The Empress Carlota and Emperor Maximilian

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Maximilian and Carlota, Mexico’s only on-site reigning royal couple, had lives so full of romance, drama and tragedy, that, by comparison, today’s English royalty seem commonplace.  Their rule in Mexico, begun in 1864, ended abruptly a little over three years later. But they left an unforgettable legacy that has inspired films and, most recently, an opera.

Maximilian, much like the English prince who is currently dominating world headlines, was a second son, and he grew up in the shadow of his brother who became the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.  Although Maximilian was remarkably bright and excelled at scientific studies, his decidedly unconventional exploits and many affairs with women led his brother to realize that his out-of-control sibling needed to be reined in and given responsibility.  He was sent off for training in the Austrian Navy and proved to be so adept that by age 22, his brother the Emperor appointed him as Commander in Chief.  The Navy and naval scientific expeditions flourished under the young commander and he gained the reputation of a progressive and modernizer.

Carlota, or as she was known for most of her life, Charlotte, was the only daughter of King Leopold of Belgium and his second wife, Marie Louise of Orleans.  Princess Charlotte was a great beauty, and scores of artists clamored to paint her portrait from the time she was a child until late in her old age.  But inside that beautiful head was a powerful brain, and Charlotte demanded and was given the same rigorous education as her brothers.  She became fluent in French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish. Her education was considered by some as frivolous, since her brothers were raised to rule but Charlotte was destined for a marriage meant to cement European royal relationships.  Two of her father’s selections were the Prince of Portugal and the Prince of Saxony.  But Charlotte had other ideas.

When the tall, blond Maximilian appeared at her father’s court in his trim naval uniform, sixteen-year-old Charlotte was immediately attracted to him.  And with Maximilian’s first sight of his beautiful vivacious second cousin, the attraction was reciprocated. In addition to their physical chemistry, the young couple realized that they shared many common interests and progressive ideas, including a desire to improve the lives of people living in poverty. They corresponded frequently, and their letters document the growing synchronization of their world views. Faced with the clearly unbreakable connection between his daughter and Maximilian, King Leopold gave up the idea of Charlotte becoming queen of Portugal and approved Maximilian’s request to marry Charlotte. One year after they met, the two were wed in a much celebrated ceremony on July 27, 1857.

Charlotte’s new brother-in-law, Emperor Franz Josef, appointed Maximilian as regent over the Austrian Lombardo-Venetian kingdom, and the newlyweds happily set out on a mission to put their progressive ideas into practice.  Although their experiment was greatly appreciated by the citizens of the area, politically it was far from a success. Franz Josef was infuriated by their administrative ideas. His disapproval and wish to remove Maximilian became moot by 1859, when the Lombardo-Venetian area was militarily wrested from Austria and joined unified Italy.

Charlotte and Maximilian remained in the area and devoted themselves to building a magnificent castle, Miramare, which (of course) overlooks the sea in Trieste.  While Charlotte furnished the castle with exquisite 19th century trappings, Maximilian returned to his passion for scientific studies and built a park with rare and exotic plantings.  

While the young couple happily nested in Trieste, Europe and the New World were being rocked by war and revolution. In Europe, Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon I) had seized power in France, declared himself Emperor, and was intent on enlarging his empire.  Civil wars were raging in the US and Mexico.  The different factions in Mexico drew heavily from the treasuries in Europe to finance their armies. When Benito Juárez emerged as victorious in Mexico, the European countries wanted to be repaid. Juárez was able to pacify governments in Europe other than France, but Napoleon III decided the debt was a way to extend his empire into North America.  He sent sufficient troops to Mexico to grab large parts of the country, including Mexico City, from battle-weary Juárez and his followers.  

Once Napoleon’s troops secured the cities, Napoleon needed a figurehead to administer the territory, and he sent a delegation to Maximilian to convince him to become Emperor of Mexico.  A nasty rumor started that Maximilian was the illegitimate son of Napoleon.  But it was more likely that Charlotte’s familial French connections and the approval by the royalist conservatives in Mexico City of the connections of both Maximilian and Charlotte to the royal families of Europe were major factors in the choice.

Maximilian was reluctant to take the position.  He was happy puttering around his palatial garden.  But Charlotte had finished furnishing the castle, and the title of Empress of Mexico sounded very appealing to her.  She convinced Maximilian that this was the opportunity to practice the social reforms they both valued.  

Maximilian told the selection committee that he would become the Emperor of Mexico only if it was the will of the Mexican people. So a sham election was held, many voting at gunpoint, and Maximilian was presented with the ballots showing that he was elected by a landslide.  The couple set out for Mexico with many of their royal cousins, including Queen Victoria, cheering them on.  After their arduous Atlantic crossing, Maximilian and Charlotte, who changed her name to the Spanish equivalent, Carlota, arrived in the port of Veracruz in May 1864.

Rather than being met by cheering throngs, which could have been expected given the landslide election they were told had occurred, the young royals were largely ignored as they landed and made their way to Mexico City.  They were duly crowned and established their court in Chapultepec Castle. Carlota, now experienced in interior palace decoration, immediately sent orders to Europe for furnishings.  Maximilian was involved in designing a roadway from the Castle to the city center, now known as the Paseo de la Reforma.  And much to the delight of the royalists, entertainment was lavish in keeping with their high status.

Once settled, the couple took up their intent to reform the country for the benefit of the people.  Abolishing the system of serfs and slaves received their first attention. When Maximilian traveled, Carlota was the actual administrator of Mexico’s government. Some historians later claimed that she was the first woman to head any government in Mexico. 

The royal duo refused to restore the lands and oversight of the Catholic Church which had been abolished by Juárez. In fact, they both thought that Benito Juárez’s intended reforms were splendid. They invited him to join their administration and oversee projects. It was hard to say who was more horrified, Juárez who having won the revolution was now dictated to by foreign rulers, or the conservative royalists who sent word to Napoleon that the Emperor was another revolutionary albeit in royal robes.

Their social experiment was short-lived.  Once the US civil war came to end in April 1865, the US government turned its attention to the occupation of Mexico by French forces.  Citing the Monroe Doctrine that stated that any foreign interference in the Americas was a hostile act against the US, the US demanded that Napoleon remove his troops.  Maximilian and Carlota were well aware that without military support they could not continue to reign.  They agreed that Carlota should immediately leave for Europe to persuade Napoleon not to accede to the US demands.  

But Napoleon had had enough of the uproar in Mexico, and the establishment of his new world empire was stretching his resources thin. He began to remove the troops from Mexico and completed the withdrawal in 1867.  Heart-broken and despondent, Carlota (once again Charlotte) began a campaign of pleading with her royal cousins and even the Pope to support their Mexican rule. But it was a lost cause, and no one agreed to come to their aid.

Once the French troops were withdrawn, Juárez went after Maximilian with a vengeance.  The young Emperor fled Chapultepec Castle and made it as far as Querétaro where he was quickly surrounded by the revolutionary, now Federal, militia.  On June 19, 1867, a little short of 10 years after they had been married, Maximilian, the great love of Charlotte, was executed by shooting on a hillside outside the city.

Charlotte never returned to Mexico. Her mental health was at best precarious.  She tried to return to the Miramare Palace that Maximilian had built for her, but she could not bear to be there without him.  She lived mainly in seclusion until she was 94.  She remained a great beauty.  But her heart had been broken and no one could ever take the place of her one and only Maximilian.

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