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Marie Antoinette, Last Queen of France?

By Yann Caradec from Paris, France - Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour - 1778 - Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the latest in our series looking at the last consorts of monarchies around the world, we come to one of the most famous royals of all. Marie Antoinette’s whole life was lived in the spotlight and her story continues to fascinate. While other women later took on the role of Empress of the French, Marie Antoinette has a special place in the country’s royal history. Here, Royal Central looks at the life and times of a woman whose tragic end often overshadows a determined life.

Early Life

Born on 2 November 1755 in Vienna, Austria, Queen Marie-Antoinette was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Teresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. Born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, her godparents were King Joseph I and Queen Mariana Victoria of Portugal. She had fifteen siblings and was raised with her older sister Maria Carolina by the governess of the imperial children, Countess von Brandeis.

Maria Antonia spent her early years in Vienna and had a difficult education as at ten years old, she could not write in German or French and Italian which were the languages used in court. However, she learned to play the harp and the flute, she would sing at family gatherings and she was an excellent dancer.

Empress Maria Teresa used her children as pawns in her diplomatic ambitions and this was also the case for Maria Antonia. Empress Maria Teresa decided to end hostilities with King Louis XV of France following the Seven Years’ War. They became allies to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and decided to seal their alliance by a marriage. Thus, on 7 February 1770, King Louis XV formally requested the hand of Maria Antonia so she could marry his eldest grandson and heir Louis-Auguste, Duc de Berry and Dauphin de France.

Maria Antonia renounced her right to the Habsburg domains and was married by proxy on 19 April 1770 with her brother Archduke Ferdinand standing in for Louis-Auguste. Upon her arrival in France on 14 May, she started using the French version of her name, Marie Antoinette, and a ceremonial wedding took place on 16 May 1770 at the Palais de Versailles. Marie Antoinette became Dauphine de France aged 15.

Becoming Queen

The reactions to the marriage and to Marie Antoinette herself were mixed as even though the Dauphine was personable and well-liked by the people, those opposed to the alliance with Austria disliked her. She also had a difficult relationship with Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s mistress, but had a good relationship with Louis-Auguste’s aunts.

Upon the death of King Louis XV on 10 May 1774, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste ascended the throne as King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, making Marie Antoinette Queen consort of France and Navarre. Soon after the ascension, Marie Antoinette’s reputation changed as she was accused of spending too much when the country was in a deep financial crisis, especially when she renovated to her taste the Petit Trianon, a small castle gifted to her by her husband, or when she adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne which was a material banned in France at the time in order to protect the French woolen and silk industries.

Both the King and the Queen were also criticized for their refusal to consummate their marriage which led to plenty of rumors and even an intervention from Marie Antoinette’s brother Emperor Joseph II which solved the problem. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had four children together: Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Madame Royale (b. 1778, d. 1851), Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, Dauphin de France (b. 1781, d.1789), Louis-Charles, Duc de Normandie and then Dauphin de France following the death of his brother (b. 1785, d.1795) and Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix, Madame Sophie (b.1786, d.1787).

Marie Antoinette’s popularity continued to decrease as she made changes in court customs that were not approved by the older generation. During this period, the Queen also got progressively more involved in politics, securing alliances for France and playing decisive roles in government nominations. Her involvement in politics while beneficial for France was also beneficial for Austria which was criticized by the people. When her brother visited again in 1781 to reaffirm the alliance between France and Austria, Marie Antoinette was accused of sending him money coming directly from the French treasury.

The royal couple greatly favored the Polignac family with positions and titles which angered the more aristocratic families who were jealous and increased the disapproval of Marie Antoinette in Paris. Another issue arose when Louis XVI bought the Chateau de Saint-Cloud in the name of his wife as Marie Antoinette wanted to own her own property so that she could choose which of her children she would give it to after her death. The nobility and a growing portion of the population criticized the move as they didn’t want a Queen independently owning a private residence.

The birth of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s third child was also tainted by rumors that Louis-Charles’s biological father was not Louix XVI but Count Alex von Fersen. While these rumors of paternity are regarded as untrue by biographers, there had been rumors at the time of Marie-Antoinette and Fersen being romantically involved. In 1785, she was also falsely accused of having played a role in defrauding the jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge of the price of an expensive diamond necklace. A thief actually persuaded Cardinal de Rohan – who was trying to get back into the Queen’s good graces- that he was having a correspondence with the Queen and that she asked him to buy a very expensive diamond necklace bought by King Louix XV for his mistress Madame du Barry. When all the protagonists were arrested, Rohan showed the letters that he thought were from the Queen. While it is proven that the Queen had no involvement in the actual crime, many believed that she was behind the idea of framing Rohan as she didn’t like him. All of these incidents and rumors led to a very disastrous public opinion of the Queen who was considered spendthrift and licentious. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was also a huge blow to the Monarchy itself.

The end of the Monarchy

While France’s financial problems at the time were caused by several expensive wars and the refusal of the aristocratic families, the nobility and the clergy to renounce some of their financial privileges, Marie Antoinette personified these problems for the public and she was even nicknamed “Madame Déficit” (“Lady Deficit”) in 1787. During this period, despite caring for her son the Dauphin who had tuberculosis and being in mourning following the death of her youngest daughter in 1787, Marie Antoinette played an important role in the handling of the strained situation, including Louis XVI’s decision to bring back the Estates-General for the first time since 1614. The Estates-General is a general assembly representing the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. At this point, the fracture between the commoners and the nobility was already too wide and the commoners favored the Duc d’Orléans who had helped them rather than the Queen and the Monarchy.

The Dauphin died on 4 June 1789 but his death was ignored by the French people who were more focused on the Estates-General. When the Third Estate rebelled and declared itself National Assembly, the King and Queen were in mourning but Marie Antoinette is said to have been determined to use force to crush the upcoming revolution. When Marie Antoinette’s role in the King dismissing Necker as Finance Minister despite him being popular on 11 July 1789 and her will to use mercenary Swiss troops to crush the Revolution became public, Paris rebelled and this led to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

During the Revolution, feudal privileges were abolished and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was signed in August 1789, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy that lessened the King’s powers. During that time, life at the court continued. However, following bread shortages in Paris, people descended upon Versailles forcing the family to move to the Tuileries Palaces where they lived under a form of house arrest. In 1791, a crowd preventing them from leaving the house to attend Easter Mass solidified Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s will to flee Paris. While the family tried to escape to Montmédy, a royalist city, they were caught in Varennes, arrested and brought back to Paris. It is this escape attempt that destroyed the small support the royal family still had at the time. They were not brought to trial but their house arrest became more severe and they were guarded night and day to prevent another escape attempt. The constitutional monarchy was established on 4 September 1791 and the King and Queen’s titles changed. They were no longer King and Queen of France but King and Queen of the French.

During all this time, Marie Antoinette counted on France’s European allies’ support to crush the revolution, especially Austria. But Austria’s action to support the royal couple and the monarchy led to France’s declaration of war against the country in 1792 which once again damaged Marie Antoinette’s reputation, painting her as an enemy. Marie Antoinette also encouraged Louis XVI to veto several laws that would restrict his power which caused more criticism against her. In June 1792, a mob broke into the Tuileries, made the King wear the red Phrygian cap which symbolized loyalty to the Republic and threatened Marie Antoinette’s life. This event led Marie Antoinette to urge the European forces to invade France and issue a manifesto threatening Paris if the royal family was to be injured. Following the release of the manifesto, another mob broke into the Tuileries forcing the royal family to flee. They were imprisoned on 13 August 1792. The fall of the constitutional monarchy happened a month later on 21 September 1792. King Louis XVI was tried in December 1792, found guilty and condemned to death by guillotine. He was executed on 21 January 1793.

The rest of the story

Following her husband’s death, Marie Antoinette went into deep mourning while she was still imprisoned with her children Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte and Louis-Charles, who became the Dauphin following his brother’s death in 1789. However, while the new French leaders were unsure of what should happen to the former Queen, they separated her from her son in July 1793 as since he was still quite young, they thought they could teach him revolutionary ideas and so they could turn him against his mother. Several plots to help her escape imprisonment failed. Her trial happened in October 1793. Her main charges were “depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, and high treason because of her intelligence activities in the interest of the enemy”. She was also accused of sending money from the treasury to Austria and also of incest by her son Louis-Charles who had been pressured into making the charge. As she was convicted of the three main charges, she was condemned to death which was a huge blow as she and her lawyers expected life imprisonment at worst. Marie Antoinette was guillotined on 16 October 1793. Her last recorded words are “Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose” after she walked on her executioner’s shoe. She was 38.

While her body was thrown into an unmarked grave, her and Louis XVI’s bodies were exhumed in 1815 during the Bourbon Restoration and given a Christian burial and their remains were placed in the necropolis of French Kings in the Basilica of St Denis. Marie Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles was still imprisoned following his mother’s death and until his death from illness in 1795. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s eldest daughter Marie Thérèse Charlotte survived and was liberated in December 1795 and she went into exile in Vienna before joining her uncle in Latvia. She married her cousin Louis-Antoine in 1799. She could have been Queen of the French like her mother but when her father-in-law abdicated following another revolution, Louis-Antoine renounced his rights 20 minutes later and they left for a final exile. While Marie Antoinette is the last woman to have had the title of Queen of France, she is not the last Queen Consort of France as following the First Republic, France had several Empresses/Queens of the French until the end of the monarchy in 1870.