Few things from the annals of history are more bizarre or more tragic than the sordid tale of Empress Carlota of Mexico. Sent over from colonial Belgium to rule alongside her husband, Carlota—or Charlotte to her friends—quickly experienced a violent and infamous breakdown. But really, that’s only the beginning of her star-crossed story.
Carlota Of Mexico Facts
1. She Was a Spoiled Brat
Born Princess Charlotte of Belgium on June 7, 1840, Carlota didn’t just have a silver spoon in her mouth, she had the whole dang tea set. Her father was Leopold I, the King of the Belgians, and her mother was the French princess Louise of Orleans. Carlota was the spoiled only daughter of the family—but none of this saved her from utter tragedy.
2. Her Family Tree Was Twisted
Nobles of the time loved intermarrying each other to strengthen their family lines, and Carlota’s lineage was no different. Our girl was first cousins not only to Queen Victoria, but also to Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Some of the maddest monarchs in history were the result of inbreeding, so maybe this had something to do with Carlota’s sad fate.
3. She Had a Secret Weapon
Carlota’s mother Louise was a famous beauty of her time, and the little girl apparently inherited her dark but delicate looks. As a child, people constantly praised Carlota’s beauty, plus being the only daughter of a king didn’t hurt either. The young princess quickly became quite the hot commodity on the marriage market.
4. A Tragedy Made Her Grow Up Too Fast
When Carlota was only 10 years old, she experienced the first of many tragedies: Her mother Louise died of tuberculosis. But the pain didn’t end there. Her family only had men left and none of them felt up to the job of raising a little girl. The grieving Carlota had to move in with a female friend, the Countess of Hulst, and keep a household and servants all on her own.
5. She Was a Teenage Bride
When Carlota was only 17 years old, she married Archduke Maximilian of Austria in a lavish ceremony in Brussels. Maximilian was the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, so he was kind of a big deal. The couple were in love, but they were also young, naïve, and idealistic—and Carlota soon got a harsh dose of reality.
6. She Had an Intense Rivalry
Maximilian’s sister-in-law was the imposing and beloved Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and she and Carlota didn’t exactly get along. Where Carlota was kind and pretty, Elisabeth was icy and gorgeous. Even worse, Elisabeth and Maximilian got along a little too well for Carlota’s tastes. The new bride spent much of her time looking over her shoulder at Elisabeth. But the intrigue didn’t end there.
7. Her Mother-in-Law Played Cruel Games With Her
The 19th-century Viennese court had some real high school vibes going on, and Carlota was right in the middle of the drama. While her sister-in-law Elisabeth was all “you can’t sit with us,” her mother-in-law Princess Sophie was another story entirely. The overbearing Sophie ruled the roost with a well-manicured fist, and she took a particular shine to the malleable Carlota.
Sophie despised Elisabeth, and would often puppet Carlota as an example of how an Archduke’s wife should behave. So yeah, Sophie was nicer to Carlota, but she was still using her.
8. Her Husband’s Family Didn’t Trust Her
With his controlling mother and successful older brother, Maximilian had some serious middle child issues, and he dragged Carlota right into the muck with him. The Austrian court gave the couple some light, low-key duties in Italy, but no one really trusted them with the big stuff. Maximilian was desperate to prove himself—and as we’ll see, he took drastic measures to do so.
9. She Got “Fired” From the Monarchy
For a brief period in 1859, Carlota and Maximilian were functionally unemployed, though obviously this means something very different when you’ve got a buttload of money and a powerful family behind you. Still, Austria lost their holdings in Italy that year, so the couple ruled over…basically nothing.
10. She Became the Last Empress of Mexico
By the 1860s, Maximilian was itching for something to actually do, and a seemingly “perfect” opportunity fell into his lap: Napoleon III was trying to expand the French territories into Mexico, and he wanted Maximilian to become Emperor. Against the advice of their family, Maximilian and Carlota accepted. It would be their doom.
11. She Lived in a Fairy-Tale Castle
What did Carlota and Maximilian do with their funemployment time? Built a pleasure palace on the seaside, natch. Castle Miramare, near Trieste, Italy is perched on a cliff by the Adriatic sea. Hilariously, it even features a full-on reproduction of the cabin of Maximilian’s favorite warship. Heck yeah, this was a couple who was into cosplay.
