Mater Dolorosa: Elisabeth in the Aftermath of Mayerling

By Lucy Coatman

Cover Image: Empress Elizabeth at Corfu by Friedrich August von Kaulbach, after 1898, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Friedrich_August_von_Kaulbach_-_Sisi_auf_Korfu.jpg

This blog post complements Lucy’s post published earlier this month, and we highly recommend reading it before delving into Elisabeth here.

‘She [Elisabeth] envies Rudolf’s death, and longs for it day and night,’ wrote Marie Valerie, the youngest daughter of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph, a few months after the Mayerling incident.[1] The death of her only son had shaken Elisabeth to the core, and it contributed to a significant part of the ‘Sisi myth’: Elisabeth as the Mater Dolorosa, the sorrowful mother.

One must rely heavily on the accounts of those around Elisabeth in order to piece together her feelings after the Mayerling incident. The Empress was a keen poet, and often expressed herself through this medium, but any of her poetic renderings of her feelings after Mayerling are lost to historians.

Elisabeth did not only have the difficult task of telling the Emperor of their son’s death. She was also charged with informing her daughter. Marie Valerie reports that Elisabeth told her on January 30th 1889 that Rudolf was very sick, with no hope of recovery. Much like Stéphanie, Marie Valerie was able to guess the truth: immediately asking ‘has he killed himself?’’[2]

Elisabeth swore to the Emperor that she would not receive Rudolf’s body when it arrived in the Hofburg, though the reasons behind this are not known. Nevertheless, she and her youngest daughter lay awake to hear the sounds of the arrival at 2am. When the family went to visit the body, Elisabeth kissed Rudolf on the mouth.[3] Despite the shocking news, the Empress was able to provide solace to her family in the days following the disaster. The usually collected Franz Joseph was particularly stunned after visiting the body of his son.[4] He named his wife and two daughters ‘angels’ for the comfort they provided him.[5]

The emperor and empress at the deathbed of Rudolph; Mayerling, scene of the drama with Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayerling15.jpg

After Rudolf’s funeral, the Empress went alone to the Capuchin Crypt, where he was buried against his wishes (in his farewell note to his mother, Rudolf expressed the desire to be buried alongside Mary, his ‘atoning angel’, in Alland). According to Marie Valerie, Elisabeth said that she did not like the crypt, but felt an inner voice calling her to visit. Sending out the monks so that she could be alone, Elisabeth hoped that Rudolf’s spirit would appear to her and reveal if he still wanted to be buried in the gloomy Habsburg burial place. She had a strong desire to fulfil Rudolf’s wishes and hoped that this would give her the answers and support that she needed.[6] But he never came.

On the command of Emperor Franz Joseph, Mayerling hunting lodge was torn down (today, only the small tea pavilion remains). In its place came a convent for Carmelite nuns, with the church’s altar built directly on the site where Rudolf and Mary Vetsera were found dead. In a side chapel to the left of the altar stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, who is being stabbed in the heart. This statue by Viktor Tilgner was donated to the convent by the Empress. Later visitors have commented that the life size statue bears an eerie resemblance to Elisabeth.[7]

Our Lady of Sorrows by Viktor Tilgner at Mayerling, photography by Lucy Coatman

Increasingly, the Empress became associated with the idea of a Mater Dolorosa. Almost a year after the Mayerling incident, Marie Valerie wrote that her mother gave away her colourful clothes.[8] One commentator noted that at a court dinner, Elisabeth was ‘dressed like a nun in a high necked black wool dress, with a long crepe veil hanging down from her head, and a necklace of black wooden beads, with a large medallion containing a lock of Rudolf’s hair, which she wore at the side like an order.’[9]

Elisabeth’s sorrow in the months following Mayerling has been noted by her favourite daughter. Elisabeth spoke of feeling like she had received a great blow to the head.[10] By April, she had not moved further in the grieving process and was described as more melancholy than before.[11] Her state was so worrying that, in July, her eldest daughter Gisela warned Marie Valerie to keep an eye out for Elisabeth when they visited a waterfall.[12]

