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Young Mabel

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Mabel Dodge Luhan

Some people find empowerment through their passion. Other people find empowerment through what they do for mankind. Still others find empowerment through their search of self and belonging. Such is the case for Mabel Dodge Luhan, self-proclaimed Muse of the Arts.

Mabel at 18 years old
Mabel at 18
(Buffaloah.com)

As an only child, Mabel Dodge Luhan grew up with wealth and privilege; two things many people strive their whole lives to achieve. But what she never had, until later in her adulthood, were things that many people take for granted; love, attention, and feeling of belonging.

Mabel’s father, Charles Ganson, inherited his wealth from his powerful banking family. Charles went to school and trained to be a lawyer, but his nervous disposition and volatile temper impeded his success. During Mabel’s growing up years, Charles spent time with his dogs, or in his study not doing much of anything. According to an article at Enclyclopedia.com, Mabel states that, to her father she “…was something that made noise sometimes in the house, and had to be told to get out of the way.”

Sara, Mabel’s mother, often the victim of Charles’ temper, grew indifferent to him and had little interest in her only child. While Sara entertained herself with the society of New York, Mabel spent most of her time in the care of a nanny, and then later school mistresses at Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School for Girls, and Miss Graham’s School in New York City. At 16, Mabel toured Europe and then attended the affluent Chevy Chase Finishing School in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area.

Educated in the arts of an upper crust domestic wife, Mabel, at 21 years old, married Karl Evans, another silver spoon youth. Her father did not approve of the match, and her mother remained indifferent.

The young couple soon had a child, a boy they named John. Perhaps because of her own upbringing, Mabel struggled with the confines of marriage and child rearing. After only two years of matrimony, Karl died in a hunting accident, adding to Mabel’s emotion duress. A single mother, now facing life alone, Mabel suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered, she took her young son and moved to Europe. In Paris, she met Edwin Dodge, an architect from Boston. He pressed his suit, and eager for a father for John, and security for herself, Mabel agreed to marry Dodge in 1904.

Mabel and her son John
Mabel and her son John
(mabeldodgeluhan.com)

The couple moved to Florence, Italy where they settled in a lovely villa they called Villa Curonia, a famous estate originally built for the powerful Italian Medici family. But, happiness still eluded Mabel. Trapped in a loveless marriage, and unable to escape the depression that would reoccur throughout her lifetime, Mabel needed a diversion. She embarked on her quest to become a muse of the arts, or as she states in her autobiography, Intimate Memories, “a mythological figure…in my own lifetime.”

For eight years, often dressed in Renaissance costume, Mabel entertained the famous and noteworthy of International society, including novelists, artists, photographers and art critics. Her Italian “salon” became a place of philosophical, political, and artistic enlightenment.

Still discontented with married life, Mabel left Dodge and moved back to New York where she established another salon for the artistic intelligentsia. From 1913 to 1916, she entertained those interested in unconventional attitudes of the era. Freudism, free-love, anarchy, and modern art were popular avant-guard topics discussed at Mabel’s house. Inspired by the conversation, Mabel embarked on a writing career and wrote for literary and art magazines, including Alfred Stieglitz’s publication, Camera Work. Stieglitz and his mistress at the time, Georgia O’Keeffe, frequented Mabel’s home along with mutual friends Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Between 1914 and 1916, she met and married artist Maurice Stern. Even though Mabel had created a world of her own, she still could not find happiness. In 1917 she and Stern traveled to New Mexico, a provincial and wild place she’d learned about from her friends the Steins. She arrived in Santa Fe, and was entertained by other wealthy, female east-coast transplants like Alice Corbin and Natalie Curtis Burlin, who had already established themselves in the town.

Eager to put her mark on a new and nearly undiscovered place, Mabel found Santa Fe too confining. In her book Ladies of the Canyons, Lesley Poling-Kempes asserts that “for Mabel, the real problem with Santa Fe was its population, however small, of erudite, creative, and audacious New Women who were already making their mark on the place. Mabel needed her own space to make her mark . . .”

Mabel moved to the nearby village of Taos to start her own literary society. There she met and befriended Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian. Mabel asserts that before arriving in Taos, she had a dream where she saw her husband Maurice’s face turn into that of an Indian. Mabel believed Tony to be that man. Tony encouraged Mabel to buy property, a 12-acre parcel of land, complete with a tiny dwelling. Tony helped the Stern’s remodel and rebuild the four-room adobe house. He set up a teepee on the Stern’s front lawn, and proceeded to woo Mabel. It worked. She sent Maurice packing and married Luhan in 1923.

Mabel and Tony
Mabel and Tony
(KUNM)

The colorful landscape and rich culture of Taos gave Mabel the life and love she craved. Finally, happy and at peace, Mabel, with her fourth and final husband, Tony Luhan, entertained some of the most famous literary and artistic minds of their time, including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence. Georgia O’Keeffe, while visiting Mabel, decided that she, too, could find infinite inspiration from the enchanted landscape of New Mexico, and also settled there.

The Luhans eventually expanded their home to 17 rooms, and continued to provide literary and artistic inspiration for others, as well as forging Mabel’s own talents as a writer.

Never known for her warmth or sunny personality, Mabel, regardless, indeed made her mark on New Mexico and American history. She promoted Native American culture and art, as well as other important artists, writers, and abstract thinkers of her time. She found empowerment through her continual quest to get her life just right, and become the person she aspired to be.

Her vision, her promotion of others and herself, helped make Mabel Dodge Luhan an institution in Southwestern history.

 

Queen Isabella of Castile, and the Mysterious Madness of Princess Juana

It is said, madness runs in families.

Isabella I of Castile
(wikipedia)

While Isabella of Castile became one of the most powerful female monarchs the world would ever know, her daughter, Juana, could not seem to find empowerment at any time in her life, even when she became Queen of Castile. Suffering from bouts of ill temper, melancholia, jealous rages and utter despair, Juana was proclaimed “mad” early into her marriage and she never successfully alluded the title.

Both never intended for the throne, Isabella and her daughter Juana came to their prospective reigns through the untimely death of siblings, and also through powerful alliances in marriage. Both raised at court, they received the finest education a princess could receive, but their lives, and any hope at happiness in their younger years, came at the mercy of their male superiors and overbearing mothers. Isabella’s mother, known as Isabella the Mad, often flew into paranoid rants about ghosts or people wanting to kill her or her beloved.

