Chapultepec, the Mexican Castle That Drove a Belgian Princess to Madness and an Austrian Archduke to the Firing Squad
A haphazard, rambling palace resembling a riverboat-fortress, its place as a central part of Mexican history stretches from the dawn of the Aztecs.
On Jan. 19, 1927, Princess Charlotte of Belgium died in the moated castle of Bouchout. Before she passed, it was said that she would strip and whip herself with a riding crop. In other moments, she would talk incessantly about sex, attempting every now and then to bed one of her guards. Her own sister-in-law, Queen Marie-Henriette, was sometimes forced to seal the widow in a room with padded walls.
It was also said that for 60 years after her reign in Mexico had come to a calamitous end, her servants still called her “Imperial Majesty” and that every spring she would go down to the moat, step into a boat, and declare, “Today, we leave for Mexico.”
She had outlived her brother, the genocidal Leopold II. She had outlived numerous other dynasties: the Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Osmans, and Wittelsbachs. But the woman who had so thoroughly dressed down Napoléon III that he was reduced to tears was now a mere curiosity—a Bourbon-Coburg circus freak. What could have brought her to this frayed end?
Mexico, in short.
For the longer and even more delicious answer, one need only venture to the leafy confines of Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. There, perched on top of a rocky rise overlooking a small lake, sits the dramatic palace she built with her husband, the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian. A haphazard, rambling palace best described as resembling a riverboat-fortress, its place as a central part of Mexican history stretches from the dawn of the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico on through the 20th century and the Mexican Civil War. The wing that formerly served as the Military College, has been transformed into National Museum of History—showcasing such rarefied objects as General Santa Anna’s fake leg, the Alamo flag, and Pancho Villa’s knife. The second half of the castillo, the alcazar, has been preserved as a trapped-in-time look at the extravagant lives of Maximilian, Carlota, and Mexico’s longtime dictator, Porfirio Díaz. Combined, they make the castillo and its tale one of the richest experiences in the world, a story peppered with ancient kings, romantic escapes, crushed dreams, cruel dictators, and of course, madness. It is, as the great Rebecca West wrote, “one of the saddest, drowned-kitten, Princess-in-the-Tower stories in history.”
Whether through machinations natural or man-made, the park in the early morning has a mystical, hazy quality. Beguiled by the fragrant smell of cypress, it’s easy to picture its allure for Aztec rulers as a retreat from their teeming island city of Tenochtitlán.
In the mid-13th century, according to historians, the hill that gives the park its name was the first settlement of the Mexica (Aztec) in the Valley of Mexico, but also the site, shortly thereafter, of their defeat and suppression by the rival Tepanecas. In the ensuing centuries, as the Aztec and their city of Tenochtitlán grew in power, Chapultepec (which means “grasshopper hill”) took on a new significance.
The hill was considered sacred, and so a temple in which human sacrifice was practiced was erected on top of it. The greatest of Aztec rulers, Moctezuma-Ilhuicamina, ordered that reliefs in his image as well as his ancestors be carved into the eastern side of the hill—remains of which can still be seen today. The historian Ruben M. Campos contends in Chapultepec: Its Legend and Its History that the first to build a palace on the hill was the Texcoco philosopher king Netzahualcoyotl and it was he who planted the ahuehuete (cypress) trees that still stand today, and that the hill was used as a burial site for Aztec kings. According to Dominican friar Diego Duran’s 16th century Historia de las Indias de la Nueva Espana, the hill and its lake served as a private sanctuary for Aztec rulers. Moctezuma II (the one who lost to Spain) would hold massive banquets amongst the cypress groves, Maximilian wrote to his brother, the Emperor Franz Josef.
But it was not just the hill that was sacred. The springs surrounding it were famed for their beauty, used by Moctezuma II both to bathe and to keep his collection of beautiful fish. During the reign of his great-grandfather, Moctezuma I, huge caches of treasure were rumored to have been dumped into one of the reservoirs around Chapultepec to appease the water god after a devastating flood—treasure that has never been found. The springs were also famed for their purity, and the Aztec built an aqueduct in the 15th century from Chapultepec to Tenochtitlán as the reservoirs were the city’s main water source.
