Eine Heirat wird geplant

A Marriage is Arranged

The young Archduke Franz Josef was destined to be Emperor of Austria from the moment he was born, and he was brought up and educated accordingly. Meantime, however, a princess was growing up in the neighbouring kingdom of Bavaria. One of Archduchess Sophie's sisters, Ludovika, had married Duke Maximilian in Bavaria (his exact title), another member of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty. Their eldest children, Ludwig and Helene, were born in Munich. Then, on Christmas Eve 1837, Ludovika again gave birth to a girl, who was baptised Elisabeth Amalia Eugenie.

Duke Max let his eight children grow up naturally. They spent the winters in Munich and the summers in Possenhofen Castle beside Lake Starnberg, where they mixed and played with the peasant children with no class inhibitions. They spoke in Bavarian dialect, they were good swimmers and hardened mountaineers, and they could ride like circus acrobats almost as soon as they could walk. To the end of her life Elisabeth looked back on her youth - on the freedom and closeness to nature she had enjoyed in her childhood - as a paradise lost. This affected her whole attitude to her future status as Empress of Austria. She never became reconciled to the protocol-ridden formality of life at the imperial court in Vienna. Only in the family atmosphere of the Kaiservilla in Ischl did she feel at home.

ke_15j.tifFranz Josef succeeded to the imperial throne of Austria on 2 December 1848, at the age of 18, after his childless uncle Ferdinand had abdicated in the wake of the revolutions in Austria and Hungary during that year. Ferdinand’s brother, Archduke Franz Karl, who was next in line, waived his own claim to the crown in favour of his son – at his wife Sophie’s insistence. And then, after Franz Josef had been five years on the throne, the future of the dynasty made it imperative that he should acquire a wife and consort.

The matter of the succession was taken in hand by his dynamic mother, who preferred to see one of her own nieces on the Austrian throne rather than a stranger. After two unsuccessful attempts to arrange a dynastic marriage for her son with the royal families of Prussia and Saxony, Sophie turned to her native land of Bavaria. Her sister, Duchess Ludovika, by arrangement with Sophie, brought her two eldest daughters, the 18-year-old Helene and the 15-year-old Elisabeth, to Ischl for the celebration of Franz Josef’s 23rd birthday on 18 August 1853. The intention was that the world’s most eligible bachelor would marry the elder cousin, Helene.

The result of the meeting was not quite what the mothers had intended, however, because Franz Josef was immediately enthralled by the younger sister when he met them on 16 August. It was a case of love at first sight, at least on Franz Josef’s part, as his mother’s diary and letters describe. At Archduchess Sophie’s ball the following evening he danced the cotillion with Elisabeth, and the next day, 18 August, his 23rd birthday, Sisi sat beside him at the family lunch. After the celebrations he asked his mother to approach her sister Ludovika to ascertain Elisabeth’s reaction to a proposal of marriage. The 15-year-old reacted with the confused euphoria of the emotionally immature teenager that she was, but the die was cast and the ambitious mother delivered her daughter’s assent in writing. Despite general astonishment at the turn of events, Sophie later recorded that the entire family was delighted with his choice of a bride.

ke_mit_mantelThe engagement became public knowledge later during the morning of 19 August, when the family went on foot to attend the 11 a.m. Mass in the court parish church of St. Nicholas. On reaching the church door, Archduchess Sophie stepped aside and motioned to Elisabeth to enter the church ahead of her. With this unmistakable gesture of precedence it was clear to all the bystanders that this young girl was to be the new Empress of Austria and the first lady of the land. At the end of the service the congregation sang the imperial anthem Gott erhalte... to Josef Haydn’s famous music, then Franz Josef took Sisi by the hand, led her to the priest, and said: "Give us your blessing, father; this is my bride.”

The wedding of the century took place the following year in Vienna. Elisabeth's arrival in Vienna on board the new Austrian express steamship Franz Josef I was an occasion of imperial splendour. Franz Josef met her personally at the Danube quay, and conducted her and her mother to the palace of Schönbrunn in the gold and glass imperial state coach through decorated streets lined by packed crowds. Cardinal Rauscher, Archbishop of Vienna, performed the marriage ceremony at 7 o'clock in the evening of 24 April 1854, in St. Augustine's Church, adjacent to the Hofburg palace. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, the most famous beauty of the 19th century, was never out of the public eye thereafter. A legend during her own lifetime, she remains to this day a source of endless fascination around the entire world.