It must seem to those who have been following this blog for the last few weeks that many of the Wittelsbachs possessed some kind of recessive gene that bequeathed a dangerous heritage to their children. Was it because of generations of intermarriage that so many met with tragic fates? Or plain happenstance? Crown Prince Rudolf, the third child and only son of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria, was one of the most tragic of a tragedy-ridden family.
Rudolf was born at at the imperial palace of Schonbrunn in Vienna, on August 21st. 1858. While Te Deums were being celebrated in the churches of the empire, and the young mother was recovering from a difficult birth, Franz Josef placed the Order of the Golden Fleece in his son’s cradle and made him a colonel, giving notice what he expected of his son.
Rudolf was a precocious child. He was given the best of tutors, and at the age of six he was able to understand written French, Czech, Italian, Magyar, as well as his native German. In contrast to his sister Gisela, who was robustly healthy, he suffered recurring bouts of fever and other ailments which caused his parents deep anxiety. When he turned seven Franz Josef decided he must have a household of his own and be put in charge of a military tutor to prepare him for his future.
The tutor was Count Leopold Gondrecourt, whose ideas of disciplining a little boy – and heir to the imperial throne – were nothing less than sadistic. He once shut Rudolf behind the gates of the Tiergarten (wild game preserve) and terrified him by shouting that a wild boar was coming. It was not unusual for the child to be roused in the middle of the night, taken outside and drilled in the deep snow.
The trouble was that Rudolf was far more a Wittelsbach than a Habsburg. He was a highly strung child with his mother’s sensitive nature. He became anxious, frail and even sicklier. Sleeping poorly, in the mornings he was too tired to attend properly to his lessons and was punished for it. All Gondrecourt knew was to drill him harder to toughen him up.
Neither his mother nor his grandmother approved of this kind of treatment, but Franz Josef stubbornly insisted they were the methods used on young cadets and would in the long run prove beneficial to Rudolf.
Unable to bear her son’s suffering any longer, afraid she would lose him as she had her firstborn, Sisi gave Franz an ultimatum. Either Gondrecourt goes or she goes.
Gondrecourt went, and Sisi appointed a gentler tutor, who was devoted to the Crown Prince and gave him a liberal education. Under his care Rudolf’s general health improved rapidly, but he never quite recovered from the terror of his early years.
As he grew he developed a passion for history and natural science. He was an intelligent and imaginative child, but by the age of ten he was developing some undesirable traits. After hunting with his father, he drew pictures of animals with great splashes of blood on them. He began to criticize and make light of spiritual matters. Although he was as good a shot as his father, he was a timid horseman and never attained the proficiency in the saddle his mother would have wished. He was also a physical coward and saw himself that way too.
At the age of twenty-one Rudolf fell under the influence of his aide-de-camp, Count Karl Bombelles, a roue of the first order. Rudolf was an apt pupil, who indulged in love affairs with all manner of women. Soon there was nothing Bombelles could teach him. He had a reputation for being wild and undisciplined. His parents were worried.
A marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium was arranged. By all accounts, she was a plain little thing, hardly likely to keep the libidinous Rudolf out of other ladies’ beds. Even on her wedding day the princess was outshone by her divinely beautiful mother-in-law, Empress Elisabeth.
The Crown Princess became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy girl. Unfortunately, the doctors whispered it was unlikely she would have another child. Never popular with court or city, the poor girl had failed in her prime duty. In spite of his own disappointment, Rudolf was a kind and affectionate husband and a loving father. But Stephanie was jealous and demanding. She did not know how to manage a man like her husband, who had all the beauties of Vienna vying for his attention.
At twenty-one Rudolf so adored life that he once said, ‘If only I could live till I am a hundred. It is terrible to think that in the end one has to die.’ At thirty-one, he was bored, jaded and fed up of the life his father’s ministers forced him to endure. He was a ‘liberal’, which meant anti-clerical, anti-aristocracy, and anti-establishment, a bit of a rebel. Like his near counterpart in Britain, the future Edward VII, he was an heir given little power or responsibility, just waiting for his aging parent to die.
By this time the Crown Prince was coming to loath his wife, had been unable to accomplish anything useful in his life, was often at odds with his father and was increasingly depressed over what he saw as the eventual disintegration of the empire. He could see no alternative but death. Perhaps he knew that Vienna in the 1880s had the highest suicide rate in Europe.
Mitzi Kaspar was a cheerful Viennese woman and ‘friend’ of the Crown Prince. One evening he confessed that his life was a burden and he wanted to end it. But he didn’t want to die alone. If she loved him, she would join him in a suicide pact. At first Mitzi tried to laugh the matter off, treating it as a bizarre joke, but when he kept returning to it she began to realize that he was obsessed with the idea of suicide. She went to the President of Police, Baron Kraus, in order to help Rudolf, but all Kraus did was to get her to sign a statement and warn her that if she repeated her story to anyone she would be prosecuted. Nothing further was done.
But there were other women who were madly in love with Rudolf. Sometime in early January 1889, Marie Vetsera became his mistress. She was seventeen years-old, probably impressionable, but far from innocent. She must have known her role as the prince’s mistress would be as short-lived as so many others before her. Did she see herself as a romantic and tragic heroine? Was it her way of ensuring that her name would be linked with Rudolf’s forever?
They made their plans. Rudolf went with some of his friends to hunt at Mayerling. Marie was smuggled secretly into his bedroom at the lodge. On the morning of January 30th, the bodies of Rudolf and Marie were found, both with gunshot wounds to the head, unleashing a barrage of questions and speculation, deceit and concealment.
What happened that night and in the following days is a true horror story. More about that in my next post.
You can read more about Rudolf’s youth in my latest book.