While researching an idea for a new novel, (I was specifically looking for a famous horsewoman in history) I stumbled across the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. She was indeed an avid horsewoman and was actually known as “the finest horsewoman of her day.” She excelled at the hunt, taught her horses tricks, and trained with famous circus riders at the riding school she built at Godollo in Hungary.
As I researched further, I became intrigued with the rest of her compelling, fascinating and tragic story.
Born Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Munich, Bavaria 1837, “Sisi” as she was known to her family, grew up far from court in the Bavarian countryside at Possenhofen Castle.
Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, raised their four children with little discipline and few rules. The children spent much of their time riding and pursuing country sports rather than learning the protocols and etiquette of court life. This fact probably led to Sisi’s later philosophy that to be an individual and non-conformist would be the greatest achievement of all. Her quest of this individualism would be her biggest challenge and one that she never quite achieved.
As in most royal families, marriages were arranged. When Sisi was fifteen, she accompanied her mother and her older sister Helene to Bad Ischl, Austria to meet Helene’s betrothed, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. The arrangement was orchestrated by Franz Joseph’s domineering mother, ( also Helene and Sisi’s aunt) Princess Sophie of Bavaria. Although Helene was considered the beauty of the family, Franz Joseph became instantly infatuated with Sisi. He defied his mother and told her if he could not have his cousin Elisabeth he would have no one at all. The betrothal was announced five days later.
Elisabeth’s married life was far different from her free-spirited childhood. Hapsburg court life was rigid and strict. Her Aunt, the Archduchess, was an overbearing and demanding mother-in-law who interfered in the new couple’s life at every turn. Soon, Elisabeth began to display health problems. She had difficulty with her lungs and would suffer from spasms of coughing, and also developed several phobias.
Ten months after the wedding, she gave birth to her first child, Sophie, named after her mother-in-law, by her mother-in-law. This was to set the stage for next child born to Elisabeth, Gisela who was also immediately taken from her and put in the care of the Archduchess. The Archduchess also made it abundantly clear her disappointment at Elisabeth’s inability to bear a son. The Archduchess was to suffer several other disappointments when her son, Joseph Franz took Elisabeth and his two daughters to Hungary for a visit in 1857. During the visit, Elisabeth fell in love with the Hungarian people, particularly the Magyars, an ethnic group associated with the Hungarians, (whom her mother-in-law despised) and urged her husband to show mercy to Hungarian political prisoners. She was later chastised for her “political meddling.” The trip also proved horribly tragic for Elisabeth as both her daughters became ill with diarrhea. Gisela, the baby, recovered quickly, but two year old Sophie succumbed to the illness, which was later determined as Typhus. The death of her first child sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.
Elisabeth was painfully learning that most aspects of her life were not in her control. She felt she had no identity as a mother or the wife of an emperor. In her depression, she began to shun all responsibilities and spent much of her time riding. Grieving her daughter, she would also stop eating for days at a time.
Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth realized her physical appearance was an attribute greatly valued by society. Her looks became the primary source of her control and her self-esteem. She became obsessed with her face, hair and figure. Unusually slender, Elisabeth’s waist measured 19 inches. At 5’8 inches tall, she weighed 110 lbs. Living on a strict diet of beef broth, milk and eggs, she was able to reduce her waist to 16 inches in diameter. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110, the next few days would constitute a strict fast.
Elisabeth also emphasized her tiny waist through the practice of “tight lacing.” She had corsets specially made of leather, to hold up under the strenuous lacing, and would only wear them for a few weeks at a time as they would eventually stretch.
The only “flaw” in her beauty was her teeth. Due to either poor dental care in her youth, malnutrition from dieting, or from the possible effects of bulimia, her teeth deteriorated early. In public, she would often hide her face behind a small leather fan. After age 32 she refused to have her photo taken or sit for portraits.
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. Another of Elisabeth’s unusual beauty traits was her hair. Thick and golden brown, her tresses reached somewhere between her knees and ankles.
Every two weeks, her hair was washed with special “essences” of eggs and cognac. The process took hours, so activities and obligations for the day were cancelled. Her hairdresser was forbidden to wear rings and was required to don white gloves while dressing the royal coif – an activity that took two to four hours a day.
In 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir. This, coupled with her sympathy toward the Hungarians made her an ideal mediator between the Magyars and her husband, the Emperor. Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics developed as she grew older. She firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side whenever there were difficult negotiations between the Hungarians and the court. At one point, she demanded that Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman (and rumored to be her lover) be named Premier of Hungary or she would leave the Emperor. He complied and Elisabeth stayed in the increasingly unhappy marriage.
In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary and in turn, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were named King and Queen of Hungary. The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there, where she built her riding school. Elisabeth much preferred her Hungarian home to her Austrian one and rarely went back to Vienna. In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie. She was determined to raise this child herself and openly rebelled against her mother-in-law. Soon after, the elder Archduchess Sophie died forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children.
With the oppression of her mother-in-law lifted, it would be assumed that Elisabeth would take control of her children and family, but instead, she drifted further away from them and began a life filled with travel. She claimed that if she arrived at a place and knew she couldn’t leave, it would become a living hell.
In 1889, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s only son, and heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire died. He was found with his 17 year old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. It was determined a murder/suicide committed by the 30 year old Rudolf. The death would cause a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, and Hungary and Austria. The line of succession would now be passed to Franz Joseph’s brother and his son, leaving Hungary out of the picture.
In perpetual mourning and never to wear anything but black again, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels. When her health prevented her from riding, she took to making her servants endure miles long hikes and walks in the wilderness. 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 a “procession” or to be recognized as a person of significance, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train. Since she was without protection, this gave Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, a perfect opportunity. In town to kill the Duc D’Orleans, and failing to find him, the assassin learned from a Geneva newspaper that a woman traveling under the name of “Countess of Hohenembs” was the Empress Elisabeth. Soon after she and her lady exited the hotel, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.
Lucheni stated after the murder, “I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign…it did not matter to me who the sovereign was…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.” Had he done his homework, he would have realized that Elisabeth was famous for preferring the common man to courtiers, was known for her charitable works and was a rebel within her own home and community and stood up for the underdog.
The entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep mourning. On September 17, 1898, eighty-two sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral procession to the tomb in the Church of the Capuchins. Her husband was devastated and quoted as saying, “That a man could be found to attack such a woman, whose whole life was spent in doing good and who never injured any person is to me incomprehensible.”
Although exceedingly eccentric, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became a historical icon. Her limited though significant influence on Austro Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire. She will always be known as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else. Ironically, she herself could not escape the gilded cage.