Raised under the reign of her half-brother Henry IV, Isabella endured several betrothals and refused one or two before she married the man she had first been intended for, Ferdinand of Aragon. Knowing her half-brother wanted an alliance with Alfonso of Portugal, Isabela fled from her brother’s court to Valladolid, and married her second cousin, Ferdinand.

From that point on, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a quest to make Castile and Leon (now Spain) a pure nation. With Isabella at the helm, they reorganized the government and saved the kingdom from the overwhelming debt her brother Henry left behind. Isabella and Ferdinand became known as the “Catholic Kings,” after they ruthlessly resurrected the Reconquista by taking Grenada from the Muslims, and exiled Jewish subjects in the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella established Spain as a world power that lasted for more than a century with her support of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the “new world.”

Although having given birth to five children, Isabella had little time to raise them. Juana, the third child, an extremely beautiful, intelligent and sensitive girl, started exhibiting strange behaviors when her mother became ill, or traveled away from court. The young princess often locked herself away and refuse to eat or sleep.

Juana the Mad
Juana de Castile (pinterest)

In 1496, Isabella sent Juana, aged 16, accompanied by a fleet of over 100 ships, to Flanders to marry Phillip the Fair, or Phillip the Handsome, the heir to the Austrian empire. The alliance would strengthen Spain’s presence against the power of France, and align it with Flanders, the top producer of Iberian wool. After the setback of a tremendous storm delayed the arrival of the princess, the two teenagers finally met, and fell in love at first sight. With the wedding set for the next day, the two decided they could not wait, and had a priest marry them immediately.

But the passionate luster soon wore off for Phillip, known to love his wine and his women. When Phillip misbehaved, Juana flew into long, drawn-out jealous rages, or took to her rooms, refusing food or drink for days.

Despite their marital troubles while living in Flanders, Juana became pregnant. She first gave birth to a daughter, Eleanor, in 1498, and then Charles in 1500. During this span of time, Juana’s elder brother John and her sister Isabella both died, leaving Juana heir to the throne of Spain. In order to keep an eye on Juana, who’s public displays of ill-temper had become renown in Flanders, and Phillip who’d become too lenient with France, Isabella and Ferdinand encouraged the couple to move to Spain. If they were to inherit the realm, they needed to be schooled for their eventual accession to power.

Finally, in 1502, Juana and Phillip arrived in Spain where Juana was recognized as Isabella’s successor and Phillip her consort. Feeling like a fish out of water, Phillip soon returned to Flanders, but Isabella would not allow Juana to leave with him.

Desperate without her husband, Juana resorted to her melancholic state and refused to eat or drink. Phillip wanted Juana back in Flanders as badly as Juana wanted to be there, but for different reasons. He wanted his wife out of Spain’s control. Isabella feared that Spain would revolt should Juana try to rule from Flanders, so the tug of war continued until 1504, when fearing for her daughter’s mental stability, Isabella let Juana return to Flanders.

juana and phillip
(pinterest)

But love and life did not improve for Juana. Phillip continued his affairs and Juana continued her embarrassing public outbursts. These public displays of outrage and then overt affection toward Phillip only made Phillip despise his wife more. He had her locked away in her rooms.

More sad news would reach Juana a few months later when she learned that her mother, Isabella, had died. Her father, Ferdinand, in order to keep control from Phillip, claimed Juana incompetent to rule, and he intended to rule as regent until his grandson Charles became of age.

To thwart her father’s plan, Juana and Phillip sailed for Castile in the hopes that powerful nobles who opposed Ferdinand would side with Juana. They did. Ferdinand then remarried hoping to beget another son to take the throne from Juana’s control.

In 1506, perhaps tired of working around Juana, Ferdinand and Phillip made an alliance. Without Juana’s knowledge, the two men met and declared Juana unfit to rule. Ferdinand turned Castile over to Phillip and Juana in a monetary exchange, knowing that Phillip would wrest control from Juana, but also that Spain would likely not accept a foreign ruler.

To everyone’s surprise, in late 1506, Phillip fell ill with fever (some say poison.) Juana nursed him around the clock for six days until he finally succumbed. Bereft, Juana, according to chroniclers of the time, had her husband’s coffin reopened on several occasions so she could caress his face and look upon him.

These claims were probably exaggerated by Ferdinand and then later, Juana’s son Charles, to discredit her and thwart any hope of her rising to power, again. To Ferdinand’s relief, Juana had no interest in ruling, and in 1507 she turned the government over to him. In return, he had her imprisoned in Tordesillas castle, where she continued her bouts of refusing to eat or sleep.

When Charles finally came into power after the death of Ferdinand, he did not treat his mother much better than Phillip or Ferdinand had. But, the people loved her, and often rallied to her cause, but Charles clamped down even harder on his mother because of her popularity. She finally enjoyed about 8 months of freedom before she died.

Was Juana actually mad, or did she possess a tender heart and have a sensitive nature? Did she suffer from bi-polar disease, or did she pose too much of a threat to the men in her life who wanted power above all else? We may never know. I wonder if Isabella had lived longer, would she have come to the defense of her daughter, or would she have treated her as ruthlessly as she did the others she deemed weak? I would hope the former, but then, I’m an eternal optimist.

Joan of Arc – Maid, Mystic, Heretic, Saint

joan of arc astride a horse in battle
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

What possessed, Joan of Arc, a normal, 15th century teenaged girl from a modest village, to travel for 11 days to tell the dauphin of France she needed to lead an an army to Orléans to save the country from English power?

What possessed the dauphin to grant her request, against the advice of his councilors and generals?

When I reacquainted myself with the story of Joan of Arc for this blog post, a thought kept popping into my mind: What would happen if a common girl today went to the leader of her country and claimed that God commanded only she could save her country from its enemies? The leader would probably laugh at her and then have her committed. She would not be taken seriously.

At all.

So what made the dauphin and military leaders of the time, follow the advice of this young, country peasant?

#1) Her piety.

Like other girls in the village of Domrémy, Joan helped her mother with spinning and sewing, and her father with watching the cattle and livestock. The daughter of a pious Catholic woman, Joan and her sister Catherine attended confession and mass regularly, helped to nurse the sick of her village, and often visited nearby oratories and chapels. But at age 12 or 13 Joan began to spend more time in church and in prayer. The other children took notice of this and sometimes ridiculed her for her pious ways. What they, nor her parents or sister didn’t know was that Joan had a secret. One she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else.

