Charlotte was born in 1896 as the second of six daughters. Her parents were Grand Duke William IV of Luxembourg and his wife Marie Anne of Portugal. Charlotte and the other young princesses were brought up in Berg castle which was the Grand Ducal family’s main residence.
Charlotte’s parents had no sons and so their father the Grand Duke made sure to name their eldest daughter Marie-Adélaïde as his heir in order to stop a succession crisis from occurring. This plan worked well, and Marie-Adélaïde succeeded her father after his death in 1912, making her the first female monarch of Luxembourg since Maria Theresa began her reign as Duchess in 1740! Great hope was placed in Marie-Adélaïde’s reign and the fact she was the first reigning monarch to have been born in Luxembourg since the thirteenth century was seen as a good omen.
Marie-Adélaïde was deeply involved in the politics of her country and played a key role in governance. However, her religious and conservative views made her unpopular with many people due to their influence on her political decision making. Once war broke out in 1914, Marie-Adélaïde’s reign began to crumble. She was put in an impossible situation; either force out the Germans who were then occupying her country and break Luxembourg’s neutral status or allow them to stay and be seen as taking their side. Either decision would have left the Grand Duchess’s popularity in tatters. Eventually, she decided to allow the German occupation to continue and became rather friendly with the Germans, which made the Luxembourgish people turn against her.
By January 1919, there was no way to save Marie-Adélaïde’s reign, and members of parliament began to push her into abdicating. The final straw came when a group of Liberal and Socialist politicians declared the country a Republic which led to widespread unrest. On 14th January Marie-Adélaïde abdicated. Two weeks later, Charlotte decided to call a referendum to decide the fate of the monarchy of Luxembourg. On the 28th September, it was declared that the monarchy would continue with Charlotte herself succeeding her sister as the new Grand Duchess.
Charlotte was an inexperienced woman in her early twenties when she took to the throne in a role she was never prepared for. She was never expected to govern in the same way that her predecessors did, however, as the new constitution restricted the power of the monarchy greatly. On the one hand, this put her under less pressure than her sister before her, but on the other hand, Charlotte had to make sure she did everything she could to regain her people’s faith in their monarchy.
Ten months after her accession to the throne, Charlotte married her cousin Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma. The couple were both grandchildren of Miguel I of Portugal. The marriage was successful, and the pair were blessed with six children; two sons and four daughters.
Charlotte reigned with success and stability for the next twenty years, until war returned to Europe. In 1940, when the Germans once again invaded Luxembourg, Charlotte made sure to learn from her sister’s mistakes and so rather than have to cooperate with the Germans, she and her family fled into exile. The decision to flee had to be made immediately after Luxembourg’s neutrality had been compromised and so shortly after an emergency meeting with her ministers, the Grand Duchess and her family left for France. France had offered protection to the Grand Ducal family which they hesitantly accepted, but as German forces advanced into France too, they had to move on again. Whilst on the run, Charlotte was informed that the Germans wished to restore her, but under continued occupation. When thinking about what had happened to her sister after she cooperated with the occupying Germans, Charlotte decided that attempting to rule her country from exile was the best option and proceeded to establish a government in exile in the UK.
In August 1940, Charlotte began to broadcast back to her country from overseas starting with broadcasts in London with the help of the BBC. These broadcasts were used to rally support and explain the situation to those back home. The Germans responded to Charlotte’s determination with harsh treatment by annexing Luxembourg and incorporating it entirely into the German Reich.
The following years were passed in the USA and Canada where Charlotte toured around the US with the support of President Roosevelt, in order to keep Luxembourg in the public eye and to maintain the trust of her people. Charlotte also had to visit her government in exile in the UK a number of times, often travelling in dangerous conditions. The Grand Duchess had to sacrifice time with her husband and children during this hectic period as they lived in Montreal where the children were educated, and so her husband took charge of most of the childcare.
Charlotte did everything she could for her country from afar, but however well she tried to rule from overseas, there would always be limits to what Charlotte could do in exile and when her younger sister was placed in a concentration camp and tortured there was nothing she could do. Her sister Antonia survived, but her health was never the same again after the incident.
On the 10th September 1944, Luxembourg was finally liberated by Allied forces, one particular soldier involved in the liberation was Prince Jean, Charlotte’s eldest son. With the restoration of the Grand Duchy’s independence came the restoration of the monarchy and the jubilant return of Grand Duchess Charlotte and her family. After the war, the monarchy in Luxembourg was more popular than ever before. The country became much more well-known after the war, becoming a member of bodies such as NATO and the EEC and gained greater financial and diplomatic influence globally.
The hard work of Charlotte from her government in exile cannot be under-estimated, and she undoubtedly saved and strengthened the monarchy in this most challenging of times.
Of course, the post-war years were difficult, Luxembourg had to rebuild and recover from the loss of life and infrastructure that had been suffered, and Charlotte faced many more challenges over the years. As time went by, she raised Luxembourg up in the public eye, from a little-known country to a global player. She hosted everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Eleanor Roosevelt and focused on public activity and royal visits which boosted the popularity of the monarchy. Under Charlotte’s rule, the monarchy was saved, Luxembourg was liberated from German occupation, universal suffrage was rolled out, new labour laws and housing schemes were passed, and the often-violated status of neutrality was dropped. For a young girl, never destined to rule, Charlotte achieved a huge amount and can be remembered as a great ruler.
Charlotte’s reign continued until 1964 when she abdicated in favour of her son Jean. She had prepared her son for his role throughout his life and gave over much of her power to him in 1960. This transition from Charlotte’s reign to Jean’s made for a smooth succession and means that Luxembourg’s monarchy is still going strong today.
Charlotte passed away in 1985; the current Grand Duke is her grandson Henri whose father Jean abdicated in his favour in 2000.