The Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Francis Joseph I, was obliged by his coronation oath, taken in 1867, to spend regular periods of time in Hungary. To this end, the Hungarian government wished to please the royal couple by placing at their disposal not only the Castle in Buda as political headquarters, but also residences in the countryside suitable for relaxation.
One of these – the favourite of the Empress Elizabeth – was a castle, built by Count Grassalkovich’s family in 1733 and situated in Gödöllő less than 25 kilometers from the Hungarian Capital.
Taking advantage of a brilliantly sunny warm day after a week of rainy weather, I drove out to Gödöllő for a look-see last weekend and was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the place that was, after all, intended to be only “just a resting stopover for their Majesties”.
The Royal Palace of Gödöllő has a double U shape, and is surrounded by an enormous park. The building underwent several enlargements and modifications during the 18th century. Its present shape was established in the time of the third generation of the Grassalkovich family. By then the building had 8 wings, and – besides the residential part – contained a church, a theatre, a riding-hall, a hothouse, a greenhouse for flowers and an orangerie.
The weather was too good to spend a lot of time inside, so I decided to take a “garden” tour during which I realized that the very scant knowledge of Hapsburg- Hungarian history that I had acquired while attending elementary school, would not allow me to form an accurate picture of what role the Gödöllő Royal Palace played in Hungarian history.
So when I got home I hit the books after which I came to the conclusion that, if there would not have been a Royal Palace in which Empress Elizabeth would love to spend lots of time, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy would probably not have come into existence and the Balkans would have remained a bunch of small, poor and insignificant political entities incessantly quarreling with each-other.
“How so?” you ask.
On August 16, 1853 Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria’s daughter Helene had to appear before the emperor His Majesty Franz Joseph, ruler of the Hapsburg Empire She was a serious 17-year-old who appeared austere and ascetic in her dark clothing. Franz Joseph was looking for a wife. He greeted her, but his gaze wandered to the young, lively girl next to her, the 15-year-old Elizabeth, or ‘Sisi’, her sister. As fate would have it, the Emperor fell in love with her at first sight and they were married eight months later.
But from the first day on the young and spirited Elizabeth, brought up in a relaxed, informal milieu, felt caged by the rigid rituals of the Viennese court. She constantly searched for a way out, which she found when she first visited the Gödöllő castle. In fact, she developed a liking for everything Hungarian – food, music – even the impossible language, which she somehow managed to learn to speak.
Empress Elizabeth loved staying in Gödöllő where she was also able to escape the sniping of her mother-in-law. She developed a friendship with Count Gyula Andrassy an influential Hungarian aristocrat desperately trying to reestablish peace between Austria and Hungary on terms acceptable to Hungary after the Hungarians’ revolution against Austrian rule was put down with ruthless force by the Austrians.
In 1866 at the Battle of Koniggratz the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire. At Empress Elizabeth’s repeated urging Emperor Franz Joseph consulted Andrássy, who was able to construct an Austo-Hungarian Compromise Agreement acceptable to both parties. On February 17, 1867 the king/emperor appointed him as the first prime minister of the Hungarian half of the newly formed Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
In 1889 Sisi’s only son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide. His death plunged his mother, Empress Elisabeth, into despair. She wore black or pearl grey, the colours of mourning, for the rest of her life and spent more and more time away from the imperial court in Vienna.
In 1898, while Elizabeth was vacationing in Geneva, Switzerland, she was murdered by an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni. He told the authorities that he was an anarchist who came to Geneva with the intention of killing any sovereign as an example for others. Lucheni used a sharpened file to kill Sisi because he did not have enough money for a stiletto.