Biography of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico

The Austrian nobleman ruled for only three years before being executed

Emperor Don Maximiliano I of Mexico

Francois Aubert / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Maximilian I (July 6, 1832–June 19, 1867) was a European nobleman invited to Mexico in the aftermath of the disastrous wars and conflicts of the mid-19th century. It was thought that the establishment of a monarchy, with a leader possessing a tried-and-true European bloodline, could bring some much-needed stability to the strife-torn nation.

Maximilian arrived in 1864 and was accepted by the people as Emperor of Mexico. His rule did not last very long, however, as liberal forces under the command of Benito Juarez destabilized Maximilian’s rule. Captured by Juarez’ men, he was executed in 1867.

Fast Facts: Maximilian I

  • Known For: Emperor of Mexico
  • Also Known As: Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph Maria, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Hapsburg-Lorraine
  • Born: July 6, 1832 in Vienna, Austria
  • Parents: Archduke Franz Karl of Austria, Princess Sophie of Bavaria
  • Died: June 19, 1867 in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico
  • Spouse: Charlotte of Belgium
  • Notable Quote: "Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

Early Years

Maximilian of Austria was born in Vienna on July 6, 1832, the grandson of Francis II, Emperor of Austria. Maximilian and his elder brother Franz Joseph grew up as proper young princes: a classical education, riding, travel. Maximilian distinguished himself as a bright, inquisitive young man, and a good rider, but he was sickly and often unwell.

Aimless Years

In 1848, a series of events in Austria conspired to place Maximilian’s elder brother Franz Joseph on the throne at the young age of 18. Maximilian spent a lot of time away from court, mostly on Austrian naval vessels. He had money but no responsibilities, so he traveled a great deal, including a visit to Spain, and had affairs with actresses and dancers.

He fell in love twice, once to a German countess who was deemed beneath him by his family, and a second time to a Portuguese noblewoman who was also a distant relation. Although María Amalia of Braganza was considered acceptable, she died before they could become engaged.

Admiral and Viceroy

In 1855, Maximilian was named rear-admiral of the Austrian navy. In spite of his inexperience, he won over the career naval officers with open-mindedness, honesty, and zeal for the job. By 1857, he had modernized and improved the navy greatly and had founded a hydrographical institute.

He was appointed viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, where he lived with his new wife, Charlotte of Belgium. In 1859, he was dismissed from his post by his brother, and the young couple went to live in their castle near Trieste.

Overtures from Mexico

Maximilian was first approached in 1859 with an offer to be made Emperor of Mexico: He initially refused, preferring to travel some more, including a botanical mission to Brazil. Mexico was still in shambles from the Reform War and had defaulted on its international debts. In 1862, France invaded Mexico, seeking payment for these debts. By 1863, French forces were firmly in command of Mexico and Maximilian was approached again. This time he accepted.

Emperor

Maximilian and Charlotte arrived in Mexico in May 1864 and set up their official residence at Chapultepec Castle. Maximilian inherited a very unstable nation. The conflict between conservatives and liberals, which had caused the Reform War, still simmered and Maximilian was unable to unite the two factions. He angered his conservative supporters by adopting some liberal reforms, and his overtures to liberal leaders were spurned. Benito Juarez and his liberal followers grew in strength, and there was little Maximilian could do about it.

Downfall

When France withdrew its forces back to Europe, Maximilian was on his own. His position grew ever more precarious, and Charlotte returned to Europe to ask (in vain) for aid from France, Austria, and Rome. Charlotte never returned to Mexico: Driven mad by the loss of her husband, she spent the rest of her life in seclusion before passing away in 1927. By 1866, the writing was on the wall for Maximilian: His armies were in disarray and he had no allies. He stuck it out nevertheless, apparently due to a genuine desire to be a good ruler of his new nation.

Death and Repatriation

Mexico City fell to liberal forces in early 1867, and Maximilian retreated to Querétaro, where he and his men withstood a siege for several weeks before surrendering. Captured, Maximilian was executed along with two of his generals on June 19, 1867. He was 34 years old. His body was returned to Austria the next year, where it currently resides in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

Legacy

Today Maximilian is considered somewhat of a quixotic figure by Mexicans. He had no business being Emperor of Mexico—he apparently didn’t even speak Spanish—but he put forth a solid effort to rule the country, and most modern Mexicans today think of him not as a hero or villain so much as a man who tried to unite a country that did not want to be united. The most lasting effect of his brief rule is Avenida Reforma, an important street in Mexico City that he had ordered built.

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