Early on the morning of 30 January 1889, in an isolated Hunting Lodge the Mayerling deep within the Vienna Woods the body of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was found slumped in a chair dead his face mutilated and with blood still seeping from his mouth. Before him on a table was a mirror and a glass, on the floor a rifle. Stretched out on a nearby bed was the pale, cold, and lifeless body of his 17 year old lover, Baroness Marie Vetsera.
The Hunting Lodge was immediately sealed off and the body of Mary, as the Baroness was known, was removed and taken away for burial. Indeed, she was interred with such haste that her family, though informed of her death, had no time to arrange, let alone attend the funeral.
The information emerging from the Mayerling was also vague and confused.
The Prince’s valet, who discovered the body, reported that he believed poison had been the cause of death. The official communiqué announced that the Crown Prince had died of heart failure. No mention of Mary was made in either account.
A fear of scandal, an attempt to spare the feelings of the Imperial Family, and a reluctance to reveal too much should to do so create instability within the Empire all tended towards secrecy in what was a botched attempt at a cover-up which only served to sow suspicion and doubt. People did not believe the official version of events – that a healthy 30 year old man had simply died of heart failure - and it appeared trite that a man so often as inconvenient as the Crown Prince should die such a convenient death. As journalists from across Europe, and indeed the world, descended upon the scene their investigations were to reveal what was at best a partial truth.
Slowly it emerged that the likely cause of the deaths was suicide, that the Crown Prince had shot the Baroness with her consent before some time later turning the gun on himself. But why would he do this?
The Austro-Hungarian Empire even in the 1880’s seemed a land that was out of step with the modern world. The grandeur, protocols, and strict formality of the Imperial Court, the suffocating embrace of custom and ritual, the grand processions, the glittering balls, the exotic titles, the myriad of gay and colourful military uniforms all presided over by the venerable and be-whiskered figure of the Emperor Franz Joseph provided it with an almost fairy tale existence, or so it seemed to the outside observer or the reader of popular magazines.
But the myth was far removed from the reality and the Hapsburg Empire had been an entity struggling on the brink of collapse for decades. This threat of dynastic extinction haunted the Hapsburgs who lived in such fear of change that when reforms did come, such as the Augsleich of 1867 which resulted in Hungarian devolution and the creation of the Dual Monarchy, they were invariably forced upon it.
Despite the vulnerability its instinct remained one of oppression, a stark and divisive policy in a disparate, multi-ethnic Empire of numerous languages and many religions in which the Austrians themselves were but a small minority and where the glue that held it all together was the person of the Emperor who forty years on the throne was the one man alone to whom unambiguous loyalty could be sworn. Upon his death this responsibility would fall to his only son.
But the Crown Prince Rudolf was not his father, he did not share his politics, he did not feel comfortable shrouded in the cloak of Imperial Majesty, and was stifled by Court protocol it. Neither was he steady nor sober nor hard working but was impetuous, rash, arrogant in manner, and discourteous of those who would serve him.
The two men could not bear to be in each other’s company and Rudolf would spend time with his mother, the Empress Elisabeth who herself estranged from her husband would lend a sympathetic ear, though even she despaired at her son's behaviour and expressed concerns at the company he kept for he openly mixed in radical circles where he expressed views and opinions that were contrary to the policies of the Government both at home and abroad.
To many the process of reform he advocated, in particular his cautious nod towards democracy and greater autonomy for the regions would lead to the dismantling of the Empire itself; and his view that the Kingdom of Poland should be reconstituted, his criticism of Russia, open hostility towards France, and belief that Austria should become less reliant upon its German ally was considered not just reckless but dangerous and was to see him even as heir to the throne effectively alienated from the decision making process.
These tendencies to behave rashly and speak out of turn had been evident from an early age and were reflected in his behaviour drinking heavily and frequenting the seamier side of Viennese life its bawdier theatres and cabarets and the beds of its ladies of ill-repute.
