When someone said, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” they must have been talking about Princess Sophie of Bavaria. Sure, it was her son who technically reigned over a mighty realm, but everyone knew that cunning Sophie really ran the show. Sadly, her rule ended in cursed tragedy—but when it comes to a lady like Sophie, that kind of drama only adds to her mystique.
Princess Sophie of Bavaria Facts
1. She Was a Spoiled Brat
Though she’d suffer a cold end, Sophie began life in the warm lap of luxury. In 1805, she came into the world as the daughter of King Maximilian I and Princess Caroline of Baden, who would soon become the rulers of Bavaria. Like any royal bébé, the birth of the new princess was cause for great celebration–but even as an infant, Sophie just had to kick things up a notch.
2. Her Birth Was Strange
Sophie’s birth was twice as exciting as any other royal birth for one simple reason: There were two of her. Sophie had an identical twin named Maria Anna. The sisters were incredibly close, and shared chestnut brown hair, pouty lips, and oval faces. But that wasn’t all: the royal Bavarian house was actually chock full of twins. Two of Sophie’s sisters were also twins, and her mother had been one, too. Is this sounding kind of creepy? Maybe it should.
3. She Was Daddy’s Little Girl
Sophie was her father’s favorite child—which is saying something, considering how she had a whopping 13 other siblings. However, as a sign of the contrary, dissatisfied nature she would display later in life, Sophie apparently didn’t care much about her dad’s affections. Instead, she clung to her mother’s approval. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea.
4. Her Mother Was Demanding
Sophie grew up in an extremely rigid household that expected a lot of her—maybe too much. Her mother Caroline was perfectly “proper,” and demanded that all her daughters be immaculate, dutiful ladies who supported their husbands and upheld their good names. When it came time for Sophie to grow up, Caroline’s rigid control backfired big time.
5. Her Parents Pushed Her to Marry
As Sophie matured into a young woman, her parents insisted that she make an important and respectable match, one worthy of a Princess of Bavaria. So when the girl was still just a teenager, her royal parents landed on Archduke Franz Karl of Austria. “Archduke” you say? Seems like a catch…only Franz Karl very much wasn’t.
6. Her Husband Was a Dud
Where Sophie was a bright, ambitious young girl, Franz Karl was pretty much the exact opposite. Even the people who loved him had to admit he was a bumbling, aimless man. Still, Sophie’s parents didn’t care. “Great personality” wasn’t their top priority for their new son-in-law—they had another reason for forcing Sophie to marry Franz, and it was incredibly dark.
7. She Married for Cunning Reasons
See, Franz Karl gave Sophie a chance at every little girl’s dream: to become the Empress of Austria. Franz Karl’s father was the current emperor, and his older brother Ferdinand suffered from severe mental issues, meaning that few people expected him to wear the crown. With Franz looking like the future king, poor little Sophie was shoved into a tense family and forced to play a dangerous game of thrones. This went about as well as you’d expect.
8. She Was a Teenaged Bride
On November 4, 1824, Sophie sealed her destiny by marrying Franz Karl in a royal ceremony fitting of their stations. Although Sophie was only 19 years old on her special day, she must have looked at her feeble husband and known she was ten times sharper, quicker, and more capable than him. Still, she couldn’t have known the ordeals she was in for.
9. She Was Forced to Be Perfect
Noble courts at the time were very formal, but in becoming the Archduchess of Austria, Sophie was really diving into the deep end. The 19th-century Austrian court was one of the strictest and least forgiving societies in Europe, and as the head of it, Sophie was expected to be impossibly perfect. In other words, the pressure was maddening.
10. Her Husband Bored Her
Although Sophie probably wasn’t expecting a prince charming in Franz Karl, actually living with him really ruined her fairy tale dreams. As one historian put it, Franz Karl’s “main interest in life was consuming bowls of dumplings drenched in gravy.” Given the fundamental mismatch between this gravy-guzzling husband and his sharp-as-a-tack wife, complications were inevitable…
11. Her Marriage Got Into Deep Trouble
By 1829, it was clear something was rotten in the state of Austria. Though Franz Karl and Princess Sophie were both young newlyweds, Sophie had shown no signs of pregnancy for the first five years of their marriage. This was actually disastrous. Sophie knew all too well that it was her duty to provide her husband with an heir, and she had to make changes fast.
12. She Willed Herself Pregnant
We don’t know why Sophie and Franz Karl couldn’t conceive—personally, my money’s on Franz Karl’s all-consuming attraction to dumplings—so we don’t know what the Princess did to finally get a bun in the oven. But rest assured, whatever Sophie set her mind to, she got. By 1830, she was pregnant. And when she finally had the baby, the palace nearly erupted.
