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Marie Antoinette and the Downfall of Royalty: A Biography of a Tragic Queen

Marie Antoinette and the Downfall of Royalty (Classic Reprint)

Marie Antoinette is one of the most famous and infamous queens in history. She was the last queen of France before the French Revolution, and her life was marked by extravagance, scandal, and tragedy. She has been portrayed as a villain, a victim, a heroine, and a symbol of many different causes and movements. But who was she really, and what was her role in the downfall of royalty in France? In this article, we will explore the life, reign, and legacy of Marie Antoinette, and how she became a legend in her own time and beyond.

Marie Antoinette and the Downfall of Royalty (Classic Reprint)


Who was Marie Antoinette?

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, the ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor. She had 15 siblings, but only eight survived to adulthood. She was raised in a lavish and privileged environment, surrounded by tutors, servants, and courtiers. She was also educated in music, languages, religion, and etiquette. She was known for her beauty, charm, intelligence, and vivacity.

What was her role in the French Revolution?

Marie Antoinette became the queen of France at the age of 19, when she married Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XV. She was expected to strengthen the alliance between Austria and France, and to produce an heir to the throne. However, she faced many challenges and difficulties in her new country. She had to deal with the hostility of the French nobility, who resented her foreign influence and lavish spending. She also had to cope with the pressure of public opinion, which blamed her for the economic and social problems that plagued France in the late 18th century. She became a target of criticism, ridicule, and propaganda from various factions and groups that opposed the monarchy. She was accused of being frivolous, extravagant, immoral, corrupt, and treasonous. She was also seen as a symbol of the oppression and injustice that sparked the French Revolution in 1789.

Why is she a controversial figure in history?

Marie Antoinette's fate was sealed by the French Revolution. She and her husband were stripped of their power and titles, imprisoned in the Temple Tower in Paris, put on trial for high treason, and executed by guillotine in 1793. She died at the age of 37, leaving behind four children who were either killed or exiled. Her death marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. She became a martyr for some royalists who admired her courage and dignity in facing death. She also became a scapegoat for some revolutionaries who blamed her for all the evils of the old regime. She was either loved or hated, praised or vilified, but never ignored. She has inspired countless books, movies, plays, songs, and artworks that have depicted her in various ways. She has also sparked debates and controversies among historians, biographers, and scholars who have tried to understand her personality, motives, actions, and legacy.

The Early Life of Marie Antoinette

Her birth and family background

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She was the 15th and last child of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. She was named after her godparents, Maria Antonia of Bavaria and Joseph II, her elder brother who would later succeed their father as emperor. She was baptized as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, but she was known as Antonia or Antoine in her family. She was a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, one of the most powerful and influential dynasties in Europe. Her mother was a formidable ruler who expanded and reformed her empire, while her father was a gentle and cultured man who loved music and art. Marie Antoinette inherited both their traits and talents.

Her marriage to Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette's marriage to Louis XVI was arranged by her mother as part of a diplomatic strategy to end the long-standing rivalry between Austria and France. The two countries had been enemies for centuries, fighting over territories and interests in Europe and overseas. However, in 1756, they formed an alliance against their common foe, Prussia, which threatened their dominance in the continent. The alliance was sealed by the marriage of Louis XV's eldest son, Louis Ferdinand, to Maria Theresa's eldest daughter, Maria Josepha. However, both spouses died of smallpox in 1767, leaving behind their son, Louis Auguste, as the heir to the French throne. He was then betrothed to Maria Theresa's youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, who was 11 years old at the time.

The marriage contract was signed in 1770, and Marie Antoinette left Vienna for France in April of that year. She met her future husband for the first time on May 14, at the border town of Kehl. He was 15 years old and shy and awkward. She was 14 years old and lively and graceful. They were married the next day at the Palace of Versailles, in a lavish ceremony attended by thousands of guests. The marriage was meant to symbolize the friendship and harmony between Austria and France, but it also marked the beginning of a turbulent and troubled relationship between the young couple.

Her adjustment to the French court

Marie Antoinette faced many challenges and difficulties in adapting to her new life as the dauphine (crown princess) of France. She had to leave behind her family, friends, language, and culture. She had to learn French, which she spoke with a strong German accent. She had to follow the strict etiquette and protocol of the French court, which she found stifling and oppressive. She had to deal with the intrigues and rivalries of the courtiers and nobles, who resented her foreign origin and influence. She also had to cope with the expectations and demands of her husband's family, especially his grandfather Louis XV, who was a notorious womanizer and had several mistresses.

Marie Antoinette tried to make the best of her situation by seeking comfort and amusement in various ways. She developed a close friendship with her husband's younger sister Madame Elisabeth, who shared her interests and tastes. She also befriended some ladies-in-waiting who became her confidantes and companions. She indulged in fashion, jewelry, gambling, dancing, theater, opera, and music. She patronized artists such as Mozart, Gluck, Vigée Le Brun, David, and Beaumarchais. She also enjoyed spending time in her private apartments at Versailles or in her retreats at Trianon or Petit Trianon.

