Archduchess Sophie: the ‘only man’ at court?

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Certain female members of the house of Habsburg also involved themselves in politics. One such woman was Archduchess Sophie, the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The painting is a perfect allegory: Archduchess Sophie is seen leading her son Franz Joseph the last few steps to a throne upon which the imperial insignia already await him – what the proud mother had prepared him for since his earliest childhood has now become reality.

Daughter of the King of Bavaria, Princess Sophie was married for political reasons to Archduke Franz Karl, second son of Emperor Franz, in 1824. She soon recognized the personal weaknesses of the men who now surrounded her, and although Franz enjoyed the image of the ‘good Emperor’, he was no longer young. Franz’s son and heir Ferdinand gave the impression of little ability. Furthermore, although Sophie’s husband Franz Karl was second in line to the throne, he had no political punch and – more importantly – no interest in the business of politics. In the context of this power vacuum, which Prince Metternich had long exploited to his own advantage, Sophie’s strong personality made her a political actor whom one underestimated at one’s peril – in 1848, the year of the revolution, she acquired the reputation of being ‘the only man’ at the Vienna court. It was thus no coincidence that two of her sons became emperors, Franz Joseph of Austria and Ferdinand Maximilian of Mexico: even from their earliest days, the politically ambitious Sophie had brought them up with a view to their pursuing the highest offices. Within the family, Sophie clashed most particularly with Franz Joseph’s wife Elisabeth, through her attempts to interfere in the upbringing of her grandchildren Gisela and Rudolf. It is to these conflicts that she owes her clichéd reputation as the ‘wicked mother-in-law’ of ‘good Sisi’.

When the pressure of the revolution of 1848 compelled Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate, Sophie urged her husband Franz Karl to renounce his claim to the throne and pushed through the accession of her eighteen-year-old son Franz Joseph. Especially in the first years of his reign, Sophie was able to play such a decisive political role that she even earned the sobriquet of the ‘secret Empress’.

Stephan Gruber