12. She Made a Triumphant Entrance Into Mexico
Carlota and her husband sailed to the New World almost immediately after Napoleon’s request, taking up residence in the lavish Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City and holding a bombastic coronation for themselves at the Catedral Metropolitana. It was a happy time, until the royal couple found out a dark truth.
13. She Gave up Everything to Become Empress
No one had told Carlota or Maximilian, but his acceptance of the Mexican crown meant that he had to give up all his rights to nobility back in Austria. The young couple only discovered this bitter trade-off just as they were about to leave. Now the pressure was on for this whole Mexican adventure to work out. Spoiler: It really didn’t.
14. She Changed Her Name to Hold Onto Power
When she was in Mexico, “Princess Charlotte of Belgium” wisely rebranded herself. She changed her name to “Carlota,” which was Spanish for Charlotte. After all, she wanted the people to like her.
15. She Learned “Don’t Mess With Mexico” The VERY Hard Way
Mere months after Carlota and Maximilian’s coronation, the situation turned very sour. Napoleon III couldn’t manage to actually get his men into the country, and he started to abandon this whole “Emperor and Empress of Mexico” thing. Suddenly, Carlota and Maximilian were alone in a hostile country…and then Carlota made it so much worse.
16. She Made Incredibly Rash Decisions
After hearing that Napoleon III was pulling out his support and abandoning them in Mexico, Carlota performed the first of her many desperate acts. She sailed back to Europe, intending to meet Napoleon in France and beg him to reconsider. Unfortunately for Carlota, when she landed, Napoleon’s response was not at all what she was expecting.
17. She Defied Emperor Napoleon
After hearing the Empress was in town, Napoleon pulled the 19th-century version of “Sorry, I have to wash my hair tonight.” He sent her a telegram pleading horrific illness and told her to stay (very) far away. Did this stop Carlota? Heck no. She booked a room at the lavish Grand Hotel in Paris and settled in, forcing Napoleon to pull out a new defense.
18. She Would Do Anything to Stay Empress
Instead of going to the hotel himself, Napoleon sent his wife Eugenie de Montijo to talk to the Empress, woman-to-woman, and convince her to give up and accept her sad fate. But the kind, pretty girl was done being submissive. Carlota demanded to speak to the Napoleon in person, and miraculously earned not one but three audiences with him. Unfortunately, they went absolutely horrifically.
19. She Suffered a Crushing Disappointment
After Carlota finally got her hard-won meetings with Napoleon, she arrived to find him completely unsympathetic to her cause. He refused to entertain the idea of supporting her as Empress of Mexico, or giving her husband any leeway. Wild with fury and hopelessness, Empress Carlota responded in such a disturbing way that it’s impossible to forget.
20. Her Mind Slowly Started to Break
Carlota simply couldn’t accept the truth: She and Maximilian had lost Mexico, had lost many of their rights to nobility, had lost everything. Faced with this harsh truth, a change began to take place in the Empress. She slowly became unhinged, making long, rambling, and unheeded speeches. The effects of her descent were chilling.
21. She Couldn’t Keep It Together in Public
Carlota’s third meeting with Napoleon was her last, but by then the damage was done. Full of grief for her beloved husband and her cushy position, the Empress of Mexico was totally deranged. At one point in her second meeting, Carlota even collapsed into a chair and sobbed for hours, pushed to the brink of sanity. And this was just the beginning of the nightmare.
22. She Displayed Disturbing Behaviors
After finally admitting to herself that she would get no help from Napoleon III, Carlota went back to her castle in Trieste to regroup and look for new sources of support. But she didn’t even make it there before her insanity worsened. On the way, she spotted a farmer in a field, became convinced he was an assassin, and screamed at her coachman to drive faster all the way home.
23. She Stopped at Nothing to Get What She Wanted
In a last ditch effort to save her station, Carlota planned to go all the way to the top: Pope Pius IX in Rome. However, her rapidly deteriorating sanity reared its ugly head again. While travelling to the Vatican, Carlota informed her companion, straight-faced, that someone spying for Napoleon III was trying to poison her.
24. The Pope Finally Broke Her
Carlota’s meeting with the Big Man did nothing to help things, either. Having apparently never heard of a little something called “Christian charity,” the Pope took the same hard line as Napoleon and left the Empress empty-handed. This was the last straw. Totally bereft, Carlota didn’t leave her hotel room for two days and refused to eat, terrified that “spies” were still after her. But the worst was yet to come.
