On this date 100 years ago the bodies of Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austrian throne, and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera were found at Mayerling, a royal hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods. The circumstances of their deaths are shrouded in mystery. Only one thing appears to be certain. They had been shot.
Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph, the heir to the Austrian throne, was born on 21st August 1858 in Laxenburg Castle. Two days later he received The Order of the Golden Fleece and was appointed Colonel in the 19th Infantry Regiment.
In 1865 Rudolf's mother Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria demanded the dismissal of the boy's tutor General Count Leopold Gondrecourt whose harsh, sadistic methods, approved of by the disciplinarian Kaiser Franz Joseph who wanted to make a man out of the boy, were proving detrimental to the young prince's physical and mental well-being.
In 1867 Rudolf was taken by a group of seven men into the Jainzer woodland behind the Kaiser Villa at Ischl in the Austrian Lake District. There kneeling behind a tree he took aim with a rifle and shot his first stag at close range. A large stone marks the spot.
The boy developed an interest in ornithology. In 1870 he wrote a 100-page essay on the hunting of eagles. He enjoyed hunting and birdwatching holidays in Spain, Portugal, Egypt, and Palestine. On his writing desk he would one day have a bronze paperweight of a sparrow; the bird lying on its back with its wings at its sides, looking almost like a sleeping angel.
In 1880 a suitable bride was chosen for Prince Rudolf. He travelled to Belgium and became engaged to Princess Stephanie the daughter of the Belgium's King Leopold II. The following year the couple were married in Vienna. In 1883 he began publishing anonymously a series of political pamphlets.
In 1885 he suggested that the Austria-Hungarian Empire might revise and improve her foreign relations policy, especially with regard to Russia. This proposal was rejected out of hand. The following year he told Georges Clemencau: Germany will never understand the wisdom of grouping Germans, Slavs, Hungarians and Poles under the Crown. The Habsburger's have, albeit in a small way, brought about Victor Hugo's dream of a United States of Europe. Austria is a block of different nations and different races joined together. It is the basic idea of Austria, and it is an idea of enormous importance for civilistaion.
In the same year that Prince Rudolf was discussing his European Union ideas with Clemencau there was a problem that was to cause Emperor Franz Joseph more than a few sleepless nights. It was discovered that Rudolf had contracted an incurable form of gonorrhoea. His wife Princess Stephanie of Belgium was also infected. She could have no more children. There was then no possibility of a male heir. The couple's only child was a girl. This child, Elisabeth Marie, would eventually leave the royal family, marry a commoner and join the Socialist Party. But that's another story.
Rudolf continued to publish his political essays. Things came to a head on 26th January 1889 when there was a furious row between Kaiser Franz Joseph and Prince Rudolf. This was in connection with an official visit to the German Embassy on 27th January 1889, a visit that Rudolf did not want to make, until he was persuaded to change his mind.
On the 28th January, together with his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera, he travelled to Mayerling. He planned to return to Vienna on 31st January. There he would meet Count Karoly of Budapest. There were serious political matters, including the future of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to discuss. Consider here the flurry of urgent telegrams, three in one day from Karoly and the reply from Rudolf fixing the appointment.
Count Josef Hoyos and Prince Philip von Coburg joined Rudolf at Mayerling intending to enjoy a couple of days hunting in the Vienna Woods.
The scenario about to unfold would be quite different to all these best laid plans.