#2) Her visions and voices.

joan visted by Michael the Archangel
(fr.wikipedia.org)

Joan’s village suffered raids and burnings from the English and the neighboring Burgundians many times. Once, it burned to the ground and had to be re-established. When things calmed down after one of these raids, Joan, while working in her father’s garden experienced something that would change her life forever. The Archangel Michael appeared to her in blinding white light. He told her she would be visited by him again, and to prepare for visitations from St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who had an important message to deliver to her. When they appeared on several other occasions, they told her she must drive the English out of France, and bring the crown prince, the dauphin, to power as king in the city of Reims. Joan did not tell others of these visions and voices until well into her mission.

#3) Her devotion to her country.

Joan dropped everything in her life in Domrémy to save her country. She defied her father, who’d arranged a marriage for her, telling him she had a greater mission in life. She traveled to nearby Vaucouleurs to implore the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricort, to assist her in her mission to reach the dauphin, Charles. After Baudricort laughed at her, he told her to be a good girl, go back to her mother, and find a husband. Joan would not be dissuaded and 6 months later, returned to Vaucouleurs where she convinced a band of men  she was the prophesied virgin destined to save France. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and traveled 11 miles with this band of men to Chinon to deliver her message to the dauphin.

#4) Her divine prophesies.

  • When Joan traveled to Vauclouleurs she immediately recognized Baudricourt without having seen him. She later claimed her guides’ voices told her,”there he is.” She explained to him her prediction of the deliverance of Orléans, the rise of the Dauphin at Reims, and of the defeat of the French at the battle of Harengs, as it took place.
  • Once she arrived at Chinon and entered into the chamber of the dauphin, she knew him in a moment, despite his concealment behind a group of 300 people. Amazed at her detection of him, he gave her a private audience where she promised he would be crowned at Reims if she could lead an army of soldiers to stop the siege at Orleans.
  • Still skeptical, the prince told her of a sword buried in the church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, and requested she bring it to him. With the assistance of her divine guides, she found the sword behind the altar of the church. It became her most beloved sword – although she refused to carry a sword into battle, but instead carried a white flag.
  • She predicted she would be wounded at Orléans, where she was pierced with an arrow between her neck and shoulder.
  • After the dauphin had been crowned as King Charles VII at Reims, Joan stated to him she “would last a year, and but little longer.” She also explained she would be captured by mid-summer. Fourteen months later near Compiègne, Joan was pulled from her horse by a Burgundian supporter and taken prisoner. She remained imprisoned until her death.

# 5) She never relented.

Joan at the stake
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle by the Burgundians, Joan made several escape attempts, including jumping from her 70-foot tower. Unable to escape detection, her captors moved her to the town of Arras. The English paid 10,000 livres to claim her from the Burgundians and then moved her to the city of Rouen where she stood trial.

The English wanted to try Joan for heresy, but no evidence could be found. Hersey was only a capital crime if it had been committed twice, which did not stand up in Joan’s case. They initiated the trial anyway, despite the fact that no one stood to represent Joan—a requirement of the law.

When interrogated, Joan confessed her visions and her voices, stating that she acted according to God’s will. When a clergyman mocked her and asked what language her voices spoke, she claimed they spoke French—far better than he did.

Under inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns, not in a secular prison with only male guards. When captured, Joan wore her usual attire of men’s clothing. Unable to try her for heresy, the English changed the charge to “cross-dressing.” Joan then agreed to wear a dress, but after her a guard tried to rape her, she changed back to her masculine attire. After this abjuration, they claimed she relapsed into heresy by cross-dressing. The trial commenced and Joan was sentenced to death for the crime of heresy.

At the stake, she requested to wear a cross on her breast, and for someone to hold a cross before her. Her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Roman Catholic church recognized her as a saint in 1920.

Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the Mystery of Love and Incest

Eleanor of Aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most sought after daughter in medieval Europe, became the most wealthy and powerful woman during the 12th and 13th centuries. At 12-13 years of age, Eleanor inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine when her father, William X, died. Orphaned, Eleanor came under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France. Three months later, she married the King’s son, Louis VII. Shortly after the two teenagers wed, the King, known as Louis the Fat, died of dysentery leaving Louis the Younger and Eleanor the Kingdom.

As with most women of power, many of Eleanor’s critics claim she came by that power, and possibly held onto that power, through dubious and immoral methods–meaning, she used her feminine wiles and uncontrolled sexual passion to gain the upper hand. One of the most popular rumors about Eleanor is her alleged incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.

Historians agree that Eleanor, reputed to be beautiful, intelligent, and wise beyond her years, enchanted her husband Louis with her wit and charm. Despite his intense love for her, the couple’s 8-year relationship slowly disintegrated as they could produce no male heir. Of course, as with most infertile royal couples of the time, the fault lay with Eleanor, despite the fact she gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145.

When Pope Eugene III requested Louis lead a second crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish Kingdoms from the Muslims, Eleanor encouraged her husband to rise to the occasion. She also requested to accompany him. It is debated whether Louis agreed to allow his beautiful, flirtatious bride to join him to keep her under close watch, or he simply desired her company. Eleanor, along with her royal ladies-in-waiting and 300 of her courtiers boarded the ships to Antioch for the campaign.

When the royal couple arrived, they accepted the hospitality of Eleanor’s handsome uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. Raymond and Eleanor spent constant time in each others company. It didn’t take long for rumors to spread that the two engaged in an incestuous affair. Louis, appalled and affronted with the rumors, pulled up stakes left after only two weeks in Antioch.

Louis VII
Louis VII
(Biography.com)

Eleanor implored her husband to let her stay under the protection of her uncle, but he refused her plea, and bade she accompany him on the rest of the crusade. When they returned to France, the rumors of Eleanor’s infidelity with her uncle further alienated her from Louis, and she asked Pope Eugene for an annulment. She claimed to want the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the close familial relation to her husband, her fourth cousin. The Pope refused and tried to reconcile the royal couple.

In 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter—another disappointment that further alienated Eleanor from her husband. The Pope finally relented, and in 1152 gave Eleanor the annulment on grounds of consanguinity, but gave custody of her daughters to Louis.

The second famous rumor about Eleanor concerns the mystery of her Court of Love. After her annulment, noblemen and Kings lined up to win Eleanor’s hand. Still the most powerful woman in Europe, she again became a most sought-after bride. Even if it meant kidnapping her. Eleanor got wind of at least two of these plots, and sent word to Henry, her third cousin, the Duke of Normandy and future King of England, imploring him to marry her. He didn’t refuse.

