By Alejandra Ocampo


A few months ago, a renowned streaming platform launched the series “Die Kaiserin” (“The Empress), that tells the story of one of the most legendary and remarkable women in history – Sissi, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Sissi is renowned for her undisputed beauty, and she is remembered as a fascinating woman with a vast culture and interests, who defied the prejudices of her time and her position, as well as a passionated horse lover and brave rider. Her love of horses can be found in two of the many books written about her – “Wicked Queens”, by the Spaniard historian and journalist, Cristina Morató and “Sissi, Empress against her will”, by the Austrian-German historian, Brigitte Hamann. The latter dedicates an entire chapter to Sissi’s amazing skills as a horsewoman.


Sissi was born as Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess of Bavaria, in 1837 in Munich. Her parents were Maxilmilien Duke of Bavaria and Ludovika Princess Royal of Bavaria. She enjoyed and informal upbringing with her three siblings at Possenhofen Castle. She was very fond of horses at an early age, a passion she inherited from her father, who owned thoroghbreds and used to organise equestrian events. As a little girl, Sissi enjoyed to spend her time in the countryside, riding horses. “(…) Sissi liked the countryside life more than the cities and she chose (…) the breathtaking countryside landscapes over the lavish rooms of Possenhofen Castle. She loved the open air life and horse riding (…)”, wrote Cristina Morató in her book.


When Sissi was 16, the family went to Austria, to Bad Ischl exactly, the summer residence of the reigning Royal House of Habsburg, for the announcement of the engagement of Emperor Franz-Joseph, the son of the powerful Achduchess Sophie of Bavaria, who happened to be the sister of Sissi’s mother. The sisters arranged the marriage of the Emperor to Ludovika’s elder daughter, Helene, but things changed unexpectedly. Franz-Joseph was inmediatly captivated by Sissi’s unique personality and beauty. And although she was shy disliked royal life, she fell over the handsome Emperor. One year later, on April 24 1854, the 17-years-old Sissi married Franz-Joseph and became the Empress of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. But from that moment onwards, Sissi’s happy and free life would change dramatically. She soon discovered that whe was unprepared to be an Empress; the  strict and rigid court protocol suffocated her, and was at odds with her aunt and mother-in-law, Sophie, at Hoffburg Imperial Palace and Schonbrunn Palace.


Sissi and Franz-Joseph had four children – Sophie, Gisela, Rudolf and Marie Valerie. During an official trip to Hungary, two of their daughters, Sophie and Gisela fell ill; while Gisela managed to recover, her 2-years-old sister sadly passed away. As expected, Archduchess Sophie was furious and blamed Sissi for the passing of her granddaughter. This tragedy brought more drama to Sissi’s life, that led her to a then unknown disease, bulimia, that made her obsessed for her body, by undergoing strict and feroucios diets and gymnastics.


The life that was undermining Sissi was relieved by her passion for horses. According to Cristina Morató, “The Empress started to lead an extravagant and unhealthy lifestyle (…). She sunked deeply in her own thoughts and used to go on endless horseback ridings”. And despite her husband supported her equestrian actitivities, he was very concerned about her. “Stay safe, enjoy youself, ride horses, take carriage drives, but be careful”, he wrote in a letter from Italy, where he was supervising military actions on the Habsburgs grounds in the country.


But Sissi was not careful at all; she was a brave and skilled horse rider, who was able to remain on the saddle for six hours , riding around 200km without stopping. In 1854, Franz-Joseph and Sissi were crowned King and Queen of Hungary, in Budapest, and it ended up being a blessing for Sissi. In Hungary she found her favourite place, Godollo Castle, where she her stables to keep hundred of horses, and spent most of the time with them; it was said that her grooms used to have at least three horses ready for her everyday. She also made friends among the best Hungarian riders of the time, who were her companions in her endless rides. Cristina Morató wrote: “She had a circus track built at her Hungarian castle, Godollo and set an equestrian school. She also learned to do acrobatics on horses”. Brigitte Hamann remembers that Sissi’s niece, Maria, Baroness Wallersee noted that “it was a delight to see my aunt, clad in black velvet, doing acrobatics while riding her little Arabian thoroughbred. However, it was quite strange to see an Empress doing such thing”.


Sissi rode side-saddled, as a woman; it is said that once she was on the saddle, she had her mounting skirt sewed onto it in order to have a perfect fall. Although she wore gloves to seize the reins, she refused to wear them on several ocassions; as a consequence, her hands bled after her endless ridings. But she went further – she decided to mount like a man. She tried to have her mounting skirt shorter, but it didn’t work. So she asked for advice to her French ecuyére, who wore leather shorts under her dress. Sissi then, managed to find a piece of leather, which was sewed on her body by her ladies-in-waiting; after securing her shorts were strong enough, she asked for her jacket, gloves, a whip and a man’s saddle to ride at full speed, a supreme pleasure which was Sissi’s absolute delight.


In 1874, her sister, Marie Sophie the former Queen of Naples, who lived an idle life dedicated to horses in England, invited Sissi to spend a season with her. Sissi met the best English horse riders, she attended fox hunting and, to the Emperor’s horror, she started to do obstacles jumping, led by her English groom, Allen, who encouraged her do more audacious excercises. Sissi brought her equestrian activities to both Vienna and Budapest; Briggite Hammann wrote: “Everybody in Vienna were so impressed. that they didn’t want to miss the opportunity to watch the Empress to do obstacle jumping”.


Also, Sissi bought the best horses in England regardless the price, and she focused carefully when she took part of fox hunting. In 1876, she met a tough and rude Scottish rider, William George Middleton, nicknamed “Bay”, who is renowned as one of the best horseriders of the XIX Century. When he was told that he had to train an Empress, he didn’t like it at all, and was rough to her. But his ruthlessness impressed Sissi, and they ended up admiring and respecting each other. Bay loved Sissi for her courage, for defying the prejudices of the time by riding like a man, and he encouraged her to participate more in hunting. Sissi respected Bay so much; not only she made him her groom, confident, advisor, and the best companion during her ridings but he also was “the only person who was able to praise or criticise her performances. Sissi accepted all what Bay told her like a small child”, wrote Brigitte Hammann. Bay also bought horses for the Empress. Up next, Sissi went to Ireland and France; in Normady, she rode on the water and used to participate in several show jumpings in the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. By those years, it was said that it was rather strange to see Sissi on foot and not on a horse.


Suddenly, in 1883, Sissi  put an end to her equestrian passion; she only said she was not in the mood for it anymore and sold all her horses. She went back to Vienna with the Emperor and although he deeply loved her, she ignored him. But the most devastating blow would come on January 30 1889. The Crown Prince, Rudolf, was found dead alongside his lover Baroness Maria Vestera, in Mayerling, a success which is known in history as the “Tragedy of Mayerling”. The death of her son destroyed Sissi; she mourned him for the rest of her life, and gave all her clothes and jewels away.


With horses long forgotten, she spent her time travelling extensively thoroghout Europe in her ship, Miramar. On September 10 1898, after a walk close to Lake Geneva, in Switzerland with her lady-in-waiting, an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, stabbed Sissi. At first, she didn’t realize what happened, but once back on the ship, the Empress collapsed. Her lady-in-waiting inmediatly noted a blood stain close to her heart. It was the injury that caused her death.


Sissi was taken to Vienna where she was given a massive funeral; the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire deeply mourned her. Sissi desired to be buried in the isle of Corfu, in Greece; but, against her will, the Amazon Queen was laid to rest in the impressive Vienna’s Imperial Crypt.