The Life and Reign of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Austria's most famous empress and Hungary's beloved queen

Empress Elisabeth of Austria with flowing hair. Oil on canvas, 1846.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria with flowing hair. Oil on canvas, 1846.

Imagno / Getty Images 

Empress Elisabeth (born Elisabeth of Bavaria; December 24, 1837 – September 10, 1898) was one of the most famous royal women in European history. Famed for her great beauty, she was also a diplomat who oversaw the unification of Austria and Hungary. She holds the title of the longest-serving Empress of Austria in history.

Fast Facts: Empress Elisabeth of Austria

  • Full Name: Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, later Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary
  • Occupation: Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary
  • Born: December 24, 1837 in Munich, Bavaria
  • Died: September 10, 1898 in Geneva, Switzerland
  • Key Accomplishments: Elisabeth was Austria’s longest-serving empress. Although she was often at odds with her own court, she had a special relationship with the Hungarian people and was instrumental in bringing about the uniting of Austria and Hungary in an equal, dual monarchy.
  • Quote: “O'er thee, like thine own sea birds / I'll circle without rest / For me earth holds no corner / To build a lasting nest.” – from a poem written by Elisabeth

Early Life: The Young Duchess

Elisabeth was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. Duke Maximilian was a bit eccentric and decidedly more progressive in his ideals than his fellow European aristocrats, which heavily influenced Elisabeth's beliefs and upbringing.

Elisabeth’s childhood was much less structured than many of her royal and aristocratic counterparts. She and her siblings spent much of their time riding in the Bavarian countryside, rather than in formal lessons. As a result, Elisabeth (fondly known as “Sisi” to her family and closest confidantes) grew to prefer a more private, less structured lifestyle.

Throughout her childhood, Elisabeth was particularly close to her older sister Helene. In 1853, the sisters traveled with their mother to Austria in hopes of an extraordinary match for Helene. Ludovika's sister Sophie, mother of Emperor Franz Joseph, had tried and failed to secure a match for her son among major European royalty and instead turned to her own family. Privately, Ludovika also hoped the trip might secure a second marriage in the family: between Franz Joseph’s younger brother, Karl Ludwig, and Elisabeth.

A Whirlwind Romance and the Aftermath

Serious and pious, Helene did not appeal to the 23-year-old emperor, although his mother expected he would obey her wishes and propose to his cousin. Instead, Franz Joseph fell madly in love with Elisabeth. He insisted to his mother that he would not propose to Helene, only to Elisabeth; if he could not marry her, he swore he would never marry. Sophie was deeply displeased, but she eventually acquiesced.

Franz Joseph and Elisabeth married on April 24, 1854. The period of their engagement had been a strange one: Franz Joseph was reported by all to be full of joy, but Elisabeth was quiet, nervous, and often found crying. Some of this could certainly be attributed to the overwhelming nature of the Austrian court, as well as the reportedly overbearing attitude of her aunt-turned-mother-in-law.

The Austrian court was intensely strict, with rules and etiquette that frustrated the progressive-minded Sisi. Even worse was her relationship with her mother-in-law, who refused to cede power to Elisabeth, who she viewed as a silly girl incapable of being an empress or mother. When Elisabeth and Franz Joseph had their first child in 1855, the Archduchess Sophie, Sophie refused to allow Elisabeth to care for her own child or even name her. She did the same to the next daughter, Archduchess Gisela, born in 1856.

Following Gisela’s birth, the pressure increased even further on Elisabeth to produce a male heir. A cruel pamphlet was anonymously left in her private chambers that suggested the role of a queen or empress was only to bear sons, not to have political opinions, and that a consort who did not bear a male heir would be a scheming danger to the country. It is widely believed that Sophie was the source.

Elisabeth suffered another blow in 1857, when she and the archduchesses accompanied the emperor to Hungary for the first time. Although Elisabeth discovered a deep kinship with the more informal and straightforward Hungarian people, it was also the site of great tragedy. Both her daughters fell ill, and the Archduchess Sophie died, only two years old.

