Sophie of Bavaria – “The only man at court”

(public domain)

Without doubt, Archduchess Sophie was the most significant figure of all the women of the imperial house after Maria Theresia.

Sophie was born in 1805 to King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria and his second wife Caroline of Baden. King Maximilian had thirteen children in total including two sets of twin girls; Sophie was one of the second set of twins born, along with her sister Marie Anne.

In early childhood, Sophie’s position in the world was uncertain; at the time of her birth, her father was the Elector of Bavaria and Count Palatine of the Rhine, but with the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, these titles became obsolete. Luckily for Maximilian, he had been a supporter of Napoleon, and where many suffered because of the French Revolutionary Wars in this period, it brought prosperity to Maximilian who was elevated to the title of King of Bavaria in 1806. The little Sophie was now a Princess of an important new country, although her father was in and out of war to secure his borders and the country’s safety throughout her childhood.

As is common with many princesses, little is known of Sophie’s childhood, and records resume at the time of her marriage. Due to her father’s status as King, Sophie and many of her siblings were married to those of the highest rank, with many becoming Duchesses and Queens. Sophie was married in 1824 at the age of nineteen to Archduke Franz Karl of Austria.

Franz Karl was deemed an incapable and un-ambitious man, but Sophie’s family pushed for the marriage because it would give Sophie a chance of becoming Empress of Austria because Franz Karl’s older brother who was their father’s heir suffered from a number of mental health issues. At the time of their marriage, the two families were already closely linked as Sophie’s sister Caroline Augusta was Franz Karl’s stepmother after marrying his father, meaning Sophie’s sister was also her mother-in-law.

For the first six years of their marriage, the couple were childless which was a worry for any royal woman at the time as bearing a child would make her position secure. From 1830-1842, however, six children were born, though two sadly died very young.

Sophie and Franz Joseph (public domain)

Sophie’s attentions were focused firmly on her eldest son Franz Joseph and her ambition to place him on the Austrian throne was widely known. In 1848, it was finally her husband Franz Karl’s chance to become Emperor in his own right after running his brother’s council for many years, however, due to Sophie’s influence, this was not to be. Franz Karl was convinced to give up his rights to the Austrian throne, and therefore it was their son Franz Joseph who became the next Emperor with Sophie holding power behind the scenes. At the time Sophie was known as ‘the only man at court’ hinting at the great power she held over her husband and son.

In 1854, Franz Joseph was married; Sophie had tried her best to control her son’s marriage by choosing a bride from the house of Wittelsbach which was the house she came from herself. Her chosen bride was her niece Helene, the daughter of her sister Ludovika. Franz Joseph instead fell in love with Helene’s younger sister Elisabeth who was just fifteen. Sophie did not approve of Elisabeth, or Sisi as she was known, and did not think she was a fitting royal consort, but she consented to the match and the wedding took place in April 1854.

Sophie is most widely remembered for her terrible relationship with her daughter-in-law Sisi, and from the moment Sisi married her son, Sophie made her life difficult. Sisi later wrote, “To confess to you quite openly, if I didn’t have children, the thought of having to resume the life I have led until now would be quite unendurable. Of A (Archduchess Sophie) I think only with a shudder, and the distance only makes me detest her all the mother.” However, in later years even Sisi realised that Sophie had not acted with malice. She said to a lady-in-waiting, “that the Archduchess surely meant so well in everything – but that the paths were arduous and the manner harsh – that the Emperor suffered from it as well and that she always wanted to control… and how from the first day she was an obstacle to her contentment and happiness and interfered in everything and how she made it harder for them to be – undisturbed – together!”

At the age of sixteen, Sisi gave birth to her first child. Sophie dismissed Sisi’s attempts to care for her new daughter and called her a ‘silly young mother’, taking charge of the child herself. Sophie even went as far as naming the child after herself without the permission of her actual parents. Sophie essentially forcibly removed the baby from Sisi and Franz Joseph, not even allowing Sisi to breastfeed the child. The little girl held a special place in her grandmother’s heart and she consistently wrote in her diary about the details of her granddaughter’s care – including every new tooth.

When another daughter Gisela was born the same thing happened again. At this time Sophie put Sisi under immense pressure to produce a son and heir for Austria, mocking her and apparently leaving pamphlets for her to read which focused on the idea of a consort needing to produce an heir and stay out of politics. In 1858, Sisi gave birth to a son named Rudolf after little Sophie sadly died. As with the other children, Sophie took charge of Rudolf and blocked Sisi’s attempts to raise him herself.

Aside from controlling her son Franz Joseph’s political and private life, during this period Sophie is remembered for her friendship and possible relationship with the exiled Napoleon II who live at the Austrian court, with rumours circulating that her son Maximilian was actually the son of Napoleon II. Whether the child was the son of Napoleon or Franz Karl is unknown.

Back row, standing from left to right are Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Maximilian and his wife Charlotte of Belgium, Archduke Ludwig Victor, and Archduke Karl Ludwig. Front row, from left to right are Empress Elisabeth with Crown Prince Rudolf and Archduchess Gisela and then Princess Sophie of Bavaria and Archduke Franz Karl of Austria. (public domain)

We do know however how Sophie truly felt about many aspects of her life and about the goings on of the court because she left behind diaries which covered much of her lifetime. One area of importance in her life was the sudden death of her son Maximilian. Maximilian had become the Emperor of Mexico under the guidance of Napoleon III of France. His short reign ended in disaster when after three years in 1867, he was deposed and executed by firing squad. His final wish to his executioners was that they did not shoot him in the face so that his mother Sophie could see his face again. His embalmed body was returned to Austria the following year. Sophie found the death of her son too much to cope with, and she retired from public life afterwards. She later wrote, “But the memory of the torments he had to undergo, of his friendlessness far from us goes with me through my life and is an indescribable pain.”

A few years later in 1872, apparently forever weakened by the death of her second son, Sophie died aged sixty-seven. For ten days the family was at Sophie’s bedside and she suffered several cerebral hemorrhages and lost the ability to speak. Sisi was by her bedside when she died to the praise of a lady-in-waiting who wrote, “She has brought her heart along from her forests – that is why no one understands her here, where the germ cell of all feeling must smother in the customary formality.” The Swiss envoy reported, “For the Emperor the loss of his mother is a heavy blow since she alone still provided him with the amenities of family life, which he must lack in his immediate circle.” He added, “Without doubt, Archduchess Sophie was the most significant figure of all the women of the imperial house after Maria Theresia.”

Sophie left a letter of farewell behind, written ten years before her death. “Dear children, remain, all of you, united in unalterable love and loyalty and reverence of the younger for their Emperor and lord. My valued Franzi, since you are charged with a heavy responsibility for your Catholic empire, which you must most of all keep Catholic, though at the same time you will bestow paternal care on the several millions of different faiths. Only weakness, giving up on the part of the well-intentioned, … encourages the pioneers of the revolution.”1

  1. Read more: Brigitte Hamann – The Reluctant Empress (US & UK)


  1. Sophie is another one of those royal women who have been burdened with a very distorted popular image.
    I can’t help but think it’s quiet unfair. In my view she was a much more admirable figure than she is often given credit for though she had her faults and some silly ideas as well as way she treated Elisabeth was wrong. But she wasn’t heartless hag.
    She was caring wife and loving mother devoted to her family, dynasty and country. She had many qualities I admire.

  2. I don’t agree with some of her statements and behaviours but her strength and devotion to family makes Sophie such admirable woman in my view!
    Unfortunately people judge her only in context of Sisi and vilify her.

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