The Lonely Empress: The life of Elisabeth of Austria

I have been fascinated with the life of Empress Elisabeth ever since I first saw the Winterhalter portrait picture on the left. She looks over her shoulder at the viewer, with her glorious auburn hair covered in diamonds. Despite the sweet expression on her face, there is a hint of melancholia in her eyes, as if she's thinking about the suffocating atmosphere at the Austrian court, or planning the days until her next escape abroad, where she could breathe. Researching her life, I was struck by the parallels between Elisabeth and the late Princess Diana. And if I hadn't come to that conclusion on my own, Andrew Sinclair in biography Death by Fame emphasizes the parallels in the last chapter. Both women suffered from eating disorders, lack of self-esteem, were known for their great beauty, were trapped in unhappy marriages and royal protocol, sought fullfillment in beauty and holistic treatments, and both had tragic deaths. Both found even greater fame after their deaths, becoming icons.

Elisabeth was born on December 24, 1837, from an early age she was called 'Sisi' by her family. Elisabeth was never meant to be Empress. That honor was supposed to go to her sister Helene, who had been trained since birth to be an Empress. The marriage was meant to make up for the marital misalliance of her mother, Ludovica, the daughter of Ludwig I of Bavaria. While her sisters had made grand marriages, Elisabeth to the Prussian Emperor and Sophie to the Crown Prince of Austria, Ludovica had married her first cousin, Duke Max, who wasn't even a Royal Highness until he was elevated to that title.

Nor did Max have any real interest in being or acting like a Prince. He preferred to spend his time with artists, gypsies, and circus performers rather than at court. He even set up his own drinking club of 14 Knights of the Round Table, and then drank them under it.  He wrote poetry and rode horses, scattering bastards around the countryside from his romantic liaisons. Ludovica would get pissed off and freeze him out, moving the children to a different wing of the palace, until he charmed his way back into her affections (and her pants) leaving her with yet another child. By the time Ludovica was 40, she had given birth to 8 children. Elisabeth was her second daughter, a dreamy child who preferred spending time with her adored father and riding horses then sitting in a stuffy classroom at her lessons. Elisabeth adored her father, spending time with him, whenever he was around. Occasionally he would take her out to meet the people. "If you and I Sisi," he once said, "had not been princely born, we could have performed in a circus." Once they even performed as strolling players outside a beer garden.

When she was 15, Elisabeth, her mother, and her sister Helene went to Bad Ischl to stay with their cousin, the Emperor Franz Joseph, so that he could have a look at Helene. Instead, the young emperor fell in love with Elisabeth instead. Although not as beautiful as her sister, Elisabeth had almond shaped brown eyes, and  auburn hair which fell to her knees when unbound. She was shy and awkward around the Emperor but he was entranced. At a ball, he not only gave her a dance bouquet but all the flowers that were meant for all the other ladies. The next day, her mother told her that the Emperor wanted to marry her. Despite her own misgivings about her fitness for the role she was about to undertake, Elisabeth couldn't dare refuse the honor. And she was fond of Franz Joseph. If only he weren't the Emperor!

Back home, Elisabeth underwent a crash course in history and other subjects to prepare her for her new role as Empress. Finally on April 23, 1853 in St. Augustine's Church in Vienna, she and Franz Josef were married. From the beginning Elisabeth was absolutely miserable. She wrote to her mother, "I am on show like a freak in a circus.' Like Marie Antoinette when she married the Dauphin and had to leave everything Austrian behind her, Elisabeth was allowed to bring no one from Bavaria with her to Austria. The court protocal had become completely rigid, so different from the days when the Empress Maria Theresa reigned. She also had to deal with the mother-in-law from hell. The Archduchess Sophie was not particularly pleased with her son's choice. She constantly criticized Elisabeth, everything from her teeth (Elisabeth stopped smiling later on because the mercury treatments for venereal disease discolored her teeth), to Elisabeth's need to escape by spending hours riding horses in the park. When Elisabeth's first child was born, a daughter Sophie, her mother-in-law critized her for not bearing a son. Still, she made sure that Elisabeth had very little to do with her the raising of her children. She referred to her daughter-in-law as a 'silly young mother.' Her mother-in-law chose the Countess Esterhazy-Liechtenstein to be the Mistress of the Household, but she 'treated the young Empress in the manner of a governess.' She was constantly reminded that people in Southern Germany had no manners compared to Austrians who were perfect.

