Franz Ferdinand’s Forbidden Fantasy

Photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg | circa 1914 | Hermann Clemens Kosel | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps people are more familiar with Franz Ferdinand due to his assassination, which sparked World War I, yet, his life was full of controversial events.1 But actually, his marriage was an eventful occurrence that ignited controversy around the world, especially within the Austro-Hungarian royal family itself. The controversies surrounding Franz Ferdinand’s marriage raises a number of questions. Is it moral to disobey one’s parents’ wishes to marry someone? Who has the most prominent part of the decision when it comes to marriage? Can one marry whomever one desires? These questions were in Franz Ferdinand’s mind when he sought to marry Sophie Chotek—the woman he loved. Could he marry her, or would he have to submit to his family’s claims that she was not worthy of him?2 Even with the world against them, Franz Ferdinand completed his love story with Sophie Chotek through ambition, defiance, and love, which not only joined them, but also posed a menacing threat for them.

Photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his oberst uniform, standard of an Austrian colonel | 1905 | Carl Pietzner | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1863 at the Herberstein Palace in Graz, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was introduced into a world of nobility and luxury, as he was part of the royal family ruling the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, was born in 1868, into a family of aristocrats, who were quite distant from the social status held by the Archduke.3 The Archduke and Sophie married in 1900; people, especially the Archduke’s family, perceived Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie Chotek’s marriage as one that mixed gold and lead. Even though the bride’s family was securely aristocratic, that did not compare to the titles that the groom and his family held. Consequently, one of the most famous morganatic marriages in history took place, that is, a marriage between two persons of uneven social status. In the case of Francis and Sophie, the offspring of the marriage, and Sophie herself, would be deprived of the rights and properties that would accrue to members of the royal family.4 Being an Archduke, Franz Ferdinand belonged to the royal family, holding all of the royal rights and privileges of that royal status; Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, was merely blue blooded–aristocratic, with aristocratic rights and privileges–but not royal ones. And clearly to the royal family, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek were of unequal rankings. Therefore, according to the law, neither their children, nor Sophie, would ever be able to aspire to have a royal position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This was just one of the consequences that Franz Ferdinand and his future family would have to endure, due to his morganatic marriage. But theirs was not the only case like this in this period of time. Other cases of famous morganatic marriages with major social impacts were: King Leopold and Caroline Lacroix, where the unconventional King of Belgium married a French singer he saw on the Parisian streets; the Archduke Charles and Elsa Czuber, another “disgraceful” marriage among the Habsburgs between a defiant Archduke (antagonized by Emperor Franz Joseph–similar to Franz Ferdinand’s case) and a mundane, second-rate actress; and the Grand Duke Paul and Olga Karnovitch, where the Russian Duke of the House of Romanoff was left a widower, so he wooed a married woman to be with him, until she divorced and married the Duke. Nonetheless, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, carried out one of the most preeminent morganatic marriages, given the upheaval caused by Franz Ferdinand’s ambitious quest to marry Sophie.5

Photograph of Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg | ~ 1900, postcard from 1914 | Unknown | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note that before Archduke Franz Ferdinand began his love odyssey, a series of convenient events took place. Indeed, Franz Ferdinand was son of Archduke Karl Ludwig, and nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I; the probability of him becoming the next Emperor of Austria had been unlikely; but a plethora of improbable vicissitudes had happened that made the improbable a possibility. First, in 1889, the heir apparent (next in line for the throne), Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide for unknown reasons by pulling the trigger towards his mistress, and then proceeding to shoot himself. This unexpected, tragic, and unorthodox event left Franz Ferdinand’s father, Archduke Karl Ludwig as the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Finally, with Franz Ferdinand being heir presumptive (a potential heir to the throne), it literally took only a few days for Archduke Karl Ludwig to renounce his position, leaving Franz Ferdinand as the heir apparent under Emperor Franz Joseph I. As it would be, Franz Ferdinand, in a matter of days, ascended the royal ladder and became even more powerful than he was before, unknowingly setting a more difficult obstacle for his future marriage with his non-royal spouse.6

