In August 1858 Sisi gave birth to her third-born child Rudolf, the Crown Prince, at Laxenburg. Emperor Josef immediately made him an army officer. Sisi had little say in his early upbringing.
In 1864 Rudolf was taken away from his sister Gisela and set up with his own household. The Emperor made General Count Leopold Gondrecourt his tutor. Gondrecourt sought to produce a tough soldier from the sickly child and Crown Prince Rudolf was treated harshly and drilled until he was exhausted.
Fearing for Rudolf one of Gondrecourt’s officers Count Joseph Latour went to Sisi. In turn Sisi gave Emperor Franz Josef an ultimatum, demanding that she should be in charge of the children’s education. Her expression of independence won the day and Gondrecourt was sacked and replaced by the liberal and kind Latour.
Rudolf’s life changed and so did his interests. Aged nine he shot his first stag near Ischl and by the time of his first communion in 1870 his keen interest in ornithology was reflected in a long essay on the hunting of eagles.
In the 1870s Crown Prince Rudolf continued his studies and he met the zoologist Alfred Brehm who accompanied him on the field trip that led to Rudolf writing his successful book Fünfzehn Tage auf der Donau (Fifteen Days on the Danube). In 1877 Count Bombelles was made head of Rudolf’s household and the next year he accompanied Rudolf on his tour of Britain and Ireland; preparation for the day when he would become emperor.
Crown Prince Rudolf moved to Prague and joined the 36th (Bohemian) Infantry as a Colonel. Reluctantly he left his friends and the courtesans of Vienna behind. But his time in Prague gave Rudolf a better understanding of the nationalist problems within the empire. In 1879 Rudolf was made commanding officer of the regiment.
It was clear to all that Rudolf needed to settle down and in March 1880 he accepted the proposal from the Belgian king that he should marry his daughter Princess Stephanie of Belgium. She was an immature girl of just 15. Sisi was in London when she received the news by telegram. Famously Marie Festetics thanked God it was not news of a disaster to which Empress Elisabeth answered “Pray God it is not”.
Rudolf and Princess Stephanie were married in Vienna in 1881 and they began married life in Prague, where he was promoted to Lieutenant General. After a shaky start the newlyweds seemed to reach mutual understanding despite their differences of temperament, sharing interests such as shooting.
From the late 1870s Rudolf had been writing newspaper articles and pamphlets reflecting his liberal views. Many appeared anonymously and included attacks on what he viewed as the idleness of the members of his parents’ Court. In 1883 Rudolf wrote various political articles for the Viennese daily Neues Wiener Tagblatt, under a false name. His liberal views upset many in conservative army and Court circles but Emperor Franz Josef approved of his call for modernisation and scientific development, made in his first public speech. To cap a good year his daughter Elisabeth ‘Erszi’ was born.
In 1885 Rudolf and Stephanie made an official visit to Greece, Montenegro and Ottoman controlled Beirut and Damascus. At the same time he completed part one of his encyclopaedia of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
Crown Prince Rudolf’s marriage came to crisis point in 1886. Many historians conclude that he had caught gonorrhoea and that the infection worsened the next year. Rudolf infected Crown Princess Stephanie and she was unable to have any more children.
In June 1887 Crown Prince Rudolf represented Emperor Franz Josef and Sisi at Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations. The Queen still held him in high esteem and created him a knight of the garter so that his coat of arms was displayed at Windsor Castle.
Rudolf published another anonymous tract in 1888 calling for Austria Hungary to move away from alliance with Germany and move towards Britain. The emperor and his government were unimpressed. In the October Rudolf and Edward, Prince of Wales were at the gala opening of the new Burgtheater. The prince reputedly pointed out Mary Vetsera, Helene Vetsera’s young daughter, to Rudolf. Shortly afterwards Sisi’s niece Marie Larisch introduced Rudolf to Mary and the doomed affair began.
In January 1889 Rudolf quarrelled with Emperor Franz Josef and then Crown Prince Rudolf went out to his hunting lodge at Mayerling. He shot Mary Vetsera before committing suicide. The circumstances were covered up. Rudolf was buried in the imperial crypt in Vienna and Mary’s body taken away by her uncle Alexander Baltazzi for secret burial.
Crown Prince Rudolf had shown considerable promise as a future emperor. He understood that the Habsburg monarchy had to change and that the Austro – Hungarian empire had to modernise, along British lines. But his passion for courtesans and mistresses was his undoing.
© Picture source Wikipedia Alegory and Last letter
Picture source Hofmobiliendepot Wien; L. and R Offer picture: Mary Vetsera and Turkish Room.