Elisabeth Marie of Austria – The innocent victim of Mayerling (Part one)

(public domain)

The baby was lovely. From the bottom of my soul, I thanked God for the treasure he had bestowed upon me, and took the little one into my arms.1

On 2 September 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria was born as the daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. She was the fourth grandchild of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), though the first, and as it would turn out only, grandchild through their son. The disappointment in her gender was great, and Stéphanie would later write, “The Crown Prince’s consternation was painful – he had certainly expected an heir to the throne.”2 The young Archduchess’s christening took place on 5 September – a gloomy and rainy day. Elisabeth did not enjoy being a grandmother and showed the young girl, known by the nickname Erzsi, very little love and care. By contrast, she was a great favourite of Franz Joseph, who allowed her to tousle his bread and play with his medals.

Their duties soon took them away from their young daughter. Stéphanie and Rudolf visited Constantinople and Bulgaria, followed by visits to Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Albania, Greece and Montenegro. They returned to Belgium to celebrate Stéphanie’s father’s 50th birthday in 1885. The following year, both Rudolf and Stéphanie became ill. Stéphanie was in bed for weeks, and doctors diagnosed her with peritonitis. Both recovered, and wishes were renewed for Stéphanie to give birth to an heir. Stéphanie was allowed to take it easier that year in hopes of conceiving. However, the Crown Prince was often not with her, and his restlessness took him elsewhere. When she saw him again, she found him looking very unhealthy.

Stéphanie began to believe he had moved away from her completely. By then, Rudolf had probably been infected with a venereal disease, and he, in turn, had infected Stéphanie. It was most likely gonorrhoea, and two gynaecologists came to examine her. She then learned that “the Crown Prince was responsible for my complaint.”3 Gonorrhoea had caused pelvic inflammation and had destroyed her fallopian tubes. She would never again conceive a child.

When Elisabeth learned of the difficulties in Rudolf and Stéphanie’s marriage, her first instinct was to do nothing. She told her lady-in-waiting, “Sometimes I have wondered what I could do. But I am reluctant to interfere, for I myself suffered so unspeakably under my mother-in-law that I do not wish to incur the reproach of a similar fault.”4 It is also unlikely that Elisabeth knew of the extent of Rudolf’s illness.

In October 1888, Stéphanie returned from a trip to Greece. She wrote in her memoirs, “But I was horrified as soon as I set eyes on the Crown Prince. His decay was so greatly advanced as to have become conspicuous. He was frightfully changed; his skin was flaccid; his eyes were restless; his expression had completely changed. It seemed as if his lineaments had lost the inner substantially, which can only come from strength of will, as if a process of internal dissolution were going on. I was profoundly sorry for him and wondered how the devastation would end.”5 Stéphanie wanted to confront her father-in-law about Rudolf, hoping to save him from disaster. However, the Emperor saw nothing wrong with his son and dismissed her concerns. On 26 January 1889, Stéphanie and Rudolf attended a big soirée, followed by a reception on the 27th. From the 28th, there was to be a shoot at Mayerling. Rudolf promised her he would be back the next day for a family dinner. After that, they would never see each other again. Rudolf excused himself from the family dinner the following day. Stéphanie told the family that he had come down with a cold.

Stéphanie awoke on 30 January 1889 to a gloomy winter day. She had a singing lesson as was usual, but she felt anxious. The lesson was interrupted by her chief lady-in-waiting, who privately gave her the bad news from Mayerling. Stéphanie immediately realised what had happened and sobbed, “He is dead!”6 Not much later, she was summoned by the Emperor and Empress. They questioned her, but Stéphanie had no answers for them. It was the Empress who told her the whole story. Rudolf had been found in the early hours of the morning shot in the head, with the body of Mary Vetsera by his side. Stéphanie later wrote, “The Emperor sat at the centre of the room, the Empress, dressed in dark clothes, her face white and rigid, was with him. In my bewildered, shaken state, I believed that I was being looked at like an unfaithful wife. A crossfire of questions, some of which I could not answer, descended on me.”7

They also handed her the Crown Prince’s farewell letter, which read, “Dear Stéphanie, You are freed henceforward from the torment of my presence. Be happy, in your own way. Be good to the poor little girl who is the only thing I leave behind. Give my last greetings to all my acquaintances, especially to Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Nowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. I face death calmly; death alone can save my good name. With warmest love, your affectionate Rudolf.”8

Little Elisabeth was just five years when her father committed suicide. Her mother wrote in her memoirs, “My little Elisabeth, then four years old (sic), spent these distressful days in her nursery. Once only did she leave it, when I took her to the bier of her unhappy father, made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and then brought her back to her own peaceful playroom. […] Little Elisabeth was a great consolation to me; her smiles and prattle could, for a time, dispel my sorrows. My mother, likewise, was most tender to the dear little girl, whose innocent charm made her seem like a bright flower amid this dark period of mourning.”9

After the formalities of her father’s burial, Elisabeth was taken to Miramare by her mother. They were joined there by Stéphanie’s mother and two sisters. They would spend four months there as Stéphanie pondered how it had come this far. When they returned to Vienna, Stéphanie was assigned Schloss Laxenburg as a dower house. Elisabeth’s financial future was guaranteed by her father’s inheritance and a gift of two million florins from her grandfather, the Emperor. In his will, Rudolf had asked that the Emperor have guardianship over Elisabeth instead of her mother.

Read part two here.

  1. I was to be Empress by HRH Princess Stephanie of Belgium p.146
  2. Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.15
  3. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and  Penny Wilson p.52
  4. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.331-332
  5. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.240
  6. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.246
  7. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.340
  8. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.248
  9. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.251

About Moniek Bloks 2659 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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