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Carlota, Empress of Mexico

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Marie Amelie Augustine Victoire Clementine Leopoldine was born in 1840 to King Leopold I of Belgium and Louise Marie d’Orleans, eldest daughter of King Louis Philippe of France.1 She was christened Marie Charlotte Amelie. Her mother Louise suggested calling her Charlotte in memory of King’ Leopold’s first wife, Princess Charlotte Augusta, who died in childbirth at Castle Clermont near Esher.2

Charlotte was extraordinarily intelligent. She was able to read before she was three years old. Charlotte worshipped her father, even though characteristically, King Leopold preferred not to have had a daughter, but a third son to assure his dynasty. By her fourth birthday, Charlotte had become her father’s pet, and he showered her with presents and a crown of roses. She was much like Leopold, interested in talking like a grown up and using complicated words. She was a happy, beautiful child with large dark eyes and black hair. She was very affectionate with her family and loved to play with her pet cat.3

In the summer of 1850, her grandfather, King Louis Phillippe, died in England. Her mother Queen Louise of Belgium never recovered from her father’s death. By October 10, 1850, she was dead. King Leopold, who had never been close to his sons, found consolation in his daughter’s company. The gay, affectionate child changed almost overnight into a serious young lady. Eleven years old now, Charlotte was either in the company of her aging father or her pious, middle-aged governesses.4

Charlotte was grave minded and strong willed. She enjoyed the classical compositions of Bach and reading Plutarch’s Lives or religious tracts for pleasure. She went riding and swimming, not so much for pleasure, but because it was good for her health and figure.5 She had none of her mother’s gaiety and humor and was censorious of everything. When Charlotte was 13 years old, her father arranged a marriage between her brother Leopold II and an Austrian Archduchess. Charlotte was quick in criticizing her plump and jolly sister-in-law, Crown Princess Marie. Marie got on her nerves to the point that she was constantly saying unpleasant things about her.6

By 1855, Charlotte had turned into a beautiful woman. Her skin had the shade of a magnolia. She had long raven hair, dark luminous eyes which reflected green in the sunlight, and a slender figure.7 Charlotte’s world was made up of holidays spent by the sea at Ostend, in the forest of the Ardennes, or visiting family in England at Twickenham and Claremont.8 Before Charlotte was sixteen, two suitors had already asked for her hand. One of them was her cousin, King Pedro of Portugal ; the other was the twenty- four year old Prince George of Saxony.9

King Leopold, now aged sixty six, had retired to a quiet existence in the ancient and neglected palace at Laeken. From here he sent his oldest son, the Duke of Brabant, to the coast on May 26, 1856, to receive the twenty-four year old Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as a guest.10 Traveling from Antwerp to Brussels, Maximilian was touched by the warm welcome he received in towns along the way. He was welcomed by King Leopold at Laeken, which was only a few miles out of Brussels. The old palace rang with merriment and laughter, for King Leopold had planned festivities for his arrival. Charlotte herself, in the full lush of adolescence, became dazzled by the dashing Austrian prince with whom it was difficult not to fall in love.11

Maximilian was bored with King Leopold’s daily morning visits where he pontificated on world affairs with considerable judgment and intelligence. He was charmed, however, by Charlotte, and conversations with her included his descriptions of his travels in the Eastern Mediterranean and his visits to the sacred shrines of Jerusalem. She spoke to him in French. Romance seemed to be budding in the gloomy mists of Brussels.12 King Leopold saw with pleasure the mutual attraction between the young couple. Maximilian left Brussels without declaring himself, but King Leopold entrusted Count Mensdoriff with the task of conducting the preliminary negotiations for marriage.