Eight weeks after her annulment to Louis, Henry and Eleanor married. Although they had 8 children together over 15 years of marriage, the two often bickered and fought. Henry spent much time away from England, and also with other women. During this time, Eleanor returned to her castle in Poitiers, France, where she is said to have started the Court of Love.

Eleanor
Eleanor
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Discouraged by her own two marriages, Eleanor set out to educate men in the areas of romance, love, and chivalry. Noblemen brought their relationship problems to a jury of nearly 60 women, (the Court of Love) including Eleanor and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, in search of answers. The women directed the love-lorn men how to dress, speak, and act with their women, including writing poetry, playing music, and taking an interest in the arts–a far cry from manly behavior of the middle ages.

Many historians deny the existence of Eleanor’s Court of Love, but others say it contributed to the literature, music, and  arts of the time, and into the future. The art of courtly love also grew in popularity from this period on.

Henry and Eleanor’s marriage would see greater decline when their son, Henry the Younger, led a revolt against his father for the crown of England. Eleanor sided with her son, and for this, Henry imprisoned her for the next 16 years. At the death of her husband, her third son, Richard, became King. One of his first acts as King of England? To free his mother from prison.

Though her critics, and her husbands, tried to discredit her time and time again, Eleanor proved to be a woman empowered, and a woman who found a way to survive and prevail. She lived into her early eighties. The mere fact that she obtained an annulment from a King who still ruled, is unfathomable—considering that a woman in the 12th Century, even a ruling woman, only existed as a means to an end—to better the lives of men.

We may never solve the mystery of Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle, or her reported infidelities in the French court, or whether or not she developed a “Court of Love” in Poitiers. We can only go by the records that exist in history, and no one knows whether all the records are true or not. Sometimes, it is up to us to decide. Despite the claims of her critics, Eleanor still remains one of the most beloved, and most empowered women in history.

For more information on Raymond of Antioch, read this blog post by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Photo found in French Quarter Magazine

Catherine the Great – and the Murder of a Russian Tsar

portrait of Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great
(telegraph.co.uk)

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, is known as one of the most empowered, successful, and longest-ruling women in history. She came to the throne at 33 years of age, and by using her political and intellectual acumen, expanded her empire to become one of the great powers of Europe. But how did she get there?

Born Princess Sophie Friederike August von Anhalt-Zergst-Dornburg of Prussia, Sophie, as many noble children, proved useful as a pawn for political power. King Frederick of Prussia and Empress Elizabeth of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great) set out to strengthen relations between their two countries, and thereby weaken Austria, with an arranged marriage. The two young people who would accomplish this goal for them; none other than Sophie, and Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp.   

Sophie came to the Russian court as 14-year-old girl. Strong-willed, savvy, and intelligent, she made plans then to prepare herself to someday rule her adopted country. She immersed herself in the culture, spent hours learning the language, and converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox Church, much to her father’s discontent and objection. She even changed her name to Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine), to better fit her new Russian identity. Catherine later wrote in her memoirs that she would do whatever necessary, and profess to believe whatever necessary, to become qualified to wear the crown.

Catherine at 16 years old
Catherine at 16 years old.
(Wikipedia)

Wed at 16, Catherine’s marriage proved to be unhappy, and her partner cruel. She disliked Peter the moment she met him for his ugly features, his childish behavior, and his penchant for alcohol. Historians note that on their wedding night, Peter set up his toy soldiers on the bed and demanded she “play war” with him. Peter would often have public tantrums, with Catherine bearing the brunt of his childish rants. Along with Catherine, history did not remember him well. From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Nature made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome…He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share…”

Needless to say, the couple did not conceive for 8 years, at which time the Empress Elizabeth took matters into her own hands. Historians claim she encouraged the couple to each have extramarital affairs in the hopes it would awaken them sexually to each other to produce the needed heir. Catherine found refuge in the arms of the first of her many lovers, Sergei Saltykov. In 1754, Catherine bore her first child, Paul. Speculation at court at who fathered the child still exists, but Empress Elizabeth, relieved that Catherine finally produced an heir, claimed the child legitimate.

The relationship between Catherine and Peter did not improve. In fact, Peter began plotting ways to be rid of Catherine, after finding a more suitable mate in his mistress Elizabeth Vorontova. By this time, Catherine had taken another lover, Grigory Orlov, a handsome military officer.

Young Peter III of Russia
Young Peter III of Russia
(Wikimedia Commons)

When Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter became Russia’s new ruler and Catherine his consort. Unlike Catherine, Peter, also of German descent, never immersed himself in the Russian culture, and clung to his Germanic roots, something the Russian people abhorred. His favoritism and alliance with Frederick II of Prussia further alienated the new Emperor from his people.

Catherine, who now considered herself Russian in every way, saw the disenchantment of the people for Peter, and had an entirely different vision of how to rule.

Together with Grigory Orlov, Catherine plotted to remove Peter from power. Six months after becoming emperor, Peter traveled to the Russian royal residence of  Oranienbaum to visit his German friends and relatives. While there, he learned of the conspiracy to have him removed, and arrested one of Catherine’s men. She knew she had to act fast. She gained the support of the Ismailovsky regiment, the Imperial Russian Guard, and had Peter arrested. With the aid of the Guard, she forced him to abdicate, and claimed the Russian crown. She had accomplished a coup without shedding a drop of Russian or German blood.

Peter requested permission to leave the country, but Catherine refused his request, stating she intended to hold him prisoner for life. However, less than two weeks later, Peter died at the hands of Alexi Orlov, Grigory Orlov’s brother. Historians have found no evidence of Catherine’s complicity in the murder, but one has to wonder.

Catherine II reigned for 34 years and became the most renown Tsar of Russia. She never married again, but took many lovers—something she is also known for—and made them her advisors without apology. Some of the best known are Orlov, who helped her win the crown, and Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman, and her declared soul-mate.

Like other empowered women of history, Catherine’s enemies tried to paint her in an unfavorable light. They portrayed her as a woman who captivated and bewitched men with sex, and bent them to her will to help her gain the crown and run her empire. At her death, a rumor spread that her sexual appetites had grown so fierce that she could no longer be satisfied by a man, so sought to couple with a horse. In the attempt, she was crushed and died. In truth, she suffered a stroke, slipped into a coma and died a short time later.

