Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette was solely blamed for bankrupting France with her extravagance and executed during the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).
Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna on 2 November 1755 at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. She was the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa. She was promised in marriage with Louis XV’s grandson, the Dauphin Louis Auguste as part of a major diplomatic alliance.

Madame La Dauphine

Maria Antonia aged 12
Maria Antonia aged 12

She was first welcomed in France when she arrived at Versailles on 16 May 1770. The marriage ceremony was held later that day in the Royal Chapel, followed by a grand reception in the Galleries des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) for over six thousand guests, then a wedding feast at the Opera House.

The bridal couple were prepared for bed in a very public but humiliating ritual, but nothing happened. Rumours began circulating he was impotent.

Marie Therese blamed her daughter for failing to inspire “sexual passion” in her husband but her nagging letters did nothing to ease the problem. Marie Antoinette was unable to consolidate her position until she produced an heir.

Louis XV died from smallpox in 1774, leaving his grandson with a huge national debt, after a succession of wars.

Queen of France

However, Marie Antoinette’s popularity faded and she was blamed for the floundering economy and France’s troubles. She was vilified for having lesbian affairs with her favourites, infidelity with a Swedish nobleman Count Axel Fersen, and even incest with her brother-in-law.

King Louis XVI
King Louis XVI

She pursued an active social life including masked balls, plays, the opera in Paris, race meetings, gambling and hunting parties. She also spent a fortune on diamonds, clothes and lavish gifts for her favourites. Antonia Fraser argues Marie Antoinette was no more extravagant than other members of the French royal family.

France’s economy was plunged deeper into debt when Louis became increasingly involved in the American War. The French were determined not to allow the British to win, so they signed a military alliance in 1778, sending 8,000 soldiers.

Emperor Joseph II paid an informal visit to the French court, determined to save his sister’s marriage. His mission was a success as Marie Antoinette was soon pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Marie Thérèse, on 19 December 1778.

Three years later she finally produced the long-awaited heir, Louis Joseph, on 22 October 1781. Their third child, Louis Charles, was born on 27 March 1785. Their fourth child, Sophie Hélène Béatrice, was born on 9 July 1786 but she died eleven months later.

Marie Antoinette was devoted to her children, especially her sickly eldest son.

She attempted to cut back on expenditure but it was too late. Marie Antoinette became the most hated woman as the popular press maintained she single-handedly reduced France to poverty. Bread prices rose in 1788, after a harsh winter, with riots in Paris the following year.

Reforms And Revolution

Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph
Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph

The Estates General met at Versailles and called for urgent reforms including a constitutional monarchy.

Meanwhile Marie Antoinette was concerned for her eldest son’s health as he was a sickly child. Both she and Louis XVI deeply mourned his loss when he passed away in June 1789.

The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Three months later, the mob marched on Versailles and forced to the royal family to move into the run-down Tuileries Palace in Paris. Louis XVI failed to understand the danger, but Marie Antoinette realised as she supported her husband, as their freedoms were gradually curtailed.

She desperately lobbied Austria to save her family. Unfortunately, Joseph II was dead and her brother, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, refused to intervene in French internal affairs. Marie Antoinette was regarded a diplomatic failure.

Louis, now a constitutional monarchy, was forced to declare war on Austria in April 1792.

Seven-year-old Louis-Charles in 1792, portrait by Alexander Kucharsky
Seven-year-old Louis-Charles in 1792

The royal family were later imprisoned in the Tower of the Temple to await their fate. Marie Antoinette was devastated when Louis Charles was taken from his mother’s care. His gaolers and tormentors forced the child to accuse Marie Antoinette of sexual abuse. She was moved to the Conciergerie, another prison.

Louis was stripped of his remaining powers by the fanatically anti-royalist Commune and declared a private citizen, ‘Louis Capet’. He was sentenced to death and executed on 21 January 1793.

Her trial began on 14 October but the guilty verdict was decided before it even began. She had aged considerably but she remained dignified as she resolutely denied all the ridiculous charges of lesbianism, drunken orgies and sexual abuse. She was condemned to death by guillotine and was executed on 16 October 1793 at the Place de la Révolution, Paris.

Sources

Boyer, Marie-France, The Private Realm of Marie Antoinette, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1995, First Paperback Edition, 2006

Cadbury, Deborah, The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette’s Favourite Son, Fourth Estate, London, 2002, [Australian edition 2003]

Cronin, Vincent, Louis and Antoinette, The Harvill Press, London, 1996

Erickson, Carolly, To The Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, Robson Books, London, 1992

Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Phoenix Press, London, 2002

Gold, Claudia, Queen, Empress, Concubine: Fifty Women Rulers from the Queen of Sheba to Catherine the Great, Quercus, London, 2008

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 27 November 2010.

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