She was a royal who hated the pressures of royalty.
An aristocrat with the common touch, who dedicated herself to helping the poor.
She was also a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, whose life was tragically cut short.
Nope, we’re not talking about Princess Diana, the beloved British royal who died in 1997.
We’re talking about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi.
A legendary beauty, Sisi rose up from a bohemian background to become co-regent of the second
most powerful empire on Earth.
But she was also a free thinking woman who suffered dark depressions and found herself
stifled by life among Vienna’s 19th Century elite.
Reviled by the rich, beloved by the poor, Sisi was a woman who led a complex, tragic
life… even as her influence helped shaped Europe for generations to come.
This is the tale of the 19th Century’s very own Princess Diana.
The Youngest Love T’was the night before Christmas, 1837,
and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
…Unless you lived in the stately home of Duke Maximillian Joseph of Bavaria, and his
wife, Princess Ludovika, in which case everything was chaos.
The royal couple had just welcomed their newest child into the world.
Young Elisabeth, nickname Sisi, was one of an incredible seven children Princess Ludovika
had pumped out, producing a plethora of heirs and spares.
The reason for this was Princess Ludovika’s family.
As sister to the powerful Austrian Archduchess Sophia, her children were conceivably one
tragedy away from becoming next in line to the imperial throne.
For most kids in 19th Century households, such proximity to power would’ve meant a
Luckily for baby Sisi, though, Duke Maximilian’s household wasn’t “most”.
Despite his royal position, the Duke was a passionate liberal.
He believed in democratic values, pacifism, and spending time with the common man.
When he wasn’t on his estate, he could be found playing zither at a local tavern.
Sisi’s childhood was therefore unusual.
On the one hand, she had to go to etiquette lessons and so-on, like any other rich kid.
On the other, those lessons were constantly interrupted by her free spirited dad, who
would whisk the children away on adventures.
This meant Sisi grew up with an outlook deeply at odds with the privileged world in which
She couldn’t have known that world was about to have to fight for its life.
In February, 1848, when Sisi was only ten, a revolution in France snowballed into a series
of revolutions across Europe that threatened to sweep the old order away.
In Austria, a Hungarian uprising forced Emperor Ferdinand I to step down.
Sisi’s aunt, the Archduchess Sophia, engineered it so her son took his place.
That December, 18 year old Franz Joseph became emperor of Austria, the second biggest power
Although little Sisi didn’t know it yet, his accession would change her life.
Come 1849, the revolutions across Europe had been crushed.
In Austria, Franz Joseph’s new regime cracked down hard on the Hungarians who’d tried
to split from the empire.
Not that it was revolution that led Sisi to catastrophe.
It was love.
In 1853, Franz Joseph – now firmly in control of his empire – decided to find a wife.
His mother, Archduchess Sophia, contacted her sister, Princess Ludovika, and asked if
she had a suitable daughter.
Princess Ludovika picked Sisi’s older sister, Helene.
That August, Helene, her mother, and Sisi all traveled to Bad Ischl to meet Franz Joseph.
Sisi was now fifteen, and already a beauty.
She had flowing chestnut hair that reached down to her ankles, and eyes people could
write sonnets about.
When Franz Joseph met her, all thoughts of marrying Helene went out the window.
The 23 year old emperor was bowled over by Sisi.
He demanded her hand in marriage then and there.
Given that Archduchess Sophia and Princess Ludovika had come all this way expecting a
marriage, they cut their losses.
Helene was shoved aside, and Sisi was betrothed to the ruler of Austria.
It should have been a happy time.
For Franz Joseph, it really was.
For Sisi, though, it was the beginning of a life of misery.
From the moment the couple got engaged, Sisi’s life went into a tailspin.
Suddenly, all those lessons she’d skipped to play with dad were a big deal.
She had to cram a lifetime’s learning into a few short months so she didn’t look a
total dumdum at court.
Just as suddenly, she was being forced to sit for endless portraits Franz Joseph could
have paraded around his empire, showing off his new wife to his subjects.
For the naturally shy Sisi, this was as shocking as being plunged into ice water.
And it kept getting worse.
The night before Sisi was due to leave for Austria, a huge ball was thrown in her honor.
The teenage girl was forced to parade before a crowd of onlookers in an expensive gown
inscribed with the Arabic for “Oh my Lord, what a beautiful dream.”