Beseiged by all sides, constantly critized, Elisabeth turned inward. Feeling out of control, she focused on the one thing that she could control which was her eating. Never very robust, now after bearing four children, she hardly ate at all. She was determined to keep her figure at all costs. At five foot six inches tall, Elisabeth made sure her weight rarely went above 105 pounds. She had a gymnasium set up in her apartments so that she could exercise. When she wasn't in the gymnasium, she rode her horses up to 8 hours a day. Some days though she was so depressed that she would just stay in her room crying. She had to fight to end the practice of throwing out her shoes after one wearing. And she refused to wear gloves when she ate despite the fact that it had been the fashion. When she was told that her bare hands were a deviation from the rule, she replied, "then let the deviation now be the rule.' She also made a cult of her beauty. Her pride and joy was her long auburn hair. A silk cloth was placed beneath her hair while it was brushed, and it was washed with a combination of brandy and egg whites. After her hair was brushed, Elisabeth would check to see how many hairs had fallen out. If it was too many, she had a meltdown.

Elisabeth finally gave birth to the requisate heir, Crown Prince Rudolf, but her relationship with her husband had deteriorated. Some biographers believe that Franz Josef may have given her a veneral disease picked up from the actresses that he had favored before his marriage, or that she discovered that he was having affairs. Whatever the cause, she suffered a nervous breakdown which necessitated her spending months traveling on a yacht loaned by the English Royal family. She traveled to Corfu which she loved. When she returned, a more assertive Elisabeth appeared. She had fallen in love with Hungary even before she became Empress, and a visit to that country increased her love. She began to surround herself with attendants from the Hungarian aristocracy, insisting that they only speak Hungarian to her. A castle, Godollo, had been given to the royal couple. Elisabeth made Godollo her primary residence. She also began to take more of an interest in her children, despite the Archduchess Sophie. In exchange, Elisabeth agreed to spend more time acting like the Empress at official court functions. She also encouraged the Emperor to make Hungary a seperate kingdom, giving the country a measure of independance, and that they should be crowned King and Queen of Hungary. She had been influenced by Count Andrassy, who was the foreign minister, in her views of Hungarian nationality. For the rest of her life, Hungary and its people would be important to her.

While in Hungary, Elisabeth started a riding school, spending many hours learning how to train the horses that she loved. She also began to spend time visiting hospitals and mental asylums, feeling a great affinity for the sick and the mentally ill, perhaps because she suffered from bouts of melancholy which she blamed on the Wittelsbach temperment. When she was back in Austria, Elisabeth suffered from increasing bouts of paranoia, she hated being looked at, and would hide behind parasols, a heavy veil or a fan to prevent people from getting too close a look. Still, she had an almost compulsive need to know what people in Vienna thought of her, which wasn't very complimentary. As loved as she was by the Hungarian people, she was hated by the Austrians, who felt that she neglected her duties as Empress while traveling abroad constantly on hunting trips to England.

After a brief reconciliation with the Emperor, Elisabeth gave birth to her fourth and last child, the Archduchess Marie-Valerie at Godollo. From then on the two would live seperate lives, only coming together for official functions and trips. She encouraged Franz-Josef's relationship with the actress Katharina Schratt. She even commissioned a portrait of the actress by the court artist Heinrich von Angeli as a gift to her husband, putting the royal seal of approval on the affair. Probably she reasoned that it was better for the Emperor to have an official mistress to keep him out of trouble. Katharina could be the wife to the Emperor that Elisabeth could not. Although she was not as beautiful as Elisabeth, she was a warm and loving woman. Elisabeth encouraged the relationship, she even spend time with Katharina hiking in the mountains, sharing beauty and diet tips. After Crown Prince Rudolf's death, Elisabeth encouraged Katharina to comfort the Emperor in his grief, while she continued her wanderings.

Elisabeth, while she had many admirers, seems to have been faithful to the Emperor. Given her paranoia that she was being spied on, it would have been impossible for her to have a lover.  Everyone in Vienna certainly would have known about it.  One of Elisabeth's admirers, was a Scottish soldier, George 'Bay' Middleton who Elisabeth met while hunting in England with the 5th Earl Spencer. But Middleton's role was strictly confined to horse racing and hunting.  He helped her find her mounts when she traveled to Ireland and England, as well as in Hungary. Viennese society was shocked that she preferred to spend time with someone who was not of noble birth. Her son Rudolf was particularly distressed by his mother's friendship and cut Middleton dead at a ball in London. It caused a rift with her son that was never healed.

