Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, usually known as Marie
Antoinette; (2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793) was Queen of France
and Archduchess of Austria. The daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis
I and his wife Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria was married to Louis
XVI of France at age 14. As Louis XVI's wife and mother of "lost
dauphin" Louis XVII, she was guillotined at the height of the French
Revolution in 1793 and subsequently interred with her husband in the
royal crypt at the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris.
Marie Antoinette's mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, had ruled the
Austrian Empire for fifteen years before Marie Antoinette's birth. She
was considered one of the most brilliant political figures in Europe.Born
at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Maria Antonia was the fifteenth child
of Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa. Of the names given at her christening,
Maria honoured the Virgin Mary; Antonia honoured Saint Anthony of Padua;
Josepha honoured her elder brother, Archduke Josef; and Johanna honoured
Saint John the Evangelist. The court official described
the new baby as "a small, but completely healthy Archduchess."
She was brought up in the company of her similarly-aged siblings Maria
Carolina (two years older) and Max (one year younger); her other brothers,
Joseph, Leopold and Ferdinand Karl, were already involved in the Habsburg
Legend states that
Maria Antonia and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met as children,
when Mozart gave a short musical concert for the Imperial Family. After
the concert, Empress Maria Theresa asked the young Mozart what he would
like as a reward. Much to the Empress' amusement, Mozart is said to
have asked for the hand of Maria Antonia, her youngest daughter, in
sisters were soon married to European royalty; the eldest, Maria Christina,
to the Regent of the Netherlands; Maria Amalia to the Prince of Parma;
and Maria Antonia's favourite sister, Maria Carolina, to King Ferdinand
A peace treaty,
the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), had been signed, which it was
hoped would end over a century and a half of intermittent fighting between
Austria and France. In the following Seven Years' War (1756–1763),
Austria and France were allies. In an attempt to preserve this alliance,
it was proposed that Louis XV of France's heir, his grandson Louis-Auguste,
marry one of Empress Maria Theresa's daughters. When her elder sisters
died of smallpox, Johanna Gabriella in 1762 and Maria Josepha in 1767,
Maria Antonia was next in line to be married to the French prince.
husband, Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI of France.After lengthy
negotiations, the official proposal for the teenage girl was made by
Louis XV. in 1769. Only when the marriage treaty was signed, Maria Theresia
realized that her daughter lacked sufficient knowledge of French language
and customs. Teachers for language and dancing tried to prepare the
girl for the role as Queen of France.
On 19 April 1770,
a marriage per procurationem took place in Vienna's Augustine Church.
A crying Maria Antonia left Vienna on 21 April 1770 to her mother's
parting words "Farewell, my dearest child. Do so much good to the
French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel."[citation
a large entourage along the Danube, then via Munich, Augsburg, Günzburg,
Ulm, Freiburg im Breisgau, the Border at the Rhine between Kehl and
Strasbourg was reached weeks later.
On 7 May, as a symbolic
act , Maria Antonia was required to leave all of her Austrian attire,
possessions, servants and even friends behind. On a neutral island in
the river, a pavilion was erected in which the 14 year old Maria Antonia
had to cross the border naked and alone, to be received by messengers
from the French court, as Marie Antoinette, as she was known from now
Dressed in French
clothing, she was then taken to Strasbourg for a Thanksgiving Mass in
her honour. The streets of the city were covered in flowers, which Marie
Antoinette gently picked up like "the goddess Flora". The
entire city was illuminated in her honour and a few days later, she
began the journey to Versailles.
was conveyed to the royal palace at Versailles, where she met her future
grandfather-in-law Louis XV and the other members of the royal family.
Her future husband, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste was very shy. He was only
a year older than she was and had no sexual or romantic relationships
to prepare him for dealing with his fiancée. Their marriage was
conducted within hours of Marie Antoinette arriving at Versailles. The
Wedding Mass was celebrated with great pomp in the Chapel Royal on 16
May 1770. Just before the wedding, Marie Antoinette was presented with
the magnificent jewels that traditionally belonged to a French dauphine.
This collection included an elaborate diamond necklace which had belonged
to Anne of Austria and pieces which had also belonged to Mary Queen
of Scots and Catherine de Medici. The large collection of gems was valued
at approximately 2 million livres. Marie Antoinette then received King
Louis's own personal wedding gift. It was a fan, encrusted with diamonds.
The Dauphin and
Marie Antoinette were then married in front of the court, with Marie
Antoinette wearing a dress with large white hoops covered in diamonds
and pearls. There was then a formal dinner, which was also held in front
of the crowd. Louis-Auguste ate an enormous amount. When the king told
him to eat less, the Dauphin replied "Why? I always sleep better
when I have a full stomach!"
The court then conducted
the young couple to their bed, which had just been blessed by the Archbishop
of Reims. However, the marriage was not consummated that night. Rumours
would later circulate that Louis-Auguste was impotent, but this was
not the case. Nor was it true that he suffered from phimosis. Rather,
it seems that no one had explained to either Louis or Marie Antoinette
what they were supposed to do on their wedding night. They had only
a very vague idea of sex and this increased the awkwardness between
them. Within days, gossips at Versailles were already whispering that
the Royal marriage was a sham.
Life as Dauphine
Since they were not having sexual intercourse, Louis and Marie Antoinette
remained childless for the first 7 years of their marriage. Spiteful
gossips blamed Marie Antoinette for her childlessness and some people
even asserted that she should be divorced and sent back to Austria.
The young dauphine's position was not helped by the fact that she had
earned the enmity of the King's mistress, Madame du Barry. Du Barry
had begun life as Jeanne Bécu, a commoner who as courtesan gained
the notice of nobility and eventually became Louis XV's paramour. Marie
Antoinette felt it was beneath her dignity as a Habsburg princess to
talk to a lady with such a past. Du Barry therefore set about to make
Marie Antoinette's life as miserable as possible. She began turning
the king against his granddaughter-in-law and once tipped a bucket of
dirty water on Antoinette's head as she walked underneath her window[citation
daily routine was even more depressing. When she awoke in the morning,
she was assisted out of bed and dressed by the various high-ranking
noblewomen who were her ladies-in-waiting. Her dinner was also in public,
which she ate with her husband. Anyone who was decently dressed was
permitted to come and watch the royals eating their dinner. Louis-Auguste
ate enormous amounts of food, whilst Marie Antoinette ate almost nothing
when she was in public. Marie Antoinette loathed this spectacle and
she complained bitterly to her mother, "I put on my rouge and wash
my hands in front of the whole world!"
Homesick and melancholy,
Marie Antoinette especially missed the companionship she had enjoyed
with her sister, Maria Carolina. She found a substitute for this with
the gentle Princesse Thérèse de Lamballe. The Princesse
de Lamballe was wealthy and kind-natured; she was also absolutely devoted
to Marie Antoinette. Not long after meeting Thérèse, Marie
Antoinette formed a deep attachment to the beautiful aristocrat, Gabrielle,
Comtesse de Polignac. She was also on excellent terms with her husband's
youngest brother Charles, the Comte d'Artois.
refused to involve herself in politics, possibly because she lacked
any real knowledge or interest in it. She was being spied upon by her
mother's ambassador, Comte Mercy d'Argenteau, who reported with great
frustration that she was doing nothing to further Austria's influence
Marie Antoinette's life changed suddenly in the afternoon of 10th May
1774 when King Louis XV died of smallpox at 3 o'clock. The courtiers
rushed over to Marie Antoinette's apartments to swear allegiance to
their new king, Louis XVI, and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette.
