as Franz Joseph, Vilma Degischer as Sophie, and Romy Schneider as Elisabeth in Sissi – The Young Empress (1956)

Elisabeth soon found out that she was pregnant again, and gave birth to the long-awaited male heir, Rudolf. Did Sophie leave her alone this time? Sophie did not leave her alone this time. She suffered even more following the birth because Sophie took the child away once again. She was ill for months, but once she recovered, she started riding all hours of the day and not eating enough. When returning to Vienna, Elisabeth once said:

Why must I return to my cage? Why could not I have broken all my bones, so as to put an end to it—everything!

That was dark. Her health did not do well in Vienna, and her mother, Ludovika, was concerned for her. At least there was someone better than Sophie in Elisabeth’s life. Elisabeth decided to take control of the one thing that Sophie couldn’t: her appearance. She kept her weight under 110 pounds, and at one point, she had a sixteen-inch waist. Some historians believe that Elisabeth had an eating disorder. Elisabeth, even though she never liked to eat meat, would sometimes sleep with a face mask of raw veal.

Remember when Sophie was being really creepy and followed Elisabeth and Franz Joseph to their bedroom, and said that Elisabeth’s face was surrounded by “masses of her beautiful hair”? Well, Elisabeth certainly knew she had beautiful hair, and did everything she could to keep it that way. She would wash her hair with an egg mixture and made sure to cancel all her obligations on that day every few weeks. Elisabeth’s hairdresser would spend hours a day brushing the Empress’s hair, and another few hours braiding it. When she was finished, she would have to show the Empress all the hairs on the comb that had fallen off. Elisabeth’s hairdresser, Franziska Feifalik, became one of her closest friends. When she was thirty-two, Elisabeth decided that she wouldn’t pose for any more portraits or have any more photographs of her taken, just in case she became ugly in the future.

Elisabeth’s health did worse and worse, and her doctors told her to go somewhere warmer. Elisabeth chose to go to Madiera, where she was able to live quietly and in peace, away from Vienna, and more importantly, away from Sophie. Immediately after she returned, the fairly good health she’d had in Madiera turned into the bad condition she was always in. The foreign minister wrote:

Since her return, the Empress has the deepest aversion to any kind of nourishment. She no longer eats anything at all, and her energies are exhausted all the more as the cough persists and severe pain robs her of the sleep that might still be able to keep up her energies.

Just a short while later, her doctors advised her to get away from court once again and to go to the Greek island of Corfu. She obeyed and went, wanting any opportunity to get away from court. She traveled around for a little while and returned to Vienna after more than a year. But soon enough, Elisabeth would constantly be away from Vienna and in Hungary. She loved Hungary. The Hungarians also liked her very much. Elisabeth quickly learned Hungarian.

The Queen of Hungary

Elisabeth became friends with Hungarian count and politician Gyula Andrassy, and it was rumored that they were lovers. Elisabeth was sympathetic to the Hungarian cause (Hungary was on the brink of revolution at this point) and helped them get to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which gave Hungary a Parliament and Count Gyula Andrassy became Premier of Hungary. She and Franz Joseph were crowned King and Queen of Hungary and were given a residence near Budapest. Elisabeth gave birth to her fourth child, Marie Valerie, there, and the new baby was called “The Hungarian Child”.

Karlheinz Böhm as Franz Joseph and Romy Schneider as Elisabeth in Sissi – The Young Empress (1956)

This time, Sophie was in no position to steal another one of Elisabeth’s children. Her favorite son, Maximilian, who’d become Emperor of Mexico, had been executed in 1867, and Sophie was devastated. She died five years later, so Elisabeth was free to raise Marie Valerie on her own. She doted on Marie Valerie, smothering her, and it was clear that Marie Valerie was Elisabeth’s favorite child (which Gisela was not happy about, by the way, and the two were never close). Gisela was married off to Leopold of Bavaria in 1873 and had a child a year later that was named after Elisabeth.

