Beautiful Empress Elizabeth of Austria, nicknamed ‘Sissi’, became a legend in her own lifetime. The Hungarians especially loved this ‘lonely Empress’ because she helped their nationalist cause. She is also famous for being devoted to other causes and charities and her poetry. The Empress was ‘a woman of many parts’ – a Queen, an equestrian and a writer – who, sadly, had a very tragic life.
Born in the Christmas of 1837 in Munich, this daughter of Duke Maximilian and Maria Ludowika, enjoyed a carefree existence in the stunning countryside of Bavaria. Raised in Possenhofen Castle, she liked to ride, hunt, and play games with her many siblings.
This life of freedom ended soon after she met Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. Elizabeth was only 15 when she met the emperor. A marriage between Franz Joseph and Elizabeth’s older sister, Helene, had been arranged and he had come to meet her. He fell in love with the young Elizabeth instead and they were engaged a day after they met at Bad Ischl.
They married in April 1854. Elizabeth found the strict protocols of court life very difficult after living an enjoyable life in the country. She also disliked her mother-in-law, Sophie, who accused her of making many mistakes and faux-pas. Their relationship became fraught when Sophie took charge of the upbringing of the Empress’s three children, Sophie, Gisela and Rudolph. She refused to let the young Empress breastfeed the children and insisted on taking charge of their education.
Elizabeth eventually became very ill with tuberculosis and her doctor ordered her to travel to a healthier climate. She went to Madeira, Corfu and Venice.
Eventually she recovered and returned to Austria where she became very interested in the nationalist cause of the Hungarians. Empress Elizabeth learned Hungarian, became friendly with the nationalist Count Andrassy, and devoted herself to the cause. She was instrumental in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 which gave the Hungarians more freedom. She and Franz-Joseph became the King and Queen of Hungary in 1867.
After this Elizabeth had another daughter, Maria Valerie, who became her favourite. She taught her Hungarian and raised her to love Hungary as much as she did.
Elizabeth devoted herself to the sick and injured her great beauty, and her equestrian skills. She also tried again to be a good wife to the Emperor.
Beset by tragedies, including the deaths of her parents and her sister, she soon started traveling and writing again. She loved to learn about the world of the ancient Greeks, and commissioned a palace at Corfu which she called Achilleron after her hero, Achilles. Here she wrote poetry in the tradition of her favourite poet, Heinrich Heine, and learned Greek history and mythology.
When her son committed suicide at Mayerling, the Empress blamed herself for opposing his intended marriage to Mary Vetsera. She began to dress in black and gave her daughters her clothes and jewels. Anorexic and very miserable, Elizabeth sought refuge in traveling but she wrote that she longed for death. She was killed by an anarchist on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The ‘tragic empress’ has a cult following on the Internet and many books, films and plays have been written about her. Many people know about her because of the ‘Sissi’ films starring Romy Schneider, with their splendid settings and costumes. There is even a Sissi Museum in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, which is supposed to be well-worth visiting.
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