There were many great rulers and leaders who blazed a trail and left indelible marks on history during the 19th century. But these were troubling and trialing times for many of Europe’s royal families and imperial sovereigns. 

The notions of republican rule and the abolition of monarchies had seen many kings and queens losing their thrones and sometimes losing their monarchies altogether. 

So it’s remarkable that this volatile period witnessed one of the most stoic, peaceable and enduring reigns that the modern world has known. 

It’s even more astonishing that this was not the head of a remote and little-known nation away from territorial conflicts and world wars, this notable reign took place at the very heart of Europe. 

The steady hand at the helm of this imperial tenure was the man who would go down in the history books as the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary; Franz Joseph I. 

Who Was Franz Joseph I?

Franz Joseph I was the Emperor of the mighty Austrian Empire from 1848 right up until his death 68 years later. 

This enduring reign has been regarded as one of the great achievements of royal rule, comparable to the worldwide esteem granted to the later Queen Elizabeth II of England who also enjoyed a decades-long reign of similar duration. 

Throughout his life and his reign, Emperor Franz Joseph was renowned as one of the most admired and esteemed rulers within Europe, famed for his deep and abiding sense of duty to his family, his country, his people and the great Habsburg tradition that he had inherited. 

Emperor Of Austria, King Of Hungary

Perhaps one of the most impressive and impactful achievements of Franz Joseph’s reign was the Austro-Hungarian Alliance. 

Emporer Franz Joseph in the uniform of a Hungarian field marshal
Franz Joseph in the uniform of a Hungarian field marshal, c. 1892 – Studio of Károly Koller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This dual-monarchy arrangement was the solution to the fractious sentiments arising in Hungary that threatened to disrupt the peace of the Habsburg Empire and usher in a new phase of diminished power and rule, after centuries of reigning as a dominant force within Europe. 

Brokering peace with Hungary proved to be a shrewd maneuver for the Austrian Emperor, yet he was troubled his entire life by threats from his other European neighbors. 

The geography of Austria meant that it was surrounded on all sides by other nations, some of which had plans for invasion or expanding their territories. 

Emperor Franz Joseph spent much of his reign attempting to protect his empire while simultaneously holding onto a tenuous and fragile peace. 

By the time of his death, this enduring and dutiful emperor had become one of history’s success stories, his stewardship of the Habsburg Empire and the decades of peace of his people were lauded as a remarkable achievement.  

Along with his political trials and triumphs, Franz Joseph was also celebrated for numerous cultural achievements, such as the modernization of transportation in Vienna – courtesy of the new Ringstrasse – as well as the famous World Fair in 1873 which attracted world leaders and eager locals alike. 

Yet, of all of Franz Joseph’s life’s work and successes, it’s likely that his place in history is made all the more notable by his controversial and ultimately tragic choice of marriage partner. 

Husband Of Empress Sisi

While Franz Joseph has become such an important historical figure due to the achievements and longevity of his reign, during his lifetime this imperial powerhouse was often more renowned due to his world-famous wife – the beautiful and dazzling Empress Elizabeth, known as Sisi.

Empress Sisi was a stellar celebrity of the period. Whenever she appeared in public, hordes of devoted followers would chant her name. Whatever she wore, however she styled her legendary floor-length hair, would be copied and emulated by women at all levels of society. 

Whereas Franz Joseph was the admired, respected and dutiful emperor, his glamourous and enchanting wife was the celebrity attraction. 

The couple had married young, and the story goes that it was a love match, a true fairy tale enchantment. 

The couple remained married until the assassination of the Empress when she was 60-years-old, and while the imperial couple undoubtedly had challenges within their marriage, with the pressure of ruling an empire casting a considerable burden on both parties, it’s believed that there was always a mutual esteem and fondness between the popular emperor and his captivating young wife. 

Assassinations & Tragedy

Losing his beloved wife to an assassin was undoubtedly one of the greatest trials of Franz Joseph’s life and reign, yet he was no stranger himself to political violence. 

He had been the victim of an assassination attempt as a young man, and bore the scar of the knife attack on his neck, a lifelong reminder of the precariousness of human life and the potential dangers of ruling a nation. 

Yet any fears for his personal safety were overcome by the sense of duty that became his hallmark – a work ethic that made him one of the hardest-working sovereigns of his time. 

This devotion to service coupled with an indefatigable sense of duty to the Hapsburg traditions and legacy were at the core of his long reign, yet he was also known as a kind-hearted and forgiving man, who loved his family and was devoted to his children. 

This paternal affection was a source of challenging affronts – his son the Crown Prince openly criticized his father, often in public forums and the press. 

It was also a source of great tragedy. Franz Joseph and his wife Empress Sisi were dealt a devastating blow early in their marriage with the loss of the eldest daughter, Archduchess Sophie, who died from an illness at the tender age of two. 

The couple would eventually recover from this tragic loss, only to lose their eldest son, Crown Prince Rudolph in a suicide pact with his lover. 

While the young prince had been notoriously troubled for much of his life, battling addictions and mental health issues, he had also been regarded as a promising heir to the Austrian Empire, with his innovative ideas and more liberal thinking. 

Despite the many political challenges and personal tragedies, Franz Joseph went on to become one of the great imperial rulers of the period. 

His legacy as a devoted emperor and dutiful family man have secured his place in the history books as one of the most successful imperial reigns of all time.