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

(public domain)

Read part one here.

After the formal ceremony, Stéphanie and Rudolf changed into their travelling clothes. She said goodbye to her beloved Toni, her parents and her sister. They travelled to Laxenburg where they were to spend their honeymoon – the carriage ride was completely silent. They arrived in rooms that had not been done up, which made Stéphanie feel even more unwanted. She later described her wedding night in her memoirs, “What a night! What torments, what horror! I had not had the ghost of a notion what lay before me but had been led to the altar as an ignorant child. My illusions, my youthful dreams, were shattered. I thought I should die of my disillusionment.” She began to pray for the day they would depart for Hungary – which she knew from tales told by her mother.

The Hungarians received her with much love. The Belgian colours were displayed everywhere, and the Belgian national anthem sounded along the way. At the end of May, they finally entered the capital city. Stéphanie finally felt happy again. Upon being received in the Upper and Lower Houses, Stéphanie wore the Hungarian national dress with a gold-embroidered veil, and she had learned a Hungarian speech by heart. The exertions of the trips affected Stéphanie, and once back in Vienna, she was ordered to rest for 14 days. Her sister Louise was there to support her. Hardly had she recovered before she was taken to Prague for a visit. They were greeted by the Dowager Empress, Maria Anna of Sardinia, who lived there. The newlyweds spent the summer in Salzburg, which did Stéphanie much good.

Once back in Vienna, Stéphanie rarely saw her husband, and he often went shooting. Despite not being present much, he was a controlling man, and he often read the letters Stéphanie wrote to her parents before allowing them to be posted. He gave orders that no one was to come into her chambers while he was not there. Empress Elisabeth – who detested official functions – handed much of her responsibilities to Stéphanie, who begged her not to since she was still only 17 years old. The following October, Stéphanie also found herself pregnant. She wrote in her memoirs, “I had no rest, as I was obliged to appear at all ceremonies, now here, now there!” In November, she was taken on a visit to Transylvania where Rudolf had rented a castle from where he would go hunting.

stephanie of belgium
Stéphanie and Rudolf (public domain)

The pregnancy improved the relationship between Stéphanie and Rudolf and Stéphanie was grateful for it. In early August, Stéphanie’s mother arrived in Austria as did her sister Louise. On 2 September 1883 – after a gruelling labour lasting 26 hours – Stéphanie gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth. To Rudolf’s disappointment, the baby was not an heir to the throne and Stéphanie broke down in tears. Nevertheless, after the initial disappointment, Stéphanie thanked God for the treasure he had bestowed upon her. She was named Elizabeth for the sainted ancestress of the House of Arpad – and coincidentally also the name of the current Empress. When Stéphanie left her confinement, she found that she had grown taller – she was, after all, still a teenager. Rudolf wrote to a friend, “Stéphanie looks blooming as usual, as if nothing has happened. The little one is a stunner of seven pounds, perfectly well and strongly developed, with many hairs on her head, very much alive; she shouts terribly and drinks a great deal without the slightest difficulty.”

Their duties soon took them away from their young daughter. Stéphanie and Rudolf visited Constantinople and Bulgaria, followed by visits to Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Albania, Greece and Montenegro. They returned to Belgium to celebrate Stéphanie’s father’s 50th birthday in 1885. The following year, both Rudolf and Stéphanie became ill. Stéphanie was in bed for weeks, and doctors diagnosed her with peritonitis. Both recovered, and wishes were renewed for Stéphanie to give birth to an heir. Stéphanie was allowed to take it easier that year in hopes of conceiving. However, the Crown Prince was often not with her, and his restlessness took him elsewhere. When she saw him again, she would him looking very unhealthy. Stéphanie began to believe he had moved away from her completely. By then, Rudolf had been infected with a venereal disease and he, in turn, had infected Stéphanie. It was most likely gonorrhoea and two gynaecologists came to examine her. She then learned that “the Crown Prince was responsible for my complaint.” The gonorrhoea had caused a pelvic inflammation and had destroyed her fallopian tubes. She would never again conceive a child. She was sent to several spas, and while she seemed to improve, he did not. The diagnosis had destroyed her purpose in life – to provide an heir for the Austrian throne. Rudolf began to depend on a dangerous mixture of drugs to alleviate the painful symptoms of gonorrhoea.

In the summer of 1887, sick of the many years of pretending not to notice her husband’s affairs, Stéphanie took a lover of her own. Unlike Rudolf, she was discrete with the 38-year-old Count Artur Potocki. His codename was Hamlet and she used her sister Louise as a go-between.

In October 1888, Stéphanie returned from a trip to Greece. She wrote in her memoirs, “But I was horrified as soon as I set eyes on the Crown Prince. His decay was so greatly advanced as to have become conspicuous. He was frightfully changed; his skin was flaccid; his eyes were restless; his expression had completely changed. It seemed as if his lineaments had lost the inner substantially, which can only come from strength of will as if a process of internal dissolution were going on. I was profoundly sorry for him, and wondered how the devastation would end.” Stéphanie wanted to confront her father-in-law about Rudolf, hoping to save him from disaster. However, the Emperor saw nothing wrong with his son and dismissed her concerns. On 26 January 1889, Stéphanie and Rudolf attended a big soirée, followed by a reception on the 27th. From the 28th there was to be a shoot at Mayerling. Rudolf promised her he would be back the next day for a family dinner. They would never see each other again. Rudolf excused himself from the family dinner the following day. Stéphanie told the family that he had come down with a cold.1

Read part three here.

  1. Greg King & Penny Wilson – Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs (UK & US)

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

About Moniek Bloks 2595 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. This woman has had such a sad life at court that we should never forget her story and actually her book should be re-published in all languages because in the end things like this still happen at different courts.

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