THE MAYERLING MYSTERY
The story of the death of Crown Prince Rudolf Habsburg at the side of his young mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera in 1889, is much loved by fans of true-life historical romances.
Here was the heir to a great empire abandoning riches, pomp and circumstance, even life itself, because he had been thwarted in his wish to marry the woman he loved. Here, too, was a girl, beautiful, devoted, and ready to sacrifice everything according to the dictates of her heart.
A ballet set to music by Liszt and almost permanently in the repertoire of the world's leading dance companies, two major feature films (the first, made in 1936 starred Charles Boyer, and the second, from 1968, starred Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve) and a made-for-tv movie starring Audrey Hepburn, have helped to create the myth, as well as countless books mixing romance and often prurient speculation.
Yet, thanks to an extraordinary secret exhumation and an investigation by an obsessive afficionado of the story, the truth about what went on in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in Austria can now be revealed, dissolving the obfuscatory cloud that has surrounded the case ever since the imperial spin doctors released their highly sanitised version of events more than a century ago – a tale so sugary that Mayerling has been one of the world's favourite true, doomed romances ever since.
The story begins at Mayerling in Austria. It's a quiet place; out of the way; surrounded by the tall trees of a dark and ancient European forest: just the place in which to conduct an illicit liaison. The only building here now is a monastery, but, in 1889, the Habsburg's favourite hunting lodge stood on this site.
It was here that early in the morning of 30 January two bodies were found. One was of a middle-aged man, the other was a girl of almost 18. They had apparently committed suicide.
But this was no ordinary domestic tragedy, for the man was Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to one of the world's most powerful dynasties, the Habsburgs, who had dominated Central and Eastern Europe since the 16th Century. The girl was Baroness Marie von Vetsera, the daughter of a high-born diplomat.
The scene in the hunting lodge was highly compromising. The married Crown Prince and the girl, who was less than half his age, had died in a bedroom: both had gunshot wounds; an army revolver lay on the floor.
The Habsburgs moved fast to suppress all talk of scandal. Marie was buried secretly in the cemetery of a nearby monastery and the Crown Prince was officially said to have died of a heart attack.
The Court was sworn to silence, but few outside were fooled. Soon everyone knew that something mysterious had happened, thanks to titbits in the popular press and to the close-knit network of European royalty.
In Britain, the Prince of Wales, later Edward Vll, was puzzled.
'I knew him (Rudolf) well,' he wrote, ' and should have thought he would have been the very last person to take his own life. There is perhaps some dark mystery, which will probably come to light.'
He was right, but it took a century and the obsessive energy of an amateur investigator for the truth to emerge.
The story is usually presented as a romantic tragedy, with two lovers, unable through position and circumstances, to enjoy a life-long romance, deciding to seek solace in death where nothing will part them. In fact, the story is different, darker, and far more fascinating, with all the clues, red herrings and surprising twists of a classic detective mystery.
In truth, by 1889, the Habsburg empire was rapidly crumbling. Although the Habsburgs had exercised an iron grip upon eastern Europe for hundreds of years, they had been forced to cede land in the second half of the 19th Century. This decline was soon to prove terminal, with the First World War bringing the final collapse. The tragedy at Mayerling was a major factor in all this: if Crown Prince Rudolf had survived, then presumably Archduke Ferdinand might never have been shot at Sarajevo and the much of bloody history of the 20th Century might have been avoided...
Rudolf had an extraordinary childhood and upbringing. With his mother keeping a cool distance and surrounded by more than 50 tutors, Rudolf's education was rigorous, bleak and astonishingly elaborate. For example, he was taken to a fish farm accompanied by 2 doctors and several tutors so that he could learn the facts of life. Afterwards, the doctors wrote an official report, which all the tutors had to sign and use as a guide when Rudolf asked awkward questions.
Rudolf became a soldier before marrying, in 1881, Princess Stephanie of the Belgians. She was fat, plain, plump, sullen and only 15. Their relationship soon deteriorated, as did Rudolf's with his father, who refused to allow him a voice in the affairs of state. When he died at Mayerling, Rudolf was 40, with a reputation for high living and no heir.
Marie Vetsera is said to have met Rudolf at the races and to have pursued him relentlessly, with the connivance of Countess Marie Larisch, the Empress's niece. It is not known whether Marie ever discovered that the philandering prince had earlier had an affair with her mother. At one secret rendezvous, the Crown Prince is said to have given Marie an iron wedding ring. On it were engraved the intials 'ILVBIDT,' meaning 'united in love until death.' After another assignation, Marie wrote: 'We both lost our heads. Now we belong to each other in body and soul.' The exact meaning of this statement has been the subject of speculation ever since the discovery of the corpses at Mayerling.
The events leading up to the tragedy have been extensively analysed, but with little success. Rudolf was unhappy. He had been accused of leaking secrets to a friend, and his relationship with his father was foundering. On 26 January, less than four days before his death, the Crown Prince and the Emperor were overheard, their voices raised in fierce argument. At one point, the Emperor shouted, 'You are not worthy to be my successor.'
The reason for the row remains one of the many mysteries of Mayerling, but theories abound. Perhaps Rudolf was asking his father to annul his unhappy marriage or to take a firmer line against the Germans. The Emperor, on the other hand, may have been ordering his son to break off his relationship with Marie Vetsera, possibly because he had heard a rumour that she was pregnant.
Researchers have dug out the facts about the build-up to the tragedy, tracing the comings and goings of Marie and Rudolf and their retinue from their last two days in Vienna to their secret journey to the hunting lodge at Mayerling. Both behaved oddly, with Marie leaving a note for her mother, which suggested she was about to commit suicide by throwing herself into the Danube. Rudolf suddenly cancelled all his official duties: a visitors' book compiled at a museum board meeting he had been due to attend has been preserved with a space left blank for his signature under his printed name and title.
By now, some members of the Court had become worried and police were sent to Mayerling, but they reported nothing amiss. The tragic events, however, were already in train and unfolded on the night of 29/30 January 1889. Afterwards, the testimony of the Prince's valet will come under scrutiny, for he gave conflicting statements about what he had seen. All that is certain is that the couple retired to bed early and that their bodies were found early the next morning after the valet had raised the alarm. The scene could have come from a grand opera: the Crown Prince dead in a pool of blood, his outstretched arm pointing towards the army revolver on the floor; the young girl cold beside him; glasses with the dregs of brandy in them stood nearby...
But even the details of the crime scene are disputed, and the whole episode soon became a mystery, thanks to the elaborate cover-up ordered by the Emperor to avoid scandal. News of the alleged heart attack was swiftly circulated and Marie's body was spirited away to be buried secretly in a monastery graveyard. Grotesquely, she was taken from Mayerling for her last journey in a closed carriage, propped upright between two of her relations with the help of a broom handle tied to her back.
But the cover-up was not perfect. Everyone was curious, not least Queen Victoria, who cabled to the British Ambassador in Vienna asking for every crumb of detail. And in the years that followed, the Habsburgs maintained a tight-lipped silence: Rudolf's name was removed from all official papers, he had no memorials, the post-mortem report was bowdlerised, and all the secrets of Mayerling were said to be for the eyes of the Emperor and his successors only. Thirty years later, when Marie's mother died, the blackout was not lifted: all her papers relating to her daughter's death were destroyed on her orders. And in 1907, when Marie's confidante, Countess Larisch, wrote her memoirs, the entire edition was bought up by the Emperor.
Today, there are two differing schools of thought: that the couple committed suicide or that they were murdered.
Countless theories exist in support of both possibilities. Some of those in favour of the suicide scenario suggest that it was a simple case of two lovers who found themselves unable to marry, but others maintain that Rudolf may have been discovered plotting against his father, with suicide the only way to escape the consequences. Yet another theory claims that Rudolf was caught up in an affair of honour and that he had drawn the 'black bullet' in a duel over a woman he had seduced. From the wilder shores of speculation comes the contention that the couple had unwittingly committed incest because the Emperor had been revealed to be Marie's real father. And of course the passage of time has seen the emergence of at least one woman (in Texas) who claims to have been descended from Marie, who, it is said, was smuggled out of Austria to America in a warship...
The murder theories come from more solid sources. In the 1970s, author Judith Listowel argued that the couple had been assassinated by enemies in the army, who had accused the prince of treason for leaking their secrets. Austria's last Empress, Zita, always claimed that Rudolf had been shot to prevent him telling his father of a plot to seize the imperial throne. In 1980, a physician and Mayerling scholar suggested that Marie died as the result of an abortion, with Rudolf shooting himself to save his name.
Today, the Mayerling mystery has taken a bizarre new twist: one that may, at last, provide some answers. In 1992, a furniture salesman confessed that he had secretly exhumed Marie Vetsera's body so that tests could be carried out.
It's an extraordinary tale. A furniture dealer called Helmut Flatzensteiner from Linz, Austria, opened up her grave and removed her skeleton. He then calmly took the bones home for further examination.
The police decided not to bring charges, and, instead, Austrian forensic scientists took the opportunity to investigate, using all the methods now available. This was a unique opportunity to discover what really happened at Mayerling after more than a century of rumour and conjecture.
The forensic scientists confirmed the identity of the skeleton before moving on to examine the bones for evidence of the cause of death. The answer lay in the skull, where they found a bullet hole. This immediately cleared the air: theories that Marie had in fact been poisoned or had died as the result of a botched abortion could be discounted. They also concluded that the shot had probably been fire by someone else – i.e. Rudolf.
A messier, more grisly scenario thus emerges, quite different to the one promoted by the romantic writers. Marie did not take poison and die peacefully. While it is probable that the couple had entered into a suicide pact, it is possible that this was a case of murder and suicide.
One author cites Rudolf's depressive nature and his wish to have his marriage annulled as the roots of this tragedy: "Just as he was afraid of living alone, he was also probably afraid of dying alone. So it became his ardent desire to die with another person. It was the fate of Marie Vetsera to be the 'chosen one' in this insane plan."
Whatever the solution to this enduring mystery, the consequences of the tragedy were profound. Foremost among them was the collapse of the Habsburg empire at the end of the First World War. There's a famous story attached to this. When the last pretender to the once-mighty Habsburg throne went to sign the treaty of Versailles, he is said to have arrived surrounded with all the trappings of imperial majesty. On leaving, an official approached him. He said, 'Mr Habsburg, your taxi is waiting.'
What emerges is that the Habsburg family's 'spin' worked far better than they could ever have hoped for. They managed to preserve Rudolf's reputation (at the price of compromising Marie's) and to cover up the sordid details of an adulterous affair and tryst. And in doing so, the imperial spin doctors created a myth that, quite undeservedly, has won the hearts and minds of people the world over for more than a century, and looks set to continue to do so into the far future.