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Vienna to Versailles: inside the bridal procession of Marie Antoinette

Earlier this week, Elizabeth Jane Timms took Royal Central readers into the heart of the story of how Marie Antoinette became a royal bride. Now she continues the story of her bridal procession, which took Marie Antoinette from Vienna to Versailles…..

The first stop was the great Benedictine baroque abbey of Melk above the Danube. According to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine was met there by her eldest brother Joseph II, her mother’s co-regent since the death of her father, Francis Stephen, where an opera was performed. Marie Antoinette stayed overnight at Melk Abbey. Marie Antoinette also spent a night at the medieval abbey at Lambach, in Upper Austria on the River Traun. The abbey has its own beautiful Rococo theatre, and we know that Marie Antoinette attended a performance there, as part of this journey.

The following day, the procession entered Bavaria and stopped at Munich, where Marie Antoinette was allowed a day of rest. She was permitted to stay in the glorious Rococo pavilion of the Amalienburg, constructed for Elector Karl Albrecht and his wife, the hunter Electress Maria Amalia. The pavilion – which survives today – is within the splendid surroundings of Nymphenburg Palace, the summer palace west of Munich belonging to the Wittelsbachs, Bavaria’s ruling family. It was governed by Maximilian III Joseph at the time of Marie Antoinette’s visit. In Nymphenburg Palace’s park can be found in the Badenburg, or ‘Bathing Pavilion’, where Elector Max Emmanuel’s famous ‘Gallery of Beauties’ was kept. This consisted of portraits of ladies from the court of Louis XIV’s Versailles; although, it is not recorded whether Marie Antoinette saw these.

After Munich, the procession proceeded to Augsburg, where the Dauphine attended a ball in the famous Ball Room of the Schaezlerpalais. The Ball Room still exists, resplendent with mirrors and is within what is today a superb state and city art gallery, containing what is widely considered to be one of the finest surviving baroque ballrooms in Germany.

At Günzburg, in Swabia, Marie Antoinette broke her journey for two days and was joined by her father’s sister, Princess Anne Charlotte of Lorraine. Together, they made a pilgrimage to the church of Maria Königin Bild, near Limbach. The pilgrimage church near Limbach (Burgau) stood between 1679 and1788; such was its popularity that the church was extended in the late 1690s. The original church that Marie Antoinette visited with her aunt Princess Anne Charlotte now no longer exists – a chapel has stood again on the original site of the old pilgrimage church since 1964. However, the altar’s sacred image of the Virgin Mary was preserved and is today to be found in the parish church of Burgau instead.

From Ulm, the route followed onwards to the monastery of Obermarchtal, where she spent the night of 1-2 May. During her night at the monastery, she and her entourage feasted and saw a performance of a festspiel, “Beste Gesinnungen Schwäbischer Herzen” by Sebastian Sailer.

She next stayed at Stockach, then at Donaueschingen overnight. The procession also stopped at the old guesthouse, the Hofgut Sternen in the Black Forest, where Goethe would also stay in his time. At Freiburg im Breisgau, she stayed at the so-called “Kageneckschen Haus” on the Salzstraße, which had to be specially renovated for the occasion and which was later rebuilt following its destruction in World War II. The route by which the procession entered Freiburg was called Dauphine Street, even into the 19th century. Marie Antoinette gave a silver eternal lamp to the pilgrimage church of Maria Königin Bild, which was decorated with the images of her brothers and sisters, which later found its way to Freiburg Minster in 1789 and remains part of the minster’s treasures today.

On 6 May, Marie Antoinette’s entourage departed from Freiburg and made its way to the imperial abbey of Schuttern, where she spent her last night on German soil and importantly, within the Holy Roman Empire. Schuttern was mostly dissolved in 1806 following the Secularisation and became the property of the Margraves of Baden. What can be seen today, is only the remaining abbey church, the ensemble of abbey buildings having since been dismantled. The following day, the famous ‘hand-over’ ceremony would take place, whereby Marie Antoinette would formally enter France and as Dauphine already by proxy, become truly French at last.

At the Imperial Abbey of Schuttern, Marie Antoinette spent her last night on German soil and in the Holy Roman Empire. On this night, she was formally introduced for the first time to some of the French officials that had journeyed to the border for the ceremony the following day. The court of Versailles would be expecting the Dauphine instead at Compiegne, where the meeting of Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste was destined to finally take place.

The following day was an extraordinarily important one. Near the town of Kehl in Baden-Württemberg – just over twenty-five modern miles away from Schuttern – on an island in the Rhine, Marie Antoinette would officially be ‘handed over’ and at last become properly ‘French’ – as such, she would then formally enter France. The choice of Kehl was a well-made one, as not only is the town located exactly opposite Strasbourg, with the great Rhine River in-between, but it represented a very convenient mid-way point for the Dauphine to be ‘handed over’ on ‘neutral’ ground and to exchange one nationality for another. Kehl had also been used for the handover ceremony of Louis Auguste’s mother, the previous Dauphine Maria Josepha of Saxony; although, the wooden pavilion which had been constructed for Maria Josepha’s ‘hand-over’ had fallen into disrepair and so something else had to be built for Marie Antoinette instead.

So much did the dictates of court ceremonial dominate this solemn occasion, that there had to be a ‘neutral’ ground within the actual pavilion itself – with a table covered with red velvet to stand for the border between Austria and France, as Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette’s biographer, tells us. It was during the ‘hand over’ that Marie Antoinette would formally meet the woman who importantly would serve her in the capacity of Mistress of the Household, the Comtesse de Noailles, whom Marie Antoinette would later give the cheeky sobriquet, (although not without some truth) of ‘Madame Etiquette’.

Her Austrian entourage had to be left behind (except Prince Starhemberg) as did her fine clothes – even her favourite dog, Mops. This might seem cruel to modern sensibilities, but such thoroughness was necessary to prove the ultimate point that – like Marie Antoinette’s First Lady of the Bedchamber Madame Campan, would later write – the bride retains “nothing from a foreign court.” In many ways, it formed something of an apt introduction to the very public rituals of the morning dressing of ‘lever’ and the evening undressing of ‘coucher’, which Marie Antoinette would immediately encounter as being de rigeur at Versailles. In the case of the ‘hand-over’, Marie Antoinette was undressed, however, in order to be dressed again.

There was every reason to assume that subsequent Dauphines might be ‘handed over’ at Kehl in the decades to come as Maria Josepha had been. Nothing appears to exist today in Kehl to commemorate Marie Antoinette’s ‘hand-over’ ceremony, as it did not, of course, take place in the town itself. Kehl does literally, however, symbolise the literal end of the Austro-German journey that the Dauphine had made to the French border.

Strasbourg, in France’s Grand-Est, had the honour of welcoming the future Queen of France as ‘French’ after her ‘hand-over’. Having literally left behind her all that remained of Austria – symbolically as well as geographically – from her personal entourage, down to her clothes, Marie Antoinette was now ‘Dauphine’ in France, which was something quite different to being simply ‘Dauphine’ by proxy, en route across the Holy Roman Empire. For although Marie Antoinette was now to be regarded as ‘French’, to the anti-Austrian court, she had been dubbed before her arrival, ‘L’Autrichienne’, despite her formal ‘shedding’ of Austria.

Strasbourg provided fireworks for its future Queen. Marie Antoinette was met by children dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, who greeted her with flowers. She stayed the night in the residence of the Prince-Bishops and Cardinals of Rohan, the Palais Rohan, situated next to the cathedral which had been floodlit for her arrival. The Polish Princess Marie Leszczyńska married Louis XV by proxy in Strasbourg Cathedral in 1725. The Palais Rohan, completed in 1742, has been listed as a historical monument since 1920, and today, it houses three museums, one of decorative arts, one of fine arts and another of archaeology.

Once in Lorraine – her father’s former duchy before he acquired that of Tuscany as a recompense – the procession made its way to Nancy, the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine and incidentally, her father’s birthplace. She may have stayed at the Hotel de la Reine. Today, at least, a grand hotel with the same name is within a former 18th-century building on Place Stanislas – named after the Polish King, Stanisław I Leszczyński, the father of Marie Leszczyńska – the baroque square of Nancy, flanked by its now-famous golden gates. Importantly at Nancy, she visited the tombs of her Lorraine forbears, in the fifteenth-century Church of the Cordeliers, situated in the old town.

The tombs of the Dukes of Lorraine are located in a chapel within the church which was established by Charles III in the style of the Medici Chapel in Florence. In an interesting twist of history, another Hapsburg event would take place here in due time – Archduke Otto von Hapsburg, son of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl I/IV, married Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen in the Church of the Cordeliers, in 1951. Marie Antoinette’s visit to the tombs of her ancestors was a deliberate attempt to emphasise her French lineage.

The Dauphine’s route continued by way of Bar-le-Duc, considered a reasonable half-way point between Strasbourg and Paris. Sometimes known as Bar, this was again another important stop in Grand-Est Lorraine, as the medieval duchy of Bar had been granted to Stanisław I Leszczyński, Louis XV’s father-in-law, in the preliminary Treaty of Vienna. Stanisław I Leszczyński had lost his throne as a result of the War of the Polish Succession, and as a result of the Treaty of Vienna being confirmed, Stanisław received the Duchy of Lorraine for his lifetime, whilst Francis Stephen – Marie Antoinette’s father – received as the grand duchy of Tuscany by way of exchange, when the Medici Grand Duke Gian Gastone of Tuscany died without heirs.

On Stanisław’s death, Lorraine was annexed by France. Importantly, Francis Stephen was known as Francis III of Lorraine and Bar until he acquired the grand duchy of Tuscany, and as a result of his marriage to Maria Theresia, their two houses were united – after which Austria’s ruling family became known as the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine. The following day the procession continued to Chalons-en-Champagne, where Marie Antoinette attended the theatre. The Porte Sainte-Croix (Gate of the Holy Cross) in the city was known as ‘Porte Dauphine’ in memory of Marie Antoinette’s procession passing through Chalon on its way to Paris; although it is important to remember that the city was known as Chalons-sur-Marne in Marie Antoinette’s day, only being renamed in 1988. The following day she continued by way of the ancient town of Soissons on the river Aisne, where she spent the night and had the following day at leisure.

Royal Central will bring you the last part of this trilogy of tales from Marie Antoinette’ s bridal journey later in the week when Elizabeth Jane Timms will recount the meeting between the young royal and her new husband.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.