Charlotte of Belgium – Empress of nowhere

charlotte belgium
(public domain)

Charlotte of Belgium was born on 7 June 1840 as the daughter of Leopold I of Belgium and Louise of Orléans. Though her childhood was considered to be happy, she had little contact with her parents. Charlotte was separated from her brothers and was given an entirely different education. She grew up fast, and Charlotte was just ten years old when her mother died.1

She first met Archduke Maximilian of Austria at the end of May 1856 when he visited Brussels. She was still only 15 years old. He was not the most handsome, but she fell for his charm and character. They had equally religious backgrounds. 2 He wrote to his younger brother, “She is small of stature, I am tall like it’s supposed to be. She has brown hair, I am blonde, which is good. She is very smart, which worries me a little, but I am sure I will get over it.”3 In October 1856, an official request for Charlotte’s hand came from Triest.4 In December, Maximilian was back in Brussels to get to know his bride better.5

(public domain)

On 27 July 1857, Maximilian and Charlotte married in a religious ceremony in the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels. The festivities lasted until the 29th after which the couple travelled through Germany to Vienna and then on to Triest, where Maximilian’s Miramare Castle was still being built.6 They lived in Villa Lazarovich before moving into Miramare at the end of 1860.7

Maximilian had been created Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, but the situation in Italy was complicated and fueled by hate of everything Austrian. The couple went to Milan in 1857 for Maximilian’s duties. For the time, Maximilian’s policies were pretty liberal, and the public began to love the young couple. However, he never managed to get the Italian nobility on his side and his brother, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, thoroughly disapproved of his policies. 8 The situation became unmanageable when an Italian nationalist attempted to kill the French Imperial couple. Several people were killed, but Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie were unharmed.9  Eventually, he felt forced to sent Charlotte from Milan after she was booed by the public several times. On 20 April 1859, Maximilian was relieved of his duties as viceroy. In the following war, Austria lost Lombardy but managed to keep Venice.10  The only role left for Maximilian was that of vice-admiral of the fleet, though he never actually commanded the fleet. 

The couple began to retreat from the public after Milan. Maximilian’s spent his time building Miramare while Charlotte spent her time painting and playing the piano.11 Despite their added time together, the couple never had any children. Having children was surely a wish that both of them shared, if only for dynastic reasons.12 To escape the pressures, Maximilian and Charlotte travelled a lot.13 They were meant to travel to Brasil in 1859, but in Madeira, it was decided that Charlotte would remain behind. This caused rumours about the relationship. No doubt, the trip caused all kinds of memories for Maximilian, because he had lost his first love in Madeira.14

In the early 1860s, Emperor Napoléon III wished to turn Mexico into a satellite state and needed a figurehead for the empty throne. He chose Maximilian, who needed a challenge, and against his brother’s advice, he accepted the throne. There were many doubts about this, but he believed that he could turn things around once he was actually in Mexico. In early April 1864, Franz Joseph visited his brother, shortly after he had renounced his rights to the Austrian lands, and a long discussion followed. Shortly after, Franz Joseph hugged his brother before boarding his train. It was the last time they would see each other.15 Maximilian’s parent sent a slightly ominous telegram, “Farewell. Our blessing – papa’s and mine – our prayers and tears will accompany you. May God guide you and protect you. A last farewell from your place of birth, where we may never see you again. Once again, we bless you from our deeply saddened hearts.”16 

On 14 April 1862 at two in the afternoon, Charlotte and Maximilian departed Miramare for Mexico. On 28 May 1864, they arrived, a few days earlier than expected. There were no crowds to greet the couple.17 After travelling more inland, there were more people to greet them. The entrance into the capital was attended by thousands. It was a unique spectacle.18 The couple threw themselves into their new role and showed themselves to the public as much as they could. It was a pretty good start to their reign.19 

(public domain)

A new empire needed successors, but so far, they did not have any children. For the time being, Charlotte herself was appointed Maximilian’s heir, and his younger brothers were also considered. In the end, the first Imperial family of Mexico became involved.  Agustín de Iturbide y Green and his cousin Salvador de Iturbide y de Marzán were to be the heirs. Their aunt Josefa also became part of the new Imperial family.20 

