Maximilian of Mexico: Emperor of Mexico

Emperor Don Maximiliano I of Mexico
Francois Aubert/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Maximilian of Austria 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 tried and true European bloodline, could bring some much-needed stability to the strife-torn nation. He 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.

Early Years:

Maximilian of Austria was born in Vienna in 1832, 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.


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 get 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 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 their 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.


Maximilian and Charlotte arrived in May of 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.


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.

Execution 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.

Maximilian’s 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 tried hard anyway, and most modern Mexicans 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.