Empress Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie of Austria was born on Christmas Eve of 1837 into the house of Wittelsbach, a German royal family that ruled the region of Bavaria. Her parents were Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika, and she was their fourth child. Early on, Elisabeth became known as “Sisi,” a nickname that stuck with her for most of her life and that most people remember her by even today. She and her siblings enjoyed an unconventional upbringing, and she frequently skipped her school lessons so that she could go horseback riding throughout the countryside. Horseback riding was one of her favorite past times, even in adulthood.
The carefree spirit she adopted as a child did little to prepare her for royal life at the Hapsburg court in Austria. Her headstrong nature clashed with other members of the royal court, particularly her mother-in-law — Archduchess Sophie. She enjoyed what appeared to be a happy marriage to her husband, Franz Joseph, who adored her. She was remarkably tall and slender, even after four pregnancies, and her subjects loved watching her ride through the imperial gardens. However, their son committed suicide when he was 30 years old, a tragedy from which the empress never recovered.
15. Elisabeth Got Her Headstrong Nature From Her Father
Elisabeth’s father was Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, and like his daughter, he had a determined spirit and led a free lifestyle. Popularly known as “Max,” he loved Bavarian folk music and promoted it throughout Germany. He particularly loved the folk instrument known as the zither, a stringed instrument that can be seen as a cross between a harp and a guitar. He both played the zither and composed music for it, bringing it into courtly circles. He popularized the zither and folk music so much that the zither became Bavaria’s national musical instrument and people referred to him as “Zither-Maxl.”
In addition to promoting folk music, Max was an extensive traveler. He visited Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Elisabeth’s father also maintained a childlike love of the circus throughout his entire life, even building a private, temporary ring in the city of Munich, adjacent to his palace there. Because of his own adventurous lifestyle, he encouraged his children, including Sisi, to pursue their own lives rather than conform to what others expected of them. Sisi followed in his footsteps, preferring equestrian adventures and long hikes through the countryside over academics and pursuits that people tend to assume of royals.
14. She And Her First Cousin Were Particularly Close
King Ludwig was Elisabeth’s first cousin and the king of Bavaria. Following a nightmare as a child, Sisi supposedly wrote, “Then he came in. I immediately noticed that his cloth was drenched, to the extent that he left puddles behind him. His hair was stuck by water on his blotchy face. But it was Ludwig. He had reached the foot board and we looked at each other in silence for a very long time.” In an era when cousin marriage was not at all uncommon and often expected, especially among royals, one should not be surprised that the two may have had a love interest in each other.
Indeed, King Ludwig became engaged to Sophie Charlotte, Sisi’s sister and also his first cousin. However, the king called off the wedding, and many believe that the reason was that he was homosexual. Ludwig never did marry and was eventually deposed in a coup d’etat after bankrupting Bavaria on his personal, lavish spending. When he died three days later, Elisabeth faced one of the tragedies that came to mark her life. She remained distraught over the loss of her cousin, confidante, friend, and possibly childhood lover for the rest of her life.
Throughout her tenure as empress, Sisi remained sympathetic to the long-oppressed Hungarians and served as a bit of a mediator between their plight and the royal court. Amidst rising nationalist fervor among both the Hungarians and the Austrians, she championed the Hungarian leader, Count Gyula Andrassy, and many believe that the two may have been lovers. Her leadership helped broker what came to be known as the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which created the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarians achieved equal rights as Austrians, along with full autonomy to manage their internal affairs. In matters of war, though, the two nations would fight together.
In 1867, the year of the compromise, Sisi and her husband, Franz Josef, became the king and queen of Hungary. Andrassy became the prime minister. The Hungarian people erected statues in their honor, particularly for Sisi. For their coronation gift, Hungary gifted them a residence at Godollo, 20 miles from the capital of Budapest. Sisi returned the love of the Hungarian people by spending much of her time at her house there. She often retreated to Hungary when she grew tired and weary of dealings at the Austrian court. Had she had another son, she might have named him Stephen, after the patron saint of Hungary.
