Rudolf (21 August 1858 – 30 January 1889), who was Archduke of Austria and Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, was the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire from birth. In 1889, he died in a suicide pact with his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at the Mayerling hunting lodge. The ensuing scandal made international headlines. He was named after the first Habsburg Holy Roman King, Rudolf I of Germany, who assumed the throne in 1273.
Rudolf was born at Schloss Laxenburg, a castle near Vienna, as the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth. Influenced by his tutor Ferdinand von Hochstetter (who later became the first superintendent of the Imperial Natural History Museum), Rudolf became very interested in natural sciences, starting a mineral collection at an early age. After his death, large portions of his mineral collection came into the possession of the University for Agriculture in Vienna.
Rudolf was raised together with his older sister Gisela and the two were very close. At the age of six, Rudolf was separated from his sister as he began his education to become a future emperor. This did not change their relationship and Gisela remained close to him until she left Vienna upon her marriage to Prince Leopold of Bavaria.
In contrast with his deeply conservative father, Rudolf held liberal views, that were closer to those of his mother. Nevertheless, his relationship with her was, at times, strained.
In Vienna, on 10 May 1881, Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, a daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, at the Augustinian’s Church in Vienna. By the time their only child, the Archduchess Elisabeth, was born on 2 September 1883, the couple had drifted apart, and he found solace in drink and other female companionship. Rudolf started having many affairs, and wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII about the possibility of annulling his marriage to Stéphanie, but the Emperor forbade it.
In 1887, Rudolf bought Mayerling, a hunting lodge. In late 1888, the 30-year-old crown prince met the 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera, known by the more fashionable Anglophile name Mary, and began an affair with her. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph’s demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, shot his mistress in the head and then shot himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of “mental unbalance” in order to allow for his Roman Catholic burial in the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Mary’s body was smuggled out of Mayerling in the middle of the night and secretly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. The Emperor had Mayerling converted into a penitential convent of Carmelite nuns. Today prayers are still said daily by the nuns for the repose of Rudolf’s soul.
Rudolf’s death plunged his mother into despair. She wore black or pearl grey, the colours of mourning, for the rest of her life and spent more and more time away from the imperial court in Vienna. Empress Elisabeth was murdered while abroad in Geneva in Switzerland in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni.
Politically, Rudolf’s death left Franz Joseph without a direct male heir. As a consequence, Franz Joseph’s younger brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, was next in the line of succession to the Austrian, Bohemian, Croatian and Hungarian thrones. A few days after Rudolf’s death, Karl Ludwig was falsely reported to have renounced his succession rights; in any case, his death in 1896 made his oldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive. In 1914, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination precipitated World War I and sparked a chain of events that caused the dynasty’s collapse just over four years later in November 1918. Emperor Franz Joseph died in November 1916 and was succeeded by his grandnephew, Karl.