The imperial and royal families of the ages have been populated by a vast range of fascinating, intriguing or even scandalous individuals.

From the kings who defy the dominant church, to queens who defy powerful armadas, to the many princes and princesses who contribute their own tales and dramas to the canon of royal history, there’s no shortage of captivating characters to entertain the masses and create legends for the ages. 

Yet, there are some regal characters whose lives are so beguiling and enchanting that their stories become world-famous. Some of these royal legends are hugely famous and renowned within their own lifetimes, whereas others become more well-known historical figures long after they’ve departed the earthly realm. 

Then there are those who capture the imagination of their people during their lifetime, and continue to become iconic figures that fascinate the world for many generations afterwards.  

One such famous imperial legend was the beautiful and mysterious Bavarian Duchess who became the most famous woman in the world – Empress Elizabeth of Austria. 

Who Was Empress Elizabeth? 

By the time of her death – a cruel and cowardly assassination at the hands of a political activist – Empress Elizabeth had become one of the great legends of the powerful Habsburg Empire.

Elizabeth was married to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, who had inherited the mighty Habsburg monarchy from his uncle, Emperor Ferdinand. After some tense times and skilful negotiations, Franz Joseph formed a dual-monarchy with Hungary, making the vast Austria-Hungarian empire one of the most powerful realms in Europe. 

As the wife of the Austrian Emperor who also became the King of Hungary, Elizabeth’s titles were Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. This was one of the highest ranks for a female, not only in her native Europe but also around the world. 

In other words, Empress Elizabeth was a major figure in the royal and imperial ranks of the 19th century. Yet, this simple country duchess – who was known for her wild ways and tempestuous character – had risen to such heights due to a curious twist of fate, coupled with her legendary beauty. 

The Accidental Empress

Although she was born to a noble family – her father was a Duke and her mother was a Princess – Elizabeth, known as Sisi for much of her life, was not meant to become an Empress. 

The young Elisabeth shortly after becoming Austrian Empress, by Amanda Bergstedt (1855) – Amanda Bergstedt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even though her aunt was the mother of the Austrian Emperor, the plan was for Sisi’s elder sister Helene to be presented to the young Franz Joseph in order to secure a suitable match. 

Yet when Helene went to meet her the man that all involved had decided would be her future husband, she took with her her beloved younger sister – the beautiful and enchanting 15-year-old Sisi. 

From that fateful meeting, the destinies of all the players in this high-stakes drama were shifted onto a new trajectory that would have deep implications for them, the empire, and even the entire world. 

Because once Franz Joseph had set eyes on the young Sisi – a girl who was renowned for her captivating beauty and charm – the Emperor was utterly smitten. The tragic elder sister was replaced, as the future wife of one of the most powerful men in Europe chose the teenage Sisi to be his bride. 

Despite the awkward and upsetting change of plan, despite the age of the soon-to-be-empress, despite concerns from the entire court and Habsburg family, the couple were ultimately married in a lavish spectacle that secured Sisi’s role in the hearts of her new people as she stepped into her new life as the Empress of Austria. 

Empress Of Austria, Queen Of Hungary

Due to the political alliance with Hungary, Empress Elizabeth also became the Queen of Hungary, and it was a nation she adored her entire life. 

The sentiment was mutual with her adopted nation, and Sisi spent a great deal of time in the Hungarian countryside, riding the horses she loved, away from the pressures and strict regimes of the Habsburg court in Vienna. 

Many believe that the sometimes wild and unruly character of Empress Elizabeth – which struggled so much with the stoic duties of the imperial Austrian traditions – found the freedom and informalities that she craved whenever she spent time in her Hungarian residences. 

It was a love affair that was to last much of her life, and when  Sisi died, the country mourned her as if she had always been their queen, so loved was she by the Hungarian people. 

A Legendary Beauty

Empress Elizabeth undoubtedly had a keen mind and a compassionate heart. It’s believed that she was instrumental in brokering the peace and subsequent alliance with Hungary when the Austrian rulers were at odds with their European neighbour. 

Yet, this iconic Empress is no doubt such a legendary figure so many generations after her death because of her almost mythical beauty. 

Sisi’s most famous asset was her hair – rich chestnut waves that grew so long some even claimed they reached the floor. She was also renowned for her impossibly tiny waist – which was displayed to great effect by the corset and crinoline skirts so fashionable during the 19th century. 

Although it’s claimed that Empress Elizabeth was always beautiful – even as a young girl in the Bavarian countryside – once she attained the rank of an imperial figure, this beauty became one of her primary concerns, second only to the very real pressures of bearing imperial children and heirs to the throne. 

Sisi spent hours each day in her beauty and slimming regimes, supported by a small army of attendants who would style and dress her hair before formal events and outings. 

Her efforts were not in vain, as her charm became notorious and world leaders would become captivated by her beauty, paving the way for more peaceable negotiations with her husband the Emperor. 

Empress Elizabeth – the infamous Sisi – enjoyed beauty, wealth, fame, and high regard all around the world, but this simple soul was happiest with her children and loved ones, and when riding her fast horses with the carefreeness she knew as a child. 

Yet the status and rank that she rose to occupy are what secured her place as one of history’s most interesting and influential imperial figures.