Maximilian returned to Austria to find his younger brother, Karl Ludwig, engaged. He was tired of his bachelor life, and now his mind was made up to marry.13

In a letter to his younger brother, Maximilian wrote: "She is small, I am tall, which is as it should be. She is brunette and I am fair, which is also good. She is very clever, which is a bit worrying, but no doubt I will get over that."14 Maximilian remained at Trieste and supervised the plans for Miramar castle on the Istarian Coast. Finally in October of 1856, he proposed. King Leopold was set on strengthening his ties with Austria to secure an ally against French aggression. He quickly replied to Maximilian by saying he was delighted that his beautiful Charlotte had made her choice and preferred him to all her other suitors and that he was only too pleased to give him his consent to marry.15

Maximilian arrived in Brussels a few days before Christmas. Glowing with love and pride, Charlotte introduced her finance to the Belgian people. He showered her with presents including a diamond brooch and earrings and a bracelet containing his hair. Wedding invitations were issued to governments of all major powers. They appeared for the first time officially engaged at the constitutional court ball, and therefore, they were allowed to waltz in public. Charlotte looked exquisite in a white muslin gown trimmed with green ribbons and garlands of flowers.16 After weeks of hard bargaining, Maximilian and King Leopold agreed upon a dowry which included 230 thousand guilden, magnificent jewelry, a fine collection of gold and silver plate, and a yearly allowance of 25 thousand gulden.17

On July 27, 1857, the royal wedding took place in the Royal Chapel in Brussels.18 Maximilian, dressed in the full dress uniform of an Austrian Admiral, with the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece around his neck, was as handsome a bridegroom as any young girl could have wished. Charlotte was a radiant bride in her wedding dress of white and silver brocade with a ravishing lace veil made in the looms of Brussels.19

The days following the wedding were taken up with so many social functions, that Maximilian and Charlotte had not a moment to themselves. They left Brussels on July 30, 1857, and traveled across the Belgian frontier into Germany. At Bonn they embarked on a river steamer and traveled up the Rhine to Mainz, Nuremburg, and on to Ratisbon, where a flower-decked boat was waiting to take them down the Danube to Vienna. From there, they made their way to Trieste and then on to Venice, Italy, for a week. The Archducal couple arrived from Venice, mounted the carriage two miles outside the city of Milian, and proceeded to Monza. Maximilian was wearing his Admiral’s uniform and Charlotte, a red velvet crinoline trimmed with heavy lace and a diamond crown enturned with roses. Here they stayed for two years at Monza, a yellow 18th century villa, eight miles outside Milan, where he served as an Italian Viceroy. They were happy here, and Charlotte loved the Italian people so much that she took the name "Carlota".20

Then in 1859, at the peak of their found happiness, the Venetian honeymoon came to an end. Conflict and panic in the Venetia-Lombardy government forced Maximilian and Carlota to retire to their castle of Miramar at Trieste. Miramar was a Palace of white limestone, carrara marble, and terraced rose gardens overlooking the Adriatic Sea.21

They celebrated their wedding anniversary by taking an Adriatic Cruise and visited the shrine of the Madonna of Loreto, where Carlota prayed for what she had most at heart, a child by her beloved Max. They returned to Miramar and added on to their home. They intended to live a very peaceful existence and tried to make people forget them.22 Carlota spent months at Miramar while Maximilian visited Vienna. He returned extremely depressed and convinced that they had no future in Austria.23

Then in 1861, came an offer of the Mexican throne. In the new year of 1862, it seemed it would be only a few months before Maximilian was crowned Emperor of Mexico.24 Carlota was bored and dissatisfied at Miramar and was burning with ambition to be an Empress. On August 8, 1863, a telegram arrived at Miramar from Napoleon of France. It announced that Ferdinand Maximilian had been proclaimed Emperor of Mexico. Late on a Sunday afternoon in April of 1863, the Archduke and his wife sat on guilded chairs under crystal chandeliers in the marble ballroom of Miramar. Maximilian had dressed in his most impressive uniform. Carlota looked elegant in a robe of crimson, velvet trimmed with lace. She wore a necklace and bracelet of diamonds. They bid their many friends farewell.25

