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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (November 2, 1755 - October 16, 1793) was Queen of France. Daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria of the Habsburg dynasty and her consort, the Emperor Francis I, she was married to the heir to the French throne (later Louis XVI of France) in order to confirm the alliance between Austria and France. She and her husband were executed at the height of the French Revolution.

Table of contents

Early years and marriage


Marie Antoinette (1783)
Marie Antoinette was the sixteenth and youngest child of Maria Theresa; she was born at Vienna, brought up under a simple and austere regime and educated with a view to the French marriage arranged by Maria Theresa, a certain Abbé Vermond being appointed as her tutor in 1769.

Her marriage to Louis-Auguste the Dauphin, (later Louis XVI of France) which took place at Versailles on the May 16, 1770, was intended to crown the policy of the foreign minister Choiseul and confirm the alliance between Austria and France. This fact, combined with her youth and the extreme corruption of the French court, made her position very difficult. Madame du Barry, whose influence over Louis XV of France was at that time supreme, formed the centre of a powerful anti-Choiseul cabal, which succeeded in less than a year after the Dauphin's marriage in bringing about the fall of Choiseul and seriously threatening the stability of the Austrian alliance. Thus the young princess was surrounded by enemies both at court and in the Dauphin's household, and came to rely almost entirely upon the Austrian ambassador, the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, whom Maria Theresa had instructed to act as her mentor, at the same time arranging that she herself should be kept informed of all that concerned her daughter, so that she might at once advise her and safeguard the alliance. Hence arose the famous secret correspondence of Mercy-Argenteau, an invaluable record of all the details of Marie Antoinette's life from her marriage in 1770 till the death of Maria Theresa in 1780.

Marie Antoinette soon won the affection and confidence of the Dauphin and endeared herself to the king, but her position was precarious, and both Mercy and Maria Theresa had continually to urge her to conquer her violent dislike for the favourite and try to conciliate her.

Life as queen

The accession of the young king and queen on the death of Louis XV (May 10, 1774), was hailed with great popular enthusiasm. But her first steps brought Marie Antoinette into open hostility with the anti-Austrian party. She was urgent in obtaining the dismissal of d'Aiguillon, and did all in her power to secure the recall of Choiseul, though without success. Thus from the very first she appeared in the light of a partisan, having against her all the enemies of Choiseul and of the Austrian alliance, and was already given the nickname of "l'Autrichienne" by the king's aunts. At the same time her undisguised impatience of the cumbrous court etiquette shocked many people, and her taste for pleasure led her to seek the society of the King's brother, the Comte d'Artois (later King Charles X) and his young and dissolute circle.

But the greatest weakness in her position lay in her unsatisfactory relations with her husband. The king, though affectionate, was cold and apathetic, and it was not till seven years after her marriage that there was any possibility of her bearing him an heir. This fact decreased her popularity, and as early as September 1774 she was made the subject of offensive pamphlets and the like, as in the case of the affaire Beaumarchais.

The end of the period of mourning for the late king was the signal for a succession of gaieties, during which the queen displayed a passion for amusement and excitement which led to unfortunate results. Being childless, and with a husband who could not command her respect, her longing for affection led her to form various intimate friendships, above all with the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse Jules de Polignac, who soon obtained such an empire over her affections that no favour was too great for them to ask, and often to obtain. Thus for the benefit of Madame de Lamballe the queen revived the superfluous and expensive office of superintendent of her household, which led to constant disagreements and jealousies among her ladies and offended many important families.

In frequenting the salons of her friends the queen not only came in contact with a number of the younger and more dissipated courtiers, whose high gambling and unseemly amusements she countenanced, but she fell under the influence of various ambitious intriguers, such as the Baron de Besenval, the Comte de Vaudreuil, the Duc de Lauzun and the Comte d'Adhémar, whose interested manoeuvres she was induced to further by her affection for her favourites. Thus she was often led to interfere for frivolous reasons in public affairs, sometimes with serious results, as in the case of the trial of the Comte de Guines (1776), when her interference was responsible for the fall of Turgot. At the same time her extravagance in dress, jewelry and amusements (including the gardens and theatricals at Trianon, of the cost of which such exaggerated reports were spread about) and her presence at horse-races and masked balls in Paris without the king, gave rise to great scandal, which was seized upon by her enemies, among whom were Mesdames (daughters of the late king), the Count of Provence, and the Duke of Orléans and the Palais Royal clique.