Unfortunately, Chapultepec was also the fabled city’s undoing.
On May 16, 1521, Hernán Cortés seized Chapultepec hill in his bid to lay siege to Tenochtitlán. Central to his plans was the aqueduct, which he had destroyed so as to cut the city off from its source of freshwater. Upon capturing and destroying the city, he had a fort built at Chapultepec, giving birth to its second life as a military stronghold.
The Castillo is reached by ascending the stone path built by Maximilian in the 1860s wrapping around the hill. Reaching the plateau, and walking through monstrous wrought-iron gates, you reach the patio in front of the old Military College, a charming mid-size Spanish colonial government building fronted by an arched colonnade that would be at home in any of Mexico’s celebrated historic cities like Oaxaca or Queretaro. It now houses the National Museum, and given the country having one of the more convoluted histories to unravel, is ordered chronologically.
Patience and an inquisitive eye are rewarded. The room focusing on Pre-Columbian history houses a copy of the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus. The original, a rare piece of pre-Columbian writing sits unappreciated in Vienna among the endless baubles of the Smaug-like Hapsburg Treasury. The Austrians’ refusal to return it dates back to at least 1865, when Emperor Franz Josef did what he was best at (saying no) and declined his brother Maximilian’s entreaty to return the codex to Mexico. Rooms focusing on the colonial period have a number of evocative painted screens, including one terrifying one of the conquest of Mexico. There is also an object—an esfera de la paciencia—that if I ever win the lottery will become the obscure thing I collect. Made of intricately carved ivory spheres placed inside one another which you had to manipulate until they lined up, it was a baroque version of a Rubik’s Cube.
But by far the most entertaining of the rooms devoted to the colonial period is the Hall of the Viceroys, which contains portraits of every viceroy who ruled Mexico (New Spain) from 1535 until 1821. Providing the visitor with the same joy as comes with rifling through a yearbook, it has everything you’d hope for. There is an alarmingly high rate of facial features one associates with overeager cousins (looking at you José Sarmiento). Most look cruel enough (Juan de Leyva de la Cerda, Francisco Javier Venegas) to be skilled in the only thing Spain was consistently efficient at as a colonial power—state sanctioned violence. There are absurd beards (Marcos de Torres y Rueda’s cowbell beard), funky eyewear (Luis de Velasco’s loopy Nuremberg spectacles), and the subject of one portrait can only be described as having a face of a melting candle (Manuel Antonio Flores Maldonado). Then there’s one I’m convinced is in fact a Botero masquerading as a 17th century portrait (Pedro Nuño Colón de Portugal y Castro).
The Hall of Viceroys is also a fabulous capsule of portraiture fashion. The most dramatic shift, of course, comes in the first decade of the 18th century with the new Spanish Bourbon dynasty. Out with the Habsburgs and their jaws are the somber black overcoats, ruffs, and those tiny details of luxury in that fusion of Spanish and Dutch sobriety. Instead, beginning with Fernando de Alencastre, we get the ’80s glam rock hair and heavily ornamented coats, before military chic takes over at the end of the 18th century until the revolution.
One portrait is remarkably different from the rest in both size and style. Most of a wall in the room is taken up by an equestrian portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez, who ruled from May 1785 until his early death in November 1786. But in that measly timeframe, the man (one of only eight honorary citizens of the United States) got busy.
For two centuries, various viceroys had treated Chapultepec, which was then in the countryside outside of Mexico City, as a personal playhouse. A villa was built at its base and the Spanish aristocracy threw lavish parties and held bullfights. However, the official viceroy ceremonies held there became so over-the-top that the crown banned them and the villa fell into ruin. In 1784, an explosion in the gunpowder factory there destroyed what was left. In 1785, as Heath Massey Schenker details in her rich book Melodramatic Landscapes: Urban Parks in the 19th Century, Gálvez took the opportunity to build himself a palace. Instead of building it at the foot of the hill where mosquitos were rampant, he had it put on the plateau. “Crenelated parapets and towers” in Gálvez’s design, writes Schenker, gave the palace the name it still has: El Castillo de Chapultepec.
