In 1840, she was born Marie Charlotte Amelie Augustine Victoire Clementine Leopoldine, daughter of Leopoldo I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, king of Belgium. She was known as Carlota in Mexico, Charlotte in Belgium and France, and Carlotta in Italy. Princess Charlotte was serious and intelligent, as well as beautiful. But even a royal pedigree, a privileged life, and killer looks could not protect her from a sad and tragic life. According to historians, Charlotte also suffered from a lifetime of serious mental illness. However, after reading the chilling details of her life, one is left to wonder if mental illness was simply a normal response to an abnormally traumatic existence. The times and circumstances chained her to a life without hope.
In the history of humans as war-mongers and conquerors and builders of cities and empires, the less sensational stories sometimes get lost under the rubble. Princess Charlotte was not a warrior or a hero, but her story is still important. She gives us a peek into the brutally hard lives of women in a past era as they tried to survive under the tyranny of a society ruled by men and war. It reminds us that not all sacrifices were on the battlefield.
Charlotte married Maximilian, archduke of Austria, in 1857, at the tender age of 17. Their perfect life in a castle overlooking the Adriatic Sea was shattered by the archduke’s sexual exploits as he frequented wild parties and brothels. In 1859, Maximilian was removed from his role of governor of Lombardy and Venice – probably because he could not govern himself. He travelled to Brazil, but the only thing he brought back for his devoted wife was a raging case of venereal disease. After being infected with the illness, Charlotte was never able to have children. From that day forward, she refused to have any further marital relations with her husband. Who could blame her?
Napoleon III had a dream: to conquer Mexico for France. After being defeated at Puebla, he then took control of Mexico City. In 1864, Maximilian and Charlotte – soon to be known as Carlota – were placed on the throne of the Mexican monarchy by Napoleon III as Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The pair never had the respect or support of the Mexican people or the papal nuncio. Meanwhile, Maximilian continued his philandering ways. Eventually, Mexico rejected foreign rule and the French troops withdrew. Even after Maximilian was deposed as emperor, he refused to leave Mexico and was arrested.
On her return to Europe, Carlota went to bat for her wayward husband, but her attempts to get Napoleon’s support in regaining the Mexican Empire failed. Carlota then fell into a deep depression, described by her secretary as “a grave attack of mental aberration.” She became delusional, incoherent and “behaved strangely.” But even upon hearing of his wife’s mental illness, Maximilian still refused to abdicate his throne in Mexico. Loyalty does not always go both ways. He was executed by a firing squad in 1867.
Historical records should always be digested with a huge dollop of salt and considered in the context of when they were written. The sagacity of ancient writers was always influenced by the mores, culture and level of knowledge at that time in history. A judgement of having a 'mental aberration' could have meant anything in an age without any knowledge of mental health or of medical treatment when it fails. Empress Carlota could simply have been a girl whose heart was broken by a loveless marriage and cheating husband and whose own hopes for the future were gutted by a violent and turbulent society with no respect for women. Who knows how much her melancholy and peculiar behaviour were caused by being powerless in the middle of a brutal marriage and a harsh hellish existence. In a different and kinder time, her beauty, intelligence and fierce loyalty might have resulted in a much happier and healthier life.
Returning to Belgium in 1867, Carlota lived in seclusion for the last 60 years of her life, never recovering her mental health. She died on January 19, 1927, of pneumonia at age 86.
A sad legacy, but never forgotten.