The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Marie Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France and Archduchess of Austria (born 2 November 1755 – executed 16 October 1793) Daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria, wife of Louis XVI and mother of Louis XVII. She was guillotined at the height of the French Revolution.



Marie-Antoinette was the fifteenth child of the Austrian empress, Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. She was born at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on 2 November 1755. She was christened Maria-Antonia-Josepha-Johanna. Maria was in honour of the Virgin Mary, Antonia in honour of Saint Anthony of Padua, Josepha in honour of her elder brother, Archduke Josef and Johanna in honour of Saint John the Evangelist. A court official described the new baby as "a small, but completely healthy Archduchess."

Maria-Antonia was brought up in the company of her closest sister, Maria-Carolina (two years older) and brother, Max, (one year younger.) Her other brothers – Josef, Leopold, and Ferdinand-Karl – already had important official roles within the Hapsburg Empire.

Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Empress Maria-Theresa, had ruled the Austrian Empire for fifteen years before Antoinette's birth. She was considered one of the most brilliant political figures in Europe.
Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Empress Maria-Theresa, had ruled the Austrian Empire for fifteen years before Antoinette's birth. She was considered one of the most brilliant political figures in Europe.

As a child, legend has that Marie-Antoinette met the young child genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He performed a short musical concert for the Imperial Family. When the Empress asked him what he would like as a reward, Mozart is said to have responded by saying he would like the hand of the Empress's youngest daughter in marriage - Marie-Antoinette (much to the Empress's amusement.)

Maria-Antonia's sisters were soon married off to European royalty. Maria-Christina, the eldest, was married to the Regent of the Netherlands, Maria-Amalia was married to the Prince of Parma and Maria-Antonia's favourite sister, Maria-Carolina, was married to King Ferdinand of the Naples.

Charming and well-mannered as child, Maria-Antonia had little real education. She was flighty, artistic and read almost nothing. Her French was imperfect and she preferred to speak German. However, when her sister Johanna-Gabriella died of smallpox in 1762, Maria-Antonia became the next child to be involved in her mother's political games.

With a new peace treaty having been signed between Austria and France, it was hoped that the fighting which had being going on intermittently since 1494 would finally end. Louis XV's heir was his grandson, Louis-Auguste, and it was proposed that he should marry one of Maria Theresa's daughters. With Johanna-Gabriella dead, it was decided that Maria-Antonia should be sent to France to marry the Dauphin.

When Maria Theresa asked a seer if her daughter would be happy in France, he replied, "There are crosses for all shoulders." Maria-Antonia left Vienna in April 1770, when she was fourteen. The Empress's parting words to her sobbing daughter was, "Farewell, my dearest child. Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel."

Two and half weeks after leaving Vienna, Maria-Antonia was handed over to messengers from the French Court. She was stripped of all her Austrian clothes and re-dressed in French attire. She was then taken to Strasbourg, where a Thanksgiving Mass was held in her honour. The streets of the city where covered in flowers, which Marie-Antoinette (as she was now known) gently picked up like "the goddess Flora". The entire city was illuminated in her honour and a few days later, she began the journey to Versailles.


Marie-Antoinette's husband, Louis-Auguste (the future ). Although intelligent and good-natured, Louis was also weak, indecisive, shy and awkward.
Marie-Antoinette's husband, Louis-Auguste (the future Louis XVI). Although intelligent and good-natured, Louis was also weak, indecisive, shy and awkward.

Marie-Antoinette was conveyed to the royal palace at Versailles, where she met her future grandfather-in-law Louis XV and the other members of the Royal Family. Her future husband, the Dauphin Louis-Auguste was shy, awkward and distant. He was only a year older than she was and had no sexual or romantic relationships to prepare him for dealing with his fiancée. Their marriage was conducted within hours of Marie-Antoinette arriving at Versailles. The Wedding Mass was celebrated with great pomp in the Chapel Royal on 16 May 1770. Just before the wedding, Marie-Antoinette was presented with the magnificent jewels which traditionally belonged to a French dauphiness. This collection included an elaborate diamond necklace which had belonged to Anne of Austria and pieces which had also belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine de Medici. The large collection of gems was valued at approximately 2 million livres. Marie-Antoinette then received King Louis's personal wedding gift to her. It was a fan, encrusted with diamonds.

