Marie Antoinette has been portrayed as the spendthrift wife who meddled in the political affairs of her weak-willed husband, Louis XVI. But she was also a devoted mother to her four children, who provided emotional solace for the troubled queen.
The French Revolution would tear France — and Marie’s family — apart, leading to the deaths of Louis, Marie and their son, and leave their sole surviving child to cope with the trauma and tragedy of family’s fate.
Watch the PBS Special Marie Antoinette, the Oscar-winning film Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst, or the documentary The Secret Versailles of Marie Antoinette.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette struggled to start a family
The 15th of 16 children born to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Marie was betrothed to the heir to the French throne while still a child. The couple wed in 1770 when she was just 14 and Louis just 15.
The newlyweds both knew that Marie’s primary duty as a wife was to produce a male heir. But the marriage went unconsummated for several years, due to either a physical issue on Louis’ part or a psychological one. Royal courts were notoriously gossipy, none more-so than intrigue-filled Versailles, and Marie and Louis were harangued with advice and criticism about their supposed biological “failure” — with Marie’s brother dispatched to give the young king some step-by-step sexual advice.
It wasn’t until 1778, four years after they had assumed the French throne, that their first child was born. While she was not the hoped-for son, Marie Therese provided much-needed emotional support for her mother, whose seemingly frivolous appearance and spending masked deep loneliness and insecurities.
Marie Antoinette was a doting mother
In 1781, Marie gave birth to Louis Joseph, who became his father’s heir, a role known as the “dauphin.” Marie was devoted to her children, although she was often prevented from handling their day-to-day care due to strict royal protocol. When she could, she retreated with her children to Petite Trianon, a small chateau at Versailles that Louis had given her.
Dressed in more modest clothes, Marie created an idyllic (and expensive) second life, away from both the prying eyes of courtiers and the realities of the growing unpopularity of both Marie and Louis among the French people. While Marie had been a popular princess upon her arrival in France, her spending and capriciousness had become fodder for scandalous rumors about her private life, and the (mistaken) belief that her spending was the ruin of the French economy.
READ MORE: The Human Side of Louix XVI and Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI lost two children before they lost their crowns
Although Louis and Marie were fond of each other (unlike most other royal males, Louis did not take a formal mistress), theirs was no great love match. For Marie, that role was played by Axel von Fersen, a Swedish diplomat. He and Marie likely began their affair after he returned from fighting in the American Revolution. The timing of the birth of Marie’s third child, Louis-Charles, in 1785 set tongues wagging throughout France, as many surmised that he was von Fersen’s son. The following year, she gave birth to her last child, daughter Sophie.
Tragedy struck less than a year later, when Sophie, who had been born prematurely, died. In the summer of 1789, Marie and Louis were devastated when heir Louis Joseph died, aged just seven. A bright but sickly child, he likely died from tuberculosis of the spine. His grief-stricken parents had little time to mourn, as the powder keg that would become the French Revolution exploded with the storming of the Bastille just weeks after Louis’ death.
Louis-Charles met a gruesome fate
In late 1789, the royal family was moved from Versailles and placed in captivity in Paris. After a series of failed escape attempts (including one engineering by von Fersen), the monarchy was abolished by the Revolutionary government in 1792. Louis XVI was held separately from his family and was executed in January 1793.
While Marie was initially allowed to remain with her children, authorities soon separated them. Marie, now known as Marie Capet, was kept under strict surveillance (which did not stop her from continuing to plot her escape). Her son, Louis-Charles, was locked in a dark, fetid chamber where he was fed meager rations, prevented from seeing any outside visitors and physically abused by his jailers.
Isolated and scared, the boy began to display signs of emotional instability, likely exacerbated by the false accusation he was forced to give by his jailers that he had been sexually molested by his mother and aunt, Louis XVI’s sister. That false evidence was used during Marie’s trial, a charge his heartbroken mother fiercely denied. Following a grueling two-day trial, Marie was found guilty of crimes against the state and followed her husband to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.
Less than two years later, in June 1795, 10-year-old Louis-Charles died, likely from tuberculosis worsened by his mistreatment. A sympathetic physician smuggled the child’s heart out of the prison following his autopsy, where it set out on a centuries-long odyssey, being passed to royal relations across the continent before finally coming to rest alongside his parents' graves in the church of Saint-Denis in Paris in the 20 century.
There were hundreds of Louis-Charles imposters
Despite the abolition of the French monarchy, royal supporters believed that Louis-Charles had become king following his father’s execution. Rumors quickly spread that the boy had miraculously escaped his captors and that the body of another dead child was used in his place.
Over the next several decades, dozens of people would claim that they were Louis XVII. While most of these claimants were easily dismissed, others presented “evidence” that swayed believers. Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, a German clockmaker, wrote a series of memoirs that proved so convincing that several surviving members of the royal family took up his cause (notably absent was his sole surviving supposed sibling, Marie Therese). When he died in the Netherlands in 1845, his death certificate and gravestone both identified him as Louis XVII.
The Louis XVII escape theory became a cottage industry, with more than 500 books published on the "lost dauphin,” along with a monthly journal launched in the late-19th century. The fate of Louis-Charles even caught the attention of Mark Twain, who included a mention of it in his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn.
Finally, in 2000, conclusive medical evidence put the theory to rest. Scientists used DNA from royal relatives (as well as a lock of Marie’s hair) to conclusively match it to a sample taken from Louis-Charles’ preserved heart, proving once and for all that the doomed-dauphin had not escaped.
Louis and Marie’s sole surviving daughter became Queen of France — for 20 minutes
Marie Therese remained in prison, with little information about her family’s fate, until just before her 17th birthday in December 1795. Released after the end of the Reign of Terror, she was initially sent to her mother’s native Austria.
In 1799, at the insistence of her uncle (who had styled himself Louis XVIII after Louis-Charles’ death), she married his heir, her first cousin Louis, Duc d’Angouléme. It was an unhappy marriage, which was never consummated. The couple spent several years in exile in Great Britain, before returning to France in 1814, when Louis XVIII became king following the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte, in what became known as the Bourbon Restoration.
The tragedies of her life, unsurprisingly, left Marie Therese a suspicious, somewhat embittered woman. She despaired over the litany of imposters who demanded that she recognize them as her brother. She was forced to flee France on several occasions, as the restored Bourbon monarchy’s hold became increasingly tenuous. In 1824, following Louis XVIII’s death, her husband became heir to the throne.
Six years later, during the 1830 Revolution, her husband briefly became King Louis XIX when his father abdicated. Marie became queen — until her husband, in turn, abdicated less than half an hour later, in favor of his nephew. She spent the rest of her life in exile, bouncing between royal courts. She died, aged 72, in October 1851, and was buried next to her husband in what is now Slovenia.