But her radiant exterior concealed something much darker.
By now, Sisi had almost entirely stopped eating.
It’s thought this period is when she developed the anorexia that would haunt her for the
rest of her life.
But this was the 19th Century, and female suffering was practically a spectator sport.
Despite her misery, Sisi was put in a carriage and whisked off to Vienna.
On April 24, 1854, she and Franz Joseph were officially married.
Almost immediately, things went so far south as to be veritably Antarctic.
Life in the Viennese court, circa 1854, was one governed by ceremony, deference, and strict
Ignoring any one of these things could result in you being ostracized.
And Sisi, who’d grown up in a relaxed household, willfully ignored all three.
This set Sisi on a collision course with her new mother in law.
From the moment her son chucked pious Helene for this young tramp, Archduchess Sophia had
been determined to make Sisi’s life hell.
Now the girl was finally in Vienna, Sophia went full Disney villain.
When Sisi and Franz Joseph’s first child was born, on March 5, 1855, Archduchess Sophia
snatched the baby away from Sisi and forbade her to ever see it.
She even named the child Sophia, after herself!
Naturally, this made Sisi extra miserable.
She begged her husband to put his foot down and get their baby back.
But Franz Joseph was nothing if not a mommy’s boy.
While he wanted Sisi to be happy, he also refused to upset his mother.
And so, when Sisi gave birth to their second child barely a year later, on July 12, 1856,
there was nothing to stop Archduchess Sophia from snatching baby Gisela away too.
That’s Archduchess Sophia of Austria, folks: a woman who literally stole babies.
If you thought this was despicable behavior, though, wait until you hear the next bit.
Not long after Gisela was born, Sisi entered her private chambers to find a crude pamphlet
lying on her desk.
Left anonymously, the pamphlet declared that any empress who failed to give birth to a
boy was an abject failure.
To this day, we don’t know who left that pamphlet.
But we can hazard a pretty good guess.
After the pamphlet had reduced Sisi – who, we should remember, is still only 18 – to
a wailing wreck, Archduchess Sophia wrote to a friend:
“You cannot imagine how charming Sisi is when she cries.”
Sadly, fate and Archduchess Sophia weren’t done making Sisi cry yet.
Europe’s Broken Heart If you’ve never looked at Vienna on a map,
know that it lies close to two borders.
Just outside the city is the Slovak border and its capital, Bratislava, known when our
story is set as Pressburg.
To the south is the edge of a land far more mysterious and alluring.
A land with a long, proud history that had only recently submitted to Austrian domination.
The land known as Hungary.
For Viennese society in 1857, Hungary was a source of both fascination and revulsion.
Exotic, revolutionary, beautiful, dangerous.
All this may be why, in spring that year, Sisi begged her husband to take her there
Perhaps sensing how close his wife was to cracking, Franz Joseph agreed.
He even let her bring the children.
In May, the imperial family boarded a carriage and left Vienna behind for the east of the
From the moment they crossed into Hungary, Sisi was in love.
It’s hard to say what exactly captured her heart.
It could be the simple fact that she was away from Vienna and her baby-stealing mother in
It could be the language, the landscape, or the informality of the Hungarian court.
Whatever the cause, by the time they reached Budapest, Sisi had given her heart to this
Sadly, no sooner had Hungary captured her heart than it cruelly broke it.
In Budapest, the family came down with a nasty case of food poisoning.
Sisi, Franz Joseph, and baby Gisela all recovered.
Baby Sophia, however, didn’t.
On May 29, 1857, the child died in Sisi’s arms.
After two years when she could barely even see her daughter, Sisi had finally got her
back, only to watch as death snatched her away.
Back in Vienna, Archduchess Sophia declared the baby’s death proved Sisi was unfit to
be a mother.
For her part, Sisi plunged into a black depression that was painful even by her standards.
She stopped eating, drinking only broth.
She began exercising fanatically, punishing her body for the sins she imagined she had
Nonetheless, the duties of life at court continued.
Barely was baby Sophia cold than Sisi was pregnant again.
She gave birth on August 21, 1858, to the general excitement of all.
Excitement, because the new baby, Crown Prince Rudolf, was a boy.
Franz Joseph finally had an heir!
While Sisi may have still been suffering depression, the arrival of Rudolf did have one welcome
In the weird politics of 19th Century Europe, Sisi’s inability to have a son had rendered
her powerless at court.
