Marie Antoinette: A Short Biography

by Marius Sven

The story of Marie Antoinette is a horrible example of how the impossible game, Politics, can just chew you up and swallow you whole.  However, it has become rather popular story, even in today's popular culture. 

Marie Antoinette à la Rose, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783)

Marie Antoinette Joseph Jeanne de Lorraine, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of France, the youngest daughter of the Emperor Francis I and of Maria Theresa, was born at Vienna, 2 November 1755.

Her education appears to have been somewhat narrow.  Abbe Metastasio and Gluck are mentioned among her teachers.  

(Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, better known by his pseudonym of Metastasio, [January 3, 1698 – April 12, 1782] was an Italian poet and librettist, considered the most important writer of opera seria libretti.

Christoph Willibald [von] Gluck was a German composer, one of the most important opera composers of the Classical music era, particularly remembered for Orfeo ed Euridice. He is also remembered as the music teacher of Marie-Antoinette who as Queen of France promoted Gluck and was his patron. Some regard him as the father of the Rococo and Classical age of music---at least in Opera. Gluck's operatic reforms, eliminating all that was undramatic, were a turning point in the history of the medium.)

After her betrothal Marie Antoinette was put under the charge of the Abbe de Vermond, the Queen's confessor and spiritual adviser, who retained his influence till 1789, when he was dismissed. 

The choice of Marie Antoinette by the Duc de Choiseul as the wife of the dauphin was unpopular in France, where Austria was then regarded with a keen jealousy, increased by the reputation of Maria Theresa.  Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (13 May 1717 – 29 November 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. By marriage, she was Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress. 

The national prejudice against Austria and Maria Theresa laid the foundation of a popular antipathy to Marie Antionette, which was significantly conveyed in the epithet L'Autrichienne. 

On 16th May 1770, Marie Antoinette, aged 14 and a half years, was married to the dauphin Louis, who on 23rd of August following, completed his fourteenth year. 

Her progress through France was a continual fête, and splendid fêtes were prepared in her honor at Paris and Versailles.   (Fête is a French word meaning festival, celebration or party.)

On 30th May these celebrations were attended by an accident to a scaffolding, by which many people were killed.

Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1778).

The manners of Marie Antoinette were ill-suited to the French court, and she made many enemies among the highest families by her contempt for its ceremonies, which excited her ridicule. 

The freedom of her own manners, even after she became queen, was also a cause of scandal.  Many of her indiscretions were indeed extreme, and the accusations of her enemies are still persistent.  For instance, she went to the theatre in disguise, and when her carriage broke down she took a fiacre with a single female attendant;  and she put forward the clock to make her husband anticipate his early bed-hour when she had planned a nocturnal excursion. 

In ordinary times such indiscretions might have been without significance, but the state of parties in France gave them a sinister importance.  

From the time of her arrival the court had been deeply tainted with the philosophical revolutionary sentiments which had spread so widely among the people. A deliberate plan was formed by the revolutionary party to take advantage of the national sentiment to attack the monarchy from the side of the Austrian alliance.

Magnified reports of every imprudence of the queen were, even in the time of her greatest popularity, spread by the persistent enmity of a faction which had already selected her as the victim of the monarchy.Marie Antoinette appears at first to have enjoyed little of her husband's confidence; she selected her own society apart, and not very judiciously; so that on the disgrace of Choiseul the anti-Austrian party were not without some grounds, as it is alleged from Louis' papers, for anticipating a divorce.

The accession of Louis XVI, 10th may 1774 did not at first make much change in the position of conduct of the queen.  She had two favorites, the Princess de Lamballe and the Cuchess of Polignac, who shared in the scandals attributed to her, and afterwards in her unpopularity. 

About 1777 she bagan to acquire the conficence and love of the king, and to take an interest in public affairs, and the serious side of her character rapidly developed. 

In 1778 she gave birth to a daughter, in 1781 to the first dauphin who died in 1789, in 1785 to the second dauphin, in 1786 to another daughter, who died the following year.  (The word dauphin is literally the French for dolphin, as a reference to the animal they bore on their flag.  It was the title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350 to 1791, and from 1824 to 1830.)

Marie Antoinette's interference in public affairs, almost necessitated by the king's weakness of character, produced violent jealousies.

The dilapidation of the finances, which had reached a crisis before she arrived in France, was openly charged to her extravagance. It was in vain that she strove in private charity to remove the prejudices against her conduct.

In the severe winter of 1778 the Parisians, in aknlowledgement of her gifts, erected to her a monument of snow, and their memory of benefits was as cold and short-lived as their means of testifying it.

In 1785 the reputation of the queen received a severe blow from the affair of the necklace:

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was a mysterious incident in the 1780s at the court of Louis XVI of France involving his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. The reputation of the Queen, which was already tarnished by gossip, was ruined by the implication that she had participated in a crime to defraud the crown jewellers of the cost of a very expensive diamond necklace. The Affair was historically significant as one of the events that led to the French populace's disillusionment with the monarchy, which, among other causes, eventually culminated in the French Revolution. 

The diamond necklace was commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry. At the death of the King, the necklace was unpaid for, almost bankrupting the jewellers and leading to various unsuccessful schemes to secure a sale to Queen Marie-Antoinette.

The acquittal of Cardinal de Rohan, a former French ambassador to the court of Vienna, which seemed to reflect on Mary Antoinette, caused her many bitter tears.

