Archduchess Sophie’s tragic obstetric history

Sophie and Franz Joseph (public domain)

On 4 November 1824, Princess Sophie of Bavaria married Archduke Franz Karl of Austria, the third son of Emperor Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor and Princess Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily.

Her family had been reluctant, and Sophie’s sister wrote, “They say he is educated, but he is not at all to the Queen’s liking and even less to my sister. Nevertheless, it seems the marriage will take place.”1 Franz Karl seemed smitten with Sophie in any case. His elder brother Ferdinand had an intellectual disability, and he suffered from frequent epileptic attacks, and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to father children. The second brother Joseph Franz had died at the age of 8 in 1807. This job thus fell to Franz Karl and Sophie. It was a good match, and Sophie had a chance of becoming Empress one day.

Sophie had resigned herself to her fate and decided that she was going to be happy in Vienna no matter what. Nevertheless, it took almost a year before her homesickness began to fade. During this time, the court had already begun to wonder why no children were forthcoming. At the time, women were mostly blamed for childlessness, and Sophie, too, became nervous she would not conceive. In the winter of 1825/1826, Sophie wrote to her mother that she had suffered a miscarriage.2 Around this time, Sophie had two almost daily male visitors – the Duke of Reichstadt, who was the son of Emperor Napoleon and Archduchess Marie Louise (and thus her nephew) and Prince Gustav Vasa, the exiled Crown Prince of Sweden. These would eventually lead to cruel rumours that either of these men was the father of her eventual children, though there is no evidence for this.

Sophie went on to have two more miscarriages in July 1826 and June 1827. Two further miscarriages took place before 1829. Sophie wrote of her “pierced heart” about her “inability to do the most natural thing in the world.”3 Sophie underwent several “cures” between 1827 and 1829 at Bad Pirawath and also Bad Ischl. She was also given various medicines, syrups, and tea mixtures. A large “bath sponge” was also prescribed after each miscarriage to prevent infection. In March 1829, Sophie suffered from depression and was prescribed brine baths at Bad Ischl. Sophie willingly followed the orders and wrote, “I will therefore submit to His Will and will gladly learn to wait.”4 In November 1829, Sophie became pregnant for the sixth time, and this time, the pregnancy continued without problems.

In January 1830, Sophie felt certain enough to write to her mother and sister and to ask them to come to Vienna for the birth. Although the court fervently prayed for a boy, Sophie wrote, “I, for my part, would receive a little daughter with almost as much pleasure as a boy, but I have to wish for a boy for the Emperor and my Franz.”5 Sophie calculated that she was due around 16 August. Physicians prescribed the strictest bed rest, and she was only allowed to walk around after lunch and dinner. Sophie was so happy that she did everything they asked of her. As the family anxiously waited, they could not help but fear that Ferdinand’s epilepsy could be passed on in the family. Ferdinand seemed to be getting worse, and he was being treated with leeches.

Then Sophie’s labour pains began. Finally, on the exact calculated date, the midwife announced that she expected the birth to take place that night, but the day came and went. It wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon of the 18th that the end finally seemed near. One baroness wrote, “The more the archduchess screamed, the more alive we became.”6 Finally, around 10 in the evening, Sophie’s son was born. Sophie’s mother, Caroline, wrote to her mother, “The child is splendid, but what unspeakable suffering he has caused. Good God, it was a terrible 43 hours, and we are all broken, especially with the two nights spent in fear of death.”7 This son would be the future Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

After Franz Joseph, two more healthy sons were born to Sophie and Franz Karl. In May 1834, Sophie suffered a sixth miscarriage. She lost a lot of blood and was mentally and physically exhausted. She went to use the spas at Marienbad to help her recover.8

Archduchess Sophie presiding over her children’s evening prayer (public domain)

In 1835, Sophie gave birth to a daughter with the name of Maria Anna. Around this time, Sophie was ill with (probably) a herpes infection around the mouth and following the birth; she was immediately given different laxatives. Young Franz Joseph was smitten with his baby sister. By early 1840, it became that little Maria Anna did seem to have inherited epilepsy. Sophie was obviously worried about her daughter’s health, but physicians tried to reassure her. After ten days of seizures, little Maria Anna’s hair was shorn, and leeches were applied to her head and nose. Maria Anne apparently fought the physicians fiercely. On 5 February, the seizures lasted for an entire day, and she died later that evening. Sophie wrote sadly, “I myself closed her dear and beautiful eyes.”9 She could not bear to see her daughter’s body opening for the traditional separate burial of the entrails and the heart.

Shortly after, Sophie became pregnant again, and this time she fervently prayed for a little girl. On 24 October 1840. she went into labour, but tragically, she gave birth to a stillborn son. Sophie was devastated by yet another loss, and things became even worse for her when her mother died the following year. Sophie’s 12th pregnancy ended with the birth of a fifth but fourth surviving son – Ludwig Viktor. Sophie reportedly suffered from a prolapsed uterus following his birth, thus preventing further pregnancies. She had done her duty to the empire.10


  1. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.25
  2. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.29
  3. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.30
  4. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.36
  5. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.36-37
  6. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.44
  7. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.46
  8. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.69
  9. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.103
  10. Sophie, die heimliche Kaiserin by Gerd Holler p.106

About Moniek Bloks 2698 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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