Now she’d produced Franz Joseph an heir, she suddenly wasn’t quite so weak.
Although Archduchess Sophia still snatched Rudolf away, Sisi finally had some political
muscles to flex.
She began to ditch boring court life, spending her time writing poetry and working out instead.
She took up unladylike habits like smoking, began to claw back her bohemian past.
She also began learning Hungarian.
For the elites in Vienna, this was tantamount to Sisi aligning herself with revolutionaries.
As Sisi began to excel at the language, and surround herself with more and more Hungarians
on her personal staff, Austrian polite society came to regard her as almost a traitor.
But if the Viennese were scandalized now, wait until Sisi met Count Andrássy.
The End of the Affair Count Gyula Andrássy was the sort of guy
Harlequin romances are written about.
A dashing Hungarian nobleman, Andrássy had been involved in the revolution of 1848 and
seen action in the war.
When Franz Joseph’s new regime had crushed the Hungarians in 1849, Andrassy had barely
escaped with his life.
A few years later, he’d been sentenced to death in absentia.
By the end of the 1850s, though, Andrassy had returned to Hungary, and was now living
an awkward life where basically everyone agreed not to mention his involvement in the revolution.
It was at this time that he met Sisi.
Whole books have been written about the relationship between Sisi and Andrassy, exploring all possibilities.
At one end of the spectrum, you have histories that assert the two were simply friends, who
bonded over their joint love of Hungarian language and culture.
At the other end, you have books which suggest that, from the moment the two first set eyes
on one another, they were rolling in the bedsheets every time Franz Joseph’s back was turned.
Certainly, a lot of people in Vienna believed Sisi was fooling around with the handsome
It helped that there were joint rumors that Franz Joseph had also taken mistresses.
Whatever the truth, it’s undeniable that Sisi and Franz Joseph’s relationship started
to breakdown around the time Andrassy appeared.
In 1862, Sisi abandoned Vienna and began spending time abroad.
Switzerland, Ireland, England, Greece… all became Sisi’s ports in the storm of her
As, of course, did Hungary.
This caused even more problems than you’re probably expecting.
In the mid-19th Century, upper class marriages weren’t made for love.
It wasn’t super important if you spent your time gallivanting with Hungarian men.
What was important was producing heirs.
Sisi had given her husband baby Rudolf, but that wasn’t enough.
Franz Joseph had his heir.
But Archduchess Sophia was determined he also have a spare.
Sisi wanted no part of this baby makin’ plan.
Way into the 1860s, Sisi refused her husband access to her bed.
At court, this was an absolute scandal, made worse by the way Sisi was cozying up to the
Vienna was practically spitting her name.
Luckily, world events were about to give everyone in Austria far more serious things to worry
In 1862, a wily politician became Prussia’s new Minister-President.
Known as Otto von Bismarck, he had two grand plans.
One was to unite most German speaking peoples into a single nation.
The other was to make sure Catholic Austria absolutely wasn’t part of this new “Germany”.
If you want more detail on all this, we do have a Bismarck video for you to check out.
But for now, all you need to know is that in summer, 1866, Bismarck put the second part
of his plan into action.
The Seven Weeks’ War was as one-sided as it sounds.
Prussia steamrollered Austria.
The army was smashed, and Prussian troops came close to occupying Vienna.
The only reason they didn’t was because Bismarck pulled back at the last minute, preferring
a humiliated but intact Austria to a disintegrating empire on his doorstep.
Not that the Austrian Empire didn’t try its hardest to disintegrate anyway.
With Vienna humiliated, the old drive for Hungarian independence came roaring back.
As 1867 rolled into view, it seemed entirely possible Franz Joseph was going to have to
fight yet another version of the 1848 revolutionary war.
But this time, he had something he hadn’t in 1848.
He had Sisi.
The Queen of Hungary Back in August, 1865, Sisi and Franz Joseph
had taken the first tentative steps towards reconciliation.
It started with a letter Sisi wrote her husband, saying she needed more control of her life,
more right to see her own children.
By the time of the Seven Weeks’ War, Sisi had been back in Vienna, where she visited
the wounded in military hospitals, providing comfort to the dying.
Come 1867, she was close enough to both Vienna and Budapest to prevent catastrophe.
The creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from what had once been just Austria was more
than the work of one woman.
But, if Sisi hadn’t been there, it could have all come crashing down.
As Hungary rumbled towards independence, there were elements of the Viennese court that wanted
another war, to crush Budapest once and for all.
Equally, there were those in Hungary who were willing to fight for full independence.
Just about the only person who could talk to both sides was Sisi.
She was able to talk Franz Joseph out of repeating the mistakes of 1848, and instead settle for
a diplomatic solution.
And she was instrumental in getting the Hungarian side to the table.
It was skilled backroom diplomacy of the highest order.
And it worked.
On February 8, 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born without bloodshed.
Under the new system, the east of the empire would be a near-independent state under Hungarian
In return, the Hungarians would make Franz Joseph their king, and accept joint administration
of defense and foreign affairs.
For Sisi, this meant being crowned Queen of Hungary in a summer ceremony in Budapest.
Count Andrassy, for his part, became Hungary’s new Prime Minister.
It was a remarkable transformation from the carnage of 1848.
For Sisi, her new position meant a chance to live in her beloved Hungary nearly full
The Queen of Hungary threw herself into charity work, visiting hospitals across the Dual Monarchy,
holding hands with the dying and talking to them not like a royal, but a fellow human
Sisi’s common touch boosted her popularity immeasurably, as did her involvement promoting
new, humane treatments for the mentally ill.
She was so happy she even agreed to resume her wifely duties.
On April 22, 1868, Sisi gave birth while in Budapest to her fourth child, Valerie.
Valerie was the first of the imperial couple’s children born in Hungary.
She was also the first Archduchess Sophia didn’t get her talons into.
Sisi was allowed to raise the girl herself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she grew to absolutely dote on her new daughter.
Ideally, this would be where we ended things: with Sisi finally happy, as a mother, as an
honorary Hungarian, even as a wife.
But the story of Sisi is not a happy one.
There are still many more tragedies to come.
The Strangest Life In May, 1872, Archduchess Sophia suffered
a stroke while in her family’s grand palace at Vienna.
As she lay dying, the elite of Austria came to pay their respects.
Counts, ministers, royals, all passed through her bedchamber.
Among their number was Sisi.
For all Sophia has seemed like a cartoon villainess in our story, it’s worth remembering she
lived in a very different time.
Women in her position were meant to be powerless babymakers.
Yet Sophia was able to subvert that, to take a revolution by the horns and use it to put
her teenage son on the throne.
Not only that, she was then strong enough to rule the court at Vienna, bending it to
She may have been haughty, spiteful, and a bit of a witch, but she was also admirable
in her own way.
Maybe that’s why it’s said she and Sisi managed to finally reconcile in those last
After Sophia passed away, Sisi was freed of her nemesis.
From now on, the thirty four year old empress could be who she wanted to be.
Over the next few years, Sisi’s eccentricities, both good and bad, grew exponentially.
She mastered ancient Greek.
Became an exercise fanatic who could heft dumbbells like a circus strongman.
Devised brand new hair treatments that impressed the empire.
Less happily, her anorexia continued to dominate her life.
As the 1870s rolled on, Sisi began only eating milk-based foods such as cheese, determined
to keep her waist tiny.
Yet this could have all stayed in the background, were it not for what happened to Rudolf.
By 1881, Sisi’s only son was no longer the baby of the family, but a melancholy lad of
That year, he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium.
In an ironic turn of events, Sisi immediately took against her new daughter-in-law, branding
her – with a venom Archduchess Sophia would’ve been proud of – a “clumsy oaf”.
Just as Sisi and Franz Joseph’s had done, Rudolf and Stephanie’s marriage soon hit
The difference was, Sisi had managed to keep her misery bottled up.
Rudolf wouldn’t be so strong.
In late 1888, the unhappy Rudolf met 17-year old Baroness Mary and began an affair.
On January 30, 1889, he took his new flame to his hunting lodge, Meyerling.
There, Rudolf convinced the poor girl that the world was out to get them, and that they
needed to die for love.
Mary, who was herself a melancholy romantic, agreed.
Taking a pistol, Rudolf shot Mary dead.
He then turned the gun on himself.
When the news hit Vienna, Sisi suffered a catastrophic breakdown.
She began to talk about suicide, telling a frightened Franz Joseph she wanted to die.
