Sisi & Sophie – The ‘evil’ mother-in-law tale (Part two)

Vilma Degischer as Sophie (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Read part one here.

In early 1858, it became apparent that Empress Elisabeth was pregnant for the third time. She suffered from morning sickness during the first three months of pregnancy, but she felt fine otherwise. Finally, on 21 August, she gave birth to a son and heir who would be named Rudolf. The family gathered in Vienna to celebrate his birth and attend his baptism. When Sophie began writing again to her son Karl Ludwig, who had to leave, most of her attention was focused on the health of the new mother rather than her grandson. She wrote, “The Emperor telegraphed me today that she was well, thank God!”1 Of being told of her grandson’s birth, she wrote, “The moment was blissful when my son called out to me with deep emotion that it is a boy and we were hugging each other in unspeakable joy!”2

Both Rudolf and Gisela became close to their grandmother, who would visit them every day. The year following Rudolf’s birth, Franz Joseph had to go away to deal with the situation in Italy. A worried Sophie wrote to him, “I am very happy, the children in Laxenburg are so well, but I am very worried poor Sisi, because she is constantly frightened and grieved, and I realised that this could harm her health, which is not strong anyway.”3 Once more, she showed her concern for Elisabeth. Not much later, Elisabeth became seriously unwell and was sent to the Mediterranean to recuperate. This was particularly upsetting for the family, and Sophie even asked her son Maximilian and his wife Charlotte to come to Vienna to cheer up Franz Joseph. Elisabeth was gone for most of the year and did not seem to improve until she was moved to Corfu after about six months. Rudolf barely recognised his mother upon her return. Elisabeth’s health remained precarious, and she was often advised to take the cure. Sophie wrote, “She (Elisabeth) will be separated from her children for five months, and she has such a good influence over them, and she brings them up really well.”4

For a time, it was believed that Elisabeth was terminally ill, and Sophie wrote, “Sad separation from our dear Sisi, perhaps for life. She cried and was extremely moved and asked my forgiveness for not being what she should have been. I cannot express the pain I felt, it tears my heart apart.”5 Luckily, whatever ailed Elisabeth, it wasn’t terminal, and Sophie was happy to report that in the autumn of 1862 Elisabeth was, “beautiful again as a bright spring day; her figure is round and rosy, her lips glowing red, her complexion wonderful.”6 Nevertheless, Sophie’s delight in Elisabeth’s health was not reciprocated by an improved relationship. Elisabeth wrote sadly, “Thank God we are still in November. December always brings unpleasant things: moving into town, Aunt Sophie…”7

In 1867, Sophie’s son Maximilian, who had become Emperor of Mexico, was executed. Sophie was devastated and bedbound for several weeks. Not much later, Elisabeth became pregnant with her fourth and last child. Archduchess Marie Valerie was born in Hungary on 22 April 1868. Sophie’s main focus became her grandchildren, and not just those from Franz Joseph. Her third son Karl Ludwig was widowed for a second time in 1871, and Sophie took his two youngest children under her wing as he travelled to combat his grief with his two eldest children. Sophie hardly ever saw Marie Valerie as Elisabeth kept her close by her side when she travelled, which she often did. However, Sophie was most concerned with the happiness of Franz Joseph, who was obviously much affected by his wife’s absences. While Elisabeth often cited her wish to avoid Sophie, Sophie only seemed concerned with how this affected Franz Joseph. In 1870, Elisabeth wrote, “To spend the entire summer with your Mama – you will understand that I would prefer to avoid it.”8 When she also wished to spend the whole winter away from Vienna, Sophie wrote, “My poor son. And Rudolf complains at having to be separated from his sisters for such a long time.”9 Elisabeth would continue to spend as much time away from Vienna as she could.

During the last winter of her life, Sophie saw Elisabeth just once, but she was there was Sophie died. On 10 May 1872, Sophie suddenly became ill. She had been to the opera the day before and had woken up with chills. With Franz Joseph, Elisabeth, Gisela, Rudolf, her husband Franz Karl, and her two other surviving sons by her side, Sophie fell into unconsciousness. She died on 28 May 1872 at the age of 67. Some expected Elisabeth to fill the gap left by her mother-in-law, but Elisabeth continued to flee from Vienna as she had done for so many years, to the disappointment of her liberal supporters.

Even Elisabeth would later recognise that Sophie’s behaviour had not been malicious. She told a lady-in-waiting, “that the Archduchess surely meant so well in everything – but that the paths were arduous and the manner harsh – that the Emperor suffered from it as well and she always wanted to control… and how from the first day she was an obstacle to her contentment and happiness and interfered in everything and how she made it harder for them to be – undisturbed – together!”10 It became pretty clear that while Sophie had meant well, she had gone about it all wrong.

  1. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.153
  2. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.159
  3. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.159
  4. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.161
  5. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.164
  6. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.165
  7. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.165
  8. The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.192
  9. The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.192
  10. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.53

About Moniek Bloks 2747 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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