Franz Joseph I and Elizabeth of Austria
The Prater, Vienna, Austria
It was a love match. For him, anyway. And how could she refuse? He was the young Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, after all. Franz Joseph I married Elizabeth of the House of Wittelsbach in 1854 in a grand ceremony in Vienna. But there was no fairytale happy ending for this royal couple. From the start, Elisabeth, who’d been given the nickname Sisi by her husband, felt stifled by the strict etiquette of the Habsburg court, by its prim and rigid traditions and practices. Now in a prison cell I wake, she wrote in a poem after her marriage, The hands are bound that once were free. Franz Joseph himself longed for a normal life, one where he could spend time with his wife and the four children she bore him in some rural idyll, or by the sea. But as it was, he was the head of a vast empire where politics and values were changing at a rapid pace, and whose states were coursing headlong towards the First World War at an increasingly frightening rate. Over the years, Sisi escaped into a fantasy world, imagined herself as Titania, Shakespeare’s queen of fairies, wrote poetry, learned ancient languages, rode horses and had at least one affair. And then tragedy struck. In 1889, the couple’s only son Archduke Rudolph and his mistress Maria Vetsera shot themselves in an apparent suicide-pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge. It seemed Franz Joseph had disapproved of his son’s relationship with Maria and had told him to put an end to it. If there’d ever been a chance Elizabeth might have grown to love her husband now that she was older and wiser and in her 50s, it had been blown to pieces. She blamed her husband. She left Vienna. She spent years traveling. Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Greece, Turkey and Egypt…and she never settled anywhere. In 1898, tragedy struck again. This time, its victim was Sisi herself. She was in Geneva when she was assassinated on the street. A stiletto blade straight to her heart. Her killer was Luigi Lucheni, a young anarchist who said before being executed for the murder, ‘I just wanted to kill a royal. It didn’t matter which one’. When he heard of her death, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, cried. ‘You’ll never know how much I loved her,’ he said. But with her final breaths, Sisi had asked the question she’d perhaps been asking all her life, ‘What happened to me?’ A question not even her husband could answer.