Born with the name Antonia, Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, Austria on November 2, 1755. Marie-Antoinette was one of the 16 children of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, queen of Hungary and Bohemia. She was the youngest and most beautiful daughter of all. Marie Antoinette was brought up believing her destiny was to become queen of France. Marie Antoinette’s first child was Marie Therese Charlotte(Madame Royale).
Marie Antoinette supposedly had numerous affairs, especially the one with Count Hans Axel Fersen, who was a Swedish diplomat. Yet Marie Antoinette was reviled in pornographic songs, pictures and pamphlets. Someone even published a fake autobiography in which the queen supposedly confessed her sins, calling herself a prostitute. Marie Antoinette was also called Madame Deficit and was blamed for the country’s financial problems. It is true that she enjoyed a lavish lifestyle; her mother wrote to warn her that “a queen can only degrade herself by this sort of heedless extravagance in difficult times.” But Marie Antoinette was not quite as foolish and spoiled as the public believed. It is not true that she said “Let them eat cake” when told that people were starving. As a woman and a foreigner she made a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems, and it seemed that no insult against her was too crazy to be widely believed.
The stories of Antoinette’s excesses are very much overstated. In fact, rather than ignoring France’s growing financial crisis, she reduced the royal household staff, eliminating many unnecessary positions that were based solely on privilege. In the process she offended the nobles, adding their condemnation to the scandalous stories spread by royal hopefuls. It was the nobility that balked at the financial reforms the government ministers tried to make, not the King and Queen, who were in favor of change. In truth, Antoinette and Louis were placed in harms’ way not only by elements of their personalities, but by the changing face of political and social ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI, the heir to the French throne, when she was 15 and he was 16. She was intended to cement an alliance between France and her parents’ dynasty, the Habsburgs of Austria. She and her husband had a daughter and two sons after he became King of France 1774. Disliked by the French as a foreigner, she made herself more unpopular by her devotion to the interests of Austria, the bad reputations of some of her friends, and her extravagance, which was she was falsely accused for the financial problems of the French government. Especially damaging was her supposed connection with the so-called Diamond Necklace a scandal involving the fraudulent purchase of some jewels in 1785.
The Diamond Necklace Affair (1785)
The Cardinal de Rohan wished to improve his social and job stats. at Versailles, and a woman name or calling herself the Comtesse de La Motte offered to help him. Unfortunately for Rohan, Jeanne de La Motte was not really a Comtesse. She was a con artist. She hired a woman to dress like Marie Antoinette and meet the cardinal in the gardens of Versailles at night. The “queen” gave Rohan a rose and left, leaving the cardinal under the illusion that he had met Marie Antoinette.
After that La Motte told the cardinal that the queen wanted him to purchase a very expensive diamond necklace for her duty. Obediently the cardinal he got the necklace and gave it to La Motte, expecting the queen to pay for it. Of course, Marie Antoinette never saw the necklace; La Motte gave the diamonds to her husband, who took them to London and sold them. When the jewelers demanded payment, the Diamond Necklace Affair became public. The Cardinal de Rohan and Jeanne La Motte were arrested. The cardinal was tried and acquitted. La Motte was locked up, publicly flogged, and identified. Eventually she escaped to London, where she spread wicked rumors about Marie Antoinette. Although Marie Antoinette was innocent during the whole thing, it was broadly believed that she had accepted the necklace and refused to pay for it. There were even rumors about Marie Antoinette having an affair with La Motte. The Diamond Necklace Affair contributed greatly to the downfall of Marie Antoinette.
A Revolution Outbreaks
Many French aristocrats passionately supported the American Revolution. Louis XVI was in the first year of his reign in 1775,when the American Revolution began. He secretly aided the colonies for the war’s first three years, then supported them openly. It is possible that the colonies would have lost the war without French aid.
Lafayette, the French marquis who became an American general, was at Versailles during the years of Louis XV but never felt comfortable there. He was a poor dancer and felt he was too regional for court life. At age 19, he joined the American Continental Army. It was considered patriotic for a French man to fight against England, France’s traditional enemy. However, Lafayette had gone to America without approval from France. When he return to France King Louis XVI put him under house arrest. But this was a mere formality. After a week the king released Lafayette and invited him to a royal hunt to show there were no hard feelings.
Antoinette had viewed Lafayette as a country bumpkin, but when he returned from the American Revolution her attitude changed, and she had him appointed commander-in-chief of the King’s Dragoons. Still, unlike many of her contemporaries she felt ambivalent about the American Revolution. Perhaps she sensed the danger that loomed in France.
After the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, Marie-Antoinette sided with the intransigents at court who opposed compromise with the moderate revolutionaries. Later in 1789, a mob came upon the palace at Versailles and demanded the King and Queen to move to the Tuilerie palace inside Paris. When Marie Antoinette heard about the approaching mob she remained calm. “I know they have come from Paris to demand my head, but I learned from my mother not to fear death and I shall await it with firmness,” she said. When the mob appeared outside the palace, Lafayette advised her to show herself on the balcony. Bravely she stepped out and faced them alone. As voices shouted, “Shoot! Shoot!’ the queen bowed her head and curtsied. Then Lafayette joined her, bowed to her, and kissed her hand. He was considered a great hero, and his action impressed the crowd. “Vive la reine,” they shouted (“Long live the queen!”). Since that day the royal family became prisoners of France
The royal family remained imprisoned for years. In 1791 Axel Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s rumored lover, arranged their escape. His initial plan called for Louis and Marie Antoinette to leave Paris in a small, fast coach; their children would travel separately to avoid suspicion. But Marie Antoinette refused to leave her children, insisting that the entire family travel together in a large, slow coach. It was a decision that sealed their fate, for the royal family was recognized in the village of Varennes and arrested. (Fersen, who had driven the escape coach, survived the French Revolution only to be murdered in 1809 by a revolutionary mob in Sweden.)
Lafayette was still trying to moderate between the royals and the revolutionaries, which won him few friends on either side. Marie Antoinette said sarcastically, “I can see that M. de Lafayette wishes to save us, but who will save us from M. de Lafayette?” Lafayette lost public support when he ordered soldiers to fire on a crowd that had gathered to petition for the dethronement of the king. Eventually he fled France and was imprisoned for five years in Austria for leading French troops into battle against the Austrians. He was liberated by Napoleon and lived to see Louis XVI’s brother brought to the throne as Louis XVIII. He participated in the July Revolution (1830) against a third brother. Charles X. Lafayette died in 1834.
King Louis was apathetic, so it fell to Marie Antoinette to negotiate with revolutionaries on the royal family’s behalf. She also secretly urged Austria to intercede in France. When France went to war with Austria, Louis and Marie Antoinette were charged with treason. In 1792, the year the institution of royalty was officially abolished in France, the royal family was moved to the Temple Prison. They were treated fairly well and were permitted to live together. In December of that year Louis’s trial began. He was found guilty and on January 21, 1793 sent to the guillotine where he was killed.
For several months after their father’s death Louis Charles and his sister, Marie Therese Charlotte, remained in prison with Marie Antoinette. The children were often sick, and the queen cared for them as best she could. Spitefully their jailors decided to separate young Charles Louis from his mother. He was put in the cell beneath hers, where she could hear him crying. A few weeks later Marie Antoinette was also separated from her daughter. The former queen was awakened in the middle of the night and taken to the squalid Conciergerie prison. Louis Charles and Marie Therese Charlotte remained in the cell. They never saw their mother again. Her best friend, the Princess de Lambelle, was executed and her chopped head was put on a pole and paraded in front of the Queen.
Antoinette was treated really cruel on her last days of captivity, she was also sent to the revolutionary tribunal the same year. In October, Marie Antoinette, nicknamed “the Widow Capet,” was tried and, like the king, convicted of treason and sent to be guillotined. On October 16, 1793 she was taken through the streets of Paris in an open cart, where she was executed for Treason without proof of the crimes that people accused her for… She maintained her dignity to the end. On the scaffold she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot, and her last words were, “Monsieur, I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose.”
An speech From Edward Burke 1793…
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. 0h, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.
But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
Edmund Burke -1793
Marie Therese and Louis Charles; The Aftermath
Her son, Louis Charles (now King Louis XVII) was kept in a dark, dirty cell until he died of tuberculosis in 1795. In future years many men came forward claiming to be the long-lost prince. The most believable was Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, who died in Holland in 1845, but DNA tests later established that Naundorff was not related to Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Madame Royale(Marie Therese), survived the revolution. She became the duchesse d’Angouleme and had great influence during the reigns of her uncles Louis XVIII and Charles X.