Did history judge too harshly Marie-Antoinette? The last Queen of France is said to have emptied the kingdom’s vaults for her own whims, turned Versailles into a place of royal debauchery, and even disrupted politics at the most powerful court in Europe. But the reality is far more complex than what the free spirit of the so-called ‘glorious’ French Revolution has handed down to our history books. Let’s dig in.
Marie-Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria, was born in 1755 at the Court of Vienna. Fourteen years later, she was already engaged to the dauphin Louis, the future heir of the French crown – a diplomatic wedding aimed at strengthening the alliance between both European powers. But Marie-Antoinette, snatched away from her motherland, despised French etiquette, which was very strict towards the Royalty. An army of courtiers was to follow Louis and Marie-Antoinette around all day-long; they would silently watch the royal couple enjoying its daily 28-course lunch. To cap it off, the gauche and shy Louis did not really insist on matrimonial duty, which added to Marie-Antoinette infinite boredom.
Fortunately for her, she could break her royal monotony among her ladies-in-waiting, especially the Princess of Lamballe, her favorite. With their support, the 19-year-old Queen designed herself a life out of the narrow setting of the French monarchy. She ordered fancy furniture and took care over her appearance. No longer wearing heavy gowns followed by long trains, Marie-Antoinette innovated with lighter, taffeta-made dresses; to guarantee her independence, she claimed freedom of movement. She also freed herself of corsets, and through the scissors of her inventive hairdresser Léonard, had gigantic wigs shooting up from her head – up to 80 centimeters (32 inches) high!
At nighttime, the Queen would desert the sleepy Palace of Versailles to attend a masked ball, incognito in the busy streets of Paris, or simply flee the royal protocol at her private domain, Le Petit Trianon, that King Louis XVI gave to his spouse in 1774. “There, I’m not the Queen anymore” she said with delight. Indeed, her pastimes did not really fit with a royal position: theater, botany, games, music and dancing were Marie-Antoinette’s daily hobbies at Le Petit Trianon. Far from the King’s eyes and the courtiers’ cutting comments, the Queen milked cows, fed sheep with cotton candy – one of them, Montauciel, was an aviation pioneer – and received her most intimate friends.
Obviously, Marie-Antoinette’s eccentricity did not win unanimous support. Rumors started among courtiers and relatives, condemning the Queen’s scandalous attitude. Her own mother castigated her appearance. Her brother dispensed her – embarrassing – matrimonial advice: after seven years of life together, the royal couple had not successfully given the French crown an heir, and it had become a critical government matter. Plus, Marie-Antoinette spent heavily on dresses, buildings, jewels, while the population starved to death. Her romantic relationship with the Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, confirmed by dozens of impassioned letters, turned the Queen into an endless tabloid copy.
Marie-Antoinette was young and carefree; she did neither notice acerbic lampoons passed from hand to hand, nor popular discontent caused by her fancies. She was nicknamed “Madame Deficit” or “the Austrian harpy”. The kingdom, burdened with debt, faced growing risks. The people took up arms. The Queen represented everything that went wrong with the monarchy: luxury, indecency and indifference. Was the Austrian woman true to the picture? As a matter of fact, despite her negligence for the court’s obligations, she was involved into good works for the needy, orphans and soldiers’ widows. A few years earlier, she had written to her mother: “As the people treat us so kindly in spite of their own misfortunes, we are all the more bound to work hard for their happiness”. But the social and economic context turned Marie-Antoinette’s commitment into some sort of condescending pity. The 1789 storming of the Bastille, although not as symbolic as the romantic imagery suggests – only seven people were incarcerated there at the time – was an alarm signal for the royal family. The royal guard had been slaughtered by an out-of-control Parisian mob. Courtiers worrying about their survival fled Versailles for neighboring, less-risky areas.
In this time of insurrection and popular rebellion, the behavior of Marie-Antoinette changed dramatically. Now that she had given birth to Marie-Thérèse and Louis-Charles de France – the latter destined to inherit the French crown – the mother’s role took over the Queen’s. She hardly ever found sleep; her family was not safe. “They’re demolishing the monarchy brick by brick,” she whispered. The popular uproar escalated into shaking the windows of Versailles. Marie-Antoinette, desperate to save her husband and children from the Parisians’ blind fury, organized with Axel von Fersen an escape plan: but the carefully-designed flight to Varennes failed spectacularly in June 1791. Both King and Queen had somehow signed their death warrants. The latter tried, at first, to secure her repatriation in her homeland, but eventually gave up. “All things considered, I will not leave: my duty is to die at the King’s foot.”
Imprisonment at the Paris Temple (where the Templars had possibly hidden their treasure five centuries earlier) followed for the royal family, with very harsh conditions of incarceration. The future Louis XVII would die of tuberculosis five years later. Yet, people sought their revenge on the monarchy and its many scorns. Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793, and the rest of the family was separated. Squeezed between the thick walls of her prison, Marie-Antoinette suddenly looked older. Her hair whitened, her face wrinkled. The appearance that in olden times had provoked marvel did not give innocence and frivolity away anymore – only concern and solemnity.
In October, Marie-Antoinette’s trial was set – rather, staged – as she faced venomous accusations from the jury, only made up Robespierre’s allies, all committed to revolutionary ideals. The trial was odious, and the ‘Capet widow’ was even accused of committing incest with her 7-year-old son! The courthouse was as merciful as the court was to Marie-Antoinette during her reign: she was condemned to death on the following day, the 16th of October. The former Queen spent her last night writing a letter to her sister-in-law, Elizabeth of France. One would expect her to be furious, vengeful; as a matter of fact, she appeared serene, only concerned about her children’s well-being.
“I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing. […] Let [my children] both think of the lesson which I have never ceased to impress upon them, that the principles and the exact performance of their duties are the chief foundation of life […]. Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths. […] I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done me.”
Driven to the scaffold on the following morning, Marie-Antoinette, the Queen with clipped wings, stood up straight, imperturbable. An odd feeling of quietude emanated from her, in-between the ancient tragedy and the way of the Cross. 30,000 people attended her last journey, watching her silently, even respectfully, as she underwent an ultimate humiliation. Robespierre had tasked an actor named Grammont to insult Marie-Antoinette on her way to the guillotine. “There she is, the infamous Antoinette, she is screwed my friends!” That atmosphere was to be staged, as her trial was, to polish the image of an exemplary Republic. The mere memory of the monarchy had to vanish, should history be altered.
Marie-Antoinette’s last words were not a cry for mercy. As she went out of the carriage, her hands firmly tied, to walk up to the scaffold where the guillotine awaited, she stepped on the foot of her executioner. “I beg your pardon, Monsieur, it was not on purpose” she apologized. One last whisper of dignity before the Revolution took her life, and collapse into the Reign of Terror.
- Max Gallo, Les 100 Visages de la Révolution (2009), XO Editions
- Reader’s Digest, Les Vérités de l’Histoire (2015), pp. 80-85
- Christine Dousset, « Marie-Antoinette : la reine refusée » [FRENCH], Les Cahiers de Framespa (2011)
- Les Cahiers Rouges, Marie-Antoinette… racontée par ceux qui l’ont connue (2016), éd. Grasset