Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria was born on 22 February 1847 at 5.20 in the morning as the daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She would be one of eight (surviving) siblings, and her sisters included Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Helene, Marie Sophie and Mathilde Ludovika. She was their penultimate child.
In November 1851, Amalie Tänzl von Tratzberg was appointed as governess for the three youngest girls – Marie Sophie, Mathilde Ludovika and Sophie Charlotte. When her elder sister Elisabeth married their first cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in 1854, a painting was made with all the siblings. Sophie Charlotte was portrayed with her favourite doll.
Plans for marriage for Sophie Charlotte were soon in the works as well. By 1861, she was the youngest unmarried daughter. During this time she was mostly a companion to her mother, who also dictated letters to her when her headaches became so severe that she could not write. Her greatest passion was music. She played the piano, and she had a soprano voice. She received voice training from Julius Hey. She had fallen in love with her teacher who was not only 15 years older, but also a commoner and he was already engaged. She desperately wrote in her journal, “My heart is bleeding with love and longing. I feel abandoned, can I find peace?” Several prospective bridegrooms were considered for Sophie Charlotte, including royals from Portugal and Spain. In April 1866, her first cousin and the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Ludwig Viktor of Austria came up in the plans. Sophie Charlotte was not happy about this and rejected him. Elisabeth was disappointed not to see her younger sister marry him as it would have meant that Sophie Charlotte would live in Vienna. Another offer soon came her way – her cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Sophie Charlotte and Ludwig were friends and were only a year apart in age. They both loved music, and during the summer of 1866, Ludwig made several visits to Possenhofen, but when Ludovika inquired after his intentions, he became annoyed. As long as Ludwig was coming over, no other marriage candidate could. He wrote a letter to Sophie Charlotte wishing her a happy summer but that he did not wish to come over any more. Early the following year – perhaps shortly after his male favourite was dismissed – Ludwig suddenly proposed marriage to Sophie Charlotte. He wrote to her, “Do you want to become my goddess?” The wedding was set to take place later that same year. At the end of February, an engagement ball was organised during which Sophie Charlotte wore a dress in the national colours of white and blue. Ludwig tired of the ball in an hour and left Sophie Charlotte alone. When her sister-in-law Sophie (of Saxony – the wife of Karl Theodor, Duke in Bavaria) died suddenly in early March, the family was shocked by Ludwig’s lack of empathy. He even drew an awkward skull on a letter to Sophie Charlotte. When her brother-in-law Maximilian Anton Lamoral, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis – Helene’s husband – also passed away that June, Possenhofen was truly in deep mourning.
Sophie Charlotte continued to have – chaperoned – meetings with her fiance, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he did not want to marry at all. After one of these meetings, Sophie Charlotte threw herself into the arms of Natalie von Sternbach sobbing, “He does not love me!” The first scheduled wedding date was 25 August, but it was postponed to October, and then to November. Then finally on 7 October, he wrote to her, “My brotherly love for you is deeply rooted in my soul, but it is not the love that is required for unification in marriage.” He then asked her for a separation “without resentment and bitterness.” Just then, Sophie Charlotte’s father also wrote a letter asking him to either marry his daughter in November or to release her. Ludwig now had an easy way out and blamed her father for tearing them apart. When Sophie Charlotte learned the news, she fainted.
After giving her daughter some time to recover from the broken engagement, Ludovika set to matchmaking once more. She made contact with the Duke of Nemours and arranged for his son Ferdinand, Duke of Alençon, to meet with Sophie Charlotte in June 1868. The two immediately hit it off, and their wedding was planned for September at Possenhofen. On 28 September, Sophie Charlotte walked down the aisle in a white silk dress adorned with orange blossoms.
