Sophie Maria Josephine Albina Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin was born on 1 March 1868 as the daughter of Count Bohuslaw Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin and Countess Wilhelmine Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau. She and her siblings were raised very simply due to their limited finances. Her father was completely reliant on his salary as a diplomat. Although Sophie grew up in Europe’s glamorous capitals, following her father’s diplomatic career, the financial situation made it difficult to get a foot in the door.
Without the means to attract a suitable marriage candidate, Sophie joined the household of Archduchess Isabella (born Isabella of Croÿ) as a lady-in-waiting on 10 August 1888. It was Isabella who had her eye on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian, for her daughter Maria Christina. He was invited to join the family several times, and although we don’t know exactly when he met Sophie, they were photographed together during a hunting party in 1892. In April 1894, they both attended a masquerade at the Larisch Palace in Vienna and soon letters began to fly back and forth. Upon the discovery of a pocket watch belonging to Franz Ferdinand with Sophie’s portrait inside, Sophie resigned from Isabella’s household. Isabella furiously complained to Emperor Franz Joseph. Upon Franz Joseph’s meeting with his nephew, the latter informed the Emperor that he wished to marry Sophie. The Emperor was outraged and declared never to agree to it. Despite 32 uninterrupted generations of aristocratic descent, Sophie was not of equal status to the heir to the Austrian throne. Then, the bullying began. Sophie was persuaded to give up Franz Ferdinand, but he wasn’t persuaded, and Sophie left Vienna to avoid more confrontations.
Franz Ferdinand’s stepmother, Maria Theresa of Portugal, took her stepson’s side and pleaded with the Emperor several times to let them marry. Finally, Franz Ferdinand sat down to write a letter to the Emperor, and he wrote, “I can only mention once more that my whim to marry the Countess is not a whim but an outflow of deepest affection from years of trial and suffering. […] I can and will never marry anyone else. […] I beg Your Majesty for the one happiness of my life, for consent to the marriage for which I yearn…”
Franz Joseph finally saw no other way, he had to agree to the marriage, but on his terms. It was to be a morganatic marriage, and Franz Ferdinand would be made to swear an oath that he would never elevate her status or grant succession rights to their future children. The only members of the family who dared to attend the wedding were his stepmother and his two half-sisters. Sophie wore a white satin gown, adorned with embroidered silk panels, flounces of chiffon and bands of lace. Atop her head was a diamond tiara, the Emperor’s wedding present, which matched a double row of pearls and diamonds around her neck.
Upon her marriage, she was raised to the ranks of princely hereditary nobility with the name Hohenberg and the style of “Fuerstliche Gnaden” (similar to “Your Grace”).
Sophie and Franz Ferdinand had four children, of which three survived to adulthood: Sophie (born 1901), Maximilian (born 1902), Ernst (born 1904) and a stillborn son in 1908.
As a morganatic spouse, Sophie was excluded from basically every privilege the Habsburg spouses enjoyed. She was never to appear in public with her husband, if an honour guard saluted Franz Ferdinand she had to leave as she was not entitled to receive the same salute, she was not allowed to stand near her husband, and Franz Ferdinand was forbidden to mention her in any official speech. She was barred from the imperial box at the theatre, opera, ballet and the symphony. She was denied a court carriage and could not ride with her husband. One Archduchess supposedly commented, “Don’t let her think she is one of us.” The situation was difficult for the both of them. The birth of their first child prompted Franz Ferdinand to avoid Vienna as much as possible.
By an imperial order on 21 July 1905, Sophie and her children were awarded the style of “Durchlaucht” or “Serene Highness”. Sophie would no longer be the last lady to enter the ballroom. Sophie had never put a foot wrong, but snubs would continue over the years. Nevertheless, in 1909, Sophie was bestowed the rank of Duchess of Hohenberg and style of “Ihre Hoheit” or “Your Highness”, but society remained distant.
On 17 August 1913, the Emperor promoted Franz Ferdinand to inspector general of the Empire’s armed forces. In this capacity, he was invited to attend manoeuvres in Bosnia, but he knew it would not be friendly territory. The date for the manoeuvres was set for 27 June, and a visit to Sarajevo was planned for 28 June. The trip terrified Franz Ferdinand; he knew he was an excellent target for would-be assassins. He sought to cancel the trip twice, but he was ordered by the Emperor to go. Sophie was determined to go with him, no matter what they would face there. She told the Countess Larisch, “It is a dangerous undertaking, and I will not leave the Archduke to face it alone.”
On 28 June 1914 at 10:10 am a hand grenade was thrown at the car Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were travelling in. The grenade missed the passengers and rolled into the street where it exploded. Franz Ferdinand ordered the car to stop as Sophie clutched her neck, she had been struck by a splinter. The car then sped off towards City Hall, where they nevertheless attended a reception. The moment to return to the car came, and Franz Ferdinand refused to wait for the garrison to line the street to protect them, he feared it would not be diplomatic. Sophie refused to ride along in a different car, saying, “No, Franzi, I am going with you.”
At 10:45 am the couple descended the front steps of the city hall, and they set off towards the Appel Quay. The car then went the wrong way, forcing it to stop and reverse. As it was stopped, they came face to face with Gavrilo Princip, who saw Sophie in the car and debated whether he should shoot or not. He later gave contradictory accounts of what happened next. He first claimed to aim at the Archduke; then he claimed not knowing where he had aimed. He thought he had fired twice, but others heard three shots. One bullet is believed to have gone straight through Franz Ferdinand’s helmet, the other hit Sophie. They were both conscious, and Sophie screamed, “For heaven’s sake, what has happened to you?” She then slumped across her husband’s lap. Franz Ferdinand supposedly managed to utter the words, “Sopherl, Sopherl! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!” He then slumped forward.
Franz Ferdinand was barely conscious as the car raced away from the scene, reportedly repeating, “It is nothing, it is nothing.” Franz Ferdinand died on a chaise longue in a government office and Sophie, who had died in the car during the journey, was laid on an iron bed in an adjoining room.
Their children were first told by their aunt Henriette that their parents had been wounded and were not informed of their deaths until the following day. There was no outpouring of grief in Vienna.
Even in death, they were not equal. While a pathologist could not dissect any wounds on the Archduke, they could do as they wished with Sophie. The bodies were examined and embalmed, and a local undertaker delivered two of his best coffins. Sophie’s was notably smaller. In the evening of 29 June, soldiers carried the coffin to hearses, and the procession set off towards the railway station. Plans were made for Franz Ferdinand’s state funeral, but Sophie’s family could claim the body and do with it what they wished. This all changed when Franz Ferdinand’s will was opened. His wish was to be interred in the crypt at Artstetten with Sophie and not in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, where Sophie would not be allowed to be interred. They lay in state at the Hofkapelle, and over 50,000 people had waited through the night to pay their respects. However, the viewing period was restricted to four hours, making it impossible for all to pay their respects. The funeral service took place at four in the afternoon. After the service, the coffins were left in the empty chapel for six hours, before their children were finally allowed to pay their respects.
Later that night, the coffins left the chapel in a procession, and it finally arrived at Artstetten at 5 in the morning. Their children had spent the night in Vienna and boarded a train to Artstetten in the morning. They were interred at Artstetten as the rain poured down. They now rest in identical white marble tombs, equal at last.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie would eventually lead to the start of the First World War.1