Charlotte’s Web

For those of you loyal readers who joined us for last month’s series on Maria I, a tale that took us from Portugal to Brazil, Charlotte’s story may seem similar on the surface: a royal family from Europe travels across the Atlantic to take up residence and a throne in South America (or North America in this case) without any prior knowledge of the land or people. For Maria, her mental difficulties began before she and her family were chased out of Portugal by the French, and she died in Brazil never having recovered. For Charlotte, her experience was much different, and she undertook her journey with the utmost excitement and hope – which made how it ended that much more devastating.

You Get a Crown and You Get a Crown…

Before our protagonist was known by the Spanish styling of her name, Carlota, she was born on June 7, 1840 as Charlotte, Princess of Belgium. She came from impressive stock as the daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium and Louise of Orleans (the daughter of France’s last king, Louis-Philippe). Belgium had only been granted its independence in 1830 with the thumbs up from Europe’s most powerful monarchs. They decided that Belgium would have a monarchy and a monarchy needed a king, but who could they trust with that power? So wait, they were just handing kingdoms out?? Leopold, who was in the market for a crown (he had previously been offered Greece but turned it down), fit the bill – he was related to England’s queen and was married to the King of France’s daughter. Not surprisingly, England and France’s opinions carried the most weight and they approved Leopold, creating Europe’s newest royal family.

Charlotte as a young Princess of Belgium and downright cherub.

Charlotte’s status seemed to take a further step up when she married Archduke Maximilian of Austria when she was 17, a member of the royal Habsburg family – you know, the ones known for their giant chins as a result of years of inbreeding. Charlotte’s marriage transformed her into an Archduchess (the title the Habsburgs started to use to display a status of not quite “emperor” but more than a “duke”). Maximilian’s older brother, Franz Joseph was the Emperor of Austria, which should have been a sweet family alliance to have in your back pocket. As we will see, their relationship turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. For the first years of their marriage Charlotte and her husband enjoyed the status that their positions offered. Then in 1861 they were presented with the chance for a crown of their own – in Mexico. But why Mexico? Let’s get a brief rundown:

  • Mexico becomes independent from Spain in 1821, forms its own empire and crowns Emperor Iturbide
  • Iturbide is assassinated in 1824
  • Mexico experiences decades of unrest amidst lack of leadership
  • Benito Juárez gains political prominence in the 1850s as Mexico’s Republican leader
  • France wants to be paid back for the massive loans it has given Mexico, but Juárez is not interested – France is now pissed and wants him gone
  • France fights Mexico, and Mexico wins an underdog battle for the ages at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. News flash: Cinco de Mayo isn’t just a day for drinking margs. It is actually a Mexican holiday celebrating this historic win!
  • France’s solution? Kick Juárez out, create a new empire, and put a European ally on the throne
  • The allies? Charlotte and Max – a couple loyal to France, with a royal background and time on their hands
Charlotte serving absolute LEWKS. Max was a lucky guy in my opinion *sips tea*.

And speaking of France, much like last month’s story of Portugal and Brazil, our story of Mexico also involves France and Napoleon, this time Napoleon III (nephew of the OG Napoleon Bonaparte). It was ultimately up to Napoleon to approve the plan to put Charlotte and Max on the Mexican throne, which he did. Charlotte and Max knew pretty much nothing about Mexico when they were approached with the idea to form a new Empire, but the Mexican exiles in Europe who were pitching the idea were great salesmen. They essentially told Charlotte and her husband that the Mexican people were not only in favor of the new monarchy, but were dying in anticipation of their arrival. Obviously an exaggeration, but one that made the Archduke and Archduchess more determined to accept the proposal. They agreed to be the next Emperor and Empress of Mexico, but they would have to make substantial sacrifices in order to do so.

