Snail's Postcard Post

Habsburg Wheels

In the previous post, I told you all about the estate sale I visited at the home of an elderly woman named Alice, and the vintage Swiss postcards I found there. Now it’s time to share the other set of postcards I adopted from Alice’s collection. This set is from the Wagenburg (carriage museum) at the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, Austria. 


Coupé of Emperor Franz Joseph I (1830-1916)379px-Franz_Josef_IEmperor Franz Joseph I in 1859

Below is the coach of his wife, Empress Elisabeth


328px-Erzsebet_kiralyne_photo_1867Photographed on the day of her coronation as Queen of Hungary, 1867

I didn’t know of Empress Elisabeth, so I did some reading and found her story fascinating:

Elisabeth, or Sisi, as she was called, was born in 1837 to Princess Ludovika of Bavaria and Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria. While most children of noble birth were raised in a regimented fashion, Sisi and her siblings enjoyed great freedom to follow their fancies. This was probably thanks to their father who preferred the countryside and the circus to a duke’s duties. His side of the family were notoriously eccentric.

Cousin Franz Joseph
Sisi’s mother’s side of the family was quite the opposite. Princess Ludovika’s sister, Princess Sophie, was an overbearing traditionalist, and she had plans for her son, Franz Joseph. With his uncle, Emperor Ferdinand I, weak-minded and sure to abdicate or be deposed, and his father completely unambitious, Franz Joseph was groomed from an early age to inherit the throne. (He became a colonel in the Austrian army at the age of 13.)

Franz Joseph did indeed become Emperor 1848, when he was 18 years-old. At that, his mother wanted to see him married, and in such a way that everything stayed in the family. So she basically assigned him her eldest niece, Helene.

In 1853, Sisi accompanied Helene and their mother to receive Franz Joseph’s proposal. They arrived late, because they had to stop when Princess Ludovika got one of her terrible migraines. The coach carrying their formal dresses never arrived at all. So they appeared in the black mourning wear they’d left in, due to the death of an aunt. In retrospect, they probably thought these were signs that they should’ve just gone home. 

When they did meet the young Emperor, he was smitten not with Helene, but with her little sister. For once defying his mother, he vowed to marry Sisi or not at all. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were married several months later, and the 15 year-old bride was so traumatized by their wedding night that she didn’t leave her room for three days. 

New Empress
Sisi suffered under the rigid etiquette of court life and started having coughing fits that later, along with other health problems, seemed likely to be psychosomatic. On top of this emotional/physical tax, in a month, she found herself pregnant. She gave birth to a baby girl, whom her domineering aunt/mother-in-law named Sophie, after herself. Princess Sophie took control of baby Sohpie’s care, refusing to let Sisi even breastfeed her. When Elisabeth had another baby, Gisela, the following year, Princess Sophie took over her too.

With Princess Sophie ever on her back and the stifling royal court, Sisi embraced opportunities to accompany her husband on visits to other parts of the empire. In Italy, when Franz Joseph was to decide the fate of political prisoners, Sisi persuaded him to show mercy.

In 1857, the royal couple and their daughters travelled to Hungary. Sisi fell in love with the Hungarian people (whom her mother-in-law despised, by the way) and they with her. Feeling free to speak her mind in Hungary, she began to study the language.

But tragedy struck when the two children became ill with what is believed to be typhus. One year-old Gisela recovered, but two year-old Sophie died.

Back in Vienna, Sisi was so depressed she gave up caring for Gisela, and their relationship would never reform. 

All the while, the court was clamoring for a male heir to the throne. One day she found a note on her desk reading:

“…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with aCrown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire…”

Princess Sophie is generally believed to have penned the malicious note. 

Health and Physical Obsessions
Sisi soon became pregnant for the third time in as many years, and the baby was a boy, Rudolf. Having produced a male heir, she won more influence at court, which she used to mediate on behalf of Hungary. What Rudolf’s birth did not grant her was a say in his upbringing and education. 

The Empress became obsessed with her appearance, apparently partly because it was the only thing for which the court admired her, and partly because it was the only thing she had control of.

She had extremely long hair, which she spent two or three hours dressing. On hair-washing day every two weeks, any other engagements had to be cancelled.456px-Empress_Elisabeth_of_Austria,_1864(This 1864 portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter is one of two “intimate” paintings of Elisabeth. Never publicly displayed, it was the Emperor’s favorite portrait of her, and he hung it opposite his desk in his private study.)