This was unacceptable behaviour for the heir to the throne and both Franz Joseph and the Empress Elisabeth decided that he must be made to marry as soon as possible before he ruined himself and possibly the Empire but this was easier said than done as suitable Catholic Princesses of child-bearing age were far and few between. Rudolf’s refusal to countenance marriage to any woman whom he found physically unattractive decreased the available options even further.
Being touted around the Royal Houses of Europe was not an experience Rudolf enjoyed but even in his most irrational and recalcitrant of moods he recognised that for the sake of the dynasty an appropriate marriage was essential, though when he was to come to choose his bride it was, initially at least, to be the cause of some embarrassment.
On 5 March 1880, Rudolf arrived as a guest at the Royal Court of King Leopold II of Belgium.
The Royal House of Belgium had been established less than 40 years and Leopold was eager to lend it greater legitimacy by forging a marriage between his 15 year old daughter Princess Stephanie and the heir to the oldest Empire in Europe. Rudolf agreed and having already declined the hand of both the Spanish and Portuguese Infanta he wrote to his mother with satisfaction rather than enthusiasm: “I have found what I sought.”
Elisabeth was less than impressed believing her son to have chosen a bride from a parvenu dynasty well below the status of a Hapsburg but the Emperor believing marriage would calm the troublesome soul of the Crown Prince was quick to endorse it.
Princess Stephanie was sent to Vienna to be instructed in Hapsburg Court etiquette and customs but it was soon discovered that she had not even yet reached puberty. When she was told of what would be expected of her as a bride it became apparent that she had no understanding whatsoever of the facts of life. Much to everyone’s embarrassment she had to be returned to Belgium for further schooling.
Nonetheless, the following year the marriage went ahead and for a short time at least it seemed as if the couple were happy but by the time Stephanie gave birth to their daughter Erszebet in September 1883, they had already begun to grow apart.
Princess Stephanie was not what Rudolf had been seeking after all, she had seen little of the world, was conventional in her views, and reactionary in her politics and she bored the often excitable and highly-strung Rudolf whose interest in her soon waned both inside and outside of the marriage bed. He soon returned to his previous life of drinking and whoring late into the night.
Meanwhile Stephanie, ignored by the Emperor and shunned by the Empress who considered her beneath them, was left in isolation to raise their daughter alone.
Mary Vetsera was only 15 years of age when she began her affair with the Crown Prince though to avoid scandal, always a priority of the Hapsburgs their first meeting was officially declared to have been two years later.
At the time Rudolf was already in a relationship with the actress Mizzi Kaspar whom as the true love of his life he showered with money and gifts and it was rumoured that he had already approached her with the proposal that they should join in a suicide pact. It was only after she had rejected the very idea as absurd that he turned his attention to the younger and more gullible Mary.
By now frequently drunk and increasingly outspoken some talked openly of him having been bewitched and that he was becoming an embarrassment to the Crown. More significantly, Rudolf was also becoming a concern to Austria’s closest ally Germany.
Beset by internal divisions and seemingly in terminal decline though it was to Germany with a hostile France to its West and an always bellicose Russia to its East the Hapsburg Empire remained vital to its strategic interest.
The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had not been shy in expressing his doubts regarding the Crown Prince, dismissing him as weak, emotionally unstable, and a dangerous man to have at the helm of a great Empire in the heart of Europe. He viewed events with interest.
Despite being a distant second in the Crown Prince’s affections, Mary was nonetheless thrilled to have attracted his attention; her family less so, they were ambitious for their daughter and to be associated with the Crown Prince was one thing but to be his whore quite another. It did little for her long term marriage prospects.
On 29 January 1889, Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elisabeth gave a family dinner that Rudolf, much to their annoyance, absented himself from on the grounds that he intended to leave early the following morning for his Hunting Lodge at Mayerling.
The rumour soon spread that he'd earlier rowed furiously with his father over the neglect of his wife and child and his request for a divorce that simply could not be countenanced and would be rejected out of hand.
