1837–1898

Elisabeth and Franz Joseph: wedding and marriage

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When the search started at the Viennese court for a suitable bride for the young Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduchess Sophie looked on the daughters of her sister Maria Ludovika as a welcome pool of possible candidates.

Elisabeth on marriage:

‘Marriage is an absurd institution. One is sold as a fifteen-year-old child and makes a vow one does not understand and then rues for thirty years or more and cannot undo.’

Source: Hamann, Brigitte: Elisabeth. Kaiserin wider Willen, München 1981, p. 85

At first it was the eldest daughter Helene, called Néné (1834–1890), who was intended as his bride. However, at the arranged meeting in Bad Ischl in the summer of 1853 Franz Joseph fell head over heels in love with her younger sister Elisabeth, who had only come along as a companion to her sister and was at that point not even sixteen years old.
The wedding took place in Vienna on 24 April 1854, the emperor’s young bride having been put through a ‘crash-course’ in preparation for her future role as empress. During the first few years of her marriage Elisabeth was overwhelmed by her position as empress. Not only was everything new to her, but she also found it difficult accustoming herself to life at the extremely conservative Viennese court, which was ruled by strict convention and where she was not allowed any privacy. Highly intelligent, sensitive and with little appreciation for the formalities of etiquette, the young Elisabeth did not live up to the expectations placed in an empress by court society. The first years of her marriage were a traumatic experience for Elisabeth and sowed the seeds of her increasing alienation from life at the Viennese court.
She saw herself degraded to the role of a brood mare, expected to produce numerous healthy offspring, male for preference. The young empress bore three children in quick succession: first two daughters, Sophie (b. 1855) and Gisela (b. 1856), then in 1858 the long-awaited heir, Rudolf. By the age of 21, Sisi already had three children.
Elisabeth’s relations with her first three children were difficult, as she was given little opportunity to engage with them, and their upbringing was taken out of her hands. This was partly because Archduchess Sophie regarded her daughter-in-law as too immature and unequal to the task. On the other hand it was not usual for empresses to have very much to do with the upbringing of their children in court society as they were handed over to the care of tutors and governesses.
Elisabeth’s reaction to this was a phase of exhaustion and depression which was exacerbated by the early death of her first daughter Sophie, who died in 1857 before reaching her second birthday.
She found no support in her husband Franz Joseph, who was torn by conflicts of loyalty between his mother and his wife. Franz Joseph had been prepared since early childhood for his role as monarch and showed little empathy or understanding for the needs and fears of his young wife.

Martin Mutschlechner