Critics of empowered women rulers were, and still can be, cruel—unable to wrap their heads around the idea that a woman can be true to her nature, and still rule with intelligence, savvy, and confidence.

Although no evidence has been brought forward then, or now, as to Catherine’s role in her husband’s death, it gives one pause. Catherine had a dream to rule, even as a child. Her lust for life and lust for power seemed insatiable, and, like Mary Queen of Scots, (see my post here) the person who stood in the way of her ambition and her safety was her husband. It is interesting that historically, when a king’s wife stood in the way of his ambition or power, her life no longer had value, and killing her was a matter of due course. (We all know about King Henry IIX!) When a Queen’s husband stood in her way, and he died under mysterious circumstances, the scandal forever hung over her head.

Knowing this, it would only make sense that if a woman ruler like Catherine, who stated she would do whatever necessary to rule,  wanted her husband out of the way, she had two choices – imprison him or have him killed. Or, perhaps there existed a third choice; to do both.

Elizabeth I and the Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart Dudley

For over 400 years, historians have been trying to discern the mysterious death of Amy Robsart and whether her husband, Robert Dudley, had anything to do with it.

Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I – The Rainbow Portrait (Wikipedia)

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth I played together as children, but their relationship may have deepened while both imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary Tudor. While Mary executed Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, and his brother, Guilford Dudley, for the family’s plot to set Lady Jane Grey on the throne in early 1553, she pardoned Robert in October of 1554. Elizabeth, accused of plotting against Queen Mary, her half-sister, in February 1554 with the Wyatt Rebellion, also miraculously escaped Mary’s wrath. In May, Mary sent Elizabeth to Woodstock where she remained under house arrest for another year. Yet, for four months of their captivity in the Tower, Elizabeth and Dudley had plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company, despite periodic visits from Dudley’s wife of 4 years, Amy Robsart.

When Mary Tudor died in late 1558, Elizabeth acceded to the throne of England. The next morning, she appointed Dudley her Master of Horse. The position suited Dudley, an expert horseman and breeder of fine horses, and put him in close proximity to the new Queen. The position required daily, if not hourly, time in the Queen’s presence. This appointment resulted in Dudley spending months away from his wife, Amy, who lived with friends in different parts of the country, far from court. Elizabeth rarely let Dudley leave her side.

Rumors abounded of an affair between the Queen and Dudley, and Elizabeth often brazenly showed her affection for him. Meanwhile, England needed an heir and Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil pressured her to marry. Several foreign suiters vied for her hand during this time, and while she considered some, she ended up refusing them all.

painting of amy robsart
Amy Robsart – Countess of Leicester (Wikipedia)

In mid-1559, Dudley went to Throcking, Hertfordshire for a short time to visit Amy who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk at court stated that Elizabeth and Dudley planned to wait until Amy died, and would then proceed with marriage, making Dudley King Consort. Amy, no doubt had heard the rumors, and knew of her husband’s ambition, which must have added to her stress.

Later that same year, Amy traveled to London to visit her husband for one month, but after that never went back to court, or saw her husband again. During her time at court, it is said she ate sparingly, and according to some accounts, “was careful of her food.” Could she have suspected Elizabeth, jealous of anyone’s time with Dudley, of trying to poison her? Or could Dudley be so in love with Elizabeth, or in love with the power he’d gain by marrying the Queen, that he would want Amy dead?

By December of 1559, Amy moved to Cumnor Palace, rented by a family member, Sir Anthony Forster. Amy occupied the upper story of the palace, and supported a large household with the proceeds from her family’s estate. She soothed her worries and loneliness by ordering dresses and finery.

In September of 1560, on the day of the fair at Abingdon, Amy encouraged her servants, Sir Anthony, and his wife to attend the fair. One friend, Mrs. Odingsells, refused to leave the ailing Amy, but later retired to her rooms. When the others returned from the fair, they found Amy at the foot of the stairs with a broken neck.

A messenger from Cumnor dispatched the news to Windsor Castle where Dudley was in residence with the Queen. Dudley called for an immediate inquest. The coroner and a jury of 15 local gentleman called the death an accident. Relieved, but wanting to be sure—or ensuring that no guilt would be placed on him, Dudley called for another investigation. The coroner again assured him, the fall down the stairs caused two head injuries and the breaking of Amy’s bones which had become brittle due to her illness. No evidence could be found of wrong-doing on Dudley’s part.

Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley – Earl of Leicester (Wikipedia)

The mysterious circumstances of Amy’s death haunted Dudley for the rest of his life. Because of the scandal created by Elizabeth and Dudley’s relationship, and his wife’s early demise, it didn’t prove wise for the two to marry. Robert continued to remain close to the Queen.During the next several years, princes and noblemen from all over Europe continued to vie for the hand of England’s Queen. She refused all marriage proposals. Dudley greatly disappointed and angered Elizabeth when he wed Lettice Knollys in 1578. Still, once the anger wore off, Dudley remained among Elizabeth’s closest circles until his death in 1588. At Dudley’s death, Elizabeth went into deep mourning and did not leave her rooms for three days.

History leads us to believe that Robert Dudley could well have been the love of Elizabeth I’s life. Her refusal to marry and share her crown with anyone else proved she had a staunch will, confidence in herself and her rule, and no desire to share the emotional intimacies of marriage.

Did Dudley, or even Elizabeth, impetuously plot to remove Amy from their lives without thinking of the consequences? Had Amy died of natural causes, would history be altered? Would Dudley have shared Elizabeth’s crown, her rule, and her life? Did Elizabeth use her crown and her power to alter the evidence or the outcome in the case? It’s hard to say. Speculation has endured for centuries, but one thing is clear, only she and Dudley knew what truly happened.

For more information on Queen Elizabeth go to Elizabethi.org –  click here.

Mary Queen of Scots – The Mystery of the Casket Letters

Mary Queen of Scots
(Wikipedia)

Did Mary, Queen of Scots, play a role in the death of her second husband, Lord Darnley? The mystery may never be solved. What would prompt a Queen, carrying the child of her husband, to kill him? According to history, the reasons are varied and some even say, sound. The evidence that put her life on the line lies within the mysterious Casket Letters.

Mary, the only child of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, ascended to the throne of Scotland at six days old. Marie de Guise sent her infant daughter, Mary, to France to be raised in the French court, while she ruled Scotland as Queen Regent until Mary became of age.