The new king and queen fell on their knees in prayer, with Louis saying
"Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign."
Marie Antoinette wiped away her tears and stood with her husband to
greet the courtiers who had come to pledge their loyalty to the new
king and queen.
Coronation and reign
Louis XVI's coronation took place at Rheims during the height of a bread
shortage in Paris. This is the context in which she is incorrectly quoted
as joking, "If they have no bread, then let them eat cake!"
("Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.") Cake at this time being
the common tongue for a type of French bread, using less flour. However,
there is no evidence that this phrase was ever uttered by Marie Antoinette.
When Marie Antoinette actually heard about the bread shortage she wrote,
"It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so
well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to
work hard for their happiness. The king seems to understand this truth;
as for myself, I know that in my whole life (even if I live for a hundred
years) I shall never forget the day of the coronation."
The royals had been
greeted with an outpouring of national joy and the young queen was especially
adored, despite the cost of the coronation (almost 7000 livres were
spent on a new crown for Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette's magnificent
gown was ordered from the fashion house of Paris's most exclusive designer,
Shortly after the
coronation, Marie Antoinette attempted to bring Étienne François,
duc de Choiseul back to court. He had been banished by Madame du Barry
because of his loyalty to Marie Antoinette and the alliance with Austria.
However, the new queen did not have much success. Although King Louis
did meet with Choiseul, he did not bring him back to court permanently.
Later, when she tried to have her friend, the duc de Guines, appointed
ambassador to England, Louis XVI said, "I have made it quite clear
to the queen that he cannot serve in England or in any other Embassy."
It was obvious that Marie Antoinette enjoyed no political influence
with her husband whatsoever.
When Marie Antoinette's
sister-in-law, Marie Thérèse, the wife of the Comte d'Artois,
gave birth to her first child in August 1775, Marie Antoinette was subjected
to cat-calls from market women asking why she had not produced a son,
too. She spent the next day weeping in her rooms, much to the distress
of her ladies-in-waiting, who felt she was "extremely affecting
when in misfortune."
Antoinette's determination to avoid boredom, conversation in her circle
shied away from the mundane or intellectual. According to Madame Campan,
one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, "The newest songs from the
Comédie, the most timely joke or pun or quip, the bon mot of
the day, the latest and choicest titbit of scandal or gossip –
these comprised the sole topics of conversation in the intimate group
about the queen; discussion on a serious plane was banished from her
The queen's circle
of friends was very exclusive. This caused resentment in Versailles,
where the courtiers thought the queen was deliberately excluding them.
Soon, she became the target of the vicious gossip of Versailles. She,
however, remained oblivious.
Under the influence
of d'Artois, Marie Antoinette began visiting the Paris Opéra
balls in disguise. It was not long before gossips began whispering that
the queen was orchestrating such events to meet with various secret
She also began spending
more and more money, since she had no real idea of its value. She had
three major weaknesses: clothes, gambling and diamonds. For her twenty-first
birthday, she participated in a three-day long gambling party, in which
huge amounts of money changed hands.
The Petit TrianonMarie
Antoinette had already caused enough anger at Versailles before she
started appointing her friends to places that were traditionally held
by others. She made Thérèse de Lamballe the Superintendent
of the Queen's Household, despite the fact that there were some aristocratic
ladies with a superior claim to that job.
She then began spending
less time living at the palace and more time at Le Petit Trianon, which
was a small château in the palace grounds. The château was
renovated for her and the costs soon spiralled out of control, especially
whenever the gardens were re-designed to suit the queen's new tastes.
began that Marie Antoinette was sleeping with her brother-in-law. Illegal
presses in Paris soon began printing pamphlets showing the queen and
Artois as adulterous lovers. The first pamphlet was called Les Amours
de Charlot et Antoinette. L'Autrichienne en Goguette showed Artois and
the Queen having anal sex in a palace salon. Le Godmiché Royal
(the Royal dildo) showed Marie Antoinette masturbating, and later pamphlets
would suggest that she had indulged in bestiality and lesbianism. None
of these charges were true, but they began to chip away at the queen's
popularity with the people.
There were also
wider problems affecting France at the time, for the entire country
was standing on the edge of bankruptcy. The long series of wars fought
by Louis XIV and Louis XV had left France with the highest national
debt in Europe. French society was under-taxed and what little money
was collected failed to save the economy. An anti-British clique at
court persuaded Louis XVI to support the American revolutionaries in
their fight for independence from George III. This decision was a disaster
for France, for the cost was enormous.
brother, Emperor Joseph II, visited her in April 1777. He had come to
inquire about the state of her marriage, since the Austrians were concerned
about her failure to produce a son. They went for a long walk in the
grounds of Le Petit Trianon, during which Joseph criticised her gambling
and her taste in friends. He also had a deep conversation with Louis
XVI, in which they discussed his sexual problems. Whatever Joseph II
said to Louis XVI, it obviously worked, for the marriage was soon consummated
and by April 1778, the queen could happily announce that she was pregnant.
and her Children, by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-LebrunMarie
Antoinette's first child was born at Versailles 19th December 1778.
She was forced to endure the humiliation of a public birth in her bedchamber,
in front of hundreds of courtiers. The queen actually passed out through
a combination of embarrassment and pain. It was the last time such a
ritual was permitted as Marie Antoinette refused to give birth in public
The baby was a girl
and she was christened Marie Thérèse Charlotte. She was
created "Princess Royal" or Madame Royale, since she was the
oldest daughter of the king of France. Despite the fact that the country
had desired a boy, Marie Antoinette was delighted with a girl. "A
son would have belonged to the state," she said, "but you
shall be mine, and have all my care; you shall share my happiness and
soften my sorrows."
in 1783, portrait by her favourite artist, Marie Louise Élisabeth
Vigée-LebrunMadame Royale was followed by three other children
– Louis Joseph born in 1781, Louis Charles in 1785 and Sophie
Béatrix in 1786.
As she grew older,
Marie Antoinette became much less extravagant. She was devoted to her
children and she was very involved in taking care of them. Speaking
of her youngest son, Louis Charles, she said, "Mon chou d'amour
("My cabbage of love", "cabbage" being a popular
term of endearment even into modern times in Europe), is charming, and
I love him madly. He loves me very much too, in his own way, without
embarrassment." She was also much more involved in charity work,
although she had always been very generous.
After she turned
thirty in 1785, Marie Antoinette also began to dress with more restraint.
She abandoned the more elaborate wigs which had been festooned with
jewels and feathers and she refused to buy any more jewels for her personal
collection. She was, however, fiercely criticised for building a small
mock-village for herself in the grounds of Versailles in 1786.
The building of
these kinds of artificial villages was very popular among French aristocratic
ladies, who were keen to experience a rural idyll in the comfort of
their own estates. This tradition had begun with Louis XIV's greatest
mistress, the beautiful Athénaïs de Montespan in the 1680s.
Marie Antoinette's defenders did not think she deserved so much criticism
for building the Hameau (as it was known.) Baroness d'Oberkirch complained,
"Other people spent more on their gardens!" Even so, the queen
was already unpopular and she could not possibly understand how much
the Hameau would further damage her reputation. Many people began to
see her as a clueless spendthrift who liked to play at being a shepherdess,
whilst some of the real peasants lived in very hard conditions.
