Born in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna as a grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor Franz II, Austrian Archduke Maximilian (1832-1867) was plagued from birth by rumours that he was the illegitimate child of Princess Sophie of Wittelsbach (his mother) and Napoleon II (son of Emperor Napoleon I of the French). Unusually for a second son, Maximilian was highly educated by his tutors and could speak English, French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Slavonic as well as his native Austrian. Maximilian far surpassed his elder brother the future Emperor Franz Josef of Austria in every endeavor be it academic, sporting or military.
Archduke Maximilian was old enough to understand the volatile political climate in Europe that exploded in 1848: The Year of Revolution. Austria rioted, suppressed rebels were executed, Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated and Maximilian’s brother Franz Josef was chosen to succeed his uncle. The sixteen-year old said of the year his uncle and King Louis Philippe of France were deposed, ‘we call our age the Age of Enlightenment, but there are cities in Europe where, in the future, men will look back in horror and amazement at the injustice of tribunals, which in a spirit of vengeance condemn to death those whose only crime lay in wanting something different to the arbitrary rule of governments who placed themselves above the law’.
The Archduke entered military service in the Austrian Navy taking office as Commander in Chief in 1854 aged only twenty-two. It was under his watch that the naval ports at Trieste and Pula were established and that frigate SMS Novara became the first Austrian warship to circumnavigate the globe. Politically, Archduke Maximilian was of liberal persuasion. His moral and social codes were decidedly progressive for the notoriously stiff, formal and draconian Austrian court. In 1857 the Archduke married his second cousin Princess Charlotte of Belgium who was first cousin to both Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert.
The newly married couple was installed as Austrian Regents in Milan and Viceroys of Lombardy-Venetia. A jealous Emperor Franz Josef dismissed his too liberal brother who retired to Trieste and built the beauteous castle Miramare. In 1859, Archduke Maximilian was approached by the Mexican monarchist party to restore the throne of the South American republic. His cause was bolstered by Emperor Napoleon III of the French whose troops had captured Mexico City. Despite Franz Josef’s disapproval, Maximilian accepted the throne and set sail on board SMS Novara bound for Veracruz. Queen Victoria commanded that her garrison on the island of Gibraltar fire a gun salute as the new Emperor’s ship sailed past.
The Emperor and his Empress Carlota landed at Veracruz in 1864 though liberal President Benito Juarez refused to acknowledge their rule and the public reception was lukewarm at best. They chose Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City as their primary palace but the Imperial couple would never be crowned. Emperor Maximilian’s first acts as absolute ruler were underlined by liberal reform: to abolish child labour, restrict working hours, cancel debts for the peasant class over ten Pesos, restore communal property rights and abolish corporal punishment.
Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota adopted the grandsons of Emperor Augustin who had ruled Mexico briefly in the 1820s. But the end of the American Civil War shifted the axis of power. Troops to support Juarez were sent over the border and Emperor Maximilian was disastrously deserted by Napoleon IIIs troops. The Empress was sent to Europe to rally support at the courts of Austria and France and also appeal to Pope Pius IX with a personal visit to the Vatican City. She failed and suffered a catastrophic emotional collapse from which the unfortunate lady would never recover.
Juarez, with the support of North America, staged a coup against Emperor Maximilian who was deposed in 1867, court martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad. His last request was that the executioners did not shoot him in the face so his mother Princess Sophie would recognize his corpse. His last words were recorded as ‘I forgive everyone and 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 Independecial!’
The ex-Emperor’s body was embalmed and displayed in New Mexico but was finally repatriated and interred in the Imperial crypt in Vienna. The Empress Carlota lived on until 1927. She was taken from the Miramare Palace by her sister-in-law Queen Marie-Henriette of Belgium and existed under the delusion that her husband was not dead. The execution of Maximilian I was painted by French impressionist Edouard Manet and the mutilated canvas now hangs in London’s National Gallery.
The Emperor’s first orders recorded in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers are dated 1866 – a year before his deposition and death – and were largely for his Empress including a black single Venetian (riding) habit lined silk, a black silk jacket trimmed (with) lace lined silk and silk breast facings and a packing case.