Third-born child and heir apparent, Rudolf was born in 1858. The Emperor saw him as a future military leader and made him a Colonel at birth. His grandmother insisted on controlling his upbringing and limited Sisi’s time with her own son. The upbringing was so strict under Major-General Ludwig von Gondrecourt that Rudolf became ill until Colonel Latour intervened and appealed to the Empress. Sisi insisted that Latour should take over, after which he flourished. By the age of 10 Rudolf had picked up his mother’s enthusiasm for Hungary and Andrassy.
The Crown Prince was given a liberal education which included a lengthy visit to Britain and Ireland. In 1878 he joined the army, not in a fashionable dragoons or hussars’ regiment but in the 36th (Bohemian) Infantry. He took his duties seriously yet one minute he was giving an 88-page lecture on the Prussian victory at Spicheren in the Franco-Prussian War; the next he was chasing after the courtesans.
The Emperor’s friend Count Karl (Charly) Bombelles became his head of household and mentor while economist Carl Menger was chosen to educate him. Through Bombelles he contacted the ladies; through Menger he would make contacts in radical circles. Later these came to Franz Josef’s attention but he did not realise how much newspaper writing Rudolf was doing.
He travelled widely and wrote highly-acclaimed accounts of his visits and scientific studies. He studied ornithology and pursued liberal interests but he also wrote anonymous pamphlets critical of the aristocracy and the monarchy,. Whereas his parents loved hunting, Rudolf preferred shooting. He was a charming young man who mixed easily with foreign royalty, becoming very friendly with Britain’s Prince of Wales.
To halt the gossip about the courtesans it was essential to find Rudolf a wife. Leopold II of Belgium was approached and a meeting arranged with 15-year-old Princess Stephanie (1864 – 1945). Rudolf and Stephanie were engaged in 1880 and married in 1881. Whereas Rudolf’s letters suggest they were happy, Stephanie (in her 1935 memoirs) claimed that the marriage was strained from the start and that he was very suspicious and restricted her movements. After the honeymoon he returned to his regiment.
In many ways Princess Stephanie’s life mirrored that of Empress Sisi: an early betrothal and marriage; a husband with mistresses; a problem mother-in-law; and a poor marriage. But after two years of marriage they had settled down. In 1883 Stephanie gave birth to a daughter Elisabeth, known for ever as Erzsi.
Sisi actively disliked Stephanie but she soon detected that the new daughter-in-law would carry out public duties the Empress was meant to do. Stephanie was clearly popular with the people of the empire and she claimed that she was sent to Trieste, supposedly for the sea-bathing, to calm separatist unrest. She also made a visit to the Sultan of Turkey.
In 1887 Rudolf purchased buildings at Mayerling, 35 kilometres from Vienna, as a hunting lodge. But he continued his army career. However his liberal attitudes worried Archduke Albrecht, Inspector General of the army, who stopped him getting command of the 2nd army corps. This added to his frustration and anger. The marriage rapidly deteriorated as Rudolf’s health declined and he experienced turmoil in his private and public lives. Stephanie recalled that in 1888 Rudolf was restless and irritable, rarely sober, did not return home until dawn and kept bad company.
Rudolf’s marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium had already been ruined by his predilection for mistresses before he was introduced to Mary Vetsera. And then he quarrelled with his father. Rudolf was at Mayerling when he shot Mary dead and in turn committed suicide.