Kaiser Franz Joseph came to the throne as ruler of Austria-Hungary cursed: his brother would be
executed in Mexico, his only son would die, his wife and his nephew would be assassinated. His grief
would be tempered only by the tremendous responsibilities he was forced to bear.
The world was already becoming unstable. Franz Joseph ruled an empire of 50 million people and
would face revolts in his realm and emerging new political philosophies, all the while facing his own
personal tragedies. Yet, he would be the longest ruling monarch of the Habsburg Dynasty in history
and his 68-year reign is the third-longest in the recorded history of Europe.
Franz Joseph was born in 1830 in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the oldest son of mild-
mannered Archduke Franz Karl and his formidable wife Princess Sophie of Bavaria. It was Sophie
who groomed "Franzl" as a future Emperor, and at age 13 he began his career as a colonel in the
army. Following the Revolutions of 1848, he was appointed Governor of Bohemia but never took up
the post and instead was sent to the Italian front. At around the same time, the Imperial Family was
fleeing revolutionary Vienna for the calmer setting of Innsbruck. After the abdication of his uncle and
the renunciation of his father, Franz Joseph succeeded as Emperor of Austria under a heavy burden.
Austria faced further fighting in Italy, revolts in Hungary and Franz Joseph would preside over a
world on the brink of chaos.
His future wife Elizabeth Amalia Eugenia was born on the December 24, 1837 in Munich, the fourth
of nine children born to Duke Maximilian of Bavaria and his wife Ludovika. They met in the summer
of 1853 at romantic Bad Ischl in the Salzkammergut.
The family was hoping that Franz would marry her sister Helen, however, defying his mother's
marriage plans, he was instead smitten with Helene's 15 year old sister Elizabeth who had accidently
accompanied the party and on the day after their first meeting, Franz Joseph and Elizabeth celebrated
their sensational engagement. They married in Vienna on April 24, 1854, and a year later their
daughter Sophie was born, soon followed by another girl.
Finally, in 1858, baby Crown Prince Rudolph arrived. Difficulties with her mother-in-law arose, and
Elizabeth often hid behind illness and in isolation. "Sissi", as she was called, disliked the strict court
etiquette and lost herself in vigorous exercise and horseback riding while educating herself, learning
Hungarian and modern Greek perfectly and developing a passion for classical Greek history.
She later immersed herself completely in the world of ancient Greece and built a palace named
"Achillion"on the Greek island of Corfu. She travelled extensively, spending a lot of time in Madeira
and Corfu, while her children remained behind at the court. In 1859, after more personal problems,
Elizabeth left her family to live in seclusion at Madeira, Corfu, and Venice. The Kaiser meanwhile
engaged himself in a "mutually satisfying relationship" with actress Katherine Schratt, and he built a
villa named Villa Schratt in Bad Ischl for her.
On February 18, 1853, Franz Joseph survived an assassination attempt. Under Franz Joseph,
Austria was forced out of Italy, expelled from Germany, and in 1867 the remaining Habsburg empire
were reconstructed as the Dual Monarchy of Austria- Hungary. The non-Hungarian half of the dual
monarchy did not have a separate name and was officially referred to as the "kingdoms and
crownlands represented in the imperial parliament." It became known as Austria, or Cis-Leithania,
meaning the lands on "this side" of the Leitha River which formed part of the boundary of Austria
When a fourth child, Marie Valerie, was born ten months after the coronation of Franz Joseph as
King of Hungary, she was brought up and schooled in the Hungarian language and was therefore
nicknamed the "Hungarian child" for her mother's public love for Hungary. The Empress Sisi
accompanied the Emperor on an important trip to Hungary in 1857 and ingratiated herself with the
Hungarian people. Sadly, it was on this trip that their little daughter Sophie became ill and died.
Elizabeth was adored in Budapest, and many buildings and institutions were named after her.
After a mysterious illness in 1860, the Empress had become increasingly shy, and she hid her
beautiful face behind fans and travelled incognito in order to avoid publicity. After a time, she refused
to be photographed at all. Rumors spread that she was as insane as her cousin, King Ludwig II of
Bavaria. Whatever the case, she was self absorbed to the extreme, quite taken with her own beauty,
and totally preoccupied with travelling, her poetry and her studies of Hungarian and Greek.