Emperor Maximilian I was the first and last ruler of the Second Mexican Empire—but his history is so much more sordid than even his doomed title implies. Beginning life as a coddled Austrian Prince, Maximilian rose through the royal ranks through bitter jealousy, overweening ambition, and searing entitlement. Yet all it took for his downfall was one brutal betrayal.
As a young boy, Maximilian had all the privilege, but none of the power. The second son of Princess Sophie and Archduke Franz Karl, Maximilian’s older brother Franz Joseph was destined to become Emperor of Austria, while little Maximilian was left with no guarantee of any throne when he came into the world in 1832. This had alarming consequences very early on.
Maximilian was no dummy, and he could tell from his toddling years that his brother Franz Joseph was the star of the family. This drove the little boy nearly mad with jealousy, and he started trying to compete with his brother in everything he could, from academic studies to military accomplishments. Yeah, the Austrian royal family was more than a little messed up—and there was more where that came from.
While Maximilian tried to fan the flames of sibling rivalry with Franz, his own mother wasn’t helping matters. Princess Sophie was a notoriously headstrong woman—people dubbed her "the only man at court" in Vienna for her commanding air—and she made it very clear that Maximilian was her favorite of her brood of children. Then again, some say there was a disturbing reason for this.
In truth, although Maximilian was a golden boy in his mother’s eyes, his birth had ignited a dark scandal. The ball-breaking Sophie had never been in love with her husband the Archduke, who one historian described as "an amiably dim fellow whose main interest in life was consuming bowls of dumplings". Instead, many people whispered that Maximilian was the princess’s lovechild with another man, Napoleon II.
Whether Maximilian got wind of these rumors or not, he started acting out in concerning ways.
Like most princes, Maximilian was a spoiled brat. Unlike most princes, he had an enormous mean streak. He was infamous around the palace tutors for mocking the teachers he didn’t think were on his level, and he loved performing pranks, even once going so far as to prank his uncle, who was the sitting Emperor of Austria. Only, the clever boy didn’t just stop at practical jokes—he was also a master manipulator.
Despite the fact that he loved to mean girl palace staff, everyone seemed to love Maximilian. After all, he knew how to turn on the charm when it mattered. He loved talking about the finer things in life like art and culture, and he could be a warm and joyous presence in a court that was notorious for its cold manners. Still, even this had an ulterior motive.
See, Maximilian’s brother Franz had always been aloof and placid by nature, and young Max actually consciously tried to outshine his sibling in the charisma department just to have one more thing to be "better" at than him. In case you’re wondering: Yes, Franz totally noticed and resented Maximilian’s machinations, and, as we’ll see, he would neither forget nor forgive them.
In 1848, Maximilian got one rude awakening. When the prince was still a teen, his uncle abdicated his throne amidst political turmoil, which turned Maximilian’s 18-year-old brother into Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. In the blink of an eye, everything Maximilian was dreading came true…but he only found more desperate paths to proving himself.
With Franz Joseph finally Emperor, Maximilian didn’t stick around the Viennese court to watch him settle into his royal role. Instead, the prince launched himself into a naval career with the Imperial Austrian Navy, rising up through the ranks with a gritty determination to come back and show his brother who was boss. Well, instead he got something else entirely: heart-wrenching love.
In 1852, the still green Maximilian went to Portugal on a stopover with the Navy and visited his cousin, the beautiful and fair Princess Maria Amelia of Brazil. Although the pair had met before when they were still just children, they now fell into passionate, idealistic love with each other, and Maximilian quickly proposed to her. Unfortunately, it would all end in blood and tears.
Just months after their betrothal, Maria Amelia caught scarlet fever. Although she survived the illness, her health never bounced back, and instead she started showing symptoms of tuberculosis. In a desperate bid to save her life, her family took her to the warmer climate of Madeira, but to no avail: She passed in February 1853, leaving Maximilian beyond bereft and (spoiler) unable to ever fully let her go.
With his dear Maria Amelia gone, Maximilian set aside all feelings of romance for the moment and threw himself into his work. Like so much else he put his mind to, he was an instant success, and became commander-in-chief of the Navy in 1854 when he was only 22 years old. His mission accomplished, he went back to his brother Franz Joseph’s court—and was met with blinding envy.
