The final days of Marie Antoinette
When queen of France Marie Antoinette was indicted in August 1793, months after the execution of her husband Louis XVI during the French Revolution, she asked that she would not "suffer long". However, she went on to spend more than two months living in squalor before her trial and eventual execution for treason on 16 October 1793. Here, Will Bashor shares the final events of Marie Antoinette's life, including an escape attempt which would become known as the Carnation Affair…
“I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long.” These words are reported to have been said by Marie Antoinette, after the prosecutor read his indictment.
But little did the fallen queen know then that she would spend two-and-a-half months before her trial and execution in a noisy, mouldy dungeon that reeked of pipe smoke, rat urine, and poor sanitation.
Here, Will Bashor shares the events of the queen of France’s final days after being overthrown during the French Revolution…
2 August 1793
Marie Antoinette arrived at the Conciergerie in the Temple Prison, Paris, at 03.00am, after being torn from the arms of her daughter, Marie-Thérèse, and her sister-in-law, Madame Élisabeth. Her husband, King Louis XVI, had been executed earlier in the year and her youngest son, Louis Charles, had been taken from her a month earlier.
Marie Antoinette was quickly escorted to a cell below the level of the prison courtyard. The brick-tiled floor was covered with muddy slime and water trickled down the walls due to the proximity to the Seine. When the river was low, it was possible to see shreds of the old wallpaper – decorated, ironically, with the fleur-de-lis.
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The queen stared at the bare walls. When she found a nail, she hung her watch on it and then stretched out on her bed—a folding cot that was thought (by some) too good for the queen. “The most infected dungeon with a few trusses of straw for a bed,” remarked a guard, “is all that is necessary”.
However, the current prison wardens, Toussaint and Marie Anne Richard, were known to be compassionate and showed their prisoners respect and consideration. They took great risks to provide Marie Antoinette with small comforts: a pillow; a small table with two straw chairs; a small wooden box of powder and a tin pot of pomade.
The queen and her wardens were under constant surveillance. Only a screen separated the queen from two guards who could be found drinking, smoking, and playing cards at any time of the day.
When the queen implored Madame Richard for a fresh supply of clothing, the orders from the revolutionary government were so stern and strict that the apprehensive warden did not dare grant her wishes. However, when Richard noticed that Marie Antoinette’s bonnet was no longer capable of being mended, she took the risk to ask for a new one. Curiously, the government officials complied and the queen received two new bonnets. It is known that they cost seven livres each – the queen’s expenses were meticulously recorded during her incarceration.
The officials must have taken notice of the cost of the new bonnets because, on 26 September, they ordered police to search through the queen’s belongings left in the Temple prison to find any clothing that she might need and to send it along. The decree dryly added: “It is expected that this will result in savings.”
Worried about the melancholy queen, one day Madame Richard brought her youngest child, Fanfan, with her to the queen’s cell. He was a charming lad with fair hair and blue eyes but, when the queen saw him, she reportedly trembled with emotion and, taking him into her arms, covered him with kisses. She then burst into tears and spoke of her own son who was about the same age, but still imprisoned in the Temple prison. She said she thought of him constantly day and night. This incident reportedly made the queen so distressed that she had to lie down. Madame Richard confided to Rosalie, the prison maid, that she would take care never to bring her son into the prison again.
However, Madame Richard would not have the opportunity, as the Richards' wardenship would soon be cut short. On 28 August 1793, the royalist Chevalier of Rougeville dropped a carnation in the queen’s cell, which contained a message rolled up in its petals.
Marie Antoinette later testified that the message revealed the following vague phrases: “What will you do? What do you plan to do? I’ve been in prison, but I was saved by a miracle. I will come Friday.” There was also an offer of money, perhaps to bribe the guards, and a promise that Rougeville would return on Friday. The queen used a pin to prick a note that said: “I am kept in sight. I cannot talk to anyone. I trust you. I will come.”
This was the first incident of what was known as the Carnation Affair, a plan to help the queen escape, and it could very well have succeeded. Rougeville did return on Friday to escort the queen to safety, but a guard who had been bribed stopped the queen at the last minute from leaving the premises, for reasons unknown. The plot had failed and the queen was transported back to her cell.
