When a boy meets a girl there can be fireworks; when Sophie met Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hungary-Austrian throne, there were a variety of bangs with an altogether different and more tragic effect.
The Victorian era is well known for its social and economic juxtaposition; from the desperate plight of orphaned children to the extraordinary industrial progress.
But whilst there was an industrial and social revolution going on here, over in central Europe the 83 year old Hapsburg monarch, Emperor Franz Joseph was preoccupied with safeguarding the royal bloodline of the Hungary-Austrian monarchy.
It was following the suicide of the Emperor’s only son in 1889 that the Emperor’s nephew Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive and an extremely attractive proposition to the Archduchess Isabella, who planned a marriage between him and her daughter.
But the frequent visits to the Archduchess’ home were not to see the intended royal wife, but instead, the Duchess’ lady-in-waiting, Sophie Maria Josephine Albina, Countess Chotek of Chotkova & Wognin.
Sophie was by no means of ‘low birth’; the fourth daughter of the Chief Equerry of the Austrian Imperial Court in Vienna and a prominent Bohemian aristocratic family. But without direct descent from a reigning European dynasty, she was not eligible to marry into the imperial family. Although ironically one of Sophie’s ancestors was Elisabeth von Hapsburg, sister of King Rudolph I of Germany.
However, her status ‘allowed’ her to hold the position of a lady-in-waiting.
The early years of the romance were shrouded in secrecy and had the Archduchess not seen the locket belonging to Franz in which she naturally expected to see a picture of her own daughter, but was horrified to see one of Sophie, the romance may have continued undetected for many years, but with the ensuing scandal, not only was Sophie sacked, but Franz was virtually disowned by the Emperor.
Perhaps that was Franz’ intention, after all his role of Emperor had been forced on him and his love for Sophie was greater than his need to be ruler. Whatever the reason, the outcome was a disaster for the ruling dynasty and it was only after a great deal of persuasion and fear that the scandal was destabilising the royal family, that they were finally allowed to marry on 1 July 1900. None of the royal family attended except for Franz’ stepmother and her two daughters.
However, it was far from ideal as the Emperor insisted it must be a morganatic marriage to ensure any children would be prohibited from inheriting royal entitlements. But perhaps Franz thought he would be able to change the law when he became Emperor, so this condition may not have seemed important.
Excluding their future family from royal privileges was one thing, being publicly humiliated and openly ostracised was something else altogether as Sophie was subjected to degrading and demeaning treatment.
Banned from many social events, when permitted to attend Sophie was made to wait until every member of the royal family had gone in before she was allowed to join the end of the queue, and even then she was not allowed to sit with her husband in the Royal Box or accompany him in the Royal carriage.
If she organised a ball then an archduchess would organise one on the same day and as etiquette demanded people should attend the more important party, Sophie’s invitations were turned down.
Franz was never allowed to refer to her as his wife and if foreign dignitaries were being entertained, whilst a place was laid for her at the table, she was not allowed to appear. As far as anyone within the royal courts was concerned, she did not exist.
But Franz was known to have an explosive temper and Sophie’s placid and placating manner did much to calm him down and her continued support for Franz was eventually recognised when her status was raised from Princess to Duchess of Hohenberg in 1909. However, she was still kept apart from her husband during all royal engagements.
ROYAL DUTY CALLS
So could this relentless humiliation have been one of the reasons she insisted on accompanying Franz during his fateful trip to Sarajevo? Was the thought of being able to sit next to her husband in the royal procession too good an opportunity to miss and did she see this as her chance to play a pivotal role in his duty as heir to the throne?
Organised by a band of amateur revolutionaries and executed with clumsy incompetence, many say the assassination was inevitable and as with Romeo and Juliet, Franz and Sophie died within minutes of each other on 28 June 1914.
Sophie was 46 years old when she died and whilst it is generally accepted this event was the catalyst of the First World War, the reality is that the old Emperor was not in the least upset and given the state of his crumbling empire, the loss of the heir presumptive no longer seemed so important.
But even in death Sophie was not bestowed any better treatment, the Emperor eventually allowed her coffin to be placed next to Franz’ however it was placed on a lower platform and without any decoration, indicative of her lowly status. They were buried in the crypt beneath the chapel of Franz’ Castle Artstetten in Austria and not in the plots reserved for the Hapsburg royal family.
Their three surviving children, Sophie, Maximillian and Ernst were looked after by a cousin and there lies another story…