Born on 24 December 1837 in Munich, Bavaria, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elizabeth Amalie Eugenie, known as ‘Sisi’, was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria and his wife Princess Ludovika of Bavaria.
The family lived at Possenhofen Castle where the children were raised in an uninhibited environment, and Elizabeth would often skip education in favour of riding through the countryside.
In 1853 Elizabeth’s aunt, Princess Sophie of Bavaria arranged a marriage between her son Emperor Francis Joseph and Elizabeth’s elder sister, Helene. Elizabeth accompanied her mother and elder sister on the journey to Austria in order for the Emperor to formally propose to Helene. Still in mourning over the death of an aunt, the three women were dressed in black for the journey and intended to change into more appropriate clothing on their arrival, but the coach containing their gala dresses failed to arrive.
With Helene’s dark colouring, wearing black did not suit, and with her being a pious, quiet young woman she and Emperor Francis Joseph felt uncomfortable within each others company. However, he was instantly infatuated by the striking appearance of Elizabeth, and defied his mother when he insisted that he would not propose to Helene, and suggested if he could not have Elizabeth then he would not marry at all. It was just five days later when the official announcement of their betrothal was made.
Eight months later on 24 April 1854, at Augustinerkirche, Vienna, the couple were married.
With a drastic change of lifestyle, Elizabeth found it difficult to adapt to the rigid and strict etiquette of court life and soon began displaying signs of ill health, where she suffered coughing fits, became anxious and frightened whenever she descended a narrow steep staircase.
Just ten months after her wedding, in 1855 she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who had been named by Elizabeth’s domineering mother-in-law. The dominant Princess Sophie not only named her granddaughter after herself without consulting her daughter-in-law, but she also took charge of the child, where she refused to allow Elizabeth to breastfeed or care for her own child and was often heard calling Elizabeth a “silly young mother”.
A year later in 1856 Elizabeth gave birth to her second daughter, Archduchess Gisela of Austria. Once again Princess Sophie removed the child from Elizabeth’s care.
Elizabeth was made to feel more and more unwanted in the palace as she had failed to produce a male heir and would find notes left in her room indicating her failure, believed to have been written by Princess Sophie;

…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire…
Her mother-in-law was generally considered to be the source of the above malicious pamphlet. The accusation of political meddling referred to Elisabeth’s influence on her husband regarding his Italian and Hungarian subjects. When she travelled to Italy with him she persuaded him to show mercy toward political prisoners
In 1857 Elizabeth and her two daughters accompanied her husband on a visit to Hungary, it was her first visit of which left a deep and lasting impression on her as “She felt her innermost soul reach out in sympathy to the proud, steadfast people of this land…” and felt so much affinity for the people that she began to learn the Hungarian language.
During the same trip both her children became ill, where Gisela recovered quickly but unfortunately two year old Sophie became so ill that she died.
The death of her daughter brought on a severe case of depression with Elizabeth neglecting her surviving daughter, a relationship of which never recovered. Elizabeth would refuse to eat by avoiding the family at meal times, when she did join them for a meal she would eat quickly and very little.
Later that same year, in December, Elizabeth became pregnant once more and finally produced a male heir on 21 August 1858, Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria.
In October 1860, with suffering from nervous attacks, fits of coughing, fasting, a lung complaint and physical exhaustion, Elizabeth’s doctor was concerned for her health and recommended she recuperate in Madeira. During this time of ill health, rumours circulated of a liaison between Francis Joseph and an actress Frau Roll, which led to speculation of Elizabeth’s illness being psychosomatic or a venereal disease.
Elizabeth spent 6 months away from her husband and children and within 4 days of her return to Vienna she once again began experiencing coughing fits, a fever and could not eat or sleep properly. On examination the doctor noticed the recurrent lung condition and more rest was advised, of which she travelled to Corfu, and almost immediately recovered.
During the next few years, with her losing battle against her mother-in-law for dominance in rearing her children, her sexual withdrawal from her husband after three pregnancies in rapid succession, the empress developed extremely rigorous and disciplined exercise habits where she enjoyed her horse riding and would be out riding for hours every day until she suffered with gout, whereby she took to walking, and fencing. All of her homes included a gymnasium where mats and beams were even installed in her bedchamber.
