Stéphanie of Belgium – The would-be Empress of Austria (Part one)

(public domain)

At the time of Stéphanie’s marriage to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the Austrian court was one of the most brilliant in Europe. The following tragedies plunged it into a sadness from which it never recovered.

Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was born on 21 May 1864 as the daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium and Archduchess Marie Henriette of Austria at the Royal Palace of Laeken. She was their third child, after an elder sister named Louise and an elder brother named Leopold – who tragically died in childhood. Another daughter named Clémentine would be born in 1872. Her father spent little time with his family, and Stéphanie later wrote in her memoirs, “One can hardly be surprised that the children of such a marriage were foredoomed to unhappiness.” Nevertheless, Stéphanie was devoted to her mother despite also being afraid of her. Stéphanie’s formal education began at the age of six and her sister’s governess Mademoiselle Legrand also took her under her wings. Her days were filled with iron discipline; rising at five, being silent while dressing and doing the toilet, making her own bed, saying her prayers, at her school work by half-past eight, which was done for the entire day except for three hours devoted to walking, games and gardening. The windows were kept open in winter and summer, and Stéphanie wrote, “In winter the study was like an ice-house, and my teeth chattered with the cold.”

Stéphanie enjoyed painting and reading, but neither hobby was encouraged as her mother was afraid it would distract her from more important things. Stéphanie often underwent punishments, such as kneeling on parched peas. She most dreaded being confined between double days – where she sometimes spent an entire day. Stéphanie was especially close to Mademoiselle Antoinette Schariry – nicknamed Toni – who had entered the royal household shortly after Stéphanie’s birth. She was also fond of her aunt and uncle, the Count and Countess of Flanders, the parents of the future King Albert I of Belgium. In 1871, Stéphanie fell with typhoid fever, and for weeks she suffered horribly. Miraculously, she made a full recovery.

Three years later, her sister Louise announced her betrothal to Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and cried upon being told that Louise was going to leave. Louise’s wedding took place on 18 February 1875. Stéphanie later wrote, “I can still picture her kneeling at the steps of the altar, then getting up and curtseying to her parents, the King and Queen, before she uttered the decisive word, the word which fettered her forever to the man she had not chosen for herself, but who had been chosen for her by others.” For Stéphanie, life continued at its monotonous pace.

In 1878, her aunt Archduchess Elisabeth Franziska of Austria came to visit, perhaps to discuss the idea of Stéphanie marrying the Crown Prince of Austria. The following winter, Stéphanie would also meet her future mother-in-law, Empress Elizabeth, when she came to visit on her way to England. Stéphanie was allowed to kiss her hand and received an embrace. Some weeks later, Stéphanie was finally allowed to wear a long dress with a train to meet Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who had also heard of the marriage rumours. On 4 March 1880, Crown Prince Rudolf visited the court at Brussels and the following day her father told her, “The Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary is here to ask your hand in marriage. Your mother and I are very much in favour of this marriage. It is our desire that you should be the future Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. You can withdraw now, think over this plan, and give us your answer tomorrow.” Stéphanie talked to Toni and her mother, who believed it would be her greatest happiness if Stéphanie became Austrian by marriage. Stéphanie – still only 15 years old – did not sleep at all that night. In the end, Stéphanie abided by her parents’ wishes and consented to the match. She later wrote, “I never guessed how heavy I should find the chains he (her father) was forging for me. I had no inkling that I was already being betrayed. Not until months later did I learn that my future bridegroom had not come to Brussels alone, but accompanied by his mistress, a certain Frau F.”

Stéphanie and Rudolf

Crown Prince Rudolf presented her with an engagement ring, a large sapphire surrounded by diamonds. During the following dinner, Rudolf spoke of his plans for the future and Stéphanie wanted nothing more than to acquaint herself with his thoughts to become a suitable companion to him. The formal betrothal took place on 7 March in the palace chapel. The wedding was set for the end of the year. Stéphanie now underwent a crash course in preparing her for court life. She was expected to attend every official dinner and was given lessons in dancing and deportment. However, the wedding had to be postponed because Stéphanie had not had her first menstruation yet. Nevertheless, the preparations went on, and the new wedding date was set for 10 May. She later wrote, “I had pondered matters long and deeply, but at sixteen I was still no more than a child, incapable of grasping the situation.”

On 2 May 1881, Stéphanie left Belgium for her new life in Austria. When Stéphanie entered the specially prepared train, she lost control and began to cry. Her mother held her and chided her for breaking down. She was so exhausted that she fell asleep before they had left Belgium and did not wake until Augsburg in Bavaria. The followed day, she was met by her future husband at Salzburg. He later took a train to Vienna while Stéphanie followed him on 6 May.  At Schönbrunn, Stéphanie met her future family-in-law. On the morning of her wedding, her mother took her to take mass in the court chapel. Afterwards, her mother helped Toni to dress Stéphanie for her wedding. Her wedding dress was made of heavy silver brocade with garlands and silver roses embroidered on its long train. Her veil was of Brussels lace, and it was fastened by a diamond brooch. She wore a diadem given to her by the Emperor, and she wore the Order of the Star and Cross. She later wrote, “As for my feelings at this moment, they were much more those of a martyr than of a bride.”1

Read part two here.

  1. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress

About Moniek Bloks 2316 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.

1 Comment

  1. What a Sad Life Poor Princess Stephanie had. She was a Lovely Woman. So Terrible when The Crown Prince killed Himself.😢💝🌺💟💞

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