Louis-Auguste and Marie-Antoinette were then married in front of the Court, with Marie-Antoinette wearing a magnificent dress with huge white hoops covered in diamonds and pearls. There was then a formal dinner, which was also held in front of the crowd. Louis-Auguste ate an enormous amount. When the King told him to eat less, Louis-Auguste replied "Why? I always sleep better when I have a full stomach!"

The Court then conducted the young couple to their bed, which had just been blessed by the Archbishop of Rheims. However, the marriage was not consummated that night. Rumours would later circulate that Louis-Auguste was impotent, but this was not the case. Nor was it true that he suffered from phimosis. Rather, it seems that no one had explained to either Louis or Antoinette what they were supposed to do on their wedding night. They had only a very vague idea of sex and this increased the awkwardness between them. Within days, gossips at Versailles were already whispering that the royal marriage was a sham.

Life as Dauphiness

Since they were not sleeping together, Louis and Antoinette remained childless for the first few years of their marriage. Spiteful gossips blamed Marie-Antoinette for her childlessness and some people even asserted that she should be divorced and sent back to Austria. The young Dauphiness's position was not helped by the fact that she had earned the enmity of the king's mistress, Madame du Barry. Du Barry had begun life as Jeanne Bécu, a common prostitute before she had been noticed by Louis XV and become his lover. Marie-Antoinette felt it was beneath her dignity as a Hapsburg princess to talk to a lady with such a past. Du Barry therefore set about to make Marie-Antoinette's life as miserable as possible. She began turning the king against his granddaughter-in-law and once tipped a bucket of dirty water on Antoinette's head as she walked underneath her window.

The Palace of Versailles, where Marie-Antoinette lived from her marriage in until the siege of the palace in
The Palace of Versailles, where Marie-Antoinette lived from her marriage in 1770 until the siege of the palace in 1789

Marie-Antoinette's daily routine was even more depressing. When she awoke in the morning, she was assisted out of bed and dressed by the various high-ranking noblewomen who were her ladies-in-waiting. Her dinner was also in public, which she ate with her husband. Anyone who was decently dressed was permitted to come and watch the royals eating their dinner. Louis-Auguste ate enormous amounts of food, whilst Marie-Antoinette ate almost nothing when she was in public. Marie-Antoinette loathed this spectacle and she complained bitterly to her mother, "I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world!"

Homesick and melancholy, Marie-Antoinette especially missed the companionship she had enjoyed with her sister, Maria-Carolina. She found a substitute for this with the gentle Princesse Thérèse de Lamballe. Thérèse de Lamballe was wealthy and kind-natured; she was also absolutely devoted to Marie-Antoinette. Not long after meeting Thérèse, Marie-Antoinette formed a deep attachment to the beautiful and ambitious aristocrat, Gabrielle, Comtesse de Polignac. She was also on excellent terms with her husband's youngest brother Charles, the Comte d'Artois.

Marie-Antoinette refused to involve herself in politics, possibly because she lacked any real knowledge or interest in them. She was being spied upon by her mother's ambassador, Comte Mercy d'Argenteau, who reported with great frustration that she was doing nothing to further Austria's influence in France.

Louis-Auguste and Marie-Antoinette's life changed suddenly at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of 10th May 1774 when King Louis XV died of smallpox. The courtiers rushed over to Marie-Antoinette's apartments to swear allegiance to their new king, Louis XVI, and his Austrian wife, Marie-Antoinette. The new King and Queen fell on their knees in prayer, with Louis saying "Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign." Marie-Antoinette wiped away her tears and stood with her husband to greet the courtiers who had come to pledge their loyalty to the new king and queen.

Coronation and queenship

Louis XVI's coronation took place at Rheims during the height of a bread shortage in Paris. Tradition would later state that it was at this point that Marie-Antoinette joked, "If they have no bread, then let them eat cake!" ("Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.") However, this phrase was never uttered by Marie-Antoinette – although it might have been said by an earlier French queen. When Marie-Antoinette actually heard about the bread shortage she wrote, "It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth; as for myself, I know that in my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget the day of the coronation."

The royals had been greeted with an outpouring of national joy and the young queen was especially adored; despite the cost of the coronation (almost 7000 livres were spent on a new crown for Louis XVI) and Marie-Antoinette's magnificent gown was ordered from the fashion house of Paris's most exclusive designer, Rose Bertin.