25. She Performed Her Most Insane Act in Front of the Vatican
Still in Rome, Carlota awoke two days later with an utterly unhinged plan. Eyes red from crying and cheeks sunken from starvation, she dressed herself in black mourning clothes and stomped up to the Vatican again, begging for shelter from her imaginary enemies. She claimed if the Pope wouldn’t let her in, she’d sleep on the stone floor outside.
Look, I understand Carlota wasn’t exactly in her best mind here, but can we just take a moment to respect this boss move? Sweet little Charlotte gave an ultimatum to THE POPE!
26. She Went Where no Woman Had Gone Before
The Pope was understandably worried about the optics of letting a Princess of Belgium camp outside his door like a normie. He relented and set up a bed for the deranged Empress in his library. As a result, in addition to her other dubious claims to fame, Carlota remains one of the only women in history to ever sleep overnight at the Vatican. Not that she took much time to enjoy that fact…
27. She Wrote Desperate Farewell Letters
Finally safe and surrounded by the House of God, Carlota spent her evening in the library still unraveling. She stayed up all night writing scores of farewell letters to her loved ones, and even scrawled out her will. To the Empress, this was the end times. She didn’t realize that her husband Maximilian’s fate would be even darker.
28. Her Family Staged an Intervention
Inevitably, news got out that the Empress of Mexico was deteriorating before the Pope’s own eyes. Before long, her panicked family found her and sent her to recover at Castle Miramare with a team of accomplished psychiatrists. Yet the best doctors in the world couldn’t cure what happened next.
29. Her Emperor Came to a Notorious End
While Carlota had been slowly losing her mind in Europe, her husband Maximilian was back in Mexico trying to hold the fort, and failing miserably. Eventually, Republican Mexican forces captured him and sentenced him to execution. So, on the early morning of June 16, 1867, the Emperor of Mexico faced a firing squad. He perished almost immediately.
30. Her Husband’s Final Moments Were Harrowing
According to the men who executed him, Maximilian’s final wish was that they not shoot him in the head so that his mother could see his face when he was gone. He then said, “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 Mexico, viva la independencia!” His very last words were even more tragic.
31. The Emperor’s Heartbreaking Last Thoughts Were of Her
Some witnesses say that after his public speech, Maximilian had a more personal lament. Just before the bullets rained down on him, he reportedly mumbled “Poor Carlota,” thinking of his wife in his final moments.
32. Her Family Told Her an Enormous Lie
After her beloved husband’s violent death, Carlota’s doctors made a chilling decision: They didn’t tell her about it. They believed that her fragile mental health simply couldn’t withstand the tragedy, so she didn’t know she was officially no longer an Empress. But then they took their deception to the next level.
33. Her Sister-in-Law Played an Unforgivable Trick on Her
Carlota’s minders didn’t just neglect to tell Carlota about her husband, they actively pretended he was still alive. In order to get her back to Brussels, her sister-in-law Queen Marie Henriette sent Carlota a fake telegram from “Maximilian” telling her she should go back to live with her brother, now King Leopold II of Belgium. Carlota dutifully followed.
34. There Was One Thing She Never Did
Despite being deeply in love, Carlota and Maximilian had no children together, though the reasons for this—whether infertility or other difficulties—are unknown. But that didn’t mean their home life was quiet…
35. She Had Two Children by Unusual Means
Royal families are all about the heir and the spare, so Carlota and Maximilian went an unusual route (for the time) and ended up adopting not one but two children in 1865, Augstin and Salvador de Iturbide. They even gave Augustin the title of “ His Highness, The Prince of Iturbide”—but they were hiding a dark secret.
36. She Denied Her Son His Rightful Inheritance
Despite the fancy titles, Carlota and Maximilian had no intention of actually letting Augustin or his brother inherit the title of Emperor of Mexico. I mean, c’mon, Augustin and Salvador had as much “royal” blood as Carlota and Maximilian had Mexican heritage: zero whatsoever. Like that would ever work. But there’s an even more disturbing detail.
37. She Treated Her Adoptive Children Like Objects
Emperor Maximilian confessed that the whole adoption scheme of the two boys was actually just a ploy to force his brother into giving him one of his royal sons to name as heir. Wow, all of a sudden, I don’t feel bad that these two never had any natural children. Adoptive parents of the year, right here. Oh, and the plot thickens.
