Married just seven years at the time of their acceptance of the throne in Mexico, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and Archduchess Maria Charlotte were both of royal blood, young, well educated, and happily in love. He was son of the ruler of Austria, and related by blood or marriage to every ruling family in Europe, she was daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, cousin of Queen Victoria of England and granddaughter of King Louis Philippe.
A natural linguist and talented writer, Carlota was slender and petite, with dark eyes and dark brown hair. When she knew she and Maximilian would be going to Mexico she immediately hired a Spanish language teacher to study with. Shortly after arriving in Mexico, she changed her name to Carlota, and adopted the Spanish spelling.
Maximilian was described as extremely personable, handsome, idealistic and trusting. He was also naive and extremely gullible. Though not as adept at learning languages as Carlota, he spoke several, including passable English. Now, on May 28, 1864, as they leaned over the rail of the S.M.S. Novara-the French ship that had carried them across the Atlantic to Veracruz, Mexico – they were eagerly looking forward to carrying out their duties as the newly appointed Emperor and Empress of Mexico. They could hardly wait to see their new country and meet the people over which they would rule. He was 32; she had just turned 24. In their happiness they hadn’t a clue that in just three years, Maximilian would die by bloody execution, and she would spend the next sixty years in an institution for the hopelessly insane.
The deceit to entice Maximilian to accept the throne of Mexico began in earnest with the defeat of the Mexican Conservative Party in the Mexico Reform War of 1857-60. The war pitted the Conservatives that favored putting the big landowners and the Church back in power, against the Liberal Party, that favored declaring Mexico a democracy and making Benito Juárez its first president.
In one of the first actions of his presidency, Juárez delivered the final insult to France when, with the stroke of a pen, he threw out the long standing international custom that a new government was liable for the debts of the one it replaced. This left many of the French elite holding the bag for ten million dollars it had loaned the conservative forces that had opposed Juárez for control.
Adamant in his plan to depose Juarez and set up a monarchy, the fight between the two forces broke out again, and in May 1863, French troops ousted Juárez from Mexico City. With this victory, Napoleon III sent word for the future Emperor and Empress to set sail for Mexico. Throughout this hectic time, Maximilian had been lied to by Napoleon III and the Mexican leaders of the defeated Conservative Party that had taken refuge in France. Gullible as always, Maximilian accepted the stories he had been told about the desire of the Mexican people to see him on the throne as Emperor.
“They look upon you as their redeemer; someone who will bring equality and prosperity to Mexico,” Maximilian was told. And in his naivety, Maximilian genuinely believed the lie that the Mexican people were behind him, and were eagerly anticipating his arrival. He began making plans to bring about change in Mexico, and looked forward to his rule as a means of restoring peace and order to the war torn country.
Up until this time, standing in the way of the ambitious Napoleon III to gain power in Mexico, had been the rise of the United States as a power to be dealt with and the Monroe Doctrine. Written in 1823 by President James Monroe, the Doctrine essentially stated that any European nation with thoughts of increasing their possessions, or interfering in the business of any of the American countries, would have to deal with the United States. Now, with the United States embroiled in a Civil War and Mexico weakened by years of Mexicans fighting Mexicans for political control, Napoleon III decided the time was ripe for his forces to wrest control of Mexico from the Juáristas, and set the crown on the head of Maximilian. He believed Maximilian was a weakling that he could control; that he, Napoleon III would become the true ruler of Mexico.
Unaware of the political machinations swirling around Mexico between the conservatives and the liberals, Maximilian and Carlota were overjoyed when the call came for them to board ship immediately for Mexico. They believed they were entering Mexico with the acclaim and gratitude of the country. Maximilian had grandiose plans for changing things for the good of the people that included bringing in European scholars to teach the mainly illiterate Mexicans to read and write their own language, and inspire them to bring Mexico into what he termed “the Golden Age of growth and enlightenment.”
The couple settled in Chapultepec Castle just outside Mexico City and Maximilian wasted no time in advancing some of his policies for change. He started restoration of the beautiful castle that had been allowed to fall into ruin, and began touring the country in an effort to meet the people and explain he had arrived to restore their independence. He decreed the end of the mistreatment of workers and limited the hours they could be forced to work. Sadly, his decrees were never implemented.
