Helene had expected to make the most brilliant match of all until the man she was supposed to marry fell in love with her younger sister Elisabeth.
Helene was born on 4 April 1834 as the daughter of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She would grow up to be the opposite of her famous sister. While Elisabeth enjoyed hunting and riding, Helene sat quietly with her embroidery. This often worried her mother, who believed her eldest daughter to be too serious. Her sense of duty, however, would be perfect for a future empress.
A letter from their aunt Sophie, the mother of Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austria, would change everything. Her son was in need of a bride and marriages between cousins were not uncommon. Ludovika was delighted with the idea that her eldest daughter would become Empress of Austria. Duke Max was not asked because everyone knew of his dislike of his sister-in-law. The letter did cause some panic, though. Helene, though beautiful and dutiful, had received very little formal education and how was she going to make up for it in such a short period of time? Tutors were quickly hired to teach Helene the basics of French and dancing. Sophie considered her to be the perfect match for her son – except for one thing: she was habitually late.
The letter invited the women to Bad Ischl, and Helene would return home as a spurned bride. Helene, already prone to depression, became even more withdrawn. She began to go to church on a daily basis, and Ludovika began to fear that Helene would want to take the veil. Helene threw herself into charity work and was cheered wherever she went. Her mother remained determined to find her a match – before she was too old.
We don’t know when Ludovika noticed Maximilian Anton Lamoral, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis but he probably attended a hunt organised by Duke Max. Ludovika hosted a dinner to which Helene was also invited. Cupid did the rest, and on 30 March 1858, Duke Max wrote to the Prince’s father, “I can only wholeheartedly assure you that this marriage will make me very happy, especially as Helene will join the family of a man of whom I have long been a sincere and devoted friend.” There was one problem; however, the bridegroom was not of equal rank. Helene’s cousin, King Maximillian II of Bavaria, had to be persuaded to allow the marriage and he wrote on 2 May 1858 that she should retain the rank and rights of a Princess and a Duchess with Royal Highness to lead. The wedding was scheduled for 24 August 1858, just three days after Elisabeth gave birth to Crown Prince Rudolf. Nevertheless, many of the Imperial relations came to Possenhofen to celebrate the wedding, including Ludovika’s half-sister Caroline Augusta, Dowager Empress of Austria. The heavy rains that day could not dampen the festive mood.
Their honeymoon was spent at Biederstein, and the newlyweds even went to visit the Imperial family at Bad Ischl, where her new husband got along well with the Emperor – both enjoyed hunting. Their entry into Regensburg was meticulously planned, and she was welcomed warmly by her new family. Helene cared much for the concerns of her people and devoted her time to charity work. Helene now found herself at the centre of one of the wealthiest courts in Europe. She was soon pregnant with her first child, though the birth of a daughter – named Louise – on 1 June 1859 was a disappointment to the family. A second daughter – named Elisabeth – was born on 28 May 1860.
Then a letter arrived from the Emperor asking Helene to accompany her sister to Corfu, possibly for many months, as the Empress recovered from an illness. Though at first unsure about the request, one can hardly refuse the Emperor and so Helene travelled south. Her husband accompanied her part of the way and on 18 August 1861; she boarded a train that would take her to Trieste – saying goodbye to her husband. Elisabeth was thrilled to have her sister with her on Corfu. Helene soon learned all about Elisabeth’s unhappy life at the Austrian court and was soon counting the days for her return to Regensburg. Sooner than expected, Helene bid her sister farewell and returned home.
On 24 June 1862, Helene gave birth to a son and heir – named Maximilian Maria. Not much later, her husband moved their official residence to the city itself and called it the “Erbprinzen-Palais.” They moved there in 1863. When her brother Karl Theodor was set to marry Princess Sophie of Saxony in 1865, the daughter of King John of Saxony, all the siblings were invited. Helene and Elisabeth agreed to meet in Prague to spend a few days together before the wedding.
Helene’s own marriage had been happy, but it was soon apparent that her husband was seriously ill. When Helene was pregnant for the fourth time in 1866, he quickly deteriorated and when their second son – named Albert – arrived on 8 May 1867 no one could deny the physical decline. His doctors desperately tried to save his life with several cures he had to drink, but it was no use. He died in his beloved Erbprinzen Palais on 26 June 1867, still only 35 years old. The Emperor granted the guardianship of the children to Helene, which was surprising given his conservative views. Her father-in-law also saw a talent in Helene, and she was slowly educated to lead the house. Helene remained devout, and she spent an hour at her husband’s mausoleum every morning. When her father-in-law passed away in 1871, her eldest son became the 7th Prince of Thurn and Taxis at the age of 9.
Though her lands were profitable, Helene became more restless and lonely as she grew older. Her second daughter Elisabeth married Miguel, Duke of Braganza and her first grandchild Prince Miguel of Braganza, Duke of Viseu was born the following year. Two more grandchildren – Prince Francis Joseph of Braganza and Princess Maria Theresa of Braganza – followed before tragedy struck once more. Elisabeth had grown weak from having given birth to three children in quick succession, and she died on 7 February 1881, still only 20 years old. Helene had prayed for her daughter, but no amount of prayer could have saved her – Helene was devastated. With her two sons away at school and her eldest daughter Louise having married her childhood friend Prince Frederick of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen in 1879, Helene became even more lonely.
Helene also began to search for a suitable bride for her eldest son, but his heart had been weakened by a childhood illness. He died on 2 June 1885 as the bells of Regensburg tolled in mourning for their beloved prince. Once more, Helene was called upon for a regency, this time for her younger son Albert, now the 8th Prince of Thurn and Taxis. Helene was deeply depressed by the death of her son and travelled to Paris to visit her sister Sophie Charlotte. She then invited Elisabeth to visit England with her. It took two years before Helene was able to emerge from her deep mourning. Albert had grown up during this time and helped his mother where he could. Her regency lasted until his 21st birthday in 1888, and in the meantime, her health had begun to seriously decline, and she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Albert sent a telegram to his aunt in Vienna and Elisabeth hurried to Regensburg.
Elisabeth arrived just in time to say goodbye. Elisabeth’s daughter Marie Valerie wrote in her journal, “Aunt Néné … was glad to see Mama and said to her, ‘Old Sisi’ — she and Mama almost always spoke English together. ‘We two have had hard puffs in our lives,’ said Mama. ‘Yes, but we had hearts,’ replied Aunt Néné.” On 16 May 1890, Helene died, still only 56 years old. She was buried in the family crypt in Regensburg. The current head of the House of Thurn und Taxis is her great-great-grandson.1