10 Facts About Marie Antoinette

10 Facts About Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (1755–93) is one of the most famous figures in French history. Married to the future King Louis XVI while still a teenager, the Austrian-born queen is mainly remembered today for her expensive tastes and apparent disregard for the plight of her subjects, which only served to fuel the French Revolution.

But how much of what we think we know about Marie Antoinette is actually true? Here are 10 key facts about the royal – from her childhood in Vienna, to the guillotine.

1. Marie Antoinette belonged to a large family

Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna (as she was originally known) was born on 2 November 1755 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa, the archduchess was the 15th and penultimate child born to the couple.

Having such a large brood was politically useful, particularly for the Habsburg empress, who used her children’s marriages to forge Austria’s diplomatic ties with the other royal houses of Europe.

Maria Antonia was no exception, and she was soon betrothed to Louis Auguste, dauphin of France (grandson of the reigning monarch, King Louis XV), taking the name Marie Antoinette upon marriage. France and Austria had spent much of their recent history at loggerheads with each other, so strengthening the fragile union was of paramount importance.

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2. She met Mozart when they were both children

Like many royal women, Marie Antoinette was largely raised by governesses. Academic success was not seen as a priority, but following her engagement to the dauphin, the archduchess was assigned a tutor – the Abbé de Vermond – to prepare her for life in the French court.

She was regarded to be a poor student, but one area in which she had always excelled, however, was music, learning how to play the flute, harp and harpsichord to a high standard.

Coincidentally, Marie Antoinette’s childhood saw an encounter with another (rather more talented) young musician in the form of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who performed a recital for the imperial family in 1762, aged six.

3. Her journey to France was a lavish affair – but she lost her dog along the way

Despite having only just met, Marie Antoinette (aged 14) and Louis (aged 15) were formally married in a lavish ceremony at the Palace of Versailles on 16 May 1770.

Her journey into French territory was a grand affair in itself, accompanied by a bridal party comprising nearly 60 carriages. Upon reaching the border, Marie Antoinette was taken to an island in the middle of the Rhine, where she was disrobed and placed in traditional French dress, symbolically shedding her of her former identity.

She was also forced to give up her pet dog, Mops – but the archduchess and the canine were eventually reunited at Versailles.

An image depicting the dauphin (the future King Louis XVI), being shown a portrait of Marie Antoinette prior to their marriage. His grandfather, King Louis XV, is seated in the centre of the picture (Image Credit: Public Domain).

4. The queen’s brother was enlisted to solve her marital ‘problems’

Following their wedding, the families of both parties eagerly waited for the couple to produce an heir.

But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (one theory is that Louis had a medical condition that made sex painful), the newlyweds did not consummate the marriage for 7 years.

Eventually, Empress Maria Theresa’s frustration with the couple led her to send Marie Antoinette’s brother – Emperor Joseph II – to Versailles to ‘have a word’ with Louis Auguste. Whatever he said, it worked, because Marie Antoinette gave birth to a daughter, Marie Thérèse, in 1778, followed by a son, Louis Joseph, three years later.

Two further children would be born during the course of the marriage, but only Marie Thérèse would survive to adulthood.

Marie Antoinette depicted with her three eldest offspring, Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph and Louis Charles. Another child, Sophie Beatrix, was born in 1787 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

5. Marie Antoinette built a pleasure village at Versailles

During her early years at Versailles, Marie Antoinette found the rituals of court life stifling. To make matters worse, her new husband was an awkward young man, who preferred to practise his hobby of locksmithing rather than going to the balls that Marie Antoinette enjoyed.

After Louis Auguste ascended the throne on 10 May 1774, the queen began to spend most of her time in an extravagant château within the palace grounds named the Petit Trianon. Here, she surrounded herself with numerous ‘favourites’, and held parties away from the prying eyes of the court.

She also commissioned the construction of a mock village known as the Hameau de la Reine (the ‘Queen’s Hamlet’), complete with a working farm, artificial lake and watermill – essentially an oversized playground for Marie Antoinette and her friends.

Marie Antoinette’s mock village at Versailles was designed by the architect Richard Mique. A building known as the ‘Queen’s House’, connected to a billiard room via a covered walkway, appears in the centre of the photograph (Image Credit: Daderot / CC).

6. A diamond necklace helped destroy her reputation

When Marie Antoinette first arrived in France, she had been warmly received by the public – despite hailing from a country that was once a hated foe.

However, as rumours of her personal expenditure began to circulate, she came to be known as ‘Madame Déficit’. France had spent vast sums of money supporting the American Revolutionary War, so the queen’s allowance of 120,000 livres per year to spend on clothes (many, many times the salary of a typical peasant) did not go down too well.

But Marie Antoinette’s poor reputation was further tarnished in 1785, after an impoverished minor aristocrat – the Comtesse de La Motte – fraudulently acquired a diamond necklace under her name.

A modern replica of the infamous diamond necklace, alongside a portrait of Louis XVI by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. The king’s reaction to the scandal only served to damage the reputation of the royal family (Image Credit: Public Domain / Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Using forged letters and a prostitute disguised as the queen, she fooled a cardinal into pledging his credit to pay for the necklace on Marie Antoinette’s behalf. However, the jewellers never received the full payment and it was discovered that the necklace had been sent to London and broken up.

When the scandal was revealed, Louis XVI publicly punished both La Motte and the cardinal, imprisoning the former and stripping the latter of his offices. But the king was widely criticised by the French people, who interpreted his haste to act as confirmation that Marie Antoinette may have still somehow been involved.

The queen’s reputation never recovered, and the revolutionary movement gathered pace.

7. No, she never said “Let them eat cake”

Few quotes have gone down in history quite like Marie Antoinette’s alleged retort “Let them eat cake” (or more accurately, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) when told that the French peasantry did not have any bread to eat.

Although the quip has long being associated with the queen, there is no evidence to suggest that she ever said it. In fact, the quote (attributed to an unnamed princess) first appears in a text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, penned in 1765 when Marie Antoinette was still a child.

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8. The queen plotted an ill-fated escape from revolutionary Paris

In October 1789, three months after the storming of the Bastille, the royal couple were besieged at Versailles and brought to Paris, where they were effectively placed under house arrest at the palace of Tuileries. Here, the king was forced into negotiating terms for a constitutional monarchy, which would greatly limit his powers.

With her husband weighed down by stress (made worse by the illness and death of his heir, Louis Joseph), Marie Antoinette secretly appealed for outside help. Assisted by her Swedish ‘favourite’, Count Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette hatched a plan in 1791 to flee with her family to the royalist stronghold of Montmédy, where they could initiate a counter-revolution.

Unfortunately, they were discovered near the town of Varennes and taken back to the Tuileries, humiliated.

A 19th-century painting showing the French royal family being arrested following their failed escape on the night of 20 June 1791 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

9. Her closest confidante met a grisly end

In April 1792, France declared war on Austria, fearing its troops would launch an invasion in a bid restore the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. However, after defeating a Prussian-led coalition army at the battle of Valmy in September, the emboldened revolutionaries proclaimed the birth of the French Republic and did away with the monarchy altogether.

By this point the king and queen were already imprisoned, as was a coterie of their confidantes. Among them was Marie Antoinette’s close friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, who was thrown into the notorious La Force prison.

Having refused to swear an oath against the royal family, Lamballe was dragged out onto the street on 3 September 1792, where she was attacked by a mob and decapitated.

Her head was then marched to the Temple prison (where Marie Antoinette was being held) and brandished on a pike outside the queen’s window.

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10. Marie Antoinette was originally buried in an unmarked grave

In September 1793, 9 months after her husband’s execution for high treason, Marie Antoinette too was brought before a tribunal and charged with numerous crimes, including sending money to the Austrian enemy.

Most alarmingly of all, she was also accused of sexually abusing her sole surviving son, Louis Charles. There was no genuine evidence for this latter charge, but the queen was nevertheless found guilty of her ‘crimes’ on 14 October.

Two days later – wearing a plain white dress, with her hair cut short – Marie Antoinette was publicly guillotined, aged 37. Her body was then dumped in an unmarked grave in the city’s Madeleine cemetery.

The queen’s remains would later be retrieved and placed in a tomb alongside her husband, but it was certainly a grim end for a woman who had lived a life of opulence.

Like her husband, Marie Antoinette was executed at the Place de la Révolution, later renamed the Place de la Concorde in 1795 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Biography of Marie Antoinette, Queen Executed in the French Revolution

Marie Antoinette (born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen November 2, 1755–October 16, 1793) was the queen of France, executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. She is most known for supposedly saying "Let them eat cake," although the French quote translates more precisely as, "Let them eat brioche," and there is no proof that she said this. She was reviled by the French public for her lavish spending. Until her death, she supported the monarchy against reforms and against the French Revolution.

Fast Facts: Marie Antoinette

  • Known For: As the queen of Louis XVI, she was executed during the French Revolution. She is often quoted as saying, "Let them eat cake" (there is no proof of this statement).
  • Also Known As: Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen
  • Born: November 2, 1755 in Vienna (now in Austria)
  • Parents: Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Austrian Empress Maria Theresa
  • Died: October 16, 1793 in Paris, France
  • Education: Private palace tutors
  • Spouse: King Louis XVI of France
  • Children: Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Louis Charles, Sophie Hélène Béatrice de France
  • Notable Quote: "I am calm, as people are whose consciences are clear."

The life and death of Marie Antoinette: everything you need to know about the last queen of France

Queen of France before the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette (1755–93) is famous for being overthrown by revolutionaries and being publicly guillotined following the abolition of the monarchy in France. But how much do you know about her life? And did she really say "Let them eat cake"?

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Published: March 1, 2021 at 8:00 pm

From nation’s sweetheart to public enemy, what led Marie Antoinette to the guillotine? We bring you the facts about her life and death…

Marie Antoinette: in profile

Born: 2 November 1755, Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria

Died: 16 October 1793, Place de la Concorde (previously known as Place de la Revolution), Paris, France

Known for: Being overthrown by French revolutionaries and being publicly guillotined after the abolition of the monarchy.

Family: Marie was the 15th child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Empress Maria Theresa. Together the couple had 16 children, 10 of whom lived into adulthood.

At the age of 14, Marie married the heir to the French throne, Louis-Auguste, Duke of Berry and Dauphin of France, by proxy (a wedding that takes place without the presence of at least one of the two individuals) on 19 April 1770. Together they had four children: Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Sophie Hélène Béatrice.

Marie Antoinette’s early life

Born an archduchess of Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette spent her childhood in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and Hofburg Palace. The 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, she was christened ‘Maria Antonia’ and known to the family as ‘Antoine’. She and her siblings spent their childhood in the colourful court of Vienna while their mother charted out their futures, determined to use her large brood to national advantage.

Marie’s education was typical of that given to a royal woman of the time, and she learned how to sing, dance and play music. She shared a governess with her elder sister, Maria Carolina, and the sisters remained close for the rest of Marie’s life.

The marriage of Marie Antoinette to the future King Louis XVI

In 1756, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty promised that both countries would support one another after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1754–63) – a series of battles fought between the strongest powers of Europe over British and French colonies in the US.

King Louis XV of France and Marie’s mother eventually decided that a marriage alliance would secure this treaty between the French and Austrians. As a result, the 14-year-old Marie was married to Louis XV’s heir, his eldest grandson Louis-Auguste, by proxy on 19 April 1770. After meeting her husband for the first time on 14 May 1770, an official wedding ceremony took place at the Palace of Versailles on 16 May 1770.

In June 1770, some 50,000 people eagerly gathered along the streets of Paris to catch a glimpse of Marie during her first public appearance as a member of the French royal family. Members of the crowd were so keen to see the teenager that at least 30 people were crushed to death during the frantic rush. Many contemporaries were charmed by Marie during this public occasion, and praised her beauty. “While there were some mutterings about her Austrian heritage, her future seemed optimistic,” explains historian Emily Brand. “A whirl of festivities at Versailles set the tone for the court she would cultivate over the next 20 years.”

Marie soon became involved in the extravagance of French court life, attending lavish balls and gambling. Her husband, however, shied away from public affairs. The couple would not consummate their marriage until seven years later – this became a popular matter of discussion and ridicule both at court and among the public.

King Louis XV died on 10 May 1774 after contracting smallpox. Marie, who was not yet 19 years old, became queen of France when her husband inherited the throne as King Louis XVI. Although Marie’s future seemed secure at this point, in reality the nation was squirming with unrest. “Just weeks after her husband’s coronation in June 1775, parts of the country flared up into riots about the cost of bread,” Emily Brand explains. “Years of heavy taxation and failed fiscal policies were leaving the people hungry.”

Did Marie Antoinette have an affair?

Answered by Emily Brand

A highly social creature, the queen developed open and long-lasting attachments to female favourites at court. Perhaps the most significant were two of her ladies-in-waiting – the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchesse de Polignac. These friendships were later tarnished by accusations of sexual depravity, but more convincing are the rumours about her relationship with a handsome Swedish count, Axel von Fersen, who was admitted into her close circle during the summer of her first pregnancy and left the country in a cloud of gossip in 1780.

Marie Antoinette’s children

The first three years of Marie’s life as queen were childless. Conscious of her daughter’s delicate position, Maria Theresa bombarded her with advice about influencing people, and even sought secret updates about her behaviour from the ambassador in Paris.

By 1777, Marie’s brother Joseph – then Holy Roman Emperor – travelled to Versailles to identify why the couple were not fulfilling their duty of starting a family. “His conclusion was simple – lack of experience, and an apparent mutual disinterest,” explains Brand. “Nonetheless, his stern words clearly had an effect, and the queen fell pregnant shortly after his visit.”

In December 1778, Marie gave birth to her first child, Marie Thérèse Charlotte. A son, Louis-Joseph, followed in October 1781, with two more children in 1785 (Louis Charles) and 1786 (Sophie Hélène Béatrice). “It was a relief to all parties when the queen gave birth to her first son, Louis-Joseph – although unfortunately, her mother had not lived to see it,” comments Emily Brand.

Why did the French dislike Marie Antoinette?

France experienced poor harvests during the 1780s, which consequently increased the price of grain. The government, too, faced mounting financial difficulties – and Marie’s lavish lifestyle at court soon came under attack. Numerous pamphlets and satires were distributed across the country demonstrating peoples’ disgust towards the queen’s extravagant spending.

Meanwhile, dangerous rumours circulated that Marie was having an affair with her close companion Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count. Questions arose regarding the paternity of Marie’s children.

In 1783, Marie’s extravagance reached new levels when she began building a secluded farming village on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Fitted with a farmhouse, cottages, a mill and farm animals, Le Hameau de la Reine (or ‘The Queen’s Hamlet’) was created to allow the queen and her closest companions to escape the busy court in Versailles. Marie and her ladies-in-waiting would dress up as shepherdesses and pretend to be peasants, walking around the farm and milking the cows and sheep. Marie even employed servants to uphold the village and care for the animals.

Despite the idyllic nature of this retreat, members of the court and the public believed that Marie was mocking French peasants by dressing up as shepherdesses and acting as if she was impoverished.

What was the Affair of the Diamond Necklace?

Answered by Emily Brand

Marie Antoinette had long provoked gossip, but in a world of blossoming print culture, her supposed misdemeanours became inescapably public – disastrously so in 1785. In what became known as the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’, the queen was held responsible for a jewellery heist that was in fact the scheme of the impoverished noblewoman Jeanne de la Motte.

In a ruse to obtain a necklace worth 1.6 million livres, La Motte persuaded an out-of-favour cardinal to procure it and arrange payment on behalf of ‘the Queen’, with her as go-between. By the time the fraud was exposed, it had been broken up and sold. The trial declared La Motte guilty, casting doubt on the Queen and cementing her reputation as deceitful and extravagant.

In the years that followed, France occupied itself with the question of how to recover from its political and economic stagnation. For Marie Antoinette, the national emergency gathering momentum around her was clouded by personal tragedy. The death of their youngest daughter in 1787 was followed by that of their son and heir in June 1789.

Meanwhile, the nobility – including the king’s brother, the Count of Provence, and his cousin, the Count of Orleans – became disgruntled with Louis XVI’s attitude towards pressing governmental matters: Louis was indecisive about how to rectify the growing government debt, and was hesitant in resolving the issues surrounding the poor harvests.

Facing mounting pressure from his nobles, on 8 May 1788 Louis XVI ordered the first meeting in 175 years of the Estates General – the general assembly of the representatives of the clergy (first estate) the nobility (second estate), and the common people (third estate). Louis hoped that this would allow the representatives of France the opportunity to discuss ways to overcome the increasing state debt.

However, after reaching an impasse over France’s financial situation, the third estate broke away from the Estates General and expressed plans to govern without the authority of the king. They were soon joined by representatives from the first and second estates, who were increasingly frustrated by the king’s hesitancy over the rising prices of foodstuff and the queen’s excessive lifestyle.

Losing their heads: the road to revolution

Written by Emily Brand

When Marie Antoinette arrived in France, the road ahead did not point irrevocably to revolution, but bad political choices, unfortunate climate conditions and ideological shifts at all levels of society conspired to ultimately undermine the monarchy. From the mid-1700s, an economy wracked by wartime taxations and bad harvests was further weakened by the failure of attempts at fiscal reform.

The effects of mounting debts and disasters were felt in rocketing food prices and growing poverty, and inspired no confidence in those in power – the royal tendency for flagrant extravagance did not help. The inevitable unrest that stirred among the lower classes was preyed upon by those who opposed the government’s policies and saw an opportunity to gain power for themselves.

Their efforts were legitimised by radical ‘enlightened’ theories about liberty, education and human nature that were sweeping across Europe, but perhaps had their beating heart in France. The existing feudal hierarchy was increasingly questioned, and the vacillating and unsure stance taken by the King did nothing to restore faith.

As mistrust of elites and outsiders mounted, the wave of popular feeling increased. The growing print culture – political tracts, bawdy ballads, popular prints – ensured that the message was heard far and wide, and was a key uniting factor for the revolutionary cause. It was here that the queen was transformed into a “monster in everything”, a symbol of the hated old system, and a crucial scapegoat for all the ills of the nation.

The increasingly personal attacks on the royals, particularly Marie Antoinette, chipped away at the national consciousness, and in demystifying the monarchy, also facilitated its downfall. On 14 July 1789, this climaxed with the Storming of the Bastille, a symbol of despotic rule, and triggered the spread of revolutionary action across France.

Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

On 14 July 1789, public opposition to the royal family reached its height, and the Bastille – a state prison in Paris – was stormed by an angry, armed mob. The Bastille was seen to represent the monarchy’s absolute authority, and the storming of its walls instigated the French Revolution and the beginning of the fall of the French monarchy.

Several weeks later, thousands of people surrounded the Palace of Versailles, demanding political reforms and changes to the way in which the monarchy governed. The royal family was then imprisoned within the walls of Tuileries Palace in Paris by the revolutionary forces that opposed the monarchy.

As more people joined the revolutionary cause in Paris, and public opinion of the monarchy deteriorated further, in 1791 Marie planned to flee France with her family and find sanctuary in Austria. However, the family was captured while attempting to escape and was taken back to Paris. They faced hostile crowds of people in the streets upon their return.

Amid mounting pressure from his political opponents, in September 1791 Louis XVI agreed to instigate a constitutional monarchy, and promised to share his political power with the French Assembly. This failed to quell the rebellion, however: less than a year later, on 10 August 1792, a gang of revolutionaries broke into Tuileries Palace, where the royal family was being kept under surveillance, and took Louis XVI and Marie prisoner.

Did Marie Antoinette really say “let them eat cake”?

Answered by Emily Brand

The quote famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, “If the people have no bread, then let them eat cake”, was in fact already a familiar attack on privilege by the time of the revolution. It was levelled against Louis XIV’s first queen in the 1600s, and the philosopher Rousseau wrote an almost identical anecdote about a “great princess” years before Marie Antoinette entered France.

There is no evidence that the revolutionaries bothered to trot out this well-worn accusation, although it was reported that one heartless politician faced with the starving poor had snarled “let them eat hay”. Its exact origins are unclear, but the story existed long before Marie Antoinette became queen and was first attached to her 50 years after her death.

The Republican government was determined to eradicate anyone who opposed the French Revolution. As a result, thousands of royalists, nobles and people affiliated with the royal family across the country were guillotined and brutally massacred, including the Princesse de Lamballe, one of Marie’s closest companions. With the king and queen now under arrest, the National Convention ordered that the monarchy should be abolished – and France was officially declared a republic.

On 21 September 1792, the Legislative Assembly in France voted for the monarchy to be abolished. Just four months later, after being put on trial by members of the new republican regime, Louis XVI was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. He was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Concorde in Paris on 21 January 1793.

What was Marie Antoinette accused of?

On 14 October 1793, after months of imprisonment, Marie was put on trial and found guilty of treason. But what exactly was she accused of? As historian Emily Brand explains, the case built against Marie Antoinette pulled no punches: “She was held responsible for the deaths of ‘thousands of French-men’, accused of manipulating her husband, and incest with her son. She met their claims calmly, but there was little hope for a reprieve.”

How did Marie Antoinette die and how old was she?

Two days later after she was put on trial, at the age of 37, Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate as her husband: execution by guillotine. In her final letter, to her sister-in-law, she displayed both the calm dignity and the motherly love for which she was to be revered in the 19th century: “I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing… I embrace you with all my heart, as I do my poor dear children. My God, how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Farewell!”

In the final moments before her death, Marie begged the executioner for his pardon – to no avail. The blade of the guillotine fell the crowd cheered, and some at the front rushed to mop up her blood with their handkerchiefs. Later that day, a revolutionary newspaper declared, “the globe is purified!” “Her execution was hailed as the triumph of liberty over oppression,” says Brand.

What happened to Marie Antoinette’s head?

After the queen’s head fell, it was immediately shown to the crowd, who responded by crying: “Vive la République!” Shortly after her death, Marie’s body was hurled into an unmarked grave in the cemetery of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris.

The bodies of Louis XVI and Marie were discovered during the restoration of the monarchy in France in the early 19th century. Their remains were properly reburied at the Basilica of St Denis on 21 January 1815.

Marie Antoinette: in summary

Written by Emily Brand

From the moment she stepped from her gilded carriage at Compiègne in 1770 until her rough and undignified cart-journey to the scaffold, Marie-Antoinette was destined to be a focus of popular attention.

A child of the Viennese court and a leader of fashion at the height of French power, her 20-year reign saw such economic, social and political change that she was recast from “adored by all Frenchmen” to “avowed enemy of the French Nation”.

A flawed and feared woman who became a symbol of all that was hated by the revolutionaries, her steady but spectacular fall from grace is perhaps unmatched in its drama and its violence.

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015, and has since been updated to include content from BBC History Revealed written by historian Emily Brand

Marie Antoinette Facts

1. She was only 14 when she was married.

Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Her marriage to Louis was designed to preserve French Austrian relations in war-torn Europe, an interesting Marie Antoinette fact. She was only 14 years old on her wedding day, May 16, 1770. The wedding took place the day after she met Louis for the first time. He was only a year older than her.

2. Marie Antoinette probably did NOT say, “Let them eat cake.”.

The last French queen is often quoted as replying, “Let them eat cake” when told how the French people were starving. But there is no evidence that she ever said this. This response by a noblewoman appears in a book written by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1766 when Marie Antoinette was just 11 years old. It was most likely propaganda spread to discredit her to the French people.

3. She loved acting.

Another thing that built resentment towards Marie Antoinette was her hobby of playacting. She had a theatre built at her private palace, the Petit Trianon, where she and her friends would amuse themselves performing plays and musicals. She also had a fantasy village built with a real dairy and a barn that also served as a ballroom. The queen would delight in dressing as a simple shepherdess, but the people took offense at her romanticizing their difficult lives.

4. Her hairstyles were three feet high.

On the coronation of her husband in 1775, Marie Antoinette wore her hair in a style called the “pouf,” which set off the fashion amongst French ladies. The style was elaborate and labor-intensive. It involved building up the hair with false hairpieces and shaped cushions (or “poufs”), sometimes as high as three feet, an interesting Marie Antoinette fact. Whole scenes would be depicted in the hair – sea battles complete with battleships, animals, birds, flowers, and other novelty items.

5. Marie Antoinette was nicknamed “Madame Deficit.”

Marie Antoinette’s extravagant lifestyle was blamed for the poor state of the nation’s finances, and she was given the nickname “Madame Deficit”. But France was already virtually bankrupt by the time Louis XVI became king. They were also assisting the colonists in the American Civil War against Britain, which was very expensive. And Marie Antoinette was not the only big spender at court. Her brother-in-law apparently had even more shoes than she did – a pair for every day of the year.

6. She tried unsuccessfully to leave France.

As public sentiment rose up against the monarchy, the queen tried to persuade her husband to leave France, but he remained indecisive. She declined a number of attempts to get her out of France without her family. Then in April 1791, the royal family was prevented by the National Guard from leaving Paris to attend an Easter church service in St Cloud. This event finally convinced the king that the royal family was no longer free, and he agreed to leave. In June 1971, the family made an attempt to flee Paris in an elaborate plot that involved them dressing up as servants of an imaginary Russian dignitary. An interesting fact about Marie Antoinette is that she were captured 24 hours later at Varennes and brought back to Paris to jeering mobs.

7. Marie Antoinette spent the last years of her life in jail.

After their attempted escape, the royal family was kept under guard in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. But in August 1972, they were moved to much harsher conditions in the Temple Prison, an old fort. Within a few months, the king was executed, and Marie Antoinette’s 8-year-old son Louis XVII was taken from her to be raised as a son of the revolution by a cobbler. The queen’s fate was unsettled at first. There was some discussion of exchanging her for prisoners of war or a ransom, and even exiling her to America. But in the end, she was transferred to the Conciergerie prison to await trial. Here she lost all privileges and privacy.

8. She was beheaded by guillotine.

On October 14, 1793, Marie Antoinette was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal and found guilty of high treason and other charges. Two days later, she was driven through the streets in an open cart to be guillotined. She maintained her composure throughout, even apologizing to the executioner for accidentally stepping on his foot. She was only 37 years old.

9. Her body was exhumed.

In 1815, Louis XVI’s brother, Louis XVIII, was returned to the throne. He ordered that Marie Antoinette’s body be exhumed from the commoner’s grave she’d been placed in after she was executed. She and her husband were re-buried with other royals in Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis.

10. Marie Antoinette Syndrome is a real medical condition.

An interesting fact about Marie Antoinette is that legend has it that her hair turned white overnight the night from stress. While it’s unlikely to have happened overnight, there are a few medical conditions that may lead to accelerated loss of hair color. A 2009 paper in the Archives of Dermatology coined the phrase “Marie Antoinette Syndrome” for the sudden whitening of scalp hair. It could also have been that she was unable to dye her hair in jail.


Marie Antoinette is often accused of causing the French revolution through her decadence and insensitivity to the French people. In reality, she was a political pawn. Sent as a child to a foreign country whose people hated her, to marry a man she didn’t know and shared nothing in common. And now you know ten interesting facts about Marie Antoinette!

8 Her Parents Had 16 Children

In the 18 th century, it was common for royalty and nobility to have large families comprised of many more children than the typical family has today. Marie-Antoinette was one of 16 children, and the youngest daughter to Empress Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.

Not all of her siblings survived to adulthood and she wasn’t close to all of them. According to History Extra, she was closest to her elder sister Maria Carolina as the two shared a governess. Before she left Austria, Marie-Antoinette and her siblings would sometimes perform for their parents at court.

Six Surprising Facts about Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is probably best known for her death, as a queen shockingly executed by guillotine at the height of the French revolution. But there’s lots more to know about her interesting and sometimes scandalous life. I’ve got six surprising facts about Marie Antoinette for you, as part of my countdown to The Wardrobe Mistress publication day on August 15th.

1). She came from a huge family

The daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Marie Antoinette had fifteen (!) siblings. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, as she was called before becoming a French dauphine, was the second youngest. All of them had royal titles.

2.) She had many hobbies

Since her reputation for fashion and trendsetting has lasted hundreds of years, this one might be surprising. Marie Antoinette’s interests ranged from riding – including sleigh rides, which she had fond memories of from her childhood in Austria – to gardening, interior decoration, the theatre, and music.

She decorated the royal property of Saint-Cloud in her favourite colours, also choosing the furniture with care. She preferred light colours like pale blue and green, as well as lavender grey. The Great Bathroom at Versailles was painted this colour, and decorated with sea motifs of shells and corals. She disliked orange and never wore it.

At her favourite retreat of Petit Trianon, she envisioned a romantic garden filled with trees, a paradise where one could wander in peace. She also enjoyed the jardin Anglais, a landscaped style of gardening the depicted an idealized view of nature with groves of trees.

3.) Before her marriage, she had her teeth straightened

Historical dentistry doesn’t sound appealing to anyone, but poor Maria Antonia had her teeth straightened at a young age. In fact, when she was ten years old, negotiations began for her marriage to the dauphin of France, and it was deemed important that she become more physically attractive to the French. This included a new hairstyle to play down her forehead (considered too high) and straightening her teeth. The early form of braces was a horseshoe-shaped device made of metal. Gold wire was threaded through the evenly spaced holes – much like modern braces, but a little more rustic and made of gold! It was called “Fauchard’s Bandeau”, named after Pierre Fouchard, who was significant to the development of modern dentistry and orthodontics.

As a new technology, and without the aid of any modern painkillers, the braces were likely quite painful. However, Marie Antoinette’s smile was considered quite charming and pretty, so it seems to have been a successful ordeal.

4.) She contributed to philanthropic efforts

Aside from being generous with her friends (which she was – sometimes she even had signature perfumes made for them as gifts), Marie Antoinette liked to help others wherever she could. She established a home for unwed mothers, and often made visits to poor families to distribute food and money. Once, before she was queen, her carriage accidentally ran over a wine grower. Marie Antoinette rushed out of the carriage to assist the wounded man, and paid for his family’s expenses for the next year while he recovered from a broken limb.

Two years before the start of the revolution, in 1787, she also provided grain for struggling families and downgraded the quality of grain for the royal family so that there was more to share.

5.) She was only nineteen years old when she became Queen of France

She had been dauphine of France for several years, but when Louis XV (the predecessor of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI), passed away on May 10, 1774, she became queen. The late king had been ill for some time, and when the candle in his window was extinguished to show that he had succumbed to his sickness, all the courtiers who had been hovering outside his rooms stampeded toward Marie Antoinette and Louis, determined to be the first to pay compliments to the new rulers. Apparently the crash of their footsteps made a sound like thunder.

Together, Marie Antoinette and Louis knelt and prayed for their future, with the words “Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign.”

6.) She cared about the revolution and tried to help

In contrast to her husband, Louis XVI, who often remained indecisive, Marie Antoinette took action to address the issues spurring the revolution, and to protect the royal family. She met with ministers and ambassadors, and corresponded with other sovereigns. Her increased involvement in politics led the king to rely on her advice, and he occasionally baffled his royal ministers by leaving the room to consult with her if she was not present at the meeting. When France’s popular finance minister, Jacques Necker, was dismissed by Louis, she sought to appease the people’s outrage and persuaded Louis to reinstate him, even though she and Necker had not always agreed and were sometimes enemies.

It is worth noting, however, that in her youth, Marie Antoinette remained mostly indifferent to political schemes. She became more involved as political tensions rocketed dangerously high, at which time it was possibly too late.

I hope I’ve passed along some extra facts about Marie Antoinette besides that she said ‘let them eat cake’ – or did she? More details about the life of the scandalous French queen to come!

The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

6. I Saw Marie Antoinette Wearing Army Pants and Flip-Flops

When Marie Antoinette first came to Paris, she wanted to ride horses to celebrate her arrival, but there were strong objections because of fears that she could be harmed while riding. As a compromise, she agreed to ride donkeys instead, and this resulted in her ladies and Louis XV’s daughters riding donkeys as well. This wound up starting a trend among French noblewomen.

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La Motte, Jeanne de Valois, countess de (1756–1791)

French adventurer . Name variations: Madame La Motte Jeanne Lamotte Jeanne de Valois, countess de la Motte Countess de La Motte. Born Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois in 1756 died in 1791 daughter of a poor farmer in Champagne married Nicolas de La Motte (a soldier).

Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois was born in 1756, the daughter of a poor farmer from Champagne who was one of the last of the Valois he was a direct descendant of the French king, Henry II. After her father died and left her penniless, Jeanne de Valois was aided by a kindly marquise who had her background authenticated, and she was granted an annual pension of 800 livres by Louis XVI. She spent the next few years petitioning the court for more. Madame Elisabeth convinced the king to double the amount.

Jeanne de Valois married Nicolas de La Motte, a soldier in the police militia, whom she referred to as a count, and together they set out to recoup the Valois estates. Since the legacy had already been put in the hands of the Orléans family, Jeanne had to recover the money some other way. Thus, she became involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (L'Affaire du Collier), which took place during 1783–84.

Jeanne de Valois, now the Countess de La Motte, befriended the cardinal Louis de Rohan, who for eight years had been out of favor at court, most especially out of the queen's favor. La Motte persuaded him that she was an intimate friend of Marie Antoinette and promised that she would use her influence to help the queen change her mind about him. In May 1874, she told Rohan that on his next visit to Versailles, the queen would show her change of heart by slightly inclining her head. Subsequently, while in the queen's presence, Rohan was sure he saw her do just that, not once, but several times. La Motte then hired a Palais Royal prostitute to impersonate Marie Antoinette. Wearing a flowing gown and a wide-brimmed hat with veil, the prostitute met with the cardinal in the park of Versailles at 11 o'clock on a moonless summer night the cardinal kissed her hem, and she gave him a rose.

Meanwhile, the queen's jeweler had made an opulent diamond necklace expressly for Marie Antoinette but could not convince her to purchase it. The queen said she had a diamond necklace, wore it rarely, and did not need another. When King Louis offered to buy it for her, she again turned it down, saying that the money would be better spent on a ship for the French fleet.

Aware of the jeweler's frustration, La Motte confided to Rohan that the queen wished to buy a diamond necklace, on credit and without the king's knowledge, and wanted him to act as security. With the help of a duped Rohan and a forged document that stated the queen's acceptance of the terms of purchase—1,600,000 livres to be paid off in three monthly installments—La Motte convinced the jeweler to give her the necklace. She and her husband then broke up the necklace and sold the jewels.

In 1786, the plot was revealed, and Rohan and La Motte were arrested. Rohan was acquitted, but La Motte was branded and imprisoned. The following year, she escaped from jail and joined her husband in England. Countess de La Motte then wrote her memoirs before dying from a drunken fall from a three-story window. Though historians now know that Marie Antoinette was completely innocent in the Affair of the Necklace, at the time she was discredited by the incident, and it exacerbated the public's suspicions about her. Countess de La Motte's autobiography was published in 1793, two years after her death, and Alexander Dumas pére later wrote the well-known historical novel, Le Collier de la Reine (1849–50), based on her scam.

It is doubtful that Marie Antoinette guessed at the profound currents animating French society by the late 1780s. No more than the king could she have foreseen the consequences of the summoning of an Estates General to Versailles in 1789. Hard pressed by the mounting debt, stung by criticisms by the nobility, and worried

by popular disturbances caused by food shortages and high prices, the king decided to call elected deputies of the clergy, nobility, and commons to find a way out. Unwilling to settle for a limited agenda or half measures, however, the deputies of the Third Estate, or commons, demanded far-reaching changes, including a written constitution to limit the monarchy and define the rights of French "citizens." These demands were underscored by ominous popular violence in Paris, in other French cities, and in the countryside. Unwittingly, Louis, by issuing an invitation for limited reform to save the royal finances, had touched off an uncontrollable revolution.

The Revolution that began in 1789, commenced as an endeavor by nobles and progressive members of the middle-class to modernize France, was altered almost immediately by the explosion of popular violence directed toward the destruction of legal and economic inequality, and matured in the early 1790s into a determined crusade to create a democratic republic of virtue. In time, the Revolution displayed an intolerance of dissent more bloody and grim than any tyranny of the Bourbon monarchy.

When the Estates General was transformed into a National Assembly in June 1789, drastic changes in French life came rapidly. Many nobles and some of the royal family fled the realm. But Louis and Marie Antoinette stayed on, trying to shore up what was left of the monarchy. Perhaps still unaware of the magnitude of events, the king and queen were surprised when a mob of women, angry over rising bread prices in Paris, marched on Versailles in October and demanded that the royal couple come to the city and "do something" to relieve their plight. Marie Antoinette barely escaped death at the hands of the women, for whom she was plainly a symbol of royal indulgence and corruption, but that was only the beginning of a long melancholy train of humiliations and endangerments.

Taken to the Tuileries in Paris, the king and queen and their children were, in effect, held hostage to the demands of both the National Assembly and the more radical city government. Around them swirled innumerable intrigues and counterplots, but the tide was running strongly against them. Louis finally accepted the idea of a constitutional monarchy, but the queen was made of stronger stuff and urged him to resist. If necessary, the royal family should flee the country and find help at foreign courts to destroy the Revolution in its infancy. Louis procrastinated, but, outraged by revolutionary assaults on the Church, finally agreed to a scheme to escape Paris on June 20, 1791, under a plan developed by the comte de Fersen.

By an incredibly bad stroke of fortune, the royal couple, with Marie Antoinette disguised as a noblewoman and Louis as her manservant, were recognized and apprehended at Varennes, only a few miles from the French border. Returned to Paris, the king sullenly agreed to the newly drafted Constitution of 1791, which severely limited his powers.

The royal couple were now virtually prisoners, although Louis tried to play the role of constitutional monarch. For a time, little could be done. Then, in 1792, the revolutionary government went to war with Austria and Prussia, determined to liberate Europe from kings. When

the war went badly, however, suspicion of treachery fell upon the king and queen and their moderate supporters. In August, a mob broke into the Tuileries, murdered the king's bodyguards, and demanded the overthrow of the king. The frightened Assembly concurred, and the royal family was imprisoned in a tower called the Temple.

Time was running out for Marie Antoinette and her husband. A terrible terror seized Paris in September, leading to a horrible massacre of royalist and noble prisoners in the thousands. Among the victims was Marie Antoinette's closest friend, the Princess de Lamballe, whose mutilated body was displayed to the appalled queen. In December, Louis was brought to trial for treason against the Revolution. Compromising documents were discovered in a secret safe that incriminated the king by showing his correspondence with counter-revolutionaries. No one doubted the queen's connivance. Separated from his family until the night before his execution, Louis exhibited quiet courage and dignity as he said his farewells to his family. For Marie Antoinette, it must have been painful to say goodbye to the father of her children. How far they had come together since she first saw him at Compiegne 23 years before. On the next day, January 21, 1793, the king was executed.

Marie Antoinette now awaited her own inevitable end. But, before then, she would be forced to drink the full bitter cup. The "Widow Capet," as she was called, was repeatedly insulted and humiliated, then, in July, separated from her remaining son. She never saw him again. Meanwhile, he was subjected to great pressures to bring evidence against his mother. Eventually, he was made to say that she, along with Madame Elisabeth , her sister-in-law, had introduced him to masturbation. No crime was too extreme to charge against the "Austrian harpy." Before the Revolutionary Tribunal, the queen conducted herself with a resolution unknown to her earlier years. Rejecting the infamous charges of incest, she appealed beyond the court to the generations to come by asking any mother who might hear her words if such an act were imaginable.

The revolutionary painter Jacques Louis David sketched Marie Antoinette in the tumbrel on the way to the guillotine on October 16,1793. She is depicted as a barren, haggard old woman with hands tied behind her back. Her hair had gone entirely white, but in the portrait, as in history, she showed no sign of fear. Moments later, her bleeding head was lifted to the crowd. Then it was placed between the legs of her corpse and carried away to be tossed in a common grave in the Madeleine cemetery. She was not yet 38 years old.


Maria Antonia was born on 2 November 1755 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. She was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. [2] Her godparents were Joseph I and Mariana Victoria, King and Queen of Portugal Archduke Joseph and Archduchess Maria Anna acted as proxies for their newborn sister. [3] [4] Maria Antonia was born on All Souls Day, a Catholic day of mourning, and during her childhood her birthday was instead celebrated the day before, on All Saint's Day, due to the connotations of the date. Shortly after her birth she was placed under the care of the governess of the imperial children, Countess von Brandeis. [5] Maria Antonia was raised together with her sister, Maria Carolina, who was three years older, and with whom she had a lifelong close relationship. [6] Maria Antonia had a difficult but ultimately loving relationship with her mother, [7] who referred to her as "the little Madame Antoine".

Maria Antonia spent her formative years between the Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn, the imperial summer residence in Vienna, [4] where on 13 October 1762, when she was seven, she met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, two months her junior and a child prodigy. [8] [4] [5] [9] Despite the private tutoring she received, the results of her schooling were less than satisfactory. [10] At the age of 10 she could not write correctly in German or in any language commonly used at court, such as French or Italian, [4] and conversations with her were stilted. [11] [4]

Under the teaching of Christoph Willibald Gluck, Maria Antonia developed into a good musician. She learned to play the harp, [10] the harpsichord and the flute. She sang during the family's evening gatherings, as she had a beautiful voice. [12] She also excelled at dancing, had "exquisite" poise, and loved dolls. [13]

Later in 1768, Mathieu-Jacques de Vermond was dispatched by Louis XV to tutor Marie Antoinette as she became the future wife to Louis XVI. Serving as an educator, Abbe de Vermond found her to be unsatisfactorily educated and lacking in, at the age of 13, important writing skills. Nonetheless, he also complimented her stating "her character, her heart, are excellent." He found her "more intelligent than has been generally supposed," but since "she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach." [14]

Following the Seven Years' War and the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, Empress Maria Theresa decided to end hostilities with her longtime enemy, King Louis XV of France. Their common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and to secure a definitive peace between their respective countries led them to seal their alliance with a marriage: on 7 February 1770, Louis XV formally requested the hand of Maria Antonia for his eldest surviving grandson and heir, Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry and Dauphin of France. [4]

Maria Antonia formally renounced her rights to Habsburg domains, and on 19 April she was married by proxy to the Dauphin of France at the Augustinian Church in Vienna, with her brother Archduke Ferdinand standing in for the Dauphin. [15] [16] [4] On 14 May she met her husband at the edge of the forest of Compiègne. Upon her arrival in France, she adopted the French version of her name: Marie Antoinette. A further ceremonial wedding took place on 16 May 1770 in the Palace of Versailles and, after the festivities, the day ended with the ritual bedding. [17] [18] The couple's longtime failure to consummate the marriage plagued the reputations of both Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette for the next seven years. [19] [20]

The initial reaction to the marriage between Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste was mixed. On the one hand, the Dauphine was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris on 8 June 1773 was a resounding success. On the other hand, those opposed to the alliance with Austria had a difficult relationship with Marie Antoinette, as did others who disliked her for more personal or petty reasons. [21]

Madame du Barry proved a troublesome foe to the new dauphine. She was Louis XV's mistress and had considerable political influence over him. In 1770 she was instrumental in ousting Étienne François, Duc de Choiseul, who had helped orchestrate the Franco-Austrian alliance and Marie Antoinette's marriage, [22] and in exiling his sister, the duchess de Gramont, one of Marie Antoinette's ladies-in-waiting. Marie Antoinette was persuaded by her husband's aunts to refuse to acknowledge du Barry, which some saw as a political blunder that jeopardized Austria's interests at the French court. Marie Antoinette's mother and the Austrian ambassador to France, comte de Mercy-Argenteau, who sent the Empress secret reports on Marie Antoinette's behavior, pressured Marie Antoinette to speak to Madame du Barry, which she grudgingly agreed to do on New Year's Day 1772. [23] [24] She merely commented to her, "There are a lot of people at Versailles today", but it was enough for Madame du Barry, who was satisfied with this recognition, and the crisis passed. [25] Two days after the death of Louis XV in 1774, Louis XVI exiled du Barry to the Abbaye de Pont-aux-Dames in Meaux, pleasing both his wife and aunts. [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] Two and a half years later, at the end of October 1776, Madame du Barry's exile ended and she was allowed to return to her beloved château at Louveciennes, but she was never permitted to return to Versailles. [31]

Early years (1774–1778)

Upon the death of Louis XV on 10 May 1774, the Dauphin ascended the throne as King Louis XVI of France and Navarre with Marie Antoinette as his Queen. At the outset, the new queen had limited political influence with her husband, who, with the support of his two most important ministers, Chief Minister Maurepas and Foreign Minister Vergennes, blocked several of her candidates from assuming important positions, including Choiseul. [32] [33] The queen did play a decisive role in the disgrace and exile of the most powerful of Louis XV's ministers, the duc d'Aiguillon. [34] [35] [36]

On 24 May 1774, two weeks after the death of Louis XV, the king gifted his wife the Petit Trianon, a small château on the grounds of Versailles that had been built by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Louis XVI allowed Marie Antoinette to renovate it to suit her own tastes soon rumors circulated that she had plastered the walls with gold and diamonds. [37]

The queen spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling, though the country was facing a grave financial crisis and the population was suffering. Rose Bertin created dresses for her, and hairstyles such as poufs, up to three feet (90 cm) high, and the panache (a spray of feather plumes). She and her court also adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne (a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759 to protect local French woolen and silk industries), percale and muslin. [38] [39] By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots (due to the high price of flour and bread) had damaged her reputation among the general public. Eventually, Marie Antoinette's reputation was no better than that of the favorites of previous kings. Many French people were beginning to blame her for the degrading economic situation, suggesting the country's inability to pay off its debt was the result of her wasting the crown's money. [40] In her correspondence, Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa, expressed concern over her daughter's spending habits, citing the civil unrest it was beginning to cause. [41]

As early as 1774, Marie Antoinette had begun to befriend some of her male admirers, such as the baron de Besenval, the duc de Coigny, and Count Valentin Esterházy, [42] [43] and also formed deep friendships with various ladies at court. Most noted was Marie-Louise, Princesse de Lamballe, related to the royal family through her marriage into the Penthièvre family. On 19 September 1774 she appointed her superintendent of her household, [44] [45] an appointment she soon transferred to her new favourite, the duchesse de Polignac.

In 1774, she took under her patronage her former music teacher, the German opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who remained in France until 1779. [46] [47]

Motherhood, changes at court, intervention in politics (1778–1781)

Amidst the atmosphere of a wave of libelles, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II came to France incognito, using the name Comte de Falkenstein, for a six-week visit during which he toured Paris extensively and was a guest at Versailles. He met his sister and her husband on 18 April 1777 at the château de la Muette, and spoke frankly to his brother-in-law, curious as to why the royal marriage had not been consummated, arriving at the conclusion that no obstacle to the couple's conjugal relations existed save the queen's lack of interest and the king's unwillingness to exert himself. [48] In a letter to his brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Joseph II described them as "a couple of complete blunderers." [49] He disclosed to Leopold that the inexperienced—then still only 22-year-old—Louis XVI had confided in him the course of action he had been undertaking in their marital bed saying Louis XVI "introduces the member," but then "stays there without moving for about two minutes," withdraws without having completed the act and "bids goodnight." [50]

Suggestions that Louis suffered from phimosis, which was relieved by circumcision, have been discredited. [51] Nevertheless, following Joseph's intervention, the marriage was finally consummated in August 1777. [52] Eight months later, in April 1778, it was suspected that the queen was pregnant, which was officially announced on 16 May. [53] Marie Antoinette's daughter, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, Madame Royale, was born at Versailles on 19 December 1778. [7] [54] [55] The child's paternity was contested in the libelles, as were all her children's. [56] [57]

In the middle of the queen's pregnancy two events occurred which had a profound effect on her later life: the return of her friend and lover, the Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen [58] to Versailles for two years, and her brother's claim to the throne of Bavaria, contested by the Habsburg monarchy and Prussia. [59] Marie Antoinette pleaded with her husband for the French to intercede on behalf of Austria. The Peace of Teschen, signed on 13 May 1779, ended the brief conflict, with the queen imposing French mediation at her mother's insistence and Austria's gaining a territory of at least 100,000 inhabitants—a strong retreat from the early French position which was hostile towards Austria. This gave the impression, partially justified, that the queen had sided with Austria against France. [60] [61]

Meanwhile, the queen began to institute changes in court customs. Some of them met with the disapproval of the older generation, such as the abandonment of heavy make-up and the popular wide-hooped panniers. [63] The new fashion called for a simpler feminine look, typified first by the rustic robe à la polonaise style and later by the gaulle, a layered muslin dress Marie Antoinette wore in a 1783 Vigée-Le Brun portrait. [64] In 1780 she began to participate in amateur plays and musicals in a theatre built for her by Richard Mique at the Petit Trianon. [65]

Repayment of the French debt remained a difficult problem, further exacerbated by Vergennes and also by Marie Antoinette's prodding [66] Louis XVI to involve France in Great Britain's war with its North American colonies. The primary motive for the queen's involvement in political affairs in this period may arguably have more to do with court factionalism than any true interest on her part in politics themselves, [67] but she played an important role in aiding the American Revolution by securing Austrian and Russian support for France, which resulted in the establishment of the First League of Armed Neutrality that stopped Great Britain's attack, and by weighing indecisively for the nomination of Philippe Henri, marquis de Ségur as Minister of War and Charles Eugène Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries as Secretary of the Navy in 1780, who helped George Washington to defeat the British in the American Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783. [68]

In 1783, the queen played a decisive role in the nomination of Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a close friend of the Polignacs, as Controller-General of Finances, and of the baron de Breteuil as the Minister of the Royal Household, making him perhaps the strongest and most conservative minister of the reign. [ citation needed ] The result of these two nominations was that Marie Antoinette's influence became paramount in government, and the new ministers rejected any major change to the structure of the old regime. More than that, the decree by de Ségur, the minister of war, requiring four quarterings of nobility as a condition for the appointment of officers, blocked the access of commoners to important positions in the armed forces, challenging the concept of equality, one of the main grievances and causes of the French Revolution. [69] [70]

Marie Antoinette's second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage early in July 1779, as confirmed by letters between the queen and her mother, although some historians believed that she may have experienced bleeding related to an irregular menstrual cycle, which she mistook for a lost pregnancy. [71]

Her third pregnancy was affirmed in March 1781, and on 22 October she gave birth to Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France. [72]

Empress Maria Theresa died on 29 November 1780 in Vienna. Marie Antoinette feared that the death of her mother would jeopardize the Franco-Austrian alliance (as well as, ultimately, herself), but her brother, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, wrote to her that he had no intention of breaking the alliance. [73]

A second visit from Joseph II, which took place in July 1781 to reaffirm the Franco-Austrian alliance and also to see his sister, was tainted by false rumours [57] that Marie Antoinette was sending money to him from the French treasury. [74] [75]

Declining popularity (1782–1785)

Despite the general celebration over the birth of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette's political influence, such as it was, did greatly benefit Austria. [76] During the Kettle War, in which her brother Joseph attempted to open the Scheldt River for naval passage, Marie Antoinette succeeded in obliging Vergennes to pay huge financial compensation to Austria. Finally, the queen was able to obtain her brother's support against Great Britain in the American Revolution and she neutralized French hostility to his alliance with Russia. [77] [78]

In 1782, after the governess of the royal children, the princesse de Guéméné, went bankrupt and resigned, Marie Antoinette appointed her favorite, the duchesse de Polignac, to the position. [79] This decision met with disapproval from the court as the duchess was considered to be of too modest a birth to occupy such an exalted position. On the other hand, both the king and the queen trusted Mme de Polignac completely, gave her a thirteen-room apartment in Versailles and paid her well. [80] The entire Polignac family benefited greatly from royal favor in titles and positions, but its sudden wealth and lavish lifestyle outraged most aristocratic families, who resented the Polignacs' dominance at court, and also fueled the increasing popular disapproval of Marie Antoinette, mostly in Paris. [81] De Mercy wrote to the Empress: "It is almost unexampled that in so short a time, the royal favor should have brought such overwhelming advantages to a family". [82]

In June 1783, Marie Antoinette's new pregnancy was announced, but on the night of 1–2 November, her 28th birthday, she suffered a miscarriage. [83]

Count Axel von Fersen, after his return from America in June 1783, was accepted into the queen's private society. There were and still claims that the two were romantically involved, [84] but since most of their correspondence has been lost or destroyed, there is no conclusive evidence. [85] In 2016, the Telegraph's Henry Samuel announced that researchers at France's Research Centre for the Conservation of Collections (CRCC), "using cutting-edge x-ray and different infrared scanners," had deciphered a letter from her that proved the affair. [86]

Around this time, pamphlets describing farcical sexual deviance including the Queen and her friends in the court were growing in popularity around the country. The Portefeuille d’un talon rouge was one of the earliest, including the Queen and a variety of other nobles in a political statement decrying the immoral practices of the court. As time went on, these came to focus more and more on the Queen. They described amorous encounters with a wide range of figures, from the Duchess de Polignac to Louis XV. As these attacks increased, they were connected with the public's dislike of her association with the rival nation of Austria. It was publicly suggested that her supposed behavior was learned at the court of the rival nation, particularly lesbianism, which was known as the "German vice". [87] Her mother again expressed concern for the safety of her daughter, and she began to use Austria's ambassador to France, comte de Mercy, to provide information on Marie Antoinette's safety and movements. [88]

In 1783, the queen was busy with the creation of her "hamlet", a rustic retreat built by her favored architect, Richard Mique, according to the designs of the painter Hubert Robert. [89] Its creation, however, caused another uproar when its cost became widely known. [90] [91] However, the hamlet was not an eccentricity of Marie Antoinette's. It was en vogue at the time for nobles to have recreations of small villages on their properties. In fact, the design was copied from that of the prince de Condé. It was also significantly smaller and less intricate than many other nobles'. [92] Around this time she accumulated a library of 5000 books. Those on music, often dedicated to her, were the most read, though she also liked to read history. [93] [94] She sponsored the arts, in particular music, and also supported some scientific endeavours, encouraging and witnessing the first launch of a Montgolfière, a hot air balloon. [95]

On 27 April 1784, Beaumarchais's play The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris. Initially banned by the king due to its negative portrayal of the nobility, the play was finally allowed to be publicly performed because of the queen's support and its overwhelming popularity at court, where secret readings of it had been given by Marie Antoinette. The play was a disaster for the image of the monarchy and aristocracy. It inspired Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, which premiered in Vienna on 1 May 1786. [96]

On 24 October 1784, putting the baron de Breteuil in charge of its acquisition, Louis XVI bought the Château de Saint-Cloud from the duc d'Orléans in the name of his wife, which she wanted due to their expanding family. She wanted to be able to own her own property. One that was actually hers, to then have the authority to bequeath it to "whichever of my children I wish" choosing the child she thought could use it rather than it going through patriarchal inheritance laws or whims. It was proposed that the cost could be covered by other sales, such as that of the château Trompette in Bordeaux. [97] This was unpopular, particularly with those factions of the nobility who disliked the queen, but also with a growing percentage of the population, who disapproved of a Queen of France independently owning a private residence. The purchase of Saint-Cloud thus damaged the public's image of the queen even further. The château's high price, almost 6 million livres, plus the substantial extra cost of redecorating, ensured that much less money was going towards repaying France's substantial debt. [98] [99]

On 27 March 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to a second son, Louis Charles, who bore the title of duc de Normandie. [100] The fact that the birth occurred exactly nine months after Fersen's return did not escape the attention of many, leading to doubt as to the parentage of the child and to a noticeable decline of the queen's reputation in public opinion. [101] The majority of Marie Antoinette's and Louis XVII's biographers believe that the young prince was the biological son of Louis XVI, including Stefan Zweig and Antonia Fraser, who believe that Fersen and Marie Antoinette were indeed romantically involved. [102] [103] [104] [105] [106] [107] [108] [109] Fraser has also noted that the birthdate matches up perfectly with a known conjugal visit from the King. [57] Courtiers at Versailles noted in their diaries that the date of the child's conception in fact corresponded perfectly with a period when the king and the queen had spent much time together, but these details were ignored amid attacks on the queen's character. [110] These suspicions of illegitimacy, along with the continued publication of the libelles and never-ending cavalcades of court intrigues, the actions of Joseph II in the Kettle War, the purchase of Saint-Cloud, and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace combined to turn popular opinion sharply against the queen, and the image of a licentious, spendthrift, empty-headed foreign queen was quickly taking root in the French psyche. [111]

A second daughter, her last child, Marie Sophie Hélène Béatrix, Madame Sophie, was born on 9 July 1786 and lived only eleven months until 19 June 1787.

Marie Antoinette's four live-born children were:

    , Madame Royale (19 December 1778 – 19 October 1851) , Dauphin (22 October 1781 – 4 June 1789) , Dauphin after the death of his elder brother, future titular king Louis XVII of France (27 March 1785 – 8 June 1795) , died in infancy (9 July 1786 – 19 June 1787)

Prelude to the Revolution: scandals and the failure of reforms (1786–1789)

Diamond necklace scandal

Marie Antoinette began to abandon her more carefree activities to become increasingly involved in politics in her role as Queen of France. [112] By publicly showing her attention to the education and care of her children, the queen sought to improve the dissolute image she had acquired in 1785 from the "Diamond Necklace Affair", in which public opinion had falsely accused her of criminal participation in defrauding the jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge of the price of an expensive diamond necklace they had originally created for Madame du Barry. The main actors in the scandal were Cardinal de Rohan, prince de Rohan-Guéméné, Great Almoner of France, and Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, Comtesse de La Motte, a descendant of an illegitimate child of Henry II of France of the House of Valois. Marie Antoinette had profoundly disliked Rohan since the time he had been the French ambassador to Vienna when she was a child. Despite his high clerical position at the Court, she never addressed a word to him. Others involved were Nicole Lequay, alias Baronne d'Oliva, a prostitute who happened to look like Marie Antoinette Rétaux de Villette, a forger Alessandro Cagliostro, an Italian adventurer and the Comte de La Motte, Jeanne de Valois' husband. Mme de La Motte tricked Rohan into buying the necklace as a gift to Marie Antoinette, for him to gain the queen's favor.

When the affair was discovered, those involved (except de La Motte and Rétaux de Villette, who both managed to flee) were arrested, tried, convicted, and either imprisoned or exiled. Mme de La Motte was sentenced for life to confinement in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, which also served as a prison for women. Judged by the Parlement, Rohan was found innocent of any wrongdoing and allowed to leave the Bastille. Marie Antoinette, who had insisted on the arrest of the Cardinal, was dealt a heavy personal blow, as was the monarchy, and despite the fact that the guilty parties were tried and convicted, the affair proved to be extremely damaging to her reputation, which never recovered from it. [ citation needed ]

Failure of political and financial reforms

Suffering from an acute case of depression, the king began to seek the advice of his wife. In her new role and with increasing political power, the queen tried to improve the awkward situation brewing between the assembly and the king. [113] This change of the queen's position signaled the end of the Polignacs' influence and their impact on the finances of the Crown.

Continuing deterioration of the financial situation despite cutbacks to the royal retinue and court expenses ultimately forced the king, the queen and the Minister of Finance, Calonne, at the urging of Vergennes, to call a session of the Assembly of Notables, after a hiatus of 160 years. The assembly was held for the purpose of initiating necessary financial reforms, but the Parlement refused to cooperate. The first meeting took place on 22 February 1787, nine days after the death of Vergennes on 13 February. Marie Antoinette did not attend the meeting and her absence resulted in accusations that the queen was trying to undermine its purpose. [114] [115] The Assembly was a failure. It did not pass any reforms and, instead, fell into a pattern of defying the king. On the urging of the queen, Louis XVI dismissed Calonne on 8 April 1787. [113]

On 1 May 1787, Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse and one of the queen's political allies, was appointed by the king at her urging to replace Calonne, first as Controller-General of Finances and then as Prime Minister. He began to institute more cutbacks at court while trying to restore the royal absolute power weakened by parliament. [116] Brienne was unable to improve the financial situation, and since he was the queen's ally, this failure adversely affected her political position. The continued poor financial climate of the country resulted in the 25 May dissolution of the Assembly of Notables because of its inability to function, and the lack of solutions was blamed on the queen. [69]

France's financial problems were the result of a combination of factors: several expensive wars a large royal family whose expenditures were paid for by the state and an unwillingness on the part of most members of the privileged classes, aristocracy, and clergy, to help defray the costs of the government out of their own pockets by relinquishing some of their financial privileges. As a result of the public perception that she had single-handedly ruined the national finances, Marie Antoinette was given the nickname of "Madame Déficit" in the summer of 1787. [117] While the sole fault for the financial crisis did not lie with her, Marie Antoinette was the biggest obstacle to any major reform effort. She had played a decisive role in the disgrace of the reformer ministers of finance, Turgot (in 1776), and Jacques Necker (first dismissal in 1781). If the secret expenses of the queen were taken into account, court expenses were much higher than the official estimate of 7% of the state budget. [118]

The queen attempted to fight back with propaganda portraying her as a caring mother, most notably in the painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun exhibited at the Royal Académie Salon de Paris in August 1787, showing her with her children. [119] [120] Around the same time, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy escaped from prison and fled to London, where she published damaging slander concerning her supposed amorous affair with the queen. [121]

The political situation in 1787 worsened when, at Marie Antoinette's urging, the Parlement was exiled to Troyes on 15 August. It further deteriorated when Louis XVI tried to use a lit de justice on 11 November to impose legislation. The new Duc d'Orléans publicly protested the king's actions, and was subsequently exiled to his estate at Villers-Cotterêts. [122] The May Edicts issued on 8 May 1788 were also opposed by the public and parliament. Finally, on 8 August, Louis XVI announced his intention to bring back the Estates General, the traditional elected legislature of the country, which had not been convened since 1614. [123]

While from late 1787 up to his death in June 1789, Marie Antoinette's primary concern was the continued deterioration of the health of the Dauphin, who suffered from tuberculosis, [124] she was directly involved in the exile of the Parlement, the May Edicts, and the announcement regarding the Estates-General. She did participate in the King Council, the first queen to do this in over 175 years (since Marie de' Medici had been named Chef du Conseil du Roi, between 1614 and 1617), and she was making the major decisions behind the scene and in the Royal Council.

Marie Antoinette was instrumental in the reinstatement of Jacques Necker as Finance Minister on 26 August, a popular move, even though she herself was worried that it would go against her if Necker proved unsuccessful in reforming the country's finances. She accepted Necker's proposition to double the representation of the Third Estate (tiers état) in an attempt to check the power of the aristocracy. [125] [126]

On the eve of the opening of the Estates-General, the queen attended the mass celebrating its return. As soon as it opened on 5 May 1789, the fracture between the democratic Third Estate (consisting of bourgeois and radical aristocrats) and the conservative nobility of the Second Estate widened, and Marie Antoinette knew that her rival, the Duc d'Orléans, who had given money and bread to the people during the winter, would be acclaimed by the crowd, much to her detriment. [127]

The death of the Dauphin on 4 June, which deeply affected his parents, was virtually ignored by the French people, [128] who were instead preparing for the next meeting of the Estates-General and hoping for a resolution to the bread crisis. As the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly and took the Tennis Court Oath, and as people either spread or believed rumors that the queen wished to bathe in their blood, Marie Antoinette went into mourning for her eldest son. [129] Her role was decisive in urging the king to remain firm and not concede to popular demands for reforms. In addition, she showed her determination to use force to crush the forthcoming revolution. [130] [131]

The situation escalated on 20 June as the Third Estate, which had been joined by several members of the clergy and radical nobility, found the door to its appointed meeting place closed by order of the king. [132] It thus met at the tennis court in Versailles and took the Tennis Court Oath not to separate before it had given a constitution to the nation.

On 11 July at Marie Antoinette's urging Necker was dismissed and replaced by Breteuil, the queen's choice to crush the Revolution with mercenary Swiss troops under the command of one of her favorites, Pierre Victor, baron de Besenval de Brünstatt. [133] [134] [135] At the news, Paris was besieged by riots that culminated in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July. [136] [137] On 15 July Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was named commander-in-chief of the newly formed Garde nationale. [138] [139]

In the days following the storming of the Bastille, for fear of assassination, and ordered by the king, the emigration of members of the high aristocracy began on 17 July with the departure of the comte d'Artois, the Condés, cousins of the king, [140] and the unpopular Polignacs. Marie Antoinette, whose life was as much in danger, remained with the king, whose power was gradually being taken away by the National Constituent Assembly. [138] [141] [142]

The abolition of feudal privileges by the National Constituent Assembly on 4 August 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (La Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen), drafted by Lafayette with the help of Thomas Jefferson and adopted on 26 August, paved the way to a Constitutional Monarchy (4 September 1791 – 21 September 1792). [143] [144] Despite these dramatic changes, life at the court continued, while the situation in Paris was becoming critical because of bread shortages in September. On 5 October, a crowd from Paris descended upon Versailles and forced the royal family to move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where they lived under a form of house arrest under the watch of Lafayette's Garde Nationale, while the Comte de Provence and his wife were allowed to reside in the Petit Luxembourg, where they remained until they went into exile on 20 June 1791. [145]

Marie Antoinette continued to perform charitable functions and attend religious ceremonies, but dedicated most of her time to her children. [146] She also played an important political, albeit not public, role between 1789 and 1791 when she had a complex set of relationships with several key actors of the early period of the French Revolution. One of the most important was Necker, the Prime Minister of Finances (Premier ministre des finances). [147] Despite her dislike of him, she played a decisive role in his return to the office. She blamed him for his support of the Revolution and did not regret his resignation in 1790. [148] [149]

Lafayette, one of the former military leaders in the American War of Independence (1775–83), served as the warden of the royal family in his position as commander-in-chief of the Garde Nationale. Despite his dislike of the queen—he detested her as much as she detested him and at one time had even threatened to send her to a convent—he was persuaded by the mayor of Paris, Jean Sylvain Bailly, to work and collaborate with her, and allowed her to see Fersen a number of times. He even went as far as exiling the Duke of Orléans, who was accused by the queen of fomenting trouble. His relationship with the king was more cordial. As a liberal aristocrat, he did not want the fall of the monarchy but rather the establishment of a liberal one, similar to that of the United Kingdom, based on cooperation between the king and the people, as was to be defined in the Constitution of 1791.

Despite her attempts to remain out of the public eye, Marie Antoinette was falsely accused in the libelles of having an affair with Lafayette, whom she loathed, [150] and, as was published in Le Godmiché Royal ("The Royal Dildo"), and of having a sexual relationship with the English baroness Lady Sophie Farrell of Bournemouth, a well-known lesbian of the time. Publication of such calumnies continued to the end, climaxing at her trial with an accusation of incest with her son. There is no evidence to support the accusations.


A significant achievement of Marie Antoinette in that period was the establishment of an alliance with Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, the most important lawmaker in the assembly. Like Lafayette, Mirabeau was a liberal aristocrat. He had joined the Third estate and was not against the monarchy, but wanted to reconcile it with the Revolution. He also wanted to be a minister and was not immune to corruption. On the advice of Mercy, Marie Antoinette opened secret negotiations with him and both agreed to meet privately at the château de Saint-Cloud on 3 July 1790, where the royal family was allowed to spend the summer, free of the radical elements who watched their every move in Paris. [151] [152] At the meeting, Mirabeau was much impressed by the queen, and remarked in a letter to Auguste Marie Raymond d'Arenberg, Comte de la Marck, that she was the only person the king had by him: La Reine est le seul homme que le Roi ait auprès de Lui. [153] An agreement was reached turning Mirabeau into one of her political allies: Marie Antoinette promised to pay him 6000 livres per month and one million if he succeeded in his mission to restore the king's authority. [154]

The only time the royal couple returned to Paris in that period was on 14 July to attend the Fête de la Fédération, an official ceremony held at the Champ de Mars in commemoration of the fall of the Bastille one year earlier. At least 300,000 persons participated from all over France, including 18,000 national guards, with Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, celebrating a mass at the autel de la Patrie ("altar of the fatherland"). The king was greeted at the event with loud cheers of "Long live the king!", especially when he took the oath to protect the nation and to enforce the laws voted by the Constitutional Assembly. There were even cheers for the queen, particularly when she presented the Dauphin to the public. [155] [156]

Mirabeau sincerely wanted to reconcile the queen with the people, and she was happy to see him restoring much of the king's powers, such as his authority over foreign policy, and the right to declare war. Over the objections of Lafayette and his allies, the king was given a suspensive veto allowing him to veto any laws for a period of four years. With time, Mirabeau would support the queen, even more, going as far as to suggest that Louis XVI "adjourn" to Rouen or Compiègne. [157] This leverage with the Assembly ended with the death of Mirabeau in April 1791, despite the attempt of several moderate leaders of the Revolution to contact the queen to establish some basis of cooperation with her.

Civil Constitution of the Clergy

In March 1791 Pope Pius VI had condemned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, reluctantly signed by Louis XVI, which reduced the number of bishops from 132 to 93, imposed the election of bishops and all members of the clergy by departmental or district assemblies of electors, and reduced the Pope's authority over the Church. Religion played an important role in the life of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, both raised in the Roman Catholic faith. The queen's political ideas and her belief in the absolute power of monarchs were based on France's long-established tradition of the divine right of kings. [ citation needed ] On 18 April, as the royal family prepared to leave for Saint-Cloud to attend Easter mass celebrated by a refractory priest, a crowd, soon joined by the Garde Nationale (disobeying Lafayette's orders), prevented their departure from Paris, prompting Marie Antoinette to declare to Lafayette that she and her family were no longer free. This incident fortified her in her determination to leave Paris for personal and political reasons, not alone, but with her family. Even the king, who had been hesitant, accepted his wife's decision to flee with the help of foreign powers and counter-revolutionary forces. [158] [159] [160] Fersen and Breteuil, who represented her in the courts of Europe, were put in charge of the escape plan, while Marie Antoinette continued her negotiations with some of the moderate leaders of the French Revolution. [161] [162]

There had been several plots designed to help the royal family escape, which the queen had rejected because she would not leave without the king, or which had ceased to be viable because of the king's indecision. Once Louis XVI finally did commit to a plan, its poor execution was the cause of its failure. In an elaborate attempt known as the Flight to Varennes to reach the royalist stronghold of Montmédy, some members of the royal family were to pose as the servants of an imaginary "Mme de Korff", a wealthy Russian baroness, a role played by Louise-Élisabeth de Croÿ de Tourzel, governess of the royal children.

After many delays, the escape was ultimately attempted on 21 June 1791, but the entire family was arrested less than twenty-four hours later at Varennes and taken back to Paris within a week. The escape attempt destroyed much of the remaining support of the population for the king. [163] [164]

Upon learning of the capture of the royal family, the National Constituent Assembly sent three representatives, Antoine Barnave, Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve and Charles César de Fay de La Tour-Maubourg to Varennes to escort Marie Antoinette and her family back to Paris. On the way to the capital they were jeered and insulted by the people as never before. The prestige of the French monarchy had never been at such a low level. During the trip, Barnave, the representative of the moderate party in the Assembly, protected Marie Antoinette from the crowds, and even Pétion took pity on the royal family. Brought safely back to Paris, they were met with total silence by the crowd. Thanks to Barnave, the royal couple was not brought to trial and was publicly exonerated of any crime in relation with the attempted escape. [165] [166]

Marie Antoinette's first Lady of the Bedchamber, Mme Campan, wrote about what happened to the queen's hair on the night of 21–22 June, ". in a single night, it had turned white as that of a seventy-year old woman." (En une seule nuit ils étaient devenus blancs comme ceux d'une femme de soixante-dix ans.) [167]

After their return from Varennes and until the storming of the Tuileries on 10 August 1792, the queen, her family and entourage were held under tight surveillance by the Garde Nationale in the Tuileries, where the royal couple was guarded night and day. Four guards accompanied the queen wherever she went, and her bedroom door had to be left open at night. Her health also began to deteriorate, thus further reducing her physical activities. [168] [169]

On 17 July 1791, with the support of Barnave and his friends, Lafayette's Garde Nationale opened fire on the crowd that had assembled on the Champ de Mars to sign a petition demanding the deposition of the king. The estimated number of those killed varies between 12 and 50. Lafayette's reputation never recovered from the event and, on 8 October, he resigned as commander of the Garde Nationale. Their enmity continuing, Marie Antoinette played a decisive role in defeating him in his aims to become the mayor of Paris in November 1791. [170]

As her correspondence shows, while Barnave was taking great political risks in the belief that the queen was his political ally and had managed, despite her unpopularity, to secure a moderate majority ready to work with her, Marie Antoinette was not considered sincere in her cooperation with the moderate leaders of the French Revolution, which ultimately ended any chance to establish a moderate government. [171] Moreover, the view that the unpopular queen was controlling the king further degraded the royal couple's standing with the people, which the Jacobins successfully exploited after their return from Varennes to advance their radical agenda to abolish the monarchy. [172] This situation lasted until the spring of 1792. [173] [174]

Marie Antoinette continued to hope that the military coalition of European kingdoms would succeed in crushing the Revolution. She counted most on the support of her Austrian family. After the death of her brother Joseph in 1790, his successor, Leopold, [175] was willing to support her to a limited degree. [ citation needed ] Upon Leopold's death in 1792, his son, Francis, a conservative ruler, was ready to support the cause of the French royal couple more vigorously because he feared the consequences of the French Revolution and its ideas for the monarchies of Europe, particularly, for Austria's influence in the continent. [ citation needed ]

Barnave had advised the queen to call back Mercy, who had played such an important role in her life before the Revolution, but Mercy had been appointed to another foreign diplomatic position [ where? ] and could not return to France. At the end of 1791, ignoring the danger she faced, the Princesse de Lamballe, who was in London, returned to the Tuileries. As to Fersen, despite the strong restriction imposed on the queen, he was able to see her a final time in February 1792. [176]

Leopold's and Francis II's strong action on behalf of Marie Antoinette led to France's declaration of war on Austria on 20 April 1792. This resulted in the queen being viewed as an enemy, although she was personally against Austrian claims to French territories on European soil. That summer, the situation was compounded by multiple defeats of the French armies by the Austrians, in part because Marie Antoinette passed on military secrets to them. [177] In addition, at the insistence of his wife, Louis XVI vetoed several measures that would have further restricted his power, earning the royal couple the nicknames "Monsieur Veto" and "Madame Veto", [178] [179] nicknames then prominently featured in different contexts, including La Carmagnole.

Barnave remained the most important advisor and supporter of the queen, who was willing to work with him as long as he met her demands, which he did to a large extent. Barnave and the moderates comprised about 260 lawmakers in the new Legislative Assembly the radicals numbered around 136, and the rest around 350. Initially, the majority was with Barnave, but the queen's policies led to the radicalization of the Assembly and the moderates lost control of the legislative process. The moderate government collapsed in April 1792 to be replaced by a radical majority headed by the Girondins. The Assembly then passed a series of laws concerning the Church, the aristocracy, and the formation of new national guard units all were vetoed by Louis XVI. While Barnave's faction had dropped to 120 members, the new Girondin majority controlled the legislative assembly with 330 members. The two strongest members of that government were Jean Marie Roland, who was minister of interior, and General Dumouriez, the minister of foreign affairs. Dumouriez sympathized with the royal couple and wanted to save them but he was rebuffed by the queen. [180] [181]

Marie Antoinette's actions in refusing to collaborate with the Girondins, in power between April and June 1792, led them to denounce the treason of the Austrian comity, a direct allusion to the queen. After Madame Roland sent a letter to the king denouncing the queen's role in these matters, urged by the queen, Louis XVI disbanded [ citation needed ] the government, thus losing his majority in the Assembly. Dumouriez resigned and refused a post in any new government. At this point, the tide against royal authority intensified in the population and political parties, while Marie Antoinette encouraged the king to veto the new laws voted by the Legislative Assembly in 1792. [182] In August 1791, the Declaration of Pillnitz threatened an invasion of France. This led in turn to a French declaration of war in April 1792, which led to the French Revolutionary Wars and to the events of August 1792, which ended the monarchy. [183]

On 20 June 1792, "a mob of terrifying aspect" broke into the Tuileries, made the king wear the bonnet rouge (red Phrygian cap) to show his loyalty to the Republic, insulted Marie Antoinette, accusing her of betraying France, and threatened her life. In consequence, the queen asked Fersen to urge the foreign powers to carry out their plans to invade France and to issue a manifesto in which they threatened to destroy Paris if anything happened to the royal family. The Brunswick Manifesto, issued on 25 July 1792, triggered the events of 10 August [184] when the approach of an armed mob on its way to the Tuileries Palace forced the royal family to seek refuge at the Legislative Assembly. Ninety minutes later, the palace was invaded by the mob, who massacred the Swiss Guards. [185] [186] On 13 August the royal family was imprisoned in the tower of the Temple in the Marais under conditions considerably harsher than those of their previous confinement in the Tuileries. [187]

A week later, several of the royal family's attendants, among them the Princesse de Lamballe, were taken for interrogation by the Paris Commune. Transferred to the La Force prison, after a rapid judgment, Marie Louise de Lamballe was savagely killed on 3 September. Her head was affixed on a pike and paraded through the city to the Temple for the queen to see. Marie Antoinette was prevented from seeing it, but fainted upon learning of it. [188] [189]

On 21 September 1792, the fall of the monarchy was officially declared and the National Convention became the governing body of the French Republic. The royal family name was downgraded to the non-royal "Capets". Preparations began for the trial of the king in a court of law. [190]

Louis XVI's trial and execution

Charged with treason against the French First Republic, Louis XVI was separated from his family and tried in December. He was found guilty by the Convention, led by the Jacobins who rejected the idea of keeping him as a hostage. On 15 January 1793, by a majority of six votes, he was condemned to death by guillotine and executed on 21 January 1793. [191] [192]

The queen, now called "Widow Capet", plunged into deep mourning. She still hoped her son Louis-Charles, whom the exiled Comte de Provence, Louis XVI's brother, had recognized as Louis XVI's successor, would one day rule France. The royalists and the refractory clergy, including those preparing the insurrection in Vendée, supported Marie Antoinette and the return to the monarchy. Throughout her imprisonment and up to her execution, Marie Antoinette could count on the sympathy of conservative factions and social-religious groups which had turned against the Revolution, and also on wealthy individuals ready to bribe republican officials to facilitate her escape [193] These plots all failed. While imprisoned in the Tower of the Temple, Marie Antoinette, her children, and Élisabeth were insulted, some of the guards going as far as blowing smoke in the ex-queen's face. Strict security measures were taken to assure that Marie Antoinette was not able to communicate with the outside world. Despite these measures, several of her guards were open to bribery and a line of communication was kept with the outside world. [ citation needed ]

After Louis' execution, Marie Antoinette's fate became a central question of the National Convention. While some advocated her death, others proposed exchanging her for French prisoners of war or for a ransom from the Holy Roman Emperor. Thomas Paine advocated exile to America. [194] In April 1793, during the Reign of Terror, a Committee of Public Safety dominated by Robespierre was formed, and men such as Jacques Hébert began to call for Marie-Antoinette's trial. By the end of May, the Girondins had been chased from power. [195] Calls were also made to "retrain" the eight-year-old Louis XVII, to make him pliant to revolutionary ideas. To carry this out, Louis Charles was separated from his mother on 3 July after a struggle during which his mother fought in vain to retain her son, who was handed over to Antoine Simon, a cobbler and representative of the Paris Commune. Until her removal from the Temple, Marie Antoinette spent hours trying to catch a glimpse of her son, who, within weeks, had been made to turn against her, accusing his mother of wrongdoing. [196]


On the night of 1 August, at 1:00 in the morning, Marie Antoinette was transferred from the Temple to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie as 'Prisoner n° 280'. Leaving the tower she bumped her head against the lintel of a door, which prompted one of her guards to ask her if she was hurt, to which she answered, "No! Nothing now can hurt me." [197] This was the most difficult period of her captivity. She was under constant surveillance, with no privacy. The "Carnation Plot" (Le complot de l'œillet), an attempt to help her escape at the end of August, was foiled due to the inability to corrupt all the guards. [198] She was attended by Rosalie Lamorlière, who took care of her as much as she could. At least once she received a visit by a Catholic priest. [199] [200]

Marie Antoinette was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October 1793. Some historians believe the outcome of the trial had been decided in advance by the Committee of Public Safety around the time the Carnation Plot (fr) was uncovered. [201] She and her lawyers were given less than one day to prepare her defense. Among the accusations, many previously published in the libelles, were: orchestrating orgies in Versailles, sending millions of livres of treasury money to Austria, planning the massacre of the gardes françaises (National Guards) in 1792, [202] declaring her son to be the new king of France, and incest, a charge made by her son Louis Charles, pressured into doing so by the radical Jacques Hébert who controlled him. This last accusation drew an emotional response from Marie Antoinette, who refused to respond to this charge, instead appealing to all mothers present in the room. Their reaction comforted her since these women were not otherwise sympathetic to her. [203] [204]

Early on 16 October, Marie Antoinette was declared guilty of the three main charges against her: depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, and high treason because of her intelligence activities in the interest of the enemy the latter charge alone was enough to condemn her to death. [205] At worst, she and her lawyers had expected life imprisonment. [206] In the hours left to her, she composed a letter to her sister-in-law, Madame Élisabeth, affirming her clear conscience, her Catholic faith, and her love and concern for her children. The letter did not reach Élisabeth. [207] Her will was part of the collection of papers of Robespierre found under his bed and were published by Edme-Bonaventure Courtois. [208] [209]

Preparing for her execution, she had to change clothes in front of her guards. She wanted to wear a black dress but was forced to wear a plain white dress, white being the color worn by widowed queens of France. Her hair was shorn, her hands bound painfully behind her back and she was put on a rope leash. Unlike her husband, who had been taken to his execution in a carriage (carrosse), she had to sit in an open cart (charrette) for the hour it took to convey her from the Conciergerie via the rue Saint-Honoré thoroughfare to reach the guillotine erected in the Place de la Révolution (the present-day Place de la Concorde). [210] She maintained her composure, despite the insults of the jeering crowd. A constitutional priest was assigned to her to hear her final confession. He sat by her in the cart, but she ignored him all the way to the scaffold as he had pledged his allegiance to the republic. [211] [212]

Marie Antoinette was guillotined at 12:15 p.m. on 16 October 1793. [213] [214] Her last words are recorded as, "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès" or "Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose", after accidentally stepping on her executioner's shoe. [215] Her head was one of which Marie Tussaud was employed to make death masks. [216] Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery located close by in rue d'Anjou. Because its capacity was exhausted the cemetery was closed the following year, on 25 March 1794. [217]

Foreign Response

After her execution, Marie Antoinette became a symbol abroad as a consequence and controversial figure of the French Revolution. Some used her as a scapegoat to blame for the events of the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1821, claimed that "Her inordinate gambling and dissipations, with those of the Count d’Artois, and others of her clique, had been a sensible item in the exhaustion of the treasury, which called into action the reforming hand of the nation and her opposition to it, her inflexible perverseness, and dauntless spirit, led herself to the Guillotine" adding that "I have ever believed that, had there been no Queen, there would have been no revolution." [218] Others were shocked and viewed it as evidence of the dangers of Revolution. Edmund Burke gave a speech lamenting her death stating that "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever" and now "Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex." [219] After receiving the news, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and close sister to Marie Antoinette, spiraled into a state of mourning and an anger against the revolutionaries. She quickly suspended protections of reformers and intellectuals in Naples, allowed Neapolitan bishops wide latitude to halt the secularization of the country, and offered succor to the overflowing number of émigrés fleeing from revolutionary France, many of whom were granted pensions. [220]

Bourbon Restoration

Both Marie Antoinette's and Louis XVI's bodies were exhumed on 18 January 1815, during the Bourbon Restoration, when the Comte de Provence ascended the newly reestablished throne as Louis XVIII, King of France and of Navarre. Christian burial of the royal remains took place three days later, on 21 January, in the necropolis of French kings at the Basilica of St Denis. [221]

For many revolutionary figures, Marie Antoinette was the symbol of what was wrong with the old regime in France. The onus of having caused the financial difficulties of the nation was placed on her shoulders by the revolutionary tribunal, [222] and under the new republican ideas of what it meant to be a member of a nation, her Austrian descent and continued correspondence with the competing nation made her a traitor. [223] The people of France saw her death as a necessary step toward completing the revolution. Furthermore, her execution was seen as a sign that the revolution had done its work. [224]

Marie-Antoinette is also known for her taste for fine things, and her commissions from famous craftsmen, such as Jean-Henri Riesener, suggest more about her enduring legacy as a woman of taste and patronage. For instance, a writing table attributed to Riesener, now located at Waddesdon Manor, bears witness to Marie-Antoinette's desire to escape the oppressive formality of court life, when she decided to move the table from the Queen's boudoir de la Meridienne at Versailles to her humble interior, the Petit Trianon. Her favourite objects filled her small, private chateau and reveal aspects of Marie-Antoinette's character that have been obscured by satirical political prints, such as those in Les Tableaux de la Révolution. [225]

Long after her death, Marie Antoinette remains a major historical figure linked with conservatism, the Catholic Church, wealth, and fashion. She has been the subject of a number of books, films, and other media. Politically engaged authors have deemed her the quintessential representative of class conflict, western aristocracy and absolutism. Some of her contemporaries, such as Thomas Jefferson, attributed to her the start of the French Revolution. [226]

In popular culture

The phrase "Let them eat cake" is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there is no evidence that she ever uttered it, and it is now generally regarded as a journalistic cliché. [227] This phrase originally appeared in Book VI of the first part of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiographical work Les Confessions, finished in 1767 and published in 1782: "Enfin Je me rappelai le pis-aller d'une grande Princesse à qui l'on disait que les paysans n'avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit: Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" ("Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: 'Let them eat brioche ' "). Rousseau ascribes these words to a "great princess", but the purported writing date precedes Marie Antoinette's arrival in France. Some think that he invented it altogether. [228]

In the United States, expressions of gratitude to France for its help in the American Revolution included naming a city Marietta, Ohio in 1788. [229] Her life has been the subject of many films, such as Marie Antoinette (1938) and Marie Antoinette (2006). [230]

In 2020, a silk shoe that belonged to her was sold in an auction in the Palace of Versailles for 43,750 euros ($51,780). [231]

Name Portrait Lifespan Notes
Marie Thérèse Charlotte
Madame Royale
19 December 1778 –
19 October 1851
Married her cousin, Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, the eldest son of the future Charles X of France.
Louis Joseph Xavier François
Dauphin de France
22 October 1781 –
4 June 1789
Died in childhood on the very day the Estates General convened.
Louis XVII of France
(Nominally) King of France and Navarre
27 March 1785 –
8 June 1795
Died in childhood no issue. He was never officially king, nor did he rule. His title was bestowed by his royalist supporters and acknowledged implicitly by his uncle's later adoption of the regnal name Louis XVIII rather than Louis XVII, upon the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814.
Sophie Hélène Béatrix 9 July 1786 –
19 June 1787
Died in childhood.

In addition to her biological children, Marie Antoinette adopted four children: "Armand" Francois-Michel Gagné (c. 1771–1792), a poor orphan adopted in 1776 Jean Amilcar (c. 1781–1793), a Senegalese slave boy given to the queen as a present by Chevalier de Boufflers in 1787, but whom she instead had freed, baptized, adopted and placed in a pension Ernestine Lambriquet (1778–1813), daughter of two servants at the palace, who was raised as the playmate of her daughter and whom she adopted after the death of her mother in 1788 and finally "Zoe" Jeanne Louise Victoire (1787-?), who was adopted in 1790 along with her two older sisters when her parents, an usher and his wife in service of the king, had died. [232] Of these, only Armand, Ernestine, and Zoe actually lived with the royal family: Jean Amilcar, along with the elder siblings of Zoe and Armand who were also formally foster children of the royal couple, simply lived at the queen's expense until her imprisonment, which proved fatal for at least Amilcar, as he was evicted from the boarding school when the fee was no longer paid, and reportedly starved to death on the street. [232] Armand and Zoe had a position which was more similar to that of Ernestine Armand lived at court with the king and queen until he left them at the outbreak of the revolution because of his republican sympathies, and Zoe was chosen to be the playmate of the Dauphin, just as Ernestine had once been selected as the playmate of Marie-Therese, and sent away to her sisters in a convent boarding school before the Flight to Varennes in 1791. [232]

Marie Antoinette

Late September sunlight filters onto the blue velvet furnishings of the jewel-box theater built for Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The painted, original backdrop depicts a rustic farmhouse hearth, and I can just imagine the young queen reveling in her role as a shepherdess while her witty friends and dull husband, French king Louis XVI, applaud politely.

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At the time I was there, the theater was closed to most visitors (it is now open to the public from April 1 through October 31), and I wanted to take full advantage of my access. "Go ahead. Have a good, long look," said Christian Baulez, Versailles' chief conservator.

On the way out, Baulez, who has worked at the former royal palace for four decades, locked the gate with a heavy iron key. "From time to time, you have to visit a spot like the theater when there's no one else around to give the place a chance to trigger an emotional reaction," he said. "You're thinking about other things, then all of a sudden, you're totally surprised. It's a state of grace, an aura you sense—even after 40 years here."

The frivolous 14-year-old Austrian princess who came to France to marry the future king, Louis XVI, developed strength and character over the years. (Public Domain) To escape palace life, Marie Antoinette built a hideaway for herself and her intimate friends that included cottages equipped with couches, stoves, and billiard tables. (Creative Commons) "The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me," the former queen (sketched en route to the guillotine) said shortly before her execution. (Public Domain) Thought of as the power behind the throne, Marie Antoinette prophesied, "They are going to force us to go to Paris, the King and me, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes." (Public Domain) The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa gave birth to her fifteenth child, Marie Antoinette, on November 2, 1755. ( After Louis XVI's execution, Marie Antoinette was transferred to the Conciergerie Prison, dubbed "death's antechamber." (Public Domain) King Louis XVI with Marie and their children (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Arrest of Marie and Louis XVI at Varennes (© Bettmann/CORBIS) Marie and children embracing King Louis XVI before his execution Marie condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

I did not commune with Marie Antoinette's ghost, as some claim to have done. But I had to admit that there is a poignancy about the playhouse and its fantasy world. Less than a decade after the theater's inauguration in 1780, the curtain would come crashing down on the French monarchy and its Austrian-born queen, who seemed to grow in moral stature as she approached the guillotine.

With the possible exception of the Corsican-born Napoleon, another outsider who overstayed his welcome, no one haunts French history like the Hapsburg princess. The frivolous, high-spirited tomboy who arrived at Versailles at age 14 was quickly embraced by her subjects. Yet by the time of her execution 23 years later, she was reviled.

Thrust into a social and political hurricane, Marie Antoinette, biographer Stefan Zweig wrote in the 1930s, was "perhaps the most signal example in history of the way in which destiny will at times pluck a mediocre human being from obscurity and, with commanding hand, force the man or woman in question to overstep the bounds of mediocrity." Ultimately, even Marie Antoinette herself grasped how suffering gave her fortitude. "Tribulation first makes one realize what one is," the queen wrote in August 1791, soon after the royal family's failed escape attempt from their detention in Paris.

Marie Antoinette's fairy tale turned tragedy has spawned biographies, fictionalizations, operas, plays, ballets and memoirs. Even her hairdresser and her executioner published ghostwritten recollections. And, like the 300 gowns the queen ordered each year, the story is a perfect fit for Hollywood. The 1938 film Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Morley, is considered a classic of historical melodrama. Now, Sofia Coppola has directed a new interpretation, with Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman in the lead roles. Based largely on British biographer Antonia Fraser's 2001 biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the new film, also called Marie Antoinette, was released in the United States last month. "I was struck by the fact that Louis and Marie were teenagers—he was 19 when he was crowned, she was 18—in charge of France at the most vulnerable time in its history," says Coppola. "I didn't set out on a campaign to correct the misperceptions about her I just wanted to tell the story from her point of view."

Each year millions of visitors flock to Versailles and Fontainebleau, where the queen maintained a second palace, to admire her exuberant tastes in furniture and décor. But it is her furtive love life that arouses the deepest interest—and sympathy. Tarred by pamphleteers for sexual wantonness, she was actually rather prudish, at least according to her brother, Austrian emperor Joseph II. Despite a number of innocent flirtations, she deeply loved—probably with Louis' tacit approval, according to a confidante—only one man: Swedish military attaché Count Axel Fersen.

Although Marie Antoinette initially condescended to her husband, she eventually developed a genuine fondness for him. For his part, Louis was completely devoted to her and never took a mistress, exhibiting a restraint virtually unheard of in an 18th-century French king.

Whatever Marie Antoinette's faults—in addition to her renowned extravagance, she was unable to comprehend the French people's thirst for democracy—she did not respond to news that starving Parisians had no bread by saying: "Let them eat cake." According to Fraser, this monumental indifference was first ascribed, probably also apocryphally, to Maria Theresa, the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV more than a century before Marie Antoinette set foot in France. Still, for more than two centuries, historians have debated whether Marie Antoinette bore the blame for her fate or was a victim of circumstance. Although she remained a fervent supporter of absolute royal power and an unrepentant enemy of democratic ideals, her many acts of compassion included tending to a peasant gored by a stag and taking in a poor orphan boy and overseeing his education. "She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss any opportunity of doing so," wrote Madame Campan, the First Lady of the Bedchamber. The softhearted queen, it seems, hungered more for tenderness than power.

The opposite might be said of her mother, Austrian empress Maria Theresa, who regarded her eight daughters as pawns on the European chessboard, to be married off to seal alliances. She barely paused in her paperwork to give birth on November 2, 1755, to her 15th child, In France, Louis Auguste, the 11-year-old grandson of French monarch Louis XV, became a prime matrimonial candidate when, in 1765, his father, Louis Ferdinand, died, making the grandson heir to the throne. Within months, 10-year-old Antoine was unofficially pledged to Louis to cement the union of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons—bitter rivals since the 16th century.

Dispatched to Vienna in 1768 by Louis XV to tutor his grandson's future wife, the Abbé de Vermond encountered an easily distracted 13-year-old who could barely read or write her native German, much less French. But "her character, her heart, are excellent," he reported. He found her "more intelligent than has been generally supposed," but since "she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach." Blessed with thick, ash-blond hair, large, grayish blue eyes and a radiant complexion, Marie Antoinette possessed a delicate beauty, marred only slightly by a pouty Hapsburg lower lip.

For her May 1770 wedding, she was escorted to France amid an entourage that included 57 carriages, 117 footmen and 376 horses. Arriving in the forest of the royal château of Compiègne, some 50 miles northeast of Paris, the 14-year-old Antoine, now called by the more formal Marie Antoinette, impulsively dashed up to Louis XV ("Après moi, le déluge"), waiting with his grandson outside their carriage, and curtsied, instantly winning over the king, who kissed her. Perhaps intimidated by her forwardness, the 15-year-old bridegroom gave her a perfunctory kiss, then hardly glanced at her as she chatted away with the king on the ride to the château. The awkward, myopic heir apparent suffered from feelings of unworthiness, despite a facility for languages and a passion for history, geography and science.

Louis Auguste de Bourbon and Marie Antoinette were married on May 16, 1770, in the royal chapel at the palace of Versailles. The next day, news that the union had not been consummated spread through the court. It was only the beginning by all accounts, the marriage went unconsummated for seven years. By this time, Louis XV had died (of smallpox, in 1774) and his teenage grandson had acceded to the most powerful throne in Europe.

After encouraging her daughter to "lavish more caresses" on her husband, Maria Theresa dispatched her son, Joseph II, as she put it, to "stir up this indolent spouse." Whatever he said apparently did the trick in any case, the couple wrote to thank him. Many historians conclude that Louis suffered from phimosis, a physiological handicap that makes sex painful, and that he eventually had surgery to correct the problem. Biographer Fraser, however, contends that the pair were simply, as Joseph reported to his brother Leopold, "two complete blunderers."

Added to any sexual frustration Marie Antoinette may have felt was her homesickness ("Madame, My very dear mother," she wrote, "I have not received one of your dear letters without having the tears come to my eyes.") and her rebellion against court etiquette ("I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world," she complained in 1770 of a daily ritual at which dozens of courtiers hovered). She sought escape in masked balls, opera, theater and gambling. "I am terrified of being bored," the 21-year-old queen confessed in October 1777 to her trusted adviser, Austrian ambassador Comte Florimond Mercy d'Argenteau.

Where Louis was indecisive, thrifty and over-serious, Marie Antoinette was quick to make up her mind, extravagant and lighthearted. He loved being alone, tinkering with locks she craved the social whirl. When Louis went to bed, around 11 p.m., Marie Antoinette was just revving up for a night of festivities. By the time she awoke, around 11 a.m., Louis had been up for hours. "My tastes are not the same as the King's, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working," the queen wrote to a friend in April 1775. And what exorbitant tastes she had! She bought a pair of diamond bracelets that cost as much as a Paris mansion. She sported towering bouffant hairdos, including the "inoculation pouf," a forbidding confection that featured a club striking a snake in an olive tree (representing the triumph of science over evil) to celebrate her success in persuading the king to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Informed of her daughter's behavior by Mercy, Maria Theresa fired off letter after letter warning Marie Antoinette to mend her ways. "You lead a dissipated life," the mother railed in 1775. "I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue."

Cloistered in the luxury of Versailles, the royal couple was oblivious to their subjects' plight. A failed harvest had made the price of grain skyrocket, and mobs were rioting in the streets of Paris, demanding cheap bread. Crushing taxes were also taking their toll on the populace. Meanwhile, the queen gambled recklessly, ordered expensive jewelry and clothes and spent a fortune on creating her own private domain at Versailles—the Petit Trianon. The three-story neo-Classical château was originally built on the grounds of Versailles in 1762-68 by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. Louis XVI had given it to Marie Antoinette in June 1774, a few days after he became king, when she asked for a hideaway. ("This pleasure house is yours," he told her.) "She wanted a domain reserved for her intimate circle of friends," says Baulez, as we tour the Trianon. "But unfortunately, this exclusion made everyone else at court jealous." Palace gossip spun outrageous tales about "scandalous" and "perverse" goings-on at the Trianon, giving anti-monarchist pamphleteers material for salacious underground cartoons. How could the queen spend the nation's money, at a time of financial crisis, on her private hideaway, critics asked.

But Marie Antoinette seemed blind to the criticism. She directed architect Richard Mique and artist Hubert Robert to conjure up a sylvan fantasy of artificial streams, grottoes and winding paths. (During nighttime galas, a Temple of Love rotunda and a glass music salon were illuminated by wood fires hidden in trenches in the ground.) In 1784, the two designers created what, from the outside, appeared to be a hamlet (the Hameau) of cracked and tumbledown cottages, which, in fact, were appointed with comfortable couches, stoves and billiard tables. A working farm completed what Zweig satirized as "this expensive pastoral comedy," though tales of the queen herself herding sheep are false, Baulez insists. The overall effect of the Petit Trianon was—and remains—quaintly charming, but the total bill, including the Hameau, came to more than two million francs (the equivalent of more than $6 million today). To this day, the Petit Trianon—silk hangings, wall coverings, porcelain dinner services, furniture—bears Marie Antoinette's stamp, with flower-mad motifs in cornflower blue, lilac and green. "She loved ornamentation," says Baulez. "She wasn't interested in dignity, but the picturesque. She had the tastes of an actress, not an austerely regal queen."

In one salon is the exquisite harp Marie Antoinette played well enough to accompany Antonio Salieri, the Hapsburg court composer and Mozart rival she invited to visit. In an adjoining room, Baulez shows me the infamous pale blue boudoir with mirrored interior shutters that the queen could raise and lower at will. "People imagined mirrors surrounding a bed for secret trysts," he says, "but she was just trying to keep curious passersby from peering inside." Whatever trysts there were did not include Louis, who spent not a single night at the Petit Trianon, although he did occasionally pop by to read to himself in a little rowboat.

Fersen was the more frequent guest. The queen went so far as to furnish an apartment above hers for him. By October 1787, they were exchanging clandestine letters about such prosaic domestic details as where to put a stove. Unraveling the details of their relationship has kept biographers guessing for more than 200 years, largely because Fersen destroyed substantial portions of his journal and a great-nephew to whom his letters were entrusted censored some and suppressed others. "I can tell you that I love you," Marie Antoinette declared in one letter back to him.

They had met at a Paris opera ball in January 1774, when Fersen, the 18-year-old son of a wealthy Swedish nobleman, was making the grand tour. The young queen invited him to several balls at Versailles, but not long after, he left for England. Four years later he returned to the French court as a young military officer and, according to Comte Francois Emmanuel de Saint-Priest—Louis' future minister of the interior—"captured the queen's heart." In early 1779, Fersen signed on to fight on behalf of France in the American Revolution, in part perhaps to escape the queen's growing infatuation. When he returned to Versailles four years later, in June 1783, he wrote to his sister, swearing off marriage because: "I cannot belong to the only person to whom I want to belong, the one who really loves me, and so I do not want to belong to anyone." That summer, he visited Marie Antoinette nearly every day.

By now the 27-year-old queen—mother of a 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Marie Thérèse Charlotte,and a son, the Dauphin Louis Joseph Xavier, nearly 2—had blossomed into a full-figured beauty, with luminous eyes and a demeanor some saw as dignified, others as haughty. As a young princess, she had burst into tears when Mercy had pressured her to get involved in politics now she scolded the French foreign minister for excluding Joseph II from the peace process with England, though to little effect.

Some two years later, around the time her second son, Louis Charles, was born, Marie Antoinette became the victim of one of the most byzantine swindles in history. A fortune hunter named Jeanne de Lamotte Valois persuaded the gullible Cardinal de Rohan that she was a close friend of the queen's—though Marie Antoinette had never heard of her. Lamotte's lover, Rétaux de Villette, forged letters purportedly from the queen imploring the cardinal to buy a necklace of 647 diamonds costing 1.5 million francs ($4.7 million today). Writing as the queen, de Villette said "she" was too embarrassed to ask Louis for so expensive a present and was relying on the gallant cardinal to obtain it for her. The queen would, of course, repay him.

After a clandestine meeting in the palace gardens with a woman hired by Lamotte to impersonate the queen, Rohan was hooked. When jewelers delivered the necklace to the cardinal, he gave it to Rétaux, disguised as the queen's footman. Lamotte's husband then smuggled it to London to be sold off in pieces. When the jewelers demanded payment in August 1785, Marie Antoinette was livid with rage and Louis ordered Rohan arrested.

The subsequent trial caused a sensation. The Paris Parliament defied the king's command to convict the duped cardinal and acquitted him. Lamotte was flogged, branded on her breast with a V for voleuse (thief) and tossed into prison. And though Marie Antoinette was not on trial, she might as well have been. "The queen was innocent," Napoleon observed years later, "and, to make sure that her innocence should be publicly recognized, she chose the Parliament of Paris for her judge. The upshot was that she was universally regarded as guilty."

The affair of the necklace provided further fodder for scandal-mongering pamphleteers and journalists already intent on portraying the queen as greedy and corrupt. From then on, she could do no right. Her embarrassment made Louis more vulnerable than ever. Beset by severe food shortages, weighed down by taxes, resentful of royal absolutism and inspired by the egalitarian example of an independent United States, French citizens were growing increasingly vocal in their demands for self-government. In May 1789, to avert the nation's impending bankruptcy (a series of wars, years of corruption and Louis' support of the American Revolution as a means of weakening England had depleted the French treasury), the king convened the Estates-General, an assembly of representatives of the clergy, nobility and commoners that had not met since 1614. As Marie Antoinette's carriage wound from the palace through the streets of Versailles to welcome the gathering, crowds along the way stood in sullen silence. In a sermon at the town's Church of Saint Louis, the Bishop of Nancy railed against the queen's profligate spending. (Dubbed Madame Deficit, the queen was increasingly blamed for the country's desperate financial situation, although she had in fact already cut back on personal expenses.) At the time of the Bishop's sermon, however, the 33-year-old mother was consumed with anxiety over her older son, the gravely ill Dauphin. Within a month, the 7-year-old prince would be dead of tuberculosis of the spine.

Historians trace the French Revolution to that summer of 1789. On July 14, some 900 Parisian workers, shopkeepers and peasants—fearing that the king, who at the queen's urging had moved a large number of troops to Versailles and Paris, would dissolve the representative National Assembly—stormed the Bastille prison to seize arms and ammunition. Marie Antoinette tried to convince her husband to put down the insurrection, but not wanting to provoke an all-out conflict, he refused, effectively ceding Paris to the revolutionaries. Comte Honoré de Mirabeau, leader of the increasingly anti-monarchist National Assembly, observed that the queen had become "the only man at court." In the weeks that followed, the Assembly did away with age-old privileges for the aristocracy and clergy, declared a free press, got rid of serfdom and proclaimed the Rights of Man.

A little before noon on October 5, a mob of several thousand market women, armed with pikes and sickles, set out from Paris' Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) on a 12-mile trek to Versailles to protest a lack of jobs and the high cost of bread. By evening, thousands more, some carrying guns, had joined them in front of the palace. After dithering over what to do, Louis finally decided to seek refuge in the distant Rambouillet château. But when his coachmen rolled out the royal carriages, the crowd cut the horses' harnesses, stranding him and his family.

Around five o'clock on the morning of the sixth, rebels surged toward the queen's bedroom, killing two guards. A terrified Marie Antoinette leapt out of bed and raced to the king's apartments. Louis, meanwhile, had dashed to her bedroom to rescue her, but finding her gone, doubled back with their son to join her and their daughter in the dining hall of his quarters. By this time, the Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the National Guard, had arrived with Guard troops and temporarily restored order.

But the throng, swollen to some 10,000 people, began clamoring to take Louis to Paris. When someone cried out for the queen to show herself on the balcony, she stepped forward, curtsying with such aplomb that the mob grew silent, then burst into cries of "Long live the queen!" But Marie Antoinette sensed that the reprieve would be short-lived. Retreating inside, she broke down. "They are going to force us to go to Paris, the King and me, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes," she said. Her words proved prophetic. Within hours, the triumphant procession—indeed with the guards' heads on pikes—was escorting the captive royal family to the old Tuileries palace in the capital.

Although the king and queen were not locked in, and in theory could have left the palace had they chosen to do so, they withdrew into self-imposed seclusion. The king seemed unable to act. "Taking the place of her husband (whom everyone thrust contemptuously aside as an incurable weakling)," writes Zweig, Marie Antoinette "held council with the ministers and ambassadors, watching over their undertakings and revising their dispatches."

"She was decisive where he was indecisive," biographer Antonia Fraser says in a new PBS documentary Marie Antoinette. "She was courageous when he was vacillating." She dashed off letters in cipher and invisible ink to other European sovereigns, pleading with them to invade France and shore up the king's crumbling authority, but to no avail. Meeting secretly with Mirabeau in July 1790, she won the influential legislator over to the cause of preserving the monarchy. By December, however, she was devising a contingency plan to flee Paris for Montmédy, near the Austrian-controlled Netherlands. There the royal couple planned to mount a counterrevolution with troops under the command of Royalist general Francois-Claude Bouillé. When Mirabeau died in April 1791 without securing the Assembly's promise to retain Louis as king in a constitutional monarchy, Louis and Marie Antoinette put their plan into action. But instead of following Bouillé's advice to make the trip in two light carriages, the queen insisted on keeping the family together in a lumbering coach called a berlin, encumbered with a silver dinner service, a clothes-press, and a small wine chest. (Fersen had made the arrangements, even mortgaging his estate to pay for the carriage.) Late in the evening of June 20, 1791, the royal family, disguised as servants, slipped out of the capital. Fersen accompanied them as far as Bondy, 16 miles east of the Tuileries. While the horses were being changed, he pleaded with Louis to let him continue with the family rather than reuniting at Montmédy two days later as planned. Louis refused, perhaps, suggests biographer Evelyne Lever, because he thought it humiliating to be under the protection of his wife's lover. Also, Fraser says in the PBS film, Louis didn't want people to think a foreigner had helped them get away.

In Varennes, 130 miles east of Paris, a band of armed villagers accosted the king, who had been recognized inside the conspicuous berlin, and forced the royal entourage into a municipal official's house. When a small contingent of Royalist troops arrived to free them, Louis vacillated, then, fearing a confrontation with the steadily growing mob brandishing arms outside the house, declined the troops' help, choosing instead to wait for Bouillé. Had Fersen, a trained officer, been allowed to stay with the group, he might well have taken more decisive action and helped lead the family to safety. Instead, emissaries dispatched by the Assembly arrived with orders to return the family to Paris. Crowds of angry Parisians lined the streets as the king and queen were taken back to the Tuileries palace, where they were held captive by National Guardsmen. Louis was caricatured as a castrated pig, while the queen was portrayed as a wanton traitor.

The Assembly allowed Louis to remain as a figurehead on the throne to legitimize a proposed new constitution, but he had little actual political power. Meanwhile, at the same time Marie Antoinette was secretly lobbying moderate republicans in the Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, she was also writing to European rulers that the "monstreuse" constitution was "a tissue of unworkable absurdities" and the Assembly "a heap of blackguards, madmen and beasts." Although Louis privately detested the constitution, on September 14, 1791, he took an oath to uphold it, agreeing to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly.

In Stockholm, Fersen had persuaded the Swedish king to back a new escape attempt. In February 1792, the daring count—by now branded an outlaw for his role in the flight to Varennes—snuck into the heavily guarded palace and spent some 30 hours with the queen. Toward the end of his visit, Louis showed up and rejected Fersen's scheme for escape through Normandy. Around midnight of Fersen's second day, Marie Antoinette bade him farewell—for the last time.

In April, under pressure from the Assembly, Louis declared war on Austria, which was preparing to invade France to restore Alsace (occupied by the French) and obtain full liberty for the royal family. Rightly suspecting that the king and queen were plotting with the enemy, an armed mob stormed the Tuileries on August 10, killing more than a thousand guards and noblemen. Louis and his family fled on foot through a courtyard to the nearby Assembly building, where they begged the representatives for protection.

The Assembly, however, voted to have the king, queen, their son and daughter, and the king's sister Elisabeth locked up in the Temple tower, a forbidding medieval fortress in the center of Paris. On September 20, the new revolutionary National Convention, the successor to the Assembly, met for the first time. The following day they abolished the 1,000-year-old monarchy and established the Republic.

For the former royal family, now prisoners in the Temple tower, the next two months passed improbably in something like domestic tranquility. While the king schooled his 7-year-old son, Louis Charles, in the dramas of Corneille and Racine, the queen gave Marie Thérèse, 13, history lessons, played chess with her husband, did needlework and even sang at the harpsichord. Then, on November 20, Louis' letters to foreign powers plotting counterrevolution were discovered in a strongbox hidden in the Tuileries. Louis was taken from his family, locked up on the floor below them and, on December 26, put on trial. Maximilien Robespierre, a chief architect of the Revolution, and the fiery journalist Jean-Paul Marat were among the many radical leaders who testified against him during a three-week trial. "It is with regret that I pronounce the fatal truth," proclaimed Robespierre, "Louis must die, so that the country may live." After a unanimous vote by members of the Convention (with a few abstentions) that Louis had conspired against the state, members of the more moderate revolutionary faction argued that the former king should be confined until the end of the war with Austria, then sent into exile. Even English philosopher Thomas Paine, elected to the Convention as a hero of the American Revolution, pleaded for the royal family to be banished to America. But it was not to be. Louis, 38, was condemned to death on January 16, 1793. He was allowed to spend a few hours with his wife, son, daughter and sister before being led to the guillotine on January 21 and executed before a crowd estimated at 20,000.

Six months later, on August 2, the Widow Capet, as Marie Antoinette was now known, was transferred to the Conciergerie, a dank prison dubbed "death's antechamber." Louis' sister, Elisabeth, Marie Thérèse and Louis Charles remained in the Temple tower. Later that month, the queen recognized among her visitors a former officer, the Chevalier Alexandre de Rougeville, who dropped at her feet one or two carnations (accounts differ) containing a note that said he would try to rescue her. A guard spotted the note, and when public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville learned that Royalists were scheming to free the former queen (the plan became known as the Carnation Plot), he moved to put her immediately on trial.

Emaciated and pale, Marie Antoinette maintained her composure at the trial, a grueling 32-hour ordeal carried out over two days. She responded with eloquence to the prosecutor's litany of accusations—she was guilty, he said, of making secret agreements with Austria and Prussia (which had joined with Austria in the war against France), of shipping money abroad to Louis' two younger brothers in exile and of conspiring with these enemies against France. Accused of manipulating the king's foreign policy, she coolly replied: "To advise a course of action and to have it carried out are very different things."

On the first day of the trial, the prosecution delivered a bombshell, presenting testimony by young Louis that he had sex with his mother and his aunt. (Caught masturbating by his jailer, the boy had invented the story to shift blame onto the two women.) The former queen summoned up a stirring denunciation. "Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother," she replied. "I appeal in this matter to all the mothers present in court." The prosecutor's ploy backfired as the audience reacted with abashed silence. But the trial's conclusion was foregone. With civil war threatening to destroy the new Republic, "Marie Antoinette was deliberately targeted," says Fraser in the PBS production, "in order to bind the French together in a kind of blood bond." Found guilty of treason, the former queen was sentenced to die.

On the eve of her execution, Marie Antoinette wrote a last letter, to her sister-in-law, entreating Elisabeth to forgive young Louis for his accusations and to persuade him not to try to avenge his parents' deaths. "I am calm," she reflected, "as people are whose conscience is clear." Before the former queen left prison the next morning, October 16, 1793, the executioner cut off her hair and bound her hands behind her. A priest counseled courage. "Courage?" Marie Antoinette shot back. "The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me."

As an open tumbrel cart carrying the condemned woman rolled through the streets to what is now the Place de la Concorde, Marie Antoinette, two weeks shy of her 38th birthday, but appearing far older, maintained a stoic pose, captured in Jacques-Louis David's harsh sketch (below) from the rue Sainte-Honoré. When the guillotine sliced off her head at 12:15 p.m., thousands of spectators erupted in cheers. Her body was placed in a coffin and tossed into a common grave in a cemetery behind the Church of the Madeleine.

Still imprisoned in the Temple tower, Louis Charles remained isolated from his sister and his aunt, who was also executed, in May 1794, as an enemy of the people. In June 1795, the 10-year-old boy, a king—Louis XVII to Royalists—without a country, died in the Temple tower, most likely of the same tuberculosis that had felled his elder brother. Six months later, his 17-year-old sister was returned to Austria in a prisoner exchange. She ultimately married her first cousin, the Duke d'Angoulême, and died childless at age 72 in 1851 outside Vienna.

Fersen became a trusted adviser to the Swedish king. But he never forgave himself for not saving the woman he loved on the flight to Varennes. "Why, ah why did I not die for her on the 20th of June?" he wrote in his journal. Nineteen years later, on June 20, 1810, a Stockholm mob, wrongly believing that he had poisoned the heir to the Swedish throne, beat him to death with sticks and stones. He was 54.

In April 1814, following Napoleon's exile to Elba, Louis' brother the Comte de Provence, then 58, returned from his own exile in England to assume the French throne as Louis XVIII. The following January, he had the bodies of his older brother and the queen disinterred and reburied in the Saint-Denis Cathedral near Paris, where idealized stone statues of the royal couple now kneel in prayer above the underground vault.

Marie Antoinette would likely have been perfectly happy to have played only a ceremonial part as queen. But Louis' weakness forced her to take a more dominant role—for which the French people could not forgive her. Cartoons depicted her as a harpy trampling the constitution. She was blamed for bankrupting the country, when others in the high-spending, lavish court bore equal responsibility. Ultimately, she was condemned simply for being Louis' wife and a symbol of tyranny. Thomas Jefferson, minister to France under Louis XVI, famously asserted that if Marie Antoinette had been cloistered in a convent, the French Revolution would never have taken place. Perhaps Jefferson goes too far. Certainly she became a scapegoat for nearly everything that was wrong with France's absolutist, dynastic system. But it's also clear that in their refusal to compromise, Louis and Marie Antoinette lost everything.

Based in France, Richard Covington writes on culture, history, science and the arts from his home near Versailles.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

Watch the video: Marie Antoinette 2006 Official Trailer 1 - Kirsten Dunst Movie (December 2021).