As she grew older, Elisabeth became more obssessed with preserving her beauty. She began to live on a diet of meat juice, fresh milk (she brought her own cows with her whenever she traveled), and egg whites mixed with salt. She slept with hot towels around her waist, and wore a silk mask that contained raw veal. Proud of her twenty inch waist, she had her riding costumes sewed on. She also fenced as a way of keeping her weight down. To keep her complexion soft, she would cover her cheeks with purified honey, and then a protective ointment of strawberries crushed in vaseline. Onions and Peruvian balsam was added to the cognac she washed her hair with. Like Princess Diana in the 20th century, newspaper articles were written on her fashion sense, her diet and exercise regimes, her reputed lovers, and her passion for hunting.

When she traveled to Ireland to hunt incognito (although everyone knew what her alias was), she hailed as a heroine by the Irish because of her sympathy for Hungary. Unfortunately her trips to Ireland damaged England's relations with Austria. Home Rule for Ireland was a political hot potato at the time and the Empress's presence even though she was on holiday seemed to support the Irish. She also angered people by hunting on Ash Wednesday. Elisabeth didn't spend all her time hunting and exercising. She also wrote poetry, and began to study both Ancient and Modern Greek. When she had to give up hunting because of her sciatica, and took up walking instead, she would have lecturers walk with her while reading Greek to her.

In 1889, Elisabeth's world was shattered when Crown Prince Rudolf and his young mistress, Mary Vetsera were found dead at the hunting lodge Mayerling in an apparent murder/suicide. Elisabeth and Rudolf were still estranged. She had objected to his marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, seeing it as more of a political marriage than any real sympathy between the two. When she met the Princess, she found her to be stupid and lazy. Elisabeth was right to be concerned. The marriage broke down after the birth of their daughter Elisabeth. Rudolf went back to his opera singers and dancers. At the age of 30, he was kept from any real meaningful role by his father, leaving him at loose ends. Like Elisabeth, Rudolf was devoted to the idea of Hungarian independance, he wrote articles under a pseudonym for a radical newspaper. Feeling depressed, and facing years before he would be Emperor, he took his own life. After her son's death, Elisabeth told her daughter Valerie, "All the people who have had nothing but evil to say of me ever since I came here, now have the satisfaction of knowing that I shall leave this ife without a trace of myself remaining in Austria."

Elisabeth became convinced that some strain of madness in the Wittelsbachs and the Hapsburgs contributed to her son's death and that the family was cursed. She was aided in her belief by her cousin Ludwig II's death by drowning after being declared insane, and her sister Sophie's death in a fire in Paris. Wearing only black from head to toe, she continued her wanderings, constantly trying to find a sense of peace that eluded her. Her favorite places were Lake Geneva, Corfu, the French Riviera, and Bad Ischl in Austria where she and Franz Josef became bethrothed. Like Princess Diana, Elisabeth hated the idea of having security spying on her, and following her around. She often made it difficult for them by not alerting them to her plans, and exhausting them on her walks. Elisabeth didn't fear death. She was a fatalist, "I am always on the march to meet my fate. Nothing can prevent me from meeting it on the day on which it is writen that I must do so."

On September 10, 1898, when she was 60 years old, Elisabeth was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Lucheni had been alerted to her arrival by the press which announced her visit despite the fact that she was traveling under an alias. Her assassin had been waiting for the chance to kill a royal. When he was interrogated, he claimed, "I struck the first crowned head that crossed my way. I don't care. I wanted to make an example and I succeeded." She had been walking along the promenade in Lake Geneva, about to board a steamship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Sztaray. She had no protection, having asked  the police department in Geneva to remove the detectives placed around her hotel as a precaution. After Lucheni had run off, Elisabeth was asked if she was injured, she said she had not. "It is nothing." Not realizing the severity of her injury, she boarded the ship. Her corset had contained the bleeding until was removed. She was brought back to her hotel but she had died on the stretcher. She was buried in the Imperial crypt in Vienna.

