In 1853, the 15-year-old Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, daughter of the Duke in Bavaria, accompanied her mother and elder sister Helene from their home near Munich to the Austrian town of Bad Ischl. The journey had been long, they were delayed en route and some of their luggage did not arrive, meaning they had to stay in the black attire they were wearing in mourning for the loss of one of their family.


This was not going to make the ideal first impression, for they had come to meet the young Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, to receive his formal proposal to Helene.

Sure enough, the pair did not hit it off; Franz Joseph found Helene, who was his first cousin, too quiet. The emperor was, however, utterly besotted by the beautiful Elisabeth, and shortly announced his intention to marry her, or no one at all. Five days later, they were betrothed.

Who was Empress Elisabeth, aka Sisi?

Titles: Empress consort of Austria (1854–98) and queen of Hungary (1867–98)

Also known as: Sisi

Born: 24 December 1837, Possenhofen Castle, Bavaria

Died: 10 September, 1898, Geneva, Switzerland

Parents: Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria

Spouse: Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary

Children: Sophie (1855-57), Gisela (1856-1932), Rudolf (1858-1889), Marie Valerie (1868-1924)

Known for: Famed for her beauty, she was a celebrity of her day who set fashion trends and loved horse riding and travelling. She played an instrumental role in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, before her assassination in 1898.

Elisabeth was not as smitten with the 23-year-old Franz Joseph, whom she thought dull, humourless, and conservative. When they married eight months later, in April 1854, the teen bride was seen sobbing in her carriage during the procession through Vienna. Being the empress consort came as no consolation since it meant she had to move to the intransigently formal imperial court, which would be a far cry from the freedom of her childhood.

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph
Upon her marriage to Franz Joseph, Elisabeth had to move to the formal imperial court. (Image by Getty Images)

Born 24 December 1837, Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie – perhaps best known by her nickname Sisi (or Sissi) – had been raised to be adventurous, curious, and creative. Unusually for a royal couple, her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika, took a hands-on approach, instilling Sisi and her seven siblings with more progressive sensibilities, a protectiveness of their privacy and a love of exploring the countryside. The family spent their days in the forests or up the mountains of Bavaria.

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Elisabeth’s rivalry with Archduchess Sophie of Austria

At the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, by contrast, Elisabeth soon realised her introverted nature and dislike of rigid formality was much maligned, with her strongest critic proving to be her mother-in-law (and aunt), the archduchess Sophie. Overbearing and highly influential, she had disapproved of Franz Joseph’s choice of wife and made no attempt to hide her disdain for Elisabeth’s unsuitability for the top of the Habsburg hierarchy.

Tensions only intensified when Elisabeth gave birth in 1855. Sophie not only took total control of the baby girl’s care, to the point of preventing Elisabeth from breastfeeding, but even named the child – and after herself, no less. A second daughter born the following year was similarly taken away from Elisabeth. She was shunned by the nobles of the court whom she hated so much, no doubt helped by Sophie’s interference, for not producing a male heir.

These years took a heavy toll on the still-teenage Elisabeth, who started suffering from an eating disorder and bouts of depression, or ‘melancholy’. In 1857, her daughter Sophie fell ill and died during a family trip, in one of the rare periods when Elisabeth could care for her children. In her grief and guilt, she distanced herself from her other child Gisela. Yet she did not have long to mourn as she soon became pregnant again, for the third time in three years. This time, she bore a son.

Providing the empire with a crown prince, named Rudolf, at last gave her security and influence, and made her even more popular among the people. Unlike the court, they had adored her from the start: as a tall, slender and stylish woman, she was considered one of the great beauties of the day. Even her mother-in-law had to admit: “It is the empress who attracts them all. For she is their joy, their idol.”

Elisabeth’s fixation on fitness

Of particular pride to Elisabeth was her hair, chestnut-coloured curls so long that they fell to her ankles. It required a three-hour ritual every day to look after, and on days that she washed it she made sure to have no other commitments in her diary. These periods offered a much-desired escape from public appearances, and the opportunity to improve her mind as she spent the time learning languages, including English, French and Greek.

