Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Forgotten Romance

I am very pleased to welcome author Christina Croft on this blog. Today, she is gracing us with her wonderful guest post about a love story that is both beautiful and tragic.

Among the great royal romances of history there are many beautiful and often tragic stories but one story is seldom mentioned, despite the fact that it could be seen as partially responsible for a war which changed the face of Europe – and, indeed, the whole world – forever.

Most people are aware that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew and heir of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, sparked the First World War, but very little else is ever written about this fascinating man or what led him to Sarajevo on the day that the fatal shot was fired.

While writing my ‘Shattered Crowns’ trilogy, which follows the royalties of Europe from 1913 to The Treaty of Versailles, it became clear that if the Archduke had lived to become Emperor the whole course of history would have been very different. He was a man of progressive ideas, who realised the necessity of change within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which comprised many different ethnic groups several of which were becoming increasingly unhappy with being ruled from Vienna. As a young man, Franz Ferdinand travelled widely and took the opportunity of studying different types of government, eventually reaching the conclusion that the Empire could be governed along the lines of the United States’ federal system, whereby the different groups would have a measure of autonomy and the role of the emperor would be similar to that of a president. He was equally eager to create friendly ties with Austria’s powerful neighbour, Russia, and only days before his death he met with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to discuss a plan to ensure peace throughout Europe.

Unfortunately for Franz Ferdinand, his ideas were not generally well-received in the Habsburg Court, and to make matter worse, he had committed the terrible crime of falling in love with a woman who was deemed beneath him – Sophie Chotek, lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Teschen. Hearing of their romance, Emperor Franz Josef pointed out that as heir to the throne, the Archduke had a duty to marry a woman of royal blood in order to preserve the purity of the dynasty, and he adamantly declared that Franz Ferdinand would never be allowed to marry Sophie. In spite of strong opposition not only from the Emperor but also from other members of the family, Franz Ferdinand refused to abandon her, even declaring that he would renounce his title and the throne in order to be with her. Eventually, the Emperor gave way and agreed to let them marry but, on the morning of his wedding, the Archduke was forced to appear before the entire Court and ministers to sign a pledge stating that Sophie would never be crowned Empress, and any children born of their marriage would not be included in the succession. This was only the beginning of the humiliation that would be heaped on the former lady-in-waiting. Refused permission to appear with her husband on any formal occasions, she was not even allowed to sit at his table during official dinners and was forced to enter the room behind the youngest royal princesses. If Sophie arranged a ball, royal and aristocratic ladies would purposely arrange a similar event on the same evening to ensure that Sophie received no guests; and, on top of this, she was subject to constant mockery and sneering. For Franz Ferdinand, who adored his wife and who was also known for his short temper, this kind of behaviour was appalling and often led to outbursts of anger. During his legendary rages only Sophie’s gentle presence was able to soothe him and, with so little as a whisper, she calmed and comforted him.

Avoiding Vienna as often as possible, the couple were very happy together and the birth of each of their three children – who in later life remembered their kindness – brought them immense joy, but Franz Ferdinand was also aware that he had many enemies and, in the months prior to his murder, stated several times that he suspected he was about to be killed. In early 1914 he received an invitation to inspect the troops in Bosnia the following June. Bosnia, which had been annexed by Austria in 1908, was a disputed territory and reputedly filled with anti-Austrian insurgents. The visit was not without risks and, to make matters worse, the date selected for the visit was a Serbian National Holiday. Realising the dangers, Franz Ferdinand might well have declined the offer but for the fact that the invitation was also extended to his beloved Sophie. The 28th June 1914 was their fourteenth wedding anniversary, and for the first time they would appear together at an official public engagement. Now, at last, Franz Ferdinand had the opportunity to ride through the streets of Sarajevo with his beloved wife, receiving the respect she deserved. The town turned out to welcome them; pictures of both Sophie and Franz Ferdinand appeared in the windows and several photographs and film footage of the occasion show the couple walking side by side and occasionally Franz Ferdinand reaches for his wife’s hand. Everything was going perfectly until an anarchist hurled an explosive towards the motorcade. Fortunately, so it seemed, the royal couple were unharmed but, as Franz Ferdinand angrily protested about the incident and Sophie softly calmed him, it was decided to abandon the rest of the plans for the day. They agreed to make one more visit to the hospital to visit those who had been wounded in the explosion and, as they drove through the streets, Gavrilo Princip stepped out from the pavement and fired point blank at both of them. Sophie slumped to the floor of the car and Franz Ferdinand murmured, “Sophie, little Sophie, you must live for the children....” but both had been killed.

It was, perhaps, fitting that they should die together since, no less than the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, they loved each other so deeply, and were it not for the terrible events which followed their murder, theirs would surely have been recorded as one of history’s most beautiful romances.

The ‘Shattered Crowns’ trilogy of novels in based on actual historical events and follows their story and the subsequent effects on the royalties of Europe throughout the war. The first two books of the trilogy: The Scapegoats (1913-1914) and The Sacrifice (1914-1917) are available in Kindle and paperback format. The third book ‘The Betrayal’ is coming soon.


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