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The True Story Behind Empress Sisi and Franz Joseph’s Dramatic Courtship


In The Empress—the new German royal drama based on the life of Austria’s Empress Sisi that debuted on Netflix this week—the first two episodes focus on her courtship with Franz Joseph I. They recount a complicated betrothal. Franz Joseph was originally promised to Sisi’s older sister, Helene. But, when the two families spent a weekend together, it was the younger Bavarian princess who caught the emperor’s eye instead. After a few stolen moments, they announce their engagement, much to Helene’s dismay.

It makes for a fascinating and dramatic episode. But how much of it is rooted in reality?

As it turns out, a lot.

Helene was indeed the original intended bride of Franz Joseph. Princess Ludovika, Sisi’s mother, was the sister of Franz’s mother, Archduchess Sophie. The two women decided to wed their children to ensure the stability of the Habsburg dynasty. Pious and demure, the elder 18-year-old daughter was seen as the ideal choice for a royal wife and the rigid demands of the Habsburg court. (Although she is said to have one flaw—she was always late.)

The Bavarian family then traveled to the grand royal home of Bad Ischl to meet. However, one of their carriages with trunks never arrived. Dressed in mourning clothes due to the death of a recent family member, the two girls were forced to wear black. It was an unfortunate wardrobe choice for Helene. She was not blonde, as the show depicts, but instead, had dark brown hair—and the mourning dress “made the tall dark girl look even more severe,” according to The Imperial Style: Fashions of the Hapsburg Era by Polly Cone.

Sisi however, was a dark blonde, meaning the color suited the 15-year-old better. (Later, her chair would turn into her signature chestnut.) “Franz Joseph met his cousins at afternoon tea. From the first moment he was interested only in little Elisabeth, who sat at the table, unsuspecting and unabashed,” writes Cone. Their engagement was announced from the countryside. Accounts say Sissi was surprised and a bit embarrassed by the whole ordeal, while Helene was devastated. She is said to have fallen into a depression.

Frantically, Sisi’s family attempted to prepare her for Habsburg life. They fitted her with new clothes and tutored her in subjects like foreign languages and history. Yet, nothing could have prepared her for the intense, strict, and isolating life that stood before her. As thousands crowded the streets for her wedding day, she cried in her glass coach, overwhelmed by her future.


From Vogue US

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