On 12 July 1856, Empress Elisabeth of Austria gave birth to a second daughter. The labour went quickly and was without complications. She was named Gisela, after the wife of the first Christian King of Hungary, King Stephen I. Elisabeth’s mother Ludovika was the child’s godmother, but she was not present at the christening the following day. She was instead represented by the child’s other grandmother, Archduchess Sophie. She was christened with the names Gisella Louise Marie, though she only ever wrote her name with one L. The disappointment in the fact that Gisela was not the longed-for heir was great.
Sophie took charge of Gisela, as she had done with her namesake elder sister before. Elisabeth would later complain that she had not been able to form a relationship with her elder children. After the birth of Gisela, there was apparently some sort of quarrel, and the nursery, which had been close to Sophie’s rooms, was moved to the Radetzky room. Sophie was not even in Vienna at the time, and she was reportedly not immediately informed of the change. This was apparently done at Elisabeth’s request, and Franz Joseph tried to reason with his mother. Tragically, young Sophie would die not much later during a visit to Hungary. Both of their daughters had fallen ill shortly after their arrival in Hungary with diarrhoea and a fever, but while Gisela recovered, Sophie did not. If she had been willing to fight for Gisela, Elisabeth gave up that fight after little Sophie’s death.
On 21 August 1858, Elisabeth gave birth to a Crown Prince – he would be named Rudolf. The celebrations resounded throughout the court and the city. However, the birth had been difficult, and Elisabeth recovered slowly. Once more, Sophie took charge of the infant. Elisabeth’s health did not improve during the following months. She turned to starvation diets, horse riding for hours on end and smoking. The relationship with her children was at a low point, and Elisabeth was often away from court, ostentatiously for health reasons. Nevertheless, Elisabeth often wrote to the children at first and signed off with, “Think of your mama often.”1
Gisela and Rudolf grew up together in the nursery under their grandmother’s watchful eye, and the two became extremely close as a result. Gisela was known to have a robust constitution but was described as “of average abilities.”2 Meanwhile, Rudolf was considered to be extremely intelligent and precocious. Both were subjected to a strict learning program, and Gisela received lessons in arithmetic, writing, reading and French. Following Rudolf’s sixth birthday, the two were separated, and Rudolf was given an all-male household. Gisela missed Rudolf terribly and was often lonely. Luckily, they still saw each other often enough, but it was never quite as before. Sometimes the two were allowed to travel with their mother, but these occasions were relatively rare. In 1868, Elisabeth gave birth to her fourth child – a daughter named Marie Valerie. This time she would not give up control to her mother-in-law, and she kept Marie Valerie with her. This also meant that the siblings were never quite close.
Gisela very much took after her father and had no problems following her grandmother’s instructions in domestic matters. She was straightforward and uncomplicated – nothing like her mother. She wanted to become a good horsewoman and a good hunter. Over the years, Elisabeth reportedly became embarrassed that she had such a grown-up daughter at her age. Then Elisabeth did the unthinkable – she, who had lamented being married off at such a young age, arranged for her daughter’s marriage at the age of 16 without her knowledge or consent. The chosen groom was Prince Leopold of Bavaria, son of the future Prince Regent Luitpold and a cousin of King Ludwig II.
Gisela hardly knew her future husband as they had only met a few times, but he was one of the few Catholic princes available. They met during a breakfast in Vienna, and Leopold wrote, “Soon the imperial children also entered, the not-yet-sixteen-year-old Archduchess Gisela. A charming girl with a lovely, sympathetic expression, who had only just replaced her children’s shoes and how grown into a graceful young woman who was still in her adolescent years, thirteen-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf, a promising young man in every respect.”3 Leopold spent the next few days with the family, and Gisela showed him her drawings and paintings.
On 6 April 1872, Gisela appeared at dinner in a long gown for the very first time and shortly afterwards, Elisabeth conveniently made it so that the couple could spend a few moments alone together. Leopold later wrote, “It was the decisive hour. I asked her for the rose she wore at her waist, and she gave it to me. I asked her the fateful question if she would dare to take on life with me. In a delightfully childlike manner, she said yes and kissed me on the cheek. She then asked shyly if her mother knew…”4 Just a few moments later, the doors opened, and Elisabeth and Franz Joseph entered. Gisela immediately flew into her mother’s arms and then her father’s. Crown Prince Rudolf was stunned but expressed his wish to become an uncle as soon as possible. Later that evening, Leopold telegraphed his father to request the King’s permission for the engagement. Archduchess Sophie was not convinced that Leopold was a good choice for her granddaughter. Because of Gisela’s age, the wedding date was set for the following April.
On 20 April 1873, Gisela married Leopold in Vienna in the Augustine Church. Crown Prince Rudolf gifted her a heavy silver tea set, which she would often use. The day before the wedding, Gisela renounced her rights to the succession. At her wedding, it wasn’t the bride who stole the show; it was her mother, Elisabeth, in a violet dress embroidered with diamonds. Gisela wore a dress “covered with silver and a silver-embroidered veil, it flowed around the Archduchess as if it were woven from moonbeams and floral thread.”5 The newlyweds went to Salzburg for the honeymoon, and there was a tearful goodbye at the train station, especially between Gisela and Rudolf. A newspaper reported that “the most touching sight was offered by Crown Prince Rudolf; he wept increasingly and was unable either to stem the flow of tears or to suppress his sobs, even though he visibly struggled to control himself.”6 Even the Emperor was noted to have tears in his eyes. The newspaper went on to say that “nevertheless, the Princess, accompanied by her mother, walked with firm steps, greeting the deeply bowing spectators in a friendly way, toward the train compartment, which she entered.”7 Elisabeth was reportedly the most composed of the entire party.
- Elizabeth, empress of Austria by Corti Egon Caesar Conte p.102
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.120
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.91-92
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.92
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.97
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.203
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.203