It was in Vienna, in the year 1894, that these two lovers met for the first time, at a masquerade ball at the Larish Palace; incidentally, this was on the day Franz Ferdinand was bound to ask Archduchess Gabrielle to marry him, the woman with whom their superiors had arranged for him to marry.7 However, the Archduchess was vexed by all the royal expectations of her future, regarding marriage and behavior, for example, and she wished to lead a normal life without following standards imposed on her. So, coincidentally, just as the Archduke was about to ask for her hand, Countess Sophie Chotek, waiting in line behind Archduchess Isabella, stepped into the room; Gabrielle’s salvation had arrived. In attempt to escape the royal marriage, Gabrielle introduced Sophie to the Archduke, and they instantly fell in love. Subsequently, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie met again, and this time, the Archduke asked Sophie to marry him, to which she replied saying that she was worried, since she was cognizant that she was not as royal as her imminent spouse. When Archduchess Isabella learned about this, she became infuriated and tried to expel Sophie from the emperor’s castle. Regardless, Franz Ferdinand obstinately rebelled against the family’s opinion and insisted in marrying Sophie, even if that meant taking a stand against his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph I. At first, Franz Joseph I was in utter denial at the idea of the marriage, and he disliked Sophie for this, but in the end, he reluctantly allowed the marriage to take place, with the condition of it being morganatic—in its full connotation. Evidently, Franz Ferdinand fell in love with a woman disapproved by his family, and out of the many antagonists he gained by this, his uncle was the one with the most discontent towards the Archduke.8 

Many years passed, and Sophie continued to be rejected by the royal family. In fact, Emperor Franz Joseph I abhorred the idea of his nephew’s marriage with a woman that, to his eyes, “shamed the dignity of the House of Habsburg.”9 In his defense, Franz Ferdinand countered the idea of marrying royalty with fellow royals by saying, “So it comes about that with us man and wife are always related to each other twenty times over. The result is that half of the children are idiots!”10 Hesitantly, the Emperor allowed the marriage. Soon after, on July 1, 1900, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, rightfully married at Reichstadt. However, the Emperor decided to shame the heir presumptive’s marriage by not attending the wedding, and he treated his nephew’s family as nonexistent in the near future. Other members of the Habsburg family continued their reprimands against Sophie, angering the Archduke. For example, women of the court constantly said: “Don’t let her think she’s one of us!” And Sophie (even though she was as educated, beautiful and courteous) was often forced to walk on the left side of her husband to remind people of her unequal status. Regularly, Franz Ferdinand would confront people who insulted Sophie, regardless of their rankings, yet, nothing could make the romance between the now married couple recede.11

In 1913, after thirteen years of a happy marriage that produced one daughter and three sons, critics against Sophie continued to prevail, and Franz Ferdinand always decided to ignore such insults; he ignored all norms regarding Sophie and he always tried to sneak Sophie into reunions, high class parties, and balls that she was mostly left out of. Hence, one day, Franz Ferdinand was invited to meet with one of Franz Joseph’s confidants, and when this officer of high ranking learned that Franz Ferdinand intended to bring Sophie with him, he informed Franz Joseph, who had appointed Franz Ferdinand as inspector general of the armies. In an ill-fated invitation, Franz Ferdinand was sent to inspect army maneuvers at Sarajevo.12 This was set to happen in June of 1914, and Sophie was scared of this trip to the Bosnian capital, because Franz Ferdinand, as he began to prepare for his role as Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had sympathized with the Slavs, gaining enemies from both the Pan-Serbian and Pan-German groups, including the hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.13

