We recently got in this beautiful fun note from Austria, and right away I exclaimed “It’s Sissi!” to which my father looked blankly back at me. I responded, “don’t worry I’ll write a blog on her.” And so I did:
I first heard of Sissi when I was traveling in Bavaria. As I continued through to Austria and eventually Hungary I heard several stories of this iconic empress. Here are those stories about the Empress Sissi.
For those unaware of who this amazing woman was I’ll try to give you a Readers Digest version. She was born in 1837 Germany as Elisabeth Duchess of Bavaria but known mostly by her nickname Sissi. She had a very relaxed upbringing which played into her informal nature. Her Aunt Sophie in Austria was the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph (Think Habsburg Family – Franz Joseph credited with started WWI after his nephew Franz Ferdinand’s assassination) and had selected Sissi’s older sister to be betrothed to her son. Fifteen year old Sissi went with her family to Austria to watch her sister’s proposal to one of the most powerful men of that time, twenty-three year old Franz Joseph.
When the family arrived in Austria, Franz Joseph immediately was taken with Sissi and instantly disregarded her sister. Elisabeth and Franz quickly fell in love with each other, and in defiance to his mother he announced that he would marry Sissi or not marry at all. Eight months later they were wed, despite the disapproving mother-in-law Sophie.
After being brought up care free and unstructured Elizabeth had a difficult time adjusting to the strict and formal Habsburg Court. Just 10 months into the marriage Sissi gave birth to a daughter. Overbearing Sophie immediately took the baby away from her, named the child Sophie after herself (without consulting her daughter-in-law) and barely let Sissi have any contact with her baby. A year later she had another daughter, Gisela who again was taken away by her mother-in-law.
Sissi was unhappy at the Austrian Court but loved her husband, who considered her counsel and listened to her ideas. Sophie made her life difficult. Berating her about not having a son, reminding her constantly that her only purpose was to provide a male heir. If Sissi wasn’t sad enough two years after giving birth to her first daughter, baby Sophie died. This sent Elizabeth into fits of depression, however by the end of that year (1857) Sissi was pregnant again with Rudolph the male heir everyone had wanted.
Sissi is an interesting woman to look into. As I traveled through Bavaria I first heard of her as I learned about her favorite cousin (Ludwig II) and saw his castles (see above!). In Austria from each city I traveled through I learned more and more until getting to visit Schönbrunn Palace (summer residence of Franz Joseph and Sissi). By the time I got to Hungary I knew how loved she was by the Hungarian people, but actually being in the country I saw for myself how she is honored everywhere. I went to Elisabeth Park in Budapest where the guide asked “who knows the lovely Elisabeth the park is dedicated to?” I saw the other tourists whisper about the Queen of England as I proudly shouted out “Empress Sissi!” If you’ve read other blogs you know my love of showing off my information, and so I was happy when the guide told me he was impressed with my knowledge.
When in Hungary (full blog about that here) I met up with one of our customers who took me to a marzipan museum. In the museum was this cake of Sissi. When I recognized who she was I said to Gabi “that’s Sissi! Hungarians really love her!” to that exclamation a young Hungarian girl next to me said in beautiful English, “we sure do!” smiled and continued on.
You may be thinking why do the Hungarians make cakes out of Sissi when she was an Austrian Empress? Well, I’m glad you asked. In 1857 Sissi accompanied her husband to Hungary for the first time and like me, she fell in love with the country. She immediately started to learn Hungarian and became an advocate for the people. For years Sissi spoke of a Hungarian alliance with Austria to Franz Joseph, who she was rapidly falling out of love with.
During those years, even after her son was born, Sissi went into waves of depression at court and felt a loss of control with Sophie controlling her children and the court controlling her actions. As a result she suffered from a severe eating disorder. She was extremely thin and became very vain, I suppose two things she could control. You can always pick out a portrait of her because of her long hair, she’d become obsessed with her beauty and tiny figure. She became distant from her husband retreating from responsibility and no longer wanting any more children. Due to her eating disorder and the stress of court she was frequently sick. During this time she never forgot about the Hungarian people she loved. Ten years after her initial visit she made a political (and some could say manipulative) move. Sissi told Franz that she wanted to have another child. This bond between the two led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. This meant a dual monarchy for Austria and Hungary with Franz Joseph and Elisabeth crowned king and queen of Hungary. Shortly after her coronation Elisabeth was once again pregnant.
Almost immediately Sissi moved to Hungary. Creating gossip and rumors in the Austrian Court and when she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, she was in Budapest away from her mother-in-law and husband. She named the baby Maria-Valerie (also known as the Hungarian baby) and swore she would raise this child herself, almost overbearingly so.
There is so much more to who Empress Elisabeth was, her sadness, her illnesses, her political strategy and cleverness are all worth exploring deeper. Some say she was the most miserable empress ever, while others see her as a strong woman. She faced several struggles after losing her first daughter she eventually lost the crowned prince Rudolph to a suicide. Within those four years her father, mother, sister and son all died. She was said to have dressed in black the remainder of her life. Despite her pain and her heath disorders she is worthy of being remembered and I’m glad to see her on this Austrian fun note, which may perhaps spark interest in who she was.
Sissi died in 1898 while visiting Geneva at 60 years old. She was stabbed by an Italian assassin (who actually was in Geneva to murder the Duke of Orleans yet upon failing decided to change course and attack the Empress). Elisabeth was the longest serving Empress of Austria, at 44 years. Her coffin read, “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”. The Hungarians were outraged and the words, “and Queen of Hungary” were hastily added.
Through my time in these three countries I felt closer to the story of who Empress Elisabeth was. And I hope you appreciate her role in history. As always these blogs I write are based on what I’ve learned and heard through my travels as well as small research. However, I hope you enjoyed the story behind the woman on the new Austrian fun note.