One of the cottages
built in Marie Antoinette's private village in 1783. The cost was not
as great as the queen's enemies pretended, but she was criticised for
it nonethelessMain article: Affair of the diamond necklace
de Rohan, a member of one of France's most prominent aristocratic houses,
was not in the queen's favour. He had been the Envoy to Austria: personal
letters of his had been intercepted, in which he bragged to friends
back home that he had "bedded half the Austrian court" and
that Marie Antoinette's own mother the Empress had "begged"
him for her turn. He had also jested to friends in Vienna by showing
them some of the pamphlets insulting Marie Antoinette's honour. His
ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Richelieu and become
Prime Minister of France meant that he was desperate to return to her
favour, as the position was by royal appointment, and Marie Antoinette
blocked his progress at every turn.
When an impoverished
aristocrat named Jeanne Saint-Rémy de Valois, Comtesse de la
Motte, became aware of Rohan's desire to befriend the queen, she first
became his mistress and then set about hatching an ingenious plan to
make a small fortune for herself in the process.
had refused to buy a magnificent diamond necklace from the Royal Jewellers
(she said the cost was too high and that the royal family preferred
now to spend their money on the Navy). She became impatient with the
jeweller and snapped, "Not only have I never commissioned you to
make a jewel … but, what is more, I have told you repeatedly that
I would never add so much as another carat to my present collection
of diamonds. I refused to buy your necklace for myself; the king offered
to buy it for me, and I refused it as a gift. Never mention it again."
The Comtesse de
la Motte then pretended to be an intimate friend of the queen's, whilst
persuading the cardinal that the queen secretly desired the necklace.
He paid the 2 million livres to her (thinking she would then give it
to the queen) and the Comtesse collected the necklace from the jewellers
(who also thought she would give it to the queen, who would then pay
them.) The Comtesse de la Motte, however, disappeared with both the
jewels and the money.
When the Comtesse
and the cardinal were brought to trial, the monarchy's enemies seized
upon the chance to attack the queen through the scandal. They implied
that it was Marie Antoinette's poor reputation which had made the whole
débâcle possible. The cardinal was acquitted and Marie
Antoinette was suspected of having masterminded the whole plot. Naturally,
the pamphleteers delighted in suggesting that she was having affairs
with both the cardinal and the Comtesse.
Popular hatred against
the queen accelerated rapidly after the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
The Comtesse later escaped to England, where she continued to insult
the queen and protest her own innocence.
Coupled with the
political disaster of the Affair of the Necklace, the royal family also
suffered some terrible personal tragedies. In 1787, Marie Antoinette's
youngest daughter, Sophie-Béatrix, died shortly before her first
birthday. The queen was devastated and spent hours weeping over the
Not long after,
the Royal Physicians informed her that her eldest son, the Dauphin Louis-Joséph,
was terminally ill with consumption. The child's condition deteriorated
and Marie Antoinette spent most of her time nursing him during his last
The French government
was now seriously in debt, thanks to inefficient taxation and costly
foreign wars. The king summoned a council of nobles to discuss the situation.
The Assembly of Notables, as it was called, could find no solution to
the government's financial crisis. So Louis XVI was left with no alternative
other than to call a meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789. The
Estates-General was the main representative body of the French population,
but it had not been called since the reign of Louis XIII in 1614.
Within days of meeting,
the Estates-General was clamouring for reforms and criticising the monarchy
and its policies. However, the royal family's attentions were on other
things. On 4 June, the Dauphin died at the age of seven. The king sank
into sporadic bouts of clinical depression and the queen was heartbroken.
Immediately, some of her enemies began to spread rumours that she had
poisoned her own son.
circles at Versailles feared and resented the Estates-General. Marie
Antoinette was coming to suspect that the reformists in the Estates-General
were secretly working to overthrow the monarchy. On 11 July, Marie Antoinette
and her brother-in-law the Comte d'Artois persuaded Louis XVI to dismiss
the liberal prime minister, Jacques Necker. Marie Antoinette's ally,
Baron de Breteuil was made prime minister instead.
Breteuil was a devout
Roman Catholic and a committed royalist. The monarchy's enemies painted
him as a ruthless tyrant, even though he did have a reputation for being
very humanitarian in his treatment of opponents. Even so, the propaganda
worked and Paris was gripped by fear that the royalists were planning
a military attack on the city in order to force it into submission.
A large mob marched
on the symbol of royal authority in Paris, the Bastille Prison and seized
control of it on 14 July 1789. The Governor of the Prison was lynched
and so were two ultra-right politicians. News did not reach the palace
until very late that evening. When Louis XVI heard of it he asked, "This
is a revolt?" to which the duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt replied,
"No, sire. It is a revolution."
Panic seized the
palace and many courtiers fled for their lives. The Comte d'Artois fled
abroad, in part due to fears he would be assassinated. Marie Antoinette's
friend Duchesse de Polignac, the governess of her children, fled to
Switzerland, where she continued writing to the queen. Marie Antoinette
appointed the devout and disciplined Marquise de Tourzel as governess
to the two surviving royal children – Princess Marie Thérèse
and the new dauphin, Louis Charles.
hoped to flee also. She felt it was unwise to remain so close to Paris
during the current troubles. She hoped that the king would give orders
for them to move to their château at Saint-Cloud or even to another
royal home at Compiègne. The queen's things were already packed,
and so were her children's, however Louis decided that they would stay
at Versailles. The queen could not disobey her husband and she refused
to leave him.
Later, Louis XVI
would realise what a mistake he had made in not leaving the Palace of
Versailles when he had the chance. His decision to remain at the palace
would condemn his entire family to intense suffering and trauma in the
Bedroom of Marie
AntoinetteIt was a few months before news arrived that a mob from Paris
had taken the decision to march on Versailles. Rumours had spread in
the city that the royals were hoarding all the grain. News reached the
Palace on October 5th, with Marie Antoinette once again repeating her
plea that they flee. The king refused.
Since she was aware
that she was the most unpopular member of the royal family, Marie Antoinette
chose to sleep on her own that evening. She left strict instructions
with the Marquise de Tourzel that she was to take the children straight
to the king if there were any disturbances.
In the early hours
of the morning, the mob broke into the palace. The queen's guards were
massacred. She and her ladies-in-waiting only narrowly escaped with
their lives before the crowd burst in and ransacked her chambers. They
made it to the centre of the palace; the king's bedchamber. The king's
younger sister, Princess Elisabeth, was already there. The two children
arrived and the doors were locked.
By this time, a
large crowd had gathered in the palace's courtyard and were demanding
that the queen come to the balcony. She appeared in her night-robe,
accompanied by her two children. The crowd demanded that the two children
be sent back inside. So the queen stood alone for almost ten minutes,
whilst many in the crowd pointed muskets at her. She then bowed her
head and returned inside. Some in the mob were so impressed by her bravery
that they cried "Vive la Reine!" ("Long live the Queen!")
