[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary


Queen Elizabeth:
The "Guardian Angel" of Hungary

It happened in 1853 when Archduchess Sophie, the Emperor's domineering mother (and a Magyarhater), grew tired of her son's youthful peccadilloes and decided to arrange a marriage for Franz Joseph. She chose Princess Helene, daughter of the Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria, to be her son's wife and thus the Empress of the Monarchy. The Emperor's approval was taken for granted, his obedience a foregone conclusion. With everything arranged in advance, Sophie invited Duchess Ludovika to introduce her daughter to the Court and to receive Franz Joseph's formal proposal of marriage, though the Emperor had never met Helene before.

Overjoyed at the prospect of having a Habsburg Emperor as her son-in-law, Duchess Ludovika hastily traveled from Munich to Bad Ischl with Helene, also taking along her vivacious sixteen year-old daughter, Elizabeth (nicknamed Sisi). Upon arriving, Sisi was given to the care of a governess, while Helene's first meeting with the young Emperor and his proposal of marriage were to take place in an adjoining room.

Unfortunately, Helene was a spiritless prospective bride. Both she and Franz Joseph felt ill at ease in each other's company. Suddenly, a door sprang open and Sisi ran into the room, her cheeks flushed from a dispute with her governess. The young Emperor was dazzled at the sight of her, so much so that he "forgot" to ask for Helene's hand.

That evening another encounter took place in the palace, this time between mother and son: Franz Joseph, for the first time in his life, opposed the will of his mother. No, he would not marry Helene; he preferred Elizabeth. When his mother insisted on the original plan, the Emperor announced that he would not marry at all.

Franz Joseph's "rebellion" created an emergency at the Court and that night the Archduchess summoned the Austrian Primate.

Nobody knows what transpired in the palace that night, but on August 18, 1853, a gesture, not a word, by the Emperor's mother revealed the result:

On the way to church to celebrate her son's twenty-third birthday with the guests from Bavaria, the ever so haughty Archduchess gave sixteen year-old Elizabeth precedence at the church door, indicating to the Court and to the world the sensational change that was to occur in the Habsburg hierarchy. Five days later the betrothal of Franz Joseph to Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria was announced officially.

The Happiness of Marriage is Ruined

The marriage started out as a happy one, but Elizabeth's happiness did not last long. Archduchess Sophie was as overbearing to Elizabeth as she was toward her son, and she interfered in their smallest affairs. When Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, the Duchess took charge of the child, and when a second daughter was born, she took her away from Elizabeth as well. The fact that she had not produced a male heir made Elizabeth feel more unwanted than ever in the palace. One day she found a pamphlet on her desk with the following words underlined:

...The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition - she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women... If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire...

The Empress had a good suspicion as to the source of this ugly intrusion.

When she was allowed to follow her instincts, Elizabeth impressed everyone by her inimitable charm, her tact and sweetness, her royal grace and kindliness, not to speak of her extraordinary beauty. While she was in Italy with her husband she used all her influence to persuade the Emperor to show mercy toward the persecuted and to political prisoners.

The Emperor responded to his wife's philanthropy


not only because he still loved her deeply, but also because he possessed the humane qualities his vengeful mother lacked. Although the Emperor was religious, he was not a bigot and his just treatment of the Hungarians were exemplified in several ways: he allowed himself to be crowned by Gyula Andrássy, a rebel who had been hanged in effigy; he donated the 60,000 gold pieces he had received as a coronation gift from the nation to the home of the invalid Honvéds of 1848, and arranged for the remains of Kossuth, Thököly, Rákóczi and Ilona Zrínyi to be brought back from Italy and Turkey. He also ordered the burial of Artúr Görgey with full military honors. (General Görgey had lived an unusually long life. After Világos, he was spared punishment by Russian intervention. Exiled to Austria, he later returned to Visegrád, Hungary, where he lived until his death at the age of ninety-nine.)

Elizabeth Reaches Out

Empress Elizabeth had visited Hungary for the first time with her husband and two daughters in 1857, and this visit left a deep impression. In Hungary, she had received a political object lesson. As one of her German biographers, Karl Tschuppik, wrote: "It was the first time that Elizabeth had met with men of character in Franz Joseph's realm, and she became acquainted with an aristocratic independence that scorned to hide its sentiments behind courtly forms of speech... She felt her innermost soul reach out in sympathy to the proud, steadfast people of this land..."

Her visit to Hungary impressed Empress Elizabeth so much that in the following years she learned Hungarian.

On August 22, 1858, a 101 gun salute announced to the citizens of Vienna that a male heir, Rudolph, had been born to the Austrian throne. The birth of her son increased the Queen's influence at the Court considerably. This change of position, coupled with her sympathy toward Hungary, made Elizabeth an ideal mediator between the Magyars and the Emperor.