The same year that Maximilian became commander-in-chief and finally put Maria Amelia a little ways behind him…his royal brother got married. And Franz Joseph didn’t just marry anyone: His bride was the Bavarian sensation Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Sharply intelligent, deeply magnetic, and strikingly beautiful, the new Empress was all anyone could talk about.
After losing his own fiancée, it’s safe to say Maximilian didn’t take well to his brother upstaging him.
Before long—wouldn’t you know it?—Maximilian struck up a very close friendship with Empress Elisabeth, or "Sisi" as her friends called her. Then again, it wasn’t hard. As a sensitive, clever woman, Sisi shared more traits with Maximilian than she did with the calmer, slower Franz Joseph, and the pair became intimate confidantes at court. This of course stirred up a scandal…though not for the reason you might think.
Although there’s no suggestion that Maximilian and Elisabeth’s friendship developed beyond platonic affection, it was a huge smack in the face for Maximilian’s beloved mother Princess Sophie. See, Sophie grew to dislike Elisabeth, finding her disobedient and stubborn, and she hardly could have relished seeing her sweetiekins Maximilian getting up close and personal with the new girl in court.
Still, Maximilian knew just what to do to make his mother happy: Find yet another bride. And oof, what a bride she was.
In 1857, Maximilian selected Princess Charlotte of Belgium as his wife, marrying her that July. On the surface, Charlotte seemed absolutely perfect for the job. The only daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium, she was a famous beauty in her own right and came complete with a sizeable dowry. Besides, although Maximilian could never quite get over Maria Amelia, he did begin to love Charlotte in his own way. But under the surface lay a much more sinister story.
Charlotte was used to being the popular petty girl in the palace, and her move to Vienna shook those very foundations. Suddenly, every day she was waking up and standing next to the formidably gorgeous Empress Elisabeth, who just so happened to be BFFs with her husband Maximilian. It was a recipe for disaster, and it started cooking immediately.
Soon enough, Charlotte had sparked up a full-blown rivalry with Elisabeth, and this girl was no amateur. One of her first stops was to ingratiate herself with Maximilian’s mother Princess Sophie, who was all too happy to anoint Charlotte as the brightest beauty at court, not to mention the perfect wife—unlike some Empresses she knew.
The uber competitive Maximilian was probably over the moon about besting his brother in the bridal sweeps, but he was about to taste the bitterness of defeat.
The year that Maximilian married his prized beauty Princess Charlotte, the new couple took over governance of Milan. Within months, the Emperor got a stunning revenge. Apparently tired of Maximilian’s liberal policies in the capital and likely annoyed at a lifetime of his barbs, Franz Joseph suddenly fired his own brother from the job, all but rendering the prince obsolete as a royal.
Perhaps if Franz Joseph hadn’t doled out this payback, Maximilian would never have met his gruesome end.
For the next few months, Maximilian licked his wounds by doing what royals do best: Spending their money on bizarre things. He and Charlotte constructed the breathtaking Miramare Castle near Trieste, a fairy-tale retreat from the world located right on the water. However, Maximilian was never a man who could go quietly into that goodnight…
By 1859, Maximilian was itching for adventure, and he embarked on a journey around Europe. Only, this was a very scandalous trip for the married man. He spent it visiting locations related to Maria Amelia, his long lost love, and viewed it as a romantic pilgrimage. As he wrote when reached Madeira, the place Maria Amelia perished in: "She left this flawed world, pure as an angel who returns to Heaven, her true native land".
Ouch Charlotte, I feel for you. But before long, Maximilian was looking for even more controversial ways to get thrills.
In the 1860s, Maximilian got a dangerous offer he couldn’t refuse. Napoleon III of France had recently invaded Mexico, and thought Maximilian was just the man for the job of "puppet Emperor" for the country’s second empire. It was a title the covetous Maximilian had only ever dreamed of owning—so when he said yes, it changed his life forever. Uh, just not in a good way.
Maximilian’s acceptance of the Mexican throne sent shockwaves through his family, who all thought he was utterly foolish for taking on an immense responsibility so far away from home. Besides that, everybody knew the Second Mexican Empire was far from stable—France had only just invaded, barely had a foothold within the borders, and were on dangerous legal ground with their plans. Plus, Maximilian would have to sacrifice one extremely precious thing for his ambition.
In 1864, Emperor Franz Joseph met Maximilian at his idyllic Miramare to sign the so-called "Family Pact". This was ominous and devastating. In the pact, Maximilian reluctantly renounced all his rights to the Austrian throne should his brother ever pass. It was the final nail in the coffin for any of his hopes of becoming an Austrian monarch, but at least he had the Mexican throne to look forward to…right?
