Carlota (1840–1927)

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Carlota (1840–1927)

Belgian princess who accompanied Maximilian on an ill-fated adventure to Mexico, where she was crowned empress and witnessed royal splendor, civil war, personal tragedy, and ultimately dementia in an attempt to bring monarchical rule to the land of the Aztecs. Name variations: Carlotta, Charlotte, Charlotte of Belgium, Charlotte Saxe-Coburg; Marie Charlotte of Saxe-Coburg. Pronunciation: Car-LOW-ta. Born Marie Charlotte Amelie Augustine Victoire Clementine Leopoldine on June 7, 1840, at Laeken, Belgium; died at the castle of Bouchout, Belgium, on January 19, 1927; daughter of Leopold I (1790–1865), king of the Belgians (r. 1831–1865), and his third wife Princess Louise d'Orléans (1812–1850); married Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg, on July 27, 1857; children: none, except for the adoption of son Agustín de Iturbide in 1865.

After marriage to Archduke Maximilian and his appointment as Austrian viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, the couple began residence in northeastern Italy; after the Austrians had been expelled from Lombardy (1859), they relocated to the palace of Miramar on the Adriatic coast near Trieste; bored with his idle life at the palace (and evidently exasperated by the ambitions of his wife), Maximilian made a grand tour of Brazil (1860); meanwhile agents of the Mexican conservative party and of Napoleon III began to float inquiries regarding the couple's possible interest in assuming the throne of Mexico; despite some early misgivings, which he soon recanted, Maximilian was won over by Carlota's enthusiasm (1863) and they embarked for Mexico to accept the crown; upon arrival in Mexico City, Carlota and Maximilian busied themselves with organizing court life, founding hospitals and scientific societies, and coordinating political and military affairs with their French sponsors; guerrilla actions against the monarchy kept Maximilian and the French from consolidating their hold on the country; Carlota, in deeply humiliating circumstances, was forced by Maximilian to agree to the adoption of a Mexican-born son (in an effort to placate the populace); this effort came to nothing (1867), and under steady U.S. pressure, the French expeditionary force that supported the Empire began to evacuate Mexico; hoping to buy time, Maximilian sent Carlota to Europe to negotiate with Napoleon III for further aid; by the time she arrived in Paris, Carlota was showing clear signs of severe mental strain; meanwhile, Maximilian, abandoned by all but his untrained Mexican conscripts, found himself surrounded by republican troops at Querétaro; after its fall, he faced the firing squad; upon hearing the news of his death, Carlota lost her mind and spent the next 60 years insane, dying as a mental recluse in a Belgian castle (1927).

The green, rain-soaked Belgian plain that surrounds the palace of Laeken presents a picturesque appearance, but it has none of the exotic quality of sweet jasmine and spiny cacti that one encounters at Chapultepec palace in Mexico City. Yet, despite the striking divergences in terrain and climate, the two edifices have the strongest of historical links. Between them, they provided the chief residences in the 1860s for the Empress Carlota, who, together with her Austrian consort Maximilian, painted one of the more colorful, though tragic, chapters in the long history of misunderstanding between the Old World and the New.

When Carlota was born in 1840, her father Leopold I had just entered his 50th year and was celebrating his tenth anniversary as king of the Belgians. The Great Powers had originally engineered his accession to the throne as an act of political expediency. Now, however, after nearly a decade of war, blockade, and complicated diplomacy before the independence and frontiers of Belgium could be recognized, Leopold had more than earned the respect of his subjects and of foreign powers. Duty was always uppermost in his mind. To that end, he proved willing to set aside his emotional life in order to pursue national ends. To cement an alliance with France, he married Princess Louise d'Orléans , the daughter of King Louis Philippe, a woman for whom he cared not at all. Carlota was their fourth child, their only daughter.

Leopold's relation with the young Carlota was cool. The rest of the family, however, always held her in high regard. A small-framed girl with dark brown eyes, she deeply impressed her tutors with her intelligence and precocity. At 13, she could speak perfect German and English as well as French. Though the king himself was a Protestant, he made sure that Carlota was raised in the Catholic faith of her mother (and of the majority of his subjects). Carlota, in turn, became very devout indeed. Her undoubted devotion, however, never quite obscured her own ambition, and her conviction that Belgium was too small a realm to bother with.

