The future Empress Elisabeth of Austria was born on Christmas Eve in 1837. Known throughout her life as “Sisi”, she enjoyed a privileged, but relatively carefree childhood - her mother Ludovika was the daughter of a Bavarian king, but did not marry into a Royal family.
Ludovika was a dutiful mother to Sisi and her seven siblings, and her attempts to improve her children’s prospects looked to have paid off when her daughter Helene (pictured left with her younger sister) was chosen as a suitable bride for the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph - whose mother Sophie was also Ludovika’s sister.
However the best laid plans and all that... Franz Joseph fell in love with fifteen year-old Sisi at first sight (even though she had only travelled to accompany her mother and sister). Their engagement was announced the following day, and the couple married in Vienna in April 1854.
The new Empress was unusually tall for the time (she stood 5’8”) and was a beautiful young woman. Popular with her people, Sisi struggled to cope with the constant presence of her overbearing mother-in-law (who effectively ruled through her son during the early years of his reign), as well as the discipline and high expectations of a royal life. One duty that was fulfilled however, was that of providing an heir to the empire - Crown Prince Rudolf was born in 1858, with Sisi already having given birth to two daughters: Sophie and Gisela.
Seemingly, Elisabeth rarely posed for pictures with her children, but here she is with Rudolf and Gisela.
Her children were taken into the care of her mother-in-law and the relationship between the pair deteriorated quickly as a result. For his part, Franz Joseph spent a lot of time away from his family and, although he was kind-natured, he was paradoxically both a reserved man and an arrogant womaniser.
By 1860, rumours of her husband’s affairs surfaced and feeling both betrayed and unwell (due to a mystery illness that was passed off as tuberculosis, but was more likely to have been sexually transmitted), Sisi left Vienna and travelled widely over the years that followed.
Sisi had a strong affection for Hungary – partly because her mother-in-law didn’t! – and when a political crisis in Austria resulted in the formation of a joint monarchy with Hungary in 1866, Elisabeth played a major part in supporting the arrangement which ultimately led to her husband being crowned King of Hungary in 1867.
But Sisi was admired far more for her beauty than any political prowess. Although she was tall, she weighed less than eight stone, and her heel length hair needed hours of care every day. To preserve her looks and figure, Sisi dieted and exercised regularly – and, more often than not, excessively. She was an accomplished horse-rider and it was claimed that she (somewhat ambitiously) wanted to be not only the most beautiful monarch in the world, but also the best rider amongst the aristocracy... her rival apparently being the French Empress Eugénie.
Her appearance, and undeniably privileged life hid a great deal of sadness however. Her daughter Sophie died aged just two years old. A decade later, her brother-in-law Emperor Maximillian of Mexico was assassinated, and his wife went insane; and then one of her closest friends, King Ludwig II of Bavaria mysteriously drowned after also suffering from mental illness. But it was the murder-suicide of her (at the time estranged) son Rudolf and his mistress Mary Vetsera in 1889 that had the greatest emotional impact on the Empress.
The misfortune continued when her sister Sophie was killed in a fire at a charity bazaar in 1897, and Sisi’s anguish and increasing loneliness manifested itself through her poetry, in which she revealed her innermost thoughts and feelings.
I wander lonely in this world
Delight and life long time averted
No confidant to share my inner self
A matching soul never revealed
Tragically destiny was to intervene one final time when Sisi was stabbed and mortally wounded by a French-born anarchist Luigi Lucheni in Geneva on this day in 1898. Lucheni’s misguided ambition was to kill a member of what he saw as the elite and oppressive upper class. His intended target was Phillippe, Duke of Orleans, but when his itinerary was changed at the last minute, Lucheni turned his attention to the other royal who happened to be in Geneva: “I struck the first crowned head that crossed my way,” were his reported words during interrogation. “I don’t care. I wanted to make an example, and I succeeded.”
The public adored their Empress, and consequently Sisi always travelled with very few bodyguards. In fact, on the day in question, Elisabeth was about to board a ship, accompanied only by her lady-in-waiting (this is purported to be the last photograph taken the day before her death). It was then that the fates eventually collided, and Lucheni took his opportunity to plunge a needle file into Sisi’s chest...
The assailant ran off, and Elisabeth went aboard the vessel, genuinely believing she was unhurt. The truth was that her corset had temporarily contained the bleeding, and it was only when it was removed that the full extent of her injury became obvious. The weapon had pierced the sixty year-old’s heart... and from that moment, her demise was inevitable.
Elisabeth had almost everything anyone could have wanted from life – except the two things that her elevated position and wealth could never buy: love and happiness. A desperately sad story... and perhaps a salutary lesson to those (like me) hoping for that lottery win...
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