On 21 August 1858, at Schloss Laxenburg, Empress Elisabeth gave birth to her third child and the much-longed-for male heir – Crown Prince Rudolf. Elisabeth received a triple strand of pearls worth 75,000 guldens from her husband. On his very first day of life, Rudolf received the Order of the Golden Fleece, and he was made a colonel in the army. The birth had been difficult, and the Empress recovered slowly. As she was not allowed to breastfeed him, she suffered from milk congestion and fevers. For weeks, Elisabeth remained feverish, and Rudolf was taken under the wing of his grandmother, Archduchess Sophie. As she remained in ill health, her mother and sisters were summoned to cheer her. They brought along her childhood physician, but no official diagnosis was made.
Franz Joseph tried to reassure his wife, “I beg you, my angel, if you love me, do not grieve so much, take care of yourself, distract yourself as much as you can, go riding, drive with caution and care, and preserve for me your dear precious health so that when I come back, I will find you quite well and we can be quite happy.”1 Elisabeth went on a starvation diet, rode for hours every day and smoked. Elisabeth’s fighting with her mother-in-law increased during this time, and the first rumours of Franz Joseph’s infidelity began to appear. Elisabeth spiralled out of control and began to provoke those around her. Her health had remained fragile since the birth of Rudolf and had become so precarious that her doctor prescribed a warmer climate. The exact nature of her disease is still obscure and was probably a combination of things. Despite the diagnosis, Franz Joseph went hunting and did not return until early November. Elisabeth chose to go to Madeira, and Sophie wrote, “She will be separated from her husband for five months, and from her children, on whom she has such a beneficial influence and whom she really raises so well. I was devastated at the news.”2
After six months away, Elisabeth saw her husband again in Trieste in May 1861. They returned to Vienna, where it took only four days until Elisabeth’s symptoms returned. In June, she was diagnosed with galloping consumption and was advised to travel to Corfu. The prognosis was rather poor, and the family believed that they would not see her again. She was joined in Corfu by her brother-in-law Max and her sister Helene also made the journey to Corfu. In the winter, Franz Joseph allowed their children to go to Venice, where they could meet with their mother. After nearly a year of being in Corfu and Venice, Elisabeth travelled on to Reichenau an der Lax and then to Bad Kissingen to take the cure. Rudolf was growing up without a mother, and he became especially close to his sister Gisela. The relationship with her children was at a low point, with Elisabeth 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.”3
Gisela was known to have a robust constitution but was described as “of average abilities.”4 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. The two were separated after Rudolf’s sixth birthday, and Rudolf was given an all-male household. From then on, Rudolf had a tutor who also undertook his military training. Like his mother, Rudolf was very sensitive to the demands made of him, which often made him physically ill. The tutor wrote, “His Imperial Highness is physically and mentally more advanced than other children of his age, but rather vivacious and nervously irritable, therefore his intellectual development must be sensibly subdued, so that that of the body can keep pace.”5 Rudolf was drilled to the point of exhaustion with military exercises. After a year of this, Rudolf was seriously ill, though Sophie did not make the connection with the rigorous training.
Rudolf himself was too shy to complain of his treatment to his father. It was one of the tutor’s subordinates, Joseph Latour, who took his concerns to Elisabeth. Elisabeth, who had little interest in her son’s education thus far, took action. She later wrote, “I had to find a remedy; gathered up all my courage when I saw that it was impossible to prevail against this protege of my mother-in-law, and told everything to the Emperor, who could not decide to take a position against his mother’s will – I reached for the utmost and said that I could no longer stand by – something would have to happen! Either Gondrecourt [the tutor] goes, or I go.”6 Franz Joseph surrendered.
Elisabeth made sure that Rudolf had a thorough physical examination by a new physician, Dr Widerhofer, and she appointed Joseph Latour as his new tutor. He had similar views to Elisabeth, and she trusted him. As of now, Rudolf’s academic education trumped his military education. As a result, Rudolf came to have the same views as his mother, even though she was still barely around. Nevertheless, he began to idolize his mother. A lady-in-waiting wrote, “The Crown Prince’s eyes glowed. He was thrilled to be with his mother, whom he worships… He is very like his mother, in particular, he has her charm as well as her brown eyes.”7 He remained forever grateful that she had rescued him from the brutal military training.
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.87-88
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.101
- Elizabeth, Empress of Austria by Corti Egon Caesar Conte p.102
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.120
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.120
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.121
- The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.322