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Sisi: The Colorful Life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

A portrait of Empress Elisabeth of  Austria by Winterhalter

Empress Elizabeth of Austria was a woman ahead of her time. She had the guts to shun the strict protocol of the Habsburg court and Sisi lived a life on her own rules. She served as Austria-Hungary’s longest-reigning consort, a position she held for 44 years. At a time when individualism was out of question, Sisi, a free-spirit, was its epitome, breaking away from the constriction of court life and favoring the independence that traveling the world had to offer. But she was not strange to tragedy. In fact, she had to endure it more often than not and even her death was a tragic one. 

Birth and Childhood

Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was born on Christmas Eve of 1837 in Munich, Bavaria, the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, King Ludwig’s half-sister. Sisi lived in a rather peculiar household; Duke Maximilian himself was peculiar—he preferred the Bavarian countryside and loved circuses rather than performing his royal duties. The family lived at Possenhofen Castle, far from the protocols of court life.  This unrestrained and free environment upon which Sisi was accustomed to would be the basis for her constant search for liberty for the rest of her life.


In 1853, Archduchess Sophie of Austria, the indomitable mother of Emperor Franz Joseph, was looking for a suitable bride for her son. Sophie was Ludovica’s sister  and she preferred getting a niece to be Franz’s bride rather than arrange a marriage with a stranger. And so it was decided that Franz should meet one of his cousins. Helene ("Néné"), Sisi’s sister, was considered suitable to be the 23-year-old Emperor’s bride. A meeting was arranged for the two in the Austrian resort town of Bad Ischl. Sisi joined Ludovica and Nene on their trip. The moment Franz laid his eyes upon Sisi, he immediately fell for her and Nene was totally forgotten. Sophie described their meeting in a letter to Marie of Saxony, via Hamann: "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."

Sophie, however, was not really convinced that Sisi was the right bride for Franz. She wrote: "He told me, his expression beaming, that he found Sisi charming. I begged him not to act rashly, to think the matter over carefully, but he felt that it would not be right to delay." But Franz wanted only Sisi. Sophie wrote that he praised her "soft, lovely eyes," her "lips like strawberries," calling her "fresh as a budding almond."  

Archduchess Sophie of Austria, Franz Josef's mother and Sisi's aunt. 

Franz was adamant. He made it known to his mother that he would not marry anyone else but Sisi. Sophie acquiesced and five days later the two were engaged. Eight months later, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria was married to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in Vienna at the Augustinerkirche on April 24, 1854. The marriage was finally consummated three days later, and Elisabeth received a dower equivalent to 240,000 USD today.

Sadly, the marriage ended Sisi’s carefree days. The shy and introverted countryside princess was forced to adapt in the stifling court life in Vienna, something which she really had a hard time. The rigid protocols and strict etiquette was too much for her that she fell ill only weeks after arriving in Vienna.  Things grew worse when Sophie meddled in Sisi and Franz’s married life. She micromanaged the life of the couple to the point of choosing her closest friends to become Sisi’s lady-in-waiting. Their relationship turned from bad to worse after Elisabeth gave birth. Sophie took it upon herself to take care of her grandchildren’s upbringing. She arranged that the nursery to be closer to her apartments than Sisi's own.

She was surprised to find 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 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. Sisi’s failure to produce a male heir despite giving birth to two daughters alienated her position in the palace.

Queen of Hungary

In 1857, Elisabeth went to Hungary for the first time together with Franz Joseph and their two daughters. The trip impressed on Elizabeth her love for Hungary, a place she realized was where she felt free. 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..." Elisabeth immediately felt a deep liking for the Magyars, a stark contrast to Archduchess Sophie's reception of them. Elisabeth’s affinity for them was such that she learned their language; Hungary returned her adoration back to her.

Shortly after their trip, Elisabeth met the first tragedy of her life. Her two daughters suffered from diarrhea. While Archduchess Gisela survived, little Archduchess Sophie did not. She died at the age of two. Elisabeth fell into deep grief but the Emperor’s mother saw it an opportunity to hit her for being an unfit mother. Sisi suffered from depression and not even the birth of the much-awaited heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1858, eased the feelings. Archduchess Sophie once again deprived Elisabeth of raising the boy. A frail Sisi decided to leave the court, the first of her many lengthy trips away. She returned to Vienna when she learned that Rudolf was about to be sent to military training. Sisi thought that would hurt him so she hastened back to court. Sisi demanded that Emperor Franz Joseph give her control over her children’s upbringing or else she would totally leave him. Nevertheless, Sisi never really had full interest in her son. Many thought that she just wanted to have things her way and she had no genuine interest in the upbringing of the Crown Prince.