Elizabeth was fascinated by the brilliant mind and Hungarian character of Count Gyula Andrássy who, in the meantime, had become Deák's partner in the negotiations with the Court. These difficult negotiations were broken off repeatedly only to be resumed with the help of Elizabeth. She was in total agreement with Deák and Andrássy, and urged the Emperor to grant concessions to the Magyars. As she once said to Andrássy, "If the Emperor's cause goes badly in Italy, it pains me, but if it goes badly in Hungary, it is death to me. During the protracted negotiations, the Queen suggested to her husband that Andrássy be made the Premier of Hungary as part of a compromise, and wrote a most serious letter to the Emperor to bring the two men together:

I have just had an interview with Andrássy. He set forth his views clearly and plainly. I quite understood them and arrived at the conclusion that if you would trust him - and trust him entirely - we might still be saved, not only Hungary, but the monarchy, too.... I can assure you that you are not dealing with a man desirous of playing a part at any price or striving for a position; on the contrary, he is risking his present position, which is a fine one. But approaching shipwreck, he, too, is prepared to do all in his power to save it; what he possesses - his understanding and influence in the country - he will lay at your feet. For the last time I beg you in Rudolph's name not to lose this, at the last moment...

...If you say 'No,' if at the last moment you are no longer willing to listen to disinterested counsels. then... you will be relieved forever from my future... and nothing will remain to me but the consciousness that whatever may happen, I shall be able to say honestly to Rudolph one day; "I did everything in my power. Your misfortunes are not on my conscience."

A Love Affair between a Queen and a Country

As a coronation gift from the nation, the royal couple received a splendid country residence twenty miles east of Buda-Pest at Gödöll. The following year, Elizabeth spent 221 days in Hungary, alternating between the charming residence at Gödöll and Buda, much to the chagrin of the Austrians who felt neglected by their Empress. Elizabeth was expecting a child at the time and the Austrians resented rumors that, if it were a son, she would call him Stephen after the patron saint of Hungary. As it happened, Elizabeth gave birth to a little daughter Valeria. During her stay in Hungary, the Queen took lessons to improve her Hungarian, and read Hungarian authors with avid interest: the poems of Vörösmarthy, Arany and Petfi, and the novels of Baron József Eötvös and Mór Jókai. She conversed primarily in Hungarian with her lady in waiting, Ida Ferenczy.

When Jókai was presented to her she said to him: "I have long wished to make your acquaintance; your works have been known to me for some time. I consider Kárpárthy Zoltán the finest of them" - a book in which Jókai embodies the spirit of national idealism.

"I understand nothing about politics," remarked the Queen with a smile, whereupon Jókai responded with a ready wit:

"The highest art of politics to win the heart of a country, and Your Majesty understands perfectly how to do that."

Since the Queen surrounded herself more and more with Hungarians, the Austrian and Slavic


papers began complaining that Elizabeth now lived in a world which was wholly Hungarian, that she always spoke Magyar, admitted only Hungarian ladies to her intimacy, and had chosen as nurses for her little Valeria those who could sing Hungarian folk songs to the little princess. The Queen also embroidered the first flag for the revived revolutionary Honvéd force.

When Elizabeth was obliged to return to Vienna in 1869, she wrote to her mother: "I am desperate at having to be here, and long for Buda constantly, where it is so much more beautiful and pleasanter in every respect." She told Ida Ferenczy that when she was abroad, she would suffer from a "terrible homesickness" for Hungary.

In the remaining years of her life Elizabeth traveled over Europe, spending most of her time away from Vienna, criss-crossing the Continent and the Mediterranean in a restless attempt to escape from Court functions and from society itself. Her restless desire to travel took her to England, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Greece, France, Malta and the Balearic Islands. She even contemplated sailing to America. Wherever she went she would take walking tours lasting from six to nine hours that were more like forced marches, exhausting not only her ladies of honor but her male bodyguards as well. She was an excellent sailor also. On a voyage from Dover to the Mediterranean on the cutter Chazalie, the boat ran into the worst gale the sailors had ever experienced. But Elizabeth had herself lashed to a mast and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the angry elements while the waves broke over the deck and drenched her to the skin.

For hours Elizabeth would watch the flight of the gulls, fancifully identifying herself with them in her own pursuit of liberty.

She would frequently sit down and compose poems expressing her moods and her philosophy on life. Contemplating her sea travels, she wrote in one of her poems:

O'er thee, like thine own sea birds,

I'll circle without rest;

For me earth holds no corner

To build a lasting nest.