At 16, Mary wed Louis, the dauphin of France, aged 15, as arranged by her mother and Henri II, King of France. Months later, Henri died due to injuries from a lance wound to the eye. Louis, the eldest child of the King and Catherine de Medici, took the throne. An odd pair—Mary, vivacious, beautiful and tall, and Louis small, awkward, and fragile—the two had great affection for one another. At Louis’s death a year after their marriage, Mary went into deep mourning.

Widowed, the teenaged Mary left France, the only home she’d known, and returned to Scotland. Required by her status to produce an heir, Mary needed to wed, again. The obvious choice–her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Both the same age, the two got along well at first, but Darnley’s fondness for drinking and other women didn’t set well with Mary. Also, he craved power and demanded she grant him the Crown Matrimonial. Knowing that to meet his demands would make Darnley King of Scotland at her death, she refused.

Lord Darnley
Henry Stuart – Lord Darnley (Wikipedia)

During her unhappy marriage to Darnley, Mary befriended the Italian courtier, also her private secretary, David Ricco. Unhappy in her marriage, yet faithful to her duties, Mary became pregnant with Darnley’s child. Jealous of their relationship, Darnley accused Mary of an affair with Ricco, claiming she carried Ricco’s child and not his. At a small dinner party Mary hosted for her ladies-in-waiting and Ricco, Darnley had Ricco savagely stabbed over 50 times, while some of Darnley’s men held Mary at gunpoint. The incident made it impossible for Mary to continue with Darnley.

After the birth of her son, James, Mary sought help from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and other Scottish nobles to remove Darnley from power, and Mary’s life. Divorce not an option for Mary, a Catholic Queen, she had to come up with something else. Darnley got wind of Mary’s plans and fearing for his safety, fled to Glasgow to hide out at his family’s estate. He soon became ill, with what might have been small pox or syphilis. Poison could not be ruled out, either.

Mary pleaded with him to come back to Edinburgh. He agreed to stay at Kirk O’Field, a former abbey at the outskirts of the city. Mary visited him daily while he recuperated, and it looked as if there might be a reconciliation. However, on a February morning in 1567, Darnley was found dead in the gardens of the estate. An explosion devastated Kirk o’Field the night before. Mary, her half-brother James (Earl of Moray), and Bothwell were implicated in the murder. Bothwell stood trial. Acquitted in the absence of evidence, he declared his aim to marry the Queen of Scots, and received support from several lords and bishops.

Bothwell and Mary eventually married, 12 days after Bothwell’s divorce from his wife. Again, Mary suffered an unhappy union, and the marriage proved unpopular with both Catholics and Protestants. It is unclear whether Mary loved Bothwell or not, if he somehow coerced her to marry him, or if she came to the marriage as a willing partner. Some records indicate that Bothwell raped her after he abducted her from Stirling castle, some time before they wed.

The Peerage, twenty-six confederate lords, turned against Mary and Bothwell, and raised  an army against them. Mary and Bothwell attempted to confront the lords with force, but Mary’s troops deserted. The lords granted Bothwell safe passage from the battlefield, but they took Mary to Edinburgh, and forced her to abdicated to her one-year-old son, James.

casket
(Canadian Content Forums)

Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, assumed the role of Regent, and to keep his power, turned against Mary. He handed over over “the Casket letters” to Queen Elizabeth, who now had the upper hand in her quest for Scottish rule. The Casket letters consisted of 8 unsigned letters from Mary to Bothwell, two marriage contracts, and love sonnets, nestled in a foot long silver casket bearing the monogram of King Francis II, Mary’s first husband.

Elizabeth wrote to Mary, imploring her for the truth. Mary denied writing the documents, but the situation did not help Mary’s cause, and many thought the letters proof of her plotting with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Years later, on 11 August 1586, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, (the Babbington Plot) Elizabeth had no choice and had Mary arrested. With the controversy of the Casket letters, and then the possibility that Mary might have plotted against the Queen of England, Mary stood as a constant threat to Elizabeth’s power, her throne, and her very life. In February of 1587, Elizabeth order Mary’s execution—a gruesome beheading that took several strokes of the axe.

Did Mary have a hand in the death of Lord Darnley? If so, one could hardly blame her after the brutal murder of her friend and confidant, Ricco. Mary’s upbringing might lead people to believe she knew all to well the importance of maintaining royal power at any cost. She grew up in the court of Henry II, under the care of Catherine de Medici, France’s most famed wicked woman. Yet, no matter how fierce her desire to maintain control of her crown and her country, Mary never demonstrated the same ruthlessness of d’Medici, or even her own husband, Darnley.

Perhaps in his eagerness to wed the Queen, Bothwell used her to plot the death of her husband, and then take power himself. Did Mary love Bothwell, or did he serve as a means to an end? Did someone in Mary’s confidence betray her with the mysterious Casket letters? Historical data is never perfect. The mystery of the Casket letters and their implications in Mary’s guilt will, most likely, never be solved.

young catherine de medici

The Mystery of Catherine de Medici – Wicked or Empowered?

young catherine de medici
Young Catherine de Medici
(Themedicifamily.com)

Orphaned only weeks after her birth, and passed around to several relatives before her internment  in several convents, Catherine de Medici had a rough start in life.

Like most children of noble families, Catherine maintained little control over her destiny. Born into the powerful Italian Medici family, whose members included two Popes, Catherine, as an only child, bore the brunt of her family’s successes and failures. When Catherine’s family  lost control of power in Florence in 1527 by a rogue political faction, they took Catherine hostage. Parading her through the streets on a donkey, she served as a symbol of her family’s defeat. They then sent her to live in a convent until 1530 when Pope Clement, Catherine’s great uncle, took back Florence with the help of Charles V of Spain. Clement then set out to find Catherine a husband to help secure the family’s legacy.

At 14 years of age, Catherine married 15-year-old Henry, Duke of Orleans, heir to the French throne. Eager for a happy union, Catherine soon discovered something different. Her husband loved another–Diane de Pointers, his childhood governess. Henry and Diane did little to hide their affair from Catherine. Once crowned King, Henri needed an heir to secure the Valois dynasty. Perhaps Catherine thought this would put an end to her husband’s affair, but it did not. Having to share her husband, Catherine also had to provide an heir. A task that proved impossible for 10 years.

