Empress Elisabeth of Austria goes hunting at Astrop

I’ve recently been doing some work on the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and on the rise of opera in Naples, and it all jogged my memory of the day that the Empress Elisabeth of Austria went hunting at Astrop in South Northamptonshire in 1876.

That was on 21 March 1876. And she was not alone. Among her entourage were her younger sister, the ex-Queen of Naples (or more properly the Two Sicilies), Maria Sophia of Bavaria, and her husband Francis II, the last Bourbon King, together with their various friends and retainers.[i]

Elisabeth (1837-1898) was born in Munich, a member of the Bavarian royal family, and married the twenty-three-year-old Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) in 1853. She was just seventeen, a renowned beauty and already a passionate horse rider. Franz Joseph’s teenage bride was bullied by her mother-in-law the Archduchess Sophie and from the start she took a strong dislike to the rigidities of court life. Accordingly, although theirs was initially a love match, they lived apart for much of their long marriage, Elisabeth eventually encouraging Franz Joseph to take a long-term mistress in the form of Viennese actress Katharina Schratt.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria on Merry Andrew John Charlton

Empress Elisabeth of Austria on Merry Andrew John Charlton

Elisabeth’s sister Maria Sophia (1841-1925) had married Francis in 1859. At eighteen she was a year older than when her sister was married. However, their reign was short-lived. Garibaldi’s troops entered Naples in 1860, forcing Francis and Maria Sophia to leave the city. They took refuge at the coastal fortress of Gaeta, 50 miles north of Naples, but, following a siege, they retreated to Rome and in due course Victor Emmanuel became King of a united Italy. As former royalty, from time to time they joined Elisabeth’s entourage in her travels, including to Northamptonshire. Both Elisabeth and Maria Sophia were regarded as great beauties.[ii]

In the 1870s the Empress Elisabeth embarked on a life of travelling around Europe, often incognito, without her husband, staying wherever she could take long walks and go riding. She first came to Britain in search of the foxhunting in 1874 – initially in August to the Isle of Wight, then in October on to Burley-on-the Hill near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire where she rode out with the Duke of Rutland’s hounds.

In March of 1876, together with her sister and brother-in-law, she stayed at Easton Neston near Towcester in Northamptonshire so that she could go hunting with the Bicester Hounds.[iii] On the journey to Easton Neston, the Empress and her party visited Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild at Leighton House in Buckinghamshire. Because of snowfall, they did not hunt, instead visiting the stud at Mentmore. The Austro-Hungarian Imperial family maintained close relationships with the Rothschild family, a key source of funding.

Their first day hunting in Northamptonshire (11 March) was from the village of Thorpe Mandeville, but ten days later the meet was at Astrop Park, mid-way between King’s Sutton and Newbottle. The Banbury Guardian reported:

There was a very large field, most of the leading families in the neighbourhood being represented. The Empress arrived in a carriage and pair and, having lunched at Astrop house, the hounds drew off for Sir W Brown’s covers. A fox was found at Rosamund’s Bower and the hunt went on to Farthinghoe, Purston, Warkworth, Chacombe and Thenford before it snowed heavily and the fox was lost.[iv]

Their host at Astrop was the fairly recent acquirer of the property, the baronet Sir William Richmond Brown (1840-1906).[v] Previously based in Liverpool, the family had made their money shipping linen and cotton from the United States. Sir William’s grandfather, the first baronet, Sir William Brown (1784-1864) was a major player in early nineteenth century Liverpool: he became an Alderman in 1831, MP for South Lancashire in 1846, High Sheriff of Liverpool in 1863, and was created a baronet that same year – named for his home on Richmond Hill, Anfield. He promoted reform of Liverpool Docks, helped to establish the Bank of Liverpool, and was a leading campaigner for free trade, for the penny post – and for decimal coinage! He endowed Liverpool’s William Brown Free Public Library and Museum at a cost of £40,000 ― a very large sum of money at that time ― ‘a gift to the inhabitants’. William Brown Street in Liverpool is now the busy highway running up from the city to the Mersey Tunnel entrance.

The Browns bought Astrop Park as their country estate around 1866. Sir William Richmond Brown and his wife, Lady Emily, had seven children ― all of whom lived at Astrop when they were not at their London house in Belgravia.[vi] He served as a JP for Northampton and was High Sheriff for the county from 1873. It seems that their eldest son, the third baronet Melville (1866-1944), moved elsewhere, because it was their second son, Frederick, who is buried at King’s Sutton, together with three of his sisters. The youngest, Dora (1880-1971), her husband Julian Lawrence Fisher and their children lived at St Rumbolds in King’s Sutton, as some local people still remember.

Following her time in Northamptonshire, the Empress returned regularly to hunt in England and Ireland:  in 1878 she returned to Northamptonshire, staying for six weeks at Cottesbrook Park and hunting with the Pytchley Hounds, the current master being Earl Spencer, a devoted admirer of the Empress; in 1879 she went to hunt with the Royal Meath in Ireland ‘with the Wards and Kildares’; and in 1881 she was in Cheshire (staying at Combermere Abbey), going on to hunt a second time with the Duke of Rutland’s hounds at Burley-on-the-Hill near Melton Mowbray.

It was during her first visit, staying at Easton Neston and hunting with the Bicester Hounds that Elisabeth met Captain ‘Bay’ Middleton. He was a fine rider and renowned huntsman, and he was to become a close personal friend of the Empress and possibly her lover. At 46 he fell from his horse and died during a steeplechase at Kineton in Warwickshire in 1892.

This blogpost first appeared in ‘Cake and Cakehorse’, Banbury Historical Society, in March 2022

[i] Among the inner group with the Empress were: Countess Marie Festetics (lady-in-waiting, close confidante and diarist); Baron Francis Nopska (Controller of her Household); Dr Langyi (her personal doctor); Herr Baysand (her groom); Prince Rudolf Liechtenstein (Chief Lord High Steward); Baron Orcsy; Count Georg Larisch (an admirer); Prince Karl Kinsky (equestrian expert)

[ii] Aged 60, Elisabeth was murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva on 10 September 1898; Maria Sophia died in Munich aged 83 on 19 January 1925

[iii] ‘Without doubt, architecturally the finest and grandest house in Northamptonshire,’ according to Pevsner, Easton Neston was designed by Wren and Hawksmoor in the 1680s

[iv] Banbury Guardian, 23 March 1876, 8

[v] Astrop Park was built in 1735-37 for Sir John Willes by Francis and William Smith of Warwick. In 1805 Sir John Soane added single-story wings, to which were added two further stories in the nineteenth century. The wings were demolished in 1961

[vi] The first reference to ‘Sir W Brown’ at Astrop has him batting for the Marrieds versus the Singles of King’s Sutton in October 1866. He scored 10 and 1. For the Singles, Mr Fortnum opened the batting and also bowled (Bicester Herald, 12 October 1866)