In her youth Elisabeth followed the fashions of the age, which for many years were cage-crinolined hoop skirts, but when fashion began to change, she was at the forefront of abandoning the hoop skirt for a tighter and leaner silhouette. She disliked both expensive accoutrements and the protocol that dictated constant changes of clothing, preferring simple, monochromatic riding habit-like attire. She never wore petticoats or any other “underlinen”, as they added bulk, and was often literally sewn into her clothes, to bypass waistbands, creases, and wrinkles and to further emphasize the “wasp waist” that became her hallmark, enduring the practice of ‘tight lacing’ of which reduced her waist to 16 inches. Elizabeth’s defiant flaunting of this exaggerated dimension angered her mother-in-law.
Along with her exercise routine, Elizabeth also maintained her beauty regime which included cold showers every morning and olive oil baths in the evening.
Daily care of her thick and extremely long hair, which over time changed from dark blonde, to chestnut brown, took at least three hours. Her hair would be washed once every two weeks in a mixture made of eggs and cognac and all activities would be cancelled on this day. It was during these long hours of grooming when Elizabeth would learn her languages.
In June 1867 Francis Joseph and Elizabeth were officially crowned King and Queen of Hungary and as a coronation gift Hungary presented the couple with a country residence in Godollo near Budapest.
After avoiding her husband’s wishes for another child in order to secure a heir, Elizabeth later decided that she wanted another child and so returned to her marriage.
In April 1868 she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter she named Marie Valerie and Elizabeth was determined to raise her daughter herself.
Princess Sophie’s domination over Elizabeth’s children and the court faded as she died in 1872.
Francis Joseph was passionately in love with his wife and although he tolerated her wanderings he tried to tempt her into a family life with him, but Elizabeth was emotionally distant from him and avoided him as much as possible.
Unable to sleep, Elizabeth spent many hours through the night writing and reading and even indulged in smoking, which made her a further subject for gossip.
Elisabeth embarked on a life of travel, and saw little of her children and is reported to have said, “If I arrived at a place and knew that I could never leave it again, the whole stay would become hell despite being paradise”.
It is also alleged that, to a degree, Elizabeth tolerated her husband’s affair with actress Katharina Schratt, while she herself is said to have embarked on a love affair with George Bay Middleton, a dashing Anglo-Scot.
Elizabeth’s life was shattered, when in 1889 her only son, Crown Prince Rudolph was found dead with his young lover Baroness Mary Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge in Lower Austria. The investigation into the incident suggested murder-suicide by Rudolph.
This incident, along with losing her parents, and then her sister pushed Elizabeth into despair.
A year later she lost her close companion, and of whom some suggest was probably her lover, Count Gyula Andrassy, on 18 February 1890. Her daughter Marie Valerie speaking of her mother declared, “she clung to him with true and steadfast friendship as she did perhaps, to no other person.”
Elizabeth spent the rest of her life wearing black gowns and would carry a white leather parasol and a fan to hide her face as she spent her time travelling through the Mediterranean on her imperial steamer.
Although she spent little time with her husband, the correspondence between them increased to form a warm friendship.
During the last years of her life her obsessive behave spiralled as she became obsessed with weighing herself up to three times a day, took regular steam baths to prevent weight gain and appeared to binge eat.
In 1898, Elizabeth who was now 60 years old, travelled in disguise to Geneva, Switzerland, where she stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, despite having received warnings of possible assassination attempts.
It was on Saturday 10 September at 1.35pm where Elizabeth, who was walking to catch the steamship, with her lady in waiting, when a man approached them. Attempting to peer under Elizabeth’s parasol the man stumbled and reached out his hand as if to steady himself. Unbeknown to Elizabeth, the man was 25 year old Luigi Lucheni an Italian anarchist who had stabbed Elizabeth with a sharpened needle file that was 4 inches long that he had inserted into a wooden handle. The empress collapsed onto the ground before being helped to her feet and then continued to walk to the steamer. Whilst on board she collapsed again. On opening Elizabeth’s corset laces so she could breathe her lady in waiting asked Elizabeth if she was in pain, where she replied, “No” before asking “What has happened?” and again lost consciousness. The ship turned around and eventually a stretcher carried her back to the hotel. On undoing her clothing a few small drops of blood and a small wound could be seen. On removing her from the stretcher to the bed she was clearly dead. Two doctors and a priest arrived, where Elizabeth was pronounced dead at 2.10pm.
Elizabeth had been the Empress of Austria for 44 years. On the morning of 17 September, 82 sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral cortege to the tomb in the Church of the Capuchins.
As with all 15 Habsburg empresses before her, her body was buried in the crypt, but her heart was sent to the Augustinian Church, where she was married, and her internal organs were placed in the crypt of the Metropolitan Church of Saint Stephen.


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