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Elisabeth Wittelsbach, Empress of Austria & Queen of Hungary, 1837-1898

 

Childhood  & Marriage

 

Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was born on Christmas Eve, 1837, in Munich, Germany, to the Duke and Duchess of Bavaria, Maximilian and Ludovica. Ludovica was born the daughter of King Maximilian I of Bavaria and his second wife, Catharine of Baden in 1808. The same year, her future husband and cousin, Maximilian was born to the Duke and Duchess of Bavaria. Ludovica was the Royal Princess of Bavaria and when she married her cousin in 1828, she married below her station, as her husband was a mere duke. Ludovica had two other sisters, Sophie and Elise. Sophie had married the into the family of the Holy Roman Emperors with her marriage to Franz Karl and Elise had married into the Prussian Royal Family and became Queen of Prussia. The couple lived in Maximilian's castle in Munich and spent their summers in a Bavarian summer retreat, Possenhofen, a castle in the Bavarian countryside. The couple had their first child, a son named Ludwig, in 1831. Following Ludwig came a daughter, Helene, born in 1834. Six other children followed:

  • Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, 1837
  • Karl Theodor, 1839
  • Marie, 1841
  • Mathilde, 1843
  • Sophie, 1847
  • Max Emmanuel, 1849 

The rather large family grew up with their strict mother and their overly eccentric father. While her older sister, Helene, was an admirable young woman with manners and grace, Elisabeth, who was nicknamed Sisi when she was a little girl for reasons unknown, was the opposite. Elisabeth was a rowdy wanton. She rolled in the grass, got dirty, played in the forests around Possenhofen, and spent hours riding on her horses. Elisabeth's passion was horses and she loved to spend time with them. In fact, she loved all animals, as her eccentric father had. She had a wide menagerie that traveled with her from the family's Munich castle to Possenhofen. She had rabbits, guinea pigs, canaries, dogs, hamsters, and lambs and many more.

Elisabeth adored her father. Her mother was pre-occupied with Helene, the kind of girl a mother would love at the time and so Elisabeth turned towards Maximilian. The two had a very good father-daughter relationship and spent hours talking about poetry and the arts and of course spent mornings and afternoons riding in the countryside. Elisabeth did not keep a diary but instead wrote poems to express herself. There really was no other place to turn to as although Elisabeth had a strong relationship with her brothers and sisters, she had no real friends. 

When Elisabeth was still very young, she fell in love with a count who frequently visited the family's castle in Munich. She was smitten, and when her mother found her poems and lovesick expressions written down about him, the count was banished from the castle and Elisabeth never saw him again.

Elisabeth had another adventure in love when her family visited the family of her Aunt Sophie. Karl Ludwig, Elisabeth's cousin, was very fond of Elisabeth and admired her canaries and her drawings she had made of the lambs she had. He, being only 5 years older than her, presented her with gifts such as candies and roses. At this time Ludovica had plans that perhaps the two would make a good match.

In July of 1853, Ludovica received a very flattering letter from her sister, the Archduchess of Austria, Sophie. Sophie was looking for a husband for the 22-year-old Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef. Remembering Helene's wonderful example of a refined young woman, Sophie had requested that Helene come to the royal family's palace at Bad Ischl, Austria. Ludovica, remembering Elisabeth and Karl Ludwig's innocent love, decided to bring Elisabeth with her so perhaps she could marry off two girls into the prestigious and important Austrian royal family.

Ludovica and her two daughters set off to Bad Ischl in August of 1853 and arrived late. Still in their mourning clothes (they were mourning the death of their Aunt Sophie, not the Austrian Archduchess but another aunt by the same named), they were presented to Sophie and Elise, Helene and Elisabeth's aunt. Helene was introduced to the Emperor Franz Josef who was somewhat taken with her but at a dinner one night Franz Josef happened to glance away from Helene, who was seated right next to him, and noticed Elisabeth, sitting far away from him as the seats were set up according to titles and positions. Although Franz spent a lot of time courting Helene, he soon started to notice Elisabeth more and more until finally at a small ball one night he asked Elisabeth to dance and was smitten with her. Within days the news was announced that Franz Josef had told his mother, Sophie that he planned to marry Elisabeth instead of Helene.

Franz began to court Elisabeth in the way he had Helene and showed her the many splendors of his life. Sophie in did not approve of Elisabeth, nor did Ludovica, who was somewhat embarrassed by this match for she knew how immature and unprepared Elisabeth was for the role of Empress of Austria.

Elisabeth, her disappointed mother, and her depressed sister left Bad Ischl on August 31, 1853. As soon as she had arrived home, Elisabeth was consumed into lessons on how to be an empress. She studied the strict etiquette of the court, the fashions, the people who would have roles in her life, and the languages and history of her new country. Painters, designers, and jewelers flocked to the once calm and serene Possenhofen. Elisabeth even once described herself as a hive and all of these people were bees flocking to her.

Franz Josef paid a visit to his fiancée around Christmas of 1853, after 3 months of love letter writing. He only managed to stay for a few days as his duties in Vienna called him away from Elisabeth, but she was content and returned to the end of her studies and the beginning of the packing of her trousseau, which included 358 dresses, clothes, shoes, combs, and many other fashion items.

On April 20, 1854, Elisabeth left with her mother and sister for Vienna, saying goodbye to her brother, sisters, her father, her pets, and Possenhofen forever. The Emperor met her at Linz, Austria on April 21 and the next morning they left for Vienna onboard of a barge. When Elisabeth arrived in Vienna, Archduchess Sophie introduced her to the court at Schloss Schonbrunn and her new entourage, including her handmaidens, ladies-in-waiting, and personal servants.

Elisabeth married Franz Joseph on April 24, 1854. The lavish ceremony took many hours. It all started with Elisabeth rising at 7 am to read two thick manuscripts on the etiquette and the roles of her ladies-in-waiting, brought by her lead lady, Countess Esterhazy. Then Elisabeth, accompanied by her mother and sister, set out to the church where she would be married. The church was not even a mile away and yet it took hours for her carriage to get through the crowds. Amongst thousands of candles and pomp, Elisabeth became the wife of the Emperor of Austria. Afterwards, many functions took place. Elisabeth was applauded, even by her aunt who disapproved of her. Elisabeth had taken on a role that she was not ready for. Amid all the celebrations, she would never guess the deadly and tragic turns her role as Empress of Austria would take.

Last updated: August, 2003