After a brief tour of England, Maximilian and Carlota boarded the ship Novara, raised the Mexican flag, and set sail for their new home. On May 28, 1864, the Novara dropped anchor at Vera Cruz, Mexico. There was no one there to meet them. Maximilian and Carlota were spellbound on their journey to Mexico City. They saw cockatoos, parrots, quetzals, and beautiful landscapes. One June 12, 1864, Maximilian and Carlota entered the capital city. They moved into Chapultepec Castle on the outskirts of the city. It nowhere compared to Miramar and needed much improvement.26 Carlota looked to her husband for companionship, but Maximilian left her at Chapultepec and set out on a tour of the surrounding provinces. For two years, Maximilian and Carlota held balls and parties, redecorated Chapultepec Castle and tried to win the support of the Mexican people who never accepted foreigners ruling their country.27

Maximilian and Carlota spent money lavishly. Napoleon blamed Maximilian for his extravagance. French troops were sent to take control of the Mexican treasury. Maximilian soon found himself powerless. Both purse and sword were controlled by the French.28 Carlota refused to surrender her crown and scepter and soon realized it was up to her to save the Empire. She, Carlota, must cross the Atlantic alone and convince Napoleon and the French to continue to support them.29

On August 9, 1866, Carlota arrived in Paris. She waited three days at St. Cloud to meet with Napoleon. After meeting with him, she did not succeed in persuading him to help Maximilian. Her mental state was depressed, and she accused them of trying to poison her with a beverage. She returned to the Grand Hotel and fell into a deep slumber. She requested another meeting with Napoleon to save her Maximilian. Carlota thought she could shame Napoleon into accepting her proposals. On August 20, Napoleon arrived at the Grand Hotel where Carlota was waiting for him with some new proposals, even more fantastic than the last. He listened, got up from his chair, bowed to her coldly, and left without saying a word. On August 21, the Empress of Mexico received the formal notification that the Emperor Napoleon could not comply with her request. On the same day, a defeated Carlota sent her husband a telegram in Spanish: "Todo es inutil" (All is useless).30

Carlota left Paris on August 23, 1866, in such a state of nervous agitation that she was no longer able to act or reason normally. Her hatred for Napoleon had become pathological After a long and jolting carriage ride over the mountains, she became nauseous. She arrived at her father’s old villa on Lake Como in a state of utter exhaustion. Her doctor administered daily doses of bromide in her coffee and advised her to rest. For a few days, she gave the impression of having regained her peace in the beautiful surroundings of the Villa d’Este, of which she had such happy memories. After only a few days at Lake Como, her nerves got calmer and her spirits settled down. She insisted on leaving for Miramar, where she hoped to find news from Mexico. There were many devoted old friends and retainers waiting to welcome the Empress at the Castle.

There was nothing abnormal in her behavior at Miramar. She appeared delighted with everything, and visitors and deputatons were graciously received.31 However, the Empress shocked some by her appearance. Her cheeks were flushed; her eyes had lost their brilliance, and even though it was hot, she wore a mantilla and a shawl. Her doctors had growing fears for her sanity.

On September 25, 1866, a special train with the Empress of Mexico on board, drew up in front of Rome’s Termini Station. She was escorted from the station to the Hotel Roma, where she had reserved the Royal Suite. On the morning of September 27th, she rode in a coach drawn by four horses to meet with Pope Pius IX.32 The Empress presented Pope Pius with a draft stating how she needed his help to convince Napoleon to continue to support Maximilian in Mexico. His unwillingness to help ended in convincing the unhappy Carlota that she had come to the end of the road. The shock of this final disappointment destroyed the last remnants of her sanity. She returned to the Hotel Roma and insisted that assassins were trying to poison her. The next day, Carlota insisted on seeing Pope Pius again. She begged to be allowed to stay in the Vatican, which was the only place she felt safe. Although she returned to her hotel, she continued to go back to the Vatican for safety.33

Meanwhile, a telegram arrived from the Royal family of Brussels to say that a Belgian representative, the Count of Flanders, was on his way to Rome, where he would be arriving on October 7,1866. A telegram was also sent to Maximilian telling him that his wife was suffering from a severe congestion of the brain and was being taken to Miramar. The journey passed without incident, and Carlota seemed happy to be returning to Miramar. Dr. Riedel, one of Europe’s leading authorities on nervous diseases, was waiting at Miramar. To him, Carlota was not Empress of Mexico, but merely another patient in need of special care.34

