Sisi & Rudolf – “Rudolf’s bullet killed my faith” (Part three)

Max von Thun as Crown Prince Rudolf in The Crown Prince (2006)(Screenshot/Fair Use)

Read part two here.

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.”1 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.

At Christmas 1888, Marie Valerie became engaged to Archduke Franz Salvator from the Tuscan branch of the family. Empress Elisabeth sided with her daughter against the concerns of Emperor Franz Joseph and Rudolf, who considered the archduke to be too insignificant. The relationship between brother and sister became even more strained during this period, and a hysterical Elisabeth damaged the relationship with Rudolf even more. She now considered him the enemy, and their sole topic of conversation became Marie Valerie’s future. By then, Rudolf had more serious things on his mind, and he was already considering suicide. Elisabeth interpreted his seriousness as hostility towards Marie Valerie. Marie Valerie later described his supposed hostility, “He was not at all unfriendly, and so I felt encouraged for the first time in my life to throw my arms about his neck… Poor brother, so he does have a warm heart in need of love, for he embraced me and kissed me with the full fervour of true brotherly affection – again and again, he drew me to his heart, and one could feel that he was pleased at my showing him the love that for so long had been almost stifled by fear and timidity. Mama begged him always to be good to me, to us, once we are dependent on him, and he solemnly swore it, simply and warmly. At that, she made the sign of the cross on his forehead and said God would bless him for it and bring him good luck – she assured him of her love, and he fervently kissed her hand, deeply moved. I thanked him and enfolded him and Mama in a single embrace while I said almost instinctively: ‘We should be this way always!'”2 As Rudolf’s mental state deteriorated, he began to speak often of his imminent death, although it wasn’t taken seriously.

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. The family was thus wholly unprepared for the tragedy that happened on 30 January 1889. Sometime in the early hours of the 30th, Rudolf and his mistress, the 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, died in an apparent murder-suicide pact.

Elisabeth was the first one in the family to be told the news of her son’s death. It was Joseph Hoyos, Rudolf’s hunting companion, who broke the news to her, but he said to her that Mary had given Rudolf poison before taking the poison herself. Elisabeth was reportedly quite composed when she went to her husband to tell him the news. She took Katharina Schratt, Franz Joseph’s mistress, with her because she knew that Katharina would be able to comfort him.

Elisabeth then went on to inform her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, who immediately assumed that he had taken his own life. Elisabeth resisted this and said, “No, no, I will not believe that, it is so likely, so certain that the girl poisoned him.”3 The next to be told was Rudolf’s widow Stéphanie, who described the scene in her memoirs, “The Emperor sat at the centre of the room, the Empress, dressed in dark clothes, her face white and rigid, was with him. In my bewildered, shaken state, I believed that I was being looked at like an unfaithful wife. A crossfire of questions, some of which I could not answer, some of which I was not permitted to answer, descended on me.”4

The following day Elisabeth and Franz Joseph learned from their personal physician what had really happened to their son. Both Rudolf and Mary had been shot in the head, with Mary stretched out on the bed with a rose between her hands and Rudolf next to her with a fallen revolver on the ground. Elisabeth commented, “Great Jehova is terrible as He marches onward sowing destruction like the storm.”5

As Rudolf was laid out in state in the Hofburg, Mary Vetsera received a hasty burial. Elisabeth finally lost her composure that night at dinner and began to sob. His widow Stéphanie and their five-year-old daughter Elisabeth were also present, and Stéphanie would receive most of the blame. Elisabeth later said, “If one comes to know this woman properly, one must excuse Rudolf for looking elsewhere for distraction and a narcotic to ease the emptiness of the heart in his own home. It is certain: things would have been otherwise had he had a different wife, one who understood him.”6

He left several goodbye letters, and the longest of them was to his mother, Elisabeth, but the full letter has not survived. It was destroyed by Ida Ferenczy after Elisabeth’s death on her instructions. We know that Rudolf wrote that he was “not worthy of writing to his father” and that Mary was “a pure angel, who accompanies him into the hereafter.” He also wished “to be buried next to her in Heiligenkreuz.”7 This wish was not honoured as Rudolf was buried with his parents in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. With an affidavit from the doctor that Rudolf was mentally unstable at the time of his death, a church funeral could be held for him.

Although Elisabeth had been quite composed in the days following her son’s death, she soon fell apart. The German ambassador reported that Elisabeth “abandons herself to incessant brooding, reproaches herself, and attributes to the inherited Wittelsbach blood the mental confusion of her poor son.”8 It was also another reason for Elisabeth to be criticized by the court circle. One Countess de Jonghe wrote, “This time, the first lady of the land bears the principal blame. If she had thought less of herself and more of her obligations, this recent catastrophe would not have occurred.”9

Just a few days after Rudolf’s internment, Elisabeth tried to make contact with his spirit down in the crypt to learn the reason for his suicide, and she continued to try and reach his spirit unsuccessfully. She later told Marie Valerie, “Rudolf’s bullet killed my faith.”10 Her attempts to reach him caused even more gossip in Vienna but she was desperate the learn the reasons for his suicide. Marie Valerie wrote, “Mama will probably never again be as she was at one time; she envies Rudolf his death, and day and night longes for her own.”11 By the end of the mourning period for Rudolf, Elisabeth had given away all her light-coloured gowns and other items to Gisela and Marie Valerie. She wore only plain mourning attire and did not wear colour again for the rest of her life.

  1. H.R.H Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – I was to be Empress p.240
  2. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.338-339
  3. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 340
  4. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 340
  5. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 341
  6. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 342
  7. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 342
  8. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 344
  9. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 345
  10. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 346
  11. The Reluctant Empress by Birgitte Hamann p. 348

About Moniek Bloks 2744 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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