Kaiserin Elisabeth (Sisi) – Elisabeth und der Sport

Elisabeth and Sport The Horsewoman Empress Elisabeth was one of the most
accomplished horsewomen of her day. She learned to ride at a young age. Her father Duke Max was a
brilliant horseman and even had a circus ring
at his palace in Munich, where he performed himself. Sisi was already a good rider
when she met Franz Joseph. Riding was one of the hobbies
the couple always shared. As a young woman,
Sisi loved riding in the Prater. This was a common pastime
in Vienna’s elegant society. But when the Empress went for a ride,
it caused a sensation. Just as later, when Diana
made an appearance somewhere, Sisi, too, drew the crowds. This almost caused accidents,
with the throng in hot pursuit, desperate to catch a glimpse of Sisi. Sisi took care with her appearance
on these occasions as well. She paid close attention to matching
the colour of her hat and dress to the colour of her horse. Dressing for riding
was also an arduous process. She was sewn into
her tightly fitting riding gear to show off her narrow waist. Sisi cut a striking figure. After being given Gödöllő Palace,
following the coronation in Budapest, Sisi spent a great deal of time there, partly because it was
a perfect place for riding. The Hungarian plains were ideal
for long, wild rides. Sisi had a circus ring constructed
at Gödöllő, after her father’s example. She was trained by circus riders. For instance, she could jump
through two hoops on horseback. She also held wild hunts. Again this was very unconventional. She invited the Monarchy’s
best horsemen to Gödöllő, irrespective of their
rank at court or noble title. She went on wild hunts through the Puszta
with these dashing young men, usually the only woman there,
leading the charge. She enjoyed being admired
not only for her beauty but also for her sporting prowess. Her passion for riding
made her want to travel to England. England was the centre
of equestrian sport at the time. The wild hunts in Hungary
were nothing compared to those in England. In England riders rode
more daringly, more dangerously. The obstacles were much taller
and more difficult. Using the excuse that her daughter
Valerie needed sea air, Sisi went to England for the first time. Here she immediately attracted attention
due to her unconventional behaviour. For example, she snubbed
the royal family by not appearing at the appointed time. She delighted
but also astonished Londoners by riding out in Hyde Park and
sea-bathing with her ladies-in-waiting. Sisi started training in the English style
in Vienna, Gödöllő, and Bad Ischl. It was her cherished ambition
to be the best horsewoman of the day. She aspired to ride in the English hunts
as an equal of the very best horsemen. On her second trip to England
she stayed with Earl Spencer. He was an ancestor of Lady Diana. Sisi stayed at Althorp Castle,
where Diana grew up. Here she met a man who became vital
to her development as a horsewoman: Bay Middleton Bay Middleton was considered
Britain’s best horseman and riding teacher. Earl Spencer persuaded him
to teach the Empress of Austria. Sisi was given strict
military-style riding lessons. She appreciated this enormously.
Bay Middleton did not spare her. He was constantly spurring her on
to ride more wildly, more daringly, more dangerously,
to jump even higher obstacles. Sisi was not used to this. Usually everyone told her
to avoid danger, to be cautious. But with Bay Middleton’s training
Sisi became a brilliant rider. She had the skills to participate
in England’s major hunts. These hunts were very dangerous. Often 100 men rode out and
only 8 to 10 reached their destination. People fell, were injured.
There were even fatalities. The Empress of Austria was usually
among the few to arrive unscathed. Soon she became a legend in England: for her beauty and also
as an outstanding horsewoman. She was very close to Bay Middleton. He was always at her side
during her intensive training. He trained her, pulled her
out of ditches when she fell. He bought her horses. Sisi was so impressed that she
even invited him to Gödöllő in Hungary, where he stayed as her guest. Rumours soon abounded. A love affair between Sisi and
her riding instructor was fabricated. As happened later with Lady Diana. In Sisi’s case this was
most probably not true, although they were
in love in some way. Bay Middleton got engaged
shortly after meeting Sisi. But he delayed the marriage for years, until the young girl told him:
“Now or never.” When he was finally married
Sisi was so hurt that she cut off all contact
with Bay Middleton, sold her English riding horses
and never returned to Britain. Criticism in Vienna Sisi’s skills in the saddle
may have been admired in England, but this was frowned upon in Vienna. Austria was permanently in crisis. There were wars and financial crises. It did not go down well in the press when the Empress spent a fortune on
stables and riding holidays in England. When they celebrated their silver wedding
in 1879, people in Vienna quipped: “Other couples celebrate 25 years menage,
Our imperial couple celebrates 25 years manège.” Substitutes for the Saddle In the 1880s Sisi showed
the first signs of ageing. She had rheumatism and sciatica. This made riding difficult. After parting ways with Bay Middleton she started riding less and less
– also because of these ailments. Finally during the 1880s
she stopped riding altogether and sold all her riding horses. But she did not give up sport entirely. Sisi was incredibly sporty
until the end of her life. When she stopped riding,
she took up fencing. But in the last phase of her life
she went on wild walks, challenging hikes through the mountains
at great speed. Her poor ladies-in-waiting,
who were not as fit as Sisi, puffed after her. Where possible, a court carriage
would follow them, collect the poor ladies
who couldn’t keep going and bring them home. As an older woman, Sisi no longer
wanted to show her face. The few people who saw her said
she had many wrinkles. There are no images for she always
kept her face carefully concealed. Even on her long hikes
she had an umbrella or a fan in order to shield her face. Her fear of being seen was so great that she preferred walking at night. It must have been a bizarre sight: The Empress of Austria accompanied by
torchbearers and puffing ladies-in-waiting marching through the mountains
in the dead of night.


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