Sisi was never meant to become Empress Elisabeth of Austria Hungary, the largest empire in central and western Europe. Her mother Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria and her aunt Sophia, the mother of Emperor Franz Josef, had plotted for Sisi’s elder sister Helene to marry the young emperor. But Franz Josef upset their plans and instead fell in love with 15-year-old Sisi, the freedom-loving, carefree daughter destined to marry minor royalty and live in happy obscurity.
Elisabeth was untrained and unsuited for the role of empress which she assumed after her marriage in 1854. Sisi’s upbringing was so different. Her father Duke Max had a newly-built palace in Munich, near to the king’s Residenz, but Ludovika preferred to bring up Sisi and her siblings at their summer palace in Possenhofen. Elisabeth was free to ride, play and explore the countryside. She could join in with the local children and enjoyed almost complete freedom.
Poor Sisi was overwhelmed by the formalities of entering Austria as the future empress, the rigid training on Court etiquette and the elaborate wedding. Unfortunately for Empress Elisabeth, after the honeymoon, Franz Josef returned to his routine of extremely-long days working and he virtually abandoned Sisi to the hostile Court and his domineering mother Sophia.
Archduchess Sophia took complete control of raising Elisabeth’s first two daughters. When the first-born Sophia was two, Sisi overruled her mother-in-law and took the child on a visit to Hungary. Young Sophia died and Elisabeth was heartbroken. But Franz Josef was delighted when Crown Prince Rudolf was born in 1858.
Elisabeth hated the rigid Court life in Vienna and fell ill and so in 1860 she took Gisela on a visit to her beloved childhood home at Possenhofen in Bavaria. Elisabeth rode and recuperated but when she returned to Vienna, doctors diagnosed life-threatening pulmonary disease and so Sisi spent the winter in Madeira. Her years of wandering across Europe began. Sisi was exiled from Vienna for several years during which time she grew in confidence and on her return challenged Archduchess Sophie’s grip on raising the children.
Sisi took up the Hungarian cause and pushed Franz Josef into creating a dual monarchy in which the kingdom of Hungary was equal with Austria. As a reward the new government in Buda(pest) gave Franz Josef and Elisabeth the palace of Godollo. Elisabeth spent increasing amounts of time at Godollo, where she could entertain her friends, ride and hunt. A year after being crowned Queen of Hungary, Sisi gave birth to her third daughter Marie Valerie, who she brought up under her control and who became her favourite child. But as Elisabeth gained in popularity in Hungary, she lost support in Bohemia and Austria. Sisi was rarely seen in Vienna and missed most of the major public and family events.
In this period southern England, northern France and the North Sea were the fashionable places for summer holidays; the Riviera and the Mediterranean were visited in the winter. Seeking a summer holiday in 1874, Sisi first came to the Isle of Wight and would then make regular hunting trips to England and Ireland. On her first hunting trip to England Elisabeth was put in the care of Captain Bay Middleton and an intimate relationship quickly developed. The trips to England and then Ireland were some of the happiest periods of her life but the deteriorating political situation in Ireland meant she could no longer visit there. And when her beloved Bay was no longer there to act as her pilot Elisabeth decided to retire from active riding.
When Sisi rented houses for hunting, a personal gym had to be installed, often at great cost. Empress Elisabeth was way ahead of her time in having such a fitness regime. She insisted on having her own cow for milk and in Bournemouth insisted on sea water for her baths. The small size of her waist was legendary as was the length of her beautiful hair. Sisi captivated men but made women jealous who could not understand why men were so in love with her.
In 1880 Elisabeth was in London when a telegram reported that Crown Prince Rudolf had become engaged to the 15-year-old Princess Stephanie of Belgium. She immediately told her lady-in-waiting of her forebodings about the match. The marriage started well but ultimately failed as Rudolf pursued his mistresses and courtesans.
In a futile attempt to get Sisi to stay in Vienna, Franz Josef built Villa Hermes as her own, personal palace, in the suburbs of Vienna. Marie Valerie hated Villa Hermes and Empress Elisabeth still preferred Godollo. Sisi felt guilty about leaving Franz Josef of whom she was very fond and so to ensure she could continue her travels introduced actress Katharine Schratt to the emperor, as mistress cum companion.
1888 turned out to be a pivotal year for Sisi. Firstly Marie Valerie announced her engagement to her cousin Archduke Franz Salvador of Tuscany and secondly Countess Marie Larisch, Elisabeth’s niece, introduced Mary Vetsera to Rudolf and they became lovers. Within a year Rudolf had shot Mary and committed suicide at Mayerling.
Sisi felt free to indulge her endless travels and she concentrated her energies on her new villa in Corfu, the Achilleion. But she grew tired of it and the Emperor realised he had wasted millions on it and Villa Hermes.
Sisi’s absence from Vienna caused problems, not least of which was that young ladies could not be introduced into society before being presented to her. The only official role she carried out was to attend Hungary’s Millennial Celebrations in 1896.
Two years later Sisi was dead. At the time a fringe of anarchists were seeking to murder members of royalty and Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni hoped to kill Prince Henri of Orleans in Geneva. Unable to find him, Luccheni read that Sisi was staying at the city’s Hotel Beau Rivage. As Elisabeth walked to catch a lake steamer he stabbed the empress. Unaware of the seriousness of the injury Elisabeth joined the boat before collapsing. The steamer returned to land but doctors could not save her.
Empress Elisabeth was full of contradictions which all came down to Franz Josef’s choice of the free spirited girl instead of her sister Helene. Sisi was an intelligent woman who was fluent in several languages, studied the history of Hungary and Greece and who wrote poetry inspired by Heinrich Heine. Privately she was a liberal who rejected absolute monarchy.
Apart from in Hungary, Empress Elisabeth was unpopular at the time of her murder. But time has forgiven her faults and today the cult of Sisi grows and grows. The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that Godollo Palace could once again become a Sisi museum, only rivalled as a shrine to Sisi by the palaces of Vienna.