From nation’s sweetheart to public enemy, what led Marie Antoinette to the guillotine? We bring you the facts about her life and death…
Marie Antoinette: in profile
Born: 2 November 1755, Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria
Died: 16 October 1793, Place de la Concorde (previously known as Place de la Revolution), Paris, France
Known for: Being overthrown by French revolutionaries and being publicly guillotined after the abolition of the monarchy.
Family: Marie was the 15th child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Empress Maria Theresa. Together the couple had 16 children, 10 of whom lived into adulthood.
At the age of 14, Marie married the heir to the French throne, Louis-Auguste, Duke of Berry and Dauphin of France, by proxy (a wedding that takes place without the presence of at least one of the two individuals) on 19 April 1770. Together they had four children: Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Sophie Hélène Béatrice.
Marie Antoinette’s early life
Born an archduchess of Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette spent her childhood in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and Hofburg Palace. The 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, she was christened ‘Maria Antonia’ and known to the family as ‘Antoine’. She and her siblings spent their childhood in the colourful court of Vienna while their mother charted out their futures, determined to use her large brood to national advantage.
Marie’s education was typical of that given to a royal woman of the time, and she learned how to sing, dance and play music. She shared a governess with her elder sister, Maria Carolina, and the sisters remained close for the rest of Marie’s life.
The marriage of Marie Antoinette to the future King Louis XVI
In 1756, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty promised that both countries would support one another after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1754–63) – a series of battles fought between the strongest powers of Europe over British and French colonies in the US.
King Louis XV of France and Marie’s mother eventually decided that a marriage alliance would secure this treaty between the French and Austrians. As a result, the 14-year-old Marie was married to Louis XV’s heir, his eldest grandson Louis-Auguste, by proxy on 19 April 1770. After meeting her husband for the first time on 14 May 1770, an official wedding ceremony took place at the Palace of Versailles on 16 May 1770.
In June 1770, some 50,000 people eagerly gathered along the streets of Paris to catch a glimpse of Marie during her first public appearance as a member of the French royal family. Members of the crowd were so keen to see the teenager that at least 30 people were crushed to death during the frantic rush. Many contemporaries were charmed by Marie during this public occasion, and praised her beauty. “While there were some mutterings about her Austrian heritage, her future seemed optimistic,” explains historian Emily Brand. “A whirl of festivities at Versailles set the tone for the court she would cultivate over the next 20 years.”
Marie soon became involved in the extravagance of French court life, attending lavish balls and gambling. Her husband, however, shied away from public affairs. The couple would not consummate their marriage until seven years later – this became a popular matter of discussion and ridicule both at court and among the public.
King Louis XV died on 10 May 1774 after contracting smallpox. Marie, who was not yet 19 years old, became queen of France when her husband inherited the throne as King Louis XVI. Although Marie’s future seemed secure at this point, in reality the nation was squirming with unrest. “Just weeks after her husband’s coronation in June 1775, parts of the country flared up into riots about the cost of bread,” Emily Brand explains. “Years of heavy taxation and failed fiscal policies were leaving the people hungry.”
Did Marie Antoinette have an affair?
Answered by Emily Brand
A highly social creature, the queen developed open and long-lasting attachments to female favourites at court. Perhaps the most significant were two of her ladies-in-waiting – the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchesse de Polignac. These friendships were later tarnished by accusations of sexual depravity, but more convincing are the rumours about her relationship with a handsome Swedish count, Axel von Fersen, who was admitted into her close circle during the summer of her first pregnancy and left the country in a cloud of gossip in 1780.
Marie Antoinette’s children
The first three years of Marie’s life as queen were childless. Conscious of her daughter’s delicate position, Maria Theresa bombarded her with advice about influencing people, and even sought secret updates about her behaviour from the ambassador in Paris.
By 1777, Marie’s brother Joseph – then Holy Roman Emperor – travelled to Versailles to identify why the couple were not fulfilling their duty of starting a family. “His conclusion was simple – lack of experience, and an apparent mutual disinterest,” explains Brand. “Nonetheless, his stern words clearly had an effect, and the queen fell pregnant shortly after his visit.”
In December 1778, Marie gave birth to her first child, Marie Thérèse Charlotte. A son, Louis-Joseph, followed in October 1781, with two more children in 1785 (Louis Charles) and 1786 (Sophie Hélène Béatrice). “It was a relief to all parties when the queen gave birth to her first son, Louis-Joseph – although unfortunately, her mother had not lived to see it,” comments Emily Brand.
Why did the French dislike Marie Antoinette?
