Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) She preferred to be called “Charlotte”….no more no less. Maybe this is because her formal birth name was so cumbersome. She was born (1840 in Brussels) as: Charlotte Marie Amélie Augustine Victoria Clémentine Leópoldine of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Most history books refer to her simply as Charlotte, Princess of Belgium.
Charlotte’s mother was Louise of Orleans (the first Queen of the Belgians) and her father was King Leopold I of Belgium. There was aristocracy on both sides of her family which could be traced back to Sicily, Italy, France, Germany, England, Wales, Ireland, and Belgium. As a young girl, Charlotte was judged as being “a beauty, obsessed with learning, with a great strength of character but too often given to mysticism, extreme introspection, and erratic behavior.” But more about that later…
Charlotte met the Archduke Maximillian of Austria during one of his royal trips to Brussels. She was immediately charmed claiming: “ It will be him that I marry.” This was indeed the case as they married at The Royal Palace of Brussels in 1857—-she was 16 years old. Maximillian’s duties brought him to Lombardy, Italy (then part of Austria) where she acted as a viceroy in the Milan-Venice jurisdiction. In the 1860’s Emperor Napoleon III wished to take debt-ridden Mexico into the French/Austrian orbit in a complicated maneuver to collect owed taxes and to expand French influence in North America. Maximillian was installed as a European figurehead to fill the empty Mexican throne. It did not go well. Mexican resentment to a European appointment was anathema to the native populace. Over the next few years there were skirmishes and, as people rejected European rule, pressure to overthrow mounted.
Charlette, now known as Empress Carlota of Mexico, took a very active role in governance trying to improve agricultural working conditions, religious tolerance, and indigenous affairs. For that reason, Carlota was considered the first woman to ever rule on the American continent. Maximillian however eventually abdicated, was imprisoned, tried, and executed by firing squad in 1867. Widowed, Charlotte was only 26 years old. She returned to Europe in a futile attempt to continue to garner European support for colonization in the Americas. After her pleas were rejected by Napoleon III, she began to show signs of hysteria. She turned to the Vatican and Pope Pius IX. At their subsequent meetings, she began laughing and weeping simultaneously while talking incoherently.
Convinced her food was being poisoned, she stopped eating. She slipped into what historians have described as “a grave attack of mental aberration—a psychosis coupled with a deep paranoia and loneliness”. She was so distraught that the Pope insisted she stay housed at the Vatican the only woman ever to spend the night in that Catholic enclave. Concerned, her brother, later King Leopold II, accompanied her back to Belgium. Princess Charlotte of Belgium would spend the remaining 60 years of her life confined in the Bouchout Castle where she was closed off from the rest of the world.
It would be hard to find a historical figure who, in her first 27 years of life (albeit pre-paranoid) held so many names and titles. Charlotte, the Princess of Belgium would also become known as: “Carlota, The Empress of Mexico, The Duchess of Saxony, Viceroy of Venice, Princess of Hungary, and Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Saxony, Viceroy of Venice, Princess of Hungary, and Archduchess of Austria. Simultaneously, Charlette was the daughter and step-daughter, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, and wife of reigning or deposed sovereigns throughout Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the Americas.
*** Did You Know?***
—-Two-time American Academy-Award-winning actress Betty Davis starred in the 1939 movie Juarez. This historical drama chronicled the life and times of Carlota, Empress of Mexico
—-The story of Charlotte’s madness has been a popular subject matter for many authors, essayists, and poets. Most famous is the 1986 novel Noticias del Imperio (News from the Empire) by noted Mexican author, Fernando del Paso.
— The world of music has also taken notice of Charlette’s life. American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman composed a violin, cello, and piano concerto called: A Mad Empress Remembers which was inspired by her last years.
—- During World War 1 (1916), while Charlotte was in self-imposed isolation at the Bouchout Castle, she chose to fly the Austrian-Hungarian flag above the Bouchout Castle in homage to her late husband. The invading German soldiers uncharacteristically left the building untouched, viewing its occupants as “our illustrious allies”.
—- Much of Charlotte’s personal fortune (she had no heirs) was managed by her brother King Leopold II and was used to help fund the Belgian colonial project in the Congo. Today Charlotte’s palace has been renamed the Meise Botanic Garden located just north of Brussels. Visitors are welcome.