13. She Did What Others Couldn’t
When Sophie gave birth, it was a baby boy she named Francis Joseph. That’s right, trust Sophie to nail it on the first try and produce the precious male heir so many rulers (*cough* Henry VIII *cough*) would give their right arms and wives’ heads to get. For a brief time, Sophie must have had it all…but the thing about Sophie is, she always wanted more.
14. She Was a Proud Mom
Once Sophie started having children, she didn’t stop. Over the next three years, she gave birth to two more boys, Maximilian and Karl Ludwig. Talk about an heir and spare: If you imagine Princess Sophie has a house-proud “boy mom” dialled up to 1,000, I think you’ll get the picture. But for Sophie, motherhood also had a heartbreaking side.
15. She Experienced a Mother’s Worst Nightmare
Sophie’s first three experiences in childbirth were positive and relatively uncomplicated, but her next pregnancies were nightmares. When she finally gave birth to a daughter in 1835, she named the girl after her beloved twin sister Maria Anna. Sadly, however, the infant perished before her sixth birthday, leaving Sophie bereft. And that wasn’t all.
16. She Suffered a Great Tragedy
The same year that her ill-fated daughter Maria Anna passed, Sophie got pregnant again—and experienced an even darker kind of grief. This time, she had a stillborn son. The experience was so heartbreaking that Sophie couldn’t even bring herself to bestow a name upon the little baby. After a string of baby-making successes, Princess Sophie was now suffering a wave of devastating losses—and soon enough, she made everyone feel her pain.
17. Her Mother’s Funeral Was Scandalous
Sophie was already dealing with a mountain of grief, but unfortunately, another loss was in store. In 1841, her beloved mother Caroline perished—and that wasn’t all. Sophie watched as her mother received a cheap, hasty funeral that culminated with men dumping her coffin in a hole, all because Caroline had been a Protestant. After witnessing her mother’s dark end, Sophie unleashed her grief with an eerie gesture.
18. She Smothered Her Children
Sophie loved her children a lot. Like, “Helicopter parent” a lot. Perhaps reeling from the early losses of her youngest babes and the recent loss of her own mother, Sophie doted on her living children a little too much, and narcissistically saw them as extensions of herself. Her particular favorite was her younger son Maximilian—an unhealthy attachment that would come back to haunt her.
19. She Controlled Her Husband
In 1848, Sophie proved just how much of a tiger mother she really was. That year, the mentally fragile Emperor Ferdinand finally stepped away from the throne, putting Sophie’s husband Franz Karl in line for the crown. But then, just when Sophie had her chance to grab power, she made a move that stunned all of Bavaria. Believe it or not, Sophie convinced her incompetent husband not to take the crown. Instead, she did something even smarter.
20. She Was the Woman Behind the Crown
See, Sophie knew Franz Karl would be a disastrous, uncontrollable ruler, so she started grooming her more malleable son Franz Joseph for the part. It worked: After Ferdinand abdicated, the young Franz Joseph became the Emperor of all Austria, with mommy dearest right by his side. With her baby on the throne, Sophie really started controlling things.
21. She Earned an Impressive Nickname
During her rise to power, Sophie earned herself the half-awesome, half-scornful nickname of “The Only Man at Court.” Aside from insulting all the other men in the palace, it referred to the way that Sophie controlled noblemen from behind the scenes. It wasn’t like this was a secret, either: Princess Sophie of Bavaria became infamous for her Machiavellian power moves. But the worst was yet to come.
22. She Kept It in the Family
In 1854, Sophie decided it was high time to get her eldest son married, but her ambition took on a twisted quality. She was adamant about “keeping it in the family” and wanted to strengthen her own house. For this reason, she hand-picked her own niece, Helene, to become Franz Joseph’s bride. Alas, the course of cousin love never did run smooth…
23. Her Son Betrayed Her
Princess Sophie was practically all-seeing and all-knowing, but even she couldn’t control passion. Although Sophie had intended Helene for the role of Empress, her good-for-nothing son Franz Joseph had to go and fall madly in love with the wrong person. Instead of going with his mother’s choice, Franz would have none other than Helene’s beautiful younger sister, the 15-year old Elisabeth, later known as the notorious Empress Sisi.
24. She Disapproved of Her Daughter-in-Law
Though Princess Sophie allowed her son and niece to marry in April 1854, that didn’t mean she was going to be happy about it. She didn’t think Elisabeth was worthy or mature enough for the title of Empress, and “The Only Man at Court” huffed and puffed around the new bride for days on end. Then, as Elisabeth settled into palace life, Sophie’s claws truly came out.
25. She Was Unapologetically Cruel
Sophie’s rivalry with Elisabeth is now legendary. Sophie probably thought she was doing what was best for the crown, but she treated the girl like she was a personal servant. She would order her new daughter-in-law around, give her strict instructions, and offer her unsolicited advice on how to rule over a country and please a husband. So when Elisabeth became pregnant just months after the wedding…whew boy, watch out.
26. She Kidnapped a Baby
In 1855, Princess Sophie officially became a grandmother when Elisabeth had a baby girl. Her reaction to the news was utterly disturbing. Labelling Elisabeth a “silly young mother,” Sophie completely commandeered the young babe, refusing to let Elisabeth even breastfeed the girl. And then Sophie took it to a WHOLE ‘nother level.
27. She Was Incredibly Vain
Apparently not content with light kidnapping, Sophie added insult to injury by taking it upon herself to name the child, without even consulting the parents. And the name she chose? …Sophie. That’s right, after pilfering her granddaughter away from the teat, Sophie named the baby…after herself. If you think this act satisfied Sophie’s considerable ego, though, you’d be wrong.
28. She Had Bizarre Habits
Maybe to no one’s surprise, Princess Sophie was kind of a creepy grandma. She doted on Sophie Junior with obsessive detail, and almost never let the young girl out of her sight. More than that, Grandma Sophie also kept an extensive diary—where she spent time counting out every tooth little Sophie ever lost. Alright, backing away from that one real quick.
29. She…Kidnapped Another Baby
A year later, Sophie outdid herself. When Elisabeth had a new baby girl, this time named Gisela, Sophie took the child away from the young mother a second time, commandeering Gisela as her own. But in this instance, there was an even more disturbing undertone to her actions. Sophie was disappointed that Gisela was yet another girl, since she needed a boy heir for her dynasty. She was determined to continue her royal line, and she’d stop at nothing to get what she wanted.
30. She Played a Cruel Trick
To Princess Sophie, a wife who couldn’t produce a male heir was a waste of space. And because Sophie loved treating Elisabeth like garbage, she let her poor daughter-in-law know this in no uncertain terms. One day, Elisabeth entered her room—and witnessed a horrifying sight. Sophie had placed a bunch of pamphlets on a desk and underlined catty passages like “The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne.” But don’t worry, Elisabeth gave as good as she got.
31. She Got Her Comeuppance
With Sophie constantly demanding that Elisabeth be perpetually pregnant, it wasn’t long before the young Empress reached a breaking point. In response, Elisabeth took up a bizarre habit that Sophie hated: tight-lacing her corsets. With these restrictive garments, Elisabeth and her wasp-waist paraded around the palace, shouting out rebelliously, “Definitely NOT pregnant, betch.”
32. She Made a Powerful Enemy
Besides acts of tacit defiance, Elisabeth waged war on Sophie in other ways. She told all of her friends how much she loathed her mother-in-law in very explicit language. “To confess to you quite openly,” Elisabeth says in one letter, “I think [of Sophie] only with a shudder, and distance only makes me detest her all the more.” But for all her viciousness, Sophie’s life was also full of pitiful tragedy.
33. Her Marriage Was Crumbling
If you’re wondering how Sophie’s own marriage was doing while she was meddling in the affairs of others, the answer is: Pretty terribly. Elisabeth herself once noted how Sophie’s ambitions and controlling behavior made her an “obstacle to her own contentment” and rendered it almost impossible for her and Franz Karl to be alone together. Except, uh, Sophie may have wanted it that way…
34. She May Have Been Unfaithful
Sophie may have looked dutiful and regal on the surface—but she had a dark side. For one thing, her relationships with men weren’t always proper. In particular, her courtiers couldn’t help but notice that Sophie had a very, er, “close” relationship with the beautiful Napoleon II, who lived at the Austrian court. So close, in fact, that people started to whisper that the pair were having an affair. Oh, but it gets even juicier.
35. She Endured a Cruel Twist of Fate
Tragically enough, Napoleon II passed of tuberculosis when he was just 21 years old—and his demise had devastating consequences on Princess Sophie. She was utterly shocked at Napoleon’s end, and some say that her grief changed her from a young, hopeful girl into a bitter, determined woman. But this trial by fire wasn’t her last.
36. Her Family Was Cursed
In 1857, the beginnings of a curse crept into the royal line, and even the unsinkable Sophie wasn’t spared. That year, her beloved granddaughter and mini-me Sophie perished from a ravaging illness, likely typhus. The girl was only two years old, and the death sent shockwaves throughout the entire royal brood. Yet as we’ll see soon, Sophie had far more heartache in store.
37. She Got Exactly What She Wanted
1858 was a brief, joyous reprieve for Sophie: It was the year she finally got a grandson. Indeed, when Elisabeth gave birth to Crown Prince Rudolf, everyone in the palace rejoiced. But did this mean Sophie eased off on Elisabeth? Heck no. Instead, she did what she always did: Took over Rudolf’s education and refused to let his mother see him. Yep, checks out.
38. She Had a Dark Premonition
In 1864, after some shady colonial dealings, Sophie’s favorite son Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico. You’d think that this power grab would make the uber-ambitious Sophie happy, but you’d be wrong. Even though she now had not one but two sons carrying on the imperial Austrian name, Sophie had a dark feeling about her baby going over to a foreign land. Soon enough, her worst nightmare came true.
39. She Witnessed Her Son’s Downfall
Sophia had precious little time to preen over her son as “Emperor Maximilian” before it all unravelled in a brutal way. To no one’s surprise, Mexico didn’t accept Max as their new Emperor, and the country deposed him within a handful of years. Sophie watched helplessly as her son was stripped of everything he held dear—and then she entered every mother’s worst nightmare.
40. She Lost Her Baby
With Maximilian all the way in Mexico, Sophie couldn’t protect her beloved child—and he paid the ultimate price. On June 19, 1867, her little Max faced down the wrong end of a Mexican Republican firing squad, perishing almost immediately from the volley. But just before he died, the young man’s final words were for his mother…
41. Her Son Thought Only of Her
Apparently, right before the men lined up their rifles, Maximilian spoke to them in Spanish and paid them each a gold coin. Why? He was buttering them up for one last request. The former Emperor of Mexico begged them to avoid aiming at his face, so his dear mother Princess Sophie could still recognize her son after he perished. Alright, I’m crying.
42. Grief Transformed Her
When news reached Sophie of Maximilian’s ignominious end, the royal mother was reportedly so bereft she could barely function. In fact, she retired from public life almost entirely, later writing a heartbreaking entry in her diary: “The memory of the torments he had to undergo, of his friendlessness far from us, goes with me through my life and is an indescribable pain.” Poor Sophie.
43. She Could Have Had a Secret Love Child
Some say that Sophie’s profound grief had roots in a scandal. According to rumors, the boy’s father may not have been Sophie’s husband, Archduke Franz Karl, but her lost lover, Napoleon II. In losing Maximilian, then, Sophie didn’t just lose her favorite son. She also may have lost the son of the only man she had truly loved.
44. She Had a Hidden Side
There’s also evidence to suggest that Princess Sophie wasn’t as meddling and hostile a mother-in-law as some events make her seem. Although her relationship with Elisabeth has gone down in infamy, Sophie always described the young Empress in positive terms in her diary, and many historians have noted she had pleasant and functional relationships with her other daughters-in-law.
45. Her Family Tree Was Twisted
Sophie was incredibly—even disturbingly—devoted to keeping power in her family. Sure, she insisted that her son Franz Joseph marry his own cousin, but the blood-ties of the Austrian royal family were even closer than that. When Sophie married her own husband Franz Karl, her sister Caroline was actually already married to Franz Karl’s father. Yep, you read that right: Sophie’s sister was also her mother-in-law. Ew.
46. She Had Complex Relationships
Sophie and Elisabeth were at odds with each other throughout their lives, but their relationship was much more complicated than any simple rivalry. Sophie was no more a caricature of a monster-in-law than Elisabeth was of a headstrong rebel, and in the end, both women had immense respect for each other. Need proof? Elisabeth was right by Sophie’s bedside when she passed.
47. She Had a Mysterious Illness
In 1872, just a few short years after her son’s cursed end, Sophie began to experience strange and unsettling symptoms. Though she was only 67 as she approached her final days, the strong-willed, intelligent woman almost completely lost the ability to speak. Her family was confused and alarmed by her deterioration—but today, we know the dark truth.
48. She Had a Fatal Tumor
By the time of her final illness, Sophie’s life had ravaged her, and she eventually developed a fatal brain tumor that destroyed her cognitive functions. On May 28, 1872, after days in bed, Princess Sophie of Bavaria succumbed to her condition at last with her remaining family around her. Yet she still managed to speak from beyond the grave.
49. She Wrote a Final Letter
Before passing, Sophie wrote a “letter of farewell” that she insisted her family read after her death. Its contents were heartbreaking. The usually practical, controlling Princess wished only happiness for her family, saying, “Dear children, remain, all of you, united in unalterable love and loyalty.” Well, unfortunately, Sophie didn’t get her final wish…
50. Her Legacy Was Haunted
In some ways, Sophie’s passing unleashed an eerie doom, and Maximilian was merely the first sacrifice in an infamous streak of tragedy for Sophie’s brood. In 1889, her grandson Rudolf died in an infamous “love pact” with his teenage mistress. Then, 10 years later, an Italian anarchist assassinated her daughter-in-law Elisabeth, nearly destroying what was left of the Austrian royal family. The only small comfort? Sophie never lived to see all her careful work come violently undone.