Even people who barely knew Maximilian were warning him off Mexico. One French colonel coming back from service there wrote of him, "If you succeed in bringing order out of this chaos…you will be the greatest sovereign of modern times. Go poor fool! You may regret your beautiful castle of Miramar!" When all was said and done, and the gruesome story told, Maximilian very much did regret it.
Maximilian and his wife Charlotte landed in Veracruz, Mexico on May 29, 1864. The moment they arrived, they faced a harsh reality. The town was a notorious bastion for a free republic of Mexico, and the Liberalist townspeople met their new Emperor and Empress with a very icy welcome wagon. In order to get the populace on his side, Maximilian and his wife would have to go WAY overboard.
Although the new Emperor of Mexico had the French army on his side, military might simply wasn’t going to cut it with the disgruntled people of Mexico. Instead, the royal couple went for PR tactics, with Charlotte changing her name to "Empress Carlota" in a very cringey bid to blend in. Oh, but these two had even worse ideas up their sleeves.
Maximilian and Charlotte didn’t seem to be able to have children, so they went the classic rich white people route and adopted two Mexican heirs, Agustin and Salvador de Iturbide. The boys were both grandsons of a previous Emperor of Mexico, back when the Emperor was, you know, actually a Mexican man. Now, this might seem like a generous move on their part…but just wait.
Almost the entire time he was raising Agustin and Salvador, Maximilian made a huge show of naming them as his successors, turning them into Princes, and making Agustin the next in line to the throne. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Maximilian never intended to crown either boy, since he didn’t see them as noble enough. What he was really playing at was much darker.
Agustin and Salvador were pawns all along. In actuality, Maximilian wanted his brother Archduke Karl to send him one of his full-blooded Austrian sons to create as the heir, and Maximilian just used the pair to send a threatening message to Karl: Hand over a son, or else these Mexican boys of "questionable" blood will get my throne. Ew, Max. I’m beginning to think you deserved everything you got.
Maximilian had barely been in Mexico a year before trouble started brewing. Big trouble. The Republican leader, the formidable and cunning President Benito Juárez, was gaining more support, and nothing the Emperor did or offered Juárez sweet-talked him into joining the royal family’s side. Then suddenly, Maximilian showed his true, disturbing colors.
On October 3, 1865, Maximilian crossed a barbaric line he could never go back from, issuing the so-called "Black Decree". It was even more terrifying than it sounds. In it, Maximilian essentially condemned armed supporters of Juárez to execution "within twenty-four hours" of their arrest. Thousands upon thousands of people perished under Maximilian’s orders in one fell swoop—but it backfired on him in a vicious way.
In the end, Maximilian’s bloody efforts were worth nothing. By 1866, Napoleon III—the man who had brought him to Mexico in the first place—had seen the rebellions and abandoned ship, pulling his forces out and leaving Maximilian and Charlotte like sitting ducks in the middle of a pack of hounds. This is where it all started falling apart at an alarming rate.
During this time, Maximilian’s wife Charlotte was growing more anxious by the day (and for good reason). Finally unable to take it anymore, she actually sailed back to Europe to win an audience with Napoleon and beg him to come protect her husband. After all, Juárez and his vengeful surviving forces were most definitely coming to take Max’s throne. Oh boy, this went BADLY.
While Maximilian was back in Mexico, he had no idea his wife was descending into utter madness. When Charlotte realized Napoleon would never budge on his abandonment plans, she suffered a complete mental breakdown that left her utterly unhinged, paranoid, and claiming spies and assassins were after her. Yet even with this tragic turn of events, the fate of Maximilian was somehow so much worse.
After Napoleon III completely dumped him, Maximilian had a choice to make: Withdraw from Mexico himself, or stay and try to beat back Juárez and his Republicans. Well, he picked wrong. Stubborn, competitive, and too desperate to prove himself until the very end, Maximilian gathered up the very few supporters he had left and hunkered down, refusing to abdicate or surrender. It only made his nearing end embarrassing as well as brutal.
In all honesty, the last Emperor of Mexico never even had a chance. After losing scads of ground to Juárez without the support of the French army, Maximilian fell back to Querétaro City, only to withstand a blistering enemy siege for weeks on end. Eventually, he had to admit that all was lost—but instead of surrendering, he went the dishonorable route and tried to escape. "Tried" being the operative word here.
