Friday, August 19, 2011

Consort Profile: Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria

Probably no Hapsburg consort has been so celebrated or so lastingly famous as Elisabeth of Bavaria, the legendary beauty best known to all as “Sissi”. Over time, the Empress has become iconic, mostly as a tragic figure. However, while tragedy is certainly far from unknown in royal history, and that of the House of Wittelsbach or Hapsburg particularly, in the case of Sissi, I think the “tragedy” of her life has been somewhat exaggerated and, to some extent, much of her sorrow appears self-inflicted. Yet, there is no denying that there was, and still is, just “something” about her that has fascinated people all over the world for over a century. Even as a historical figure she commands attention. Whether or not she deserves our sympathy is a more complicated, and probably controversial, question.

A Christmas Eve baby, Sissi was born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, on December 24, 1837 in Munich to the music loving (and somewhat morbid) Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She grew up in Possenhofen Castle, the fourth of ten children, and a pretty normal upbringing, perhaps a bit on the liberal side, for a young girl of minor Bavarian royalty. Her father impressed upon her a love for the circus and a genuine concern for the common people. She liked taking long walks and loved horses but was not a particularly attentive student. Sissi was not considered extraordinarily gifted nor, interestingly enough for someone who became such a famous beauty, was she considered especially attractive as a child. She liked the zither, liked looking at things from alternate points of view and she was terribly shy around strangers; all qualities she would never completely lose.

Contrary to what some think it was actually Princess Ludovika (rather than Princess Sophie) who was most interested in pushing another Hapsburg-Wittelsbach marriage. In 1853 Princess Elisabeth and her older sister Helene were taken by their mother on a little vacation to Upper Austria where the Duchess Helene was to be aimed at the young Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph. Yet, it was the 15-year old Duchess Elisabeth, a luminescent beauty to be sure, who captivated the Emperor and he determined to marry her. His mother, Princess Sophie, advised against it, fearing that Elisabeth was too immature, but Francis Joseph would not be dissuaded and on April 24, 1854 he and Elisabeth were married in Vienna. From that point on she became Empress of Austria. The strict protocol of the Hapsburg court was quite a change from the relaxed, informal life she had lived in Bavaria and there was a clash, from the very beginning, with her new mother-in-law Princess Sophie (or Archduchess Sophie). She had not been overjoyed with Sissi as a wife for her son, thinking her too young and immature and, from the start, Sissi did not do much to prove her wrong.

As Archduchess Sophie set out to make Sissi her own special project, to train her for the “job” of Empress, Sissi snubbed her and did not take kindly to instruction. Whenever there was a problem Sissi would rush to Francis Joseph to take her side, which he tried not to do, and thus the man with the cares of an empire on his shoulders was often caught in the middle of squabbles between the two most important women in his life. Sissi became rather offended when the Emperor did not always take her side, however, Francis Joseph has always been brought up to be a loyal son and, in a very real way, he owed his throne to his mother who had persuaded her own husband to abdicate his rights to the throne so that the Hapsburg crown could be passed directly from the Emperor Ferdinand I to Francis Joseph. Many at court, and Archduchess Sophie certainly among them, were also alarmed that Sissi seemed to have more sympathy with the people they saw as the enemies of the monarchy than she did for the House of Hapsburg itself. One area which became something of a sore point was her fascination with Hungary.

Many in Vienna were still haunted by memories of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848 when rebel leaders declared a republic and nearly brought down the whole of the Hapsburg empire. Because of this, there were many who remained very nervous about any and all things Hungarian. Empress Sissi, however, was enthralled by Hungary, loved the people and at great effort learned the history of the nation and to speak Hungarian (which was not easy as it is a very unique language). There was, of course, nothing wrong with this, she was the Queen of Hungary and it was completely proper for her to take an interest in the country. In return the Hungarians adored her and Sissi came to be seen by the Hungarians as their highest advocate in Vienna, which she was. Yet, others in the German-speaking half of the empire were put off by her sudden fascination with all things Hungarian and tended to see it as a slight against the Austrians, as if Sissi was siding against them in being so sympathetic toward Hungary.

