Ambitious and beautiful Charlotte of Belgium (1840-1927) married Maximilian of Austria (1832-1867) and became Empress of Mexico.
After her return to Europe, friends commented on her strange behaviour.
She laughed, wept, held monologues and talked incoherently.
In her hotel room Charlotte had living chicken tied to the table legs.
Strangely though, she never damaged possessions that reminded her of Maximilian..
On November 3, 1817, Crown Princess Charlotte of Great Britain took to bed for fifty hours of painful labour until she gave birth to a stillborn son. Then she was put to rest with a sleeping draught. Early next morning dreadful cries were heard, when the Crown Princess awoke with agonising stomach pains as a result of a haemorrhage. She died within a few hours. Her loving husband, the German Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790-1865), was inconsolable. Fourteen years later, Leopold was chosen as first King of Belgium. For political and dynastic reasons, Leopold married Louise Marie of Orléans (1812-1850), a daughter of the French King. Louise Marie admired and loved her elder husband, but Leopold never forgot his first wife. In fact, in 1828 he had had an affair with a young actress who looked exactly like Crown Princess Charlotte. Nevertheless, Leopold "did his duty" and Louise Marie gave birth to three sons and a daughter. She gave her daughter the name "Charlotte" in honour of her husband's first wife.
Charlotte of Belgium, born on June 7, 1840, was only 10 years old, when her mother died, and it marked the end of her childhood. She was a charming, attractive and beautiful girl with her black hair, dark-brown eyes and slender figure. She was also intelligent, serious, dutiful and energetic and her behaviour was always dignified. At the age of 13, she already read Plutarch. In 1853 her brother Leopold (1835-1909) married the Habsburg Princess Marie Henriëtte (1836-1902), and Charlotte took an immediate dislike to her boyish sister-in-law, who preferred horses to books. In the summer of 1856 the 24-year-old Habsburg Archduke Maximilian, a brother of the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph, visited Brussels. He was charming, handsome, slender, witty, gay and lively. Charlotte fell hopelessly in love with him. Maximilian asked Leopold I for the hand of his daughter and, although Leopold I preferred Pedro V of Portugal1 as a son-in-law, he allowed 16-year-old Charlotte to make her own choice. On his second visit to Brussels, Maximilian talked with Charlotte about his liberal, idealistic and Byronic ideas. He showed her the drawings for the villa Miramar, being built in medieval style near Triëst, and fascinated her with the stories of his travels to exotic places.
The negotiations about the dowry dragged on for some time, but on July 27th of 1857 the then 17-year-old Charlotte married Maximilian. Afterwards they travelled via Vienna to Italy, because Maximilian had been appointed Viceroy of Lombardy and Venice. They were coolly received in Milan, but Charlotte was enchanted when she saw Venice and she wrote enthusiastic letters to Brussels. By then she had already found out that her fairy-tale Prince had no intention of changing his habits now that he was married. Often he left for Vienna for "diplomatic negotiations": wild parties and visits to brothels. In 1859 the Italian Freedom War broke out and Maximilian and Charlotte were forced to flee. Later that year Maximilian left for Brazil and rumours of his excesses in Rio preceded his return. Still, Charlotte proudly tried to keep up the pretence of a happy marriage until Maximilian infected her with a venereal disease. From then on she refused any intercourse and they slept in different bedrooms. Even then they managed to appear as a doting couple to the outside world. Residing in the villa Miramar, Charlotte read books, wrote, painted, swam and sailed, but she was bored and longed to be useful.
In 1863, Napoleon III of France offered the Crown of Mexico to Maximilian. He hesitated. Charlotte, however, longed for a vocation and pushed him to accept the proposal. A group of wealthy, conservative Mexicans convinced them that the people of Mexico wanted Maximilian as their Emperor. After Napoleon III had promised that he would "never let the new Empire down", Maximilian signed the agreement. Hereupon Charlotte's French grandmother, Marie Amélie (1782-1866), shrieked: "They will be killed! They will be killed!". In contrast, all Charlotte's Coburg relatives seemed to have been blinded by the glitter of the Imperial Crown. When the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph declared that Maximilian had to give up his rights to the Austrian throne on accepting the Mexican Crown, Maximilian hesitated again. Charlotte tried to negotiate with Francis Joseph, but he did not give in. So Charlotte convinced Maximilian to renounce his rights to the Austrian throne. Then she changed her name to 'Carlota' and started organising their departure.
They had left Austrian soil on April 14, 1864 and arrived in Mexico on May 24, where they were received with little enthusiasm. In Mexico City the ramshackle Palacio National resembled barracks, so they moved to the filthy and neglected castle of Chapultepec. The first night the lice kept Charlotte awake. Mexico was nearly bankrupt and their position was precarious. The Mexican conservatives supported Maximilian, who had liberal ideas, while the liberals preferred the elected president, Benito Juárez (1806-1872), whose followers were conducting a guerrilla war against the French troops. When Maximilian decreed a guarantee on the freedom of religion, he antagonised the papal nuncio, too. As a result the pope withdrew his support in the spring of 1865. That year the American Civil War ended. The United States opposed the French troops in Mexico by supporting Juárez. To make things worse, Maximilian could not get along with the French supreme commander in Mexico. He travelled the country desperately trying to win over the Mexican people. Charlotte ruled in his absence and even when he was present, she often drew up official documents for him. Despite their professional co-operation, the couple continued to sleep in separate bedrooms. Maximilian often shared his with other women. One of them was the 17-year-old Concepción Sedano y Leguizano, who gave birth to a son. Since Maximilian did not have any prospect of begetting a legitimate heir, he decided to adopt a grandson of the former Mexican Emperor Agustin de Itúrbide (1783-1824). The boy's mother soon regretted the arrangement and started proclaiming loudly throughout France that Maximilian "had stolen her son from her".