Maximilian and Carlota loved Mexico and tried to the extent possible to make changes in the lives of its people. But they were living in a fantasy world that would soon crumble around them. With Benito Juárez gaining more and more support among the people, the day of reckoning was looming ever closer.
Things came to a head when Maximilian received word from Napoleon that he must rescind the Reform Law that Juárez had passed, and return the land and power over the Mexicans back to the Church. With Maximilian’s refusal to follow orders, Napoleon ordered the French troops that had been placed in Mexico to protect him to return to France. Thus, Maximilian alienated the one man it was thought later, might have been able to intercede with Juárez and save his life.
With the French army out of the way, Juárez grasped the opportunity to march on the pitifully few forces left to Maximilian. Bravely, Maximilian and his diminished army fought on, but all chances of escape were cut off as the army of Juárez closed in. With his army in rout, the reign of Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico, ended as he and two of his generals stepped out of the convent where they had set up headquarters, carrying white flags.
Accepting their swords in surrender, the receiving officer said: “Your majesty is my prisoner.” At the same time, the officer offered Maximilian the chance to escape, but Maximilian refused to desert his generals who had stayed with him to the end and were not included in the offer.
Kept captive in a tiny wet dark room with no linens on the cot he slept on, no soap with which to bathe and no change of clothing was a source of humiliation to Maximilian. But the worse humiliation was yet to come. Juárez had made no arrangements with his guards to feed him, so Maximilian was forced to beg for food. When the news of this treatment became known to the citizens of Querétaro, they sent dishes of food specially prepared in their own kitchens, and the women sent soap, towels and bed linens. They even sewed personal undergarments for Maximilian, causing him to remark he had never had so much underwear.
Maximilian remained brave and noble throughout his ordeal. The two generals were first to be brought to trial and received death sentences. As a member of European royalty, Maximilian refused to attend his own trial. Four days after it began, he too, was sentenced to death. Despite pleas for leniency from every head of state from almost every country in the world, including President of the United States and even Napoleon III of France, Benito Juárez was intractable, and signed the warrant that sealed Maximilian’s fate. Though Juárez was revered by his followers, many of his most rabid admirers felt this action was an error in judgment on his part. Maximilian posed no threat to Juárez or to Mexico, and it was universally thought that instead of execution, the verdict should have been to exile him back to Europe.
Benito Juárez and Maximilian never met. When Maximilian requested a meeting Juárez refused, saying to friends that he was afraid a conversation with the condemned man would have made it impossible for him to carry out the death sentence. Maximilian died by firing squad, June 19, 1867, at the Hill of the Bells in the state of Querétero. Asked if he wished to say anything, he replied: “I pardon everyone and pray that all pardon me. I hope that my blood flows for the good of this earth. Viva Mexico!”
Throughout this entire time, Carlota had spent her days traveling in Europe, going from one head of state to another begging for help. In their last meeting as she departed Mexico, she and Maximilian embraced, not realizing they would never see each other again.
It was during her visit to Pope Pius IX that Carlota’s fragile mental state snapped and she went completely mad. Begging asylum in the Vatican, she said she needed escape from the people that were trying to kill her. Though a woman had never been allowed to say overnight in the Vatican, Carlota refused to leave. Short of throwing her out physically, she and her woman attendant were allowed to spend the night. But despite her pleas for a face-to-face meeting, the Pope refused to see her. The next day, she accused the Pope of trying to poison her.
Receiving word of her condition, Carlota’s brother, Prince Philip of Belgium, brought her from Rome to her castle Miramare in Trieste. Nine months later she was transferred to Tervuren castle in Belgium. When a fire happened in that castle she was then moved to Bouchout castle near Brussels, where she spent the rest of her life. She died in 1927 at the age of 87. Maximilian died without ever learning about her mental state.
The reign of the Emperor and Empress of Mexico that had started with such glory and promise, lasted just three short years.
Our thanks to Maxime O Brulein (see comments) for correcting errors in the original article.