The hours of haircare doubled as time for Sisi to learn and practice languages. She spoke fluent English and French, continued to study Hungarian and took on modern Greek. Her Greek tutor described their sessions:

Hairdressing takes almost two hours, she said, and while my hair is busy, my mind stays idle. I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards. The Empress sat at a table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth. She was shrouded in a white, laced peignoir, her hair, unfastened and reaching to the floor, enfolded her entire body.”

I wonder if this is also when she read and wrote. She collected the letters of Heinrich Heine, the late German lyric poet and radical political thinker, and she wrote a great number of personal poems in his style. In these she referred to herself as Titania, Shakespeare’s fairy queen.

As well as her hair, the Empress was unhealthily devoted to a tiny waist. She practiced tight-lacing, using special corsets to gradually mold her waist to just sixteen inches around, which she flaunted to Princess Sophie who expected her to be perpetually pregnant. Franz Joseph specifically wanted another son as a back-up heir, but Sisi had quit sleeping with him. 

It’s almost funny that Sisi developed a phobia of heavy women, and so her daughter Gisela was afraid of them when she was young too. Things did not go well when little Gisela met Queen Victoria.

As you can imagine, the Empress ate little or nothing at all. This is probably what caused her “green sickness” (anemia). Her coughing fits also persisted. Instead of eating and resting properly, she used her health as an excuse to ditch engagements, and use the freed up time to exercise, which she did constantly. To her credit, Empress Elisabeth was probably the best equestrienne in the world at the time.   

Sisi also used her health as an excuse to travel abroad, to spas and special doctors. The pretense may not have been entirely false, however, leading to the psychosomatic theory. She’d leave Vienna with symptoms of everything from edema to tuberculosis to venereal disease (it was rumored Franz Joseph had an affair with an actress). All these would vanish when Sisi arrived in Madeira, Corfu or anywhere away from Vienna. And then they’d come back when she did. For instance, in 1862, after a two-year healthful absence, Sisi returned to Vienna for her husband’s birthday, immediately suffering a terrible migraine, and vomiting four times en route. 

Queen of Hungary
In 1867, she joined Franz Joseph again for the sake of supporting a double monarchy with Hungary, resulting in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pregnant again, Sisi took up residence in her knew beloved kingdom. She gave birth to a daughter there, and, away from the Austrian court and Princess Sophie, Sisi finally got to raise a child of her own as she wanted. Sophie died five years later. For a good decade, for once things were going right.

Deaths in the Family
Empress Elisabeth’s father died in 1888. In 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover were found dead at the imperial hunting lodge, Mayerling. Rudolf was a married man of 30 by then, and his father had recently pressured him to end the affair. Instead, it seems he and his mistress made a suicide pact. He shot her, sat by her body for several hours, then shot himself. Sisi’s sister Helene died in 1890, as did her best friend, a Hungarian count. Her mother followed in 1892.

Always dressed in black, Sisi spent the rest of her life traveling incognito–with a white leather parasol and a fan to hide her face–through the Alps, the Mediterranean and the Near East, avoiding Austria.

In 1898, at age 60, she was staying at a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva. One morning, she and her lady in waiting left the hotel to catch a ship, and as they were walking, a man stumbled into her. In fact, he stabbed her above the left breast. 

The assailant was a young Italian anarchist on the hunt to kill nobles. He’d come to Geneva expecting to find the Duke of Orléans, but Empress Elisabeth suited him just as well. Too poor to buy a stiletto for the job, he’d sharpened a needle file and carved a handle for it from a piece of firewood.  

Sisi’s lady in waiting managed to walk her onto the ship, but then she went in and out of consciousness. When she went out and stayed out, the ship returned to port and a bunch of crewmen carried her back to the hotel. But she was dead when they  reached the room. 

The young anarchist was caught and given a life sentence, which angered him as he’d wanted to be a martyr. But Switzerland had outlawed the death penalty. So after several attempts, he hanged himself in prison in 1910. 

Empress Elisabeth’s will stipulated that a large portion of her great jewell collection be sold and that the proceeds go to various charities. The rest of her personal wealth she bequeathed to Rudolf’s daughter, her granddaughter, Elisabeth.

IMG_7520The red funeral car of the court of Vienna

This entry was published on March 15, 2014 at 12:21 am. It’s filed under Europe, Historical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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