The Royals were
forced to return with the mob to Paris. They were taken to the dilapidated
Tuileries Palace, which had last been used during the reign of Louis
XIV. The Marquis de la Fayette, a liberal aristocrat who had embraced
many American ideas when he fought for George Washington, was placed
in charge of the royal family's security. When he met the queen he bluntly
told her, "Your Majesty is a prisoner. Yes, it's true. Since Her
Majesty no longer has her Guard of Honour, she is a prisoner."
Other royal "prisoners" included Louis XVI's sister, Elisabeth,
and his other brother – the Comte de Provence. The Princesse de
Lamballe had refused to abandon Marie Antoinette, as had the Marquise
de Tourzel and several other royal servants.
Desperate to reassure
her friends, Marie Antoinette sent a short note to the Austrian ambassador
saying, "I'm fine, don't worry." When she appeared in public
she appeared calm, serene and dignified.
From the beginning
of the Revolution, Marie Antoinette remained skeptical about the chances
of a compromise. However, she was not yet prepared to give up all hope
of a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Certain republicans, like Antoine
Barnave, were moved by her plight and many more were thoroughly impressed
by her dignity. The Comte de Mirabeau, whom she despised, told many
people how impressed he was with the queen's courage and "manly"
strength of character.
Trying to re-establish
normality, Marie Antoinette began inviting charitable commissions to
the Tuileries and continued her generous patronage and desire to alleviate
the suffering of the poor children of Paris. She also spent as much
time as possible with her children, particularly the Dauphin, whom she
affectionately nicknamed mon chou d'amour.
Public hatred against
the queen was so intense that she had to attend her daughter's first
Communion in disguise. The traditional gift for a Princess upon her
first Communion was a set of magnificent diamonds, but both Louis XVI
and Marie Antoinette decided it would be better that Marie Thérèse
go without the diamonds than the people go without bread.
Meanwhile, the National
Assembly was drawing up a new constitution which would turn France into
a constitutional monarchy. Marie Antoinette opened secret communications
with the comte de Mirabeau, a prominent member of the National Assembly
who hoped to restore the authority of the crown. Nevertheless, her mistrust
of Mirabeau prevented the king from following his advice. Catherine
the Great wrote to Marie Antoinette from Russia, telling her that the
royals should ignore the complaints of their people "as the moon
goes on its course without being stopped by the cries of dogs."
Louis's sister, Elisabeth, was even more vocal in her hatred of the
new system. Elisabeth, like her exiled brother the Comte d'Artois, was
so horrified with the French Revolution, that she believed a civil war
On 14 July 1790,
the royal family had to attend festivities to celebrate the first anniversary
of the fall of the Bastille. The queen dutifully attended, even though
she described the celebrations as symbolising "everything that
is most cruel and sorrowful". The king's liberal cousin, Philippe,
duc d'Orléans returned from England and publicly proclaimed his
support for the revolutionaries. His hatred for Marie Antoinette was
extreme and she believed that he was fomenting the Revolution in order
to seize the crown for himself. Ultra-royalists even whispered that
the duc d'Orléans had orchestrated the siege of Versailles in
the hope of having Marie Antoinette assassinated. The duke enjoyed enormous
popular support amongst the people of Paris, although his Scottish mistress
Grace Elliott was a secret royalist, who later admitted to having gone
to Belgium on a secret mission for the queen. She carried messages to
baron de Breteuil, who was now acting as Louis and Antoinette's secret
Prime Minister-in-exile. With Louis now suffering from periodic depression
and chronic lethargy, Marie Antoinette had taken it upon herself to
appointing Breteuil. It is generally believed that she forged the official
document appointing Breteuil and passed it off as the king's own handwriting.
Hope of compromise
between the royals and the revolutionaries dimmed with the creation
of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. This was a republican
attack on the privileges and ancient practises of the Roman Catholic
Church. When news was delivered to the royal family, Marie Antoinette
whispered to the Marquise de Tourzel, "The Church. The Church...
By 1791, both the
king and the queen had now come to the conclusion that the Revolution
was going to destroy France. They came to the decision to flee to Montmédy,
a royalist stronghold in the east of France. There they would gather
their supporters and any foreign assistance they could (Marie Antoinette's
brother Emperor Leopold II, the Russian empress, the King of Sweden
and the King of Prussia had all promised military aid.) They hoped that
once they had escaped they would be able to negotiate with the revolutionaries,
but they were now quite prepared to use force to stop them.
The royals' escape
was foiled at the town of Varennes, when the King's face was recognized
on a coin as the horses drawing the carriage were being replaced, and
they were forced back to Paris by local republicans. They were returned
to the Tuileries Palace, but from now on it was clear that the King
and the entire royal family were enemies of the Revolution.
then tried to preserve the crown's rapidly deteriorating position by
secretly negotiating with Antoine Barnave, leader of the constitutional
monarchist faction in the Assembly. Barnave persuaded Louis to openly
accept the new constitution in September 1791, but the queen undermined
Barnave by privately urging her brother, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold
II, to conduct a counterrevolutionary crusade against France.
encouraged by the Queen, to regain his authority by making war with
her relations in Austria, hoping that a quick defeat of France would
cause the Austrians to restore the monarchy, proved disastrous. When
the Duke of Brunswick, commander of the Austro-Prussian army invading
France, issued a manifesto threatening Paris with destruction if the
royal family were harmed, reaction in Paris was swift and brutal. Rather
than heeding the Manifesto, the revolutionaries were enraged by it and
they attacked the Tuileries on August 10th 1792.
initial decision was to stand and face the mob, even if it meant doing
it on her own. However, her ladies-in-waiting begged her to think of
her children and she reluctantly agreed to accompany the king and his
entourage when they fled the palace for the National Assembly. The Palace
was invaded in their absence and the Swiss Guard were massacred. The
Governor of the Tuileries, the Marquis de Champcenetz, managed to escape
the mob despite incurring heavy wounds. He was sentenced to death by
the revolutionaries but managed to escape Paris with the help of Mrs.
Louis XVI was arrested
by the republicans on 13th August, and just over a month later, on September
21st, the National Convention abolished the monarchy. The royal family
were then moved to the forbidding Temple Fortress and imprisoned. The
king, queen, their two children and Louis's sister Elisabeth were heavily
guarded, lest they be rescued by royalists.
After they had been
imprisoned, Paris erupted into violence. The mob invaded the prisons
and massacred anyone suspected of royalist leanings. Marie Antoinette's
dearest friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, was captured and told to
repudiate her oath of loyalty to the queen. When she refused, she was
murdered by repeated hammer-blows to the head. Her body was then torn
apart and her head placed on a pike. It was taken to Marie Antoinette's
window and displayed outside it. When the queen saw this horrific sight,
she collapsed to the ground in a dead faint.
Louis was tried
for treason on December 11th. He was condemned to death on January 17th.
The duc d'Orléans voted for Louis's death. He was allowed one
last farewell supper with his family and he urged his young son not
to seek vengeance for his death. The queen spent the next few hours
huddled against her husband, clutching their son. Marie Thérèse
sobbed hysterically, whilst Elisabeth clung to her brother. Louis was
taken to the guillotine the next day. When she heard the crowds cheer
her husband's death, Marie Antoinette collapsed to the ground, unable
did not ever truly recover from her husband's death. According to her
daughter, "She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished
between life and death." She began to suffer from convulsions and
fainting fits. She also lost her appetite and lost an enormous amount
Prison where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her deathOn the
night of July 3, 1793, commissioners arrived in the royal family's cell
with instructions to separate Marie Antoinette's son from the rest of
his family. He had been proclaimed Louis XVII by exiled royalists after
his father's death. The republican government had therefore decided
to imprison the eight-year-old child in solitary confinement. Louis
flung himself into his mother's arms crying hysterically and Marie Antoinette
shielded him with her body, refusing to give him up. When the commissioners
threatened to kill her if she did not hand the child over, she still
refused to move. It was only when they threatened to kill Marie Thérèse
that she came to realise how hopeless the situation was. Two hours after
the commissioners had entered her room, Marie Antoinette had to say
goodbye to her beloved son. She
would never see him again.