38. She May Have Had a Secret Love Child
There is a persistent rumor that although Carlota had no children with Maximilian, she did have a secret love child with a Belgian officer. Apparently she gave birth to a boy, Maxime Weygand, in 1867. Weygand’s parentage was always mysterious, and throughout his life he refused to confirm or deny the rumors about his royal inheritance, which does seem suspicious.
39. She Kept Tragic Keepsakes of Her Husband
Eventually, Carlota’s illness began to fade, and she finally found out about her husband. Though her immediate reaction is now lost, we do know she obsessively kept all of his surviving possessions until the day she passed.
40. She Played Favorites
When Carlota was a young girl, her family absolutely pampered their little princess. Carlota was especially close with her grandmother, Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies, and they regularly corresponded even when Carlota lived her second, sad life over in Mexico. In fact, on her granddaughter’s wedding day, Maria Amalia wore a bracelet with a miniature of the girl’s portrait on it.
41. Her Relationship With Her Father Was Creepy
Spoiled little Carlota was her father’s absolute favorite child, but Leopold’s affections came with a side of creepy. He had actually named her “Charlotte” in memory of his first wife who had died in childbirth. Leopold still carried a flame for the elder Charlotte even into his second marriage, and his doting attentions on Carlota probably had a lot to do with his lingering feelings.
42. Her Husband May Have Betrayed Her
Carlota was desperately in love with Maximilian. He seemed to return her affections, but some historians suggest a more disturbing possibility. While both royals were idealistic, the Archduke was much more experienced in the bedroom, and had actually been engaged before, to Maria Amelia de Orleans. Some experts believe Maria Amelia was the real love of his life, and that he never got over her.
43. She Worked Hard to Prove Herself
Carlota may have been romantic at heart, but she did try to take her royal duties seriously. While in Mexico, she took a tour of the Yucatan frontier and made meticulous notes of her visit—so meticulous in fact, they’re now in National Archives of Austria. I mean, she was still a foreign colonial power invading Mexico, but…she was a hardworking colonial power?
44. Her Brother Was a Monstrous Man
Carlota’s brother Leopold was one of the most infamously cruel monarchs ever to rule Europe. His people hated him—and for good reason. This was the man who “owned” the Congo Free State, and who butchered literally millions of workers for things like not meeting their production quota. Suddenly, Carlota’s holy goblet escapades seem tame.
45. Her Presence Stopped Armies
Even in her later years, people still respected Carlota for what she represented, if not for the tragic thing she had become. When fighting erupted during WWI near her home at Bouchout Castle, the German forces deliberately avoided entering the property because she was the widowed sister of the Austrian Emperor.
46. She Never Forgot the People Who Helped Her
Carlota, though, was in no fit state to judge her brother or even understand what was going on outside her own castle walls. She remained immensely grateful for his care, and her later letters are full of praise for both Leopold and his sons. She was their ward for the rest of her life.
47. Her Mental Illness May Have Had a Surprising Cause
Carlota’s terrifying and infamous mental breakdown has long puzzled historians. Though many attribute it to the emotional stress she was under, some experts have a more bizarre explanation. According to them, the “madness” was actually psychosis brought on by…magic mushrooms? Let me explain.
48. Her Breakdown May Have Been a Revenge Plot
According to this story, in the 1860s, Carlota was desperate to conceive a royal heir, and went to a herbalist in Mexico City to get some extra support for her womb. The pharmacist, however, was actually a secret Republican, and he prescribed her a psychedelic teonanacatl mushroom to “help.”
49. The Mystery of Carlota Lives On
In high doses, the mushroom causes intense paranoia and insanity, so the herbalist just leaned back and watched as the Empress Carlota unraveled for the entire world to witness. Whether this is the real explanation or not, we will likely never confirm the truth behind the madness of the last Empress of Mexico.
50. She Stole From The House of God
Remember when Carlota camped out at the Vatican? Well before she left the Pope’s residence the next day, she performed one final bizarre act. She actually took a goblet from the Pope’s apartments. She was then seen wandering around Rome with the cup, using it to capture water from fountains so she could drink without fear of spies poisoning her supply. Just sit with that image for a second.