France experienced poor harvests during the 1780s, which consequently increased the price of grain. The government, too, faced mounting financial difficulties – and Marie’s lavish lifestyle at court soon came under attack. Numerous pamphlets and satires were distributed across the country demonstrating peoples’ disgust towards the queen’s extravagant spending.
Meanwhile, dangerous rumours circulated that Marie was having an affair with her close companion Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count. Questions arose regarding the paternity of Marie’s children.
In 1783, Marie’s extravagance reached new levels when she began building a secluded farming village on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Fitted with a farmhouse, cottages, a mill and farm animals, Le Hameau de la Reine (or ‘The Queen’s Hamlet’) was created to allow the queen and her closest companions to escape the busy court in Versailles. Marie and her ladies-in-waiting would dress up as shepherdesses and pretend to be peasants, walking around the farm and milking the cows and sheep. Marie even employed servants to uphold the village and care for the animals.
Despite the idyllic nature of this retreat, members of the court and the public believed that Marie was mocking French peasants by dressing up as shepherdesses and acting as if she was impoverished.
What was the Affair of the Diamond Necklace?
Answered by Emily Brand
Marie Antoinette had long provoked gossip, but in a world of blossoming print culture, her supposed misdemeanours became inescapably public – disastrously so in 1785. In what became known as the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’, the queen was held responsible for a jewellery heist that was in fact the scheme of the impoverished noblewoman Jeanne de la Motte.
In a ruse to obtain a necklace worth 1.6 million livres, La Motte persuaded an out-of-favour cardinal to procure it and arrange payment on behalf of ‘the Queen’, with her as go-between. By the time the fraud was exposed, it had been broken up and sold. The trial declared La Motte guilty, casting doubt on the Queen and cementing her reputation as deceitful and extravagant.
In the years that followed, France occupied itself with the question of how to recover from its political and economic stagnation. For Marie Antoinette, the national emergency gathering momentum around her was clouded by personal tragedy. The death of their youngest daughter in 1787 was followed by that of their son and heir in June 1789.
Meanwhile, the nobility – including the king’s brother, the Count of Provence, and his cousin, the Count of Orleans – became disgruntled with Louis XVI’s attitude towards pressing governmental matters: Louis was indecisive about how to rectify the growing government debt, and was hesitant in resolving the issues surrounding the poor harvests.
Facing mounting pressure from his nobles, on 8 May 1788 Louis XVI ordered the first meeting in 175 years of the Estates General – the general assembly of the representatives of the clergy (first estate); the nobility (second estate), and the common people (third estate). Louis hoped that this would allow the representatives of France the opportunity to discuss ways to overcome the increasing state debt.
However, after reaching an impasse over France’s financial situation, the third estate broke away from the Estates General and expressed plans to govern without the authority of the king. They were soon joined by representatives from the first and second estates, who were increasingly frustrated by the king’s hesitancy over the rising prices of foodstuff and the queen’s excessive lifestyle.
Losing their heads: the road to revolution
Written by Emily Brand
When Marie Antoinette arrived in France, the road ahead did not point irrevocably to revolution, but bad political choices, unfortunate climate conditions and ideological shifts at all levels of society conspired to ultimately undermine the monarchy. From the mid-1700s, an economy wracked by wartime taxations and bad harvests was further weakened by the failure of attempts at fiscal reform.
The effects of mounting debts and disasters were felt in rocketing food prices and growing poverty, and inspired no confidence in those in power – the royal tendency for flagrant extravagance did not help. The inevitable unrest that stirred among the lower classes was preyed upon by those who opposed the government’s policies and saw an opportunity to gain power for themselves.
Their efforts were legitimised by radical ‘enlightened’ theories about liberty, education and human nature that were sweeping across Europe, but perhaps had their beating heart in France. The existing feudal hierarchy was increasingly questioned, and the vacillating and unsure stance taken by the King did nothing to restore faith.
As mistrust of elites and outsiders mounted, the wave of popular feeling increased. The growing print culture – political tracts, bawdy ballads, popular prints – ensured that the message was heard far and wide, and was a key uniting factor for the revolutionary cause. It was here that the queen was transformed into a “monster in everything”, a symbol of the hated old system, and a crucial scapegoat for all the ills of the nation.
The increasingly personal attacks on the royals, particularly Marie Antoinette, chipped away at the national consciousness, and in demystifying the monarchy, also facilitated its downfall. On 14 July 1789, this climaxed with the Storming of the Bastille, a symbol of despotic rule, and triggered the spread of revolutionary action across France.
Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution
On 14 July 1789, public opposition to the royal family reached its height, and the Bastille – a state prison in Paris – was stormed by an angry, armed mob. The Bastille was seen to represent the monarchy’s absolute authority, and the storming of its walls instigated the French Revolution and the beginning of the fall of the French monarchy.
Several weeks later, thousands of people surrounded the Palace of Versailles, demanding political reforms and changes to the way in which the monarchy governed. The royal family was then imprisoned within the walls of Tuileries Palace in Paris by the revolutionary forces that opposed the monarchy.
As more people joined the revolutionary cause in Paris, and public opinion of the monarchy deteriorated further, in 1791 Marie planned to flee France with her family and find sanctuary in Austria. However, the family was captured while attempting to escape and was taken back to Paris. They faced hostile crowds of people in the streets upon their return.
Amid mounting pressure from his political opponents, in September 1791 Louis XVI agreed to instigate a constitutional monarchy, and promised to share his political power with the French Assembly. This failed to quell the rebellion, however: less than a year later, on 10 August 1792, a gang of revolutionaries broke into Tuileries Palace, where the royal family was being kept under surveillance, and took Louis XVI and Marie prisoner.
Did Marie Antoinette really say “let them eat cake”?
Answered by Emily Brand
The quote famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, “If the people have no bread, then let them eat cake”, was in fact already a familiar attack on privilege by the time of the revolution. It was levelled against Louis XIV’s first queen in the 1600s, and the philosopher Rousseau wrote an almost identical anecdote about a “great princess” years before Marie Antoinette entered France.
There is no evidence that the revolutionaries bothered to trot out this well-worn accusation, although it was reported that one heartless politician faced with the starving poor had snarled “let them eat hay”. Its exact origins are unclear, but the story existed long before Marie Antoinette became queen and was first attached to her 50 years after her death.
The Republican government was determined to eradicate anyone who opposed the French Revolution. As a result, thousands of royalists, nobles and people affiliated with the royal family across the country were guillotined and brutally massacred, including the Princesse de Lamballe, one of Marie’s closest companions. With the king and queen now under arrest, the National Convention ordered that the monarchy should be abolished – and France was officially declared a republic.
On 21 September 1792, the Legislative Assembly in France voted for the monarchy to be abolished. Just four months later, after being put on trial by members of the new republican regime, Louis XVI was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. He was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Concorde in Paris on 21 January 1793.
What was Marie Antoinette accused of?
On 14 October 1793, after months of imprisonment, Marie was put on trial and found guilty of treason. But what exactly was she accused of? As historian Emily Brand explains, the case built against Marie Antoinette pulled no punches: “She was held responsible for the deaths of ‘thousands of French-men’, accused of manipulating her husband, and incest with her son. She met their claims calmly, but there was little hope for a reprieve.”
How did Marie Antoinette die and how old was she?
Two days later after she was put on trial, at the age of 37, Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate as her husband: execution by guillotine. In her final letter, to her sister-in-law, she displayed both the calm dignity and the motherly love for which she was to be revered in the 19th century: “I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing… I embrace you with all my heart, as I do my poor dear children. My God, how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Farewell!”
In the final moments before her death, Marie begged the executioner for his pardon – to no avail. The blade of the guillotine fell; the crowd cheered, and some at the front rushed to mop up her blood with their handkerchiefs. Later that day, a revolutionary newspaper declared, “the globe is purified!” “Her execution was hailed as the triumph of liberty over oppression,” says Brand.
What happened to Marie Antoinette’s head?
After the queen’s head fell, it was immediately shown to the crowd, who responded by crying: “Vive la République!” Shortly after her death, Marie’s body was hurled into an unmarked grave in the cemetery of L’église de la Madeleine in Paris.
The bodies of Louis XVI and Marie were discovered during the restoration of the monarchy in France in the early 19th century. Their remains were properly reburied at the Basilica of St Denis on 21 January 1815.
Marie Antoinette: in summary
Written by Emily Brand
From the moment she stepped from her gilded carriage at Compiègne in 1770 until her rough and undignified cart-journey to the scaffold, Marie-Antoinette was destined to be a focus of popular attention.
A child of the Viennese court and a leader of fashion at the height of French power, her 20-year reign saw such economic, social and political change that she was recast from “adored by all Frenchmen” to “avowed enemy of the French Nation”.
A flawed and feared woman who became a symbol of all that was hated by the revolutionaries, her steady but spectacular fall from grace is perhaps unmatched in its drama and its violence.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015, and has since been updated to include content from BBC History Revealed written by historian Emily Brand