When Maximilian heard that Carlota was insane, his first thought was to leave Mexico and go to her. Maximilian hated to abandon Mexico. The chief agent of the Mexican conservatives was Father Fisher, and he knew how to handle Maximilian. He organized demonstrations of enthusiasm to convince Maximilian that the Mexican people still wanted him, who told him that since Carlota had sacrificed herself for the Empire, he could do no less. Father Fisher constantly suggested that abdication would be a blot on the honor of the Hapsburgs. At the end of November, 1866, Maximilian elected to stay. In February, 1867, he left the city of Mexico. He was left with 15-20 thousand Mexican troops and a few European volunteers. Maximilian lived like a soldier, sleeping in a blanket on the Hill of Bells east of town, exposing himself constantly and winning the applause of his men. Maximilian was offered one last safe conduct, but he refused to abandon his followers. He was eager to be killed in battle, but the lucky bullet never came. Maximilian was forced to surrender in May of 1867. Seven young officers tried him by court martial and sentenced him to death.

On June 19,1867, Maximilian and two others lay dead on the cactus covered ground. At Miramar, there was no sign of mourning. The servants were forbidden to wear black. One month later in July, a royal train drew up at the private station of Miramar. After negotiations with Maximilian’s Hapsburg family, the Queen of the Belgians had arrived to bring Carlota back to Belgium. The story of Charlotte’s tragedy enclosed her in the terror-haunted world of the insane for over sixty years. On January 16, 1927, Charlotte, now eighty-six years old, died peacefully in a moated castle in Belgium.35

Belinda Nanney


1. "Royal Genealogies--Louise Marie d’Orleans," Royal Genealogies. Online. royal 17 October 2000.

2. Bertita Harding. The Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlota of Mexico. New York, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1934.

3. "Carlotta," Columbia Encyclopedia (6th Edition) Online. 23 November 2000.

4. Joan Haslip. Maximilian and His Empress Carlota. New York, NY: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1971.

5. Haslip.

6. "Empress Charlotte--Carlota," National Broadcasting Communications, Inc. Online. 23 November 2000.

7. "Empress Charlotte--Carlota."

8. Haslip.

9. "Carlota the Grand Opera--Story of Maximilian and Carlota," Grandopera. Online. 17 October 2000.

10. "Leopold I" (of Belgium), Encarta Encyclopedia. Online. 23 November 2000.

11. Harding.

12. "Leopold I"

13. Haslip.

14. Haslip.

15. Haslip.

16. Haslip.

17. Harding.

18. "Carlota the Grand Opera--Story of Maximilian and Carlota."

19. Haslip.

20. Harding.

21. Harding.

22. "Carlota the Grand Opera--Story of Maximilian and Carlota."

23. "Empress Charlotte--Carlota."

24. Haslip.

25. Harding.

26. Harding.

27. "Mexican History--The French Intervention".

28. Henry B. Parkes, A History of Mexico. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960.

29. Harding.

30. Haslip.

31. Haslip.

32. Haslip.

33. Haslip.

34. Harding.

35. Haslip.


"Carlotta," Columbia Encyclopedia (6th Edition) Online. 23 November 2000. .

"Carlota the Grand Opera--Story of Maximilian and Carlota," Grandopera. Online. 17 October 2000. .

"Empress Charlotte--Carlota," National Broadcasting Communications, Inc. Online. 23 November 2000. .

Harding, Bertita. The Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlota of Mexico. New York, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1934.

Haslip, Joan. Maximilian and His Empress Carlota. New York, NY: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1971.

"Mexican History--The French Intervention," Northcoast. Online. 17 October 2000. .

Parkes, Henry B. A History of Mexico. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960.

"Leopold I" (of Belgium). Encarta Encyclopedia. Online. 23 November 2000.

"Royal Genealogies--Louise Marie d?Orleans, royal 17 October 2000.