Blog post

Elisabeth, Queen of the Hungarians

How 'Sisi' was celebrated and remembered in Hungary

colour photograph of a statue of Queen Elisabeth
by
Éva Tompa (opens in new window) (Forum Hungaricum Non-profit Ltd.)

Elisabeth was Empress of Austria from 1854 when her husband Franz Joseph I ascended to the Austrian throne. From 1867 - when the Austro-Hungarian Compromise created the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary - she became Queen Consort of Hungary. Over the course of her reign, she became a popular and cult figure in both Austria and Hungary.

Born in 1837, Elisabeth Amalia Eugénia Wittelsbach was lauded as being one of the most beautiful women of her time. Although she emphasised this quality, that is not why she became a cult figure for Hungarians.

black and white illustration of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth

The Empress of Austria was averse to life in the Austrian court, which was conducted according to Spanish etiquette. These protocols caused Elisabeth many embarrassing moments, as she was shy and soft-spoken and considered a 'pretty silly girl', a prejudice not improved by the fact that she eschewed her official duties as soon as she could. In her country, her personality was a mere sideshow to Franz Joseph, and she tried to keep her participation in public events to a minimum, having little contact with her subjects.

black and white illustration portrait of Elisabeth

In Hungary, on the other hand, a very different image of the Empress already developed during her lifetime.

She was seen as being endowed with morally unquestionable elements that made her a kind of counterpoint to the Emperor. This image became all the more so, as a theory became widespread that she played a major role in the creation of the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise, and thus the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Historians, however, argue that Queen Elisabeth had little involvement in political affairs, but the figure of the Hungarian-friendly Elisabeth shone in the Hungarian public consciousness as the saviour of the country.

painted portrait of Queen Elisabeth

The Empress's relationship with Hungarians began during her engagement, when she became acquainted with the history of the empire, including Hungarian history, through her teacher János Majláth. Elisabeth was fond of the Hungarians, but perhaps her mother-in-law's open antipathy towards Hungarians also strengthened her sympathy. She surrounded herself with Hungarian ladies-in-waiting, spoke Hungarian well, and conversed with her youngest child, Maria Valeria, in Hungarian. Gödöllő was one of her favourite settlements in Hungary.

black and white illustration of Franz Joseph, Elisabeth and their children sitting in a garden in front of a palace

After the Compromise, the Hungarian state offered the Gödöllő estate as a gift to the ruling couple, who occupied the residence the same year. During her time there, Elisabeth was able to escape the rigid rules of the austere Viennese court and indulge her passion for horse riding. Her youngest child, who was also born in Hungary, spent much of her time here.

colourised postcard showing a statue memorial of Queen Elisabeth

Shockingly, Elisabeth was assassinated in 1898. After her death, efforts to preserve her memory increased.

Several public statues were erected in her memory, including the Elisabeth Lookout Tower on János Hill in Hungary; also, her memorial and the Elisabeth Park in Gödöllő was completed after that.

black and white photograph of tower with ornate architecture

In addition, a memorial museum was housed for many years in the Buda Castle Palace. The Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Ida Ferenczy and Countess Irma Sztáray, significantly contributed to the collection. Undoubtedly, the most unique item in the collection is the bodice worn during her assassination, which was donated to the museum by Countess Sztáray and is now owned by the Hungarian National Museum.

black and white photograph of Queen Elisabeth and Irma Sztáray
scan of a page with text of a prayer and an illustration of Queen Elisabeth

After her tragic death, Elisabeth became a cult figure in Austria as well, but in a very different way, she was seen as a pioneer of the modern female ideal. Her efforts to preserve her beauty made her a humane figure. The Empress rode horses regularly to maintain her slimness, but exercise was part of her life even when she was forced to neglect equestrian sports, as evidenced by her gymnastics apparatus in the Sisi Museum in the Hofburg Place in Vienna.

black and white photograph of Empress Elisabeth on horseback

However, Sisi was not only ahead of her time when it came to beauty care and a healthy lifestyle, she was also an example of an unhappy woman in search of herself, wishing to preserve her freedom, and whose memory is still cherished by many.

This blog was translated by Zita Aknai, Forum Hungaricum Non-profit Ltd.

Women's History Royalty Austria Hungary