Elisabeth of Austria (5 July 1554 – 22 January 1592) born an Archduchess of Austria, was Queen of France from 1570 to 1574 as the consort of Charles IX of France. A member of the House of Habsburg, she was the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria of Spain.
Elisabeth was the fifth child and second daughter of her parents’ sixteen children, of whom eight survived infancy. During her childhood, she lived with her older sister Anna and younger brother Matthias in a pavilion in the gardens of the newly built Schloss Stallburg near Vienna. They enjoyed a privileged and secluded childhood and were raised as devout Catholics. Her father Maximilian visited her often and Elisabeth seems to have been his particular favorite child. She resembled him, not only in appearance but also in character: Elisabeth was just as intelligent and charming as her father.
With her flawless white skin, long blond hair and perfect physique, she was considered one of the great beauties of the era. She was also regarded as demure, pious, and warm-hearted but naive and intensely innocent because of her sheltered upbringing. Still, she was intellectually talented. Elisabeth’s brothers were educated by the Flemish writer and diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. The curious princess soon joined and even overshadowed them in their studies. Her mother Maria personally supervised the religious education of her daughters, and from her early childhood she was impressed by her namesake Saint Elisabeth of Hungary and reportedly took her as a model.
In 1569, after the failure of marriage plans with Kings Frederick II of Denmark and Sebastian I of Portugal, the French offer was seriously considered. Queen Catherine de’ Medici, mother of Charles IX and the power behind the throne, initially preferred Elisabeth’s elder sister Anna over her; but the oldest Archduchess was already chosen as the new wife of her uncle King Philip II of Spain. Queen Catherine finally agreed to marriage with the second daughter Elisabeth, as France absolutely needed a Catholic marriage in order to combat the Protestant parties as well as to cement an alliance between the Habsburg emperors and the French Crown.
Elisabeth was first married by proxy on 22 October 1570 in the Cathedral of Speyer (Elisabeth’s uncle, Archduke Ferdinand of Further Austria-Tyrol, served as proxy for the French King). After long celebrations, on 4 November she left Austria accompanied by high-ranking German nobles, including the Archbishop-Elector of Trier. Once in French territory, the roads were impassable thanks to the constant rain; this caused the decision that the official wedding was to be celebrated in the small border town of Mézières-en-Champagne (now Charleville-Mézières). Before reaching her destiny, Elisabeth stayed in Sedan, where her husband’s younger brother Henry, Duke of Anjou, received her. The King, curious about his future wife, dressed himself as a soldier and went to Sedan to observe her incognito while she was walking in the palace of Sedan’s garden with Henry: he was reportedly happy about what he saw.
King Charles IX of France and Archduchess Elisabeth of Austria were formally married on 26 November 1570 in Mézières; Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, performed the ceremony. The occasion was celebrated with immense pomp and extravagance, despite the dire state of French finances. The new Queen’s wedding gown was of silver and her tiara was studded with pearls, emeralds, diamonds and rubies.
Because of the difficult journey and the cold weather, at the beginning of 1571 Elisabeth was very sick. Since the wedding took place far away from Paris, it was only in the spring that the German-French alliance was celebrated once again with magnificent feasts in the capital. On 25 March 1571 Elisabeth was consecrated as Queen of France by the Archbishop of Reims at the Basilica of St Denis. The new Queen officially entered Paris four days later, on 29 March. Then, she disappeared from public life.
Elisabeth was so delighted about her husband that she, to general amusement, did not hesitate to kiss him in front of others. However, King Charles IX already had a long-term mistress, Marie Touchet, who famously quoted: “The German girl doesn’t scare me” (L'allemande ne me fait pas peur); after a brief infatuation with his teenage bride, the King soon returned to his mistress, encouraged by his own mother, Queen Catherine, who made sure that her new daughter-in-law was kept out of any affairs of state.
Although they never fell in love, the royal couple had a warm and supportive relationship. Charles realised that the liberal ways of the French Court might shock Elisabeth and, along with his mother, he made an effort to shield her from its excesses. Queen Elisabeth spoke German, Spanish, Latin and Italian with fluency, but she learned French with difficulty; also, she felt lonely in the lively and dissolute French court; one of her few friends was, surprisingly, her controversial sister-in-law, Margaret of Valois. Busbecq, her former tutor who accompanied her in her trip to France, was made her Lord Chamberlain.
The Queen, shocked with the licentious ways of the French court, dedicated her time to embroidery work, reading and especially the practice of charitable and pious works. She continued to hear Mass twice a day, despite being horrified at how little respect was shown for religion by the supposedly Catholic courtiers. Her one controversial act was to make a point of rejecting the attentions of Protestant courtiers and politicians by refusing the Huguenot leader, Gaspard II de Coligny the permission to kiss her hand when they paid homage to the royal family.
Despite her strong opposition to the Protestantism in France, she was horrified when she received news of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 24 August 1572, when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered on the streets of Paris. During the massacre, the Queen was given petitions to speak for the innocent, and she managed to assure a promise to spare the lives of the foreign (especially numerous German) Protestants. Elisabeth, then heavily pregnant, never publicly rejoiced at so many deaths - like other prominent Catholics did. According to Brantôme, the next morning after the massacre, the shocked Queen asked her husband if he knew about that: when the King told her that he was the initiator, she said she would pray for him and the salvation of his soul.
A few months later, on 27 October 1572, the Queen gave birth her first child, a daughter, in the Louvre Palace. She was named Marie Elisabeth after her grandmother, Empress Maria, and Queen Elizabeth I of England, who were her godmothers.
By the time of Marie Elisabeth’s birth the already poor health of the King deteriorated rapidly, and after long suffering, in which Elizabeth rendered him silent support and prayed for his recovery, he died on 30 May 1574; the Queen, who was at his bedside (weeping “tears so tender, and so secret,” according to one eyewitness), was at the end expelled from the King’s chamber by her mother-in-law, Queen Catherine.
After having completed the 40 days mourning period, Elisabeth, now called la reine blanche (the White Queen), was compelled by her father to return to Vienna. Shortly before, Emperor Maximilian II made the proposition of a new marriage for her, this time with her dead husband’s brother - now King Henry III of France; however, she firmly refused. By Letters Patent dated on 21 November 1575, King Henry III gave up the County of Upper and Lower March (Haute et Basse-Marche) to his sister-in-law Elisabeth as her dower; in addition, she received the title of Duchess of Berry and in 1577 she obtained the Duchies of Auvergne and Bourbon in exchange. On 28 August 1575 Elisabeth visited her almost three-year-old daughter in Amboise for the last time and on 5 December she finally left Paris after leaving little Marie Elisabeth under the care of her grandmother Queen Catherine. Elisabeth would never see her daughter again.
Elisabeth died on 22 January 1592 victim of pleurisy, and was buried in a simple marble slab in the church of her convent.