At this critical period her brother, the Emperor Joseph II, decided to visit France. As the result of his visit he left with the queen a memorandum in which he pointed out to her in plain terms the dangers of her conduct. He also took advantage of his visit to advise the king, with such success that at last, in 1778, the queen had the hope of becoming a mother. For a time the emperor's remonstrances had some effect, and after the birth of her daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte (afterwards Duchesse d'Angoulème) in December 1778, the queen lived a more quiet life.

The death of Maria Theresa (Nov. 29, 1780) deprived her of a wise and devoted friend, and by removing all restraint on the rashness of Joseph II was bound to increase the dislike of the Austrian alliance and cause embarrassment to Marie Antoinette. Her position was very much strengthened by the birth (Oct. 22, 1781) of a dauphin, Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, and on the death of Maurepas, which left the king without a chief minister, she might have exerted a considerable influence in public affairs had she taken a consistent interest in them; but her repugnance to serious matters triumphed, and she preferred to occupy herself with the education of her children, to whom she was a wise and devoted mother, and with her friends and amusements at the Trianon.

Personal motives alone would lead her to interfere in public affairs, especially when it was a question of obtaining places or favours for her favourites and their friends. The influence of the Polignacs was now at its height, and they obtained large sums of money, a dukedom, and many nominations to places. It was Madame de Polignac who obtained the appointment of Calonne as controller-general of the finances, and who succeeded Madame de Guise as "governess of the children of France" after the bankruptcy of the Prince de Guise in 1782.

Again, in response to Mercy and Joseph II's urgent representations, Marie Antoinette exerted herself on behalf of Austria in the affairs of the opening of the river Scheldt (1783--1784) and the exchange of Bavaria (1785), in which, though she failed to provoke active interference on the part of France, she succeeded in obtaining the payment of considerable indemnities to Austria, a fact which led to the popular legend of her having sent millions to Austria, and aroused much indignation against her. Later, on the recommendation of Mercy and Vermond, she supported the nomination of Lom'ie de Brienne in 1787, an appointment which, though widely approved at the time, was laid to the queen's blame when it ended in failure.

In an effort to further harm her reputation, the false story was circulated that, upon hearing that the poor of France were unable to purchase even moldy bread, she said "Let them eat cake!", which quickly became a famous non-quotation. The phrase is in full "S'ils n'ont pas de pain, qu'ils mangent de la brioche[?]" and was invented or quoted by Rousseau some years before Marie Antoinette came to power.

Two more children were born to her on the 27th of March 1785; Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy, afterwards dauphin and then King Louis XVII of France, and Sophie-Beatrix on the 9th of July 1786 (d. June 19, 1787).

In 1785--1786 the affair of the Diamond Necklace revealed the depth of the hatred which her own follies and the calumnies of her enemies had aroused against her. The public held her responsible for the bankrupt state of the country; and though in 1788, following the popular outcry, she prevailed upon the king to recall Necker, it was impossible for him to avert the Revolution.

The Revolution, Trial, and Execution

The year 1789 was one of disaster for Marie Antoinette; on the 10th of March her brother Joseph II died, and on the 4th of June her eldest son. The same year saw the assembling of the States-general, which she had dreaded, the taking of the Bastille, and the events leading to the terrible days of the 5th and 6th of October at Versailles and the removal of the royal family to the Tuileries palace in Paris. Then began the negotiations with Mirabeau, whose high estimate of the queen is well-known (eg. his famous remark, "The king has only one man on his side, and that is his wife"). But the queen was violently prejudiced against him, believing him among other things to be responsible for the events of the 5th and 6th of October, and he never gained her full confidence. She was incapable of seeing the full import of the Revolution, and merely temporised with Mirabeau. She dreaded the thought of civil war; and even when she had realized the necessity for decisive action the king's apathy and indecision made it impossible for her to persuade him to carry into effect Mirabeau's plan of leaving Paris and appealing to the provinces.

Her difficulties were increased by the departure of Mercy for the Hague in September 1790, for Montmorin who now took his place in the negotiations had not her confidence to the same extent. Feeling herself helpless and almost isolated in Paris, she now relied chiefly on her friends outside France-- Mercy, Count Axel von Fersen, and the Baron de Breteuil; and it was by their help and that of Bouillé that after the death of Mirabeau, on the 8th of April 1791, the plan was arranged of escaping to Montmorency, which ended in the flight to Varennes (June 21, 1791).