Her youngest daughter Valerie would find her laughing hysterically for no reason.
Finally, in 1890, Sisi did the only thing she could.
She fled Vienna.
She even fled Hungary.
Instead, the broken empress began roaming the world, traveling by boat to far flung
As she traveled, Sisi refused to see anyone but crew, living a spartan life in the bowels
of the ship.
When terrific storms broke, she would order the captain to tie her to a chair on deck
so she could be battered by the wind and waves, watching the sea roil and crash around her,
as her soul roiled inside her breast.
When someone worked up the courage to ask what she was doing, Sisi simply replied that
she wanted to “travel the whole world over…until I drown and am forgotten.”
Her wish would soon be granted.
The Deed is Done On May 11, 1878, a German man known as Max
Hodel fired a pistol at Kaiser Wilhelm I as he passed him in the street.
Although the Kaiser was unhurt, Hodel was more than just a crackpot.
He was an anarchist, deeply committed to something known as the Propaganda of the Deed, the idea
that violent terrorist actions would inspire other anarchists to carry out more atrocities.
Hodel’s faith would turn out to be well-placed.
His potshot at the Kaiser was the start of a wave of anarchist attacks.
Come September, 1898, Sisi must have been aware of this new threat.
Just four years before, on June 24, 1894, an anarchist had stabbed the president of
France to death at a banquet.
Two years after that, another anarchist had gunned down the Spanish Prime Minister.
But even with these high profile killings, Sisi likely believed she couldn’t be a target.
She was at Lake Geneva with her friend, Countess Irma Sztáray, to seek treatment for her ill
health, not to worry about anarchist killers.
This turned out to be very fortunate for the anarchist killer already waiting in Geneva.
Luigi Lucheni had come to the lake after reading Prince Henri of Orléans would be visiting.
His plan was to stab the young royal to death.
But then Prince Henri canceled his trip, and the assassin was left kicking his heels in
Geneva with nothing to do.
It was in this glum frame of mind that Lucheni found out about Sisi.
Sisi’s visit to Lake Geneva was supposed to be clandestine, but someone had informed
Now the papers were full of pictures of the empress.
Lucheni had found his new target.
Sisi, for her part, was completely unaware of the assassin.
As she and Countess Sztáray strolled around the lake, they failed to notice they were
being watched until it was too late.
On September 10, 1898, the two women were walking towards a steamship when a passing
man punched Sisi in the chest.
The empress was knocked off her feet, but quickly recovered, thanking those who had
She and Countess Sztáray then continued to the steamship as if nothing had happened.
As the boat pulled away from shore, Sisi began to feel faint.
Countess Sztáray opened her corset for her, only to watch in horror as blood began to
seep out an invisible wound.
The passing man had been Lucheni, and the “punch” had been a direct blow to Sisi’s
heart with a sharpened file.
As Countess Sztáray called for help, Sisi fell unconscious.
The steamship turned around, but it was too late.
By the time the ship reached shore, Sisi was dead.
When news reached the now-captured Lucheni, he celebrated.
Put on trial, he demanded to be executed.
Instead, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
12 years later, on October 19, 1910, he hanged himself in his cell.
Lucheni’s foul deed didn’t go unheeded.
Not two years later, an anarchist shot King Umberto of Italy to death.
A year after that, President McKinley of America was likewise killed by an anarchist’s bullet.
But what of Sisi?
What did she think as she lay on that steamship, her life slipping away?
For an answer, we could turn to her writings.
In her last years, Sisi wrote: “I loved, I lived/I wandered through the
world, but never reached what I strove for.”
It’s a fittingly tragic end to a tragic life.
A woman who had everything and nothing, who never found what her heart really wanted.
But there’s another ending.
One that’s not quite so downbeat.
Not long after Sisi’s assassination, her daughter Valerie wrote:
“Now it has happened just as she always wished: quickly, painlessly without medical
consultations, without long, anxious days of worry for her loved ones.”
To which Sisi’s friend, the poet Carmen Sylva added:
“(her death was) beautiful, calm and great within the sight of beloved, great Nature,
painless and peaceful; only to the world did it seem horrific.”
Sisi’s life may have been one of tragedy, but it was one of beauty, too.
A life more intensely passionate than perhaps any of us will ever live.
At the end of all that, it’s comforting to think that maybe – just maybe – the
reluctant empress found peace at last.