All parties in the affair were questioned by the authorities, but the queen was evasive, careful not to incriminate anyone. The Richards, however, were relieved of their duties and imprisoned for their negligence. They were not released until after the queen’s execution, after which Madame Richard returned to work and was often praised by the prisoners for her kindness. Three years later, however, she was murdered by a desperate convict who was reportedly 'maddened' by a sentence of 20 years in irons. When Madame Richard handed him a bowl of soup, he stabbed her in the heart with a knife. She died within minutes.
21 September 1793
Following the Carnation Affair, the Richards wardens were replaced by the warden of La Force prison, Monsieur Bault, and his wife. The warden of the Conciergerie was not a coveted post and the Baults hesitated before contemplating the daunting responsibility, fully aware that Warden Richard and his wife had just been arrested.
On the other hand, the Baults were indebted to Marie Antoinette, who had patronised them when she was queen. And when the couple discovered that the brutish caretaker of the Temple prison was being considered for the wardenship at the Conciergerie, the couple quickly solicited and obtained the position. They looked forward to using the opportunity to console and soften the captivity of their former mistress, as they had done for the royal prisoners of La Force.
But times had changed. Since the departure of the Richards, wardens could no longer shop for food provisions for the queen; suppliers had to pass through the prison checkpoints with their goods. Although Madame Bault’s orders were to give her prisoner only bread and water, she followed the example of her predecessors and carefully prepared food bought secretly from nearby vendors. And because Marie Antoinette never drank wine and the fetid water of the Seine River did not agree with her, Madame Bault also took great risk to have the pure waters of Arcueil brought to her every day.
Monsieur Bault was more cautious. On one occasion, the queen reportedly offered the prison maid Rosalie a piece of white ribbon. After Rosalie left the queen’s cell, Warden Bault reportedly joined her in the corridor and snatched the ribbon from her hands. Did he fear for Rosalie’s life, or perhaps his own, for receiving such a small gift from the queen?
“I am very sorry to have vexed that poor lady, but my post is so difficult that a mere nothing is enough to make one tremble,” he said, according to a later account. “I can never forget that poor Richard and his wife are at the bottom of a dungeon. In God's name, Rosalie, do not commit such acts of imprudence, or I should be a lost man.”
Marie Antoinette’s feelings may have been hurt by Bault’s reaction, but she surely recognised the danger that came from being her warden. The former warden’s family currently sat in prison and could soon be escorted to the scaffold for their compassion. Yet on another occasion, Warden Bault had risked his life, worrying about the queen’s comfort in a cell without any stove for heat. When the queen asked for a cotton blanket for her bed, Bault asked the prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville if he could procure one. “You dare ask?” the prosecutor reportedly snapped. “You deserve the guillotine!”
16 October 1793
The Baults’ wardenship did not last long. Marie Antoinette’s lengthy trial began with a 15-hour session on 14 October and a 24-hour session over 15-16 October. After 10 weeks in the Conciergerie, the queen’s incarceration was coming to an end. The verdict of the jury was affirmative. It was 4.30am when she heard her sentence: death by guillotine. She didn’t utter a single word.
After guards returned Marie Antoinette to her cell, she asked Warden Bault for a pen and paper. He complied and she wrote a letter to Elisabeth, the late king’s sister:
“I write to you, my sister, for the last time. I have been condemned, not to an ignominious death – that only awaits criminals – but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent as he, I hope to show the same firmness as he did in his last moments. I grieve bitterly at leaving my poor children; you know that I existed but for them and you – you who have by your friendship sacrificed all to be with us.”
When the queen finished the letter, she reportedly kissed each page repeatedly, folded it without sealing it, and gave it to Warden Bault. The gendarme standing guard outside the cell likely observed this because, when Bault left the queen, the guard confiscated the letter and it was taken to Fouquier-Tinville. Elisabeth would never receive the queen’s last testament.
At 11am the next morning, on 16 October 1793, the executioner Sanson appeared. Madame Bault confirmed that Sanson cut the queen’s hair and that the queen, looking back, saw the executioner place the locks of hair in his pocket. "This I saw," said Madame Bault, "and I wish I had never seen that sight."
At 12.30pm, Marie Antoinette was taken to the guillotine at the Place de la Revolution. After the queen’s head fell it was shown to the crowd, who cried: "Vive la République!"
Will Bashor is author of Marie Antoinette’s Head: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). To read more about Marie Antoinette, click here
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2017