SOPHIE CHOTEK: THE SHUNNED DUCHESS
While Sophie Chotek’s youth was one of privilege, palaces, servants and dances, her later years were filled with rejection and frustration. Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1868, Sophie was the daughter of the Count of Hohenberg, which was a small area near what is now the German/Czech border. Sophie’s high-ranking status gave her access to meeting royalty, including Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the royal prince and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It’s believed the Archduke met Sophie at a ball in Prague in 1894. Franz was smitten by Sophie’s beauty, and the couple fell in love. Theirs was a clandestine courtship, and it was kept secret for good reason. When their engagement was finally announced, the news created a huge scandal. Although Sophie’s family tree included nobility that could be traced back to the 18th century, her blood wasn’t “royal enough,” simply because none of her ancestors had been of “dynastic status.” In other words, there were no kings in her bloodline. The Archduke’s uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, ruler of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, intervened, forbidding the couple to marry.
Infuriated by his uncle’s proclamation against Sophie, Archduke Franz was determined to spend his life with the woman he loved. On July 1, 1900, after suffering humiliation and denouncement by her husband’s family and the members of the Imperial Court, Sophie married Franz. Very few of the nobles attended the ceremony, including Franz Ferdinand’s own brothers.
Shortly before the wedding took place, Sophie had to sign legal documents acknowledging that she would never be Empress or hold a high-ranking title. She eventually received the lower-level title of Duchess of Hohenberg, despite the fact that one day, when the aging Emperor Franz Joseph died, her husband would become the new Emperor.
Throughout their fourteen-year marriage, the couple continued to be shunned by most of the royal courts of Europe. We can only imagine how she felt about being prohibited from accompanying her husband on official trips, riding with him in the Imperial carriage, or standing beside him at most functions. As if it wasn’t enough to punish the Duchess for lacking the appropriate royal blood, none of the couple’s three children or their descendants would ever be allowed to acquire any royal titles.
Ironically, it was the United Kingdom’s King George V and Queen Mary who finally welcomed the Archduke and Duchess Sophie at Windsor Castle in November of 1913. Were the British King and Queen reaching out to the future rulers of Germany’s biggest allies (the multitude of smaller countries that once made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire) at a time when so many European royals had rudely rejected Franz and Sophie?
THE END OF THE LOVE STORY
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was disliked immensely by his uncle, the Emperor. Not only did he marry Sophie, going against the Emperor’s direct orders, his nephew, Franz, had very different political ideals. The Archduke was reformist who planned to ease the tensions between countries included in the realm. There was so much political unrest in Europe by 1912, the entire area of today’s Balkan region was like a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was invited to Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Normally, Sophie’s lower rank would prevent her from accompanying her husband on any official visit. However, the Archduke insisted that Sophie be allowed to attend the dedication of the new museum with him. The couple rode together through the streets of Sarajevo in an open-topped touring car unaware of the impending danger. Minutes later a man in the crowd threw a grenade at the Archduke’s automobile. Spotting the explosive device hurling in their direction, their driver sped up the vehicle. The grenade landed under the official car behind them and blew up, seriously injuring a number of people.
Believing the danger had passed, Franz and Sophie were driven to City Hall for an official reception. When Franz insisted he wanted to visit the wounded in the hospital, he was warned that it was still quite risky, as no one knew how many men were involved in the plot to assassinate him. Still, the Archduke wanted to go, though he told Sophie that she should remain at City Hall. Duchess Sophie refused to stay behind, arguing that if her husband was going to expose himself in public again, she would be at his side.
That was a fatal mistake. On their way to Sarajevo Hospital, a teenager, a radical Serbian named Gavrilo Princip, stepped towards the Imperial automobile, aimed his gun and fired twice at close range. Sophie was shot in the stomach, and Franz was struck in the neck. Reportedly, Franz begged his dying wife to live for their children’s sake. Sadly, they were both dead within the hour.
For decades, the political climate in this part of Europe had been shaky. War was inevitable, and the assassination of the Archduke and Sophie was likely the catalyst to the events that would trigger World War I, resulting in the deaths of more than 17 million people.
In one final insult to Duchess Sophie, her earthly remains weren’t allowed to be entombed in the Imperial crypt. Aware of this situation before his death, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had left instructions that he be interred beside his beloved wife at Artstetten Castle northwest of Vienna. Because she could never be considered his equal in life and in death, Sophie was placed on a bier 18” lower than the Archduke’s.
I found it terribly disturbing that Sophie is rarely mentioned in books about World War I. That’s why I decided to write this Blog article focusing on Sophie, rather than her famous husband. For the most part, Duchess Sophie has been forgotten…until now.