Elisabeth von Wittelsbach was Empress of Austria from her marriage in April 1854 until her assassination in 1898. Tall, slim and considered one of the most beautiful women of her age, her daring personal style was often emulated within and outside the Austrian empire.
Elisabeth was progressive and a woman ahead of her time. Her dislike of convention was admired by the public, and her charm and charisma prompted her to be known as the People’s Empress, becoming the subject of unprecedented adoration. Yet behind her seemingly enviable life lay tragedy.
Early life and marriage
Elisabeth’s mother, Duchess Ludovika, was the aunt of Franz Joseph, the young new Emperor of Austria. Franz Joseph was head of the Imperial House of Habsburg, the richest and most powerful royal family in Europe at the time, and seen as the world’s greatest catch.
In 1853, 15 year old Elisabeth (better known by her nickname ‘Sissi’), accompanied her mother and elder sister Helene to meet Franz Joseph (their first cousin), to receive his formal proposal to Helene. The pair did not hit it off. However, Franz Joseph was besotted by Elisabeth, and said he wanted to marry her or no-one at all – against the wishes of his mother, Archduchess Sophie. Five days later they were betrothed, and married eight months later when Elisabeth was aged 16.
Elisabeth was not as smitten, and thought Franz Joseph to be dull, humourless and conservative. She had been raised to be progressive, adventurous, curious and creative, spending her time exploring the countryside of Bavaria, often wandering alone, sometimes barefoot. The formal imperial court was the opposite to the freedom of her childhood, and Elisabeth found it stifling.
Elisabeth’s progressive and free nature
Elisabeth’s free nature and interest in doing walkabouts in slums and factories (the first royal to do so after learning of her subjects’ poverty) defied both Sophie and her husband, yet entranced the world, propelling her to fame just at the time when photography had become popular. Nevertheless, Elisabeth did not enjoy the spotlight.
Elisabeth was disliked by her strict mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie, who didn’t think Elisabeth was suitable for the Habsburgs and disapproved of her son’s choice of wife. Her first two children were girls, and were taken away from Elisabeth by Sophie after Elisabeth wanted to breastfeed and look after them herself rather than use wet nurses and governesses as was standard for the time. Elisabeth was shunned by the court for not producing a male heir. The primary expectation of her was to have sons to produce heirs, yet she wanted more for herself as a woman, an individual, a wife and free-thinking leader – being ahead of her time.
She became depressed and suffered from an eating disorder – exacerbated when her eldest daughter fell ill and died during a trip in one of the rare times Elisabeth had been allowed to care for her children. This caused Elisabeth to distance herself from her other child.
Elisabeth’s long curled hair fell to her ankles, and she used the opportunity of washing this to provide respite from public appearances, spending the time learning languages. She became obsessed with fitness, hiking regularly, excelling in horse-riding and dieting on a meagre diet of broth and milk to maintain her extremely thin 15 inch waist. She travelled regularly, claiming her illnesses seemed to improve when doing so, suggesting they were psychosomatic.
The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867
Elisabeth’s third child was a son, Rudolf, providing the Habsburg empire with a crown prince. This finally gave Elisabeth security and influence, and made her even more popular with the public. Elisabeth became particularly fond of Hungary, and campaigned successfully for Hungary’s political autonomy. Her efforts as a mediator helped secure the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which ended Austria’s absolute rule and established a dual monarchy – Austria-Hungary – with her and Franz Joseph also becoming King and Queen of Hungary.
After her fourth child, Elisabeth was increasingly fragile – as her fame grew, so did her sense of alienation. Photographers stalked her everywhere, and indeed in the late 1870s she became the subject of the first paparazzi photograph when out in the English countryside, when she held up a large fan to obscure her face from the photo. Fearing ageing, she refused to have her photograph taken or sit for a portrait from her 30s onwards, trying many treatments to try and maintain her youth – and was rarely seen by the Viennese public. Nevertheless, she was still thought of as a great beauty and rumoured to have numerous affairs.
In 1889, her son Rudolph, the crown prince and heir to the throne, was found dead aged 30 in an apparent suicide pact with his teenage mistress. Elisabeth spiralled further into a deep depression, refusing to see her husband, retreating from public life and from then-on wearing black and a veil. Less than a decade later, her sister Duchess Sophie perished in a fire.
Travelling became a dominant feature in her life as a way of coping with her depression, with Elisabeth on the move constantly, visiting places secretly and without protection. This would prove fatal. In 1898 while in Geneva and forgetting to put on her veil, an Italian anarchist – Luigi Lucheni – stabbed her in the heart with a needle file, killing her. His original target, Henri Philippe d’Orelans, had changed their plans, so Luigi had turned his attention to Elisabeth, not caring who he targeted.
A cultural icon
Elisabeth remains a cultural icon, with her beauty and freewill romanticised in depictions of her in numerous books, exhibitions, plays, an opera, ballets, TV series and films. Her style is also still copied today – indeed the late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s trademark fan was his tribute to the fan carried by Elisabeth herself.
Nevertheless, despite outside perceptions of her seemingly gilded life, Empress Elisabeth’s life was profoundly tragic – trapped in a royal cage and with fame that she had never set out to obtain. Inevitable comparisons to the late Princess Diana have further fuelled interest in Elisabeth’s story, and her popular appeal as the world’s first royal celebrity.