All of this made Archduchess Sophie even more worried that Sissi did not have the best interests of the House of Hapsburg at heart. She feared this interest came about for the wrong reasons and could be taken advantage of. On that count she may have been correct as there were some anti-Hapsburg republicans among the network of those affiliated to varying degrees with the Empress. In any event, family matters continued on and in 1855 Sissi gave birth to her first child, Sophie, who was named by her grandmother after herself without the Empress having anything to say about it. The following year Archduchess Gisela was born and Sophie largely took charge of them both, not really trusting her daughter-in-law to raise them properly. This was unfair but Sissi did herself no favors by constantly persisting in doing exactly the things that would make people uncomfortable about her. She was constantly at odds with Sophie over the children and became increasingly depressed about her life. Of course, she wanted for nothing, lived in lavish surrounding, had a devoted husband and so on, yet she seemed to have made up her mind to be unhappy and nothing could change it.

The first great tragedy of her life came when, to her delight, Emperor Francis Joseph decided to undertake a state visit to Hungary in 1857 in order to foster better relations and Austro-Hungarian goodwill. He of course would take his Empress along with him, regarding her as his most valuable asset on such a mission given how beloved she was in Hungary and counting on her ability to charm the Hungarian nobles. Sissi was thrilled with the idea but ran afoul of Sophie again when she insisted on taking the children along. The girls had been sick with diarrhea and their grandmother insisted that they stay behind with her so she could take care of them. The doctors agreed that it would be unwise to take them on such a trip but Sissi would not hear of it. If the children could not go, she would not go. Emperor Francis Joseph could hardly make the trip without her, she was the most beloved member of the Imperial-Royal Family in Hungary and most cared far more about seeing her than they did their king. So, for a change, Francis Joseph took the side of his wife and let her bring the children along. However, as the doctors had predicted, the girls became even more ill. Archduchess Gisela managed to recover but the little Archduchess Sophie did not.

There was immense sadness and some anger over the death of the little archduchess. Sophie took it as proof that Sissi was an unfit mother. The Empress was devastated of course and the situation was not helped by the attitude taken by many who has been against her all along that the tragedy confirmed their view that Sissi was headstrong and immature, more concerned with having her own way rather than what was best for the family. The fact that the court doctors had urged against the children making the trip only made things look worse and even Emperor Francis Joseph was never quite the same toward his wife as he had been. For Sissi, her depression deepened, not much relieved with the birth of an heir to the throne, the Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1858. Needless to say, Sophie took charge of the baby boy at the outset and Sissi never had much to say about his upbringing. Sissi made herself sick and finally had to leave Vienna for lengthy periods of time, only returning when she feared that the military training young Rudolf was going through would hurt him. Sissi went to the Emperor and threatened to leave him if she was not given complete control over the upbringing of their children and Francis Joseph had little choice but to agree. Yet, after this, she took very little interest in her son which caused many to think, again, that this was a matter of Sissi having her own way rather than a genuine interest in the upbringing of the Crown Prince.

In 1867, with restlessness still strong in Hungary, Empress Sissi was key in working out the compromise, agreed to by her husband, which put aside the Austrian Empire and created Austria-Hungary. This was the one political issue she was instrumental in, due to her love of Hungary and her great popularity amongst the Hungarians. From that time on the Hapsburg empire would be one monarchy reigning over two countries, separate but equal, each with their governments and each with their own legal systems. Franz Joseph and Sissi reunited to go to Budapest for their formal coronation as King and Queen of Hungary. In 1868, in Hungary, Sissi gave birth to her last child, Archduchess Marie Valerie, who she had all to herself from day one and who she always favored best.

By that time, Sissi had become famous all across Europe for her beauty and, may have been the first “royal celebrity”. People eagerly read anything about her, trying to follow her example in fashion, diet, exercise and anything else. Anything Sissi did instantly became fashionable. With all of this attention, though always a very shy person, Sissi became obsessively vain, determined to remain on the pedestal the public had placed her on. She went to extreme lengths to maintain her youthful, beautiful appearance such as bathing in olive oil or starving herself. This was of less interest to the Emperor than her increasingly vocal liberalism, witty criticism of the Hapsburg monarchy or the radicals, even republicans, she often associated with. She became increasingly pessimistic regarding the survival of the Dual-Monarchy. Still, there was little to be done as the Empress was often traveling abroad and only rarely visited her husband in Vienna. Nonetheless, she was deeply disturbed when she learned of the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, allegedly at his own hand, and it was she who was the first to know and who had the unfortunate duty of breaking the news to the Emperor and the mother of her son’s mistress who died with him.

