Gisela had no problems settling into her new home, and she did not suffer from homesickness. Leopold helped her to settle in and often took her on excursions to get to know the area. Their new palace was being renovated, but work had progressed far enough in June so that they could move in. A swimming pool and a bowling alley were installed, and special attention was paid to the gardens.
Just weeks after the wedding, Gisela learned that she was pregnant with her first child. She was due around 20 January 1874, and Elisabeth agreed to be with Gisela for the birth. However, the child came early, and Gisela went into labour on 7 January. Hours of agonising labour passed, and for some time, Gisela and her baby were thought unlikely to survive. Finally, after some medical help, Gisela gave birth to a little daughter. Elisabeth travelled to Munich immediately but was too late for the birth. The child was named Elisabeth Marie Auguste.
Elisabeth, who was 36 years old, did not want to be seen as a grandmother and refused to stay with her daughter and her newborn granddaughter. Instead, she took lodgings in a nearby inn. Elisabeth later wrote cynically that mother and child were so healthy that they would live 100 years. She also wrote that the young family bored her and that she felt lonely.
The following year, Gisela gave birth to another daughter, who would be named Auguste Maria Louise. Elisabeth scathingly wrote that the child was very ugly, lively and resembled her mother. She described Gisela and her children as the “rake-thin sow and her piglets.”1 Meanwhile, Gisela was happy with her little family. Her father came to visit her every year, and he was very attached to his grandchildren. Rudolf also visited as much as he could, and he always brought toys for the children. Their unassuming way of life made their palace a welcome reprieve from protocol.
On 2 April 1880, Gisela gave birth to her first son, who would be named Georg Franz Josef Luitpold Maria. Her father was named as the godfather, and he was supposed to be there in person at the christening. However, both Elisabeth Marie and Auguste fell ill with scarlet fever, and he had to cancel. On 22 November 1883, Gisela gave birth to her final child – a second son who would be named Konrad Luitpold Franz Joseph Maria. Gisela and her family often travelled to family events in Austria, such as Rudolf’s wedding to Stéphanie of Belgium. They also enjoyed visiting Gödöllő in Hungary. Gisela lovingly nursed her grandmother Ludovika when her health became worse. Their idyllic family life was admired by Gisela’s younger sister Marie Valerie.
In 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was declared mentally incompetent, and he died under suspicious circumstances not much later. It was Gisela who informed her mother of the King’s death. The King’s younger brother Otto now became King, but he too was incapable of reigning. Leopold’s father continued acting as regent, but he was called a “regicide.” During this time, Leopold and Gisela were his greatest supporters. Despite the added representative duties, Gisela preferred a modest life, and she gained the nickname “the good angel from Vienna.”2
The suicide of her brother Rudolf in the early hours of 30 January 1889 took the family by surprise. Gisela and Leopold arrived in Vienna early the following morning and were then told what had really happened to him. Rudolf left several goodbye letters, but surprisingly one was not left for Gisela, or it has not been left to us. Instead, she is mentioned in the goodbye letter to his wife, where he sent his “last greetings to his acquaintances.”3 Elisabeth did not go to Rudolf’s funeral, but Franz Joseph and Gisela were there. The melancholic state that Elisabeth entered worried the family, and when she was visiting the waterfalls at Gastein, Gisela warned her sister Marie Valerie to take extra care of their mother as she was worried she should throw herself into the torrent.4 Elisabeth gave away all her light-coloured gowns and accessories to Gisela and Marie Valerie. She never wore coloured dresses again.
Elisabeth wrote to Gisela for her 25th wedding anniversary in 1898, “On this day, you will sadly miss our Rudolf, whom we can never forget, for he was so full of life and happiness at your wedding twenty-five years ago and saw you depart with such a heavy heart. How we miss him, but I envy him for being at rest.”5
The assassination of her mother later that year hit Gisela hard. She wrote, “It is so horrible, so ghastly, we can’t believe it yet! And everything so distant, like a bad dream. […] The thought of never seeing Mama again, not even in death, you can’t imagine! And yet we who knew her so well are convinced that she is quite content with this. She would not have wished it any other way, and is contentedly united with Rudolf.”6 Gisela was in Munich at the time and immediately set off for Vienna. She attended the funeral alongside her sister and father. Gisela inherited 2/5th of her mother’s estate as well as the Achilleion villa, which she eventually sold to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.
During the First World War, Gisela had turned several rooms in the palace into a hospital for wounded German officers. In 1913, King Otto died, and as Leopold’s father had died the previous year, he was succeeded by Leopold’s older brother, who now became King Ludwig III. However, his reign was to be short as the monarchy was abolished on 13 November 1918.
The couple lived quietly after the war. She was widowed on 18 September 1930, and she survived him for just two years. Gisela died on 27 July 1932 after being confined to the palace for her final years. She was buried next to her husband in the St. Michael’s Church in Munich.
The relationship between Elisabeth and Gisela was doomed from the start. The death of little Sophie caused Elisabeth to emotionally disconnect, and this connection was never repaired, nor does there appear to have been made much of an attempt. Gisela did not seem to idolise her mother as much as her brother did and appeared to be content with the relationship as it was. For Elisabeth, Gisela represented much of what she abhorred. How different it could have been.
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.103
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.108
- A Habsburg tragedy: Crown Prince Rudolf by Judith Hare, Countess of Listowel p.220
- Twilight of the Habsburgs: the life and times of Emperor Francis Joseph by Alan Palmer p.276
- Elizabeth, empress of Austria by Corti Egon Caesar Conte p.458
- Sisi’s Kinder by Hanne Egghardt p.109-110