In the Autumn of 1874 the Empress Elisabeth of Austria paid a long visit to Ventnor with her six year old daughter Princess Valerie. They were travelling incognito, calling themselves the Countess and Fraulein Von Hohenembs.
Born into the Bavarian Royal Family, Elisabeth had enjoyed an informal upbringing before her marriage to Franz Joseph 1 in 1854, when she was only sixteen, thrust her into the complicated life of the Habsburg court with its strict protocols. She found her new relatives difficult, and her first child, Sophie, died as an infant. Elisabeth became depressed and made a cult of her beauty, exercising and dieting to keep her weight down; she had a gymnasium in her apartments and often rode her horses up to eight hours a day. Her pride and joy was her long auburn hair which was washed with a combination of brandy and egg whites. She was a noted beauty, and a very striking woman, as shown in the painting reproduced below.
When doctors recommended a course of sea-bathing for her youngest daughter, Valerie, in 1874, it was decided that the climate of the Undercliff in the Isle of Wight might be beneficial. Steephill Castle was rented for the Empress’s party for six weeks, Ventnor in the 1870s being a very fashionable health resort, popular with visitors from Europe and particularly Germany. Elaborate arrangements were made for the visit – new bathrooms installed in the Castle, the billiard room converted into a gymnasium, and the visitors finally moved in with their extensive entourage.
Soon after their arrival they received a visit from Queen Victoria, and the two royal ladies apparently got on tolerably well, although, as Elisabeth reported to her husband, The Queen was very kind and said nothing which was not pleasant, yet I have no real rapport with her. When invited to dine at Osborne, Elisabeth asked to be excused, although Victoria would not have been pleased to learn that Elisabeth’s reason for doing so was that Quite honestly, that sort of thing bores me. Young Valerie, overawed, simply described Victoria as The fattest lady I have ever seen.
The influx of French, Hungarian and Austrian attendants who travelled with them caused great interest in Ventnor, and the cliffs were so thronged with people that Elisabeth, like celebrities today, used a lookalike decoy: when she went swimming one of her ladies of similar height and build was despatched with hovering attendants to the place where the Empress was expected to bathe, while she went elsewhere to enjoy her swim in private. Elisabeth appears to have enjoyed her stay on the Island, and she loved the extensive grounds around Steephill Castle where, among the beeches, chestnuts, and cedars there was a ‘Christ’s Thorn’ reputed to be of the species from which the crown of thorns was woven. This shrub fascinated her and she would go to it repeatedly, touching and stroking its needle-pointed leaves.
Elisabeth’s story does not end well. Although Franz Joseph was reputedly passionately in love with his wife, their marriage was not happy, and in 1889 they were both devastated when their only son Rudolph died in a suicide pact with his mistress at the Mayerling hunting lodge.
Like Princess Diana nearly a century later, Elisabeth found it difficult to adjust to some of the constraints of life at court. She hated the idea of having security staff overseeing her movements and following her around, and she often made it difficult for them by not alerting them to her plans, and by exhausting them on her walks. On a visit to Geneva in 1898 she was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist after the press announced her visit despite the fact that she was travelling under an alias. She had no protection, having asked the police department to remove the detectives placed around her hotel.
The artist Elizabeth Thompson was living in Ventnor in the 1870s, and she wrote later in her autobiography: In September 1898 we received the terrible news of the assassination of the Empress of Austria. I had seen her every Sunday and feast day at our little Ventnor church [St Wilfrid’s], at Mass, during her residence at Steep Hill Castle. She had the tiniest waist I ever saw – indeed, no woman could have lived with a tinier one. She was beautiful, but so frigid in her manner; she seemed made of stone, yet she rode splendidly to hounds – altogether an enigma.
Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society, using sources in our Collection. Quotation from Elizabeth Butler: Battle Artist: An Autobiography. Picture: Elisabeth in Bayern 1877, a ‘carte-visite’ photograph from a painting by Georg Martin Ignaz Raab. This article first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2018.