An Active Empress

Following Sophie’s death, Elisabeth retreated from Gisela as well. She began the obsessive beauty and physical regimens that would grow into the stuff of legend: fasting, rigorous exercise, an elaborate routine for her ankle-length hair, and stiff, tightly-laced corsets. During the long hours required to maintain all of this, Elisabeth was not inactive: she used this time to learn several languages, study literature and poetry, and more.

In 1858, Elisabeth finally fulfilled her expected role by becoming the mother of an heir: the Crown Prince Rudolf. His birth helped her gain a larger foothold of power at court, which she used to speak on behalf of her beloved Hungarians. In particular, Elisabeth grew close to Hungarian diplomat Count Gyula Andrassy. Their relationship was a close alliance and friendship and was also rumored to be a love affair – so much so that, when Elisabeth had a fourth child in 1868, rumors swirled that Andrassy was the father.

Elisabeth was forced away from politics around 1860, when several bouts of ill health caught up with her, along with stress brought on by the rumors of her husband’s affair with an actress. She used this as an excuse to withdraw from court life for some time; her symptoms often returned when she returned to the Viennese court. It was around this time that she began standing her ground with her husband and mother-in-law, especially when they wanted another pregnancy – which Elisabeth did not want. Her marriage with Franz Joseph, already distant, became even more so.

She relented, however, in 1867, as a strategic move: by returning to her marriage, she increased her influence in time to push for the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which created a dual monarchy in which Hungary and Austria would be equal partners. Elisabeth and Franz Joseph became King and Queen of Hungary, and Elisabeth’s friend Andrassy became the prime minister. Her daughter, Valerie, was born in 1868, and became the object of all her mother’s pent-up maternal affection, sometimes to an extreme extent.

The Hungarian Queen

With her new official role as queen, Elisabeth had more excuse than ever to spend time in Hungary, which she gladly took. Even though her mother-in-law and rival Sophie died in 1872, Elisabeth often remained away from court, choosing instead to travel and to raise Valerie in Hungary. She dearly loved the Magyar people, as they loved her, and gained a reputation for her preference for “common” people over mannered aristocrats and courtiers.

Elisabeth was shattered with yet another tragedy in 1889 when her son Rudolf died in a suicide pact with his mistress Mary Vetsera. This left Franz Joseph's brother Karl Ludwig (and, upon Karl Ludwig's death, his son Archduke Franz Ferdinand) as the heir. Rudolf had been an emotional boy, like his mother, who was forced into a military upbringing that did not suit him at all. Death seemed everywhere for Elisabeth: her father had died in 1888, her sister Helene died in 1890, and her mother in 1892. Even her steadfast friend Andrassy passed in 1890.

Her fame continued to increase, as did her desire for privacy. Over time, she repaired her relationship with Franz Joseph, and the two became good friends. Distance seemed to help the relationship: Elisabeth was traveling extensively, but she and her husband corresponded often.

Assassination and Legacy

Elisabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland in 1898 when news of her presence leaked. On September 10, she and a lady-in-waiting were walking to board a steamer when she was attacked by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a monarch, any monarch. The wound was not evident at first, but Elisabeth collapsed soon after boarding, and it was discovered that Lucheni had stabbed her in the chest with a thin blade. She died almost immediately. Her body was returned to Vienna for a state funeral, and she was buried in the Capuchin Church. Her killer was apprehended, tried, and convicted, then committed suicide in 1910 while in prison.

Elisabeth’s legacy – or legend, depending on who you ask – carried on in several ways. Her widower founded the Order of Elizabeth in her honor, and many monuments and buildings in Austria and Hungary bear her name. In earlier stories, Elisabeth was portrayed as a fairy-tale princess, likely because of her whirlwind courtship and because of the most famous portrait of her: a painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter that depicted her with diamond stars in her floor-length hair.

Later biographies attempted to uncover the depth of Elisabeth’s life and inner conflict. Her story has captivated writers, musicians, filmmakers, and more, with dozens of works based on her life finding success. Instead of an untouchable, ethereal princess, she was often depicted as a complex, often unhappy woman – much closer to reality.

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