Photograph of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie getting in their car in Sarajevo, just moments before their assassination | June 28, 1914 | Karl Trostl | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When the day came to leave Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s magnificent home in Vienna, Franz Ferdinand was accompanied by his wife, since she feared her husband’s destiny once he set foot on a land where he was not popular among the people. They departed for Sarajevo, and on June 28, 1914, they started conducting the inspection tour. Unfortunately, while riding their car in the streets of Sarajevo, a nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. This infamous event in history then triggered a series of events that escalated a month later into one of the most horrible wars in history, World War I.14

Definitely, the romance between Sophie Chotek and Franz Ferdinand had no boundaries, and Franz Ferdinand’s decision to marry someone outside royalty brought him condemnation by his own uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph I, and many others of that rank. This romance was incessant; the insults against his wife, the threats, the unstoppable mistreatment Sophie received, and certainly, not even death, could tear Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek apart.

  1. Harlan Ullman, A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 1-6.
  2. Richard Cavendish, “Birth of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand,” History Today 63, no. 12 (2013): 2.
  3. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Francis Ferdinand.”
  4. The Companion to British History, 2001, s.v. “Morganatic Marriage,” by Charles Arnold-Baker.
  5. Charles Kingston, Famous Morganatic Marriages (England: S. Paul and Co, 1919), 5.
  6. Richard Cavendish, “Birth of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand,” History Today 63, no. 12 (2013): 1-2.
  7. Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The assassination of the archduke : Sarajevo 1914 and the romance that changed the world (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 43.
  8. Charles Kingston, Famous Morganatic Marriages (England: S. Paul and co, 1919), 255-261, 268-270.
  9. Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The assassination of the archduke : Sarajevo 1914 and the romance that changed the world (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 59.
  10. Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The assassination of the archduke : Sarajevo 1914 and the romance that changed the world (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 35.
  11. Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The assassination of the archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the romance that changed the world (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 70-74.
  12. Greg King and Sue Woolmans, The assassination of the archduke : Sarajevo 1914 and the romance that changed the world (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 163-164.
  13. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Francis Ferdinand,” by Paul Lagasse.
  14. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Francis Ferdinand,” by Paul Lagasse.
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46 Comments

  • Nice article. I do believe that Franz Ferdinand had the right to marry whomever he chose. As long as he and Sophie were happy together I do not see it as a problem at all. However, this article does remind me of the Abdication of Edward VIII of Great Britain a few decades later. He too wanted to marry for love, and his family completely rejected him and the woman he loved. Although, I do hope that Francis and Sophie were happier than David and Wallis.

  • I found this story to be incredibly touching. I admire Franz Ferdinand for not letting himself be constrained by what other people were telling him. He knew that he loved Sophie and did not care about the difference in their class. What is even more important is that he did not just passively resist, he let people know how he felt and he always stood up for her. It was great that he stood for what he believed in and that he followed his heart.

  • I have only known of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as what had started World War I. I did not know a lot about his background or that his marriage was a scandal. It is interesting to me to read about how his marriage was not popular to his peers and family and that he defended his wife whenever someone spoke ill of her. Overall, this is a great article.

  • Honestly the one times in my life that I have ever heard of this man’s name was due to the reason why World War I had started. I had no idea that his entire life was full of scandal, especially his marriage. One thing that makes me curious if the Archduke’s family considered the family marriage to be incompatible and the Archduke marrying down, why did they let it even happen? Props to the Archduke for going against the norm and doing what felt right.

  • Reading an article like this one restores the balance of what seems right and possible.That the Archduke chose to marry the person he loved and deal with the problems rather than hide behind his title or bow to the wishes of the royal family speaks to the kind of man he was and the type of Emperor he would have been.
    I think personally having read articles about the Shah of Iran and his second wife, as well as Edward VII and Mrs. Simpson I needed to see this.

  • Despite the criticism and discrimination against Duchess Sophie Chotek, Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not care about what people thought about her, because he truly loved her without condition. Although his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph I was not satisfied with his decision to marry Sophie because of her social class, Ferdinand believed that she was the most precious woman for him.

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