Born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria, Marie Antoinette helped provoke the popular unrest that led to the French Revolution and to the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792. She became a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy and is often credited with the famous quote "Let them eat cake," although there is no evidence she actually said it. As consort to Louis XVI, she was beheaded nine months after he was, on October 16, 1793, by order of the Revolutionary tribunal. She was 37 years old.
Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, was born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She was the 15th and second to last child of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Marie Antoinette lived a relatively carefree childhood. She received an education typical of an 18th century aristocratic girl, focusing primarily on religious and moral principles, while her brothers studied more academic subject matter.
With the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the preservation of a fragile alliance between Austria and France became a priority for Empress Maria Theresa; cementing alliances through matrimonial connections was a common practice among European royal families at the time. In 1765, Louis, dauphin de France (also known as Louis Ferdinand), the son of French monarch Louis XV, died. His death left the king's 11-year-old grandson, Louis-Auguste, heir to the French throne. Within months, Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste were pledged to marry each other.
Marriage to Louis-Auguste
In 1768, Louis XV dispatched a tutor to Austria to instruct his grandson's future wife. The tutor found Marie Antoinette "more intelligent than has been generally supposed," but added that since "she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach." Marie Antoinette was a child of only 14 years, delicately beautiful, with gray-blue eyes and ash-blonde hair. In May 1770, she set out for France to be married, escorted by 57 carriages, 117 footmen and 376 horses.
Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste were married on May 16, 1770. The young woman did not adjust well, however, to a married life for which she was obviously not ready, and her frequent letters home revealed intense homesickness. "Madame, my very dear mother," she wrote in one letter, "I have not received one of your dear letters without having the tears come to my eyes." She also bristled at some of the rituals she was expected to perform as a lady of the French royal family. "I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world," she complained, referring to a ritual in which she was required to put on her makeup in front of dozens of courtiers.
Queen of France
Louis XV died in 1774, and Louis-Auguste succeeded him to the French throne as Louis XVI, making Marie Antoinette, at 19 years old, queen of France. The personalities of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette could not have been more different. He was introverted, shy and indecisive, a lover of solitary pleasures such as reading and metalwork; she was vivacious, outgoing and bold, a social butterfly who loved gambling, partying and extravagant fashions.
When the king went to bed before midnight, Marie Antoinette's nights of partying and carousing had yet to begin. When she woke up just before noon, he had been at work for hours. When word reached Empress Maria Theresa in 1777 that her daughter and Louis XVI had not yet consummated their marriage, Maria Theresa immediately dispatched her son, Joseph II, Marie Antoinette's older brother, to France to act as a sort of marriage counselor. Whatever his counsels, they apparently worked. A year later, Marie Antoinette gave birth to a daughter, Marie Therese Charlotte.
Beginning in 1780, Marie Antoinette began spending more and more time at the Petit Trianon, her private castle on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, almost always without the king. Around this time the first rumors surfaced about her relationship with Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen. During the 1780s, with the French government sliding into financial turmoil and poor harvests driving up grain prices across the country, Marie Antoinette's fabulously extravagant lifestyle increasingly became the subject of popular ire. Countless pamphlets accused the queen of ignorance, extravagance and adultery, some featuring salacious cartoons and others dubbing her "Madame Deficit."
In 1785, an infamous diamond-necklace scandal permanently tarnished the queen's reputation. A thief posing as Marie Antoinette had obtained a 647-diamond necklace and smuggled it to London to be sold off in pieces. Though Marie Antoinette was innocent of any involvement, she was nevertheless guilty in the eyes of the people. Refusing to let public criticism alter her behavior, in 1786 Marie Antoinette began building the Hameau de la Reine, an extravagant retreat near the Petit Trianon in Versailles.
On July 14, 1789, 900 French workers and peasants stormed the Bastille prison to take arms and ammunition, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. On October 6 of that year, a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered outside the Palace of Versailles and demanded that the king and queen be brought to Paris. At the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the always indecisive Louis XVI acted almost paralyzed, and Marie Antoinette immediately stepped into his place, meeting with advisers and ambassadors and dispatching urgent letters to other European rulers, begging them to help save France's monarchy.
In a plot hatched primarily by Marie Antoinette and her lover, Count Axel von Fersen, the royal family attempted to escape France in June 1791, but they were captured and returned to Paris. In September of that year, King Louis XVI agreed to uphold a new constitution drafted by the Constituent National Assembly in return for keeping at least his symbolic power.
However, in the summer of 1792, with France at war with Austria and Prussia, the increasingly powerful radical Jacobin leader Maximilien de Robespierre called for the removal of the king. In September 1792, after a month of terrible massacres in Paris, the National Convention abolished the monarchy, declared the establishment of a French Republic, and arrested the king and queen.
Death and Legacy
In January 1793, the radical new republic placed King Louis XVI on trial, convicted him of treason and condemned him to death. On January 21, 1793, he was dragged to the guillotine and executed. In October of that year, a month into the infamous and bloody Reign of Terror that claimed tens of thousands of French lives, Marie Antoinette was put on trial for treason and theft, as well as a false and disturbing charge of sexual abuse against her own son.
After the two-day trial, an all-male jury found Marie Antoinette guilty on all charges. Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine, as her husband had been several months before, on October 16, 1793. On the night before her execution, she had written her last letter to her sister-in-law, Elisabeth. "I am calm," the queen wrote, "as people are whose conscience is clear." Then, in the moments before her execution, when the priest who was present told her to have courage, Marie Antoinette responded, "Courage? The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me."
Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, has been both vilified as the personification of the evils of monarchy and exalted as a pinnacle of fashion and beauty. Marie Antoinette the villain is perhaps best captured by the famous, although almost certainly apocryphal, story that, upon hearing that the people had no bread to eat, she remarked, "Let them eat cake." Marie Antoinette the heroine is reflected in the obsessive scholarship on her choices in wardrobe and jewelry, and the endless speculation about her extramarital love life. Both of these takes on Marie Antoinette's character demonstrate the tendency, as prevalent today as it was in her own time, to depict her life and death as symbolic of the downfall of European monarchies in the face of global revolution.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, predicting the way Marie Antoinette would be viewed by posterity, "I have ever believed that if there had been no Queen, there would have been no revolution."
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