However, the fortress-like shape he gave it, as well as the garden that was supposed to have his personal motto (Yo solo, Don Bernardo de Gálvez) written out in hedges, left many in Spain suspecting he was preparing to carve off an independent kingdom. But in 1786, he died. For the next 20-odd years it was largely abandoned, the closest it got to glory was when the ersatz first emperor of Mexico, Iturbide (a general in the Revolution who crowned himself and then shortly thereafter was executed) ordered crystal inscribed with “Castillo de Chapultepec.”
Iturbide gets his shot at eternity in the National Museum, as visitors enter the period of Mexican history that is maddeningly complex, with a whopping 54 administrations in the period between 1823 and 1863. The two pieces most like to intrigue U.S. visitors are the Alamo Flag, which the state of Texas has been trying to get for decades, and a fake leg of General Santa Ana, that capricious egomaniac who oversaw the halving of Mexico’s territory (and who in fact had a number of fake legs, one of which he allegedly tried to get put in a church as if it was a reliquary).
Beginning in 1841 a military school was established in the old castle, and in the Mexican-American War (1846-48, Chapultepec became Mexico’s version of the Alamo, when boy cadets defending the hill were killed by American soldiers in the final conflict for control of Mexico City. The sacrifice, memorialized with a monument just below the castle, made the hill sacred to Mexican nationalism. But it was a sacrifice that would be wasted for 20 years, as internecine conflicts between the existing power structure (wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church hierarchy) and liberals (like Benito Juárez) left the country vulnerable.
A mere eight days after their arrival in their new capital of Mexico City on June 12, 1864, Austrian Archduke Maximilian and Belgian Princess Carlota had had enough. Their first night in the imposing Palacio Nacional in the center had been a fiasco, writes M. M. McAllen in her gripping dual biography, Maximilian and Carlota. Battling bedbugs and other pests in their quarters, Maximilian slept on a billiard table, Carlota outdoors on a terrace.
Their quarters deemed unsuitable, the pair picked the remains of Gálvez’s palace at Chapultepec as more to their taste, and set about restoring it. The palace was to be the stage for their farce of a Mexican empire that left thousands dead, including Maximilian, who was executed by a firing squad.
But what could the brother of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the daughter of the King of Belgium be doing so very far from home?
It begins, as do so many of the 19th century’s geopolitical disasters, with a mad Frenchman.
Napoléon III was the Emperor of France from 1852 until 1870. The nephew of Napoléon, he was elected president but promptly staged a coup and declared himself emperor. Although his reign ended in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, he was immensely popular and successful in the first half of his reign. Having won victories in Crimea, Italy, China, and Southeast Asia, the “Professor of Social Science born out of his due time and place” as Rebecca West scathingly dubbed him, looked to the Americas. With the Civil War raging, the region looked ripe. And nowhere looked as ripe from the outside as Mexico.
Napoléon had his eye on Mexico for a while: France had a silver shortage due to the U.S. Civil War forcing them to buy cotton from India for their vital textile industry, but the Indians demanded payment in silver. Mexico had some of the richest silver deposits in the world. There was also some ego at play, especially since Spain was seeing a renewed prestige from its Caribbean colonies. So when Benito Juárez became president in 1858 and began reforms that targeted the supremacy of the Catholic Church and large landholders, and stopped debt service payments to European powers on July 17, 1861, Napoléon had the excuse he had been looking for to invade Mexico and install a European monarch who would operate as his puppet.
He needed to find a willing Catholic royal, and while they considered Juan Carlos de Bourbon and Henri d’Orleans, the only real option was the princely misfit Austrian Archduke Maximilian. Standing 6-feet-tall, with a beard parted in the middle at his chin that made him look like a caricature of a Victorian dandy. Just 30 years old when Napoléon began his cajoling, Maximilian had had a successful career in the Navy before he was unceremoniously dumped from ruling Austria’s Italian territories by his brother the emperor. He had been deemed too soft in putting down rebellions, as Maximilian opposed torture and executions. He had begun to fill his time with adventures (to Brazil) and building a dream palace in Trieste (Miramare), but he also longed to rule, and more importantly, his wife did too.