At two o'clock in
the morning of 2nd August 1793, Marie Antoinette was awoken by guards
and told to get dressed. She was taken away from her daughter and sister-in-law
and transferred across Paris to the Conciergerie Prison. She was re-named
"the Widow Capet," after Hugh Capet, founder of the Capetian
Dynasty. She was no longer to be referred to as "Marie Antoinette"
but simply "Antoinette Capet" or "Prisoner No. 280."
A young peasant girl, Rosalie Lamorlière, was entrusted to take
care of Marie Antoinette's needs, but these were few since the queen
did not ask for much.
On 2nd September,
the republican journalist and politician, Jacques Hébert, told
the Committee of Public Safety, "I have promised [my readers] the
head of Antoinette. I will go and cut it off myself if there is any
delay in giving it to me." Most republicans now felt an intense
hatred for her and they were determined to see her dead.
She was brought
to trial on October 14th. When she entered the courtroom, most people
were shocked at her appearance. She was emaciated, prematurely aged,
exhausted and care-worn. Forty witnesses were called by the prosecution.
They returned to the Affair of the Necklace or alleged that the queen
had plied the Swiss Guard with alcohol during the siege of the palace.
The most horrific charges came whenever Hébert accused her of
having sexually abused her own son. When the queen was pressed to answer
this charge she replied, "If I have not replied it is because Nature
itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother."
The following questions
were actually put to the jury: Is it established that manoeuvres and
communications have existed with foreign powers and either external
enemies of the republic, the said manoeuvres, &c., tending to furnish
them with assistance in money, give them an entry into French territory,
and facilitate the progress of their armies? Is Marie Antoinette of
Austria, the widow Capet, convicted of having co-operated in these maneuvres
and maintained these communications? Is it established that a plot and
conspiracy has existed tending to kindle civil war within the republic,
by arming the citizens against one another? Is Marie Antoinette, the
widow Capet, convicted of having participated in this plot and conspiracy?
The jury decided
unanimously in the affirmative, and she was condemned to death for treason
on October 15th and escorted back to the Conciergerie. She wrote her
final letter known as her "Testament", to her sister-in-law
Elisabeth. She expressed her love for her friends and family and begged
that her children would not seek to avenge her murder.
on her way to the guillotine, by Jacques-Louis David, 1793On the morning
of October 16th, a guard arrived to cut her hair and bind her hands
behind her back. She was forced into a common, slow-moving cart and
paraded through the streets of Paris for over an hour before reaching
the Place de la Révolution where the guillotine stood. She stepped
lightly down from the cart and stared up at the guillotine. The priest
who had accompanied her whispered, "This is the moment, Madame,
to arm yourself with courage." Marie Antoinette turned to look
at him and smiled, "Courage? The moment when my troubles are going
to end is not the moment when my courage is going to fail me."
Legend states that her last words were "Monsieur, I ask your pardon.
I did not do it on purpose," spoken after she had stepped on the
At 12:15 on Wednesday
October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed. Her head was exhibited
to a cheering crowd. Her body was then taken and dumped in an unmarked
mass grave in the Rue d'Anjou.
went down in history as a shallow, weak, self-indulgent and stupid person.
Only royalists, who saw her as a martyr, viewed her any differently.
They later recovered her body and reburied it in the Bourbon dynasty
crypt in Paris, and they also retrieved the bodies of Louis XVI and
Princess Elisabeth (who was executed in 1794).
In recent years,
however, this has somewhat changed. In 1933, Stefan Zweig wrote a biography
of her "Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Ordinary Woman,"
in which he argued the queen achieved greatness during the final years
of her life thanks to her extraordinary courage. His biography was later
made into a hugely successful movie starring Norma Shearer (see below.)
like André Castelot and Évelyne Lever, have generally
been more critical in their biographies of Marie Antoinette; although
neither has attacked her with the venom that she received during her
The trend in recent
years, however, has been to focus on Marie Antoinette's strengths rather
than her weaknesses. Deborah Cadbury, in her biography of Louis XVII,
praised Marie Antoinette's devotion to her family and Munro Price, in
his political study on the fall of the French monarchy, wrote "Louis
XVI and Marie Antoinette have often been portrayed as weak and vacillating.
Far from it; their policy between 1789 and 1792 was entirely consistent,
and highly conservative. They were prepared to die for their beliefs,
and ultimately did so."
The most thorough
biography of Marie Antoinette has come from British historian, Lady
Antonia Fraser. Marie Antoinette: The Journey was first published in
2001 and became an instant bestseller. Plans are now afoot to turn it
into a Hollywood movie (see below.) After reading Fraser's book, historian
Simon Sebag Montefiore concluded that Marie Antoinette was "a woman
more sinned against than sinning."
life provided inspiration for the novel Trianon (first published in
1997) by author and historian, Elena Maria Vidal. Based on Vidal's painstaking
research, this novel depicts pre-Revolution life at Versailles and the
characters of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI with authenticity, in an
attempt to dispel previous misconceptions about the royal couple. Trianon
is the prequel to Madame Royale which is inspired by the life of Princess
Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, daughter of Marie Antoinette
and Louis XVI
The only major disagreement
amongst modern historians is the role played by the Swedish aristocrat,
Count Axel von Fersen. There were unsubstantiated rumours at court that
the dashing Fersen was at one time Marie Antoinette's lover. It is true
that the two were very close and that Fersen risked his life many times
to try and free her from prison. Some historians, like Evelyn Farr and
Antonia Fraser, seem convinced that at one point the two did enjoy a
physical relationship based on Fersen's famous line "Resté
là" in his diary entry whenever he spent time with his other
lovers. Others remain skeptical, arguing that there is no concrete evidence
to support the idea that the two were lovers in the physical sense.
Some even have claimed that Louis-Charles, later dauphin of France,
was the biological child of Marie Antoinette and Fersen - this suggestion
has however been rejected by Louis-Charles's most recent biographer,
was the beautiful Queen of France who became a symbol for the wanton
extravagance of the 18th century monarchy, and was stripped of her riches
and finery, imprisoned and beheaded by her own subjects during the French
Revolution that began in 1789.
As her life began
there was little hint of this total reversal of life's fortunes. Marie
Antoinette was born in 1755 at very apex of the European social pyramid.
She was born a princess
and archduchess, the 15th and the favourite daughter of Maria Teresa,
Empress of Austria. The Hapsburg house of Austria was the oldest royal
house of Europe, and the young princess enjoyed the relaxed environment
of the Schonbrünn Palace and the indulgence of tutors her parents,
brothers and sisters.
was famous Austrian empress who counted among her many accomplishments
her ability to marry her many children in ways strategic to the Austrian
empire. So it was with Marie Antoinette. For her pretty and favourite
daughter, Marie Thérèse arranged a special marriage to
cement the new alliance with France that she had concluded with Louis
XV. So, Marie Antoinette was to leave Austria to the most prestigious
throne in all Europe.
The life of Marie
Antoinette was the stuff of dreams when she was married at age 15 to
the crown prince of France, the dauphin. France was then the most powerful
nation of continental Europe, and the royal palace at Versailles the
most opulent. The young princess could hardly have hoped for a more
prestigious marriage and her magnificent marriage ceremony in 1770 was
unmatched in royal pageantry.
At the border she
was stripped and re-dressed with clothing fashionable at the French
court. When she was presented to the French king Louis XV, he pronounced
her delightful, and told others of her fine full figure, of which he
much approved. She became dauphine surrounded by all the comforts of
the French court.
Her enchanted life
reached its pinnacle when the old king died and her husband became King
Louis XVI in 1774. Marie Antoinette, still a teenager became Queen of
But this daughter
of life's fortune was unhappy in her marriage. Louis was homely, awkward
and hardly her heart's desire. His devotion to the hunt, clocks and
his workshop and his early hours were in contrast to her pursuit of
the arts, fashion, dance and French nightlife. The contrast of Charles
and Diana comes to mind. While King Louis XV, her husband's brothers,
Provence and Artois, and others at court noticed at once her grace and
beauty, her own shy husband was slow to exercise the rights of the marriage
bed. From afar, Louis XVI, like the others, much admired Marie's physical
charms and her character, and Louis would become a thoroughly devoted
husband, but in her early years in France he was little comfort to her.
Pushed by her mother's
letters, Marie still sought out Louis. Yet, to add to Antoinette's frustration,
even when she could achieve intimacy with him, Louis was unable to achieve
erection. So, Antoinette and Louis were unable to have sex and their
marriage went unconsummated for seven years. It took the intervention
of the Queen's oldest brother, emperor Joseph of Austria, in a heart
to heart meeting with Louis in 1777, to convince him to have the needed
operation. Meanwhile, the teenage queen suffered in silence as she was
snidely taunted for her inability to produce an heir to the throne.
Beyond her personal
frustrations with her husband, Marie Antoinette was bored with her position
and its duties. The days of the young princess and then queen were spent
in endless court rituals and strict etiquette tracing to the days of
The young queen
tired of being constantly on public display with the requirements of
her position. She missed the more relaxed environment and freedom of
Vienna. Her displeasure and sarcasm directed at the older aunts and
members of the high nobility were noticed and commented upon.
sought escape from her marital frustration and the boredom of court
life. Time went by and she began to exercise power as queen, Marie Antoinette
spent less time at court, and surrounded herself with a dissolute clique,
led by Yolande de Polignac and Thérèse de Lamballe. She
lavished expensive gifts and positions upon these friends and in doing
so ignored the great houses of the French nobility.
With her young friends,
Marie Antoinette threw herself into a life of pleasure and careless
extravagance. These included masked balls in Paris, gambling, theatricals
and late night promenades in the park. Her circle included the King's
frivolous young brother the Count of Artois, and handsome young courtiers
the Duc de Ligne, Counts Dillon, Vaudreuil and Axel Fersen.
The Queen's indiscretions
with her circle of friends led to scandals such as the Diamond Necklace
Affair and rumours concerning her relations with that circle including
The young queen,
with her blonde beauty and style set fashion trends through France and
Europe. Her painter Vigee Lebrun commented about the translucent colour
of her complexion, her long blonde hair and her well-proportioned and
full-bosomed figure. All commented how well she carried herself. Her
page Tilly said she walked better than any woman and as you'd offer
a woman a chair, you'd offer her a throne.
The queen enjoyed
her beauty style, but her fashion fame came at a price. The Queen spent
lavishly on her dress and adornments. Each year she exceeded her clothing
allowance which the King covered. The excessive fashions for high headdresses,
plumes and voluminous dresses were subject to public comment, caricature
and on occasion ridicule.
The queen also spent
lavishly on her friends as mentioned and on her entertainment including
her retreat at Petit Trianon. This small palace adjoining Versailles
was given to Marie by Louis XVI. There she arranged extensive interior
decorations and building of a theatre for her theatricals and the Temple
of Love in the park.
Marie also had built
a rustic Viennese retreat called the hameau. Here, she played at being
at being a simple milkmaid. To add to the fun, Sevres porcelain bowls
were cast using Marie Antoinette's own ample breasts as their mould
(as was said to have had been done in the case of Helen of Troy). The
hameau was stocked with perfumed sheep and goats, but the actual milking
and chores were done by servants.
By the late 1780s,
envy and hatred of Marie Antoinette were widespread. Many at court had
always opposed the Austrian alliance, and had resented her efforts to
intercede on occasion for Austrian causes.
The king's brother
the Count of Provence and his cousin the Count of Orleans both thought
they were more capable than Louis XVI. They were jealous both of Louis's
kingship and his marriage to the beautiful Marie Antoinette.
Many others among
the nobility were envious of the Queen and insulted by her dismissal
of court etiquette, preference for her small court circle and the patronage
she wielded on their behalf. Thus, disaffected members of the nobility
became fertile sources for dirt on the queen. They fabricated and circulated
scurrilous stories about the Queen and her private life. Stories accused
of all sort of sexual acts with men and women of the court, of sending
funds to Austria, and challenged the paternity of the royal children.
By the mid 1780s
tales of the queen's extravagance, dissipation and sexual vice abounded.
It was at this point that the Diamond Necklace Affair became the sensation,
grabbing the attention of the entire nation.
The affair fused
three disparate situation, united by widely held beliefs in the loose
morals of Marie Antoinette. For years an impoverished scion of past
Valois nobility, Madame Lamotte schemed to gain a position at court.
At the same time, socially prominent Prince de Rohan, the Cardinal of
France was unhappy over his years of exclusion from Marie Antoinette's
inner circle, and the jeweller Boehmer was unable to convince Marie
Antoinette to buy a fabulously expensive diamond necklace originally
made for Louis XV's lover Madame du Barry.
Lamotte was a full
figured attractive woman who caught the attention of both men, and was
able to convince them she was a lesbian lover of Marie Antoinette. Lamotte
convinced Rohan that the Queen indeed wanted the necklace and Rohan
obtained it from Boehmer and gave it to Lamotte after meeting a prostitute
dressed as Marie Antoinette at a late night rendezvous near the Temple
of Love, where the Queen was said to hold lovers' trysts with others.
When Boehmer approached
the Queen for payment (just as she was preparing for to play a role
in a banned Beaumarchais play Le Figaro), the charade unravelled. When
they learned the basic facts of the affair, both king and queen were
enraged that Rohan would think that the queen would use a go-between
to obtain a necklace.
Royal pique proved
disastrous. The cardinal, highest churchman in France, was arrested
on the Day of Assumption in the middle of the entire court. Next the
Queen demanded public vindication, so the king obtained a trial before
the Parlement of Paris.
The trial proved
a sensation for months, with the dirty laundry of the monarchy paraded
before all France. The cast included the highest nobles, charlatans,
a prostitute who looked like the Queen, and above all the fabulous diamond
necklace and the Queen herself despite never being called as witness.
In the end, the nobility displayed their defiance before the entire
nation in the Diamond Necklace Affair with their acquittal of Prince
de Rohan on the charge of insulting the queen. The ruling of the Parlement
of Nobles effectively said that at the least, given her reputation,
the queen was worthy of such insult. Rohan could reasonably believe
Marie Antoinette would use him as a go-between and in the end exchange
her sexual favours for a diamond necklace.
When the not guilty
verdict was announced in the crowded Paris opera house an enormous roar
went up and all eyes turned to the royal box. A shocked Marie Antoinette
hastily departed for her coach, amid the crowd's hoots.
The court did convict
the less well connected Lamotte, and she was branded on her breasts
and imprisoned. But her husband had escaped to England and she escaped
prison. She exacted her revenge by concocting and circulating a tale
that she was indeed the queen's lesbian lover, that the queen was insatiable
in her desires and that the queen got the necklace and the affair was
all for her amusement. As fabulous as her story was, it circulated in
the thousands and was widely believed. So much so that had she not died
in 1793, Lamotte might well have testified against Marie at her trial.
Ironically, as the
Diamond Necklace Affair erupted and the Queen's popularity sank to its
nadir, age and maturity tempered her lifestyle. Louis and Marie were
able to have children and Antoinette bore four children. She spent less
time with Paris night life and more with her children and family. Though
still graceful and attractive, as she passed age thirty, Marie's increasingly
stout figure moved her toward darker colours. Her milliner Madame Bertin
used less ostentatious fashion, while still showing Marie's large bust
to fine advantage. Even as she still flirted with men of court and spent
much time with Axel Fersen, Louis was increasingly devoted to his handsome
wife whom he adored.
While Marie's personal
life was settling down, the state of France was not. France also had
bad harvests in the late 1780s and the poor suffered. The Queen was
good hearted and kindly and tried to aid the poor of her country. She
attended benefits for charity (including the night the Necklace verdict
was announced), and used the hameau to aid a number of impoverished
families. However, her small acts were hardly noticed amid the suffering.
What was remembered was that the queen played at being a milkmaid and
shepherdess, at the manicured hameau of Trianon, while real peasants
starved. Her perceived insensitivity led many to believe she said "Let
them eat cake", when told of the widespread starvation.
reeled under huge debts inherited from Louis XV which Louis XVI had
been unable to repay. France's debt was now a crisis, with the final
straw being its France's costly aid from 1778 to 1783 to the American
colonies in their War of Independence with Great Britain. To try to
revive the Queen's popularity and rally support for the monarchy portraits
were made and exhibited showing the Queen surrounded by her loving children.
Yet the obvious royal propaganda backfired as detractors noticing the
Queen's expansive costume, dubbed the pictured heroine, "Madame
It was at this time,
amid such increased unpopularity and still reeling from the aftershocks
of the Necklace Affair, when Louis XVI most needed support from the
nobility. He tried to effect needed reforms through a series of ministers,
relying in each instance on advice from his Queen, and then he called
an assembly of notables to again try to effect reforms to deal with
the financial crisis. Louis was not a forceful king, his wife's influence
was resented and the position of the monarchy weakened.
Tragedy struck Louis
and Marie in 1789. Their oldest son and heir, the dauphin, was dying
of a crippling, agonizing hereditary disease and would die in June.
Besides her miscarriages, this was the second child dead; their second
daughter had died in 1786. And now amid this grief, the couple faced
the crisis that now threatened their rule, which would bring still further
tragedies to this family.
Unable to force
the nobility to make needed financial reforms, the desperate king called
the Estates General in May 1789. This was the first time in 175 years
it was called. But it was unique because it gave representation to common
men, as one of the three estates able to vote. Louis did this to try
to gain the support of the common people (third estate) to force needed
The Estate General
did not begin auspiciously as the Queen's appearance was met first by
silence and then call Vive Duc Orleans - her scorned suitor and hated
foe. This rebelliousness was a sign of what was to follow. The common
people were not content with the limited role of the third estate Louis
envisioned. The genie was now out of the bottle. The third estate declared
itself the national assembly and in the Tennis Court Oath said it would
not adjourn until France had a constitution.
Louis lacked the
will to quell this rebellion but was repeatedly lobbied to take action
by Marie Antoinette. The queen strongly desired to preserve absolute
monarchy and was firm in her opposition to reforms that would give greater
power to the common people.
However, with a
taste of success, the common people did not want to see the third estate
suppressed. In July, a mob of commoners seized the Invalides and obtained
a supply of fire arms. The next effort was to obtain powder so they
could defend the assembly as needed. For this effort the mob attacked
a great symbol of absolute monarchy, the ancient and famous Bastille
prison and fortress that loomed in the centre of Paris.
Louis failed to
take prompt action and the mob succeeded in taking the Bastille. The
governor of the Bastille who resisted and threatened to blow up the
gun powder was hacked to death by the mob his head sported on pikes
for all to see. The crowd had arms and ammunition. Lawlessness had occurred
and no royal action had been taken in response. Louis went to Paris
to restore calm but no actions were taken against those who stormed
The storming of
the Bastille greatly disturbed a number of nobles who knew the poverty
of the common people and feared vengeance if royal power was inadequate
to check mob impulses. Leading members of the royal court, including
close friends of Marie Antoinette fled the country. These included in
July and August the Count of Artois and Madame Polignac and in October
her close friend and portraitist Vigee Lebrun.
The royal court
at Versailles was just 20 miles from the raging cauldron of Paris. Marie
Antoinette too feared the Paris mob and counselled Louis to repair to
the country so he could quell rebellion from afar, but Louis would not
The Queen was successful in convincing Louis to increase troops from
the provinces, which they hoped would be loyal to the crown. Marie's
actions did not go unnoticed. Her proud bearing and perceived arrogance
made her the prime target for vilification by the revolutionaries. Despite
Antoinette's efforts, the king was reluctant to confront the assembly
after new troops were called in, but Louis would not fire on his own
people. In the summer period called the "Great Fear" peasants
revolted through the countryside in fear that the king under pressure
from the queen and her "Austrian committee" would put down
revolution. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published
renouncing noble titles, the people further asserting their position
seeking equal rights against reassertion of absolute monarchy.
On October 1 1789,
a great banquet for the royal guards was held at Versailles, where royal
and Austrian banners were cheered and toasts made to king and queen
in attendance while the tricolour cockade of the French people was trod
under foot. Tales of the banquet and "orgies" spread to the
Paris slums where a new bread shortage was looming.
Parisians said enough
is enough and on October 4, a great mob collected to demand bread from
the king. The next day the mob mainly of Parisian women marched thought
the driving rain to Versailles to put an end to orgies and demand bread.
Many brandished knives and swore to use them to "cut the pretty
throat of the Austrian" who was the source of all their problems.
"How glad I'd be to put this blade into her belly up to my elbow."
Others vowed to cut different "pieces of Antoinette".
On reaching Versailles,
they met with the assembly and had a brief audience with the king. Again,
the Queen had wished to flee at their advance, but Louis would neither
depart nor fire on the women. That night the mob (perhaps aided by agents
of the Duke of Orleans) found an unguarded entrance and was directed
straight to the apartments of the sleeping queen. As they hurled their
imprecations to "kill the Austrian whore", the Queen's two
guards gave their lives to save her, as Madame Campan and her other
maids hastily gathered some clothes and underwear, and Marie Antoinette
ran from her bed literally "half naked" (by some accounts)
to narrowly elude her attackers. They later ripped the Queen's bed to
The Queen had escaped
with her life, but the mob was not satisfied. They later demanded that
king and queen appear on the balcony before them and then that the monarchs
return with them to Paris. And so, Louis and Marie left Versailles to
be installed in the dusty unused Tuileries palace in Paris. Marie Antoinette
would never again see her beloved Petit Trianon. From then on, the king
and queen would be under the close scrutiny of the common citizens of
Paris and vulnerable to attack from them. For king and queen were acutely
aware that the move to Paris was not of their choosing but they were
powerless to overrule the dictate of the mob.
In 1790 and 1791,
the revolution seemed to have stabilized. However, the seeds for future
discord and for a more violent revolution were already being sown. The
emboldened assembly gave broad rights to the people, at the expense
of the nobles and clergy. Many of the reforms were voted into law over
the king's veto. Louis was particularly anxious over the civil oath
now required of Roman Catholic clergy.
Many nobles had
fled France, and Marie Antoinette feared for her safety and royal authority.
She conspired with these émigrés and sought aid from other
European rulers including her brother, the Austrian Emperor. After the
death of the leading moderate politician, Conte Mirabeau in 1791, and
further actions of the Assembly infringing the authority of Roman Catholic
clergy, Marie convinced the reluctant Louis to flee France.
The queen's friend
and rumoured lover Axel Fersen from his own pocket arranged the needed
coach, assumed identity papers and escape plans. The royal couple with
their children all disguised as common travellers, escaped from Paris.
The king and queen had insisted that they travel with all needed comforts,
so their coach was lumbering and slow. It required extra horses and
changes and attracted attention.
At one change an
alert patriot noticed an attractive but familiar woman who issued orders
though dressed as a maid. He thought he recognized the queen and from
a gold piece given as a tip recognized the king. This patriot Jacques
Drouet sped ahead and reached the small town Varennes and alerted the
people who confronted the king and queen on arrival. They had travelled
over 200 miles and were just near the French-Austrian border and loyal
troops ready to rescue them. But the rescue did not occur. A humiliated
king and queen were forced to return to Paris over dusty roads over
the course of the next four days. Frenchmen came from near and far to
gaze and glare at the famous captives, on several occasions almost assaulting
them. Later members of the assembly arrived and crowded into the coach
When they arrived
in Paris they met complete silence with all men keeping on their hats
and no salutes or other sign of deference to the king. The weary travellers
were caked in dust and sweat. As Campan drew the bath for Marie Antoinette,
and Queen removed her hat and veil, both noticed the Queen's blonde
hair was now completely white from the fright and torment of the journey.
After the disastrous
flight to Varennes, Marie Antoinette at first worked with constitutional
monarchist Barnave to try to restore royal prestige. However, hatred
of the queen now rose to new levels.
began anew to seek aid from abroad to intervene in France and restore
royal authority. Austria and Prussia threatened France on behalf of
the royal family and France declared war on those powers in April 1792,
again over the king's veto. In June, the Tuileries palace was invaded
and sacked by a mob, the king and queen held up to ridicule and humiliation
but not otherwise harmed. At the same time, calls for volunteers arose
under the cry "Patrie en Danger", as Frenchmen were called
to repel the invaders.
In July 1792, as
Prussian armies invaded France, the Duke of Brunswick threatened the
people of Paris that if any harm came to persons of the king or queen,
serious vengeance would be exacted by the invaders on France. The proclamation
was made public and caused a sensation in the country.
On August 10, 1792,
the Tuileries palace was stormed by the populace, who sought refuge
in the Assembly. The king and queen and their family were installed
in the tiny reporter’s box, amid stifling heat, glares and heckling
of the crowd. In that cage, they heard the reports of the fall of the
Tuileries and massacre of the 900 Swiss guards who had stayed to defend
them. They watched as treasures from the Tuileries were piled on the
speaker’s desk including papers, jewels, precious objects of the
royal family. They listened to the debates which voted to suspend and
then end the monarchy. A Republic declared and the royal family imprisoned
in the Temple fortress.
were imprisoned at this same time. As the fortunes of French armies
in the field waned the cry went up to kill traitors in their midst.
Hundreds of aristocrats were massacred in the prisons in September 1792.
The most famous victim was Madame Lamballe, close friend of Marie Antoinette
who had returned to Paris to aid her in time of peril. Lamballe was
summoned before a tribunal and when she failed to swear an oath against
the queen, she was hacked to death by the mob, her head, breasts and
genitals severed and mounted on pikes, and paraded before the Queen's
window in the Temple. The Reign of Terror had now begun.
The royal family
was under close guard and now shorn of all their finery and servants
and forced to live simply in the confines of the Temple fortress. But
their peace was not to last.
In December 1792,
King Louis XVI was summoned before the National Convention and tried
for treason. He was convicted and on a close vote sentenced to death.
In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine. In the two
years that followed thousands more would be tried before revolutionary
tribunals and similarly executed on the guillotine.
After her husband's
death, in July 1793, Marie Antoinette's son was forcibly taken from
her. The poor woman begged that her son be allowed to stay but she was
powerless to change the will of the ministers. The boy was put under
the care of Simon, a cobbler and one of the Commissaires of the Commune,
and died of neglect within two years.
In September 1793,
Marie Antoinette was separated from her daughter and sister in law.
Now called "Widow Capet", Marie was transferred to months
of solitary confinement in the dank Conciergerie prison, where she was
under twenty-four hour guard by revolutionaries who from behind their
screen watched her every move. The Conciergerie prison was the antechamber
to death. In this dank prison, she lost much weight and her eyesight
began to fail, but she did not have long to live.
On October 14, the
poor pallid woman was awoken at night and faced the Revolutionary Tribunal.
The trial was a horror, with the Queen attacked more as a person than
as a queen. Her own son was forced to testify that she abused him. The
queen bravely replied to all charges and to this she said, "If
I make no reply, it is because I cannot, I appeal to all mothers in
Despite her eloquence,
the verdict was never in doubt. Like the king, Marie was found guilty.
When she rode to
her death on October 16, 1793, many gasped ... for Marie Antoinette
was just 38, but the crowd saw (as artist David sketched) an old hag
in peasant garb, ragged and grey - a stark contrast to elegant and voluptuous
Queen of Trianon, the child of fortune, she had been just 4 years earlier.
Marie Antoinette's hair had been roughly shorn, her with hands tied
tight behind her back, as she rode in the garbage cart amid the crowd’s
whistles and jeers. Yet, the poor woman sat straight and tried to retain
her dignity. To the end, Marie Antoinette displayed a queen's bearing
and courage, in the face of all adversity.
After her final
ordeal, the body of Marie Antoinette was harshly pushed on to the guillotine
plank, her head placed in the vice and at noon the blade fell to loud
cheers all round. In the words of a revolutionary organ, "Never
has Piere Duchesne seen such joy as seeing that [expletive] whore's
head separated from her [expletive] crain's neck". Sanson held
her bleeding head high for all to see. Later her head was throne in
the cart between her legs. The body of Marie Antoinette was left on
the grass before being dumped in an unmarked grave. So ended the life
of once the most illustrious and glamorous woman in all Europe.