Elisabeth of Württemberg – Propriety, grace and resolution




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Elisabeth of Württemberg was born on 21 April 1767 as the daughter of Frederick II Eugene, Duke of Württemberg, by his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Brandenburg-Schwedt. She was the eighth of twelve children.

When she was ten years old, her elder sister Sophie Dorothea became the bride of Catherine the Great’s son, which greatly enhanced Elisabeth’s prospects as well. In 1781, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II came looking for a bride for his nephew Francis, and he had come to Württemberg on the recommendation of Catherine the Great. Upon meeting the 14-year-old Elisabeth, Joseph wrote to his brother Leopold, “She is not beautiful and will never be pretty. She is tall for her age, slender, well-formed, has pretty enough eyes, is blond, has a large mouth and possesses a sweet and alert expression.”1

However, Frederick the Great wanted to prevent an Austro-Russian alliance by “setting heaven and earth in motion.”2 He even tried to persuade the Queen of Denmark to have her snatch up Elisabeth for her son. Catherine wrote to Joseph, “This year appears to be destined for events, with treaties and marriages of all sorts. The Queen of Denmark wants to part [her son] the Prince Royal with the younger sister of my daughter-in-law. My opinion has been asked for; I said that the youth of the Prince made it possible to think about it more than once and that I did not believe that the parents of the Princess are pressing her to marry. But I have the patience of YIM [Your Imperial Majesty]. I ask you to excuse it.”3

Frederick the Great even dispatched his own great-nephew to woo Elisabeth, but Elisabeth tearfully informed her parents that she would never marry him. Frederick finally grew tired after six months, and Elisabeth’s parents accepted Joseph’s proposal on behalf of his nephew. He wrote to Leopold, “I believe I have thus made a stroke of state and simultaneously procured for the young man [Francis] the best and most agreeable woman whose existence is known to me.”4 Leopold and his wife Maria Luisa responded, “We feel that our children are also yours and the state’s, and that consequently, it is for you to dispose of them in a manner that seems to you useful and advantageous to the Monarchy.”5

Joseph began to make arrangements for Elisabeth to come to Vienna, where she would receive an education and convert to catholicism. On 26 December 1782, Elisabeth made her confession of the Catholic faith in the court chapel. She also took communion and was confirmed by the Archbishop of Vienna. Joseph wrote to his brother Leopold, “She behaved marvellously. Propriety, grace, resolution, all were observable. She read her profession in so loud a voice that everyone was able to understand it.”6

Elisabeth finally met her future husband after two years in Vienna. They first met on 1 July 1784, and it was apparently love at first sight. Nevertheless, it would be another three years before the wedding would take place. In 1785, Joseph wrote of his astonishment at Elisabeth’s proficiency in geometry, “It is astonishing how the most abstract things seem the easiest to her, while the simplest [practical] things escape her.”7 Francis often visited Elisabeth during this time.

They were finally married on 6 January 1788, with just a few close relatives in attendance. Francis’s uncle Albert stood as best man, and another uncle, Archduke Maximilian, who was Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, performed the ceremony. Francis’s friend and tutor, Count Colloredo, walked Elisabeth down the aisle. Unfortunately, Francis’s parents were unable to attend. Elisabeth wore “a dress of silver cloth, in period, with a moderately wide hoop skirt and manifold pleats and bows. Her neckcloth and headdress glittered with diamonds. Beautifully representing roses and feathers, the headdress was said by the jeweller who made it to have weighed six pounds and a half.”8 Meanwhile, Francis was dressed in a colonel’s uniform.

The newlyweds then had supper before retiring at 8.30 p.m. to Francis’s private apartments. Emperor Joseph gave a formal ball the following evening, which they opened with a minuet. Not long after the wedding, Francis would join the war campaign against Turkey. They would not be reunited until eight months later. During his absence, Elisabeth wrote to him often, calling him her “angel” and herself his “faithful little wife.”9 In July 1789, Francis and Elisabeth joined Joseph at Laxenburg, where they announced that she was pregnant with their first child. Francis had to leave his pregnant wife behind once again, and Elisabeth immediately fell ill and had to remain in her bed. She wrote to Francis that only his return to cure her “of her greatest ailment – her sadness.”10

The following February, Emperor Joseph’s deteriorating health finally caught up with him, and it soon became apparent that he was dying. He requested the last sacraments on 13 February, and Elisabeth wanted to attend but was denied this because of the advanced stage of her pregnancy. On the morning of Wednesday the 17th, Elisabeth went into labour. It was an agonising delivery that only ended at 8.30 p.m. with forceps. It was a little girl, whom the dying Emperor named Ludovica.

Nevertheless, Elisabeth seemed to recover well enough, and she briefly fell asleep. During the night, she awoke in convulsions and was haemorrhaging. She died in the early hours of 19 February 1790. Upon hearing the news, the dying Joseph exclaimed, “Throw me on top of her!”11 He followed her to the grave two days later.

Little Ludovica survived her mother for just 16 months. She had been sickly and “mentally ill since birth.”12 She died of influenza on 24 June 1791.

  1. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.185
  2. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.185
  3. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.185-186
  4. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.186
  5. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.186
  6. Francis the Good: the education of an emperor, 1768-1792 by Walter Consuelo Langsam p.78
  7. Francis the Good: the education of an emperor, 1768-1792 by Walter Consuelo Langsam p.65
  8. Francis the Good: the education of an emperor, 1768-1792 by Walter Consuelo Langsam p.79
  9. Francis the Good: the education of an emperor, 1768-1792 by Walter Consuelo Langsam p.91
  10. Francis the Good: the education of an emperor, 1768-1792 by Walter Consuelo Langsam p.81
  11. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.233
  12. In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin Vovk p.246






About Moniek Bloks 2189 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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