Ferdinand’s father was the second son of the exiled King Louis-Philippe I of France and the year after Sophie Charlotte married Ferdinand, they moved into Bushy House in London where the family was living in exile. Their first child – a daughter named Louise – was born there in July 1869. After the birth, Sophie Charlotte was very depressed, and she became very thin. The family travelled to Italy to allow Sophie Charlotte to recover. A son named Prince Emmanuel followed in 1872. Sophie Charlotte became restless – it seemed to run in the family – and met with her sisters as often as she could. She spent little time with her children, who were being raised by governesses. When Louise became older, she sometimes joined her mother in her travels.
Despite this, they celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in September 1878 with a grand party. In 1880, Sophie Charlotte joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic which was a lay order and Sophie Charlotte received the name Sister Marie Madeleine as she worshipped Mary Magdelene. When the family was finally allowed to return to France, Sophie Charlotte devoted herself to relieving the misery she saw in the slums of Paris.
In 1886, shortly after the death of King Ludwig II, Sophie Charlotte travelled home where she fell seriously ill with scarlet fever. Her life was feared for, and her husband and children were not allowed to have any contact with her for fear of infection. She survived but took a long time to recover. She went to Munich for further treatment, where she reportedly fell in love with her physician Dr Glaser. She announced to her family that she wanted a divorce, and they were shocked and tried to have her declared insane. When her husband was brought to her, she looked at him and asked him if she was ill and if he wanted her to leave. He responded that if she wanted to be his faithful wife, she should stay. She declared that she wanted a divorce still. She was admitted to a sanatorium and would only be allowed to leave if she gave up her plans for a divorce. She did not speak to her mother for several months. In early 1888, her treatment was considered successful, and she returned to her husband. Her mother’s following 80th birthday party was an awkward one for the family, though Sophie Charlotte and Ludovika did embrace.
In 1892, Sophie Charlotte was present at her mother’s deathbed. She barely recognised Sophie Charlotte but sighed “Oh my good Sophie” when she was told who she was and put her hands on her daughter’s head. Sophie Charlotte stayed by her mother’s bedside and was with her when she passed away around 4 in the morning of 25 January.
When Sophie Charlotte wrote her last will and testament in October 1896, she had no idea how soon it would come into force. Like every year, the Third Order of Saint Dominic organised a charity bazaar in Paris from the 3rd to the 6th of May. Sophie Charlotte was one of their most prominent patrons. In the afternoon of the 4th of May, Sophie Charlotte visited the bazaar with her husband when the projectionist’s equipment, which was using a system of ether and oxygen rather than electricity, caught fire. During the resulting fire, Sophie Charlotte rushed to help, even as her husband tried to hold her back. She led several people to safety and insisted on being the last to leave. “Leave quickly. Do not mind me. I leave the last.” Reportedly her last words were, “Yes, but in a few minutes, think that we will be in heaven!” Her body was burned beyond recognition and was identified by her teeth. Her husband sustained injuries from a falling beam.
Her last moments were described, “She died as nobly as she lived. She perished, burnt alive in the terrible catastrophe of the Bazar de la Charité in Paris, in May 1897. The cinematography was at that time a novel institution, and the operator, with inconceivable clumsiness, set fire to a room above the one in which the bazaar was held. The ceiling was all in flames before any attempt was made to clear the hall. There was a horrible struggle, in which the strongest had the advantage.
However, among the men whose brutal selfishness seems to have stifled all chivalrous feeling, there were a few who thought of the Duchess. They hastened to her help, imploring her to escape, even trying to drag her away by force; but she refused. “I shall stay to the last,” she replied. “Save the others first.” Some Sisters of the Order of S. Vincent de Paul would not leave her, determined to sacrifice their lives also, if need be. The Duchess remained standing; the Sisters knelt around her, praying. As the fire drew close to her, she loosened her magnificent hair, which covered her like a cloak. And it was so that those who survived the disaster saw her for the last time.”1
The funeral mass was held on 14 May at the Church of Saint-Philippe du Roule, and she was buried in the Royal Chapel at Dreux.2
- Our Lady of Belgium
Sisi und ihre Familie by Sigrid-Maria Größing