The Rose of Bavaria was known throughout Europe for her exceptional beauty, a natural allure that was complemented by an intense beauty regimen. At the Schonbrunn Palace museum in Austria, one can see the different implements that she used as part of her daily regimen, as well as a model of the long, curly hair that fell to her hips. Her servants washed it every two weeks with a shampoo made from eggs and cognac. Every day, she spent three hours caring for her hair, which was the pride of the royal court and, in a sense, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In addition to her hair regimen, Sisi went to great lengths to enhance her natural beauty. She rarely ate meat but slept with it on her face, along with crushed strawberries. In the effort to retain her slender figure, she would go on extreme fasts that sometimes lasted for days and soaked her nightclothes in vinegar before going to bed. Though she stood at 5’8″, she weighed 110 pounds and got down as low as 96 pounds. Nonetheless, she was a binge eater who had a secret stairway installed so that she could satiate herself in the palace kitchen without anyone knowing.
The Hapsburg dynasty long ruled the Austrian Empire, and the family engaged in inbreeding and incest in order to retain the purity of the noble bloodline. Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the sister of Max and aunt of Sisi, wanted a niece to marry her son rather than a stranger. Sisi’s mother wanted her to marry someone noble and influential. When Sophie’s son, the 23-year-old Franz Joseph, the heir to the Austrian throne, first laid eyes on his cousin, the 15-year-old Sisi, he immediately fell in love with her and her exquisite beauty. The wedding was only eight months after their initial meeting.
They married when she was only 16 years old, and Sisi entered the royal court in Austria. He was passionately in love with her, and while some Sisi experts today believe that the feelings were mutual and the marriage was happy, many believe that she did not love him. Her new life in Austria was markedly different from her free-spirited childhood in the Bavarian countryside, and possibly, for this reason, she never felt much affection for her husband. She found her new life to be stifling and repressive, and though she became a powerful monarch that the people loved, she never was truly happy in Austria.
Franz Josef was a charming man who had a bit of a reputation for being a womanizer. He had many lovers before his marriage to Elisabeth and likely engaged in quite a few affairs, despite his eye for Elisabeth and admitted unfailing love for her. There is some evidence that his many relationships may have caused him to transmit to her a venereal disease. Some suggest that the condition may have been syphilis, but no one really knows for sure. However, the presence of a venereal disease would explain her excessive absences from the court and her reticence to have more than two children.
Though a strappingly attractive ruler, Franz Josef led an empire that decreased in size throughout his reign. He ruled from the mid-nineteenth century until nearly the end of World War I when he died in 1916. Despite his abilities as an athlete, hunter, and all-around charismatic man, he proved that he was unable to maintain any level of control of his empire or his family. Frequent family squabbles, particularly between his wife and mother, led to great unhappiness in court, exacerbated by Sisi’s numerous illnesses, the deaths of two of their children, and a collapsing empire.
Sisi was never suited for the rigid lifestyle imposed upon her by the Hapsburg court in Vienna. She much preferred the carefree youth that she had enjoyed with her family in Bavaria before her marriage to Franz Josef. She suffered from chronic depression that may have been exacerbated by other health problems, including a possible venereal disease transmitted to her by her philandering husband. Married as a teenager and brought into the role of the empress, she was woefully unprepared for life as a reigning royal. She spent much of her time away from Austria, frequently either in Bavaria with her family or in Hungary.
Many believe that she became so obsessed with her weight and appearance because they were the only things that she could control. She became so obsessive about her hair that her personal hair stylist accompanied her nearly everywhere she went. Whenever any hairs fell out while brushing her hair, the stylist would have to present the fallen hairs to the empress in a silver bowl and face a reprimand. Sisi’s eating habits were particularly troubling. Today, she might be diagnosed with both anorexia, for her intense fasts aimed at controlling her weight, as well as a binge-eating disorder.
