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A Brief Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Updated on December 4, 2017
'Photo of Empress Elisabeth of Austria', 1867
'Photo of Empress Elisabeth of Austria', 1867 | Source

Born on Christmas eve of 1837, and given the title of Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria, she was the fourth child of Duke Maximillian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Baravia. Most commonly referred to as Sisi by friends and family, her early childhood was marked by the freedom she and her siblings were allowed. Often roaming the countryside around her families property, and free to skip lessons in favor of riding, she was described as more of a tanned country-child, then a princess.

Her father, the willfully eccentric Duke Maximillian, was often absent during these early years, having developed a love of travel, and a disdain for anything that resembled official duties. Her mother, though, was described as fully committed to the upbringing of her children.

In 1853, Archduchess Sophie of Austria, mother of the reigning Emperor Franz Joseph, began preparations with Princess Ludovika for a arranged marriage between eldest daughter Helene and the young Emperor. Throughout all of their preparations, the two parents reportedly took the obedience of their respective children for granted, in spite of the fact that the would-be suitors had never actually met, and where likely barely involved in the process. Upon meeting, however, the two proved to be ill-at-east, at best, in each others company, and the young emperor's eye was caught by the then fifteen year old Elisabeth. The planned wedding between Emperor Franz Joseph and Helene ultimately never came about, as Franz Joseph twice defied the wishes of his domineering mother – first by failing to propose to Helene, and later by proposing to the young Elisabeth instead, leading to their marriage eight months after meeting.

The newly crowned Empress Elisabeth of Austria found it difficult to adapt to the expectations and restrictions of court life, though – having enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom up until that point. Also, her own shy and introverted nature, combined with the overbearing attitude of her mother-in-law, who resented her for her sons disobedience, and was determined to turn her into a fitting ruler, left her feeling isolated in her new home and ultimately began to negatively affect her health.

During this time, she gave birth to two daughters, Archduchess Sophie of Austria, named in honor of her step-in-law, born in1855, and Archduchess Gisella of Austria, born in 1856. Both children were almost immediately taken from her care, though, by her mother-in-law who regarded her as a 'silly young mother' unfit to raise the children of the Emperor. This, combined with the fact that she had so far failed to produce a male heir to the throne, resulted in deeper feelings of isolation and an impression that she was unwanted in the court.

Despite this, though, Empress Elisabeth still came to enjoy the opportunities to leave court on various trips with her husband – finding herself particularly enamored with the people and culture of Hungary during a trip their with her husband, and two daughters, in 1857. This same trip also lead to tragedy, however, as both children fell ill – while Giselle ultimately recovered, Sophie's health continued to deteriorate, leading to her eventual death.

This drove a further wedge between Empress Elisabeth and the rest of her family. Already prone to bouts of melancholy, the loss of her eldest daughter drove her into periods of deep depression, leading to her turning away from her husband and her surviving daughter.

During this period, Empress Elisabeth turn away from life in court, her family and her reserved and practical husband almost entirely. Taking up restless travels as she sought to avoid the duties of court entirely, much as her father had before her. In this, she was indulged by her husband, who is though to have been very much in love with her, despite the difficulties that existed between them, and the fact that she did not seem willing or able to return his love.

Despite the strained relationship between Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph, though, was still able to produce the sought after male heir on August 22, 1858, named the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. This resulted in another change in attitude for the Empress as her increased influence at court in the period following her sons birth, combined with her growing interest in politics, led to her taking a much more active role. Particularly in negotiations between Austria and Hungary, where she is reported to have played a key role in resolving tensions, leading ultimately to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, where the two nations where joined under a single monarchy.

However, during this period, Empress Elisabeth's health continued to plague her, and she once again denied an active role in the upbringing of her child. Growing more openly defiant as her own confidence increased, the Empress took every opportunity available to remove herself from the court environment that she had always found so stifling – often using her poor health as an excuse to escape the official obligations she found so wearying. She also actively opposed her husband and mother-in-law in their plans for a military education for her young son, Rudolph, believing that the child was poorly suited to such a strict environment.

In the years following the unification of Austria and Hungary, a fourth child was born, named as the Archduchess Marie Valerie in 1868. This fourth child was often referred to as 'the Hungarian Child' by an increasingly resentful and neglected Austrian people, who saw their Empress largely abandoning them for a preferred life in Hungary. Unlike her first children, Elisabeth was able to raise her fourth largely on her own as, by this point, her mother-in-law had begun to fade into the background, ultimately passing away in 1872.

During this period, Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph continued to drift apart, while at the same time seeming to grow more understanding and accepting of each other. Each is believed to have had affairs with the knowledge and acceptance of the other, and their increasing correspondence with each other indicates the gradual growth of a warm friendship. Tragedy once more struck for each of them, however, in 1889 when their only son Rudolf, then 30 years old, was found dead with his young lover, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, in what was believed by authorities to be a murder-suicide committed by Rudolf. In the years following this, and leading up to her own eventual death, Empress Elisabeth spent as little time as possible in Austria's capital with her husband, preferring her own travels – though, they continued to communicate with each other regularly.

On September 10, 1898, Empress Elisabeth herself was killed while traveling in Geneva, Switzerland. Her death was an assassination committed by a young anarchist named Luigi Lucheni in what was considered an act of 'propaganda of the deed' – an anarchist concept that promoted acts of violence against political figures as a means of inspiring revolution.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria was later buried at the Imperial Crypt in Vienna's city center.

© 2015 Dallas Matier

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