When Marie Antoinette climbed the steps to the scaffold at around midday on 16 October 1793, her execution was hailed as the triumph of liberty over oppression. With shorn hair hidden under a cap and in a simple dress, she was unrecognisable from the queen addicted to extravagance, or the brutal harpy that had become familiar in popular prints.
Standing on the executioner’s foot as she passed by, with her final words she begged his pardon. 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!”
Few would have imagined this tragic end for the child born at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, in 1755. 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.
Though Austria and France had been enemies for some 300 years, a fragile wartime alliance had been established when Antoine was an infant. When peace came in 1763, the Empress set her eyes on the grandson and heir of Louis XV. Antoine’s matrimonial career seemed clear, and a French tutor was called.
On 19 April 1770, the 14-year-old archduchess married Prince Louis-Auguste in Vienna by proxy, and she left for France to meet her new husband in person. When Maria Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringen (henceforth, Marie Antoinette) was welcomed by the French royal family in May, her charm and “refreshing innocence” was widely admired, and while there were some mutterings about her Austrian heritage, her future seemed optimistic. A whirl of festivities at Versailles set the tone for the court she would cultivate over the next 20 years.
At her first official public appearance, the Parisian people clamoured for a glimpse of the reportedly beautiful young princess. Unfortunately, popular favour was not won by beauty alone. Her fondness for fashion and lavish entertainments was already attracting attention, and she became entangled in court rivalries that not only endangered her own reputation but that of her home country. There were also whispers about her husband’s weakness – as a potential ruler and in the bedchamber.
Three years of marriage showed no sign of producing a much-needed heir. Conscious of her daughter’s delicate position, Maria Theresa bombarded her with advice about influencing people, and sought secret updates about her behaviour from the ambassador in Paris – he didn’t gush with enthusiasm.
On 10 May 1774, Louis XV died, making Marie Antoinette queen at just 18. Her future seemed secure, but 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. Years of heavy taxation and failed fiscal policies were leaving the people hungry.
By 1777, her 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. His stern words clearly had an effect, as the Queen fell pregnant shortly after his visit and a daughter was born before Christmas 1778.
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.
Anxiety about the continuation of France’s ruling Bourbon dynasty was matched only by pressure from her family to influence French affairs in Austria’s favour – correspondence from the Empress brims with dissatisfaction at her daughter’s apparent lack of political influence.
It was a relief to all parties when the Queen finally gave birth to a son, Louis-Joseph, on 22 October 1781 – unfortunately, her mother had not lived to see it. Two more children followed – another son in 1785, and a daughter in the following year. But it was too late to redeem her in the eyes of the public.
Fall from grace
The French economy had deteriorated further during the 1780s, sparking increasingly widespread disquiet, and the King’s failure to find a solution was compounded by the very visible evidence of the Crown’s wealth– most notably, his wife’s frivolous spending.
She 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.
While the royal couple were deep in mourning, the revolution reached a climax with the Storming of the Bastille, in which a violent throng laid waste to the prison that symbolised tyrannical royal rule. Terrified, the Queen’s courtiers began to flee.
The concerns proved well-founded, and it soon became clear that the royal family were not safe. Though repeatedly bending to the will of the newly established National Assembly, the King refused to accept its more radical decrees. In October, thousands of hungry, angry Parisians responded by marching on Versailles itself to demand reform. As one lady-in-waiting recalled, “the insurrection was directed against the Queen in particular;
I shudder even now at the memory of the fishwives… who wore white aprons, which they screamed out were intended to receive the bowels of Marie Antoinette”. Unable to resist, the royal family were taken to the capital and installed at the Tuileries Palace.
Myth busted: did Marie Antoinette really say “let them eat cake”?
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.
Enemy of the nation
The monarchy nodded its assent to a new model of government that shared power between the King and an elected assembly, but beneath the surface all avenues were desperately being sought to find support for a counter-revolution. On the night of 20 June 1791, helped by the Queen’s friend von Fersen, the family fled in an attempt to find refuge towards the Austrian border.
When they were recognised by a postmaster and apprehended at Varennes, it not only spelled their return to virtual imprisonment, but also shattered any confidence in royal promises.
During another year of half-life at the Tuileries, hostility grew. War was declared on Austria, and defeats were blamed on betrayal by their Queen. On 10 August 1792, an armed crowd stormed the palace, murdering the guards as they pursued the fleeing royals – the ‘protection’ they were offered amounted to incarceration in the Temple Prison.
Three weeks later, the ‘September Massacres’ saw another mob tear through the city’s jails, killing nobles and priests who had opposed the revolution.
Among them was Marie Antoinette’s closest friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, who had returned from safety in England to support her queen after the capture at Varennes – she was mutilated and her severed head gleefully paraded before the Queen’s window.
On 21 September, the monarchy was formally abolished, and the next day a Republic was declared. Stripped of their regal powers and with a depleting pool of friends, the end of the Bourbon dynasty seemed inevitable.
In the aggressive tide of anti-royalist sentiment, Louis was tried and found guilty of treason. Following a farewell supper with his family, he was guillotined on 21 January 1793. In mourning and fearing for the lives of her two surviving children, his widow – considered a dangerous rallying point for counter-revolution – was eventually transferred to a solitary prison cell. Any government hopes of using her to influence Austrian policy proved fruitless, and her own trial was set for 14 October.
The case built against her 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.
On the morning of 16 October, she received her death sentence, which was to be carried out immediately. She was 37. 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!”
Listen: John Julius Norwich describes some of the key moments and personalities from French history
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.
Losing their heads: the road to revolution
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.