Not that Rudolf needed an excuse to absent himself from an Imperial Court he loathed that was dominated by a Prime Minister Edouard Taafe who he suspected of undermining him, and was served by courtiers he believed hated him.
Unable to persuade him to remain Rudolf left in an ill-temper – but then there was little he did in good grace.
When he arrived at the Mayerling the following morning he found Mary was already there waiting for him, though he appeared indifferent to her presence spending a long night drinking with friends before retiring to his bedchamber taking Mary with him. He also told his valet Loschek to wake him in good time for the mornings hunting.
The following day despite repeatedly banging on the door which was locked from the inside Loschek was unable to elicit a response from the Crown Prince but unwilling to force an entry on his own initiative he instead informed Count Hoyos and it was together they broke down the door to the bedroom where they discovered outlined in the semi-darkness the dead bodies of the Crown Prince and his lover.
Even before the cause of their deaths had been ascertained Count Hoyos was on a train bound for Vienna where on his arrival he reported the news to the Emperor’s Adjutant-General Count Paar who after ordering Hoyos to speak no further on the matter retired to ponder on exactly what to do.
It was not his place he felt to inform the Emperor of the tragic news, that could only be done by the Empress and so he contacted the head of her household Baron Nopsca who in turn contacted her chief lady-in-waiting Countess Ida von Ferenczy upon whom the responsibility would fall.
By the time she at last summoned up the courage to inform her mistress of what had happened whispers were already being heard of tragic events and there was to be a further delay as Elisabeth broke down in tears at the news and was unable to control her emotions sufficiently to tell the Emperor for some time.
Reports of how Franz Joseph responded to the news of his son’s death vary. Some say he received it with stoic resignation, others that it was with an apparent indifference. But then he was never one to express his emotions.
Seemingly undisturbed by grief the Emperor's overriding concern was securing for his dead son a Christian Catholic funeral. This could not be possible as a suicide and so a special dispensation had to be received on the grounds of his mental derangement at the time.
But the question of exactly how and why Crown Prince Rudolf and the Baroness Mary Vetsera died at the Mayerling remained a mystery:
1) Had they died in a suicide pact? He had after all expressed an interest in such things.
2) Rudolf had killed Mary during a row later taking his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions?
3) Mary had died following a botched abortion with Rudolf killing himself out of a sense of guilt?
4) It is known that Rudolf had infected his wife with syphilis. Had he likewise infected, Mary?
5) He had accidentally shot Mary during a brawl with members of her family angered that she was pregnant with his child.
6) He and Mary were murdered by agents of a foreign power.
Rudolf had apparently first shot Mary and then himself with a hunting rifle, a very difficult if not impossible thing to do. But then why were the shots not heard?
Again, if there had been an argument or a brawl then it would surely have been overheard but there are no accounts of this being the case.
Were they killed by the Germans?
Empress Frederick, Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter wrote to her mother of the incident:
“I have heard things about poor Rudolf which may perhaps interest you. Prince Bismarck told me that violent altercations between Rudolf and his father had led to his committing suicide but the Austrian Ambassador in Berlin tells me there had been no such scenes. The Chancellor (Bismarck) does not I think deplore it, and did not like him.”
Empress Zita, the wife of the last ruler of Austria-Hungary the Emperor Carl believed all her life that Rudolf and Mary had been murdered by French agents.
Rudolf’s death had changed the Hapsburg dynastic succession and the line of inheritance now transferred to Franz Joseph’s brother Karl Ludwig who being of a similar age relinquished his rights in favour of his son Franz Ferdinand. No more popular than Rudolf had been the future Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in every other way the opposite.
He was stable, sober, and earnest but also understood the need for reform but not from any dreamy idealistic sentiment but for the sake of the Empire and its survival.
But like Rudolf he would never get the opportunity to implement his ideas for it was his assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 that was to ignite the tinderbox of World War.