Elisabeth of Austria spent her life yearning for peace and a measure of happiness but the tragedy of her life was that she never really found it. She would have been happier married to a minor princeling, but it was her fate to be Empress of Austria. If only she had found a way to reach ou to the Emperor, to find a way to help him ease his burdens, she might have found a purpose and been happier. It might have been possible for her to have forged a partnership like Victoria and Albert or The Crown Princess of Prussia and the Crown Prince.  Elisabeth, unfortunately,,had no role models on which to pattern a marriage. Certainly not her parent, or the Emperor's parents. Even her earlyy interest in politics and Hungarian independance waned, as she began to believe that there was no point. Elisabeth's life wasn't completely selfish, but she kept her acts of charity mainly private. She would often spontaneously visit hospitals in Austrial and Hungary. She had genuuine concern for the poor, the insane, and working women. Unlike Princess Diana, who was able to use the press to promote herself and her causes, Elisabeth didn't have that luxury, nor would she have sought out the press. While Diana was able to find a measure of fulfillment and satisfaction in her work and her children, Elisabeth spent her life fruitlessly searching for something that she never found.

After Elisabeth's death, she became the subject of numerous books and films including a popular trilogy of films starring the actress Romy Schneider, and the subject of a long-running musical.


Andrew Sinclair - Death by Fame: A life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.
Joan Haislip - The Lonely Empress
Brigitte Hamann - The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Barry Denenburg - The Royal Diaries: Elisabeth, The Princess Bride


Daphne said…
What a beautiful portrait and a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing it and Happy Holidays!
Unknown said…
Fascinating! She is indeed gorgeous and I am definitely going to look into reading more about her.
I'm so glad that you both enjoyed her story. It's a sad story but fascinating. Happy Holidays!
Stephanie Allen said…
Elisabeth has fascinated me since I first came across her story in high school. It's unfortunate that it was such a tragic one.
She is so fascinating, I first came across her in a news paper magazine. Thanks for sharing it.
I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who has been fascinated by her over the years. It's a sad story but at times while I was researching her life, I just wanted to shake her and tell her to choose to be happy. We think that royalty have it so easy but we have no idea what kind of constraints they live under and why some people can thrive in that hothouse atmosphere and some people just wilt.
dave hambidge said…
The similarities with Diana are very marked, down to the final ditching of poice protection allowing something fatal to happen.

Thankyou for the past year of illuminating biographies, and hoping for many more in 2010.

Seasonal best to you and yours


PS Sorry about the photo, I had to...
Kelly Boyce said…
I love coming to this blog and reading up on historical figures I knew little or nothing about. It's absolutely fascinating the lives they led. Great work!
Thanks Kelly. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. I love writing about these women and sharing their stories with everyone. I have some exciting women coming up this month.
Nancy Toby said…
One major repercussion in history should be noted: Her son Rudolph's suicide meant that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne became Archduke Ferdinand - the one who was assassinated with his wife in Sarajevo, which touched off World War I.
Thanks Nancy for reminding me of that. I hope to write a post about Rudolph and Marie Vetsera at some point. It's very interesting the conspiracy theories that have sprung up around it.
Evgueni Mlodik said…
Elisabeth had FOUR children. Her first born was a girl born in 1855. Sophie immediately took control of the child and even named her after herself without consent from the parents. This action made Elisabeth loathe her husband, who couldn't stop up to his mother. Same thing happened with Gisela a year later.

In 1857, Elisabeth finally won the battle and was able to take the children on vacation to her favorite part of the Empire, Hungary (which her mother-in-law naturally despised.) During this trip, both children fell ill with diarrhea. While Gisela recovered quickly, little Sophie became steadily weaker until she finally succumbed and died in front of Sisi's eyes. She was two years old.

Elisabeth would be haunted by the death of her first born for the rest of her life and became cold distant towards her other children in order to avoid more pain.

Little Sophie's death was a turning point in Elisabeth's life, causing her an entire life of depression and mood swings, as well as the initial rift in he marriage.
I should have stated that Elisabeth had 3 children that lived but she gave birth to four. That's for the correction.
Mrs Baggins said…
My great great aunt was married to Charles Peck who I have always been told was master of the hunt to the Empress of Austria. We have in the family various gifts that were given to him by members of the hunt. Have you ever come across anything that may confirm this, I can't find any reference to him on the internet. Thank you.
Unknown said…
Do you know of anymore resources that I could go to about Elisabeth?

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