Emperor Ferdinand1 the good-natured of Austria (1793-1875) once said: "It is easy to govern, but what is difficult is to sign one's name." His favourite amusement was to wedge himself in a wastepaper basket and roll over and over like a ball. Ferdinand was sadly retarded with an over-large head with a flat skull and water on the brain. His face was further disfigured by the famous drooping Habsburg lip and huge nose. One of Ferdinand's sisters, Marianna (1804-1858), was a complete imbecile with a frighteningly disfigured face. She was usually kept locked in a room.

The parents of these poor children were the Emperor Franz II of Austria (1768-1835) and his double first cousin, Marie Therese of Naples and Sicily (1772-1807). Their eldest child was Marie Louise. On April 20, 1793, Ferdinand was born. In the next fourteen years, ten more children would follow. Despite the continuous pregnancies and the increasing threat of Revolutionary France, frivolous Marie Therese always liked to waltz at Laxenburg Palace and she appeared at every carnival season. She enjoyed masking so much that she would often change her costume several times during a single night. The Imperial family also liked to make music together; Marie Therese played the bass, Franz the violin and young Marie Louise the harp. In May 1801 Haydn's "Creation" and "Seasons" were performed at court with Marie Therese singing the soprano solos. The Empress also liked inventing new diversions, like Chinese shadow plays and firework displays. In the little lake in the park at Laxenburg, Franz had a medieval castle built with in the dungeon a mechanical prisoner, who could be made clattering his chains for the delighted shrieks of female visitors. In a "house of whims" glass bells rang unexpectedly, coloured lights flashed on and off and water spurted out at visitors.

Meanwhile, little Ferdinand, "Nandle", did not improve in body or mind. Lots of tutors had tried to instil sufficient knowledge in his huge, vacant head. Still, his conversations were stammered repetitions of things he had said before. His legs and arms were short and he was unable to keep hold of heavy objects, like a full cup or a bottle. His epileptic attacks were frequent and dreadful to see and Ferdinand lived in terror lest someone might be present and witness such a seizure. Thus, his public appearances had to be carefully stage-managed. Tears stood in the Emperor Franz' eyes when he watched his ungainly son shuffle along palace corridors, pushed and pulled by aides, or when he heard him stammer out a few words. But Franz was a family man and he was often found riding little Nandle in a wheelbarrow through Laxenburg Park.

In May 1807, as the Empress Marie Therese awaited the birth of her 12th child, she sickened and was severely bled. She gave birth prematurely and died. Franz (to the left) clung weeping to his wife's body, and had to be dragged away forcibly by his brother Karl. Barely 8 months later, Franz married as his 3rd wife2 his cousin Maria Ludovia of Modena (1787-1816). From then on she took care of Ferdinand. Due to her care, Nandl changed from an apathetic boy into a gentle, good-natured youth.
Meanwhile, war with France had broken out and in 1810 the Imperial family was forced to give the Princess Marie Louise in marriage to the upstart Napoleon in order to ensure peace. The famous Congress of Vienna took place in 1814 and all the reigning sovereigns with their families and servants were put up in the Hofburg. For their entertainment Franz and Maria Ludovica hosted festivals, fetes, hunts, balls, theatricals and concerts, day after day, night after night. The Empress was already mortally ill with consumption, but each day she appeared magnificently before her guests and she even joined the hunting parties. In 1815, after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, the Emperor Franz took Ferdinand with him on the army's victorious march into Paris. Ferdinand was most impressed by the French villages and the Swiss Alps. In the spring of 1816 the Empress' coughing increased. She was bled again and again until she died. Barely six months later Franz married a 4th time with Charlotte of Bavaria (1792-1873).

Ferdinand's only surviving brother was Franz Karl. This friendly grinning, little man was neither epileptic nor retarded, but he was definitely not very bright. A brain was found for him in the person of the clever Bavarian Princess Sophie (1805-1872), younger half-sister of their latest stepmother. Ambitious Sophie had consented to the marriage, because it was generally assumed that backward Ferdinand would be passed over in the succession. In 1830, however, Ferdinand was crowned King of Hungary and thus recognised as his father's heir.
For years, doctors had claimed that it was impossible for Ferdinand to beget heirs. Nevertheless, in 1831 a bride was chosen by his father's advisor, Clemens von Metternich (1773-1859, to the right). The unfortunate bride was the plain and virtuous Maria Anna of Sardinia (1803-1884, below right). On the wedding day, sharp-eyed Sophie of Bavaria noted that the bride was "white as linen". She "trembled perceptibly, her voice shook when she spoke, and whenever her eyes rested on the bridegroom, they filled with tears". Even Emperor Franz was heard to murmur at the wedding: "May God have mercy."3 Afterwards, 37-year-old Ferdinand was informed by his uncles about what he was supposed to do in his wedding night. Nevertheless, it is assumed that his marriage remained a marriage in name only. Maria Anna became more a nurse than a wife to Ferdinand. In one night in December 1832 Ferdinand suffered 20 epileptic seizures of such violence that his doctors abandoned all hope for him. But he miraculously recovered, although for a while he had more trouble with speaking and gradually he began having trouble with hearing. Often, Ferdinand could be found standing for hours at his window staring down at passers-by. Still, he was able to play pianoforte and trumpet, although he preferred to make concertos with his collection of musical boxes. He was mainly interested in botany and heraldry. Through the years he collected approximately 5000 heraldic shields. Once, when an eagle was shot during the hunt, Ferdinand supposedly remarked that it could not be an eagle, because it had only one head; the eagle in the Habsburg shield has two.

In 1835 the Imperial Crown of Austria4 passed to Ferdinand. On his deathbed the Emperor Franz gave his son the advise: "Reign and don't change anything." The government of the Donau monarchies remained in the hands of Metternich, while Ferdinand strolled along the corridors in a fieldmarshal's uniform with an umbrella under his arm. After a meeting with the Tsar and his family in 1835, the Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna, wrote in her diary that she had been told about Ferdinand's thickset figure, his big head and expressionless face, but that the truth was even worse. Sophie of Bavaria once remarked that Austria had "an oaf representing the Crown", while Ferdinand himself summarised being Emperor as: "I am Emperor, I want noodles, so I get them."5

On birthdays and name days the whole Habsburg clan6 used to gather in the Hofburg for the exchanging of gifts. Usually, Ferdinand's little nephews Francis Joseph (1830-1916) and Maximilian (1832-1867)7 were supposed to perform playlets or recitals. For the nobility the Biedermeier era were years of carefree happiness, but at the same time workmen, women and even children had to work 12 to 14 hours a day for only a trifle. A serious economic depression in the 1840s intensified the social unrest. When in 1848 the people of Austria started a revolution, Ferdinand asked in surprise: "Are they allowed to do that?" The hard-liners at court proposed to suppress the rebellion with arms, but Ferdinand refused, saying: "Am I the Emperor or not?" He declared that the people's wishes should be met as far as possible. Metternich resigned and fled the country. Meanwhile, revolts had also broken out in Hungary, Bohemia and Northern Italy. In May Ferdinand fled to Innsbruck. Soon the Imperial family was able to return to Vienna, only to flee again in October to the fortress of Olmütz.

Gentle, feeble Nandle could not cope with the situation, but Sophie of Bavaria could. She and Maria Anna pressed Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of Sophie's 18-year-old son, Francis Joseph. In a hesitant voice Ferdinand read the deed of abdication and gave Francis Joseph the advice to "Be good"8. With some difficulty the ex-Emperor signed the document. In his diary he wrote: "The affair ended with the new Emperor kneeling before his old Emperor and lord, that is to say me, and asking for a blessing, which I gave him. [..] Then I embraced him and he kissed my hand. Then my dear wife embraced and kissed our new master, and then we went to our room. [..] After that I and my dear wife packed our things."

From then on, Ferdinand and Maria Anna lived in castle Hradschin in Prague, where Ferdinand indulged in his hobbies of botany, heraldry and music. He received the title "Duke of Reichstadt", that had once belonged to his late nephew, Napoleon's only son. When in 1854 the new Emperor Francis Joseph married the famous Sissi of Bavaria (1837-1898), Ferdinand and Maria Anna send them jewels as a wedding gift. In 1856 Nandle and his wife celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. In his later years Ferdinand's health improved and through the years he managed to amass a large fortune. Upon his death at the age of 82, Ferdinand left his possessions to his nephew Francis Joseph.

Copyright © 2001 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


1 Ferdinand is confusingly known as Ferdinand I, because his father had lost Germany to the Hohenzollern. He should, however, be distinguished from the more famous 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg.
2 Franz' first wive, a Princess of Württemberg, had died in childbed.
3 "Daß Gott erbarme."
4 Hungary, Bohemia, Northern Italy and the Balkans also belonged to the Austrian Empire.
5 "Ich bin der Kaiser und ich möchte Knödeln!"
6 In the 1840s five of Ferdinand's uncles were still alive.
7 Maximilian later married Charlotte of Belgium and became the ill-fated Emperor of Mexico.
8 "Sei nur brav."


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