In her desperation, Catherine turned to methods that alarmed the French. Using the advice of known necromancer Cosimo Ruggeri, and the seer Nostradamus, Catherine went to great lengths to bear a child. It is said she drank the urine of pregnant mules, and wore a talisman made of goat’s blood, metals, and human blood. As a Catholic people, the French saw these strange practices as witchcraft, and Catherine as a practitioner of the Dark Arts.

Finally, a true diagnosis for the lack of pregnancy came to light, and it had little to do with the queen. Henri suffered from a penile deformity. After medical consult regarding sexual positions to accommodate the situation, the couple conceived 10 children, 7 who survived.

When Henri died from a brain infection caused by a lance wound to the eye, Catherine went into deep mourning. It is said her grief prevented her from attending the coronation of her eldest son, Francis II. But, it didn’t take long for Catherine to realize that she, as mother of the King, and several more heirs, finally had control of her court, her country, and her own destiny. As one of her first acts of power, Catherine had Diane de Pointers banished from court. She then turned her full attention to the management of her children’s lives and the Valois dynasty.

Charles IX
Charles IX
(Wikipedia)

Two years after his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots, and one year after his coronation, Francis II, aged 15, died from an ear infection. His younger brother Charles IX, aged 10, succeeded him, making Catherine Queen Regent of France. Catherine dominated her son and the French court. Never known for her love and affection toward her children, Catherine made it her life’s work to secure their power.

With the rise of Queen Elizabeth of England and the protestant reformation, Catholic popularity in France waned. French protestants, called Huguenots, fought to overtake France. Eager to create resolution, Catherine negotiated with protestant Jeanne d’Albret, Queen Regent of Navarre, to arrange a marriage between d’Albret’s son, Henri, to her  daughter Margaret. Jeanne d’Albret agreed, but only if her son could remain protestant. Margaret, in love with Henri de Guise, protested the marriage. Catherine and King Charles had Margaret dragged from her bedroom, and beaten into submission. The wedding would take place August of 1572.

In June, Catherine welcomed Jeanne d’Albret and her son to France. Catherine presented d’Albret with a pair of perfumed gloves. Known for her love of perfumes and potions, Catherine introduced France to the elegant, fragrant, and finely made gloves. When Jeanne d’Albret died soon after her arrival, the Huguenots claimed Catherine poisoned the gloves.

On August 18, 1572, Margaret and Henri of Navarre married, making Henri the King of Navarre and Margaret his queen. Thousands of Huguenots attended the wedding, including Admiral Coligny, their leader. Two days later, Coligny was attacked and killed. The Huguenots blamed Catherine and her Catholic followers, and the uprising resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Charles, some say influenced by his mother, demanded that his soldiers “kill them all.” Hundreds of Huguenots died in the long battle, and Catherine’s name would forever be associated with their deaths. When her new son-in-law, the King of Navarre, converted to Catholicism to avoid being killed, Catherine is said to have laughed at him. From then on Huguenots branded Catherine as a scheming and evil Italian Queen who stopped at nothing to have her way.

The outcome of the massacre took a toll on Charles’ already weakened mental and physical condition. He alternately blamed his mother and himself for the deaths of so many. Catherine referred to him as her lunatic son. When Charles died at age 24, some said Catherine poisoned him to make way for her favorite son, Henri who became King Henri III upon Charles’ death.

Unhappy in her marriage to the King of Navarre, Margaret continued her affair with Henri de Guise, and many others. Embarrassed at her daughter’s behavior, Catherine, through her son, the King, ordered Margaret’s kidnapping and imprisonment in the south of France, where she remained for 17 years. With his mother’s whisper always in his ear, Henri withdrew Margaret’s inheritance and had Margaret’s lover, Henri de Guise, and his family murdered  at the Chateau de Blois. More of Margaret’s story can be found here.

Henri III of France
Henri III of France
(Wikipedia)

Under the rule of Henri III, France fell into a spiral of decline because of the religious war that continued to rage between the Catholics and the protestants. Unable to make peace between the two religious factions, the Catholic League forced Henri to acquiesce to their demands, including paying for their troops. Unable to deal with the pressure, Henri went into hiding, leaving his mother to sign the Treaty of Nemours, giving the Catholics power once again.

After Catherine died, Henri continued his mother’s legacy of ruthless rule which eventually led to his assassination.

Catherine de Medici will live on in history as a woman of controversy. Some see her as wicked, an evil ruler who thirsted for power. Others see her as empowered, an intelligent female leader fiercely determined to protect her family and their legacy. How do you see this unforgettable woman who influenced the history of the Medici dynasty, the Valois dynasty, France, and Europe’s religious war?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hildegard in blue

Hildegard of Bingen – Empowered Mystic of Mystery and History

painting of Hildegard - history
Medievalists.net

Hildegard of Bingen, born in the 11th century, is one of the most important female figures in history. Her visions, writings, and direct communications with God makes her also one of the most mysterious and empowered women of all time.

Since the early 20th century, with feminism and women’s studies on the rise, Hildegard of Bingen has also seen a new popularity. Although considered a saint by many early popes of the Catholic Church, in October of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI gave her the title of Doctor of the Church, a title of the highest esteem for theologians. She is the fourth woman of 35 saints given the title by the Roman Catholic church. She is also recognized as a saint in several Anglican churches, such as the Church of England.

Five Reasons why this dynamic, prolific, and profoundly spiritual person is an empowered woman of mystery and history.

#1 Her Visions

In her writings, Hildegard claims she had her first vision at the age of 3. She referred to it as “The Shade of the Living Light.” By the age of 5, she claims she understood the visions to be a gift from God, one that could not be explained to others. At 42 years of age, Hildegard claimed she received a message from God telling her to write down the visions that continued to come to her. Thus, she embarked on her first theological book entitled “Scivias” or “Know the Ways.”

#2 Her Feminism

 Living at a time where the role of women pertained strictly to the household, or in the service of men, would prove difficult for an outspoken woman. Even for an outspoken man, when it came to the church. But Hildegard spoke her mind, and spoke it often. She built two monasteries, embarked on preaching tours, and authorized herself as a theologian through her writings. All things women rarely attempted in her day. She is quoted to say, “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.” This can be interpreted as a belief in equality—at the very least in the spiritual sense.

