A problematic marriage
The marriage of Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth of Austria began under the most unusual circumstances: the young emperor was supposed to marry Princess Helene of Bavaria – Elisabeth’s older sister. What happened instead is well known to fans of Elisabeth and the Habsburgers worldwide. The day Franz Joseph met his potential future wife for the first time, he had only eyes for the bride’s younger sister. Elisabeth was 15 years old when she got engaged to Franz Joseph on his birthday.
Their marriage turned out to be a complicated one. Their first born daughter died of typhoid fever when she was two years old, and Elisabeth’s mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, took care of the education and upbringing of the imperial children. Elisabeth found it difficult to get used to the strict protocol and routine at court and rebelled against it. Her husband, however, saw no reason to help his wife and remained quiet about the problems the women had with each other. Only when Elisabeth issued an ultimatum to her husband, asking for the right to decide about the education and upbringing of her children on her own and threatening him to leave her should he not comply, the balance of power at court changed.
The affairs of the emperor
Although the marriage of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth seemed to be a love match, the Emperor did not stay faithful. When Elisabeth became ill in 1860, a lung disease was named in an official statement of the imperial court. The truth, however, was a different one. Elisabeth had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband, which was the proof for his unfaithfulness. The young Empress fled from Vienna and travelled to the island of Madeira to recover from her illness and to detach herself from her husband. Upon her return to court, she relapsed and travelled to Corfu. From that moment on, she spent most of her time away from Vienna, a place that she despised, and away from her husband.
Franz Joseph did not learn his lesson. In 1875, he met the fifteen-year-old Anna Heuduck on a walk through the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. Three years later, their affair began as Anna divorced her first husband and married Franz Nahowski. Soon the couple moved into a house near Schönbrunn Palace, with a separate entrance for her lover. In 1885, her daughter Helene was born – most likely an illegitimate daughter of the Emperor.
The affair ended in 1889 after the suicide of the Crown Prince, Rudolf. Anna Nahowski was called to the Hofburg (the official residence of the Emperor in the heart of Vienna and where he worked) where an unknown baron met her and declared that her ‘services’ were no longer required. Anna Nahowski was allowed to request the exact sum of the compensation herself, and she demanded the same sum she had received before as well as 50,000 guilders for her children. She declared to remain silent, signing the following statement:
“Ich bestätige hiermit daß ich am heutigen Tag 200.000 fl als Geschenk von Seiner Majestät dem Kaiser erhalten habe. Ferner schwöre ich, daß ich über die Begegnung mit Seiner Majestät jederzeit schweigen werde. Anna Nahowski, Wien, 14. März 1889.”
(Hereby I declare that today I received 200.000 guilders as a gift from His Majesty the Emperor. Furthermore, I swear that I will remain silent about my encounter with His Majesty at all times. Anna Nahowski, Vienna, 14th March 1889).
Making a match – finding a “friend” for Franz Joseph
Elisabeth, however, had detached herself from her husband almost completely, but they remained friends. To take away pressure from herself and to keep her husband entertained and in good company, Elisabeth began to search for a “friend” for her husband. After being told that Franz Joseph had been enjoying the performances of actress Katharina Schratt at the court theatre, Elisabeth invited the actress to the “Ball of the industrialists”. It was – except for an audience in 1883 – the first time Katharina Schratt and Franz Joseph had a long conversation together. As their affair began, Franz Joseph paid less attention to his first mistress Anna Nahowski, who reacted with jealousy and apparently even tried to follow him to spy on him.
Franz Joseph overwhelmed his mistress with presents, jewellery, and money. The latter was much needed, as Katharina Schratt loved gambling and needed the money to pay her debts. Furthermore, he bought her houses in Vienna and Bad Ischl.
When Elisabeth died in 1898, their friendship and affair cooled down a little, but it lasted until the Emperor’s death in 1916.
It is unknown what the children of the Emperor thought about their father’s relationship with Katharina Schratt. His youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, mentions Katharina Schratt in her diary, but her exact opinion about her remains unclear.
Elisabeth had a neutral relationship with the mistress of her husband and saw her neither as a friend nor as an enemy. After all, she had been the one who had introduced her to the Emperor. She even allowed Katharina Schratt to take over the representative tasks that she personally despised.
The letters that Franz Joseph and his mistress exchanged have been edited and published by the famous historian Brigitte Hamann and can be found (in German) on Amazon: