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Carlota of Mexico 1840 – 1927

Charlotte of Belgium was a Belgian princess who became Empress of Mexico when her husband accepted the Imperial Throne of Mexico and reigned as Maximilian I of Mexico.


.Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte of Belgium

.Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

.Archduchess and Princess of Austria

.Princess Royal of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia

.Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of Mexico

7 June 1840

19 January 1927 (aged 86)

Royal Crypt,

Maximilian I
of Mexico

Leopold I of Belgium

Louise of Orléans

Full name
Marie Charlotte Amelie Augustine
Victoire Clementine Leopoldine

Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

The only daughter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians, by his second wife, Louise of Orléans, Charlotte was born at the Royal Castle of Laeken, Belgium. She was named after her father’s first wife, Princess Charlotte of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817.

Charlotte had three brothers: Louis-Philippe, who died in infancy, Leopold, who on the death of their father became Leopold II of Belgium and Philippe, Count of Flanders. She was also a first cousin to both Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, as well as Ferdinand II of Portugal. Her favorite grandparent Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies, Queen of France, was the consort of Louis-Philippe of France, and a niece of Marie Antoinette. Maria Amalia was Charlotte’s close confidante, and on her wedding day in 1857, she wore a bracelet with a miniature portrait of her. They regularly corresponded, especially later while Charlotte was in Mexico.

When Charlotte was ten years old, her mother, Louise-Marie, died of tuberculosis and Charlotte was entrusted to the Countess of Hulste, a close family friend. Although young, the princess had her own household; but for a few weeks out of the year, Charlotte stayed in Claremont with Maria Amalia and the rest of her mother’s family in exile. She grew into a well read, very intelligent, energetic and committed young woman. She enjoyed social functions but was also very serious, especially about her royal duties, which she never neglected. She was also interested in philosophy as well as mathematics and could read Plutarch when she was 13. In her youth, Charlotte resembled her mother, and was noted to be a beauty, possessing delicate features. Combined with her status as the only daughter of King Leopold, she was a desirable bride.

It was in the summer of 1856 that she first met the Austrian Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg. The slim, blonde prince was a hopeless romantic, charming, humorous and friendly. He was probably not as intelligent as Charlotte, but he had varied interests. He was a naturalist who studied birds and butterflies and seemed to have an inherent appreciation for beauty in the world. With her slender figure, soulful dark-brown eyes and long black hair, the 16-year-old Charlotte was certainly a beauty he could appreciate. They fell deeply in love and Maximilian soon asked King Leopold for the hand of his daughter. The Belgian monarch would have preferred Charlotte to marry King Pedro V of Portugal, but the only brother to the Hapsburg Emperor was a prestigious match. Their romance deepened on Maximilian’s second visit to Belgium. Maximilian talked to her about politics, Lord Byron, his own beliefs and goals and about his many travels. Both were idealistic and very progressive for the time and Maximilian once remarked that he was a liberal, but Charlotte was a radical. She became more fascinated by him and totally adored and idolized him. On 27 July 1857 in Brussels, Charlotte and Maximilian were married.

In the Court of Vienna she was much prized by her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie, who saw in her the perfect example of a wife to an Austrian Archduke. This contributed to the strained relationship between Charlotte and her sister in law Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Franz Joseph, whom Sophie treated rather cruelly. Charlotte and Maximilian spent several relatively happy years housed in the villa Miramar in Italy. In the early 1860s, the ambitious Napoleon III initiated the French intervention in Mexico. France, eager to turn Mexico into a satellite state, searched for a suitable figurehead to serve as the nominal emperor of Mexico. His choice was Maximilian, who held no real power in Italy and was eager for a more challenging role.

Charlotte, urged Maximilian to accept the offer. She was optimistic and had faith that this would be their chance to prove their own worth and talent as well as to put their own ideals into practice and make Mexico their showcase for benevolent, progressive monarchy. To Charlotte, it seemed like destiny and she also felt a humanitarian obligation to help the people of Mexico. Not everyone reacted to the news well. Charlotte’s French grandmother cried that, “They will be killed! They will be killed!” and Emperor Franz Joseph told his brother that he would have to renounce his rights of succession in Austria if he accepted, hoping this would dissuade him. Charlotte tried to dissuade her brother-in-law, but the stern monarch would not budge and eventually she persuaded Maximilian to agree to the terms.

On April 14, 1864 the Imperial couple left Austria. They stopped at Rome to receive the blessing of Pope Pius IX and on orders from Queen Victoria the British garrison at Gibraltar saluted them as they entered the Atlantic. When they landed in Veracruz on May 24, 1864 there was not much of a reception though and the journey across country was rough and uncomfortable aside from the warm welcome by the Indian population which saw them as potential liberators from their status at the bottom of Mexican society. Carlota was charmed by many of the adoring people and their coronation in the national cathedral in 1864 was a glamorous event the likes of which no one in Mexico had ever seen. As Empress she took the name of Carlota (Spanish for Charlotte). It was not entirely what Carlota had expected, but there was still great promise. She was amazed at seeing such poverty contrasted with immense wealth and shocked by the ignorance of so much of the people, particularly noticeable to one as intelligent as her, which she blamed on a failure of the Church to properly educate and catechize as they should have.

She was shocked by the poor that lined the streets and she decided to give them jobs working in the palace and helping with projects to preserve national monuments and beautify the city. However, she wrote home bitterly that these people to whom she had tried to give an opportunity for something better often lasted in the palace for only a day, leaving in the night with as much stolen goods as they could take with them. Carlota and Maximilian had no children, but in 1865 the imperial couple adopted Agustín and Salvador. Rumors persist that, in 1866, Carlota was having an affair with Belgian officer Colonel Alfred Van der Smissen and that she gave birth to a son, Maxime Weygand, in Brussels on 21 January 1867. Weygand refused to confirm or deny the persistent rumor and his parentage remains uncertain. Carlota was a woman of duty and she held grand balls at the palace to raise money for charitable causes and sponsored the building of schools, hospitals and poor houses.

While Maximilian traveled about the country, Empress Carlota ruled in his absence as regent, preparing official documents and running things even when he was at home. Many Mexicans and French came to realize that she had a stronger personality than her husband and was much more formidable to deal with. If Mexico was not an ideal country, she was still determined to make it an ideal one but the policies Carlota and Maximilian enacted toward this end often worked against them. Her father, Leopold I died in Laeken near Brussels on 10 December 1865, aged 74 and this, along with all of the many problems in Mexico was almost more than she could stand. 1865 also brought the end of the War Between the States north of the Rio Grande and allowed the United States to more actively support Juarez and pressure Napoleon III. Disregarding his earlier promises of total support until Mexico was secure, Napoleon III ordered his forces back to France and said there would be no more help in either men or money to support Maximilian. Carlota finally lost the last of her optimism and became depressed and increasingly nervous about the fate of her husband and her new country.

Carlota had been on less than friendly terms with the French for some time, and when Napoleon broke his promise and the Treaty of Miramar, it was more than she could stand and she was determined to show Napoleon that she was not a woman to be trifled with. She decided to confront him herself, she would fight for her husband and her country and demand that Napoleon honor his agreements and seek whatever additional aid she could in the courts of Europe. Carlota arrived in France on August 8, 1866 and it seemed that the French Emperor was somewhat intimidated by the idea of facing her and he sent a telegram claiming to be ill and regretting that he could not receive her. Carlota refused to be dismissed though and she went on to Paris, lodging at the Grand Hotel where she was met by Empress Eugenie.

Carlota was able to obtain an audience with Napoleon III. She came at him with all guns blazing, reminding him of his obligations, pointing out that the republican insurgency had been on the verge of collapse when he ordered his forces to withdraw. How could he abandon her husband now after so many lives and fortunes had been spent on the Mexican campaign? Napoleon reiterated that he was finished with Mexico and that decision was absolute and final. Carlota went to pieces. She wrote to her husband that Napoleon III was “possessed by the devil” and stood for “the evil on earth”. She became paranoid, ordering the coachmen to go as fast as he could, constantly covering her face with a handkerchief and fearing that a farmer they passed on the way was an assassin sent to kill her. When she arrived at their old home of Miramar there was a message from Maximilian asking her to go to the Pope for help. He had no idea that his wife was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but nonetheless she went to Rome and met with Pope Pius IX. The visit did not go well. Overcome with paranoia and despair, she rushed into the papal apartments, threw herself at the feet of the pontiff hysterically claiming that everyone was trying to poison her, that her food was tainted and she was starving for fear of eating anything. She tasted some chocolate milk the Pope was drinking with her finger, and asked to stay in the Vatican where she would be safe. The confused and concerned pontiff had a bed put in the library for her and Carlota became the only woman to ever stay overnight in the Vatican. Her condition continued to deteriorate, yet she was able to control herself on occasion. The mother superior of a local convent took her to visit some orphans, and though she made the trip with her handkerchief held over her face, she was her usual, charming self when it came to her royal duties and she spoke to the children perfectly well.

As soon as her family in Belgium found out about these activities they were naturally extremely concerned and sent her brother, Prince Philip, to escort her back to Miramar. Once there she was the responsibility of the Hapsburgs and no one was allowed to visit her. Doctors were brought in who observed her condition and quickly pronounced her insane. After having a little peace and quiet in familiar surroundings, Carlota’s condition began to improve, at least as far as her health and appearance were concerned. Mentality, she remained bewildered and unstable. By the beginning of 1867 Napoleon III was bringing his troops home and advised Emperor Maximilian to return with them. By this time Maximilian was aware of the true situation in the country and the strength of the republican forces that opposed him. He was not the sort to wish to impose himself by force, and in any event he had almost no force left. He considered abdication, however, he was already involved and though they had opposed the enterprise, his family now urged him to stay on as long as possible to uphold the honor of the Hapsburg name. Maximilian, always the romantic sort, decided he had to remain and would seek one more climactic battle alongside his loyal Mexican troops that would decide everything. He made his last stand at Queretaro, which was eventually captured by republican forces and on June 19, 1867, to the horror of the civilized world, President Benito Juarez had Maximilian executed by firing squad. His last words were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia! That summer, Princess Marie Henrietta came to take Carlota back to Belgium. She was the wife of Carlota’s brother Prince Leopold, and Carlota had never liked her. While Carlota was very feminine and a deep thinker, her sister- in-law was a tomboy who thought about nothing but horses. Nonetheless, she took Carlota home and the Empress of Mexico took up residence in the Palace of Laeken with her family where she did quite well until another emotional breakdown in mid-1868 caused her to be put in seclusion at Tervuren castle.

She came back once, but by the spring of 1869 her mental stability had deteriorated to such an extent that she was sent back to Tervuren for good. During her worst episodes nothing could console her, laughing hysterically one minute and weeping uncontrollably the next, talking endlessly on some subject or another or sometimes gibbering nonsense. During respites from these attacks she could for a time carry on as though nothing at all was wrong, behaving like her normal, charming and refined self. She would read, paint, play piano and answer questions perfectly rationally. And, as always, she took great care about her appearance A change in residence came after a fire in March of 1879 forced her to move temporarily back to Laeken, though she had to be tied to her carriage with a shawl, and then on to Bouchout castle where her behavior became even more erratic over time. During her worst attacks she would fly into a screaming rage, destroying furniture, shattering vases, even tearing up her beloved books and paintings. Yet, she never harmed anything that had some connection to her beloved husband, and even kept a doll that she slept with and called Max. Her brother, King Leopold II, never visited her, though Queen Marie Henriette and her girls did. Princess Stephanie, who would one day perhaps feel some connection with Carlota, said that she was never afraid of her deranged aunt even when she was very young. One day, Princess Stephanie would also marry a Hapsburg, the son of Maximilian’s brother Emperor Franz Joseph, but this also ended in tragedy when he killed himself and his 17 year old mistress. In her more peaceful moments it seemed that Carlota transported herself in her mind to the last part of her life where she felt the hope and optimism she once had in such abundance. In these moments, she was still in her palace in Mexico City, with her husband by her side and a world of possibilities before her. This was helped by the fact that everyone in her household continued to refer to her as “Your Majesty” and titled her as Empress of Mexico.

In 1914, when World War I erupted and German troops invaded Belgium, Carlota was spared the sort of suffering that others endured. On orders from the German Kaiser notices were posted at Bouchout informing all German soldiers that the estate was the property of the sister-in-law of their Austrian ally Emperor Francis Joseph and strictly forbid any molestation of the property or person of the Empress of Mexico. Eventually the war passed and Carlota lived on in her tragic condition, sometimes in touch with reality and sometimes not, until her death by pneumonia at the age of 86 on January 19, 1927.

Today, one can only sympathize with her suffering and loss.

Medea de Novara portrayed Empress Carlota in the films Juárez y Maximiliano (1934), La paloma (1937), The Mad Empress (1939) and Caballería del imperio (1942)

Bette Davis portrayed Empress Carlota in the film Juarez (1939)

María Rivas portrayed the Empress in the historical telenovela Maximiliano y Carlota (1965)

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