By her 16th birthday, Carlota became eligible to act on her ambitions. She had several important suitors. One was the 24-year-old Prince George of Saxony, and the other was the late Portuguese Queen Maria II da Gloria 's eldest son, who had recently ascended his country's throne as Pedro V. This 19-year-old monarch had the strong support of Britain's Queen Victoria , who fancied herself the grand matchmaker among the European royal houses. But Carlota would not cooperate; she hated the prospect of living her life in Lisbon. Neither had she any warm disposition toward Saxony. When the Austrian Archduke Maximilian paid her court in 1856, however, this was a very different matter.

Louise d'Orléans (1812–1850)

Queen of the Belgians. Name variations: Louise Bourbon; Louise of France; Louise of Orleans or Orléans; Louise-Marie d'Orleans; Louise Marie d'Orleans. Born Louise-Marie Bourbon-Penthievre on April 3, 1812, in Palermo, Sicily; died on October 10 (some sources cite the 11th), 1850, in Ostende, Belgium; interred in Laeken, Belgium; daughter of Louis Philippe I (1773–1850), citizen king of France (r. 1830–1850), and Maria Amalia (1782–1866); became third wife of Leopold I, king of the Belgians (r. 1831–1865), on August 9, 1832; children: Leopold (b. 1833); Leopold II (1835–1909), king of the Belgians (r. 1865–1909); Philip (1837–1905), count of Flanders; Carlota (1840–1927), empress of Mexico.

Like so many royals, the gentle and loving Louise d'Orléans was used as a pawn in a political alliance; it is said that her father Louis Philippe wept when he had to sacrifice his favorite daughter to widower Leopold, 22 years her senior. (Leopold's first wife was morganatic wife Karoline Bauer . His second wife, who had died in 1817, was Charlotte Augusta , princess of Wales and daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick .) But the sweet-tempered Louise grew attached to Leopold and was a considerate wife. She was also popular with her subjects. When the king ensconced his Flemish paramour Arcadie Clairet de Viescourt (Mme Meyer von Eppinghoven ) in the Rue Royale, Belgians were furious for their "good little Queen." Louise, who doted on her father, died a few months after his death in 1850, when her daughter Carlota was ten.

Maximilian was both charming and handsome, with blue eyes that took Carlota's breath

away. He was also the younger brother of Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austria, a country of primary rather than tertiary importance in Europe. For Carlota, his proposal of marriage came as a reflection of deep affection as well as of political consideration. Maximilian, for his part, regarded her with fondness and passable respect but little more. His infidelities would later become almost scandalous, but at this stage he saw in Carlota the perfect consort: loyal, trustworthy, fiercely dedicated to their future greatness.

In the autumn of 1856, Franz Joseph decided that the time had come to liberalize his policies toward his Italian domains. Aside from some minor political concessions, the first move he made was to appoint his brother viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia. After their wedding in Brussels in the summer of 1857, Maximilian and Carlota immediately set out for Milan where he took up his viceregal duties.

The young couple did everything in their power to win the approval of the Italians. They learned to speak the language. They sponsored cultural events and scientific societies. Yet they could not easily stay in the good graces of their Italian subjects who, not surprisingly, regarded them as foreign interlopers, only the latest in a long line of outside exploiters. Most Lombards and Venetians therefore did everything in their power to undermine the Austrian regime. And in this they had the support of two foreign powers, Piedmont and France, whose respective leaders, Victor Emmanuel and Napoleon III, had motives that were far from disinterested.

Seeing the writing on the wall only at the last moment, Maximilian urged Franz Joseph to allow a measure of home rule to the Italians. This being refused, he went on to witness the French and Piedmontese invasion of 1859, which resulted in short order in the loss of Lombardy (though not Venetia). Austrian blundering had brought about the empire's defeat.

This whole period in many ways seemed a precursor to what Carlota and Maximilian would eventually see in Mexico. For the moment, the two sought to forget their disillusionment. They traveled to the island of Madeira, where she stayed while he went on to Brazil to tour the Amazon river valley. He returned some months later enamored of the American continent and its warm climate, though highly critical of the social injustices he saw there. Here again, he displayed the curious blend of liberal sentiment and autocratic hauteur that marked his politics and his life with Carlota.

The archduchess still held high ambitions, though in one respect, she was destined for immediate disappointment. It was said that Maximilian caught syphilis from a Viennese prostitute and that he passed on the disease to his wife, who, as a result, was barren. This personal tragedy was only the first of many she would know in her life.