After the return from Varennes the royal family were closely guarded, but in spite of this they still found channels of communication with the outside world. The king being sunk in apathy, the task of negotiation devolved upon the queen; but in her inexperience and ignorance of affairs, and the uncertainty of information from abroad, it was hard for her to follow any clear policy. Her courageous bearing during the return from Varennes had greatly impressed Barnave, and he now approached her on behalf of the Feuillants and the constitutional party. For about a year she continued to negotiate with them, forwarding to Mercy and the Emperor Leopold II letters and memoranda dictated by them, while at the same time secretly warning her friends not to accept these letters as her own opinions, but to realize that she was dependent on the Constitutionals. She agreed with their plan of an armed congress, and on this idea both she and von Fersen insisted with all their might, von Fersen leaving Brussels and going on a mission to the emperor to try and gain support and checkmate the émigrés, whose desertion the queen bitterly resented, and whose rashness threatened to frustrate her plans and endanger the lives of her family.

As to the acceptance of the constitution (Sept. 1791), "tissue of absurdities" though the queen thought it, and much as she would have preferred a bolder course, she considered that in the circumstances the king was bound to accept it in order to inspire confidence. Also Mercy was in correspondence with the Constitutionals, and in letter after letter to him and the emperor, the queen, strongly supported by von Fersen, insisted that the congress should be formed as soon as possible, her appeals increasing in urgency as she saw that Barnave's party would soon be powerless against the extremists. But owing to the lengthy negotiations of the powers, the congress was continually postponed. On the 1st of March 1792 Leopold II died and was succeeded by the young Francis II. Marie Antoinette's actions were now directed entirely by von Fersen, for she suspected Mercy and the emperor of sacrificing her to the interests of Austria (Fersen, i. 251; Arneth, pp. 254, 256, &c.).

The declaration of war which the king was forced to make (April 20) threw her definitely into opposition to the Revolution, and she betrayed to Mercy and von Fersen the plans of the French generals (Arneth,p.259; Fersen, ii. 220, 289, 308, 325, 327). She was now certain that the life of the king was threatened, and the events of the 20th of June added to her terrors. She considered their only hope to lie in the intervention of the powers and in the appeal to force, and endorsed the suggestion of a threatening manifesto which should hold the National Assembly and Paris responsible for the safety of the king and royal family. Immediately after the manifesto of Brunswick followed the storming of the Tuileries and the removal of the royal family to the Temple (Aug. 10). During all these events and the captivity in the Temple Marie Antoinette showed an unvarying courage and dignity, in spite of her failing health and the illness of her son. After the execution of the king (Jan. 17, 1793) several unsuccessful attempts were made by her friends to rescue her and her children, among others by Jarjayes, Toulan and Lepitre, and the "baron de Bats," and negotiations for her release or exchange were even opened with Danton; but as the allied armies approached, her trial and condemnation became a certainty. She had already been separated from her son, the sight of whose ill-treatment added terribly to her sufferings; she was now parted from her daughter and Madame Elizabeth, and removed on the 1st of August 1793 to the Conciergerie prison. Even here, where she was under the closest guard and subjected to the most offensive espionage, attempts were made to rescue her, among others Michonis' "Conspiration de l'oeillet."

On the 14th of October began her trial, her defence being entrusted to Chauveau-Lagarde and Tronson-Ducourdray. Her noble attitude, even in the face of the atrocious accusations of Fouquier-Tinville, commanded the admiration even of her enemies, and her answers during her long examination were clear and skilful. The following were the questions finally put to the jury:

  1. Is it established that maneuvres and communications have existed with foreign powers and either external enemies of the republic, the said maneuvres, &c., tending to furnish them with assistance in money, give them an entry into French territory, and facilitate the progress of their armies?
  2. Is Marie Antoinette of Austria, the widow Capet, convicted of having co-operated in these maneuvres and maintained these communications?
  3. Is it established that a plot and conspiracy has existed tending to kindle civil war within the republic, by arming the citizens against one another?
  4. Is Marie Antoinette, the widow Capet, convicted of having participated in this plot and conspiracy?

The jury decided unanimously in the affirmative, and on the 16th of October 1793 Marie Antoinette was led to the guillotine, leaving behind her a touching letter to Madame Elizabeth, known as her "Testament."

She is buried in Saint Denis Basilica, Paris, France next to her husband, King Louis XVI of France.

The image of Marie Antoinette shown here is a photo of a portrait painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun in 1783.

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