No Risk It, No Biscuit 

Shockingly, not everyone thought it was a good idea. Charlotte’s grandmother was even quoted as saying “they will be assassinated” (Michael) upon hearing the news – spoiler alert perhaps?? And remember Max’s older brother Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, who seemed handy to have in the family? Well, Franz Joseph was not as crazy about the Mexico plan as his little brother was, declaring that if Max were to accept this new position he would lose his title of Archduke of Austria, and worse, his place in line to the Austrian throne. Essentially, Max would have no place in the Austrian royal family if things in Mexico were to crash and burn and he would need to return to Europe. It was an impossible decision, not least because Max and Charlotte knew that nothing was guaranteed when it came to the future of their new empire. And to top it off, there was the United States. The U.S. was nearing the end of the Civil War, and those in favor of the Mexico plan in Europe had been hoping for a Southern victory, as the South seemed more willing to acknowledge a new European monarchy. Unfortunately for Max and Charlotte, this was not to be, and “the House of Representatives unanimously voted in favor of a bill opposing the recognition of a monarchy in Mexico” (Michael). However, the worldwide opposition to the new Mexican empire did not deter its future emperor and empress. Ultimately, Max and Charlotte were unable to change Franz’s mind, ignored the pleas of their family and friends and accepted the terms, sailing to Mexico in April of 1864.

Charlotte was 24 years old when she and her husband arrived in this foreign world that was to be their new home. There was a massive amount of work to do to set up the fledgling empire from scratch, and Charlotte, now known as Carlota to her Mexican subjects, was given the chance early on to shine as empress. Max had a habit of taking trips, official or otherwise, without his wife (just one of many habits that contributed to the rumor mill surrounding their marriage), and Charlotte found herself alone in the capital with not much direction on how to run things. Nevertheless, the empress was a natural leader and took on a pseudo-regent role in Max’s absence. In fact, there were many in Mexico and in Europe who whispered that Charlotte was really the one calling the shots. The whispers did not go unnoticed by Max, who slowly pushed his wife out of the inner circle as a result. Just another example of the fragile male ego! To make things worse, Charlotte and Max still had no children after seven years of marriage, and here at ULTC, we know how important heirs were to even the most established monarchies. How would Charlotte and Max’s dynasty survive if there were no children to step in when they were gone?

A little look-see into what was happening on the North American continent when Charlotte and Max arrived at their new home.

Ice Queen

Max’s solution was not the obvious one – instead of making an effort with his wife, he opted for adoption. We saw this practice in our series on Caligula and the Roman Empire, but it is one that I was not aware of among more modern European monarchies. Max’s chosen heir was a toddler named Augustin Iturbide, a descendent of the Mexican Emperor Iturbide who had been assassinated in 1824. The boy’s family was not really given a choice in the matter and neither was Charlotte. There is no denying that Max and Charlotte loved each other, as evidenced by the hundreds of passionate letters they exchanged whenever they were separated. But for whatever reason (Max was impotent, Max was gay, he was interested in other women, you know the drill…) they slept in separate bedrooms and Charlotte was forced to welcome this child that was not truly hers. This embarrassment, as well as being pushed out of the “inner circle” and often being left behind by Max, led to many around Charlotte to notice a change in her demeanor. In his biography of the empress, Prince Michael of Greece (current author and first cousin of the late Prince Philip) claims that she “became haughty, even harsh, and particularly demanding in matters of protocol…Pain had transformed her personality, turning it to ice”. Yikes. But tbh who could blame her – she was young, beautiful, smart, and a capable leader with a lot to offer Mexico, and all of it seemed to be going to waste.

Fairweather France

Unfortunately for Charlotte and Max, lack of an heir was not their biggest problem. When the new rulers had agreed to the Mexican crown they knew that the problem of Benito Juárez and his supporters would not necessarily disappear. Napoleon III had agreed to leave their troops in Mexico to keep out the rebels and prop up the new monarchy, but France was losing interest in the Mexican project as it proved to be an expensive and messy venture. Turns out, Juárez was not going to leave Mexico without a fight. Charlotte and Max were in desperate need of support for their cause, so the empress set out on a grueling one month tour of their empire at the end of 1865. Not surprisingly, Charlotte got sick soon after her return, but what was most concerning was her own diagnosis of her condition – she had been poisoned! It would be far from the last time that Charlotte would make this claim, but at this point, her lack of evidence was a cause for head scratching. 