Shortly after the coronation, Marie-Antoinette attempted to bring the duc de Choiseul back to court. He had been banished by Madame du Barry because of his loyalty to Marie-Antoinette and the alliance with Austria. However, the new queen did not have much success. Although King Louis did meet with Choiseul, he did not bring him back to court permanently. Later, when she tried to have her friend, the duc de Guines, appointed ambassador to England, Louis XVI said, "I have made it quite clear to the Queen that he cannot serve in England or in any other Embassy." It was obvious that Marie-Antoinette enjoyed no political influence with her husband, whatsoever.

When Marie-Antoinette's sister-in-law, Maria-Teresa, the wife of the Comte d'Artois gave birth to her first child in August 1775, Marie-Antoinette was subjected to cat-calls from market women asking why she had not produced a son too. She spent the next day weeping in her rooms; much to the distress of her ladies-in-waiting, who felt she was "extremely affecting when in misfortune."

Fulfilling Marie-Antoinette's determination to avoid boredom, conversation in her circle shied away from the mundane or intellectual. According to Madame Campan, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, "The newest songs from the Comédie, the most timely joke or pun or quip, the bon mot of the day, the latest and choicest titbit of scandal or gossip – these comprised the sole topics of conversation in the intimate group about the Queen; discussion on a serious plane was banished from her court."

The queen's circle of friends was very exclusive. This caused resentment in Versailles, where the courtiers thought the queen was deliberately excluding them. Soon, she became the target of the vicious gossip of Versailles. She, however, remained oblivious.

Under the influence of Artois, Marie-Antoinette began visiting the Paris Opéra Balls in disguise. It was not long before gossips began whispering that the queen was orchestrating such events to meet with various secret lovers.

She also began spending more and more money, since she had no real idea of its value. She had three major weaknesses; clothes, gambling and diamonds. For her twenty-first birthday, she participated in a three-day long gambling party, in which huge amounts of money changed hands.

Marie-Antoinette had already caused enough anger at Versailles when she started appointing her friends to places which were traditionally held by others. She made Thérèse de Lamballe the Superintendent of the Queen's Household, despite the fact that there were some aristocratic ladies who had greater right to have that job.

She then began spending less time living at the palace and more time at La Petit Trianon, which was a small château in the palace grounds. The château was renovated for her and the costs soon spiralled out of control, especially whenever the gardens were re-designed to suit the queen's new tastes.

Vindictive rumours began that Marie-Antoinette was sleeping with her brother-in-law. Illegal presses in Paris soon began printing pamphlets showing the queen and Artois as adulterous lovers. The first pamphlet was called Les Amours de Charlot et Antoinette. L'Autrichienne en Goguette showed Artois and Marie-Antoinette having anal sex in a palace salon. Le Godmiche Royale showed Marie-Antoinette masturbating, and later pamphlets would suggest that she had indulged in bestiality and lesbianism. None of these charges were true, but they began to chip away at the queen's popularity with the people.

There were also wider problems affecting France at the time; for the entire country was standing on the edge of bankruptcy. Louis XIV's wars with William of Orange had left France with the highest national debt anywhere in Europe. French society was under-taxed and what little money was collected failed to save the economy. An anti-British clique at court persuaded Louis XVI to support the American Revolutionaries in their fight for independence from George III. This decision was a disaster for France, for the cost was enormous.

Marie-Antoinette's brother, Emperor Joseph II, visited her in April 1777. He had come to inquire about the state of her marriage, since the Austrians were concerned about her failure to produce a son. They went for a long walk in the grounds of La Petit Trianon, during which Joseph criticised her gambling and her taste in friends. He also had a deep conversation with Louis XVI, in which they discussed his sexual problems. Whatever Joseph II said to Louis XVI, it obviously worked. For the marriage was soon consummated and by April 1778, the Queen could happily announce that she pregnant.


Marie-Antoinette's first child was born at Versailles 19th December 1778. She was forced to endure the humiliation of a public birth in her Bedchamber, in front of hundreds of courtiers. The Queen actually passed out through a combination of embarrassment and pain. It was the last time such a ritual was permitted as Marie-Antoinette refused to give birth in public ever again.

The baby was a girl and she was christened Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte. She was created "Princess Royal" or Madame Royale, since she was the eldest daughter of the King of France. Despite the fact that the country had desired a boy, Marie-Antoinette was delighted with a girl. "A son would have belonged to the state," she said, "but you shall be mine, and have all my care; you shall share my happiness and soften my sorrows."

Marie Antoinette in , portrait by her favourite artist,
Marie Antoinette in 1783, portrait by her favourite artist, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun

Much to the chagrin of many courtiers, Marie-Antoinette's favourite the Comtesse de Polignac was made the new princess' Governess. She kept this post even when Marie-Antoinette's three other children were born – Louis-Joséph in 1781, Louis-Charles in 1785 and Sophie-Béatrix in 1786.

