May 10, 1881 – Wedding of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria & Stéphanie of Belgium
Rudolf was the third child and only son of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife, the former Elisabeth of Bavaria. Stéphanie was the second daughter of Leopold II of Belgium and Marie Henriette of Austria. Like her future husband, Stéphanie’s parents were deeply unhappy together, making for a difficult home life.
As the expected future Austrian Emperor, Rudolf’s marriage was of utmost concern. A marriage between Rudolf and Mathilde of Saxony was tentatively planned, but Mathilde’s unattractive appearance caused Rudolf to refuse the match. Rudolf was similarly unimpressed by the younger daughters of Isabella II of Spain or Miguel, the deposed king of Portugal. Franz Josef suggested additional possible brides for his son, but Rudolf rejected each one. The parents of another possible bride caught Rudolf with another woman during a visit, eliminating yet another candidate. Running out of available Catholic princesses from which to choose, Rudolf made a visit to the court of Stéphanie’s father in early 1880.
Leopold was already tied to the Austrian imperial family through his wife, although Marie Henriette was a rather minor princess. A marriage between Rudolf and one of Leopold’s daughters would bring prestige to the rather new Belgian royal family, as well as tie Belgium to the powerful Austria Empire. Leopold’s own offspring could not succeed to the Belgian throne (his only son had died as a child and his daughters were prohibited by law from succeeding), so the marriage of his daughters was one of the few ways Leopold could spread his influence. Stéphanie’s older sister Louise was already married, and her younger sister Clementine was not yet eight years old. It was up to 15-year-old Stéphanie – a tall, gangly adolescent – to charm Rudolf into marrying her. She wore her hair and dress in an adult style for the first time during the visit in hopes of enticing Rudolf.
On March 7, just a few days into his visit, Rudolf proposed to and was accepted by Stéphanie. As Stéphanie later claimed, “He asked me for my hand so prettily that I could not possibly refuse it to him.” Rudolf’s parents were not especially impressed with Stéphanie’s lineage (the Coburg line was considered too new and minor for a match with the mighty Habsburgs), but were somewhat content at knowing Rudolf had found a wife. Preparations were made for a December 1880 wedding.
Shortly after the engagement was announced, Stéphanie was sent to Vienna to learn the ins and outs of the imperial court. A few weeks later, it was discovered that Stéphanie had no knowledge of and had not yet started puberty. The wedding was postponed twice as Stéphanie was not yet able to bear children. In the meantime, Stéphanie carried on her studies of politics, religion, history, and the Hungarian language. She was also fitted with an exquisite trousseau, created to be – oddly enough – as “costly as possible.”
The wedding finally took place on May 10, 1881, eleven days before Stéphanie’s seventeenth birthday. The ceremony was held at St. Augustine’s Church in Vienna by candlelight. Stéphanie was outfitted in a dress of heavy silver brocade trimmed with silver roses. It was said that the bride moved down the aisle with the “daintiness of a dragon.” The new couple honeymooned at Laxenburg Castle, the antiquated and outdated imperial summer retreat.
Following the wedding, Stéphanie began her rounds of usual state visits and official appearances expected of an imperial Crown Princess. Although Empress Elisabeth thought little of her daughter in law – calling her “ugly” and a “lout” – Elisabeth was more than happy to pass all of her official duties onto Stéphanie. Although it wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, Stéphanie and Rudolf seemed to view one another with affection in the first few years of marriage. The couple’s only child, Elisabeth Marie, was born at Laxenburg in September 1883.
Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Stéphanie’s and Rudolf’s marriage began to unravel. Whereas Rudolf was charming, liberal, intellectual, and at times unbalanced, Stéphanie was conservative, arrogant, and highly regimented. No further children were born (possibly due to Rudolf infecting Stéphanie with a sexually transmitted disease), and the two pursued separate lives. Although talk of annulment or divorce was raised, Franz Josef refused to permit serious consideration of ending the marriage.
In January 1889, the situation sadly resolved itself when Rudolf was found dead at Mayerling, an imperial hunting lodge. The body of his mistress, Mary Vetsera, was found with him. It remains unclear (and controversial) whether the deaths were a result of murder, suicide, or a combination. Stéphanie later married a Hungarian count; Elisabeth Marie married a minor German prince followed by a noted socialist.
As Stéphanie later said of her marriage to Rudolf:
“Two quite young persons see each other for the first time, know each other a quarter of an hour, and speak the binding word which death alone can untie. If there is something beautiful in the thought that two human beings who love and respect one another are joined before God in holy matrimony, so there is something uncommonly repulsive in the idea that such a union can be formed without any preparation and remain a lie from the altar to the grave.”