The Reign of Marie Antoinette

Her influence on fashion and culture

Marie Antoinette became the queen of France in 1774 when Louis XV died of smallpox and Louis XVI ascended to the throne. As queen consort (wife of the king), she had no official political power or role. However, she had a significant influence on fashion and culture in France and Europe. She set trends and styles that were admired or imitated by many people of different classes and backgrounds. She also supported or promoted various artistic movements or innovations that enriched or challenged the existing norms or traditions.

  • She popularized the pouf, a towering hairstyle that was decorated with feathers, ribbons, flowers, jewels, and even miniature objects such as ships, animals, or scenes from current events. She also wore elaborate gowns, corsets, petticoats, and accessories that reflected her mood or occasion. She changed her outfits several times a day and spent a fortune on her wardrobe.

  • She introduced the chemise à la reine, a simple white muslin dress that was inspired by the peasant women of Normandy. She wore it with a straw hat and a sash around her waist. She also adopted a more natural and relaxed style of hair and makeup. She was criticized for dressing too casually and unpatriotically, but she also influenced a new trend of simplicity and elegance in fashion.

  • She commissioned the construction of the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen's Hamlet), a rustic village in the grounds of Versailles. It consisted of 12 cottages, a mill, a dairy, a farm, a lake, and a garden. She used it as a place to escape from the pressures and formalities of court life. She also played the role of a shepherdess or a farmer's wife, dressing in simple clothes and tending to animals or plants. She was accused of being frivolous and out of touch with reality, but she also created a romantic and picturesque landscape that inspired many artists and writers.

  • She patronized the opera comique (comic opera), a genre of musical theater that combined spoken dialogue with songs. She favored composers such as Grétry, Philidor, Monsigny, and Duni. She also supported the playwright Beaumarchais, whose plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro were satirical and subversive comedies that mocked the aristocracy and advocated social change. She was praised for her taste and generosity, but she also aroused suspicion and resentment for her involvement in controversial works.

Her involvement in politics and diplomacy

Marie Antoinette had no official political power or role as queen consort. However, she had some influence on politics and diplomacy through her personal connections or interventions. She sometimes advised or persuaded her husband on certain matters or policies. She also acted as a mediator or an envoy between France and other countries or parties. She had some successes and failures in her political endeavors, but she also faced many obstacles and oppositions from various sources.

Some examples of Marie Antoinette's involvement in politics and diplomacy are:

  • She helped to arrange the Treaty of Teschen in 1779, which ended the War of the Bavarian Succession between Austria and Prussia. She used her influence on Louis XVI to convince him to support Austria's claims over Bavaria. She also wrote letters to her brother Joseph II, who was the emperor of Austria at the time, to urge him to accept a compromise with Prussia. She was praised for her diplomatic skills and loyalty to her family.

  • She supported the American Revolution in 1776-1783, which was fought by the colonists against Britain. She saw it as an opportunity for France to weaken its rival and to gain prestige and territory in North America. She encouraged Louis XVI to recognize the independence of the United States and to send military and financial aid to the rebels. She also befriended some American diplomats such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She was admired for her courage and vision.

  • She opposed the Assembly of Notables in 1787-1788, which was convened by Louis XVI to discuss the financial crisis that threatened to bankrupt France. The assembly consisted of representatives from the clergy, nobility, and judiciary who were asked to approve new taxes and reforms proposed by the king's ministers. Marie Antoinette feared that the assembly would undermine the authority and privileges of the monarchy and the aristocracy. She urged Louis XVI to dismiss his ministers and to dissolve the assembly. She also conspired with some nobles to sabotage or resist the reforms. She was blamed for being obstinate and reactionary.

  • She tried to save the monarchy during the French Revolution in 1789-1793, which was triggered by a series of events such as the storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Women's March on Versailles. The revolution aimed to overthrow the monarchy and to establish a republic based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. Marie Antoinette refused to accept the changes and tried to defend the interests and rights of the royal family. She also sought help from foreign powers such as Austria, Prussia, and Britain, who declared war on France in 1792. She was accused of being a traitor and an enemy of the people.

Her scandals and enemies

Marie Antoinette was the subject of many scandals and enemies during her life and reign. She was often criticized, ridiculed, or slandered by various factions or groups that opposed or disliked her. She was also the victim of several plots or attacks that aimed to harm or discredit her. She had to deal with the consequences and repercussions of these scandals and enemies, which affected her reputation and security.

Some examples of Marie Antoinette's scandals and enemies are:

  • She was involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785-1786, which was a fraud and a hoax that tarnished her image and credibility. The affair involved a cardinal, a countess, a prostitute, and a jeweler who conspired to obtain a necklace worth 1.6 million livres (a huge sum at the time) by using Marie Antoinette's name and forged letters. The necklace was supposed to be a gift from Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, but she never ordered or received it. The fraud was exposed and the culprits were arrested, but Marie Antoinette was implicated and accused of being greedy, dishonest, and immoral.

