Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was born on 21 May 1864 as the daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium and Archduchess Marie Henriette of Austria at the Royal Palace of Laeken. She was their third child, after an elder sister named Louise and an elder brother named Leopold – who tragically died in childhood. Another daughter named Clémentine would be born in 1872. Her father spent little time with his family, and Stéphanie later wrote in her memoirs, “One can hardly be surprised that the children of such a marriage were foredoomed to unhappiness.”1 Nevertheless, Stéphanie was devoted to her mother despite also being afraid of her. Stéphanie’s formal education began at the age of six and her sister’s governess Mademoiselle Legrand also took her under her wings. Her days were filled with iron discipline; rising at five, being silent while dressing and doing the toilet, making her own bed, saying her prayers, at her school work by half-past eight, which was done for the entire day except for three hours devoted to walking, games and gardening. The windows were kept open in winter and summer, and Stéphanie wrote, “In winter the study was like an ice-house, and my teeth chattered with the cold.”2
Stéphanie enjoyed painting and reading, but neither hobby was encouraged as her mother was afraid it would distract her from more important things. Stéphanie often underwent punishments, such as kneeling on parched peas. Stéphanie was especially close to Mademoiselle Antoinette Schariry – nicknamed Toni – who had entered the royal household shortly after Stéphanie’s birth. She was also fond of her aunt and uncle, the Count and Countess of Flanders, the parents of the future King Albert I of Belgium. In 1871, Stéphanie fell with typhoid fever, and for weeks she suffered horribly. Miraculously, she made a full recovery.
Three years later, her sister Louise announced her betrothal to Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Stéphanie cried upon being told that Louise would leave. Louise’s wedding took place on 18 February 1875. Stéphanie later wrote, “I can still picture her kneeling at the steps of the altar, then getting up and curtseying to her parents, the King and Queen, before she uttered the decisive word, the word which fettered her forever to the man she had not chosen for herself, but who had been chosen for her by others.”3 For Stéphanie, life continued at its monotonous pace.
In 1878, her aunt Archduchess Elisabeth Franziska of Austria came to visit, perhaps to discuss the idea of Stéphanie marrying the Crown Prince of Austria. The following winter, Stéphanie would also meet her future mother-in-law, Empress Elisabeth, when she came to visit on her way to England. Stéphanie was allowed to kiss her hand and received an embrace. Some weeks later, Stéphanie was finally allowed to wear a long dress with a train to meet Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who had also heard of the marriage rumours. On 4 March 1880, Crown Prince Rudolf visited the court at Brussels, and the following day, her father told her, “The Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary is here to ask your hand in marriage. Your mother and I are very much in favour of this marriage. It is our desire that you should be the future Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. You can withdraw now, think over this plan, and give us your answer tomorrow.”4 Stéphanie talked to Toni and her mother, who believed it would be her greatest happiness if Stéphanie became Austrian by marriage. Stéphanie – still only 15 years old – did not sleep at all that night. In the end, Stéphanie abided by her parents’ wishes and consented to the match. She later wrote, “I never guessed how heavy I should find the chains he (her father) was forging for me. I had no inkling that I was already being betrayed. Not until months later did I learn that my future bridegroom had not come to Brussels alone, but accompanied by his mistress, a certain Frau F.”5
Empress Elisabeth heard of the engagement via telegram while she was in London. Her lady-in-waiting commented, “Thank God that is not a disaster.” To which the Empress cynically replied, “Pray God that it is not.”6 Elisabeth travelled home via Brussels to be able to congratulate her son and his fiance in person. They waited to greet her on the platform of the station, and Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting later wrote, “He (Rudolf) literally threw his arms around her neck – kissed her hands over and over, and then came the bride – young, sparkling, uninformed, a badly dressed child… The Empress bent forward, embraced her – kissed the little one, and that one looked up to her beautiful mother-in-law with undisguised admiration, and her bright-red little face looked happy and merry.”7 The visit lasted just four hours and was mostly spent at the palace at breakfast.
The wedding was set for the end of the year. Stéphanie now underwent a crash course in preparing her for court life. She was expected to attend every official dinner and was given lessons in dancing and deportment. However, the wedding had to be postponed because Stéphanie had not had her first period yet. Nevertheless, the preparations went on, and the new wedding date was set for 10 May. She later wrote, “I had pondered matters long and deeply, but at sixteen, I was still no more than a child, incapable of grasping the situation.”8
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.54
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.57
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.78
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.89
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.92
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.239
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.240
- H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.100