Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Princess Charlotte of Belgium, Empress of Mexico

Princess Charlotte of Belgium, whose full name was “Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine”, was the youngest child and only daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium and his second wife, Princess Louise of Orléans. Charlotte was a descendant of the royal houses of France, Sicily and Naples, Spain, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire through her mother (who was the daughter of Louis Philippe I, King of the French and Princess Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily) and a descendant of German royalty through her father. Charlotte was born on June 7, 1840 at the Royal Palace of Laeken in Brussels. Though her parents had three sons before her, their eldest boy had died in infancy in 1834. Thus, Charlotte had two surviving older brothers – the future Leopold II of Belgium and Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders. Through her father, Charlotte was the first cousin of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, as well as Ferdinand II of Portugal.

The young Princess Charlotte of Belgium
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1842)
Charlotte was named after her father’s first wife, his beloved Princess Charlotte of Wales (the only legitimate child of George IV of the U.K.), who had died in childbirth in 1817 after her marriage to Leopold a year earlier. Although Leopold cared for and respected Charlotte’s mother and his second wife, Louise, his true soul mate would always be the late Princess Charlotte. He remained haunted by her tragic death for the rest of his life. Little Charlotte, who was undoubtedly her father’s favorite child, inherited both of her parents’ good looks. She was a fair-skinned, slender young girl with long locks of black hair and expressive, dark eyes. She had a good relationship with both of her parents, who loved and adored their children, but her closest confidante was her maternal grandmother, Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies (on Charlotte’s wedding day, she wore a bracelet adorned with a miniature portrait of her grandmother). Charlotte was an intelligent and kindhearted girl, just like her mother, who possessed a lively and dedicated persona. She never declined to perform her royal duties and was very serious about everything she did, even when it came to attending social events. Her parents made sure that she received an excellent education, which included studying philosophy, math, and literature (a subject she especially adored).

Princess Charlotte of Belgium in her youth
(Hermann Fidel Winterhalter, 1840's-50's)
When Charlotte was ten, her mother succumbed to tuberculosis, an event that changed her life forever. After her mother’s death, a close family friend, the Countess of Hulste, took Charlotte into her own household to continue her education but for a few weeks out of the year, Charlotte stayed in Claremont with her maternal grandmother. In the summer of 1856, Charlotte met her second cousin, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, for the first time. Maximilian was the handsome but naïve younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and the second son of Francis Charles, Archduke of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria (the maternal aunt of the famous Bavarian Duchesses). Maximilian was an attractive and charming blonde with a friendly and humorous disposition but unlike his older brother, he was a hopeless romantic who always had his head up in the clouds. Charlotte and Maximilian fell in love after meeting each other and before long, Maximilian asked Charlotte’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Leopold was not too enthusiastic about the match, since he wanted Charlotte to marry King Pedro V of Portugal, but he knew that the only brother of the Emperor of Austria was an impressive suitor so he told his daughter that she had his permission to marry the Austrian Archduke if she so pleased.

The two were engaged by the time Maximilian came to Belgium to visit Charlotte for a second time, where the couple bonded and became even closer than before. Both shared a liberal but impractical view of the world and Charlotte soon grew to adore and worship her fiancée. On July 27, 1857, the nearly seventeen year old Charlotte became an Archduchess of Austria when she married the twenty-five year old Maximilian in Brussels. Soon after the wedding, the newlyweds went to Maximilian’s home of Vienna where Charlotte became acquainted with her husband’s family. Her uptight and rigid mother-in-law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, approved of her daughter-in-law, as she saw her as the perfect example of a royal wife. But Charlotte didn’t get along as well with her husband’s sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Bavaria, the wife of Franz Joseph I. Elisabeth, who was very much disliked by Sophie of Bavaria, was close to Maximilian because they shared many common interests. Charlotte felt threatened by their relationship, especially considering Elisabeth’s extreme beauty and charm. The happy couple later went from Vienna to Italy where Maximilian was appointed the Viceroy of Lombardy and Venice. Charlotte loved Venice, although the Italians didn’t care for her, and lived quietly in the villa Miramar. She spent her time reading, writing, swimming, sailing, and painting while her husband worked. But since his older brother had given Maximilian his new position, it was clear to Maximilian and Charlotte that the job was only nominal and the Emperor wielded the real power. They were content with their life in Italy for now but as the years went on, the couple’s desire to do something truly influential only deepened.

