Marie Antoinette is a name synonymous with luxury and indifference. It is a name that is known worldwide, in some capacity or another. The young queen of Versailles, receiving her crown at just nineteen years old, would become one of the most infamous royals that France would ever know. But who was the woman behind the crown? Was she more than the fickle, vain woman she was painted to be? Her life could be described as a fairytale that ended in tragedy, a queen once adored by her people, succumbing to death by their hands.
The Early Life of Marie Antoinette
Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1755. She was the fifteenth child of Maria Theresa, the Habsburg Empress, and Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I. Her childhood was one of relative happiness and indulgence. Her education was conventional for an 18th century aristocratic girl. It mainly concentrated on religion and morality. During this time, European monarchies were suffering from instability and potential weakness. Maria Theresa had made it her life’s work to attach her children to prominent marriages, and saw great potential in Marie Antoinette. With the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the alliance between France and Austria was left flimsy. Therefore, the resealing of this alliance became a priority for the Habsburg Empress.
In 1765, the dauphin of France, Louis Ferdinand, son of king Louis XV, died. His death left his eleven-year-old son, the king’s grandson, Louis Auguste, the heir to the French throne. Maria Theresa now saw an opportunity to cement the alliance between France and Austria. In 1766, she promised her young daughters’ hand in marriage to the future king Louis XVI of France. Four years later, Marie Antoinette and the new dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, were married by proxy in Vienna. They were fifteen and sixteen years old and had never met.
Preparing For Marriage
In 1768, the King of France sent a tutor to Austria to educate his grandson’s future spouse. The tutor found Marie Antoinette to be a lazy and empty-headed student. She was more concerned with trivial matters than her studies. He noted that she was more intelligent than originally thought, but was still difficult to teach. At this time, Marie Antoinette was fourteen years old. She was described as elegant and pretty, with ashy blonde hair and gray-ish blue eyes. In May, 1770, she left Vienna for France, escorted by 57 carriages, 117 footmen and 376 horses. On the 16th of May, a lavish wedding ceremony was held in the royal chapel of Versailles. More than 5,000 guests gathered to watch the two teenagers become husband and wife. It marked the beginning of Marie’s life in the public eye.
Life at Versailles
Marie Antoinette’s life in the public spotlight was not an easy one. Her marriage to Louis was difficult. She had very few official duties and responsibilities to attend to, so the majority of her time was spent socializing and satisfying her expensive tastes. Her frequent letters home to her mother acknowledged her severe homesickness. She also fumed over the customs she was expected to live by as a lady of the French court. For example, the formality of painting her face in front of dozens of courtiers. “I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world” (biography.com). In 1744, king Louis XV passed away, and Louis Auguste succeeded him to the French throne as Louis XVI. This meant that Marie Antoinette became the queen of France, at just nineteen years old.
Married Life as Royals
As people, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI could not have been more different. Louis was an extremely introverted character, shy and hesitant. He preferred solitary pursuits such as metalwork and reading. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, was outgoing and charismatic; a social butterfly who loved partying, gambling and flamboyant fashion. Where the king preferred to retire to bed early, the queen was just getting started on a night of revelry and entertainment. She would often sleep in until noon, whilst Louis would be up early. He would be hard at work hours before her. Once, Louis attempted to use his love of craftsmanship to reach out to his wife. He made her a spinning wheel, a nod to her love of fashion. Marie thanked him politely for his gift and then gave it away to one of her attendants.
The Royal Bedroom
Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were essentially children when they were wed. It is not surprising, therefore, that nothing much happened in the bedroom between them upon their marriage. However, one of the key reasons for royal marriages was to produce heirs, and this quickly caused a problem. For the king and queen of France, their celibacy continued from their wedding night for seven long years. This distressed not only members of the royal court, but also became a political liability for Louis. Eventually, Marie Antoinette’s mother sent her brother Joseph to Versailles to investigate the problem. He referred to the two young royals as ‘complete blunderers’ and could not find a good explanation for why no heir had yet been produced, except for, perhaps, a lack of education.
Joseph proceeded to have a talk with the king and queen, which finally yielded results. The couple sent him a letter offering their gratitude upon his return to Vienna. Following this, they produced four heirs in quick succession. In 1778, their first child was born, a daughter, named for her grandmother, Marie Therese. The heir to the French throne followed in 1781, a son named Louis Joseph. Marie Antoinette was a doting mother, although she rarely took care of their daily routines, due to strict royal protocol. Their third child, Louis Charles, was born in 1785, while their youngest daughter, Sophie, was born the following year.
Le Petit Trianon
In 1780, Marie Antoinette began to spend more and more time away from the main Palace, at the Petit Trianon. This was a mini-chateau on the palace grounds that Marie claimed as her own private space. She had artificial rivers, a rotunda and an array of rustic cottages installed within the complex. The decor was extremely lavish, with silk hangings, fine china and luxury furniture worth up to two million francs adorning the retreat. Rumors began to spread among the French about why the queen chose to spend her time there, away from the king. She was accused of hosting obscene parties and entertaining other men. One rumor persisted surrounding a Swedish diplomat, Axel von Fersen. He was believed to be the queen’s consort, and the only man she ever loved.
Marie Antoinette and the people of France
When she first came to Versailles, Marie Antoinette was adored by the people of France. But that quickly began to change when the nation fell into debt and word of the young queen’s extravagant tastes continued to spread. Colonial wars at the time, particularly the American Revolution in which the French had participated, had left the state in huge financial debt. During the 1780’s, pamphlets and newspapers began to accuse the queen of ignorance, excess and adultery. The publications included indecent cartoons and bestowed Marie Antoinette with multiple nicknames, such as Madame Deficit, or Madame Veto. The queen refused to let public criticism alter her behaviour and continued with her lavish lifestyle in the comfort of Versailles.
‘Let Them Eat Cake’
Marie Antoinette is probably best known for uttering the phrase, “Let them eat cake”, in response to the news that French people could not afford to eat bread. The cost of grain had sky rocketed, and as a result bread was an expense that many people just could not afford. However, according to historians, Marie Antoinette was never actually responsible for that saying. It has been attributed to a number of other monarchs, most notably, a Spanish princess married to King Louis XIV. Marie Antoinette may have been painted as a callous, extravagant queen, but she also gave generously to charitable causes and displayed respect and sensitivity to the poor population of France.
The Beginning of a Revolution
While the king and queen were essentially ignoring the state’s financial troubles, the people of France were becoming more and more outraged. In 1789, Louis sent troops to Versailles and Paris, which led people to believe that he was attempting to dissolve the National Assembly. In an angered response, 900 Frenchmen stormed the Bastille prison in Paris. Hundreds of weapons and munitions were stolen, but the attack was meant as much more than a gathering of arms. It was a message to the monarchy that the people were ready to take them on, they had had enough. The Bastille was a fortress, a symbol of the monarchy’s power. By hijacking the prison, it showed how weak the monarchy really was.
The attack on the Bastille Prison on July 14th, 1789, is widely considered to be the start of the French Revolution. By October of that year, the number of French revolutionaries had swelled into the thousands. On the 6th of October, a mob of Parisian women protesting the price of bread marched to Versaille. They were joined along the way by a sympathetic crowd, including armed men, ballooning their numbers to around ten thousand. The mob stormed the palace and eventually captured the king and queen. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were forced to march back to Paris, in a procession led by the heads of their dead bodyguards impaled on spikes.
Planning an Escape
Marie Antoinette and her consort, Count Axel Von Fersen, began to hatch a plan to escape the imprisonment the royal court now found themselves in. In June, 1791, the royal family attempted to flee from Paris and headed for the Austrian border. There were rumors that the queen’s brother, now the Holy Roman Emperor, was waiting there with troops. They planned to overthrow the new revolutionary government and restore power to the monarchy and King Louis XVI. However, Marie Antoinette and the rest of her fleeing party never made it that far. They were captured quickly and returned to Paris. This incident proved to many that the queen was not just an outsider, she was a traitor.
The Revolt Continues
Upon their recapture, Louis XVI agreed to endorse a new constitution in exchange for keeping his symbolic power and the throne. However, many revolutionaries continued to argue that the monarchy itself was corrupt. The new revolutionary government decided to test the loyalties of the king and queen in 1792, and declared war on Austria. The French army at the time was a mess, and as a result, the war did not go well. The majority of the blame for this fell at the feet of Austrian-born Marie Antoinette. In August, another mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, dethroned the king and queen and locked the family in the prison tower. What followed were months of massacres, targeting royalist prisoners and friends of the monarchy in their thousands.
In December 1792, King Louis XVI found himself on trial for treason. The court hastily issued a guilty verdict and he was executed by guillotine in January, 1793. The campaign against Marie Antoinette continued to grow, even after her husband’s death. In July, 1793, her son confessed to false allegations that she had sexually abused him before a revolutionary tribunal under constraint. She lost custody of her children and was charged with another conviction alongside high treason. In October, 1793, Marie Antoinette stood trial. She was quickly convicted of high treason and was sentenced to death by guillotine. She was 37 years old.
Marie Antoinette remains one of the most iconic figures in French history. Both beloved and hated, she was a woman of great strength, courage and determination. Drawn to the finer things in life, she loved everything in excess, which ultimately ended in her destruction. As an Austrian princess by birth, she was perhaps unable to fully grasp the reality of the dire situation in France that led to its revolution. Her life is one that continues to attract fascination, and as the last royal queen of France, she has left a compelling legacy behind.