As she grew older, Marie-Antoinette became much less extravagant. She was devoted to her children and she was very involved in taking care of them. Speaking of her youngest son, Louis-Charles, she said, "Mon chou d'amour is charming, and I love him madly. He loves me very much too, in his own way, without embarrassment." She was also much more involved in charity work, although she had always been very generous.

After she turned thirty in 1785, Marie-Antoinette also began to dress with more constraint. She abandoned the more elaborate wigs which had been festooned with jewels and feathers and she refused to buy any more jewels for her personal collection. She was, however, fiercely criticised for building a small mock-village for herself in the grounds of Versailles in 1786.

The building of these kinds of artificial villages was very popular among French aristocratic ladies, who were keen to experience a rural idyll in the comfort of their own estates. This tradition had begun with Louis XIV's greatest mistress, the beautiful Athénaïs de Montespan in the 1680s. Marie-Antoinette's defenders did not think she deserved so much criticism for building the Hameau (as it was known.) Baroness d'Oberkirch complained, "Other people spent more on their gardens!" Even so, the Queen was already unpopular and she could not possibly understand how much the Hameau would further damage her reputation. Many people began to see her as a clueless spendthrift who liked to play at being a shepherdess, whilst some of the real peasants lived in very hard conditions.

The Affair of the Necklace

Cardinal Louis de Rohan, a member of one of France's most prominent aristocratic houses, had been desperate to ingratiate himself with Marie-Antoinette ever since she had ostracised him after he had offended her mother. He had also jested to friends in Vienna by showing them some of the pamphlets insulting Marie-Antoinette's honour.

When an impoverished aristocrat named Jeanne Saint-Rémy de Valois, Comtesse de la Motte, became aware of Rohan's desire to befriend the queen, she first became his mistress and then set about hatching an ingenious plan to make a small fortune for herself in the process.

After Marie-Antoinette had refused to buy a magnificent diamond necklace from the Royal Jewellers (she said the cost was too high and that the Royal Family preferred now to spend their money on the Navy). She became impatient with the jeweller and snapped, "Not only have I never commissioned you to make a jewel … but, what is more, I have told you repeatedly that I would never add so much as another carat to my present collection of diamonds. I refused to buy your necklace for myself; the King offered to buy it for me, and I refused it as a gift. Never mention it again."

The Comtesse de la Motte then pretended to be an intimate friend of the Queen's, whilst persuading the Cardinal that the Queen secretly desired the necklace. He paid the 2 million livres to her (thinking she would then give it to the Queen) and the Comtesse collected the necklace from the jewellers (who also thought she would give it to the Queen, who would then pay them.) The Comtesse de la Motte, however, disappeared with both the jewels and the money.

When the Comtesse and the Cardinal were brought to trial, the Monarchy's enemies seized upon the chance to attack the Queen through the scandal. They implied that it was Marie-Antoinette's poor reputation which had made the whole débâcle possible. The Cardinal was acquitted and Marie-Antoinette was suspected of having masterminded the whole plot. Naturally, the pamphleteers delighted in suggesting that she was having affairs with both the Cardinal and the Comtesse.

Popular hatred against the queen accelerated rapidly after the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The Comtesse later escaped to England, where she continued to insult the queen and protest her own innocence.

The countdown to Revolution

Coupled with the political disaster of the Affair of the Necklace, the Royal Family also suffered some terrible personal tragedies. In 1787, Marie-Antoinette's youngest daughter, Sophie-Béatrix, died shortly before her first birthday. The Queen was devastated and spent hours weeping over the baby's body.

Not long after, the Royal Physicians informed her that her eldest son, the Dauphin Louis-Joséph, was terminally ill with consumption. The child's condition deteriorated and Marie-Antoinette spent most of her time nursing him during his last agonising months.

The French government was now seriously in debt, thanks to inefficient taxation and costly foreign wars. The King summoned a council of nobles to discuss the situation. The Assembly of Notables, as it was called, could find no solution to the government's financial crisis. So Louis XVI was left with no alternative other than to call a meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789. The Estates-General was the main representative body of the French population, but it had not been called since the reign of Louis XIII in 1614.

