Sisi & her daughter Sophie – A tragic tale of loss

archduchess sophie baby
(public domain)

In the early hours of 5 March 1855, the 17-year-old Empress Elisabeth of Austria went into labour with her first child. Her mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie sat outside the bedchamber with her needlework as her son Franz Joseph went back and forth between his wife and his mother. She was allowed to join them inside around 11 a.m. when the labour pains became stronger.

She later wrote, “Sisi held my son’s hand between her own two and once kissed it with a lively and respectful tenderness; this was so touching and made him weep; he kissed her ceaselessly, comforted her and lamented with her, and look at me at every pain to see if it satisfied me. When they grew stronger each time and the birth began, I told him so, to give Sisi and my son new courage. I held the dear child’s head, the chamber woman Pilat held her knees, and the midwife held her from behind. Finally, after a few good long labour pains, the head appeared, and immediately after that, the child was born (after three o’clock) and cried like a six-week-old baby. The young mother, with an expression of touching bliss, said to me, ‘oh, now everything is all right, now I don’t mind how much I suffered.’ The Emperor burst into tears, he and Sisi did not stop kissing each other, and they embraced me with the liveliest tenderness. Sisi looked at the child with delight, and she and the young father were full of care for the child, a big, strong girl.”1

After the little baby washed and dressed, Archduchess Sophie held her granddaughter and sat next to Elisabeth’s bed with Franz Joseph, where they waited until Elisabeth fell asleep. The infant was named Sophie for her grandmother and godmother, although Elisabeth was not consulted on this. However, it was customary to name children for their grandparents. The idea that the child was taken from her immediately after birth can be disproven with a letter Elisabeth wrote three weeks later, “My little one is already very charming and gives the Emperor and me enormous joy. At first, it seemed a little strange to me to have a baby of my own; it is like an entirely new joy, and I have the little one with me all day long, except when she is carried for a walk, which happens often while the fine weather holds.”2

In August 1855, just five months after the birth of little Sophie, Elisabeth wrote to her mother-in-law, who was in Ischl at the time, “Dear mother-in-law, after the Emperor told me of your wish, I would like to give you news of us, so I am sending you these lines to tell you that we are very well, also the little one, who is always so cheerful and gets stronger and more developed each day.”3 This doesn’t seem to come from a mother who was never allowed to see her children, although it was true that the nursery was placed near Archduchess Sophie’s rooms. Archduchess Sophie adored the little girl and recorded every little detail about her in her diary.

Just over a year later, Elisabeth gave birth to a second daughter who was named Gisela, and by that summer, the nursery was moved to another room upon Elisabeth’s insistence. Sophie was not even in Vienna at the time and had to be reassured by her son. In the winter of 1856-1857, little Sophie travelled with her parents to northern Italy, where the provinces were restless. Elisabeth had been unwilling to leave her children for so long and managed to bring along Sophie, saying that the Italian air would be good for the delicate child. It was a difficult few months, but Franz Joseph praised Elisabeth.

Just a few weeks after returning home from Italy, the Emperor and Empress went to visit Hungary. This time, Elisabeth insisted on bringing both Sophie and Gisela along. Unfortunately, just before the departure, Sophie became ill with a fever a slight case of diarrhoea. The doctors assured them that the symptoms were related to teething, and they all left together. After arriving in the castle of Budapest, the ten-month-old Gisela also became ill. But while Gisela recovered, Sophie continued to worsen. Franz Joseph wrote to his mother, “She slept only 1 1/2 hours all night, is very nervous, and keeps crying constantly, it’s enough to break your heart.”4 Their personal physician Dr Seeburger managed to reassure Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, and Franz Joseph even went out hunting. The trip further into Hungary went ahead but was broken off after five days in Debrecen when Sophie grew even worse.

Elisabeth spent 11 hours watching her young daughter struggle to breathe. On 29 May 1857, Franz Joseph telegraphed his mother, “Our little one is an angel in heaven. After a long struggle, she finally passed away at nine-thirty. We are devastated.”5 Elisabeth may have feared returning to Vienna and her mother-in-law, but Sophie had known the loss of a daughter as well, and she did not reproach Elisabeth for taking little Sophie along despite her protests.

Photo by Moniek Bloks

The young girl was interred in a wall in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, and for the entire summer, Elisabeth drove down from Laxenburg in a carriage with the blinds drawn to go into the crypt and pray. Elisabeth was inconsolable at little Sophie’s death and withdrew from everyone, including her surviving daughter. Her mother was summoned to Vienna, who brought along three of Elisabeth’s younger sisters. Ludovika later wrote, “The company of her young, cheerful sisters seemed to do Sisi much good; since parting from us was so hard for her, she made me promise to come to Ischl if at all possible.”6

Six months after Sophie’s death, Franz Joseph wrote, “Poor Sisi is much affected by all the memories that confront her here [in Vienna] on all sides, and she cries a great deal. Yesterday Gisela, visiting with Sisi, sat in the little red armchair of our poor little one, which stands in the den, and at that, both of us cried, but Gisela, happy at this new place of honour, kept laughing so charmingly.”7

  1. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.67
  2. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.68
  3. Briefe kaiser Franz Josephs I. an seine mutter, 1838-1872 p.239
  4. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.77
  5. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.77
  6. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.78
  7. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.78

About Moniek Bloks 2729 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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