In October 1861, the Austrian foreign minister came to Maximilian's palace of Miramar near Trieste with a surprising proposal—would he consider becoming emperor of Mexico?

For over a decade, the Mexican nation had been torn by a vicious civil war between Liberals and Conservatives. The latter party had recently suffered a major defeat, leaving power in the country in the hands of the full-blooded Indian president Benito Juárez. With the national economy a wreck, however, Juárez found it necessary to borrow heavily in Europe. And his government was manifestly unable to pay these debts. He declared a moratorium on debt payments in 1861, which brought an immediate armed intervention by France, Spain, and Britain. The latter two countries withdrew their forces in quick order, but Napoleon III decided that the Mexican venture was his opportunity to extend French influence in a major way. To accomplish this, and at the same time avoid U.S. opposition, he required the appearance of Mexican support. The defeated Conservatives provided this support in exchange for Napoleon's assurances that he would find for them a European prince to act as emperor; they could thus realize one of their fondest political ambitions—to restore the monarchical system in Mexico.

Maximilian seemed a perfect candidate. He was, first of all, a Habsburg, a descendant of Charles V in whose name Mexico had been conquered in the 1500s. His majestic physical appearance was equally striking—some of Maximilian's Conservative supporters even argued that the Mexican masses would take him for the blonde Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, come back after all these years to free them from the tyranny of Juárez. This, to be sure, was nonsense, but it pleased the archduke's ears to hear it.

The quaintness of his prospective subjects might have amused Maximilian, but he was still unsure as to the wisdom of accepting the Mexican proposal. He had strong reservations about its legality. It was Carlota who finally convinced him that duty and honor demanded his presence in Mexico. The poor people needed a protector and had turned to him in desperation—he could not refuse. This suggested a curious irony; by appealing to Maximilian's liberal instincts, Carlota persuaded him to give in to the entreaties of Mexican reactionaries and French interventionists. Napoleon III, the same ruler who had humiliated the Austrians in Lombardy, now portrayed himself as the disinterested sponsor of Maximilian's New World venture. The French ruler did exact a price, however. He made the new empire pay the cost of French occupation—a concession that Carlota urged the archduke to make. Before the couple had even embarked for Mexico, therefore, they had tripled their new country's foreign debt.

Their arrival at the port of Veracruz in May 1864 had an eerie quality to it. They had expected to see throngs of cheering crowds. Instead, save for French troops, the streets seemed deserted, the result, they were told, of an outbreak of plague. The truth was more prosaic: Juarista feeling remained strong in many areas of the country and the bulk of the populace had no use whatsoever for the new imperial couple (and this despite the favorable results of a plebescite arranged by the French army).

Mexico City, with its more cosmopolitan environment, willingly gave Maximilian and Carlota a chance to prove themselves. And model liberal monarchs they turned out to be. They gave magnificent balls, founded scientific and cultural societies, and spent lavishly to refurbish the national palace and other public buildings. They issued contracts to European companies to construct railroads. Hospitals and orphanages received their generous patronage. Their imperial majesties even snubbed some of their erstwhile friends, arguing with justice that Conservative programs worked counter to the interests of the majority of the people.

Wherever she went she attracted regard, especially in Mexico City, where even the most irreconcilable enemies of the Empire admired her magnanimous heart.

—José Luis Blasio

The proud Maximilian, now sporting a dashing sombrero and native costume, actually began to think of himself as a master builder as well as a Mexican patriot. His wife knew better. Carlota recognized the urgency of consolidating the monarchy and beginning the reconstruction of the economy. In her first letter to French Empress Eugénie , she stressed the need for building from the ground up after the long spate of civil war and misgovernment:

Everything in this country calls for reconstruction; nothing is to be found, either physical or moral, but what Nature provides. … Things will go on here, if your Majesties will stand by us, since they must go on, and we mean them to go on; but it is an appalling task, for when a country has spent forty years of its experience in destroying all that it possessed in the way of resources and government, everything cannot be set right in a day.

Carlota obviously grasped the seriousness of the challenge, realizing that governing Mexico required an immense effort and the time in which to implement change. She tried to supply the practical attitude to counterbalance Maximilian's visionary side. She was concerned to keep her husband's mind on the dangers that confronted them if they failed to take their task seriously.