Princess Sophie, aka Archduchess Sophie, was Sisi’s mother-in-law, and she brought great strife into her son’s family. A few weeks after Franz and Sisi’s wedding, the bride became ill because, lo and behold, she had quickly become pregnant. When she gave birth to a little girl, Princess Sophie immediately took the child and named her Sophie, after herself. Sisi was not allowed to care for the child or even breastfeed her. The same thing happened with her next two children, Gisela and Rudolf. When the fourth child came years later, Sisi insisted on raising her alone in Hungary, away from her domineering mother-in-law.
The stress brought on by the archduchess led to Sisi spending much time away from the royal court and may have exacerbated her poor health, also leading to her eating disorders and obsession with her appearance. On the other hand, Sisi’s rebellious, free-spirited nature led Sophie to believe that the empress was selfish, immature, headstrong and that she did not have the best interests of the Hapsburg court at heart. She was probably right. Sophie wanted to make sure that her grandchildren were raised in such a way that they could fulfill the duties required of them as Hapsburgs.
While Sisi was pregnant, the royal court expected her to go out in public, something that she detested, especially while pregnant. After her first two children were born, in the year 1857, Emperor Franz Josef decided to go on a state trip to Hungary to help strengthen relations between Hungary and the Austrian Empire. Sisi went with him, thrilled at the opportunity to gain some respite from her stifling life and possibly charm the nobility of Hungary. Archduchess Sophie wanted the two young princesses to stay with her, but Sisi insisted that they accompany them on the trip to Hungary.
Sisi thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Hungary; however, her joy quickly turned to horror when both of her daughters fell ill, possibly with typhus. Princess Sophie, the oldest one, was only two years old, and Princess Gisela was not yet a year old. Gisela recovered, but sadly, Sophie died. The tragedy was one from which Elisabeth would never recover and made her increasingly impossible life even more difficult. The depression that set in after her daughter’s death never lifted for the rest of her life. Her mother-in-law, who was already tormenting her, used the princess’s death as evidence that Sisi was an unfit mother.
Elisabeth was hesitant to have any more children following the death of her daughter. However, the next year, she fulfilled the primary role expected of an empress: she gave birth to a male heir, Prince Rudolf, named after the first Hapsburg ruler. Sisi immediately became more popular in the royal court; combined with her popularity among the Hungarian people, her fortunes in life seemed to be turning. However, despite her protests, Archduchess Sophie also took Rudolf away and raised him herself, apart from his mother. Despite her efforts, Rudolf, like his mother, found the rigid lifestyle of the Hapsburg court to be intolerable.
He married a Belgian princess in his early twenties, but when he grew tired of married life and the strict rules of the Hapsburg court, he left his wife and daughter and took to drinking heavily. Like his father, he had affairs with other women; in 1888, he had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl named Mary Vetsera. On January 30, 1889, the pair were found dead of gunshot wounds at his hunting lodge. Though the story surrounding their deaths remains mysterious, the circumstances suggest a murder-suicide. Elisabeth wore black in mourning for her only son for the rest of her life.
Many of the royals of Europe, even those from different countries, were connected to each other either through blood or marriage. Queen Victoria of England was known as the grandmother of Europe because so many of her children married into royal families throughout the continent. Today, many historians point at the alliances created through royal marriages as a leading cause for World War I. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914 in Sarajevo, and his death triggered the complex web of alliances to fall into World War I, the bloodiest war that the world had yet seen.
Without the suicide of Prince Rudolf, however, the whole war might not have happened. If Emperor Franz Josef had abdicated the throne in favor of his son, the progressive Rudolf would likely have ended the alliance with Germany, which was at the center of the web of partnerships that plunged the world into war. However, Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef’s nephew, became the heir apparent to the throne, and a disgruntled Bosnian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed him in 1914. Germany’s alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire proved to be the undoing of an entire continent and led to the deaths of millions of people.
