When the future Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was born in 1830, he was third in the line of succession. His grandfather was Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor (Francis I, Emperor Austria from the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806) and his uncle Ferdinand, who had an intellectual disability and suffered from epileptic attacks, would succeed as Emperor in 1835. Franz Joseph’s father, Franz Karl, was an unambitious man who did not want to rule.
While Ferdinand had not been expected to be able to father children, he did marry Maria Anna of Savoy in 1831. As Emperor and Empress, they devoted themselves to charity, and Ferdinand let politics take its course, relying on the advice of others.
During the revolution of 1848, Prince Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister, fled abroad, and Ferdinand tried to make concessions by granting the press freedom and promising a constitution. However, the revolution flared up again, and in early October 1848, Ferdinand and Maria Anna settled in the Prince-Archbishop’s residence in Olomouc. Prince Felix Schwarzenberg was appointed Minister-President of the Austrian Empire, and he worked behind the scenes with Archduchess Sophie, who now saw her chance to place her son on the throne. She persuaded her unambitious husband to waive his succession rights in favour of Franz Joseph.
On 2 December 1848, at the residence in Olomouc, Ferdinand abdicated the throne as his nephew and successor knelt before him. Maria Anna bent down to him to pull him close, hugged him and kissed him. Ferdinand told the new Emperor, “God bless you! Be good, and God will protect you.”1
After the ceremony, Ferdinand and Maria Anna retired to their apartments. Ferdinand wrote in his diary, “Soon afterwards, my dear wife and I heard Holy Mass in the chapel of the archbishop’s residence. Afterwards, my dear wife and I packed our belongings.”2 They were to retain their imperial status. After packing their belongings, a carriage brought them to the train station, where a special train waited to take them to Prague. Maria Anna was reportedly quite glad to be free of the official duties and was now able to devote herself entirely to her husband.
Franz Joseph’s mother late wrote to her mother, “At 8 o’clock, the family, except for Bubi (Archduke Ludwig Viktor – who was only six years old), gathered in the hall in front of the Emperor. The ministers Windischgraetz and Jullačić, who arrived yesterday evening, and who I was happy to see again and thank for all they had done for us. We sat down in a semicircle; the Emperor read some words of renunciation that made me cry, as well as Elisabeth, Maxi, Charles and Joseph, who had not suspected anything. Schwarzenberg read all the papers related to this act, and both Emperors signed them. Franzi asked for the blessing of the Emperor, who embraced him, as did the Empress. The latter especially tenderly. Our dear child knelt before Franz Karl and me and asked for our blessing. He threw himself against my heart and held me for a long time in his arms. It was so touching. We all signed a protocol. The Emperor and Empress retired to an adjoining room. Lobkowitz went into a room where the entire court was gathered to inform them of Ferdinand’s abdication in favour of Franzi. The surprise was great, and everyone came in to congratulate the young Emperor, who shook everyone’s hand. I was back at my place by 9 o’clock. I told Bubi about the greatness of his brother. He didn’t want to believe it at first.”3 She later told Franz Joseph, “You were born to rule over people.”4
Franz Joseph’s first act as Emperor was to honour the army. He told Windischgraetz, “We owe you all that is and still remains.”5