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The Crown Prince who committed a murder-suicide?

Throughout history, many royals have died in brutal and bizarre ways. Royals have been killed in attacks, by illnesses and by accidents. In 1889, a tragic incident happened that ended up with not one, but two dead royals. Still to this day, the event has not been clarified, and there are still questions about what really happened.

Apparently, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria killed his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, before he killed himself. This has, by the history books, been known as the Mayerling Incident.

Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There was a relatively significant age difference between the two, as the Crown Prince was 30-years-old, while his mistress was only 17.

Crown Prince Rudolf was married to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. He was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth and the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was not happy with his marriage, and the solution was to start a relationship with Mary Vetsera. She was the daughter of Baron Albin Vetsera, a diplomat at the Austrian court.

Baroness Mary Vetsera. Photo: Em. Böger via Wikimedia Commons.

On 29 January 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf attended a family dinner with his parents. The Crown Prince excused himself headed for Mayerling for a day of shooting with his current mistress and left the dinner early. What happened after that is still uncertain.

What we do know is on 31 January, Rudolf’s valet, Loschek, went to his rooms at Mayerling to call him, and there was no answer.  Rudolf’s shooting partner, Count Joseph Hoyos, joined in and still got no response.  Hoyos became concerned and got an axe and broke down the door, and what he found was terrifying. Rudolf was seated at the side of the bed, motionless and with a trickle of blood running from his mouth. Mary was lying on the bed, ice-cold and rigid. The heir to the throne was dead with his mistress.

The bed the two were found dead in. Photo: Vassil via Wikimedia Commons.

Hoyos took a special train back to Vienna to get help. Hoyos and the Emperor’s Adjutant General informed the Empress as she was the only one with authority to tell her husband of their son’s death. The Empress was utterly destroyed by the news but pulled it together enough to tell her husband.  He left the room a broken man that day.

It was later stated that Rudolf and Mary both died of gunshot wounds. However, the Crown Prince may not have been known to have committed suicide. The Minister of Police was dispatched to secure the hunting lodge and the body. A story was released that the Crown Prince had died “due to a rupture of an aneurysm of the heart”.

Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth grieve over their son. Photo: Georges Jansoone / Breidwieser via Wikimedia Commons.

The obvious answer is suicide. Then, some say it was not suicide at all.  Austrian historian Clemens M. Gruber claims in his book “The Fateful Days of Mayerling” that Rudolf died in a brawl.  He tells the story that Mary’s relatives fought their way into the hunting lodge, and Rudolf drew a revolver. Amid the fight, the gun went off killing Mary, and her enraged relatives then killed Rudolf.

Empress Zita, the widow of the last Austrian emperor, claimed before she died in 1989 that Rudolf and Mary had been murdered as part of a political conspiracy.  She claimed that a pro-French faction in the court approached Rudolf about deposing his father, and running the country with a more pro-French slant.  He refused, and supposedly, they killed him.

The Crown Prince’s body is transported back to Vienna. Photo: Neue Illustrirte Zeitung via Wikimedia Commons.

In his grief, Emperor Franz Joseph had the hunting lodge turned into a convent. Masses were said for the soul of his dead son.  No one said much about his companion, and Mary went unremembered. Rudolf’s body was taken to be buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.  Mary’s body was smuggled out in the middle of the night and put in a hastily dug grave in the cemetery of the Holy Cross Abbey in Heiligenkreuz.

The mysterious deaths have been dramatised in more than 12 tv-series and movies. The incident has been named as one of the earliest causes for the First World War by historians as it helped de-stabilise the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

About author

Senior Europe Correspondent Oskar Aanmoen has a master in military and political history of the Nordic countries. He has written five books on historical subjects and more than 700 articles for Royal Central. He has also interview both Serbian and Norwegian royals. Aanmoen is based in Oslo, Norway.