Additionally, the Empress’ already unorthodox religious beliefs grew stranger after Rudolf’s death. On 8th February, Elisabeth stated that she was hardened and unable to pray.[13] On the same day that she claimed to envy Rudolf’s death, Elisabeth made clear that her faith had been so shattered that she would rather experience an eternal sleep than any form of afterlife.[14] She began to lose any belief in life after death, expressing her uncertainty of where Rudolf was.[15] Rudolf himself had had doubts about the unknown that lay beyond death. Elisabeth’s God seemed to be a vengeful one, and her faith did not provide her comfort in this time. Instead, it caused further turmoil and despair, and it was Rudolf’s bullet which had killed her faith.[16]

It has often been said that Rudolf and his mother were alike in temperament: sensitive, intelligent, and no stranger to mood swings.  Elisabeth has thus been much criticised for not playing a role in attempting to prevent her son’s death. Heinrich Friedjung, who interviewed Countess Marie Festetics (the Empress’ confidante and lady-in-waiting), scathingly stated ‘I could not comprehend how a mother as deeply sensitive as the Empress could remain ignorant of what was disturbing the Crown Prince and how she could not know how far he had strayed.’[17]

Elisabeth too, felt some of the blame. The German ambassador wrote to Berlin that the Empress attributed ‘the inherited Wittelsbach blood [for] the mental confusion of her poor son’, forgetting that her husband also had his share of Wittelsbach blood.[18]

The sorrowful Empress visited Mayerling for the first time one year after the tragedy and regretted not having done so sooner. Additionally, Rudolf’s death provided an excuse for Elisabeth’s continued withdrawal from her role as Empress. Not only did the monarchy lose the presence of its female head, but court society itself suffered. The court circular sent to Austrian representatives abroad in October 1889 informed them that the Empress desired that no well wishes be sent to her on her birthday or name day for the rest of her life.[19] It was tradition for aristocratic girls to be introduced to the Empress before their debut in court society. Stéphanie had previously stepped in for Elisabeth at court functions, but lost her role as Dowager Crown Princess after her second marriage. Archduchess Maria Theresia (wife of Archduke Karl Ludwig, Franz Joseph’s brother) soon became the ‘first lady’ of the court.[20]

The death of her only son was a blow from which she never recovered, claiming ‘if I could have Rudolf back, it would be as a daughter, not as Crown Prince’.[21] Yet she seemed to have preferred the idea of never having had a child at all: ‘the noblest deed would be if all parents killed every newborn child immediately’.[22]

Further Reading

Lucy Coatman, Love Is Dead: Newly discovered letters get us closer to understanding the tragic truth of royal murder-suicide at Mayerling, History Today, February 2022.

Martina Winkelhofer, Sisis Weg, Munich: Piper, 2021.

Brigitte Hamann, Rudolf: Crown Prince and Rebel, trans. Edith Borchardt, New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

Joan Haslip, The Lonely Empress, London: Phoenix Press, 2004.

Kaiserin Elisabeth, Das poetische Tagebuch, ed. Brigitte Hamann, Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.

Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, trans. Ruth Hein, London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Michaela Lindinger, “Mein Herz ist aus Stein”: Die dunkle Seite der Kaiserin Elisabeth, Vienna: Amalthea, 2013.

Georg Markus, Katrin Unterreiner, Das Original-Mayerling-Protokoll der Helene Vetsera, Vienna: Amalthea, 2014.

Rudolf R. Novak, Das Mayerling Netz, Vienna: Berger Horn, 2019.

You can find more about Lucy’s work here: Twitter: lucy_coatman Instagram: lucycoatman



[1] Marie Valerie of Austria, Das Tagebuch der Lieblingstochter von Kaiserin Elisabeth (Munich: Piper, 2016), 197.

[2] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 168.

[3] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 169.

[4] Theodor Weber, k.u.k. Hoffourier, letter, 12th February 1889, https://www.dorotheum.com/en/l/2218778/

[5] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 172.

[6] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 211.

[7] Rebecca West, Selected Letters (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000), 88.

[8] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 209.

[9] Quoted in Joan Haslip, The Lonely Empress (London: Phoenix Press, 2004), 433.

[10] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 93.

[11] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 197.

[12] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 202.

[13] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 175.

[14] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 197.

[15] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 198.

[16] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 209.

[17] Friedjung interview with Marie Festetics, March 23, 1909, (Quoted in Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, trans. Ruth Hein (Berlin: Ullstein, 2016), 341.

[18] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 344.

[19] Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, 348.

[20] Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, 355.

[21] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 172.

[22] Marie Valerie, Tagebuch, 198.

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