It remained a precarious situation, and French troops soon began to withdraw from Mexico. Maximilian desperately attempted to keep the Mexican Empire going. It was slipping away. Charlotte wrote to her husband that he should not abdicate.21 She offered to travel to Europe to find help for the suffering Empire. On 8 July 1866, Charlotte left Mexico City. Maximilian accompanied her until Ayotla. They probably didn’t realise that they would never see each other again. 22 She arrived in Saint Nazaire on 8 August, but Emperor Napoléon tried to get out of meeting her.23 She eventually met with the Imperial couple, but there is little they can do. They were impressed by Charlotte, and emotions were high. “Mexico is an abyss in which France is sliding. I must stop it”, the Emperor said.24 

Around this time, the first sigs of paranoia in Charlotte begin to show. The situation was difficult for her, and after several meetings, she was at her breaking point. She travelled to Miramare, where she rested.25 On 18 September 1866, she travelled towards Rome, but after arrival, she received a visitor who told her that there was little that the pope could do. Nevertheless, she spoke with the pope for over an hour the next day. However, the conversation left her even more broken. She became hysterical and hid in her hotel.26 On 30 September, she begged the pope on her knees for help and refused to leave the building. The pope was forced to allow her to spend the night, and she became the first woman to officially stay the night. While there, she wrote her last message to Maximilian, “Dearest darling, I say goodbye to you. God had called me to him. I thank you for the happiness you have given me. May God bless you and bring you eternal salvation. Your always faithful Charlotte.”27 

Charlotte was eventually returned to her hotel, but her mental state was alarming. She was in constant fear of being poisoned, and food had to be prepared in front of her. Her brother Philippe finally managed to persuade her to return to Miramare.28 Once there, her situation improved somewhat.

Meanwhile, Maximilian was embroiled in a siege that lasted 71 days. The city of Santiago de Querétaro fell on 15 May 1867 and Maximilian was captured the next day. Following a court-martial, Maximilian was sentenced to death, alongside his two generals. Maximilian wrote to his mother, “Sweet, darling mother, Steadfast in my faith and loyal to my honour, I go towards an undeserved death with a clear conscience. My last thoughts in this world I reserve for my dear, poor Charlotte and for you, beloved mother, to whom I owe so much good.”29

Maximilian woke early on the morning of 19 June. Around 5, he received the last sacraments during a short mass. He handed his wedding ring, a rosary and a scapular to Doctor Basch and told them to hand them to his mother. He had a breakfast of coffee, bread, chicken and red wine. His escort arrived at 6.30 upon which he suddenly went very pale.30 Maximilian and his two generals were escorted to the place of execution. They stood in front of a wall, facing the crowds. The executioners are handed money so they would aim for the heart. According to bystanders, Maximilian’s last words were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, Viva la Independencia!”31 Seconds later, the former Emperor fell back, but he wasn’t killed immediately. A first mercy shot was also not fatal. Then the gun refused to work. With the third attempt, Maximilian’s heart was finally pierced by a bullet.32 

Ten days later, the news of his execution finally reached Europe. His body did not reach Europe until early in the next year, and Charlotte was finally informed of his death. She began to weep and asked for communion. Charlotte left Miramare the following July. The 27-year-old widow had a long and lonely life ahead of her. Her mental state never recovered, and she remained deeply in love with her husband.

  1. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 57-58
  2. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 59
  3. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 60-61
  4. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 61
  5. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 63
  6. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 68-69
  7. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 71
  8. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 74-75
  9. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 75
  10. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 79
  11. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 80
  12. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 81
  13. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 82
  14. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 83
  15. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 190-191
  16. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 194
  17. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 201
  18. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 203-204
  19. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 220-223
  20. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 284-285
  21. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 338
  22. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 341
  23. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 344
  24. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 347
  25. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 352
  26. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 356
  27. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 357
  28. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 359
  29. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 432
  30. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 459
  31. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 454
  32. Arthur van den Elzen – Koningsdrama in Mexico p. 455

About Moniek Bloks 2698 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

1 Comment

  1. It has been suggested that Charlotte was rendered sterile by contracting a venereal disease from her husband. In the same family Stephanie of Belgium had no more children following Erszi as a result of contracting VD from Crown Prince Rudolf

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