Whilst the Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria visited the Czech capital at least twelve times, only once was he accompanied by his spouse, the legendary Empress Elisabeth. As well as being Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (since 1867) Franz Josef was also titular King of Bohemia, although his uncle Ferdinand I was the last Habsburg Emperor to be actually crowned as such, in 1836. This of course meant that by marriage, Elisabeth was Queen of Bohemia, something which was commented on after her assassination in Geneva in 1898, when Bohemians protested that the coat of arms which contained the inscription “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary” did not also contain the words “Queen of Bohemia” as Elisabeth’s body lay in state. (Elisabeth was by grace of her position, also Margravine of Moravia).
Elisabeth’s marked distaste for the Viennese court and her passionate espousal of the Hungarian cause resulted in her assuming a singularly political role in the reconciliation of Austria with Hungary, which helped lead to the establishment of the Dual Monarchy and the coronation of Franz Josef as King of Hungary. Her love of Hungary was reflected in the rapid progress that she made in the language. Bohemia had – in contrast to much of the Hungarian nobility – proved its loyalty to the Habsburg monarchy during the 1848 Revolution when the imperial family had fled to Olomouc, where Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated and the eighteen-year-old Franz Josef was proclaimed Emperor in his place. Elisabeth did, in fact, make early attempts at learning Czech but does not appear to have got much further than being able to count in Bohemian. Hardly anything remains of Elisabeth in Prague today; a portrait bust of Empress Elisabeth – one of a pair with Franz Josef – by Anthony Paul Wagner, is at the National Museum, part of the original decoration of the Museum’s Pantheon (1891).
Elisabeth accompanied Franz Josef on an official two-week civil inspection of the Habsburg crown lands of Moravia and Bohemia from 1-12 June 1854, two months after their wedding. As part of the nuptial celebrations, 25,000 guldens had been given as a personal gift by the Emperor to Bohemia, especially for the poor of Prague; equally, 6,000 guldens was given to the industrial areas of Moravia and Brno’s poor (Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, 1986). Essentially, this state visit formally acknowledged the loyalty of Bohemia during the year of the ‘Springtime of Peoples’ – 1848.
The Emperor and Empress travelled on the Northern Railway in the locomotive Proserpina, whose line connected Vienna with Prague via Brno. (Interestingly, Elisabeth’s railway car [Hofsalonwagen] – now preserved in Vienna’s Technisches Museum – was actually manufactured in Prague-Smichov by Ringhoffer). In Brno, they were welcomed with triumphal arches and illuminations to mark the imperial visit. As part of this tour, Elisabeth admired the wedding float procession from the Hanna in its regional costume and occupied her time visiting convents, churches, hospitals, almshouses and orphanages. (Corti, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1936). A festival was held in the Lužánky Park in Brno, and a vintage bottle of Moravian wine from 1746 was given to the Emperor and Empress before they left.
In Prague, the Emperor and Empress lodged at the Hradschin, where Franz Josef always stayed when in the capital, except the 1847 trip when the Emperor – then unmarried – stayed at the hotel ‘Zum schwarzen Rose’ on Na Příkopě Street. Court audiences and receptions dominated this visit, and the timetable was exhausting, as the newspaper reports prove. Franz Josef and Elisabeth visited the ex-Emperor Ferdinand I and his wife, Empress Maria Anna at the couple’s second summer castle of Ploskovice.
On 10 June, Elisabeth accompanied Franz Josef for the blessing of the foundation stone for the new Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague-Karlin designed by Revivalist architect Vojtěch Ignác Ullmann and Austrian architect Carl Roesner. The Emperor and Empress visited a home for the deaf and dumb, an asylum and opened a target shoot, as well as went to an agricultural fair, where a baker presented them with a pastry in the shape of the Austrian imperial eagle. (Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, 1986) The Emperor and Empress also attended a tournament in the riding academy of Valdštejnský palác in the Lesser Town, where the formal entry of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III into Prague, was re-enacted.
The imperial trip ended with a visit to the Thun family castle of Decin, where a diplomatic congress took place between Franz Josef and the Kings of Prussia and Saxony (Elisabeth’s aunts, Queen Elisabeth and Queen Marie, were both married to each respectively). Arguably the castle’s most celebrated guest had been the Polish composer Frederic Chopin, who wrote his Decin Waltz (Opus 34 No. 1) in memory of his stay at the castle, nineteen years earlier. A further link ties Decin with the imperial family – Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a frequent visitor at the castle because the Archduke’s Habsburg-Este branch of the family was linked with that of the Thuns. Following the assassination of the Archduke and his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg (nee Chotek von Chotkow and Wognin) at Sarajevo in 1914, the children of the couple were raised at Decin by their aunt, Marie Chotek-Thun.
Elisabeth undertook a journey to the spa-town of Karlovy Vary in 1893, where she stayed at the Villa Tereza, today part of the Bristol group and located in the picturesque English park known as the Westend, close to the mineral springs. The restless Empress then continued her aimless travels for that year onto Switzerland via Bavaria, but the neo-Baroque Elisabeth Baths in Karlovy Vary (1905-6) were named after her, in memory of the 1893 visit.
It appears to have been the last time that the Bohemian Queen was in Bohemia.
Elizabeth Jane Timms is a freelance writer, royal historian, and journalist. She contributes to an international academic journal about royalty and also writes for magazines and the web.