Early 1866, Napoleon III refused to give Maximilian any further financial support, despite his earlier promise. As a result of American pressure and his fear of Prussian aggression, Napoleon also announced the withdrawal of his troops from Mexico. Earlier Charlotte had received the news of her father's death and now she became nervous and depressed. When Maximilian contemplated his abdication however, Charlotte refused to give up. Despite the raining season, she decided to travel to Europe to reason with Napoleon III. She arrived in France on August 8, 1866 and received a telegram from Napoleon III informing her of his "illness". Charlotte nevertheless travelled to Paris and moved into the Grand Hôtel. The next day the Empress Eugénie, Napoleon's Spanish wife, visited her and through Eugénie's mediation, Charlotte was later received by Napoleon III. She described her plan for saving the Mexican Empire, but Napoleon and his councillors were immovable. During their second meeting, Charlotte became terribly upset and began crying hysterically. In their third and final conversation Napoleon told her the withdrawal of the French troops was final.
In her letter to Maximilian, Charlotte wrote that Napoleon III represented "the evil on earth" and that he was "possessed by the devil". Friends commented on her strange behaviour. While travelling from Paris to Triëst, she told her lady-in-waiting that she had identified a farmer in the field as an assassin. She ordered the coachman to increase speed and covered her face with a handkerchief for the remainder of the ride. Back at the villa Miramar a courier arrived from Mexico with bad news and a request from Maximilian to ask the pope for help. Charlotte left for Rome and had two meetings with the pope. One morning, she burst into the pope's apartments, kneeled before him screaming her staff tried to poison her: "All food they give me contains poison and I am starving". Then she stuck her finger into the pope's cup of chocolate milk and licked it. She insisted on spending the night in the Vatican and the astonished pope had a bed prepared in the library. Officially, it was the only time ever for a woman to have stayed a night in the Vatican. The next day, the mother superior of a nearby convent persuaded Charlotte to visit an orphanage. With her handkerchief over her face Charlotte travelled in her coach to the convent, where she delivered a charming speech. Afterwards, while touring the grounds, she snatched a piece of meat from a hot pan in the kitchen. She burned her hand, fainted from the pain and was hurried off to her hotel. In her room Charlotte had living chicken tied to the table legs. Her servants had to slaughter and prepare them in her presence. When she was thirsty, she took the pope's glass and filled it at a public fountain. Her relatives were informed of her condition and soon her brother Philip arrived and escorted her to Triëst.
From then on Charlotte was confined to Miramar by Maximilian's relatives and no one was allowed to visit her. As a result of the quiet and the good food, her physical health improved. She appeared beautiful as ever, but her behaviour remained strange. She was not invited for the marriage of her brother Philip in May. Charlotte occupied herself with reading books and writing letters. As a result of her long seclusion at Miramar, rumours started that she had been pregnant when she left Mexico, and had given birth at Miramar early 1867. Some even tried to identify the child as Maxime Weygand, although other rumours said that this man was a son of Charlotte's brother Leopold II. It seems highly unlikely however that the proud, dutiful and unapproachable Empress Charlotte would have taken a lover. Moreover, the diaries of the doctor who served at Miramar show that Charlotte never missed a period.
Early 1867, the French troops were withdrawn from Mexico and Maximilian cabled his family in Vienna that he would return home soon. His family underestimated the seriousness of the situation in Mexico and his mother, Sophie of Bavaria2, wrote firmly: "I must still wish that you hold out in Mexico as long as you can with honour do so." So when the supporters of Juárez advanced on Mexico City, Maximilian retreated to Querétaro. With only a small army of supporters, he met Juárez in battle. He was quickly defeated, captured and sentenced to death. Many distinguished European liberals, like Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, took pity on the well-meaning but naive Emperor and petitioned Juárez to spare his life. On the morning of June 19, 1867 however, Maximilian was led out on the hill near Querétaro. He presented each man on the firing squad with a gold piece, asking them to aim carefully at his heart. Nevertheless, the first salvo did not kill him and one of the bullets pierced his face. The second salvo was deadly.
Marie Henriëtte, the sister-in-law Charlotte had always loathed, travelled to Miramar in the summer of 1867 to escort Charlotte to Belgium. In the Palace of Laken the ex-Empress lived happily amongst her relatives until the summer of 1868, when she was suddenly overcome by fits of frenzy and confined to castle Tervuren. During the winter she was back in Laken, but in the spring of 1869 her condition worsened and from then on Charlotte was to remain in castle Tervuren. She laughed, wept, held monologues and talked incoherently. Still, there were many lucid periods during which she behaved dignified and gave perfectly normal answers to questions, read books, painted or played the piano. She was always concerned about her appearance and she was still a beauty.
In March 1879, fire broke out in the castle. Charlotte was tied to her carriage with a shawl and brought to Laken. After a few weeks she was moved to castle Bouchout. There her condition worsened and in attacks of frenzy she smashed the furniture, breaking vases, tearing up books and cutting up paintings. Strangely though, she never damaged possessions that reminded her of Maximilian. King Leopold II never visited his sister at Bouchout, but Queen Marie Henriëtte and her daughters did. Princess Stephanie writes in her memoirs that even as a child she was never afraid of her aunt Charlotte. During World War I the German Emperor decreed that castle Bouchout was not to be disturbed, because Charlotte was the sister-in-law of his ally, the Austrian Emperor. It was not until January 19, 1927, that Charlotte died of pneumonia at the age of 86.
Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 Pedro V of Portugal was a Saxe-Coburg
2 Sophie of Bavaria is better known as Sissi's stern mother-in-law.