Elisabeth did a lot of charity work, too, and visited orphanages and hospitals. Sure, a lot of royals did that kind of stuff, but she even visited asylums. Once, when her husband asked her what she’d like as a gift, she listed lots of exotic things that I’m sure no other Empress in history asked for, but also said that a fully-equipped lunatic asylum was what she really wanted.

Funny story: When Eugenie de Montijo, the French Empress, visited Vienna, she and Elisabeth were later found taking each others’ measurements, just to see who was better. I don’t know about you, but I find that hilarious. There was also a weird visit to Queen Victoria. Victoria wasn’t expecting a visit, but Elisabeth dropped in anyway and left just before lunch was served.

Elisabeth noticed that Franz Joseph was very much in love with actress Katharina Schratt and since she had never been in love with Franz Joseph or anything, but they were fond of each other and she wanted him to be happy, she helped them start up their affair. Her children found it awkward, but Elisabeth and Franz Joseph liked the arrangement, so they eventually got used to it.

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph had their only son Rudolf married off to Princess Stephanie of Belgium. The marriage was very unhappy and Rudolf had quite a few mistresses, the most notable of them being Baroness Mary Vetsera. They were both found dead in January of 1889 after what we call the Mayerling Incident, and Elisabeth was one of the first to find out. It was her job to tell Franz Joseph and Mary Vetsera’s family about the murder-suicide, and she did. She blamed Princess Stephanie for her son’s death and would dress in black for the rest of her life.

Elisabeth had many more losses over the next five years: her sister, Helene died in 1890, and Elisabeth was by her sister’s side at the time of her death; Count Gyula Andrassy, still her good friend, died in 1890 as well; and her mother, Ludovika, died in 1892. Elisabeth began wishing for death, and her daughter, Marie Valerie, wrote of this many times. The entire family was very worried for Elisabeth.

In 1898, Elisabeth and her friend, Hungarian Countess Irma, were in Geneva, Switzerland, and were traveling around Europe. They had gone to many places together, including Algeria, Italy, and Greece, and probably didn’t expect this journey to be their last. In Geneva, an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, was planning to assassinate Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, who was supposed to be in Geneva but wasn’t. He also wasn’t able to assassinate King Umberto I of Italy, but Umberto would be assassinated in a few years anyway. Lucheni really wanted to assassinate some royal, though, no matter who it happened to be. His target would have to be the only royal in town: Elisabeth.

Lucheni stumbled into Elisabeth and Irma while they were about to leave Geneva. Elisabeth fell over, but she didn’t know that she’d just been stabbed in the chest with a four-inch needle file. Elisabeth and Irma just thought that that was some weird thing that happened and maybe he was trying to steal from them, so they continued on. They were traveling incognito under false names after all, so why would anyone try and assassinate Elisabeth?

They boarded the steamer that was to take them to Montreux. She collapsed on the steamer, and when her bodice was opened, a small incision was seen on her chest. When she regained consciousness, she was asked if she was in any pain, and she responded: “No. What happened?” She then lost consciousness again, was taken to a hotel, and was pronounced dead a little while later, on September 10th, 1898, at the age of sixty, after being Empress of Austria for forty-four years.

Elisabeth’s family was devastated, and Lucheni, Elisabeth’s killer, would say: “I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.” Lucheni was given life in prison for his crime and committed suicide a few years later. Franz Joseph gave Irma a medal of honour for her service to Elisabeth.

Elisabeth is buried in Capuchin Church, Vienna. The inscription on her tomb originally said “Empress of Austria”, but Hungary protested, so “Queen of Hungary” was added. It was probably the only title she ever really wanted.

Click here for more portraits of Empress Elisabeth. I wanted to add a few, but I realized that I couldn’t choose which ones to use, so I just decided to include none of them in the post.

One thought on “Empress Sisi: Miserable Empress, Beautiful Queen

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