The Assassination of the Archduke: In the Shadow of the Throne

Posted on October 27, 2015

by Greg King and Sue Woolmans

Chapter 1: In the Shadow of the Throne: The Assassination of the Archduke

Far away from the glamour of a snowbound Vienna, a thin, pale young man with watery blue eyes was enjoying his own pleasures as 1889 began. From his suite of ornate rooms in Prague’s Hradschin Castle, he would join the men of his 102nd Bohemian Infantry Regiment at their dinners, the local officials at their fussy receptions, and the obsequious aristocrats in their rococo ballrooms. He hated the fawning attention and the constant scrutiny that came from his position as an Austrian archduke, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, but there was no escape. Noble birth had trapped Franz Ferdinand in this gilded cage of privilege and duty.

He was twenty-five now, with light brown hair parted neatly down the middle and a dashing, thin little cavalry mustache, yet Franz Ferdinand had never outgrown the aura of fragile delicacy inherited from his late mother. Archduke Karl Ludwig, his father, was strong enough, with the same watery eyes and a robust, determined face cloaked in drooping, muttonchop whiskers. He was invariably polite; courteous, knowledgeable, and refined, he had, said one lady, “none of the Habsburg arrogance.” Pleasantries, however, couldn’t disguise reality. Karl Ludwig had few interests beyond religion and the arts and sciences. After a brief stint as governor-general of the Tyrol, he stumbled through military and political duties with disinterest until he could retire into private life.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Image is in the public domain via</em

Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Image is in the public domain via

Karl Ludwig’s delicate first wife, Princess Margaretha of Saxony, had died in 1858 after two years of marriage. Bride No. 2 came in 1862; this was Princess Maria Annunciata, daughter of the late King Ferdinand II of Naples and the Two Sicilies, a man known as “La Bomba” after having his rebellious subjects shelled into submission. Nineteen at the time, dark-haired, willowy, she had none of her father’s fiery passion and proved to be as delicate as the late Margaretha. Within a year, doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Her weak lungs forced the couple to Graz, where it was hoped the mountain air would revive her fragile health.
“Graz is pleasant,” the archduke thought; “it has the benefits of a larger city without the disadvantages.” Here, in the rented Palais Khuenburg, the couple awaited the birth of their first child. It was a quarter past seven on the morning of December 18, 1863, when the child arrived. The archbishop of Seckau christened the boy that afternoon. Karl Ludwig’s mother, Sophie, watched as godfather and great-grandfather Archduke Franz Karl announced the names: Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef Maria. The first honored the boy’s late Austrian grandfather, Emperor Franz I; the second, his infamous maternal grandfather, King Ferdinand II of Naples and the Two Sicilies.

More children followed: Otto, in 1865; Ferdinand Karl, in 1868; and Margarethe Sophie in 1870. Franz Ferdinand’s childhood was undemanding and comfortable. The family spent winters in a lavish Viennese palace, spring and fall at some remote hunting lodge, and idyllic summers at Schloss Artstetten, some seventy miles west of Vienna near the famous Benedictine Abbey of Melk in the Danube Valley. One thing was missing, though. Increasingly ill and exhausted, Maria Annunciata was a mere phantom in her children’s lives. Fearing that she would infect her sons and daughter, she forbade them to touch her, kiss her, or even spend time with her. A virtual stranger within her own house, she lived in isolation, growing weaker with the passing years until death finally overtook her in May 1871 at the age of twenty-eight.

The Assassination of the Archduke

Austrian royalty spend their winters close to the famous and spectacular Benedictine Abbey of Melk in the Danube Valley.
Image is in the public domain via

Franz Ferdinand was just seven when his mother died. It was not entirely unexpected, but undoubtedly he missed and mourned her; everyone agreed that the young archduke was a curious child, withdrawn, quiet, and introspective, though whether this stemmed from his mother’s death is a mystery. Luckily for Franz Ferdinand and his siblings, a new and altogether steadier influence soon arrived in the household. Twice widowed and with four children to bring up, Karl Ludwig waited just two years before marrying a third time, in July 1873. His new bride, Maria Theresa, was the daughter of the exiled King Miguel I of Portugal. Where Maria Annunciata had been frail and morose, Maria Theresa was robust, lively, and beautiful, with dark hair and sparkling eyes that made her one of the loveliest of European princesses. Not quite eighteen, she was nearly twenty years younger than her husband. Karl Ludwig had been a devoted, patient, and loving husband to his first two wives, but with Maria Theresa—at least according to rumor—something changed. Perhaps it was the difference in their ages, or the fact that young officers did not conceal their admiring glances at court, but the archduke allegedly went from sympathetic husband to stern martinet, tormenting his wife and generally making her life miserable.

Whether or not the stories were true, Maria Theresa did have a dramatic impact on her new family. She never differentiated between her two daughters with Karl Ludwig, Archduchesses Maria Annunciata, born in 1876, and Elisabeth, born in 1878, and her four stepchildren. Just eight years older than Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa gave him and his siblings something that they had never known: a mother. For the first time there was maternal love and affection. To Franz Ferdinand, she was simply “Mama,” and he was her “Franzi.”

The young Franz Ferdinand needed the attention. From birth he had been delicate and uncertain, and early impressions were not always favorable. “Franzi was in a bad mood,” noted his uncle Emperor Franz Josef on meeting the three-year-old in 1866, “but he speaks rather well.” Everyone noticed how introverted he seemed, how distant Franz Ferdinand was even with his own siblings. Ferdinand Karl and his sisters were too young to be true companions, and even though he was younger, Otto overshadowed him. Otto rode better than his older brother, excelled at their fencing lessons, and was vivacious where Franz Ferdinand was reticent. Otto loved noise, while Franz Ferdinand preferred solitary pursuits: long walks, lonely rides in a donkey cart, reading, and afternoons playing alone with his pet rabbits. Hunting became his favorite passion. He spent hours alone in the forest, watching and waiting for a chance to test his skill. At the age of nine he made his first kill, inaugurating what would become a remarkable record of wild trophies. “I can imagine how pleased you are!” his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf wrote.

Nor did education draw Franz Ferdinand out of his shell. Like many other princes, he was isolated in a castle schoolroom and lectured by tutors, deprived of any chance to meet other boys and subjected to a rigorous regime that lasted from morning until afternoon six days a week with only a few scattered holidays. Count Ferdinand Degenfeld, an unimaginative former army officer, supervised lessons in a curriculum heavy with arithmetic, German, grammar, sciences, geography, history, literature, and religion.

GREG KING is the author of eleven internationally published works of royal and social history, specializing in late Imperial Russia and Edwardian-era royalty, including Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age, The Fate of the Romanovs, The Court of the Last Tsar, and the UK bestseller The Duchess of Windsor. A frequent onscreen expert and commentator for historical documentaries, his work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Royalty Magazine, Royalty Digest, and Atlantis Magazine.
SUE WOOLMANS is a royal historian and writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. With Paul Kulikovsky, great-grandson of Tsar Nicholas II’s sister Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, she recently edited the Grand Duchess’s memoirs, Twenty-Five Chapters of My Life. She is a sound engineer and lives in London.

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