Princess Charlotte of Belgium and her husband,
Archduke Maximilian of Austria
Soon enough, their chance to grab some power of their own came knocking from a place they never fathomed – Mexico. Napoleon III, the Emperor of the French, wanted to transform Mexico into a satellite state during the ongoing French intervention in Mexico, also known as the Franco-Mexican War. France had captured Mexico and Napoleon III was in search of a suitable candidate who could rule as his titular emperor of Mexico. He set his sights on Maximilian since he knew that the Austrian Archduke was frustrated with his powerless position in Italy. So, the French Emperor offered the crown of Mexico to Maximilian, who accepted on April 10, 1864 against his brother’s advice. On May 24, 1864, Charlotte and her husband landed in Veracruz and were crowned at the Metropolitan Cathedral. The new Emperor and his Empress Consort (who decided to take the Spanish version of her name – “Carlota”) chose Mexico City as their royal seat and set up their residence at Chapultepec Castle. Although Carlota had initially entered Mexico with a positive outlook, she soon began to realize the reality of her new situation. She was shocked by the poverty of most of the Mexican people, as well as their ignorance and lack of education. She tried to help some poverty-stricken citizens by giving them jobs in the palace but her efforts failed, as most of them left after a day with stolen items from her household. Most of the country was not accepting of her or her husband because they did not take well or consent to being under French control.

Empress Carlota of Mexico
(Albert Gräfle, 1865)
But Carlota tried to make the best of her situation by working diligently to raise money for charities and sponsor the building of schools, hospitals, and homes. She toured the country on behalf of her husband and visited far-away places of significance in Mexican history, such as the ruins of Uxmal and the untamed Yucatan Peninsula. When her husband was away, she would rule in his place as regent and it quickly became apparent to the Mexicans and French that Carlota was the dominant and stronger partner in the marriage. But just as the Mexican population was not welcoming to their new sovereigns, Carlota and her husband were not fond of the people who had put them on the throne in the first place. They shared a deep mistrust of the French troops stationed in Mexico, especially the army’s commander. Even the succession became a troublesome matter. Despite their efforts, Carlota could not become pregnant but the couple desperately needed an heir to cement their legitimacy. They decided to adopt two grandchildren of the original Mexican Emperor, Agustin de Iturbide, in 1865 – two boys named Agustín de Iturbide y Green and Salvador de Iturbide y Marzán. Carlota was not too fond of raising strange and foreign children as her own but she saw it as part of her royal duty, so she went about her task without complaining.

Empress Carlota of Mexico
Just months after the royal couple adopted the two Mexican princes, Carlota received the heartbreaking news that her father had died back in Belgium on December 10, 1865. By this time, the Civil War in America had ended, which allowed American troops to put pressure on the Mexican border, since the U.S. was opposed the idea of a monarchy so close to home. Eventually, this combined with Napoleon III’s troubles at home (his military conflict with the Prussians and his increasing unpopularity) prompted him to completely go back on his word to Maximilian and withdraw his support in early 1866. He ordered his troops in Mexico to come back to France and told Maximilian that he would give him no more support in the form of manpower or money. This shattered Carlota’s almost persistent optimism and triggered the start of her emotional and mental collapse. She convinced her husband not to abdicate just yet, as she made a last-ditch effort to save his throne by traveling back to Europe to confront the French Emperor directly. She arrived in France on August 8, 1866 and Napoleon, who claimed to be ill upon her arrival, refused to see her. She then went to his wife and her friend, the Empress Eugenie, and with her help she managed to worm her way into the Emperor’s presence. Her confrontations (she met him three times) with Napoleon were fiery, condescending, and emotional but despite her words and tears, Napoleon refused to back Carlota and her husband any longer. After her failed mission in France, she descended into a state of paranoia (she began constantly hiding her face from sight, ordered her coachmen to drive as fast as possible for no reason on one occasion, and believed that a farmer her carriage passed by was actually an assassin sent to kill her). At first, she went back to her old home in of Miramar in Italy but soon she received a message from her husband asking her to go directly to the Pope to plead for support. Needless to say, her visit to the Vatican was a complete disaster, as her husband was unaware that his wife was in the bouts of a nervous breakdown. Upon arriving, she barged into the papal apartments, threw herself at the Pope’s feet in a fit of hysteria, and claimed that everyone around her was trying to poison her so she was starving herself out of fear of dying. She then tasted some of the chocolate milk the Pope was drinking with her finger and abruptly asked to stay at the Vatican because it was the only place she would be safe. The extremely shocked and confused Pope had no choice but to agree and set up a bed for her in the library, which made Carlota the only woman to have ever slept overnight in the Vatican.

Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico
During her time in Italy, she experience further episodes of mental instability (she took a glass from the Pope to drink from a fountain and tied live chickens by their legs to her table so that she could watch as her servants killed, cleaned, and cooked them in order to make sure no one slipped poisoned her food), which her family in Belgium heard about. Her brother, Prince Philippe, personally came to the Vatican to take her back to Miramar where her husband’s family, who allowed her no visitors because of her condition, could watch her. Doctors were brought in to examine Carlota and she was soon deemed insane. In her quiet yet familiar surroundings, her physical condition began to improve but her fragile mental state remained unchanging. During her time as a virtual prisoner, rumors began to fly that she had left Mexico because she had become pregnant by her reputed lover, a Belgian officer named Colonel Alfred Van der Smissen, and gave birth to a son in 1867 who was later said to be a French military commander named Maxime Weygand (who never knew his parents). There is no evidence to support this farfetched claim and it is totally unlikely that a woman as devoted to her husband as Carlota could betray him romantically, especially considering how fractured her sanity was at this time.

Back in Mexico, in the beginning of 1867, Napoleon III was in the process of sending all of his soldiers back home so he asked Maximilian to come back with them. Although Maximilian considered the offer, he ultimately refused to give up the throne (his family had commanded him to maintain his position as long as possible to sustain the dignity of the Hapsburg name) and, staying true to his romantic ideals, decided to stage his last stand in a battle against the republican Mexican forces at Queretaro, which failed. The rest of the Western world was shocked when President Benito Juárez of the Republic of Mexico had Maximilian executed by a firing squad on June 19, 1867. He died at the age of thirty-four and his body was sent back to Austria to be buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

Empress Carlota of Mexico
Charlotte’s mental state only deteriorated further after she learned of her husband’s execution. It is said that she died with her beloved Maximilian on that horrible day in June. Her Belgian family tried to have her live with them back in Laeken but she could not function around other people, so she spent the rest of her years in isolation at the Castle of Bouchout in Meise. Although she still maintained her beautiful appearance and took comfort in reading and painting, she would have episodes where one moment she would be laughing hysterically and the next she wouldn’t be able to stop crying. Sometimes she would talk nonstop about a specific topic and other times she would speak in gibberish. During her worst episodes, she would fall into a furious rage and destroy everything she could get her hands on, including her furniture, vases, and her prized books and paintings. But strangely enough, she never ruined anything that had once belonged to Maximilian or was connected to her memory of him in some way. She remained passionately in love with her dead husband until her own death and even slept with a doll that she called Max. Although her brother, King Leopold II, never came to visit her, his wife, Queen Marie Henriette, often took her daughters with her on her frequent trips to see their deranged aunt. In 1914, when World War I began and Germany invaded Belgium, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his troops not to disturb the home of Charlotte (the sister-in-law of Germany’s Austrian ally, Franz Joseph I) or bother her in any way. Thus, she was spared seeing the atrocities of the Great War but it is uncertain just how in touch she was with reality at this time anyway. She lived the rest of her life in a fragile and unstable mental condition, sometimes aware of reality and completely out of touch with the world, until she died of pneumonia brought on by influenza on January 19, 1927. She died in her home of Bouchout Castle, aged eighty-six and was buried with her parents in the Royal Crypt of Laeken.

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