Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (21 August 1858 - 30 January 1889) was the son and heir of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. His death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889 made international headlines, fueled international conspiracy rumours and ultimately may have sealed the long-term fate of the Habsburg monarchy. The exact cause and circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day.
Crown Prince Rudolf was born on 21 August 1858 in Schloss Laxenburg near Vienna as the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Influenced by his tutor Ferdinand von Hochstetter (who later became the first manager of the Imperial Natural History Museum), Rudolf became very interested in natural sciences, starting a mineral collection at a very early age. (After his death, large portions of his mineral collection came into the possession of the University for Agriculture in Vienna.). Crown Prince Rudolf was raised together with his older sister Gisela by their paternal grandmother Archduchess Sophie. His parents' oldest child, a daughter named Sophie, died at age 2 and before Rudolf was born while younger sister Marie-Valerie was born 10 years after Rudolf. Hence, Gisela and Rudolf grew up together and were very close. At age 6, he 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. The siblings' parting was said to be very emotional.
In contrast with his deeply conservative father, Crown Prince Rudolf held distinctively liberal views that were closer to those of his mother. Nevertheless his relationship with her was strained and contained little warmth. In Vienna on 10 May 1881 he married Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, a daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, in The Augustinian's Church in Vienna with all the pomp and splendour of a state wedding. Rudolf appeared to be genuinely in love, but his mother regarded her new daughter-in-law as a "clumsy oaf." 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.
In 1887, Rudolf bought Mayerling and transformed it into 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. From the start, Mary adored him, and was ready to do anything for him. It was almost certainly not the great romance of his life, but Rudolf did have feelings for her, and was touched by her limitless, almost fanatical, love for him.
Many people however doubted the truthfulness of the report. Before her death in 1989, Empress Zita, widow of the last Austrian Emperor Charles I (r. 1916–1918), repeated the claim that the young couple had been murdered as part of an attempt to cover up a French plot to overthrow his father, a pro-German conservative, and replace him with Rudolf, a pro-French Liberal. According to Empress Zita, Rudolf had indignantly refused to take part and threatened to inform his father. Empress Zita did not offer any new evidence and her claims, however widely reported, were not given much credence during her lifetime.
In December 1992 the remains of Baroness Vetsera were stolen from the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. When the missing remains were tracked down, the police, to ensure they were the correct remains, asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine them. While they did confirm that they were the correct remains, the institution noted how the skull contained no evidence whatsoever of a bullet hole, the supposed means by which Vetsera had been killed by the crown prince. The evidence instead suggested she may have been killed by a series of violent blows to the head. Separately, evidence came to light in the form of a report on the remains of the crown prince, made at the time of the double death. His body showed evidence of a major violent struggle. A report at the time had also noted that all six bullets had been fired from the gun, which it was revealed did not belong to the crown prince.
The official state report of the deaths claimed that the crown prince shot Vetsera before shooting himself with his own gun. It made no mention of the facts subsequently revealed, leading to the conclusion that, for some reason, a cover-up of the actual manner of the deaths had taken place. It is unlikely ever to be clarified as to what really happened. Two theories have been postulated:
It would have been difficult for the devoutly Catholic Emperor to admit that his son and heir had killed the girl and himself in a state of "mental unbalance". If there had been any way to claim that the two had been murdered by a third party, that version would have been infinitely preferable. There would have been no need to accuse someone in particular; it would have avoided the public admission that the Crown Prince was an insane murderer and that he had committed suicide.
Putting forward a third party as the killer though, would have likely led to a public demand that the killer be caught and a thorough investigation of the deaths. It may be that some thought that would be undesirable; in any case, the 'mental unbalance' theory was put forward.
It should be also noted that, according to the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church, a man who committed suicide should not be given Christian Burial. However, after the Emperor's exchange of letters with the Pope, Rudolf was buried according to Catholic Rites. This also suggests that there was unreleased evidence, or maybe even the fact that the murder was ordered by the Emperor himself. There is a theory which suggests that Rudolf had been planning to overthrow the Emperor, or to claim the throne of an independent Hungary, and that his plots were uncovered by the Emperor's inner circle not long before Rudolf was found dead. Of course all this remains a mystery, at least until the Papal Archive decides to release the letter, which may contain the final and decisive proof.
Next in the line of succession after Rudolf to the Austrian, Bohemian, Croatian and Hungarian thrones was Archduke Karl Ludwig, Franz Josef's younger brother. Karl Ludwig renounced his succession rights a few days after Rudolf’s death, meaning his oldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive. Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914 led to a chain of events that produced World War I. When Franz Josef died in 1916, the throne passed to his grand-nephew, Archduke Karl, who became the last Austro-Hungarian monarch as Emperor Karl of Austria.