The unfortunate ministries of Calonne and Lomenie de Brienne were attributed to her, and she is said to have opposed with all her influence the assembly of the notables and the states-general.

[During the reigns of Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792), several ministers, most notably Turgot and Necker, proposed revisions to the French tax system so as to include the nobles as taxpayers, but these proposals were not adopted because of resistance from the parlements (provincial courts of appeal). Members of these courts bought their positions from the king, as well as the right to transfer their positions hereditarily through payment of an annual fee, the paulette. Membership in such courts, or appointment to other public positions, often led to elevation to the nobility (the so-called Nobles of the Robe, as distinguished from the nobility of ancestral military origin, the Nobles of the Sword.) While these two categories of nobles were often at odds, they both sought to retain their privileges.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in coronation robes by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty, 1775.

Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the nobles and the upper bourgeoisie, he appointed as his finance ministers, "rising men" (to use François Mignet's insightful term), usually of non-noble origin. These commoners, Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker lobbied for reforms in taxation and other moves toward moderation, such as Necker's attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king's court. Each one failed. Instead, the 'parkinsons law' of bureaucratic overextended waste prevailed, to the detriment of the gentry and other non-seigneurial classes.

In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne brought together the Assembly of Notables on 22 February 1787 to address the financial situation, France had reached a state of virtual bankruptcy; no one would lend the king money sufficient to meet the expenses of the royal court and the government. According to Mignet, the loans amounted to 1.64 billion livres, and the annual deficit was 140 millions. Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic, Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit. To address this, the Assembly of Notables sanctioned "the establishment of provincial assemblies, regulation of the corn trade, abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax", but the assembly dispersed on 25 May 1787 without actually installing a longer-term program with prospects for success.]

When the revolution had begun its course she became the centre of all reactionary influences. Her advice was followed by so far as to prevent Louis from saving himself by implicit submission, but not far enough to give him any chance of saving himself by resolute resistance.On 5 and 6 October 1789, after the celebrated supper to the guards, the mob assailed the palace with the express design of assassinating the queen.  Her courage in showing herself alone at the window when called for saved her. 

The assembly having ordered the royal family to be brought to Paris, they were conducted thither by the mob amid frightful insults, the heads of two guards killed in their defence being carried on poles beside the royal carriage. 

Treated as prisoners at the Tuileries (The Tuileries was a royal palace in Paris which stood on the right bank of the River Seine until 1871, when it was destroyed in the upheaval during the suppression of the Paris Commune. It closed off the western end of the Louvre courtyard, which has remained open since the destruction of the palace.  The site is now the location of the Tuileries Garden.) the foyal family could not take cordially to the revolution, and the queen's relations with foreign courts and with the emigrants were the subject of just suspicion to her keepers. 

Tuileries Palace before 1871, view from the Louvre courtyard

The king used his constitutional veto against the law of the civil constitution of the clergy. 

This earned the queen, to whom every resolute action was attributed, the soubriquet of Madame Veto. 

A highly realistic portrait of Marie Antoinette, painted around 1791, by Alexandre Kucharsky.

After the abortive flight of June 20 - 21 1792, the details of which were organized by the queen, the royal family were kept under stricter surveillance. 

After swearing to the constitution of 14 September 1791, the king was reinstated in his functions. 

Marie Antoinette appears, notwithstanding, to have kept up an incessant correspondence with the powers in hostility with France, and the rapid course of events and the constraint to which all her actions were subjected may form some apology for any duplicity  with which her conduct may be charged. 

On 20th June the Tuileries were invaded by the mob, and the queen subjected to new insults. 

On 10th August, the last day of royalty, she strenuously resisted the resolution of the king to take refuge in the assembly. 

On 3rd September her implacable enemies the mob penetrated to the garden of the Temple, to which the royal family had been conveyed, to show her the head of her favorite the Princess de Lamballe on a pole. 

The king and queen were now seperated, and Louis was executed on 21st January 1793. 

The dauphin, who afterwards perished miserably in confinement, was next seperated from the queen, and on 2 August 1793, Marie Antoinette was transferred to the Conciergerie to be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. 

The Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie and the Tour de l'Horloge, by Adrien Dauzats, after 1858

[La Conciergerie is a former royal palace and prison in Paris, France, located on the west of the Île de la Cité, near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It is part of the larger complex known as the Palais de Justice, which is still used for judicial purposes. Hundreds of prisoners during the French Revolution were taken from La Conciergerie to be executed on the guillotine at a number of locations around Paris.]

The act of accusation was completed on 14th October.  From the point of view of this tribunal Marie Antoinette had merited death, but some of the charges brought against her were ridiculous and some were infamous. 

She was condemned at 4 a.m. on the 16th of October 1793, and at 11 a.m. was led from the Conciergerie to the place of execution. 

The procession was circuitous, passing through the most populous parts of the town and lasting several hours. 

Her last words were "Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it", to Henri Sanson the executioner, whose foot she had accidentally stepped on after climbing the scaffold.

She was executed by guillotine.  Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery, rue d'Anjou, (which was closed the following year).

Both her body and that of Louis XVI were exhumed on 18 January 1815, during the Bourbon Restoration, when the comte de Provence had become King Louis XVIII. Christian burial of the royal remains took place three days later, on 21 January, in the necropolis of French Kings at the Basilica of St Denis.

Funerary monument to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, sculptures by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, (photo Eric Pouhier).