Sisi & Sophie – The ‘evil’ mother-in-law tale (Part one)

Vilma Degischer as Sophie (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Archduchess Sophie was born Princess Sophie of Bavaria on 27 January 1805 as one of a set of twins. Her sister was named Maria Anna, and she eventually became Queen of Saxony as the wife of King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. She would have four surviving full sisters, two half-brothers, and two half-sisters, including Caroline Augusta, who would become her stepmother-in-law. In 1824, Sophie married Archduke Franz Karl of Austria, the younger brother of the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. They became the parents of four surviving sons, including the future Emperors Franz Joseph I of Austria and Maximilian I of Mexico. Following the Revolutions of 1848, Sophie was instrumental in convincing her husband to renounce his rights to the throne to allow the 18-year-old Franz Joseph to become the new Emperor. And an Emperor needs a wife, who would be his first cousin Elisabeth.

The relationship between Archduchess Sophie and her niece and daughter-in-law Elisabeth has been massively tainted by the release of the subsequent Sissi films, which portray Elisabeth as a romantic heroine and Sophie as the classic evil mother-in-law. In reality, their relationship was quite different, and the women were more similar than one might expect. Both suffered the loss of a daughter in infancy, and both would lose a son to an unnatural death.

As Sophie and Elisabeth’s mother Ludovika were sisters, the two met frequently, and Sophie would have known Elisabeth from birth. In the summer of 1853, Sophie invited Ludovika and her two elder daughters for Franz Joseph’s birthday, and when he was (re-) introduced to them, he fell in love with Elisabeth at first sight. They became engaged on his actual birthday, and Sophie communicated the happy news to her son Maximilian, who was the only one of her sons not to be present. In the letter, she described Elisabeth as “dear, lovely Sisi.”1 Ludovika even wrote, “Sophie is so very good and kind to her, and what a consolation for me to be able to hand her over to such a dear sister as a second mother.”2 During this time, as the family went to church, Sophie was noted for holding back at the door and granting precedence to Elisabeth, who, as the Emperor’s betrothed, outranked her.

Sophie was soon planning for new living arrangements as she did not want to be in the way of the newlyweds. In another letter sent just days before the wedding in April 1854, Sophie wrote, “In 8 days I will, by the grace of God, have united all four of you and then soon a fifth dear, dear child3 will join us, may her entry into our house by blessed by God!”4 As a wedding present, Sophie gifted her niece her own magnificent diamond wedding tiara with large opals, and a matching choker and earrings. Elisabeth wrote to her, “Be assured, my dear aunt, that I am keenly aware of your great goodness to me, and that it is comforting to me to know that always and in all situations of my life I will be allowed to entrust myself to your maternal affection.”5 Both Ludovika and Sophie were consistently present during the days following the wedding, and Sophie had been heavily involved in setting up Elisabeth’s new living arrangements. Although this may be seen as rather unusual these days, it wouldn’t have been back then.

Sophie was accustomed to being in charge and was often at loggerheads over trivial matters with Elisabeth. The assertion by Elisabeth that Sophie never left her and Franz Joseph alone in the early years of their marriage cannot be true as they were not even living together. Sophie lived at Schönbrunn while the newlyweds lived at Laxenburg. However, she was a frequent visitor. Their main argument seems to have been about riding as Sophie thought it unsuitable if Elisabeth went out with only a groom.6

When the 16-year-old Elisabeth became pregnant for the first time, it was Sophie who made the arrangements for the baby. Sophie’s own tragic obstetric history no doubt influenced this behaviour heavily as she had suffered several miscarriages. Although Elisabeth would later say that Sophie had taken her children from her, she later admitted to her own mother that she felt unable to deal with the small children. Sophie’s supposed disappointment at the birth of her namesake granddaughter can also be disproven. All that she wrote in her diary was that it was a shame that little Sophie was not a boy because she was so strong. During her own difficult years of miscarriages, Sophie had written to her mother that she did not care if it was a boy or a girl but that she wished for it to be a boy for the Emperor and her husband.7 There is also no evidence that Sophie would have stopped Elisabeth from breastfeeding as Sophie herself had happily breastfed Franz Joseph.

The idea that the first child was taken from her immediately after birth, can be disproven with a letter Elisabeth wrote three weeks after little Sophie’s birth, “My little one is already very charming and gives the Emperor and me enormous joy. At first, it seemed a little strange to me to have a baby of my own; it is like an entirely new joy, and I have the little one with me all day long, except when she is carried for a walk, which happens often while the fine weather holds.”8

In August 1855, just five months after the birth of little Sophie, Elisabeth wrote to her mother-in-law, who was in Ischl at the time, “Dear mother-in-law, after the Emperor told me of your wish, I would like to give you news of us, so I am sending you these lines to tell you that we are very well, also the little one, who is always so cheerful and gets stronger and more developed each day.”9 This doesn’t seem to come from a mother who was never allowed to see her children.

After the birth of Elisabeth’s second daughter Gisela, there was apparently some sort of quarrel, and the nursery, which had been close to Sophie’s rooms, was moved to the Radetzky room. Sophie was not even in Vienna at the time and she was reportedly not informed of the change. This was apparently done at Elisabeth’s request, and Franz Joseph tried to reason with his mother. Tragically, young Sophie would die not much later during a visit to Hungary. Both of their daughters had fallen ill shortly after their arrival in Hungary with diarrhoea and a fever, but while Gisela recovered, Sophie did not. The elder Sophie was in Saxony at the time with her twin sister, but she was kept informed. When told of her granddaughter’s death, she wrote a sad letter to her sister Ludovika which stated, “So we had to give back our dear child. She should have her death in Hungary, it was God’s will. We must hold fast to this belief in order not to perish in lamentation.”10 A few days later, she wrote to her son Karl Ludwig, “Sisi needs to speak of her beloved child, to surround herself with everything that reminds her of her. This way, I can bring her the consolation of God, respond to her pain, which few can understand like me.”11 Sophie had lost her own four-year-old daughter after an epileptic attack and had thus gone through the same loss, which she had never forgotten.

Read part two here.

  1. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.79
  2. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.18
  3. She means Elisabeth
  4. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.89
  5. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.29
  6. The lonely Empress by Joan Haslip p.80
  7. Erzherzogin Sophie by Ingrid Haslinger p.157
  8. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.68
  9. Briefe kaiser Franz Josephs I. an seine mutter, 1838-1872 p.239
  10. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.140
  11. Unsere liebe Sisi by Gabriele Praschl-Bichler p.140

About Moniek Bloks 2765 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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