As has been the case with most of our subjects, bad news is often followed by more bad news. Over the next few months Charlotte’s father King Leopold and her grandmother both passed away. Meanwhile, it became more and more clear that the French intended to recall their troops from Mexico, which was essentially a death sentence for the Mexican empire since they had no formidable army of their own. It was a desperate situation that did not improve Charlotte’s loneliness and depression. But Max was the one who reacted irrationally (shocker). In the summer of 1866, Max announced he was going to abdicate and give up the throne since there was no hope without France’s support. Charlotte wasn’t having it. She convinced her husband to change his mind and declared that she would put the team on her back, return to Europe to meet with Napoleon herself, and secure France’s military. Just as she had left for Mexico with the highest of hopes, Empress Charlotte headed back to Europe with the confidence that she could fulfill her mission and return successfully to her adopted home. But Charlotte would never again see Mexico – in fact, her troubles were only just beginning. What would happen over the next several months continues to confuse and confound historians today (including this one), as Charlotte seemed to change from a capable and intelligent young woman to an unhinged and delusional girl in the blink of an eye.

Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City was Charlotte and Max’s preferred residence during their short reign.

Blaze of Glory

Charlotte’s triumphant return to Europe did not necessarily go to plan, and she found that Napoleon was not willing to change his mind. No doubt, the stress of the long journey across the Atlantic and the fate of her country and husband weighed heavily on her shoulders. The first inkling of danger came in September when Charlotte randomly turned on members of her entourage, accusing them of being thieves, while being uncharacteristically aggressive and frenzied. It was an episode that was over quickly, and the empress did not seem to remember that it ever happened. But tt was important at this time that Charlotte keep her wits together because they were on the way to Rome to meet with the Pope, Plan B should Napoleon refuse to come around. Upon meeting Pope Pius IX, Charlotte immediately told him that she had been poisoned. Much like when she made this claim to Max, she did not back it up with any further explanation. But this time she took things a step further – she stopped drinking or eating, sticking only to foods like nuts and oranges that were theoretically impervious to an assassin’s attempts at poison. What follows is a series of events that I honestly had to read and confirm multiple times due to the sheer absurdity of it:

  • Charlotte wakes up on the morning of September 30th and demands to be driven to the Trevi Fountain so that she can drink out of it (less chance that it’s poisoned)
  • Charlotte demands to be taken to the Vatican to see the Pope and insists on sleeping over so that she is safe (it was a HUGE no-no for women to spend the night at the Vatican)
  • Charlotte gets her way and again tells Pope Pius that she has been poisoned, this time the culprits being either Napoleon himself or his allies. She needs to eat so she has POPE PIUS IX SPOON FEED HER IN THE VATICAN
  • The next day Charlotte leaves the Vatican, returns to her hotel, and locks herself in her room for 5 days with only her maid, who has to kill and cook all of their food in front of her in their room
  • Charlotte spends those 5 days constantly talking and pacing and sleeping very little

As you can imagine, those around Charlotte were concerned and horrified. Before their eyes, the Empress of Mexico was wasting away both physically and mentally, and nothing they could say or do could convince her that she was not being poisoned. In fact, the more her faithful servants tried to intervene, the more Charlotte accused them of being her enemy. Out of desperation they turned to Charlotte’s brother Philippe (their oldest brother, King Leopold II of Belgium, could not be bothered to tend to the situation), who arrived to find his sister looking sickly but acting pretty normal compared to the reports he had been given. But this reality was shortly shattered as Philippe began to witness the nightmare his sister was living–- she refused to sleep, began again to name new suspects that were poisoning her (this time including her own husband and Philippe himself) and even escaped her lodgings without wearing a hat or gloves! The scandal!!  Europe’s elite were beside themselves as the gossip circulated describing Charlotte’s breakdown on top of her husband’s declining (and possibly dangerous) position in Mexico.

When word finally reached Max of his wife’s condition he was determined to leave Mexico and join her. He even got as far as the port where his ship would depart when he was convinced by his councillors, many of them shady characters probably working for the U.S. and/or Juárez, to stay and finish his job. It was a fateful decision and one that Emperor Maximilian of Mexico no doubt regretted as he faced a firing squad on June 19, 1867. Across the ocean, Charlotte was kept in the dark about the devastating events in Mexico. She was trapped in a prison of her own, and it would take all the influence of her royal family to set her free.


“Emperor of MEXICO EXECUTED.”, A&E Television Networks, 3 Mar. 2010,

Haslip, Joan. The Crown of Mexico; Maximilian and His Empress Carlota. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Michel. The Empress of Farewells: The Story of CHARLOTTE, Empress of Mexico. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.

Smith, Gene. Maximilian and CARLOTA: A Tale of Romance and Tragedy. Wm. Morrow & Co., 1973.

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