As any visitor soon discovers, Sisi has become the face of modern Viennese tourism. Her portrait stands out everywhere and millions visit the museums devoted to her memory. It was on such a visit that we encountered the Empress of Austria’s travels around Europe. Had she visited Britain we wondered? A copy of Brigitte Hamann’s excellent biography The Reluctant Empress (translated from Elisabeth: Kaiserin wider Willen) quickly confirmed she had made many hunting expeditions.
Originally we planned a short brochure about the visits but once we began the research we realised that previous biographers had never fully researched all of the visits. John Welcome in The Sporting Empress had concentrated on Sisi’s close relationship with Bay Middleton and Count Corti and Joan Haslip wrote fine, overall biographies of her. Yet nobody appeared to have concentrated on all of the visits or looked at the Crown Prince Rudolf’s extensive, grand tour of Britain and Ireland.
A tale of an empress simply jumping hedges and pursuing foxes would have been irrelevant. But Sisi is fascinating not just when she challenged every convention in the book but because she attracted a fascinating group of followers and companions from both Austria – Hungary, Britain and Ireland. They were larger than life characters such as Karl Kinsky, Austrian aristocrat, diplomat, spy (?), Grand National winner and lover of Winston Churchill’s mother Jenny Jerome or the extravagant ‘Chicken’ Hartopp who brought polo to Britain.
Politically it could not have come at a more turbulent time – Ireland was in a neo-revolutionary state and Britain and Austro-Hungary were trying to stop Russia crushing the ailing Ottoman Empire. Whereas Crown Prince Rudolf was a born diplomat, his mother Elisabeth shunned her duty as a monarch and empress to meet Queen Victoria.