Far from a resounding victory, Maximilian’s last stand turned into a brutal betrayal. The plan was for the precarious Emperor to sneak through enemy lines in mid-May, 1867. Yet before this could happen, his colonel Miguel López flipped sides. The results were disastrous: In the still of the night, the traitorous López left a gate open, letting the enemy army right into the city.
On May 15, 1867, Maximilian’s house of cards toppled. The Republican forces captured him trying to run through the enemy lines, and scheduled him for a court-martial. In a matter of months, everything Maximilian loved melted away: His wife was insane, his family was an ocean away, and "his" empire was no longer his. The only thing left to do was await the results of the trial—and meet his doom.
In making his "Black Decree," Maximilian had made a lifelong enemy of the Liberals, and they wouldn’t soon forget the bloody lesson he had dealt them. So when it came time for the court-martial, they easily found the erstwhile Emperor of Mexico guilty. But more than that, they sentenced him to execution. Cue: Deafening outrage.
When the world got the news that the Mexican liberals had captured Maximilian, many luminaries and monarchs of Europe started pleading with Benito Juárez to spare the Emperor’s life and give him a merciful exile back to his country. Well, Juárez didn’t come to play, and he chose a much darker fate for the disgraced monarch.
As June arrived in Mexico along with the scorching heat, Benito Juárez began to set up the firing squad that would execute Maximilian I along with two of his most loyal generals. The Austrian royal must have been shaking in his boots as the day approached. Yet when a chance for his salvation came, he faltered at the most crucial step.
Despite the hatred that Maximilian stirred up in the Liberals, he still had ardent supporters in Mexico up until the bitter end, and they never stopped trying to free their ruler. So at the eleventh hour, one of his men came up with a conspiracy to pay off Maximilian’s guards and secret him away in the night—until Maximilian declined for a disturbing reason.
See, the acolytes’ plan involved Maximilian shaving off his beard so his captors wouldn’t recognize him as he made the escape. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Ever the good soldier, Maximilian was scandalized by the suggestion, since it opened him up to undignified ridicule if his enemies recaptured him. So, instead of simply shaving his beard, he met a cruel end.
On June 19, 1867, just over three years after Maximilian took on the job of Emperor of Mexico, the guards brought the monarch to the Cerro de las Campanas at the crack of dawn. At this point, Maximilian knew he had no more options left except to face down the barrel of a gun. But just before he did that, he performed a final, heartbreaking act.
Maximilian was many things—competitive, stubborn, foolish—but he sure as heck wasn’t unprincipled, and he went out like a true gentleman. When he met the men who were about to shoot him, he insisted on speaking Spanish to them, and then gave each of the soldiers a gold coin. However, this wasn’t just payment; it had a much more gut wrenching meaning.
When Maximilian placed the coins in the mens’ hands, he made it clear to them that this was payment in advance for not shooting him in the face when they aimed and took fire. Why? Because when his body made it back to Austria, he wanted his beloved mother Sophie to be able to look at his face and recognize him. With that duty done, Maximilian uttered his last words on Earth.
Just seconds before the guns went off, Maximilian told his executioners, "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 México, viva la independencia!" Apparently, his words and gestures paid off: The men’s aim was true, and he perished almost instantly. The aftermath, however, was so much messier.
Benito Juárez intended on making an example of Maximilian, and for nearly a year after his execution, the Liberals displayed his embalmed body for all to gawk at. People also began taking photos of memorabilia relating to his violent end. This included snapshots of his bloody shirt riddled with bullets, which they passed around like morbid baseball cards.
It was certainly not the honorable end that Maximilian had hoped for, but his memory turned even more tragic closer to home.
By the time Maximilian passed, his wife Charlotte had lost her mind so entirely, no one trusted she could survive knowing about her beloved husband’s gruesome end, let alone the fact she was no longer an Empress. Instead, her family actively pretended he was still alive, even sending her a fake telegram from him once to prove it. Yikes.
Charlotte wasn’t the only one who was affected by the loss of Maximilian. His fate also all but destroyed his mother Sophie, who never fully recovered from the shock of hearing that her favorite son was gone. Afterward, the princess withdrew from public life almost entirely. And in 1872, just five years later, she took ill with a brain tumor and passed on herself.
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