Life of the Week: Marie Antoinette

On 21 September 1792, the Legislative Assembly in France voted for the monarchy to be abolished and called for the creation of the First Republic. Just four months later, King Louis XVI was tried for high treason by revolutionaries in the The National Convention – the assembly that administered France between September 1792 and October 1795. The king was found guilty and was led to the guillotine to be executed. Later that year, his queen, Marie Antoinette, met the same end

A portrait of Marie Antoinette by artist Joseph Ducreux, c1769.

Here, we look at the life and downfall of Marie Antoinette…

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

Remembered for: Being overthrown by French revolutionaries and being publically 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.

Her life: Born an archduchess of Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette spent her childhood in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and Hofburg Palace. Her education was typical of that given to a royal woman of the time, and she learned how to sing, dance and play music. Marie and her siblings would perform for their parents in the evenings at court. Growing up, Marie shared a governess with her elder sister, Maria Carolina, and the sisters remained close for the rest of Marie’s life.

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, Empress Maria Theresa, 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 for her beauty.

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. Marie gave birth to the couple’s first child, Marie Thérèse Charlotte, in December 1778.

Marie Antoinette and two of her children walking in the park at Trianon Palace, 1785. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

France experienced poor harvests during the 1780s, which consequently increased the price of grain, and the government faced mounting financial difficulties. As a result, Marie’s lavish lifestyle at court came under attack. Numerous pamphlets and satires were distributed across the country demonstrating peoples’ disgust towards the queen’s extravagant spending. Dangerous rumours also circulated that Marie was having an affair with her close companion Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count, and 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.

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.

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.

A cartoon from c1790 showing a cleric (left) kneeling on a crown with a demon on his back, peering through a peep hole into the royal bedroom at Versailles. He watches as revolutionaries destroy Marie Antoinette’s bed, while the queen is seen fleeing down a staircase on the right. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

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.

A month later, the Republican government was determined to eradicate anyone who opposed the French Revolution and the eradication of the monarchy. 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, who was one of Marie’s closest companions. With the king and queen now under arrest, the National Convention ordered that the monarchy be abolished, and France was officially declared a republic.

After being put on trial by members of the new republican regime, Louis XVI was convicted of treason and was sentenced to death. On 21 January 1793, Louis was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

On 14 October 1793, after months of imprisonment, Marie was put on trial and found guilty of treason. Two days later, at the age of 37, the queen suffered the same fate as her husband and was executed. Marie’s guillotined 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.

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