The coronation of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary in 1867. 
In 1866, Austria endured a crushing defeat at the Austro-Prussian War. This left Austria sidelined from what would become the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia. Austria also lost its influence in Italy. The Habsburg Empire was on the verge of collapse and to survive it had no other choice but to strengthen its ties with Hungary. It was also during this time that Elisabeth formed a close bond with Count Gyula Andrassy. The Count was once sentenced to death by Emperor Franz Josef and now he was Elisabeth’s closest confidante, so close that their relationship was believed to be beyond friendship. Andrassy became influential on Elisabeth that she took it upon herself to lobby the Hungarian cause. It was because of Elisabeth’s insistence that Emperor Franz Joseph softened his stand on Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 was eventually ratified and Andrassy was made the first Hungarian prime minister. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were officially crowned King and Queen of Hungary in June. The Gödöllő Castle, twenty miles east of Budapest was gifted to the couple by the Hungarian people as a sign of their affection and loyalty to the Habsburgs. Elisabeth would eventually prefer Gödöllő and Budapest as her residence instead of Vienna, a decision that drew the ire of her Austrian subjects. Her most wanted fourth pregnancy followed and it was rumored that should she give birth to a boy he would name him Stephen, Hungary’s patron saint and first king. However, she gave birth to a daughter, instead, and she named the “Hungarian Child” Marie Valerie (1868–1924). She was born in Budapest ten months after the couple’s coronation and she was also baptized there in April. With Marie Valerie, she finally decided to be a mother. In her Elisabeth poured all her repressed maternal feelings, so much was her love for her fourth child that she nearly suffocated her. By this time, Archduchess Sophie's influence at court was starting to diminish and she passed away 1872.

The Imperial Family at Godollo Castle in Budapest.

Royal Celebrity

By the 1870s, Sisi’s independent spirit and legendary beauty caught the imagination of all of Europe. In fact, she may have been the first “royal celebrity” and people eagerly read news about her. They stay tuned to her fashion, diet, exercise and anything about her. Her vanity was equalled by none and she took it a vow to maintain her youthful look. She paid special attention to her long hair, which changed color from dark blonde when she was young to chestnut brunette when she grew older. She spent an average of three hours for her hair care alone. Compared to other women of her time, Sisi was not a fan of cosmetics or perfume, yet, she maintained her looks in the most natural way although she also tried many beauty products.

Personal Tragedies and Death

The last decade of her life was shattered by personal tragedies. In 1889, Rudolf shot his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, and himself on his hunting lodge in Mayerling. A year earlier, she already lost her father and a year after Rudolf’s death, her sister died. Duchess Ludovica passed away in 1892. Sisi fell in deep melancholy for the remaining years of her life and she donned herself only in black, although from time to time, she would be seen wearing light blue and cream gown. Her loss compounded when Count Gyula Andrássy died in February 1890. "My last and only friend is dead," she remorse. Meanwhile, Marie Valerie noted, "...she clung to him with true and steadfast friendship as she did perhaps, to no other person."

Empress Elisabeth of Austria is stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. 

Since then, Sisi spent only very little time in Vienna and saw her husband even less. Despite being a recluse, Sisi’s legend continued to enamor the public and her popularity never waned. Sisi herself met her tragic end in Switzerland. She was walking by the shoreline of Lake Geneva with her lady-in-waiting Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály to board a steamship for Territet. An Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni spotted and recognized her. He approached her and stabbed her, hitting her heart, and killing the world’s beloved empress on September 10, 1898. It was a sudden end for a woman who yearned for nothing but freedom and happiness in her life. Yet, she died a sad and broken figure.  Emperor Franz Joseph was shocked to have learned  of Sisi’s death. He survived her for 18 more years, dying on November 21, 1916 at the height of World War I. His was a sad and lonely figure, too—the man who loved Sisi all his life never got the love that he was yearning for. 


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