In many ways Princess Stephanie’s life mirrored that of her mother-in-law, Empress Sisi: an early betrothal and marriage; a husband with mistresses; a problem mother-in-law; and a poor marriage. Her parents King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette had an unhappy marriage but Stephanie found consolation as Queen Victoria’s favourite “niece”.
In her memoirs I was born to be an Empress Stephanie recalled a visit to Windsor as a child, “We went for walks, drives and excursions during which I rode a pony, in the magnificent park of Windsor’.
Rudolf and Stephanie were engaged in 1880 and married in 1881. She claimed that the marriage was strained from the beginning and that Rudolf was extremely suspicious and restricted her movements.
Sisi actively disliked Stephanie but she soon detected that the new daughter-in-law was happy to fulfil public engagements. She was left to escort the Queen of Italy on a state visit to Vienna and to undertake the ceremony of washing the feet of subjects each Maundy Thursday.
The relationship improved when Stephanie became pregnant in 1883. She gave birth to Archduchess Elisabeth – known to the family as Erszi – in September that year.
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.
The marriage deteriorated as Rudolf’s health declined. He argued with his father and he became infatuated with Mary Vetsera.
Nine years after Rudolf’s suicide, Princess Stephanie of Belgium was re-married to Count Elemer Lonyay de Nagy-Lonyay and Vasaros-Nameny, aged 37. Whereas Franz Josef welcomed the marriage, her father King Leopold was so angry that when her mother died in 1902, he refused Stephanie permission to pray by her mother’s coffin. Princess Stephanie of Belgium died in 1945.
Attributed to Géruzet Frères [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons