Marie Antoinette was the beautiful Queen of France who became a symbol for the wanton extravagance of the 18th century monarchy, and was stripped of her riches and finery, imprisoned and beheaded by her own subjects during the French Revolution that began in 1789.
As her life began there was little hint of this total reversal of life’s fortunes. Marie Antoinette was born in 1755 at very apex of the European social pyramid.
She was born a princess and archduchess, the 15th daughter of Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria. The Hapsburg house of Austria was the oldest royal house of Europe, and the young princess enjoyed the relaxed environment of the Schonbrünn Palace and the indulgence of tutors her parents, brothers and sisters.
Marie Thérèse was famous Austrian empress who counted among her many accomplishments her ability to marry her many children in ways strategic to the Austrian empire. So it was with Marie Antoinette. For this daughter, Marie Thérèse arranged a special marriage to cement the new alliance with France that she had concluded with Louis XV. So, Marie Antoinette was to leave Austria to the most prestigious throne in all Europe.
The life of Marie Antoinette was the stuff of dreams when she was married at age 14 to the crown prince of France, the dauphin. France was then the most powerful nation of continental Europe, and the royal palace at Versailles the most opulent. The young princess could hardly have hoped for a more prestigious marriage and her magnificent marriage ceremony in 1770 was unmatched in royal pageantry.
At the border she was stripped and re-dressed with clothing fashionable at the French court. When she was presented to the French king Louis XV, he pronounced her delightful, and told others of her fine full figure, of which he much approved. She became dauphine surrounded by all the comforts of the French court.
Her enchanted life reached its pinnacle when the old king died and her husband became King Louis XVI in 1774. Marie Antoinette, still a teenager became Queen of France.
Unhappy Marriage and Boredom
But this daughter of life’s fortune was unhappy in her marriage. Louis was homely, awkward and hardly her heart’s desire. His devotion to the hunt, clocks and his workshop and his early hours were in contrast to her pursuit of the arts, fashion, dance and French nightlife. The contrast of Charles and Diana comes to mind. While King Louis XV, her husband’s brothers, Provence and Artois, and others at court noticed at once her grace and beauty, her own shy husband was slow to exercise the rights of the marriage bed. From afar, Louis XVI, like the others, much admired Marie’s physical charms and her character, and Louis would become a thoroughly devoted husband, but in her early years in France he was little comfort to her.
Pushed by her mother’s letters, Marie still sought out Louis. Yet, to add to Antoinette’s frustration, even when she could achieve intimacy with him, Louis was unable to achieve erection. So, Antoinette and Louis were unable to have sex and their marriage went unconsummated for seven years. It took the intervention of the Queen’s oldest brother, emperor Joseph of Austria, in a heart to heart meeting with Louis in 1777, to convince him to have the needed operation. Meanwhile, the teenage queen suffered in silence as she was snidely taunted for her inability to produce an heir to the throne.
Beyond her personal frustrations with her husband, Marie Antoinette was bored with her position and its duties. The days of the young princess and then queen were spent in endless court rituals and strict etiquette tracing to the days of Louis XIV.
The young queen tired of being constantly on public display with the requirements of her position. She missed the more relaxed environment and freedom of Vienna. Her displeasure and sarcasm directed at the older aunts and members of the high nobility were noticed and commented upon.
Circle of Friends
Marie Antoinette sought escape from her marital frustration and the boredom of court life. Time went by and she began to exercise power as queen, Marie Antoinette spent less time at court, and surrounded herself with a dissolute clique, led by Yolande de Polignac and Thérèse de Lamballe. She lavished expensive gifts and positions upon these friends and in doing so ignored the great houses of the French nobility.
With her young friends, Marie Antoinette threw herself into a life of pleasure and careless extravagance. These included masked balls in Paris, gambling, theatricals and late night promenades in the park. Her circle included the King’s frivolous young brother the Count of Artois, and handsome young courtiers the Duc de Ligne, Counts Dillon, Vaudreuil and Axel Fersen.
The Queen’s indiscretions with her circle of friends led to scandals such as the Diamond Necklace Affair and rumours concerning her relations with that circle including Axel Fersen.
The young queen, with her blonde beauty and style set fashion trends through France and Europe. Her painter Vigee Lebrun commented about the translucent colour of her complexion, her long blonde hair and her well-proportioned and full-bosomed figure. All commented how well she carried herself. Her page Tilly said she walked better than any woman and as you’d offer a woman a chair, you’d offer her a throne.
The queen enjoyed her beauty style, but her fashion fame came at a price. The Queen spent lavishly on her dress and adornments. Each year she exceeded her clothing allowance which the King covered. The excessive fashions for high headdresses, plumes and voluminous dresses were subject to public comment, caricature and on occasion ridicule.
The queen also spent lavishly on her friends as mentioned and on her entertainment including her retreat at Petit Trianon. This small palace adjoining Versailles was given to Marie by Louis XVI. There she arranged extensive interior decorations and building of a theatre for her theatricals and the Temple of Love in the park.
Marie also had built a rustic Viennese retreat called the hameau. Here, she played at being at being a simple milkmaid. To add to the fun, Sevres porcelain bowls were cast using Marie Antoinette’s own ample breasts as their mould (as was said to have had been done in the case of Helen of Troy). The hameau was stocked with perfumed sheep and goats, but the actual milking and chores were done by servants.
Anger at the Queen
By the late 1780s, envy and hatred of Marie Antoinette were widespread. Many at court had always opposed the Austrian alliance, and had resented her efforts to intercede on occasion for Austrian causes.
The king’s brother the Count of Provence and his cousin the Count of Orleans both thought they were more capable than Louis XVI. They were jealous both of Louis’s kingship and his marriage to the beautiful Marie Antoinette.
Many others among the nobility were envious of the Queen and insulted by her dismissal of court etiquette, preference for her small court circle and the patronage she wielded on their behalf. Thus, disaffected members of the nobility became fertile sources for dirt on the queen. They fabricated and circulated scurrilous stories about the Queen and her private life. Stories accused of all sort of sexual acts with men and women of the court, of sending funds to Austria, and challenged the paternity of the royal children.
Diamond Necklace Affair
By the mid 1780s tales of the queen’s extravagance, dissipation and sexual vice abounded. It was at this point that the Diamond Necklace Affair became the sensation, grabbing the attention of the entire nation.
The affair fused three disparate situation, united by widely held beliefs in the loose morals of Marie Antoinette. For years an impoverished scion of past Valois nobility, Madame Lamotte schemed to gain a position at court. At the same time, socially prominent Prince de Rohan, the Cardinal of France was unhappy over his years of exclusion from Marie Antoinette’s inner circle, and the jeweller Boehmer was unable to convince Marie Antoinette to buy a fabulously expensive diamond necklace originally made for Louis XV’s lover Madame du Barry.
Lamotte was a full figured attractive woman who caught the attention of both men, and was able to convince them she was a lesbian lover of Marie Antoinette. Lamotte convinced Rohan that the Queen indeed wanted the necklace and Rohan obtained it from Boehmer and gave it to Lamotte after meeting a prostitute dressed as Marie Antoinette at a late night rendezvous near the Temple of Love, where the Queen was said to hold lovers’ trysts with others.
When Boehmer approached the Queen for payment (just as she was preparing for to play a role in a banned Beaumarchais play Le Figaro), the charade unravelled. When they learned the basic facts of the affair, both king and queen were enraged that Rohan would think that the queen would use a go-between to obtain a necklace.
Necklace Trial and Impact
Royal pique proved disastrous. The cardinal, highest churchman in France, was arrested on the Day of Assumption in the middle of the entire court. Next the Queen demanded public vindication, so the king obtained a trial before the Parlement of Paris.
The trial proved a sensation for months, with the dirty laundry of the monarchy paraded before all France. The cast included the highest nobles, charlatans, a prostitute who looked like the Queen, and above all the fabulous diamond necklace and the Queen herself despite never being called as witness. In the end, the nobility displayed their defiance before the entire nation in the Diamond Necklace Affair with their acquittal of Prince de Rohan on the charge of insulting the queen. The ruling of the Parlement of Nobles effectively said that at the least, given her reputation, the queen was worthy of such insult. Rohan could reasonably believe Marie Antoinette would use him as a go-between and in the end exchange her sexual favours for a diamond necklace.
When the not guilty verdict was announced in the crowded Paris opera house an enormous roar went up and all eyes turned to the royal box. A shocked Marie Antoinette hastily departed for her coach, amid the crowd’s hoots.
The court did convict the less well connected Lamotte, and she was branded on her breasts and imprisoned. But her husband had escaped to England and she escaped prison. She exacted her revenge by concocting and circulating a tale that she was indeed the queen’s lesbian lover, that the queen was insatiable in her desires and that the queen got the necklace and the affair was all for her amusement. As fabulous as her story was, it circulated in the thousands and was widely believed. So much so that had she not died in 1793, Lamotte might well have testified against Marie at her trial.
Madame Deficit and Financial Crisis
Ironically, as the Diamond Necklace Affair erupted and the Queen’s popularity sank to its nadir, age and maturity tempered her lifestyle. Louis and Marie were able to have children and Antoinette bore four children. She spent less time with Paris night life and more with her children and family. Though still graceful and attractive, as she passed age thirty, Marie’s increasingly stout figure moved her toward darker colours. Her milliner Madame Bertin used less ostentatious fashion, while still showing Marie’s large bust to fine advantage. Even as she still flirted with men of court and spent much time with Axel Fersen, Louis was increasingly devoted to his handsome wife whom he adored.
While Marie’s personal life was settling down, the state of France was not. France also had bad harvests in the late 1780s and the poor suffered. The Queen was good hearted and kindly and tried to aid the poor of her country. She attended benefits for charity (including the night the Necklace verdict was announced), and used the hameau to aid a number of impoverished families. However, her small acts were hardly noticed amid the suffering. What was remembered was that the queen played at being a milkmaid and shepherdess, at the manicured hameau of Trianon, while real peasants starved. Her perceived insensitivity led many to believe she said “Let them eat cake”, when told of the widespread starvation.
Furthermore, France reeled under huge debts inherited from Louis XV which Louis XVI had been unable to repay. France’s debt was now a crisis, with the final straw being its France’s costly aid from 1778 to 1783 to the American colonies in their War of Independence with Great Britain. To try to revive the Queen’s popularity and rally support for the monarchy portraits were made and exhibited showing the Queen surrounded by her loving children. Yet the obvious royal propaganda backfired as detractors noticing the Queen’s expansive costume, dubbed the pictured heroine, “Madame Deficit”.
It was at this time, amid such increased unpopularity and still reeling from the aftershocks of the Necklace Affair, when Louis XVI most needed support from the nobility. He tried to effect needed reforms through a series of ministers, relying in each instance on advice from his Queen, and then he called an assembly of notables to again try to effect reforms to deal with the financial crisis. Louis was not a forceful king, his wife’s influence was resented and the position of the monarchy weakened.
Estates General – 1789
Tragedy struck Louis and Marie in 1789. Their oldest son and heir, the dauphin, was dying of a crippling, agonizing hereditary disease and would die in June. Besides her miscarriages, this was the second child dead; their second daughter had died in 1786. And now amid this grief, the couple faced the crisis that now threatened their rule, which would bring still further tragedies to this family.
Unable to force the nobility to make needed financial reforms, the desperate king called the Estates General in May 1789. This was the first time in 175 years it was called. But it was unique because it gave representation to common men, as one of the three estates able to vote. Louis did this to try to gain the support of the common people (third estate) to force needed reforms.
The Estate General did not begin auspiciously as the Queen’s appearance was met first by silence and then call Vive Duc Orleans – her scorned suitor and hated foe. This rebelliousness was a sign of what was to follow. The common people were not content with the limited role of the third estate Louis envisioned. The genie was now out of the bottle. The third estate declared itself the national assembly and in the Tennis Court Oath said it would not adjourn until France had a constitution.
Fall of the Bastille
Louis lacked the will to quell this rebellion but was repeatedly lobbied to take action by Marie Antoinette. The queen strongly desired to preserve absolute monarchy and was firm in her opposition to reforms that would give greater power to the common people.
However, with a taste of success, the common people did not want to see the third estate suppressed. In July, a mob of commoners seized the Invalides and obtained a supply of fire arms. The next effort was to obtain powder so they could defend the assembly as needed. For this effort the mob attacked a great symbol of absolute monarchy, the ancient and famous Bastille prison and fortress that loomed in the centre of Paris.
Louis failed to take prompt action and the mob succeeded in taking the Bastille. The governor of the Bastille who resisted and threatened to blow up the gun powder was hacked to death by the mob his head sported on pikes for all to see. The crowd had arms and ammunition. Lawlessness had occurred and no royal action had been taken in response. Louis went to Paris to restore calm but no actions were taken against those who stormed the Bastille.
The Great Fear
The storming of the Bastille greatly disturbed a number of nobles who knew the poverty of the common people and feared vengeance if royal power was inadequate to check mob impulses. Leading members of the royal court, including close friends of Marie Antoinette fled the country. These included in July and August the Count of Artois and Madame Polignac and in October her close friend and portraitist Vigee Lebrun.
The royal court at Versailles was just 20 miles from the raging cauldron of Paris. Marie Antoinette too feared the Paris mob and counselled Louis to repair to the country so he could quell rebellion from afar, but Louis would not leave Versailles.
The Queen was successful in convincing Louis to increase troops from the provinces, which they hoped would be loyal to the crown. Marie’s actions did not go unnoticed. Her proud bearing and perceived arrogance made her the prime target for vilification by the revolutionaries. Despite Antoinette’s efforts, the king was reluctant to confront the assembly after new troops were called in, but Louis would not fire on his own people. In the summer period called the “Great Fear” peasants revolted through the countryside in fear that the king under pressure from the queen and her “Austrian committee” would put down revolution. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published renouncing noble titles, the people further asserting their position seeking equal rights against reassertion of absolute monarchy.
March of Women
On October 1 1789, a great banquet for the royal guards was held at Versailles, where royal and Austrian banners were cheered and toasts made to king and queen in attendance while the tricolour cockade of the French people was trod under foot. Tales of the banquet and “orgies” spread to the Paris slums where a new bread shortage was looming.
Parisians said enough is enough and on October 4, a great mob collected to demand bread from the king. The next day the mob mainly of Parisian women marched thought the driving rain to Versailles to put an end to orgies and demand bread. Many brandished knives and swore to use them to “cut the pretty throat of the Austrian” who was the source of all their problems. “How glad I’d be to put this blade into her belly up to my elbow.” Others vowed to cut different “pieces of Antoinette”.
On reaching Versailles, they met with the assembly and had a brief audience with the king. Again, the Queen had wished to flee at their advance, but Louis would neither depart nor fire on the women. That night the mob (perhaps aided by agents of the Duke of Orleans) found an unguarded entrance and was directed straight to the apartments of the sleeping queen. As they hurled their imprecations to “kill the Austrian whore”, the Queen’s two guards gave their lives to save her, as Madame Campan and her other maids hastily gathered some clothes and underwear, and Marie Antoinette ran from her bed literally “half naked” (by some accounts) to narrowly elude her attackers. They later ripped the Queen’s bed to pieces.
Installation at Tuileries
The Queen had escaped with her life, but the mob was not satisfied. They later demanded that king and queen appear on the balcony before them and then that the monarchs return with them to Paris. And so, Louis and Marie left Versailles to be installed in the dusty unused Tuileries palace in Paris. Marie Antoinette would never again see her beloved Petit Trianon. From then on, the king and queen would be under the close scrutiny of the common citizens of Paris and vulnerable to attack from them. For king and queen were acutely aware that the move to Paris was not of their choosing but they were powerless to overrule the dictate of the mob.
In 1790 and 1791, the revolution seemed to have stabilized. However, the seeds for future discord and for a more violent revolution were already being sown. The emboldened assembly gave broad rights to the people, at the expense of the nobles and clergy. Many of the reforms were voted into law over the king’s veto. Louis was particularly anxious over the civil oath now required of Roman Catholic clergy.
Flight to Varennes
Many nobles had fled France, and Marie Antoinette feared for her safety and royal authority. She conspired with these émigrés and sought aid from other European rulers including her brother, the Austrian Emperor. After the death of the leading moderate politician, Conte Mirabeau in 1791, and further actions of the Assembly infringing the authority of Roman Catholic clergy, Marie convinced the reluctant Louis to flee France.
The queen’s friend and rumoured lover Axel Fersen from his own pocket arranged the needed coach, assumed identity papers and escape plans. The royal couple with their children all disguised as common travellers, escaped from Paris. The king and queen had insisted that they travel with all needed comforts, so their coach was lumbering and slow. It required extra horses and changes and attracted attention.
At one change an alert patriot noticed an attractive but familiar woman who issued orders though dressed as a maid. He thought he recognized the queen and from a gold piece given as a tip recognized the king. This patriot Jacques Drouet sped ahead and reached the small town Varennes and alerted the people who confronted the king and queen on arrival. They had travelled over 200 miles and were just near the French-Austrian border and loyal troops ready to rescue them. But the rescue did not occur. A humiliated king and queen were forced to return to Paris over dusty roads over the course of the next four days. Frenchmen came from near and far to gaze and glare at the famous captives, on several occasions almost assaulting them. Later members of the assembly arrived and crowded into the coach with them.
When they arrived in Paris they met complete silence with all men keeping on their hats and no salutes or other sign of deference to the king. The weary travellers were caked in dust and sweat. As Campan drew the bath for Marie Antoinette, and Queen removed her hat and veil, both noticed the Queen’s blonde hair was now completely white from the fright and torment of the journey.
Downfall of Monarchy
After the disastrous flight to Varennes, Marie Antoinette at first worked with constitutional monarchist Barnave to try to restore royal prestige. However, hatred of the queen now rose to new levels.
Marie Antoinette began anew to seek aid from abroad to intervene in France and restore royal authority. Austria and Prussia threatened France on behalf of the royal family and France declared war on those powers in April 1792, again over the king’s veto. In June, the Tuileries palace was invaded and sacked by a mob, the king and queen held up to ridicule and humiliation but not otherwise harmed. At the same time, calls for volunteers arose under the cry “Patrie en Danger”, as Frenchmen were called to repel the invaders.
In July 1792, as Prussian armies invaded France, the Duke of Brunswick threatened the people of Paris that if any harm came to persons of the king or queen, serious vengeance would be exacted by the invaders on France. The proclamation was made public and caused a sensation in the country.
On August 10, 1792, the Tuileries palace was stormed by the populace, who sought refuge in the Assembly. The king and queen and their family were installed in the tiny reporter’s box, amid stifling heat, glares and heckling of the crowd. In that cage, they heard the reports of the fall of the Tuileries and massacre of the 900 Swiss guards who had stayed to defend them. They watched as treasures from the Tuileries were piled on the speaker’s desk including papers, jewels, precious objects of the royal family. They listened to the debates which voted to suspend and then end the monarchy. A Republic declared and the royal family imprisoned in the Temple fortress.
Reign of Terror
Other aristocrats were imprisoned at this same time. As the fortunes of French armies in the field waned the cry went up to kill traitors in their midst. Hundreds of aristocrats were massacred in the prisons in September 1792. The most famous victim was Madame Lamballe, close friend of Marie Antoinette who had returned to Paris to aid her in time of peril. Lamballe was summoned before a tribunal and when she failed to swear an oath against the queen, she was hacked to death by the mob, her head, breasts and genitals severed and mounted on pikes, and paraded before the Queen’s window in the Temple. The Reign of Terror had now begun.
The royal family was under close guard and now shorn of all their finery and servants and forced to live simply in the confines of the Temple fortress. But their peace was not to last.
In December 1792, King Louis XVI was summoned before the National Convention and tried for treason. He was convicted and on a close vote sentenced to death. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine. In the two years that followed thousands more would be tried before revolutionary tribunals and similarly executed on the guillotine.
The Queen’s Fate
After her husband’s death, in July 1793, Marie Antoinette’s son was forcibly taken from her. The poor woman begged that her son be allowed to stay but she was powerless to change the will of the ministers. The boy was put under the care of Simon, a cobbler and one of the Commissaires of the Commune, and died of neglect within two years.
In September 1793, Marie Antoinette was separated from her daughter and sister in law. Now called “Widow Capet”, Marie was transferred to months of solitary confinement in the dank Conciergerie prison, where she was under twenty-four hour guard by revolutionaries who from behind their screen watched her every move. The Conciergerie prison was the antechamber to death. In this dank prison, she lost much weight and her eyesight began to fail, but she did not have long to live.
On October 14, the poor pallid woman was awoken at night and faced the Revolutionary Tribunal. The trial was a horror, with the Queen attacked more as a person than as a queen. Her own son was forced to testify that she abused him. The queen bravely replied to all charges and to this she said, “If I make no reply, it is because I cannot, I appeal to all mothers in this audience.”
Despite her eloquence, the verdict was never in doubt. Like the king, Marie was found guilty.
When she rode to her death on October 16, 1793, many gasped … for Marie Antoinette was just 38, but the crowd saw (as artist David sketched) an old hag in peasant garb, ragged and grey – a stark contrast to elegant and voluptuous Queen of Trianon, the child of fortune, she had been just 4 years earlier. Marie Antoinette’s hair had been roughly shorn, her with hands tied tight behind her back, as she rode in the garbage cart amid the crowd’s whistles and jeers. Yet, the poor woman sat straight and tried to retain her dignity. To the end, Marie Antoinette displayed a queen’s bearing and courage, in the face of all adversity.
After her final ordeal, the body of Marie Antoinette was harshly pushed on to the guillotine plank, her head placed in the vice and at noon the blade fell to loud cheers all round. In the words of a revolutionary organ, “Never has Piere Duchesne seen such joy as seeing that [expletive] whore’s head separated from her [expletive] crain’s neck”. Sanson held her bleeding head high for all to see. Later her head was throne in the cart between her legs. The body of Marie Antoinette was left on the grass before being dumped in an unmarked grave. So ended the life of once the most illustrious and glamorous woman in all Europe.