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Zita, Last Empress of Austria

Public Domain, Wiki Commons

She became an empress in the most difficult of circumstances and her short reign ended in exile and a lifetime of supporting her royal heritage from afar. Zita, Empress of Austria found herself with an imperial crown as a result of an assassination which sent the world to war. When conflict consumed the globe again, she once more had to flee. In the latest of our ‘Last Consorts’ series, we take a look at a woman who became an Empress but spent most of her life fighting to keep her royal legacy alive.

Her Early Life

Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriella Guiseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese was born on May 9th 1892 and grew up as part of a large and rather unusual royal household. Her father, Robert, was the deposed Duke of Parma and her mother was his second wife, Maria Antonia of Portugal.

By Harris & Ewing Collection – Library of CongressCatalog, Public Domain, Wiki Commons

Zita was Robert’s seventeenth child and Maria Antonia’s fifth. Her early years were spent among her brood of siblings at several of her father’s homes including Schwarzau Castle in Austria. There she sometimes met Charles, Archduke of Austria as his step-grandmother had a home nearby.

The Path to Empire

Zita and Charles renewed their friendship in 1909. By then he was second in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne behind his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Their interwoven families weren’t adverse to a marriage between the two while the young couple grew more attached to one another.

Public Domain, Wiki Commons

They married on October 21st 1911 at Schwarzau Castle with the Emperor of Austro-Hungary, Franz Joseph, leading the toasts.

Preparing for a Crown

Charles and Zita soon began their family with a son, Otto, born in November 1912 securing the succession but times were changing. The political turmoil that was swirling through Europe led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914.

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Charles became heir to the Empire but within weeks, the world was at war. Zita ended up living at the Schonbrunn Palace with the ageing Franz Joseph and there spent many hours talking with him about the past, the future and empire. When he died, on November 21st 1916, Zita became Empress of Austria.

Zita, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary

The new imperial couple were crowned with great ceremony on November 30th 1916 but celebrations were muted as war went on. Zita was an active political influence behind the scenes as her husband’s reign was soon consumed by the turmoil of conflict.

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However, their time on the throne would be short. As Germany and Austro-Hungary began to negotiate a surrender, imperial power ebbed away. Charles was deposed as Emperor in November 1918. He and his family were helped into exile by King George V and went to Switzerland where Charles tried, unsuccessfully, to regain hold over his kingdom of Hungary. Along with Zita and their seven children, he ended up in Madeira.

The End of the Story

Charles died in 1929 when Zita was heavily pregnant with their eighth child. She took her family to Spain where her daughter, Elisabeth, was born. The Empress and her children lived for several years, later moving to Belgium. Zita continued to lobby intermittently for the restoration of her imperial family but when World War Two broke out, they faced a difficult journey across France and Spain to Portugal where they eventually got visas to leave for the United States.

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After World War Two, Zita left the US to settle in Luxembourg and finally, Switzerland. She died in Zizers on March 14th 1989 and was buried at the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.