Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria: a Queen of France who never remarried

the Hofburg Palace, the residence of the Imperial court, in Vienna

Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria, one of the daughters of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife, Maria of Spain, was born on the 5th of July 1554.  A member of the House of Habsburg, she seems to have been her father’s favorite child and resembled him not only in appearance, but also in character.   Elisabeth was just as intelligent and charming as Maximillian was.  Her childhood was spent in Vienna, and she was raised the Hofburg Palace in the strictly Catholic household.

In adolescence, Elisabeth was a renowned beauty with her flawless white skin, long blond hair, and perfect physique.  It is a rare case when a girl like her was born from an incestuous union that was typical for the Habsburgs – her parents were first cousins.  Elisabeth had a demure, quiet, and reflective personality, and her mind was totally innocent because of her sheltered upbringing.  Catherine de’ Medici, the regent for her young son Charles IX, and Maximilian negotiated a match between young Elisabeth and Charles, for the French Queen Mother needed to establish an alliance with the Catholic Habsburgs to combat the French Huguenot party.

   Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet, c 1572

Elisabeth and Charles IX were first married by proxy in October 1570 in the Cathedral of Speyer in Austria.  In France in Sedan, 85 km north-east of Reims, her husband’s younger brothers – Henri, Duke d’Anjou (the future King Henri III) and François, Duke d’Alençon – greeted her.  A curious Charles disguised himself as a soldier and mingled with a throng of his courtiers to observe his wife incognito, and he was delighted to see such a beauty.  The marriage of Charles and Elisabeth was formally solemnized in November 1570 in Mézières, and in early 1571 she was crowned Queen of France at the Basilica of St Denis in Paris.

Elisabeth of Austria & King Charles IX of France (image from Bibliotheque Nationale de France), c 1571

Her spouse already had a long-term mistress – Marie Touchet, Dame de Belleville.  Despite being the daughter of Marie Mathy and a Huguenot lieutenant Jean Touche, Marie was well educated and held herself at court like French rich ladies.  Her motto was ‘Je Charme Tout’, which means ‘I charm all’ and which was made up by King Henri III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France).

Marie Touchet was not concerned about her lover’s new wife and said of Elisabeth:

“The German girl doesn’t scare me!” 

Elisabeth as Queen of France, c 1574, by Jooris van der Straaten

Charles was infatuated with his wife only for a short time, and then he found himself again captivated by his paramour.  Nevertheless, the royal couple had a good relationship, and from time to time, Charles visited his wife’s bed.  Elisabeth spoke German, Spanish, Latin, and Italian fluently, but she learned French with difficulty.  Moreover, Elisabeth didn’t feel comfortable and was lonely at the dissolute and extravagant French court that was drastically different from the Viennese court, which was highly ceremonious and splendid, but very strict and not eccentric.  However, Elisabeth became a friend of her sister-in-law, Margaret de Valois, who was far from being virtuous.  Trying to avoid the French frivolous ways of life and being kept away from affairs of state by Catherine de’ Medici, Elisabeth led a private life, dedicating most of her time to embroidery, reading, and her many practices of charitable and pious works in France.

It is interesting that despite being a devout Catholic, Elisabeth was utterly horrified by the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Her strong opposition to Protestantism in France was well known.  Yet, upon receiving news of the slaughter of numerous Protestants in Paris that lasted for several days, Elisabeth was overwhelmed with emotions and prayed for their souls incessantly.  Elisabeth asked whether Charles knew about it.  Her shock mounted to an extreme degree when she learned that her husband and mother-in-law initiated the massacre.

According to Brantôme (Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme, who was a French historian, soldier, and biographer), a shocked Queen Elisabeth exclaimed,

“Oh, my God! What is this? Who are these counselors who gave him such advice? My God, I ask of you to forgive him.”

In October 1572, Elisabeth birthed her first and only child in the Louvre Palace.   The princess was named Marie Elisabeth after her maternal grandmother, Holy Roman Empress Maria, and Queen Elisabeth I of England, who were her godmothers by proxy.  By this time, the health of Charles IX was rapidly deteriorating; after the massacre, the monarch’s naturally fragile constitution and his mental state were weakened considerably.  It seems that the king suffered from tuberculosis, to which many members of the Houses of Valois and Bourbon had a predisposition.  By the spring of 1574, his hoarse coughing turned bloody, and Charles died on the 30th of May 1574.  Charles had one illegitimate son with his mistress – Charles de Valois, Duke d’Angoulême, who lived a long life unlike his unfortunate father.

Elisabeth in widow’s clothes, by Jakob de Monte, c 1580.

After the 40 days of mourning, Elisabeth returned to Vienna.  A match between Elisabeth and Henri III of France, who succeeded his deceased brother, was suggested, but they both rejected it.   In August 1575, Elisabeth visited her 3-year-old daughter in Amboise for the last time and left France.  She had to cope with two more tragedies: in 1576, her beloved father, Maximilian, died, and in 1578, when her only daughter Marie Elisabeth passed away as well.  In 1580, Elisabeth received a new proposal from her uncle – King Philip II of Spain – after the death of his wife and her sister, Anna of Austria, in 1580, but she didn’t even consider the possibility of remarriage.

For the rest of her life, Elisabeth maintained regular correspondence with her sister-in-law – Queen Marguerite of Navarre.  When Marguerite was ostracized from the Valois family later in life, Elisabeth made half of the revenues she received from France available to her.  Henri III was generous to his brother’s widow: he had given her the County of La Marche as her dower, and she also received the title of Duchess of Berry.  In early 1580, Elisabeth founded the Convent of Poor Clares Mary, Queen of Angels, and became her convent’s holy patron.

Elisabeth passed away of pleurisy on the 22nd of January 1592, and she was buried under a simple marble slab with any elaborations in the church of her convent.  When her monastery was closed in 1782 in order to create the Lutheran City Church, Emperor Joseph II ordered to have Elisabeth’s remains transferred to one of the crypts beneath St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

Brantôme wrote of Elisabeth’s death:

“When she died, the Empress Maria (her mother) said, ‘El mejor de nos otros es muerto” (The best of us is dead).”

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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