#3 Her medicine

In addition to her other exceptional qualities, Hildegard was also known as a healer. As a child, she lived enclosed in the Benedictine monastery with an older woman named Jutta, also a visionary. According to records, Hildegard learned many of her skills like reading, writing, gardening, and tending to the sick from Jutta. Later, when she ran her own monastery, she headed the monastery’s herbal garden and infirmary. She learned to diagnose and treat disease with both physical and holistic methods centered on “spiritual healing.”

Hildegard in blue
From the Catholic Catalogue

 #4 Her Secret Alphabet

Hildegard created her own alphabet for the language she devised called the Lingua Ignota. A modified form of Latin, the Lignua Ignota contained many made-up, fused, and abridged words. Hildegard also made up words for her lyrics. She wrote over 70 musical compositions, each with its own poetic text. Scholars believe she created the secret alphabet and language to increase solidarity with her nuns.

#5 Her Gift of Music

Hildegard regarded song as the highest form of prayer. She may have learned to play the ten-stringed psaltery, a box shaped instrument that is plucked with the fingers, as a child under the tutelage of Volmar, a Disibod monk, who frequented the monastery. Along with over 70 musical compositions, Hildegard also wrote and composed Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music. Much of her lyrics reflect her reverence for the Virgin Mary and the Saints.

 

Scivias The Choirs of Angels - history
Scivias 1.6: The Choirs of Angels – Rupertsberg manuscript

A person born with Hildegard’s talents, skills, and spiritual communion with God and is rare. Some could even say, a mystery. To be noted for those talents, spiritual gifts, and high intellect as a woman was almost impossible in her day and age. The fact that the highest office of the Catholic church recognized this devoted mystic’s message and life’s work proves that she truly was a woman empowered–empowered by her beliefs, her truth, and her faith.

 

 

 

 

Empress Elisabeth of Austria – Her Own Woman

What did a woman in history do when she had no control over her life? If strong and empowered, she rebelled. Sometimes in a big way, and sometimes as a detriment to herself. One such woman was Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.

Elisabeth as Empress of Austria, empowered woman
Elisabeth 1837-1898
Empress of Franz Josef of Austria (i.dailymail.co.uk)One such woman was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as “Sisi.”

Born, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, in Munich, Bavaria 1837, Elisabeth grew up in the Bavarian countryside far from court life, riding horses and pursuing country sports. Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, saw little merit in rules for their four children. This liberal upbringing set the stage for Elisabeth’s constant quest for individualism in her adulthood. One that proved more and more difficult as she grew older.

And it started with marriage. Indulgent with their children’s freedom in childhood, the Duke and Princess of Bavaria could no longer defy the rules of royal life when their children became young adults. The Duke and his wife made arrangements with the Duke’s sister, Princess Sophie of Austria, for their eldest daughter, Helene, and Princess Sophie’s son, Franz Joseph, to wed. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth accompanied her older sister and their mother to Austria to meet their cousin and his mother. However, Helene did not catch the young Emperor’s fancy, but Elisabeth did. Franz defied his mother and insisted he marry Elisabeth. Their betrothal was announced five days later.

Within the year, Elisabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Sophie. The Archduchess immediately whisked the child away from Elisabeth and put her in the control of her own nannies. The same followed suit with the next child, Gisela. The Archduchess never missed an opportunity to chide Elisabeth for not producing a son.

Eager to get away from her mother-in-law, Elisabeth implored her husband to let her and the two girls accompany him on a trip to Hungary in 1857. During the visit, both of the girls became ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered quickly, but two-year-old Sophie succumbed to the illness, later diagnosed as Typhus. The death of little Sophie sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.

The sixteen inch waist - a woman needing to control her destiny
(foros.vogue.es)

Heart-broken, Elisabeth began a cycle of fasting, sometimes for days on end. She shunned her responsibilities at court, spent much of her time outdoors riding her horses, and also developed some disturbing phobias and obsessions. Her marriage, not a panacea to her troubles, started to show signs of stress.

Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth took much pride in her looks. Her appearance, one of the few things she had control over, became her primary obsession. Known for her elegant height of 5’8”, and her tiny waist, measuring 19 inches in diameter, Elisabeth went to dangerous extremes to control her weight. She eventually whittled her waist down to 16 inches. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110 lbs., the next several days called for a strict fast.

In addition to extreme dieting, Elisabeth also developed a rigorous and disciplined exercise routine.  She had gymnasiums built in every castle where the royal family resided. She had mats and balance beams and mirrors installed in her bedchamber so she could practice on them each day. She rode her horses often, sometimes three to five hours at a time.  Despite the toll on her health, in 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir, much to everyone’s relief.

Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics grew. Having fallen in love with the Hungarian people during her visit there in 1857, she firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side in Austro-Hungarian negotiations. At one point, she demanded that her husband name Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman, (and rumored to be her lover) Premier of Hungary or she would leave him. The emperor complied and Elisabeth stayed in an increasingly unhappy marriage.

In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary, and  Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, King and Queen of Hungary.  The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there where Elisabeth built a riding school.

Elisabeth much preferred Hungary to Austria and rarely went back to Vienna. In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie.  Determined to raise this child herself, she openly rebelled against her mother-in-law. Soon after, Archduchess Sophie died, forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children. But, too much damage had been done, and Elisabeth had no desire to be a doting wife. She took up a life of traveling, leaving her husband and children at home.

More sadness befell the estranged couple years later when their only son and heir, Rudolf, was found dead with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in a supposed murder suicide pact. The death of Rudolf caused a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, Hungary, and Austria. The line of succession  now passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, leaving Hungary out of the picture.

Elisabeth and her lady in waiting
Supposed last photo of Elisabeth one day before her death (foros.vogue.es)

In perpetual mourning, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels. When her health prevented her from riding, she made her servants endure long hikes and walks with her. At fifty, she took up fencing with the same intensity as she had other sports. She also threw herself into writing, became an inspired poet, and wrote nearly five hundred pages of verse. She despised court life and would often travel in disguise, without her entourage, to avoid being recognized. Unfortunately, this decision ultimately led to her death.

In 1898, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting left a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch a steamship for Montreux. Wanting to avoid recognition, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train. Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, happened to be in town to kill the Duc D’Orleans. Failing to find him, Lucheni learned that a woman traveling under the name “Countess of Hohenembs” had exited the hotel. Determined to kill a sovereign, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.

Defying the rules to the end, but beloved by her people, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became an historical icon. Her limited, though significant, influence on Austro-Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire. Although unable to completely escape the binds of royal life, she will always be remembered as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else.