At the age of 14 the princess and archduchess of Austria, Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna married the dauphin of France, Louis-Auguste. Born into a life of luxury, the one she married into, was to become synonymous with all that was wrong with French Nobility, and the driving force behind the resulting revolution. But how much of it was true?
Life would not end well for this queen and it would all start with the French Revolution, more specifically the storming of the Bastille when she was said to have told the peasants begging her for food, “Let them eat cake”. This is probably the most famous mis-quote we will ever associate with Marie Antoinette. It was not the haughty words of an unempathetic Queen, far removed from the struggles of her people. This quote was actually spoken 100 years before Marie Antoinette, and even then it stems from a mis-translation. Marie-Therese, Queen of Louis XIV when appraised of the issues surrounding the price of bread, driven out of the means of her peasant populations, asked “Why don’t they eat Brioche?” Brioche in its contemporary form was a cheap alternative to bread, NOT a cake. Marie-Therese was attempting to support the people in their efforts to limit the price of grain in order to make it a viable commodity, by refusing to pay the prices demanded for bread.
Marie and her husband, were famously renowned for their efforts in relief of the poor and disadvantaged. Amongst their charitable works, the were patrons of a society which supported widows, the aged, blind and orphans. They distributed alms regularly, and daily the poor were invited to wait at the Palace gates for handouts of leftover food. When achieving the throne, Marie was known to have requested the abolition of a long-standing stealth tax on the poor known as the Queen’s Belt, famously stating “Queens no longer wear belts.” She adopted three poor children, to be raised alongside her own, and paid for the education of several others not to mention the financial support of their families. She provided purpose-built cottages and employment on her farm, and encouraged her daughter not only to forego Christmas gifts so that they may help the poor further, but to actively wait on the poor, as equals. In a famous incident that happened at a celebratory firework display for the royal couple, a stampede occurred in which many people were killed and injured. Marie and her husband donated their entire private spending money for that year, to the families of those killed and to ease the suffering of those injured.
As a result of the Revolutionary smear campaign, Marie Antoinette is known for her extreme spending that choked the royal coffers to the point of almost death because of her needs of high fashion, parties and gambling. Marie would throw the most expensive of parties where she is said to have participated in unladylike conduct with men. King Louis XVI and Marie took 7 years to conceive a child and he was known as a man whose constitution was not that of a sexual nature. While the two did have 4 children (2 that lived until adulthood), Marie sought her desires outside the royal bedchamber, or so the rumours would have us believe. In reality, she was considered a virtuous woman, faithful to her husband and the vows she made, despite his long-term problems with consummating the marriage, a situation which she bore with the utmost decorum. One or two sources have suggested that Louis took a mistress, but further investigation refutes this. Louis appears to have been the only one of his line never to have done so.
Gambling might be seen to some as a sinful way to spend ones time but it was common among Parisian society, especially those who were higher up on the social scale. So it has been alleged Marie gambled and apparently was not very good considering she dug herself into a deep debt that her constitutionally weak husband just accepted. In reality, sources tell us that Marie was a strict tee-total who ate simply, and banned sexually inappropriate behaviour and foul language from court. Her gambling habits were a folly of youth that she outgrew. Her interests lay in the moral well-being of her ladies and those who came into contact with them.
Fashion. This might be what Marie is best remembered for, the glorious dresses and over-the-top wigs. By over-the-top, I mean just that, some of her wigs were 3 feet high and included all sorts of accoutrements as decorations to really amp up the style. It has been recorded that she received somewhere between 120,000 to 150,000 livres per year to spend on clothing alone and she would exceed that allowance every year as queen. Never once did Marie wear the same outfit twice, until the death of her husband that is, and so every dress would be handed down to the ladies of her household. A very wasteful habit indeed, on the surface. But in reality, Marie-Antoinette probably didn’t spend that much on clothes, in an era when ones wardrobe was hand-made, one dress would easily take weeks to make, if prioritised, therefore an extensive selection could only be built up over several years. Marie in fact introduced a simple fashion into court, and the country at large. We must as a result find her nickname of Madame Deficit was unfair. The Queen was much-loved by the majority of the people, known as a good and kind woman, the acts of charity only ended upon her arrest.
What does any of this have to do with her untimely death? A lot. Because of the French Revolution both Marie and Louis were booted from their thrones and since those in charge of the revolutionary movement needed to ensure the Monarchy was out of the way in order to assume the power, they were out for blood. The two attempted to escape but within 24 hours they were captured and arrested before being escorted back to Paris. This occurred on June 21, 1791. The family were kept under heavy surveillance while the new government were planning a revolution throughout Europe, to completely abolish the monarchy. The only way to achieve this was to sully their names, and attempt to gain the support of the people. They were somewhat successful as far as the revolution was concerned, and that was bad news for the former king and queen. King Louis XVI was tried and convicted of high treason in December of 1792 with his death occurring by guillotine on January 21, 1793. In the 10 months following Louis’ death Marie had her two living children taken from her, as well as her sister-in-law who was also being held against her will. On October 14 of 1792, Marie was taken to her own trial where she was also tried and convicted of high treason against the state. Even more disturbing is that her very own son testified against Marie when he confessed to the court that she had sexually abused him, a charge with which Marie was taken aback and refused to answer until finally forced to. She pleaded to the mothers of the court to know that it was against nature itself to commit such an act. The trial was just really a formality, her death was inevitable long before it even started.
So, at the young age of 37, Marie rode a cart to her death by guillotine for trumped up charges. She had been wearing a black mourning dress so often since Louis’ death that it was requested that she not wear it to her death and so she wore a plain white dress on the day of her death. It was October 16, 1793 that Marie would take her last breath. She died not as a queen but as simply Marie Antoinette.