“Maximilian might have been a very happy man,” wrote Rebecca West, “if he had never gone to Mexico; and one might add, if he had not married Charlotte. There can rarely have been a more disastrous bride than this girl.” Charlotte of Belgium, the favored daughter of another European power player, Leopold I, is often blamed for Maximilian taking up the throne. She grew up under the tutelage of her father, even learning the inner-workings of finance from those Medici-like coin-counter Belgian royals. (Her father told her Maximilian should take the throne because the “Mexicans are worth more than the Italians.”) A fierce woman, she vacillated between trying to rule in her own right and exhorting Maximilian that he was born to rule since he was a Hapsburg. To this day, as the historian McAllen notes, “the question lingered whether he had accepted the throne of Mexico wholly of his own free will or because of Carlota.”
The eager but unwanted rulers proceeded to spend large sums redesigning and restoring the palace and its grounds, with Maximilian intending it to be the Mexican equivalent to his family’s famed country retreat, Schönbrunn. The palace was no Versailles (the British explorer James Frederick Elton spoke for many when he ripped its lack of proportionality and the paint colors, and the Countess Paula Kollonitz, a member of the empress’ entourage, deemed it “an ugly building”). But all admitted it had unparalleled views. The views from Chapultepec Castle were spectacular, and captivated everybody from Humboldt on through the implacable Countess Kollonitz. In Maximilian’s time, one stood on a terrace and could behold full views of the Valley of Mexico, decorated with the domes of churches, haciendas, gardens, Mexico City, beautiful lakes, and the backdrop of the volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Popocatépetl. It was a view that Elton wrote, “surpassed in beauty any part of the world, and Maximilian wrote home that Chapultepec had a beauty matched only by Sorrento. In fact, Maximilian told the countess, “in moments of difficulty… nothing had so much power to cheer and strengthen him as the wonderful harmony of this view.”
While the interior may not have been up to the haughty countess’ standards in the beginning, Maximilian and Carlota did spend profligately on decorations. They imported the interior designer from their palace on the Adriatic and bought French wallpaper and candelabras.
They also hung tapestries gifted by Napoléon that still adorn one of the rooms that open up onto the iconic black and white marble terrace overlooking the Valley of Mexico. The terrace is the first jaw-drop-inducing feature for visitors today, with Instagram “models” posing on its stone balustrade overlooking the towers of Reforma. Peeking into those rooms, one can see Carlota’s bedroom, complete with the giant overlapping MIM which was Maximilian’s imperial symbol. The couple threw lavish parties at the palace, complete with French chefs, and they drained 900 bottles of wine a month, according to McAllen. Carlota’s bathroom, decorated with beautiful tiles and a single-block marble tub, remains untouched.
The visit into the world they created continues upstairs, where the second jaw-drop-inducing bit from Maximilian awaits—the rooftop garden. Worked around the old military tower, the garden today is based upon Maximilian and Wilhelm Knechtel’s original designs with hedges in geometric patterns. It is an open-air refuge, fairy-tale-like, and something one can imagine Maximilian’s distant cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria, designing to escape to an era where chivalrous knights strode alongside chaste maidens. Dancing mythological women adorn the walls, and columned loggias open up to the entire valley.
While unremarkable as monarchs go, Maximilian truly understood romantic palaces. One of the rooms was his private study, where one can just imagine him escaping from his troubled reign.
And how troubled it was.
In retrospect, the Mexican adventure was doomed from the start. It took longer than expected to conquer Mexico (Cinco de Mayo celebrates an early Mexican victory) and the peak of French control, notes McAllen, came in the spring of 1865 with only three-quarters of the country under nominal control and French domination of the ports.
Ulysses S. Grant summed up the problems facing Maximilian succinctly: He “tried to play the part of the first Napoleon without the ability to sustain the role.” Maximilian had no army of his own, and even worse, his agreement with Napoléon entailed payment for the French invasion and occupation to come out of the already meager Mexican treasury! As part of ensnaring Maximilian (who may have been his cousin once removed), Napoléon had arranged a sham election showing widespread Mexican support for the monarchy, which didn’t exist. In addition, the elected president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, refused to recognize Maximilian and along with other leading Republicans orchestrated a country-wide guerrilla insurgency. The emperor was also operating against a shot-clock, as the second the U.S. Civil War ended in favor of the North, the jig was up. There was no way the U.S. would tolerate such a flagrant violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
But Maximilian was also a naïve fool, somebody whose bones would’ve made nice toothpicks for Cersei Lannister. The only things Maximilian was an expert in when it came to ruling were contradictions and half-measures. He was Exhibit A of poet Ogden Nash’s maxim that “there is only one way to achieve happiness… have either a clear conscience or not at all.” His attempts at a clean conscience alienated his allies in the church and the wealthy class by upholding Juárez’s reforms. He promoted the cause of the impoverished indigenous population and was a cheerleader for pre-Hispanic history. He instituted Haussman-like urban reforms throughout Mexico including telegraphs, rail, and a postal system. But as the Mexican insurgency held on, he also instituted measures that might have made even his tyrannical older brother blanch. His 1865 “Black Decree” ruled that anybody opposing the empire or who carried a weapon, regardless of their reason, would be executed without appeal in 24 hours. In a bid to gain help from Confederates fleeing the Civil War, he also reintroduced slavery to Mexico, which had been banned decades before.
He paid for his vacillatory ways with his life. In October 1866, Maximilian left Chapultepec Castle forever, planning to abdicate and return to Europe. For whatever reason (some contend it was the pressure from his mother and Carlota—his mother essentially said it would be better to die in Mexico than come back to Europe embarrassed by the French), Maximilian decided to stay and make a stand. But after he held out for weeks in Querétaro, a botched escape plan led to his capture by Mexican forces. Despite pressure from leaders around the world to be merciful, Juárez did not back down—Maximilian was executed on June 19, 1867, by a 15-man firing squad. In perhaps the greatest “not in the face” moment in history, he said to his firing squad, “Muchachos, aim well, aim right here,” and indicated to hit him in his chest.
The day Maximilian left Chapultepec Castle was an unhappy one, and not just because it was clear his ill-fated adventure was coming to a disastrous end. He had just gotten news of the complete and total mental breakdown of his wife, Carlota. While the two had their problems (he allegedly had a child with a 17-year-old Mexican girl from Cuernavaca, and she allegedly had one with one of her military officers), they were incredibly close in that most Victorian of ways—letter writing. Carlota had left Mexico a few months before to go to Europe to plead their cause with various rulers. In France, she was in peak form, humiliating Napoléon and his ministers with her clear-eyed analysis of the sham they had pulled off. But somewhere along the way, the pressure got to her, and in September 1866 in Vatican City every single screw came loose.
In the middle of the night, a tear-stained bedraggled woman arrived on the Vatican steps demanding she be let into the pope’s private apartments. She claimed her servants were trying to poison her, and was barely lucid, a mental break exacerbated by not eating. It was Carlota, and while the pope’s top men were aghast at the request, Pope Pius allowed Carlota to spend the night in his private library (McAllen believes that Pius’ battles with epilepsy made him sympathetic), declaring, “Nothing is spared me in this life—now a woman has to go mad in the Vatican.” Eventually, her family intervened and she was sent back to Belgium to live with her brother the king and his wife. While her pen remained as sharp as ever, her mind was never the same.
Nearly two years before Maximilian was executed and Carlota went mad, on Feb. 9, 1865, the hero of Cinco de Mayo, General Porfirio Díaz, surrendered in Oaxaca. French Marshal Bazaine sent word to Maximilian that one of the rebellion’s heroes had been captured, which should have meant immediate execution. Sitting down at one of his over-the-top dinners at Chapultepec when he received the news, Maximilian reportedly queried his guests, “What should I do with this rebel?” McAllen writes that one of the women responded that Maximilian should have him shot, “for if you do not he may one day shoot you, they tell me this General Porfirio is a man of great determination.” It was a decision with profound implications for Mexico.
After Maximilian was executed in 1867, Benito Juárez was once again in power. But when he ran for reelection, parts of Mexico led by Porfirio Díaz revolted. Beginning in 1871, Diaz would lead multiple revolts against Juarez and his successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, until he was successful in November 1876. In 1877, Díaz was elected president. He would remain in power for nearly 35 years.
While Maximilian transformed Gálvez’s ruins into Chapultepec Palace, most of what is visited today reflects Diaz’s tastes. A mix of Lee Kuan Yew, Qaddafi, and Nazarbayev, Díaz was once bitingly described by Rebecca West as “proving in a boisterous way that great soldiers make poor statesmen.” His rule brought the industrial revolution to Mexico, but he also oversaw a hardening of inequality that festered until the bloodsoaked decade-long Mexican Revolution began in 1910. Diaz was believed to be born in Oaxaca in 1830, of Mixtec and Spanish heritage. He had been on track to become a priest, but the Mexican-American War set him on his military path.
During the French invasion, Díaz was captured time and again, but always managed to escape. In the final year of the French occupation, Díaz was offered Mexico City by the leader of the French armed forces as payment for abandoning Juárez as well as the position of leader of Maximilian’s armed forces. He declined both. His first marriage was to his niece, who died in 1880, and his second bride, Carmen, outlived him by two decades. His rule is viewed as a complicated one, as it brought Mexico a stability it had not known in nearly a century, but it came at the price of American companies (two-thirds of railways and 90 percent of mineral resources in Mexico were American-owned) and large landowners.
In a bizarre twist from the man who fought so hard against the French and Maximilian, Díaz fetishized the court Maximilian created and the styles and goods of the French Belle Époque (he also reportedly used skin-lightening creams), and so a lot of the objects such as silver, hangings, and even the elaborate state carriage from Maximilian remain in the palace today. That isn’t to say Díaz didn’t bring his own plundered riches to the palace. In the old military college, visitors can view the absurd floor to ceiling malachite doors (the largest pieces outside Russia) Díaz bought that used to belong to the tsar. The Neo Rococo frills throughout the palace are his touch, and the bedroom he had decorated in the style of the Second Empire can be seen just off the roof gardens.
But much as Chapultepec only ended up bringing sorrow to the Aztec rulers, Gálvez, and Maximilian, the castle also played a central role in the rapid and cataclysmic end of Díaz’s reign.
In 1908, Pearson’s Magazine published one of the most cringeworthy pieces in journalism history. For some reason Díaz had agreed to give a wide-ranging interview to the obscure American journalist James Creelman on the terrace of Chapultepec Castle. While Creelman’s final piece is one breathlessly obsequious paragraph after obsequious paragraph with the occasional aside about the magnificent view, it contained one nugget that set Mexico on fire—Díaz said he would not seek to stay in power when his term ended in 1910.
After two years of political maneuvering in Mexico, Díaz reneged on that promise, and decided to run against the man who would have been his likely successor, Francisco Madero. After jailing Madero, Díaz won the election with near unanimous numbers. Declaring the election a sham, Madero and his backers revolted and Díaz fled to Paris where he would eventually die in exile in 1915. The Mexican Civil War, which would take Madero’s life as well, began.
The palace would remain the official residence of the president of Mexico until 1939 when President Lázaro Cárdenas made it the National Museum of History. While some of it has been updated over the decades, an old guide book from 1963 shows that over the decades the museum has largely remained untouched. One of the few major additions are the murals completed in the ’60s by David Siqueiros, one of the big three (Orozco and Rivera being the other two) Mexican muralists, on the first floor. The murals are searing portrayals of the harsh Díaz regime (known as the Porfiriato) and the subsequent revolution, and a clever way to set the lens through which visitors will view all the finery in the palace. It is a method for dealing with troublesome historical sites that curators on this side of the border may want to take note of.
After all, what would history be without places like Chapultepec Castle, where the great and powerful have seen their fortune and might crumble century after century?