After the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, Countess Elisabeth Coudenhove was appointed as a governess for young Elisabeth. The Countess would make a big impact on Elisabeth’s life, and she would remember her fondly for the rest of her life. Elisabeth’s mother, Stéphanie, had a difficult time at court – her position had been severely weakened by her husband’s death, and she was being ridiculed at court. Stéphanie and Empress Elisabeth had never gotten along, and the Emperor treated her with kindness but reserve. Stéphanie began undertaking long journeys to get away from Vienna, but little Elisabeth wasn’t allowed to leave Austria. She remained in the care of her governess at the Hofburg, away from playmates of her own age. Her education continued, and she was said to have spoken English, French, Italian and Hungarian. She also received lessons in literature, geography, history, botany, zoology and music. She was reportedly an excellent student and also a talented painter and singer. Her grandfather kept a close eye on her education and often spoke to Countess Elisabeth Coudenhove to keep up to date.
Elisabeth was given more freedom as she grew up and was sometimes allowed to travel with her mother. Her first trip abroad was to Belgium in 1895. Later, she also followed her mother to England, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. On 10 September 1898, Elisabeth’s grandmother Empress Elisabeth was assassinated in Geneva. At the time, young Elisabeth was 15 years old, but she had barely known her grandmother. She had received some jewellery from her grandmother following her father’s death, but one cannot speak of a real relationship. There is no record of her reaction following her grandmother’s assassination. Nevertheless, young Elisabeth received 1/5th of the Empress’s estate and the Empress’s private library. The world now lay at her feet.
On 9 January 1900, Elisabeth was allowed to attend her first court ball. She wore a white satin dress covered in diamonds. She also wore a pearl necklace and a rivière given to her by the Emperor. She made quite the impression as she had grown considerably over the last few months. It was perhaps no surprise that she caught the eye of a handsome officer by the name of Prince Otto of Windisch-Graetz. But marriage would have to wait for now – for Elisabeth anyway. Her mother, Stéphanie, had been contemplating remarriage for quite some time, and her daughter’s first court ball would be her last. Her engagement to Count Elemér Lónyay of Nagy-Lónya was announced in March, even though the Emperor’s consent had come rather reluctantly. Following the marriage, Stéphanie had to renounce all her Imperial titles and dignities, but she was given a generous allowance of 100,000 guilders. Stéphanie had avoided telling Elisabeth the news for as long as she could, and Elisabeth took the news quite badly. However, Elisabeth accompanied her mother to Miramare, where the wedding was to take place. She did not attend the wedding and left the day before with her governess to head to Gries, where she was to spend a few weeks. Then she dutifully returned to Vienna, where she spent the Easter holidays.
Elisabeth now had her own household, and she fell into the routine of the Austrian court. She played tennis, rode horses and organised garden parties – to which Prince Otto was also invited. She soon decided he would be her future husband, and she spoke to her grandfather about him. However, he refused to even discuss an official engagement before her 18th birthday. To help divert her attention, Franz Joseph sent Elisabeth away for the winter months. However, Elisabeth kept her eye on the prize and refused to give up on Prince Otto. In the end, Franz Joseph realised that he could no longer stand in their way. There is no evidence that Prince Otto had to be convinced to marry Elisabeth, nor that he was ordered to break another engagement to do so. However, Prince Otto was not of equal rank to an Austrian Archduchess, and so Elisabeth would have to renounce any claims to the throne. In the end, she was allowed to keep her personal style and title, and she was provided with a generous dowry.
On 13 October 1901, the engagement officially took place at Schloss Hetzendorf. This was followed by a magnificent banquet the following day at Schönbrunn, where Franz Joseph toasted the bride and groom several times. Franz Joseph also raised his new future son-in-law to the personal rank of Prince. They were married on 23 January 1902, with Elisabeth wearing a white satin gown with a heart-shaped neckline. Her veil and the lace came from Elisabeth’s mother. She also wore a diamond tiara, which was decorated with orange blossoms. Just two and half hours after the ceremony, the newlyweds set off on their honeymoon. Franz Joseph and Stéphanie gave her an affectionate goodbye at the train station. Then, after a week with her new in-laws, they set off for Italy and Egypt.
Their first year of marriage went by quite harmoniously, and at the end of 1902, Elisabeth was able to inform her husband that she was pregnant with their first child. Tragically, Elisabeth lost the child after she required an operation. During these sad days, Otto asked Elisabeth to make her will and to make him her heir, as he would otherwise be left with nothing. He continued to press his case after the operation, and it wasn’t until Elisabeth was pregnant again and about the give birth that she finally gave in. On 22 March 1904, Elisabeth gave birth to a son, who was duly named Franz Joseph. A second son named Ernst Weriand followed on 21 April 1905. Elisabeth now asked her grandfather for a larger residence, and she was given Ploschkowitz in Bohemia. However, Elisabeth did not find the sleepy town and uncomfortable castle to her liking and was often away.
On 4 February 1907, Elisabeth gave birth to a third son – named Rudolf. Her last child, a daughter, named Stephanie, was born on 9 July 1909. During these years, Elisabeth was often ill and in need of medical attention. She often travelled with her children as they too were often ill. The two eldest boys were “burdened with hereditary tuberculosis”, and all three boys were “anaemic.”1