This did not prove easy. Maximilian had an obsession with the outward forms of monarchy, the pomp and ritual of court life. He kept a focus on these details and forgot to keep an eye on the internal politics of Mexico. This was certainly not the case with Juárez, who, hidden in the mountain fastness of the interior, had succeeded in forging a guerrilla army that the French could not suppress. In addition, with the end of the U.S. Civil War, the Americans now turned their attention to Mexico. Refusing to recognize the Maximilian government, they began to supply Juárez with arms and munitions. Ulysses S. Grant went so far as to order General Philip Sheridan to amass a large army on the Texan frontier to directly pressure Napoleon III into evacuating Mexico as soon as possible.

Maximilian remained oblivious to all this for the longest time. But Carlota did not. She knew that time was conceivably running out, and she took the lead in badgering the French ambassador and military representatives for continued aid. She also agreed to a personal sacrifice that every fibre in her body rejected—she said yes to the adoption of a Mexican-born boy, the grandson of an earlier monarch, who would act as the crown prince. This action, her courtiers hoped, would solidify the imperial couple's links with the Mexican people. It clearly galled the empress to accept this condition, however much she recognized its necessity; she had become aware of Maximilian's infidelities with various Mexican women and her deep frustrations with their personal relationship were already beginning to tear at her. She now experienced bouts of depression and unreasoning fear. Had circumstances been different, she probably would have taken a long rest cure at a European sanitarium. Instead, as Napoleon III announced his intention to withdraw his troops, Maximilian sent Carlota as a special envoy to the court at Paris to beg for the intercession of Eugénie: French troops had to stay—only the final blow remained to strike against Juárez and then the Mexican Empire could stand on its own.

Before Carlota could present this appeal to the French, however, she began to suffer delusions. She raved in her sleep. She spoke while awake of unnamed assassins following her everywhere. Court physicians recommended immediate hospitalization and called in specialists from Vienna. These men, when they arrived, expressed their fears for her future.

Maximilian, when informed of his wife's condition, considered the course of abdication. Many of his closest advisers had pressed for this for some time. The French commander in Mexico, Marshal François Bazaine, offered to escort Maximilian and his party out of the country. Still the emperor wavered, as so often in the past. In the end, conscious of his perceived obligation to his native troops, he rejected Bazaine's offer and set out to confront Juárez at the head of a conscript army.

In early 1867, as the last French troops set sail for Europe, Maximilian's levees found themselves trapped by the republican forces at the little central-Mexican town of Querétaro. At the last moment, a trusted lieutenant betrayed the emperor and delivered him into the hands of the Juaristas. A trial ensued a month thereafter, and Maximilian was sentenced to death. He faced the firing squad bravely, evidently with little rancor in his heart either for Juárez and for those Europeans who had deceived him so callously.

Though the news of his death was conveyed to Carlota in the most careful manner possible, still it was enough to unhinge her mind at the age of 26. Already there was in Europe much debate as to her role in the whole Mexican fiasco. The radical French journalist Georges Clemenceau, who would one day become president, was scornful of the sentiment her case had aroused:

His wife is mad, you say. Nothing more just. This almost makes me believe in Providence. Was it not her ambitions that incited the fool? I regret that she has lost her reason and cannot realize that she killed her husband and that a people are avenging themselves.

Other commentators at the time were kinder, though it mattered not at all to Carlota. She spent the next 60 years in seclusion at the château of Bouchout in Belgium. Dynasties fell, republics were established, the automobile and airplane were invented, and a world war went by, and still the old empress "reigned" within its palace walls. Her insanity never abated. She died still pining for her lost husband in 1927.


Haslip, Joan. The Crown of Mexico: Maximilian and his Empress Carlota. NY: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1971.

Hyde, H. Montgomery. Mexican Empire. NY: Macmillan, 1946.

O'Connor, Richard. The Cactus Throne: The Tragedy of Maximilian and Carlotta. NY: Putnam, 1971.

Ridley, Jasper. Maximilian and Juárez. Ticknor & Fields, 1992.

suggested reading:

Basch, Samuel. Memories of Mexico: A History of the Last Ten Months of the Empire. Trinity University Press, 1973.

Blasio, José Luis. Maximilian Emperor of Mexico: Memoirs of his Private Secretary. CT: Yale University Press, 1934.

Harding, Bertita. The Phantom Crown. London, 1935.

Thomas Whigham , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Carlota (1840–1927)

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