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As the wife of Archduke Maximilian of Austria, Viceroy of Lombardy–Venetia, Princess Charlotte became an Archduchess of Austria (in 1857)

Since the beginning of her marriage, she feuded with Empress Elisabeth in Vienna, and was glad when her husband was posted to Italy as Viceroy of Lombardy–Venetia.

At this time, he was selected by the Emperor Napoleon III as a figurehead for his proposed French Empire in Mexico, and Charlotte overcame her husband’s doubts about the plan. Maximilian and Charlotte (known by the Spanish Carlota) duly arrived to Mexico City in 1864, but their reign lasted a little over three years.

On April 10, 1864, in a state apartment of Miramare Castle, Maximilian and Charlotte were informally proclaimed as Emperor and Empress of Mexico. He affirmed that the wishes of the Mexican people allowed him to consider himself as the legitimate elected representative of the people.

In reality, the Archduke was persuaded by a few Mexican conservatives who incorrectly assured him of massive popular support. For supporting documents, the Mexican deputation produced “acts of adhesion” containing population numbers for localities within Mexico that were purportedly surveyed. Maximilian instructed the delegation “to ensure by all means the well-being, prosperity, independence and integrity of this nation”.

Despite the idyllic descriptions of Mexico that Maximilian and Charlotte wrote to their relatives in Europe, it did not take long for them to realize the insecurity and disorder which plagued their Empire. Their residences were perpetually monitored by a large armed guard intended to push back the rebel bands which roamed nearby.

French intervention, supported by the Belgian and Austrian contingents and local Mexican Imperial troops, was followed by a long civil war which disrupted every aspect of Mexican life. The approximately 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers of the French expeditionary force, led by Marshal Bazaine, had to counter multiple skirmishes led by the guerrillas over a territory four times larger than that of France.

A conservative minority of the Mexican people supported the Second Mexican Empire, along with the Mexican nobility, clergy, and some native groups. The Emperor tried in vain to reconcile the liberal and conservative parties.

He decided to pursue a liberal policy by approving the secularization of ecclesiastical property for the benefit of the national domain, which alienated the conservatives and the clergy. When he was absent from Mexico City, sometimes for several months, Maximilian appointed Charlotte as Regent: she presided over the Council of Ministers and gave public audiences on Sundays. The popularity of the sovereigns was already dwindling before the end of the first year of their reign.

She assisted her husband, who let her rule as regent during his absences from Mexico, for which reason she is considered the first woman to rule in the Americas. When Emperor Napoleon III ordered the withdrawal of French military aid intended to support Maximilian, the situation of the Mexican imperial couple became untenable.

On her own initiative, Charlotte decided to go personally to Europe in order to attempt a final approach to Paris and the Vatican. She landed in France in August 1866, but suffered the successive refusals of both Emperor Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX.

In Rome, the failure of her mission appeared to compromise her mental health to the point that an alienist doctor advocated the confinement of Charlotte in Miramare Castle. It was during her stay under house arrest that Emperor Maximilian was deposed and executed by Benito Juárez in June 1867.

Unaware that she was now a widow, Charlotte was brought back to Belgium and confined successively in the Pavilion de Tervueren (in 1867 and again during 1869–1879), the Palace of Laeken (during 1867–1869) and finally at Bouchout Castle in Meise (from 1879), where she remained for the next 48 years in a deleterious mental state, giving rise to much speculation ever since, before dying in 1927 aged 86.