Elisabeth of Austria, Queen of France

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For other people named Elisabeth of Austria, see Elisabeth of Austria (disambiguation).
Elisabeth of Austria
Elizabeth d Autriche by Francois Clouet 1510 1572.jpg
Painting by François Clouet, ca. 1571.
Queen consort of France
Tenure 26 November 1570 – 30 May 1574
Coronation 25 March 1571
Spouse Charles IX of France
Issue Marie Elisabeth of Valois
House House of Habsburg
Father Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor
Mother Maria of Spain
Born (1554-07-05)5 July 1554
Vienna, Austria
Died 22 January 1592(1592-01-22) (aged 37)
Vienna, Austria
Burial St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
Religion Roman Catholicism
Styles of
Queen Elisabeth of France as consort
Reference style Her Majesty
Spoken style Your Majesty
Alternative style Madame

Elisabeth of Austria (5 July 1554 – 22 January 1592) was Queen of France from 1570 to 1574 as the wife of King Charles IX. A member of the House of Habsburg, she was the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria of Spain.

Early years[edit]

Elisabeth was the fifth child and second daughter of her parents' sixteen children, of whom eight survived infancy.[1][2] 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.

Very early, around 1559, a match between Elisabeth and the future King Charles IX of France was suggested.[3] In 1562, the Maréchal de Vieilleville, a member of the French delegation sent to Vienna, after seeing the eight-year-old princess, exclaimed: "Your Majesty, this is the Queen of France!". Although Vieilleville was not entitled to make an offer, Elisabeth's grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, appeared interested. They exchanged gifts and initiated contacts between both countries—but no one bothered to teach French to the princess.

Queen of France[edit]

Only in 1569, after the failure of marriage plans with Frederick II of Denmark and Sebastian of Portugal, the French offer was seriously considered. 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.[4] 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,sapphires and rubies.

Elisabeth as queen of France, ca. 1574.

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.[5] 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);[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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),[10] 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;[11] in addition, she received the title of Duchess of Berry and in 1577 she obtained the Duchies of Auvergne and Bourbon in exchange.[12] 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.

Widowhood and death[edit]

Elisabeth in widow's clothes. Painting by Jakob de Monte, ca. 1580.

Once she returned to Vienna, Elisabeth lived at first in her childhood home, Schloss Stallburg. On 12 October 1576 her beloved father Maximilian II died, and her brother Rudolf II succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. Her last great tragedy came on 2 April 1578, when her six-year-old daughter Marie Elisabeth died. When a new proposal of marriage was made to her, this time from King Philip II of Spain after the death of his wife Anna in 1580, she again refused; according to Brantôme, she replied to the offer with the famous phrase: "The Queens of France never remarried" (Les Reines de France ne se remarient point), once said by Blanche of Navarre, widow of King Philip VI.

In France, where Busbecq managed her properties, Elisabeth built a Jesuit college in Bourges, despite the fact that she never received the monetary revenues from her domains.

In early 1580 Elisabeth bought some lands near Stallburg and founded the Convent of Poor Clares Mary, Queen of Angels (Klarissinnenkloster Maria, Königin der Engel), also known as the Queen's Monastery (Königinkloster). Elisabeth henceforth devoted her life to following the example of her convent's holy patron in the exercise of piety, poor relief and health care. Even impoverished noble daughters found her support. She also financed the restoration of the All Saints Chapel in Hradčany, Prague, which was destroyed after a fire in 1541.

Elisabeth also acquired several relics for her convent. In 1588 she obtained the consent of her brother, Maximilian, as Coadjutor of the Teutonic Order, to have some of the bones of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, placed in Marburg, sent to her.

After her departure from France, Elisabeth maintained a regular correspondence with her sister-in-law Queen Margaret of Navarre, and when the latter was ostracised from the rest of the royal family, she made half of the revenues she received from France available to Margaret. Brantôme relates that on one occasion, Elisabeth sent to Margaret two books (now lost) written by her: a devotional work (Sur la parole de Dieu) and a historical work (Sur les événements considérables qui arrivèrent en France de son temps).

Elisabeth died on 22 January 1592 victim of pleurisy, and was buried in a simple marble slab in the church of her convent. About her death, Brantôme wrote:

When she died, the Empress [...] (her mother) said [...] "El mejor de nosotros ha muerto" (The best of us is dead).

In the course of the Josephinist reforms, the Queen's Monastery was closed in 1782 in order to create the Lutheran City Church. By order of Emperor Joseph II, Elisabeth's remains were transferred to one of the crypts beneath St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna.

In her will, Elizabeth donated money not only for the poor and sick, but also included funds for prayers for her late husband in the convent's church. Her Spanish, German, French, Italian and Latin books from her library, a number of works of the Jesuit preacher Georg Scherer, a book of prophecies of the French astrologer Nostradamus written in 1571 and the tragedy of Antigone of the ancient Greek poet Sophocles were left to her brother Emperor Rudolf II. Her wedding ring was given to another brother Ernest.



  1. ^ Marek, Miroslav. "Complete Genealogy of the House of Habsburg". Genealogy.EU. [self-published source][better source needed]
  2. ^ Genealogy Database by Daniel de Rauglaudre
  3. ^ Charles had been styled Duke of Orléans since his birth, but the fact that his older brother King Francis II was young and childless meant that he was heir to the French throne.
  4. ^ Philip II's previous wife, Elisabeth of Valois (died in 1568), was Queen Catherine's eldest daughter.
  5. ^ Joseph F. Patrouch, 'Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554-1592)'. In Anne Commire, ed., Women in World History, vol. 5, p. 131
  6. ^ C. Brainne, J. Debarbouiller, C. F. Lapierre: Les Hommes illustres de l’Orléanais, p. 335.
  7. ^ Gerd Treffer, Die Französischen Königinnen, 1996, p. 261.
  8. ^ Brigitte Hamann (Hg.), Die Habsburger, 1988, p. 88.
  9. ^ Élisabeth d’Autriche. [In:] Nouvelle biographie générale, vol. XV, p. 862.
  10. ^ By custom, the white color was used by the French royalty as sign of mourning
  11. ^ Nobiliaire du diocèse et de la généralité de Limoges par l'abbé Joseph Nadaud, Limoges, 1878, vol. III, p. 182.
  12. ^ King Henry III gave the Duchy of Berry to his younger brother and heir presumptive Francis, Duke of Anjou in 1576.


  • Joseph F. Patrouch: Elisabeth of Habsburg (1554-1592). [In:] Anne Commire: Women in World History, vol. V, pp. 129–133.
  • Constantin von Wurzbach: Habsburg, Elisabeth von Oesterreich (Königin von Frankreich). Nr. 71. [In:] Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich, vol. VI, Publisher L. C. Zamarski, Vienna 1856–1891, p. 169.
  • Elisabeth, [in:] Brigitte Hamann, Die Habsburger, 1988, p. 87.
  • Gerd Treffer: Elisabeth von Österreich. [In:] Die Französischen Königinnen. Regensburg 1996, p. 260.
French royalty
Preceded by
Mary I of Scotland
Queen consort of France
26 November 1570 – 30 May 1574
Succeeded by
Louise of Lorraine