  • She was hated by the Parisian crowd, which was composed of mostly poor and working-class people who suffered from hunger, poverty, and oppression. They blamed Marie Antoinette for the high prices of bread and other necessities, which they believed were caused by her extravagant spending and wasteful habits. They also resented her for her aloofness and indifference to their plight. They called her derogatory names such as Madame Deficit, Madame Veto, or L'Autrichienne (the Austrian woman). They also spread rumors and pamphlets that depicted her as a monster, a whore, or a witch.

  • She was targeted by the Jacobins, who were the most radical and violent faction of the revolutionaries. They advocated for the abolition of the monarchy, the establishment of a republic, and the execution of the enemies of the revolution. They considered Marie Antoinette as one of their main foes and threats. They denounced her as a tyrant, a conspirator, and a foreigner. They also plotted to assassinate her or to kidnap her children. They eventually succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and in putting Marie Antoinette on trial.

  • She was betrayed by some of her friends and allies, who either abandoned her or turned against her when she needed them most. Some examples are: Mirabeau, a prominent politician who initially supported the monarchy but later joined the revolutionaries; Fersen, a Swedish nobleman who was rumored to be Marie Antoinette's lover but who failed to rescue her from captivity; Barnave, a moderate leader who tried to reconcile the king and the people but who was executed by the Jacobins; Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution who commanded the National Guard but who lost control of the situation; Necker, a finance minister who resigned after being dismissed by Marie Antoinette; Provence, Louis XVI's brother who fled France and became the leader of the exiled royalists.

The Fall of Marie Antoinette

The outbreak of the revolution

the Clergy, a law that reformed the Catholic Church and made it subordinate to the state; The Flight to Varennes, a failed attempt by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to escape from Paris and join the royalist forces; The Declaration of Pillnitz, a statement by Austria and Prussia that threatened to intervene in France to restore the monarchy; The September Massacres, a series of killings of prisoners and suspected enemies of the revolution by the Parisian mob; The National Convention, a new assembly that abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.

The imprisonment and trial of the royal family

The royal family was imprisoned in the Temple Tower in Paris in August 1792, after the invasion of France by the Prussian army and the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the Parisian crowd. They were held in harsh and humiliating conditions, isolated from each other and from the outside world. They were also subjected to constant surveillance and interrogation by their captors. They were accused of conspiring with foreign enemies and counter-revolutionaries to overthrow the republic and to restore the monarchy.

The royal family was put on trial by the National Convention in December 1792. Louis XVI was the first to be tried, charged with high treason and crimes against the state. He defended himself with dignity and calmness, but he was found guilty by a majority vote and sentenced to death by guillotine. He was executed on January 21, 1793, at the age of 38. He died as Louis Capet, a citizen of France, not as Louis XVI, a king of France.

Marie Antoinette was the next to be tried, in October 1793. She faced 37 charges, ranging from corruption and extravagance to incest and treason. She denied most of them and challenged some of her accusers. She also showed courage and composure in facing her fate. She was found guilty by a unanimous vote and sentenced to death by guillotine. She was executed on October 16, 1793, at the age of 37. She died as Marie Antoinette Lorraine d'Autriche, a widow of France, not as Marie Antoinette de France, a queen of France.

The execution of Marie Antoinette

The execution of Marie Antoinette was a public spectacle that attracted thousands of spectators. She was taken from her cell in the Conciergerie prison to the Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde) in a tumbrel (a cart used to transport prisoners). She wore a plain white dress, a bonnet, and no shoes. Her hair was cut short and her hands were tied behind her back. She was accompanied by a priest who swore allegiance to the republic and a guard who insulted her along the way. She ignored them and remained silent throughout the journey.

When she arrived at the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson. She apologized to him, saying "Pardon me sir, I did not do it on purpose." She then climbed the steps with his help and faced the crowd. She looked pale but resolute. She did not say any last words or show any signs of fear or remorse. She was strapped to a wooden plank and slid under the blade of the guillotine. Her head was severed from her body at 12:15 p.m. Her head was then lifted up by Sanson and shown to the crowd, who cheered and shouted "Vive la République!" Her body was then thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery.

The Legacy of Marie Antoinette

The myths and legends about her life

Marie Antoinette's life has been surrounded by many myths and legends that have distorted or embellished her image and story. Some of them are based on facts or sources, while others are based on rumors or fabrications. Some of them are favorable or sympathetic to her, while others are unfavorable or hostile to her. Some of them are still widely believed or repeated today, while others have been debunked or challenged by historians or scholars.

Some examples of myths and legends about Marie Antoinette's life are:

  • She said "Let them eat cake" when she heard that the people had no bread. This is one of the most famous and infamous quotes attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there is no evidence that she ever said it. The quote was first recorded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions, published in 1782, when Marie Antoinette was still a teenager. He did not name the person who said it, but he implied that it was a princess or a great lady who was ignorant and insensitive to the suffering of the poor. The quote was later popularized by the revolutionaries who used it to mock and vilify Marie Antoinette as a symbol of the decadence and oppression of the old regime.

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