" classes=""] " classes=""] " classes=""] " classes=""] Elisabeth was particularly proud of her hair. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

In fact, Elisabeth looked for any means to escape, both physically and mentally, the imperial court and her loveless marriage. Since she struggled to sleep at night, she voraciously read literature, history and philosophy, and wrote her own poetry.

But her primary focus (obsession even) was her physical fitness. Throughout her life, she kept up an extreme exercise and diet regimes to maintain her svelte figure. Every residence had a room that she transformed into a gymnasium, equipped with weights and apparatus like balance beams, pommel horses and rings.

Empress Elisabeth 'Sisi', posing for a photograph with a dog at her feet
Elisabeth was focused on physical fitness. (Image by Getty Images)

She also excelled in activities like horse riding – she was considered one of the finest female equestrians in Europe – fencing and hiking, where she would go out for hours at a time in any weather. She regularly lived on diets of thin broths, milk, eggs and oranges, but if her weight ever neared 50kg she would go through period of fasting. Her corsets could never be tight enough, with her attendants rubbing their fingers raw in the attempt.

Yet despite her fixation on her fixation on appearing to be fit, or maybe as a result of it, Elisabeth suffered from poor health while confined to the palaces. Her solution – which brought about remarkable and instant recoveries, suggesting that her ailments may have been psychosomatic – was to travel as often as she could and to as many places as possible, from England and Ireland to around the Mediterranean. “I want always to be on the move,” she reportedly said. “Every ship I see sailing away fills me with the greatest desire to be on it.”

By far, her favourite place was Hungary. Under imperial military control since an uprising in 1848, Elisabeth felt a deep kinship with its people and campaigned for the return of their autonomy. She visited frequently, learned the language, and risked the court’s ire further by keeping a household staff made up of Hungarians. Most significantly, her efforts as a passionate mediator helped secure the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, ending Austria’s absolute rule and establishing a dual monarchy. That year, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary.

Franz Joseph and Elisabeth in Netflix's The Empress
In 1867, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary. The relationship is dramatised in Netflix drama 'The Empress'. (Image by Netflix)

While this was a resounding success for Elisabeth – and seemed to bring her closer to her husband, at least for a while, as their fourth child Marie Valerie was born in Hungary the following year – her mental state remained fragile.

Increasingly, she became desperate to maintain her youthful image. Over the years, she concocted her own beauty treatments, bathed in olive oil, slept on hard metal bedframes wrapped in wet towels, and washed her long hair with eggs and cognac to try and stay young. Such was her fear of ageing that she refused to sit for a portrait or have her photograph taken from her 30s onwards.

The death of Prince Rudolf

In 1889, Elisabeth would be undone by the death of her son Rudolf in what became known as the ‘Mayerling incident’. The crown prince was found dead, aged 30, at the imperial hunting lodge in Mayerling alongside his teenage mistress in what appeared to be a suicide pact. Elisabeth fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered, wearing black for the rest of her life and retreating even further from public life.

She became more restless and reckless with her travelling, staying on the move constantly and visiting places clandestinely and without protection. Reportedly, she declared that her wish would be to “travel the world over … until I drown and am forgotten”.

The assassination of Empress Elisabeth

On 10 September 1898, her yearning for travel had taken her to Geneva, Switzerland. As she walked to catch a ferry, an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni approached and stabbed her with a sharpened needle file, puncturing her heart. He had been in the city to kill the duc d’Orleans, but when the French royal’s travel plans changed, Lucheni – not caring who he targeted – turned his attention to Elisabeth. She died shortly afterwards, aged 60. On hearing the news, Franz Joseph, who had remained deeply in love with her, cried out: “I am spared nothing!”

In the numerous depictions of Elisabeth’s life in plays, ballets, television shows, books and films (the most famous being a trilogy from the 1950s, starring Romy Schneider), the story is romanticised; and she certainly remains a cultural icon with her face adorning a host of tourist trinkets. But hers was a deeply tragic life, forever changed by Franz Joseph’s infatuation with a 15-year-old girl instead of her sister.

As Elisabeth herself wrote in one of her poems:
“Oh, had I but never left the path
That would have led me to freedom,
Oh, that on the broad avenues
Of vanity I had never strayed,
I have awakened in a dungeon
With chains on my hands.”

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Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.