Sissi did not take the loss well. First, in quite a cruel display, she blamed Rudolf’s wife Princess Stephanie of Belgium. Given the problems she had with her own mother-in-law, it may surprise some how cold Sissi had always been toward Stephanie, dismissing her as altogether too pious and unattractive (as a woman who was rather obsessed with her own attractiveness) and she accused Stephanie of driving her husband away by being unaffectionate and aloof. Likewise, for a woman who held such liberal views and who was generally disdainful of monarchy she had always considered the Belgian Royal Family too lowly to be tied by marriage to the venerable House of Hapsburg. All of this was quite unfair to Princess Stephanie who had given the Crown Prince a daughter and might have given him a son were it not for the fact that Rudolf gave her a venereal disease, picked up during his frequent carousing, that made her infertile. Later, however, Sissi began to blame herself or more particularly the history of insanity in the Bavarian Royal Family and she began to fear that her blood had caused Rudolf to take his own life.

The Empress withdrew even further and wore mourning for the rest of her life, though she remained the most famous royal figure of her time. Her behavior became increasingly erratic and self-destructive, traveling compulsively and dieting to the point of near starvation. She rarely saw her husband and was seldom even in Austria-Hungary. Her seemingly endless travels around the Mediterranean finally did come to an end, in another one of her favorite places to visit; Switzerland. She happened to be walking along the shores of Lake Geneva at the same time as an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. For no other reason than that she bore the title of “Empress” the anarchist attacked Sissi with a knife, stabbing her in the heart on September 10, 1898. It was a sudden and violent end for a woman who seemed to have been unhappy for most of her life, even if few could understand exactly why. In all the years since her fame and attraction have not diminished as she has been featured in countless books, plays, ballets, television shows and movies. Few other consorts have ever been or remain so famous, particularly considering how little time she actually spent at court or with her husband.

To this day, the Empress known to everyone as Sissi, continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many. Personally, I cannot count myself among her many admirers, yet she remains an undeniably attractive figure. Although I can understand the fascination with her life, I cannot have a great deal of sympathy for her. Being a royal, and a royal consort for certain, requires a certain selflessness and devotion to duty which, it seems to me, Sissi simply did not possess. Taking all I know of her story, the impression I am left with (forgive me Sissi fans) is that of a basically self-centered woman, concerned more with her own feelings and her own image than the welfare of her family, country or dynasty. Her marriage seems ill-fated indeed considering that duty and obligation were the constant principles for her husband. I regret that she was to such a large extent an unhappy woman, yet, it seems to me that she simply made up her mind to be unhappy and that was that, despite having what most people would consider more than enough to make a happy life. In any event, I hope she has found peace, where she is now.


  1. I have a "Barbie Sissi" doll along with a fairytale type story book in Italian, the doll and book set was sold in Italy in the 90's.

  2. Very nicely done, well-balanced account.

  3. Great post as always. Two things: the revolutionary 'Hungarian State' of 1849 was not a republic (nor a kingdom), Kossuth was self-styled as regent/president.

    The anarchist pig did not kill her with a knife but with a rasp. She actually wore so many layers of clothes that she didn't even notice the stab first, she thought that Luigi was trying to rob her. When she fainted from blood loss on a boat was when she found out she had been stabbed. The rasp is actually on display in the Sissi Museum in Austria today.

  4. The simple definition of a republic is that which is not a monarchy and a monarchy is that which is not a republic, and the revolutionary state was certainly not a monarchy. As for the anarchist, I am aware of the actual weapon but as I'd already made this one of the longest consort profiles I've done so far, I didn't think it essential to go into details about what exactly the weapon was -it was sharp, it was a stabbing weapon, so I figured "knife" was sufficient.

  5. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the subject of 'Sisi'. Spoiled, narcissistic women who posture as 'victims' have never been favorites of mine and that pretty much describes Elisabeth of Austria.

  6. I respect your opinion even when I don´t share as I couldnT imagine how could I feel when I am married through an arrange marriage and find out that my husband is unfaithful and my children are taking away from me and I am only allowed to see the at an imposed timetable.
    How would you react to that?

  7. An interesting outline of the Empress' life. Shared on my page: Empress Elisabeth of Austria


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