The Year of Empress Elisabeth – The Mayerling Incident




The scene at Mayerling as portrayed in The Crown Prince (2006) (Screenshot/Fair Use)

The suicide of Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s only son Crown Prince Rudolf was preceded by years of unhappy marriage with Princess Stephanie Belgium, frustration at not being included in government affairs and severe illness. Rudolf had grown up mostly without his mother, but he worshipped her nonetheless. As his mental state deteriorated, he began to speak often of his imminent death, although it wasn’t taken seriously.

The family was thus wholly unprepared for the tragedy that happened on 30 January 1889. Sometime in the early hours of the 30th, Rudolf and his mistress, the 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, died in an apparent murder-suicide pact.

Elisabeth was the first one in the family to be told the news of her son’s death. It was Joseph Hoyos, Rudolf’s hunting companion, who broke the news to her, but he said to her that Mary had given Rudolf poison before taking the poison herself. Elisabeth was reportedly quite composed when she went to her husband to tell him the news. She took Katharina Schratt, Franz Joseph’s mistress, with her because she knew that Katharina would be able to comfort him.

Elisabeth informs her husband of Rudolf’s death in The Fall of Eagles (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Elisabeth then went on to inform her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, who immediately assumed that he had taken his own life. Elisabeth resisted this and said, “No, no, I will not believe that, it is so likely, so certain that the girl poisoned him.”1 The next to be told was Rudolf’s widow Stephanie, who described the scene in her memoirs, “The Emperor sat at the centre of the room, the Empress, dressed in dark clothes, her face white and rigid, was with him. In my bewildered, shaken state, I believed that I was being looked at like an unfaithful wife. A crossfire of questions, some of which I could not answer, some of which I was not permitted to answer, descended on me.”2

Meanwhile, Mary’s desperate mother Helene was looking for her daughter and demanded to speak to Elisabeth. Sobbing, she exclaimed, “I have lost my child, she is the only one who can give her back to me.”3 Eventually, Elisabeth came to see the sobbing woman to tell her of her daughter’s death. Marie Valerie wrote in her journal, “Her Majesty, full of grandeur, stands before the agitated woman who demands her child, and speaks to her softly. She tells her that the girl is dead. At that, Vetsera break out in loud weeping: My child, my beautiful child! But do you know, says Her Majesty, raising her voice, that Rudolf is dead as well? Vetsera staggered, fell to her knees before Her Majesty, and clasped her knees. My unhappy child, what has she done? This is what she has done!! So she, too, saw the matter in that light and believed, as did Her Majesty, that the girl had poisoned him. A few words more, then Her Majesty leaves Vetsera with the words, “And now remember that Rudolf died of a heart attack!”4

The following day Elisabeth and Franz Joseph learned from their personal physician what had really happened to their son. Both Rudolf and Mary had been shot in the head, with Mary stretched out on the bed with a rose between her hands and Rudolf next to her with a fallen revolver on the ground. Elisabeth commented, “Great Jehova is terrible as He marches onward sowing destruction like the storm.”5

As Rudolf was laid out in state in the Hofburg, Mary Vetsera received a hasty burial. Elisabeth finally lost her composure that night at dinner and began to sob. His widow Stephanie and their five-year-old daughter Elisabeth were also present, and Stephanie would receive most of the blame. Elisabeth later said, “If one comes to know this woman properly, one must excuse Rudolf for looking elsewhere for distraction and a narcotic to ease the emptiness of the heart in his own home. It is certain: things would have been otherwise had he had a different wife, one who understood him.”6 Rudolf left a farewell note for Stephanie, which stated, “Dear Stéphanie, You are freed henceforward from the torment of my presence. Be happy, in your own way. Be good to the poor little girl who is the only thing I leave behind. Give my last greetings to all my acquaintances, especially to Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Nowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. I face death calmly; death alone can save my good name. With warmest love, your affectionate Rudolf.”7

The longest of the goodbye letters was to his mother Elisabeth, but the full letter has not survived. It was destroyed by Ida Ferenczy after Elisabeth’s death on her instructions. We know that Rudolf wrote that he was “not worthy of writing to his father” and that Mary was “a pure angel, who accompanies him into the hereafter.” He also wished “to be buried next to her in Heiligenkreuz.”8 This wish was not honoured as Rudolf is buried with his parents in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. With an affidavit from the doctor that Rudolf was mentally unstable at the time of his death, a church funeral could be held for him. Elisabeth later learned that her niece Countess Marie Larisch had acted as a go-between for Rudolf and Mary, and she was promptly banished from court, leading to a serious family argument.

Although Elisabeth had been quite composed in the days following her son’s death, she soon fell apart. The German ambassador reported that Elisabeth “abandons herself to incessant brooding, reproaches herself, and attributes to the inherited Wittelsbach blood the mental confusion of her poor son.”9 It was also another reason for Elisabeth to be criticized by the court circle. One Countess de Jonghe wrote, “This time, the first lady of the land bears the principal blame. If she had thought less of herself and more of her obligations, this recent catastrophe would not have occurred.”10

Just a few days after Rudolf’s internment, Elisabeth tried to make contact with his spirit down in the crypt to learn the reason for his suicide, and she continued to try and reach his spirit unsuccessfully. She later told Marie Valerie, “Rudolf’s bullet killed my faith.”11 Her attempts to reach him caused even more gossip in Vienna but she was desperate the learn the reasons for his suicide. She strayed far from the Catholic faith much to the worry of Marie Valerie, who wrote, “Mama is actually merely deistic. She prays to great Jehovah in His destructive power and greatness; but that He hears the pleas of His creatures she does not believe because – she says – from the beginning of time, everything is predestined and man is powerless against eternal predestination, which is based, simply, on Jehovah’s inscrutable will. In His sight, she is equal to the most insignificant gnat – how could He care anything about her.”12

Elisabeth later told her niece Amalie that she could not “believe according to the Church. If she did, she would have to think Rudolf was damned…”13 Her thoughts about Rudolf’s death varied from time to time. Once she said that he was “the greatest philosopher after all. He had everything, youth, riches and good health, and he gave it all up.”14 She also said that his suicide was “such a disgrace that she would have liked to hide her face from all the world.”15

The death of her sister Helene plunged Elisabeth into even more despair and she increasingly longed to die as well. Marie Valerie wrote, “Mama will probably never again be as she was at one time; she envies Rudolf his death, and day and night longes for her own.”16 Elisabeth ordered that well-wishes for her birthday and name day were to be omitted from 1889 on. By the end of the mourning period for Rudolf, Elisabeth had given away all her light-coloured gowns and other items to Gisela and Marie Valerie. She wore only plain mourning attire and did not wear colour again for the rest of her life. She also began to give away her jewellery, mostly to her two daughters and Rudolf’s daughter. From then on, she would be a mater dolorosa – a lady of sorrows.

  1. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 340
  2. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 340
  3. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 341
  4. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 341
  5. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 341
  6. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 342
  7. I was to be Empress by HRH Princess Stephanie of Belgium p.248
  8. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 342
  9. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 344
  10. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 345
  11. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  12. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  13. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  14. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  15. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  16. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 348






About Moniek Bloks 2316 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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