Adored for her beauty and for populist policies that championed the people rather than the monarchy, Sisi became possibly the first celebrity monarch. Still, her personal life was challenging at best, fueled by depression, a domineering mother-in-law, and homesickness for Bavaria and her carefree youth. In a sense, Sisi spent much of her adult life trying to relive or somehow recapture her youth. Her hairdresser had to tweeze out any gray hairs meticulously, and the empress had a beauty regimen that would make today’s most eccentric Hollywood stars’ quirks appear to look normal.
As a celebrity, people frequently tried to catch her when she was outdoors and take pictures of her. However, by the time she was only 32 years old, she refused to allow anyone to take photos of her, possibly because of her fading youth. She loved riding on horseback or going for long walks; when she did, she usually carried a parasol or brought something to cover her face to prevent people from being able to photograph her face. Still, she insisted on wearing a corset to preserve her tiny waist and doing absurd things like sleeping with meat on her face to retain her peaches-and-cream skin color.
In 1898, Empress Elisabeth made a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, although there were reports that someone might try to assassinate her. Indeed, the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni was in Geneva, having arrived there determined to kill a monarch. His original intent was to murder the Duke of Orleans, who was a pretender to the extant French throne and also in Geneva. However, the duke departed to Valais before Lucheni could carry out his assassination attempt. Elisabeth had traveled to Geneva under a pseudonym, but someone at the Hotel Beau-Rivage informed someone that their guest was none other than Sisi.
Lucheni decided that he would kill her instead of the duke. In his words, “I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.” He stabbed her as she was leaving the hotel on September 10, 1898. She collapsed and was taken to a ship, the people with her not realizing the extent of her injuries. Only after she lost consciousness did the medical staff recognize that she had been stabbed.
After stabbing the empress, Lucheni fled but was caught by two cab drivers, a sailor, and a soldier in the gendarme. A concierge found the knife that he had used to stab her the next morning while doing his daily cleaning. Initially, people questioned his sanity because the people had so loved Elisabeth for her charitable works and populist leadership. Lucheni even requested that he be tried under the Canton of Lucerne as a dangerous anarchist because Geneva had recently abolished the death penalty. However, the court found him to be sane.
To Lucheni’s chagrin, he was tried as a murder, not a political criminal; this act denied him the notoriety in history that he had craved. He committed suicide ten years later by hanging himself with his belt inside his prison cell, supposedly because a prison guard had confiscated his yet-to-be-completed memoirs. He was denied an opportunity to turn his crime into a political statement. Meanwhile, Italians in Vienna feared reprisals from the Austrian people because an Italian had murdered their beloved Sisi. Her estate was endowed to various religious and charitable projects; what could not be invested was given to her granddaughter, Archduchess Elisabeth, the daughter of Prince Rudolf.
1. Elisabeth is an Inspiration for Fashion Designers Today
Empress Elisabeth left behind a stunning legacy. She was a deeply troubled and tormented woman who experienced numerous tragedies. Some of them may have been self-inflicted, but some could have been avoided with modern mental healthcare and hygiene. Still, her people adored her for how she championed popular causes, particularly among the Hungarians, often at the expense of the Hapsburg court that she loathed. After her assassination, her husband created the Order of Elisabeth to honor women. Today, she is remembered as a stunningly beautiful yet strong, brave female monarch who loved her people at great personal cost.
Her legacy goes beyond her charitable acts, in any case. In 2014, fashion designer Karl Lagerfield created a line that celebrated the fairy-tale grandeur of Vienna. It was the home of the great composer Mozart, the birthplace of the Rococo art movement, and especially the place from which Elisabeth reigned. He designed some of the pieces in the collection to look as he imagined Sisi’s clothes would look today. They were full of lace, ribbons, elegant sleeves, embroidered cloth, evening capes, and boots. One might say that Sisi is being reinvented for a modern audience. Indeed, her appeal is being reinvigorated as she gains more fans outside of Austria and Hungary.
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