Within days of meeting, the Estates-General was clamouring for reforms and criticising the Monarchy and its policies. However, the Royal Family's attentions were on other things. On 4 June, Louis-Joséph died at the age of seven. The King sank into sporadic bouts of clinical depression and the Queen was heartbroken. Immediately, some of her enemies began to spread rumours that she had poisoned her own son.

The ultra-royalist circles at Versailles feared and resented the Estates-General. Marie-Antoinette was coming to suspect that the reformists in the Estates-General were secretly working to overthrow the Monarchy. On 11 July, Marie-Antoinette and her brother-in-law the Comte d'Artois persuaded Louis XVI to dismiss the liberal prime minister, Jacques Necker. Marie-Antoinette's ally, Baron de Breteuil was made prime minister instead.

Breteuil was a devout Roman Catholic and a committed royalist. The monarchy's enemies painted him as a ruthless tyrant, even though he did have a reputation for being very humanitarian in his treatment of opponents. Even so, the propaganda worked and Paris was gripped by fear that the royalists were planning a military attack on the city in order to force it into submission.

A large mob marched on the symbol of royal authority in Paris, the Bastille Prison and seized control of it on 14 July 1789. The Governor of the Prison was lynched and so were two ultra-right politicians. News did not reach the palace until very late that evening. When Louis XVI heard of it he asked, "This is a revolt?" to which the duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt replied, "No, sire. It is a revolution."

Panic seized the palace and many courtiers fled for their lives. Louis XVI sent his youngest brother, Charles d'Artois abroad, because there were fears he would be assassinated. Louis also hoped that if anything happened to the rest of the Royal Family, Charles would be able to keep the Monarchy alive in exile. Marie-Antoinette's beloved Comtesse de Polignac fled to Switzerland, where she continued writing to the queen. Marie-Antoinette appointed the Marquise de Tourzel as governess to the two surviving royal children – Princess Marie-Thérèse and the new dauphin, Louis-Charles. Tourzel was a much better choice than Polignac, for she was devoutly religious, discreet, loyal and disciplined.

Marie-Antoinette hoped to flee also. She felt it was unwise to remain so close to Paris during the current troubles. She hoped that the King would give orders for them to move to their château at Saint-Cloud or even to another royal home at Compiègne. The Queen's things were already packed, and so were her children's, however Louis decided that they would stay at Versailles. The Queen could not disobey her husband and she refused to leave him.

Later, Louis XVI would realise what a mistake he had made in not leaving Palace of Versailles when he had the chance. His decision to remain at the palace would condemn his entire family to intense suffering and trauma in the years ahead.

The fall of Versailles

It was few months before news arrived that a mob from Paris had taken the decision to march on Versailles. Rumours had spread in the city that the royals were hoarding all the grain. News reached the Palace on October 5th, with Marie-Antoinette once again repeating her plea that they flee. The King refused.

Since she was aware that she was the most unpopular member of the Royal Family, Marie-Antoinette chose to sleep on her own that evening. She left strict instructions with the Marquise de Tourzel that she was to take the children straight to the King if there were any disturbances.

In the early hours of the morning, the mob broke into the palace. The Queen's Guards were massacred. She and her ladies-in-waiting only narrowly escaped with their lives before the crowd burst in and ransacked her chambers. They made to the centre of the palace; the King's Bedchamber. The King's younger sister, Princess Elisabeth, was already there. The two children arrived and the doors were locked.

By this time, a large crowd had gathered in the palace's courtyard and were demanding that the Queen come to the balcony. She appeared in her night-robe, accompanied by her two children. The crowd demanded that the two children be sent back inside. So the Queen stood alone for almost ten minutes, whilst many in the crowd pointed muskets at her. She then bowed her head and returned inside. Some in the mob were so impressed by her bravery that they cried "Vive la Reine!" ("Long live the Queen!")

The Royals were forced to return with the mob to Paris. They were taken to the dilapidated Tuileries Palace, which had last been used during the reign of Louis XIV. The Marquis de la Fayette, a liberal aristocrat who had embraced many American ideas when he fought for George Washington, was placed in charge of the Royal Family's security. When he met the Queen he bluntly told her, "Your Majesty is a prisoner. Yes, it's true. Since Her Majesty no longer has her Guard of Honour, she is a prisoner." Other royal "prisoners" included Louis XVI's sister, Elisabeth, and his other brother – the Comte de Provence. The Princesse de Lamballe had refused to abandon Marie-Antoinette, as had the Marquise de Tourzel and several other royal servants.