For a while Elizabeth believed she had discovered a corner on the earth where she could build a "lasting nest," the Greek island of Corfu which she called the most beautiful spot in the world. At great expense, she built a palace-like villa, called Achilleon, as a private refuge, but hardly was it complete when she wrote to her husband: "No matter where I might be, should anyone tell me I had to stay there forever, even Paradise would become a hell for me."

These lines were written in 1893, four years after the tragic death of Crown Prince Rudolph, who committed suicide with Baroness Maria Vetsera in a hunting lodge at Mayerling. Queen Elizabeth never recovered from the effect of this tragedy; she sank deeper and deeper into melancholy. Within one year, she had lost her mother, her father and sister. After her son's death she dressed in black for the rest of her life.

As if these losses were not enough, on February 18, 1890, Count Gyula Andrássy died.

"My last and only friend is dead," she lamented. It was another devastating blow, for according to Archduchess Valerie's testimony, "she clung to him with true and steadfast friendship as she did. perhaps, to no other person.

What was true of her feeling toward Andrássy, was


also true of her sentiments toward Hungary as a country. She would return from her restless wanderings to Hungary time and time again, to spend the days of early autumn in the quiet solitude of Gödöll, knowing that in no other country in the world was she loved so deeply as in the land of the Magyars.

The last demonstration of that mutual love occurred in Budapest at a state reception on June 8, 1896, the year of the Millennium and the anniversary of the coronation.

The reception was touchingly described by Kálmán Mikszáth, the famous Hungarian novelist in the Pesti Hírlap:

A "Mother Dolorosa"

There she sat in the throne room of the royal palace in her Hungarian costume of black adorned with lace. Everything about her was somber. From her dark hair fell a veil of black. Black were the ornaments in her hair, black her pearls, everything black, only her face was marble white and ineffably sad... a mater dolorosa. It was the same face as of old, well-known from her bewitching portraits... She was still herself, but sorrow had left its mark upon her face. The picture was still the same, but as though shrouded in mist... Still and impassive she sat, as though seeing and hearing nothing. Only her soul seemed to range far and wide. She sat like a statue of marble pallor.

And now the President of the Parliament, D. Szilágyi. began to speak. Slowly and cautiously, full of reverence for the throne... Still nothing could be read in the face of Elisabeth. It remained pale and impassive. But now the orator pronounced the name of the Queen. She moved an eyelid: suddenly a cheer broke forth such as the royal palace at Buda hat never heard before, as though a storm of emotions burst from every heart with a ring of wondrous sublimity which can neither be described nor told... And now that majestic head, 'til then unmoved, was seen to stir. Gently, almost imperceptibly, it bowed in gratitude. A wondrous grace was in this gesture. Louder still rang the cheers, and for minutes they refused to be silent. As roar after roar went up,. the vaulted roof quivered.

The magnates of the realm waved their hats. Still the cheering would not abate. The orator was forced to pause, and the Queen inclined her head. Her snow-white cheek was flushed faintly. Its mildly whiteness was tinged with pale rose, then a crimson wave surged up, flooding it with a living red. As though by magic, a Queen appeared in all the hues of life seated at the side of the King. Her eyes dilated and flashed with their former splendor. Those eyes, whose captivating smile had once power to console a sorrowing land, now filled with tears. Once more the current of sympathy flowed back and forth. The land now happy, had succeeded in consoling its Queen. but only for a moment. Majestically she raised her lace handkerchief to her eyes to dry tears. The orator resumed his speech. Slowly the flush of life faded from the Queen's countenance, and soon by the King's side there sat once more the woman shrouded in mourning, the mater dolorosa.

This was the last time the Magyars saw their Queen in Hungary, so it could be considered a tearful farewell forever. On September 9, 1898 she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist, Lucheni, while walking on the shore of Lake Geneva in the company of her Hungarian lady of honor. Countess Irma Sztáray. The assassin's stab to the heart with a sharp file caused a wound so minuscule that for fifteen minutes the Queen was able to walk with her escort and board a ship without realizing that she had been fatally wounded. Elizabeth died an hour later in a local hospital in Geneva after receiving last rites.

While the whole Empire was plunged in grief, no country mourned her in deeper sorrow than Hungary. Not a house in Budapest was without a black flag, and everyone in the streets wore a black scrap of crepe. The King was deeply moved when he heard about the tears shed by the Hungarian people for their Queen. "Yes." he said, "they may well weep. They do not know what a warm friend they have lost in their Queen."

Quite the contrary. The Magyars knew very well, indeed, whom they had lost with the tragic departure of the "guardian angel'' of their nation.


 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary