Tragic Facts About Zita Of Bourbon-Parma, The Refugee Empress

Brendan Da Costa

Zita of Bourbon-Parma was the last Empress of Austria. Even though she didn’t actually want the imperial crown in the first place, she would never officially relinquish her throne. Even as she starved on dandelion salads and bounced between refugee camps—read: palaces and castles barely befitting her imperialness—she clung stubbornly to her bygone empire. These heartbreaking facts tell her grim tale.


1. She Inherited A Hollow Crown

Zita of Bourbon-Parma was born on May 9, 1892, to Robert I, Duke of Parma and Infanta Maria Antonia of Portugal. Sounds pretty fancy right? Not exactly. Her father had lost his crown during the Italian Unification, so he was a duke without a duchy. Being a monarch in name only would be Zita’s real inheritance. But her fortunes would change before long…

2. She Was Saintly

Zita’s name is pretty unique—for all the royals running rampant all over Europe at the time, she could claim to be the first of her name. Her parents had named her after the 13th-century Italian saint, Citha, to whom believers pray to help them find lost keys. Now, if only she could help Zita find the keys to the palace she got kicked out of.

3. She Had A Private Ride

Just because her father didn’t have a crown didn’t mean that she wasn’t living like a princess. Zita grew up in a lap of luxury that would very quickly turn into a trap of poverty. But in the meantime, the good times were rolling. Literally. Zita used to ride a private sixteen-car train between her summer and winter residences. And she learned a thing or two along the way.

4. She Spoke In Tongues—Many Tongues

Whether because her private train took her all around Europe or because her education made her well-rounded, Zita grew up speaking multiple languages. Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. In later years she recalled, “We grew up internationally.” But no words in any language would help her with what came next.

5. Her Father’s Demise Caused A Rivalry

Zita was attending a strict boarding school in what is now Upper Bavaria when she received news that would alter her life’s trajectory forever. Tragically, Zita learned that her father had passed away. Even more tragically, she would soon find herself in the midst of a terrible sibling rivalry that would deprive her of her birthright.

6. Her Father Had Another Family

Robert I, Zita’s father, had previously been married to another woman who had given him 12 children. And Zita’s mother, Maria Antonia, had given him another dozen royal rugrats. So, by the time that Robert I kicked the bucket in 1907, there were plenty of potential heirs to his defunct throne (and sizeable fortune). If Zita wanted to keep her 16-car luxury train, she would have to fight for it.

7. Her Family Lost Everything

Zita’s older brothers tried to claim their father’s ducal fortune after he passed. Their claim seemed strong—after all, the courts had declared six of their half-siblings to be completely mentally infirm. Unfortunately, their half-brother Elias, from Robert’s first marriage, was perfectly competent and proved it by winning his claim. His first move was to betray his own family.

Elias took the title of Duke of Parma and left Zita and the rest of her mother’s children nearly penniless—and life was about to get worse before it got better.

8. She Had Many Sisters

With her family in dire straits, Zita’s maternal grandmother had to send her to a convent where she could complete her education. Zita and her family might have lost most of their fortune, but at least they found new wealth in faith. Three of Zita’s five sisters became nuns and Zita contemplated doing the same—but Zita of Parma was never meant to take the cloth. Life had far bigger plans in store for her.

9. She Gave It All Away

In the end, Zita concluded that she didn’t need to wear a frock—unflattering as they are—in order to do good. While completing her studies at the convent on the Isle of Wight, Zita spent her days distributing food, clothing, and medicine to the poor. It was the same kind of charity she would desperately need in the years ahead.

10. She Took A Two-Years Off

Zita’s saintly efforts took their toll on her health. When the ailing royal fell mysteriously ill, there was only one thing she could do: Take a spa day. A two-year-long spa day… Of course, Zita had no way of knowing that she would meet the love of her life on that peaceful retreat. Unfortunately, if she had known what her life would become upon meeting the man of her dreams, she never would have left the sauna.

11. She Had A Chance Encounter

While visiting her maternal aunt in the spa town of Franzensbad, Zita became reacquainted with her distant relation, Archduke Charles of Austria-Este. The two had met once before as children but the sparks didn’t start flying until they met again in 1909. Although, it sounds like the sparks were only flying in one direction…

12. She Was Hard To Get

If Zita was eager to tie the knot, then she was an expert at playing hard to get. The empress-to-be later recalled, “We were of course glad to meet again and became close friends. On my side feelings developed gradually over the next two years. He seemed to have made his mind up much more quickly[…].” But if Charles wanted Zita, he was going to have to fight for her.

13. She Was An Eligible Bachelorette

In 1910, rumors began circulating that Zita was off the marital market. The rumors stated that she had become engaged to another one of her distant relatives, Don Jaime, Duke of Madrid (seriously, who in 20th century Europe wasn’t related to this woman?). The news of the potential engagement prompted Charles to finally make his move.

14. Her Aunt Set Her Up

While Zita contemplated her options, Charles raced to the home of the Archduchess Maria Theresa—his step-grandmother and Zita’s aunt—to confirm the rumors. The Archduchess, casting herself in the role of Cupid and kingmaker, assured Charles that the rumors were not true. Nevertheless, even the thought of Zita marrying another man was too much for Charles to bear.

15. Her Savior Came Riding In

After the Archduchess debunked the rumors about Zita’s engagement, Charles sprang into action. His parting words for the Archduchess were, “Well, I had better hurry in any case or she [Zita] will get engaged to someone else.” Charles really wasn’t kidding. He raced off to Villa Pianore to ask for Zita’s hand in marriage.

16. She Wanted To Save Her Skin

Zita’s initial desire to keep Charles in the “friend-zone” might have had more to do with survival than with romance. Charles was second-in-line to the imperiled imperial throne of Austria-Hungary. The initial heir to the throne had been Crown Prince Rudolf, whose suspicious suicide made global headlines. Nevertheless, Zita put her angst aside and agreed to marry Charles.

There would not be a happily ever after.

17. She Didn’t Like Her Chances

Zita and Charles’ marriage was a big affair for European royalty and everyone who was anyone attended. Including the Emperor Franz Joseph. When Zita laid eyes on the 81-year-old emperor, she couldn’t help but wonder how many days he had left. The crumbling empire’s cursed crown looked too close for comfort. And it definitely was.

18. She Came One Step Closer To The End

The infamous “shot heard round the world” that claimed the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and sparked WWI put Zita right where she didn’t want to be. Next in line for the accursed imperial crown. On the day that they received the news Zita recalled, “Though it was a beautiful day, I saw [Charles’] face go white in the sun.” Her worst nightmare had come true.

19. Her Family Feuded Fiercely

Even though Zita wasn’t involved in the fighting of WWI, she still found herself in heated conflict. By chance alone, her brothers ended up fighting on opposing sides—not too surprising when you consider that she had nine brothers and half-brothers. But her sprawling, border-crossing family didn’t stop people from questioning her allegiances.

20. She May Have Been A Traitor

When Zita’s birth country of Italy joined the fray against Austria, people began casting sideways glances her way. The German ambassador to Austria even wrote disrespectfully, “The Empress is descended from an Italian princely house…people do not entirely trust the Italian and her brood of relatives.” Fortunately, Zita found one powerful ally.

21. She Lost Her Last Defence

The aging emperor, Franz Joseph, invited Zita to spend time with him at Shrönbrunn Palace to ease any suspicions about her allegiances. It was a nice gesture, but he might have had ulterior motives—Franz Joseph was in very poor health. Not long after Zita arrived, he passed of complications arising from bronchitis and pneumonia. Uneasy lies the head, as they say…

22. Her Imperial Majesty

Zita later recalled the moment when her life changed forever. She said, “I remember the dear plump figure of Prince Lobkowitz going up to my husband[…]making the sign of the cross on Charles’ forehead. As he did so he said, ‘May God bless Your Majesty.’ It was the first time we had heard the Imperial title used to us.” And to Zita’s great misfortune, it wouldn’t be the last.

23. She Had A Sad Celebration

With the fighting of WWI ravaging Europe, the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was apparent to all. Even to the new emperor and empress. Considering the sensitive situation, Zita and Charles opted for a humbler coronation ceremony and shortened celebrations. They barely had time to fit their crowns before they got straight to work on damage control—but could they possibly save their failing empire?

24. She Loved Broken Telephone

Charles’ new work as emperor took him away from the imperial residences, leaving Zita all alone with their growing brood of children. But clearly, their romance had blossomed despite their dire situation. Charles had a telephone installed Zita just so that he could talk to Zita several times a day. But they weren’t whispering sweet nothings to each other…

25. She Saw The Horrors Of WWI

Zita held considerable power as empress, attending many of Charles’ official meetings and exerting her influence over his decisions. She even accompanied Charles to the frontlines of WWI where she visited with the wounded soldiers. The horrors that she would have seen might have been the motivation for her controversial next step.

26. She Took Part In A Conspiracy

Zita knew that the end—of WWI and her empire—was near. In what would later become known as the Sixtus Affair, Zita took advantage of her royal relations to try to bring peace back to Europe. She wrote a secret letter to her brother, Sixtus, who was a leading figure on the Belgian side of the conflict, inviting him to Vienna in order to broker a peace.

She had good intentions—but the fallout was disastrous.

27. Her Secret Plan Fell Apart

Zita successfully arranged for her brother, Sixtus, to arrive secretly and safely in Vienna—what was far behind enemy lines for him. With her careful maneuvering, Sixtus and Charles managed to find agreeable terms…only to have the belligerent German leadership throw out the agreement. And even worse, her efforts at peace provoked a lot of anger.

28. She Poked The Bear

Zita and Charles’ secret backroom negotiations to end WWI became public knowledge. As the tensions rose across Europe, Zita’s brother feared for his life, Germany threatened to invade Austria, and Charles came under intense pressure to abdicate his throne. But, acting on her own, Zita still managed to reduce the carnage of WWI.

29. She Saved The King And Queen

If Zita couldn’t get Austria out of the fighting, she resolved to at least minimize the damage. Using all of her influence, Zita convinced Austria’s ally, Germany, to call off what could have been a devastating attack. Her intervention prevented the Germans from carrying out an air raid on the King and Queen of Belgium at their residence on their name day.

30. She Never Said Never

Finally, WWI came to an end. And so did Zita’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. As part of the peace treaty, Charles had to sign a new manifesto that Zita interpreted as an abdication. Despite never wanting the imperial crown, she liked how it fit her head and she wasn’t about to give up her sparkly accessory. “A sovereign can never abdicate,” she said, “He can be deposed…All right. That is force. But abdicate—never, never, never!”

Zita of Bourbon-Parma was a fighter, and she wasn’t going down that easy.

31. She Was Totally Powerless

In the end, Zita and Charles didn’t have to abdicate—when it came to her throne, Zita was more intractable than a frontline trench. But, in the new world order, the imperial couple lost all of their power. The new national government booted them from their imperial residence at Schönbrunn Palace and the entire household fled to their lodge (still a stunning castle) in Eckartsau.

Thankfully, help was on the way.

32. She Received Royal Assistance

Fortunately for Zita, she wouldn’t have to “suffer” living in a tiny castle—she had grown accustomed to palaces—for too long. King George V in England took pity on the imperial couple and issued orders to “get the Emperor out of Austria without delay.” George V arranged for a train and an army escort to take the hapless Habsburgs to safety in Switzerland.

Zita wouldn’t return to her imperial homeland for a long, long time.

33. She Was A Couch Surfer

Zita and Charles were officially royal refugees. The imperial couple spent the better part of the next two years couch-surfing their way across Switzerland and Hungary. Finally, they found themselves in exile on the island of Madeira while their children stayed behind in Switzerland for their education. But if Zita thought that she had hit rock bottom, she was in for a rude awakening.

She didn’t even know what rock bottom looked like yet.

34. She Had The Healing Touch

While out shopping for one of their sons, Charles fell mysteriously ill, and it wasn’t long before his illness spread to the rest of the household. The eight-month pregnant Zita found herself having to play doctor for a whole house of sick people. She managed to nurse everyone back to health. That is, everyone except for one person…

35. She Felt The Love

Despite Zita’s best efforts to help his recovery, Charles’ health deteriorated rapidly. And Zita knew that if he passed, then her chances of ever returning to her imperial throne would pass with him. Sadly, there was nothing more that she could do. Charles gave his last breath on April 1, 1922. His heartbreaking last words were meant for his beloved wife: “I love you so much.”

36. She Didn’t Shed A Tear

If Charles’ last words broke Zita’s heart, then she didn’t show it. The empress mustered all of the courage she had and put on a brave face as her world crumbled around her. One attendee at Charles’ funeral remarked on Zita’s impervious demeanor: “This woman really is to be admired. She did not, for one second, lose her composure[…].”

You might say that she wore her grief on her sleeve.

37. She Had A Little Black Dress

Zita’s stoic façade at her husband’s funeral wasn’t to be confused for indifference. The truth was that Zita was totally distraught over his passing. So distraught that she would never, ever recover. The refugee empress wore nothing but mourning black for her dearly departed. For the rest of her life. All 67 remaining years.

38. She Was On The Move Again

After Charles’ passing, Zita and her children found themselves on the move once again. This time, Zita landed in Madrid, Spain where one of her Habsburg relatives put her up in a palace in the Bay of Biscay. But, raising eight children on her vastly diminished income was no easy task. At least they had a roof over their heads…but how long would that last?

39. She Barely Made It Out Alive

Just when Zita thought that she could rest her weary head, the world threw another curveball at her. At the outbreak of WWII, Zita and her children had relocated to Belgium. As the fighting broke out, they only narrowly escaped a devastating air raid on the castle they had been living in. It seemed like no place was safe for a deposed empress any more. Yet even still, Zita’s trials were far from over.

40. She Leapt Across The Ocean

With Europe once again in turmoil—and any hopes of returning to her throne buried with her husband—Zita found her way to the New World. She first arrived in New York, relying on distant relatives and resorting to her couch-surfing ways before settling in Quebec. Even though she was safe from air raids, Zita found herself an ocean removed from her only sources of income. That would soon become a serious problem.

41. She Was A Culinary Genius

Safe in Canada, Zita found herself subjected to a new level of poverty—desperate even for the refugee empress. Gone were the days of foie gras entrees and millefeuille desserts. Just to survive, Zita had to make salads out of dandelion leaves that she foraged. Ironically, today, that sounds like a $50 salad at a trendy, new restaurant.

42. She Got The Donations Rolling In

Zita’s 53rd birthday just so happened to coincide with the official end of WWII. She couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present—well, maybe she could have asked for her crown back, but there’s no grace in being greedy. With hope on the horizon, Zita spent the next few years raising funds for her former imperial nations of Austria and Hungary—even though she was, herself, a charity case.

43. She Made A Comeback

Zita’s post-WWII efforts clearly betrayed the fact that she longed to return to her homeland. Eventually, Zita was able to permanently make her way back to Europe. She settled in Switzerland once again, just a stone’s throw from Austria, in a palace maintained by the Bishop of Chur. But darker days were still in her future.

44. Her Passport Was No Good

After all of her years as a deposed empress, what Zita really wanted was to return to her imperial country of Austria. Sadly, Austrian law prohibited Zita from re-entering the country—presumably because they didn’t want her dandelion dishes. In 1972, barred from entering Austria, Zita missed out on her own daughter’s funeral. She was heartbroken—but she couldn’t exactly wear more mourning black.

45. She Was A Little Zany

The Austrian laws finally changed in 1982 and Zita returned to her homeland for the first time in six decades. But her time in exile might have made her a little…disturbed. The aging empress became something of a conspiracy theorist. She told a tabloid newspaper that she suspected the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf had been a hit job to weaken the Habsburg dynasty.

But there were still plenty of Habsburgs kicking around.

46. She “Peaced” Out

As the empress—crown or no crown—Zita was the matriarch of the Habsburg dynasty. She celebrated her 95th birthday surrounded by her ever-expanding family. Shortly thereafter, however, her health took a turn for the worse. On March 14, 1989, at the age of 96, Zita passed away soundly after saying all of her goodbyes.

47. She Supported The Matriarchy

The national government permitted Zita’s funeral to take place in Austria—so long as her family footed the bill. Considering the fact that 200 members of the Habsburg and Bourbon-Parma dynasties attended, they were able to crowdsource a lot of funds. Despite the grand ceremony, Zita’s heart wasn’t in it. Literally, her heart was not in the ceremony.

48. She Had A Jar Of Hearts

Zita was nothing if not a staunch traditionalist. And according to her ancient imperial traditions, she requested that her heart be kept in an urn at Muri Abbey. She was a hopeless sentimental. She requested that her urn be placed next to that of her long-deceased husband, Charles. This assured that, even in the afterlife, they would be side-by-side.

49. She Was The Empress, Always

In the end, Zita’s stubborn insistence on never officially abdicating tired out her detractors. She had literally gone to her grave asserting her imperial prerogative. The herald carrying out the admission ceremony into the Imperial Crypt announced her as “Zita, Her Majesty the Empress and Queen.” No word on whether they buried her with the crown.

50. She Was A Saint

Throughout all of her trials and tribulations, Zita kept her steadfast Catholic faith—and an eye on her throne, of course. For her unflapping belief and tireless efforts to help the needy, Zita is under review for sainthood by the Catholic Church. Sainthood, unfortunately, does not come with an imperial crown.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


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