Desperate to re-assure her friends, Marie-Antoinette sent a short note to the Austrian Ambassador saying, "I'm fine, don't worry." When she appeared in public she appeared calm, serene and dignified. Yet, beneath the façade she was suffering intense trauma. She knew that she had narrowly escaped with her life during the siege of the palace; she also knew that she was under virtual house arrest and that the French Monarchy was facing the greatest crisis of its existence.

A republican monarchy?

From the beginning of the Revolution, Marie-Antoinette remained sceptical about the chances of a compromise. However, she was not yet prepared to give up all hope of a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Certain republicans, like Antoine Barnave, were moved by her plight and many more were thoroughly impressed by her dignity. The Comte de Mirabeau, who she despised, told many people how impressed he was with the queen's courage and "manly" strength of character.

Trying to re-establish normality, Marie-Antoinette began inviting charitable commissions to the Tuileries and continued her generous patronage and desire to alleviate the suffering of the poor children of Paris. She also spent as much time as possible with her children, particularly Louis-Charles whom she affectionately nicknamed mon chou d'amour.

Public hatred against the Queen was so intense that she had to attend her daughter's first Communion in disguise. The traditional gift for a Princess upon her first Communion was a set of magnificent diamonds, but both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette decided it would be better that Marie-Thérèse go without the diamonds than the people go without bread.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly was drawing up a new constitution which would turn France into a constitutional monarchy. Catherine the Great wrote to Marie-Antoinette from Russia, telling her that the royals should ignore the complaints of their people "as the moon goes on its course without being stopped by the cries of dogs." Louis's sister, Elisabeth, was even more vocal in her hatred of the new system. Elisabeth, like her exiled brother Charles d'Artois was so horrified with the French Revolution, that she believed a civil war was inevitable.

On 14 July 1790, the Royal Family had to attend festivities to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. The Queen dutifully attended, even though she described the celebrations as symbolising "everything that is most cruel and sorrowful". The King's ultra-liberal cousin, Philippe, duc d'Orléans returned from England and publicly proclaimed his support for the revolutionaries. His hatred for Marie-Antoinette was extreme and she believed that he was fomenting the Revolution in order to seize the crown for himself. Ultra-royalists even whispered that the duc d'Orléans had orchestrated the siege of Versailles in the hope of having Marie-Antoinette assassinated. The duke enjoyed enormous popular support amongst the people of Paris, although his Scottish mistress Grace Elliott was a secret royalist, who later admitted to having gone to Belgium on a secret mission for the queen. She carried messages to baron de Breteuil, who was now acting as Louis and Antoinette's secret Prime Minister-in-exile. With Louis now suffering from periodic depression and chronic lethargy, Marie-Antoinette had taken it upon herself to appointing Breteuil. It is generally believed that she forged the official document appointing Breteuil and passed it off as the king's own handwriting.

Any hope of a compromise between the royals and the revolutionaries ended with the creation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. This was a republican attack on the privileges and ancient practises of the Roman Catholic Church. When news was delivered to the Royal Family, Marie-Antoinette whispered to the Marquise de Tourzel, "The Church. The Church... we're next."

By 1791, both the King and the Queen had now come to the conclusion that the Revolution was going to destroy France. They came to the decision to flee to Montmédy, a royalist stronghold in the east of France. There they would gather their supporters and any foreign assistance they could gather (Marie-Antoinette's brother Leopold II, the Russian empress, the King of Sweden and the King of Prussia had all promised military aid.) They hoped that once they had escaped they would be able to negotiate with the revolutionaries, but they were now quite prepared to use force to stop them.

The royals' escape was foiled at the town of Varennes and they were forced back to Paris by local republicans. They were returned to the Tuileries Palace, but hysteria against them had now reached fever-pitch. When the duke of Brunswick issued a manifesto threatening Paris with destruction if the Royal Family were harmed, reaction in Paris was swift and brutal. Rather than heeding the Manifesto, the revolutionaries were enraged by it and they attacked the Tuileries on August 10th 1792.

Marie-Antoinette's initial decision was to stand and face the mob, even if it meant doing it on her own. However, her ladies-in-waiting begged her to think of her children and she reluctantly agreed to accompany the King and his entourage when they fled the palace for the National Assembly. The Palace was invaded in their absence and the Swiss Guard were massacred. The Governor of the Tuileries, the Marquis de Champcenetz, managed to escape the mob despite incurring heavy wounds. He was sentenced to death by the revolutionaries but managed to escape Paris with the help of Mrs. Elliott.

Louis XVI was arrested by the republicans on 13th August and just over a month later, on September 21st, they abolished the Monarchy. The Royal Family were then moved to the foreboding Temple Fortress and imprisoned. The King, Queen, their two children and Louis's sister Elisabeth were heavily guarded, lest they were rescued by royalists.

After they had been imprisoned, Paris erupted into violence. The mob invaded the prisons and massacred anyone suspected of royalist leanings. Marie-Antoinette's dearest friend, Princesse de Lamballe was captured and told to repudiate her oath of loyalty to the Queen. When she refused, she was murdered by repeated hammer-blows to the head. Her body was then torn apart and her head placed on a pike. It was taken to Marie-Antoinette's window and displayed outside it. When the Queen saw this horrific sight, she collapsed to the ground in a dead faint.

Louis was tried for treason on December 11th. He was condemned to death on January 17th. He was betrayed by his cousin, the duc d'Orléans, who (as Marie-Antoinette had always suspected) turned traitor by voting for Louis's death. He was allowed one last farewell supper with his family and he urged his young son not to seek vengeance for his death. The Queen spent the next few hours huddled against her husband, clutching their son. Marie-Thérèse sobbed hysterically, whilst Princess Elisabeth clung to her brother. Louis was taken to the guillotine the next day. When she heard the crowds cheer at his death, Marie-Antoinette collapsed to the ground unable to speak.


Marie-Antoinette did not ever truly recover from her husband's death. According to her daughter, "She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death." She began to suffer from convulsions and fainting fits. She also lost her appetite and lost an enormous amount of weight.

The Prison where Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned before her death
The Conciergerie Prison where Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned before her death

On the night of July 3rd 1793, commissioners arrived in the Royal Family's cell with instructions to separate Marie-Antoinette's son from the rest of his family. He had been proclaimed Louis XVII by exiled royalists after his father's death. The Republican government had therefore decided to imprison the eight-year-old child in solitary confinement. Louis-Charles flung himself into his mother's arms crying hysterically and Marie-Antoinette shielded him with her body, refusing to give him up. When the commissioners threatened to kill her if she did not hand the child over, she still refused to move. It was only when they threatened to kill Marie-Thérèse that she came to realise how hopeless the situation was. Two hours after the commissioners had entered her room, Marie-Antoinette had to say goodbye to her beloved son.

She would never see him again.

At two o'clock in the morning of 2nd August 1793, Marie-Antoinette was awoken by guards and told to get dressed. She was taken away from her daughter and sister-in-law and transferred across Paris to the Conciergerie Prison. She was re-named "the Widow Capet," after a very distant common-born ancestor of the Royal Family. She was no longer to be referred to as "Marie-Antoinette" but simply "Antoinette Capet" or "Prisoner No. 280." A young peasant girl, Rosalie Lamorlière, was entrusted to take care of Marie-Antoinette's needs, but these were few since the Queen did not ask for much.

On 2nd September, the republican journalist and politician, Jacques Hébert, told the Committee of Public Safety, "I have promised [my readers] the head of Antoinette. I will go and cut if off myself if there is any delay in giving it to me." Most republicans now felt an intense hatred for her and they were determined to see her dead.

She was brought to trial on October 14th. When she entered the courtroom, most people were shocked at her appearance. She was emaciated, prematurely aged, exhausted and care-worn. Forty witnesses were called by the prosecution. Most of the evidence they gave was absurd. They returned to the Affair of the Necklace or alleged that the Queen had plied the Swiss Guard with alcohol during the siege of the palace. The most horrific charges came whenever Hébert accused her of having sexually-abused her own son. When the Queen was pressed to answer this charge she replied, "If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother."

She was condemned to death for treason on October 15th and escorted back to the Conciergerie. She wrote her final letter, to her sister-in-law Elisabeth. She expressed her love for her friends and family and begged that her children would not seek to avenge her murder.


On the morning of October 16th, a guard arrived to cut her hair and bind her hands behind her back. She was forced into a common, slow-moving cart and paraded through the streets of Paris for over an hour before reaching the Place de la Révolution where the guillotine stood. She stepped lightly down from the cart and stared up at the guillotine. The priest who had accompanied her whispered, "This is the moment, Madame, to arm yourself with courage." Marie-Antoinette turned to look at him and smiled, "Courage? The moment when my troubles are going to end is not the moment when my courage is going to fail me."

At 12:15 on Wednesday 16th October 1793, Marie-Antoinette's head was taken off by one swish of the guillotine and exhibited to a cheering crowd. Her body was then taken and dumped in an unmarked mass grave in the Rue d'Anjou .


Marie-Antoinette went down in history as shallow, weak, self-indulgent and stupid. Only royalists, who saw her as a martyr, viewed her any differently. They later recovered her body and reburied it in the Bourbon dynasty crypt in Paris, they also retrieved the bodies of Louis XVI and Princess Elisabeth (who was executed in 1794).

In recent years, however, this has somewhat changed. In 1933, Stefan Zweig wrote a biography of her Marie-Antoinette: The Portrait of an Ordinary Woman, in which he argued the Queen achieved greatness during the final years of her life thanks to her extraordinary courage. His biography was later made into a hugely successful movie starring Norma Shearer (see below.)

French historians, like André Castelot and Évelyne Lever, have generally been more critical in their biographies of Marie-Antoinette; although neither have attacked her with the venom that she received during her lifetime.

The trend in recent years, however, has been to focus on Marie-Antoinette's strengths rather than her weaknesses. Deborah Cadbury, in her biography of Louis XVII, praised Marie-Antoinette's devotion to her family and Munro Price, in his political study on the fall of the French Monarchy, wrote "Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette have often been portrayed as weak and vacillating. Far from it; their policy between 1789 and 1792 was entirely consistent, and highly conservative. They were prepared to die for their beliefs, and ultimately did so."

The most thorough biography of Marie-Antoinette has come from British historian, Lady Antonia Fraser. Marie Antoinette: The Journey was first published in 2001 and became an instant best-seller. Plans are now afoot to turn it into a Hollywood movie (see below.) After reading Fraser's book, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore concluded that Marie-Antoinette was "a woman more sinned against than sinning."

The only major disagreement amongst modern historians is the role played by the Swedish aristocrat, Count Axel von Fersen. There were unsubstantiated rumours at court that the dashing Fersen was at one time Marie-Antoinette's lover. It is true that the two were very close and that Fersen risked his life many times to try and free her from prison. Some historians, like Evelyn Farr and Antonia Fraser, seem convinced that at one point the two did enjoy a physical relationship. Others remain sceptical, arguing that there is no concrete evidence to support the idea that the two were lovers in the physical sense.

In a recent survey, Marie-Antoinette was voted the most famous person in French history, eclipsing even Napoleon Bonaparte and coming joint 1st with Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle.

In the movies

Norma Shearer who is still considered the greatest actress to have played Marie-Antoinette
Norma Shearer who is still considered the greatest actress to have played Marie-Antoinette

Given that she has become one of the most iconic historical figures, Marie-Antoinette has appeared in many motion pictures. The greatest was Marie Antoinette in 1938, a multi-million dollar MGM studio extravaganza. It was based on Stefan Zweig's biography of Marie-Antoinette. Lasting over three hours and famed for its set designs and costumes, Marie Antoinette became an instant hit. Hollywood legend Norma Shearer starred in the title role. She identified heavily with the role and heavily researched every aspect of Marie-Antoinette's life. Even today, there is still an emotional vibrancy and naturalness to her portrayal of the queen. She was nominated for the Oscar, but controversially lost out to Bette Davis for her role in Jezebel. For many people, Shearer's portrayal remains the definitive screen-version of Marie-Antoinette. In Argentina, the film became the favourite movie of Eva Perón, who so admired Shearer's style that she later dyed her hair blonde.

Her character has also appeared in several French-made movies on the life of Madame du Barry and several on the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace has inspired two movies, the most recent being in 2001. Heavily-romanticised and with the facts distorted to favour the Countess, the film was panned by critics. Joely Richardson played Marie-Antoinette, with Hilary Swank, Jonathan Pryce, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox and Christopher Walken also starring.

In 1989, the French historian André Castelot wrote the script for L'Autrichienne (a cruel nickname given to Marie-Antoinette, playing on her Austrian nationality and the French word for "bitch".) The film starred the German-born actress, Ute Lemper, as Marie-Antoinette and the entire script was based on the transcripts of the queen's trial in 1793.

At the moment, US director Sofia Coppola is planning to adapt Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie-Antoinette for the big screen. Filming is set to commence in 2005, with some scenes being shot at the actual Versailles. Kirsten Dunst is set to star as Marie-Antoinette, with Jason Schwartzmann playing Louis XVI and Marianne Faithful playing Marie-Antoinette's mother.

Last updated: 05-13-2005 01:32:11
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04