"Let Them Eat Cake!" A Quote That Cost Queen Marie Antoinette Her Head

A Quote That Gave Birth to a Revolution and Death to a Queen

Queen Marie Antoinette of France
Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor/Getty Images

“Let them eat cake!”

Here is a classic example of a wrongly attributed quote that cost someone her head. Quite literally.  This line “Let them eat cake” was attributed to Marie Antoinette, the queen of King Louis XVI of France. But that’s where the French folks got it wrong.

What Made Marie Antoinette So Disliked by the People of France?

True, she had an extravagant lifestyle. Marie Antoinette was a compulsive spendthrift, indulging in excesses even at a time when the country was going through a period of acute financial crisis.

Her hairdresser Léonard Autié came up with innovative styles that the queen adored. She spent a fortune building herself a little hamlet, titled Petit Trianon, which was lush with lakes, gardens, and watermills. This, at a time when France was reeling under acute food shortage, poverty, and depression.

Marie Antoinette: A Daughter Shunned, A Wife Unloved, A Queen Scorned, A Mother Misunderstood

Marie Antoinette was a teen queen. She had married the Dauphin when she was only fifteen. She was a pawn in the political design that included her Austrian parents of royal birth and the royals of France. When she came to France, she was surrounded by enemies, who were looking for ways to usurp the upper class.

The time was also ripe for the French Revolution. The growing dissent in the lower section of the society was gaining ground. Marie Antoinette’s profligate spending did not help either. The poor people of France were now impatient with the excesses of the royals and the upper middle class.

They were looking for ways to implicate the King and the Queen for their misfortune. In 1793, Marie Antoinette was tried for treason, and publicly beheaded.

She may have had her failings, but an insensitive remark was definitely not one of them.

How Rumors Tainted the Young Queen's Image

During the French Revolution, rumors were floated to taint the Queen, and justify the killing of the monarch.

One of the stories that did the rounds then was that when the Queen asked her page why people were rioting in the city, the servant informed her that there is no bread. So, the Queen allegedly said, “Then let them eat cake.” Her words in French were:

“S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”

Another myth that is still harsher on her image is that the “insensitive” queen, on her way to the guillotine actually said those words.

When I read this episode of history, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘how likely is it that a Queen, who is being humiliated, en route to the guillotine would say something so derogatory, which can work the mob’s ire against her? How sensible is that?’

However, the ill-worded quote stuck on Marie Antoinette’s image for over 200 years. It was not until 1823, when the memoirs of Comte de Provence was published that the truth came out. Though the Comte de Provence was not exactly generous in his admiration for his sister-in-law, he did not fail to mention that while eating ‘pate en croute’ he was reminded of his own ancestress, Queen Marie-Thérèse.

Who Actually Said the Words, "Let Them Eat Cake?"

In 1765, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a six part book titled Confessions.

In this book, he recollects the words of a princess of his time, who said:

“Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”

Translated in English:

“Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: “Let them eat brioche.”

Since this book was written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was just a nine year old girl, and had not even met the future King of France, let alone marry him, it was unimaginable that Marie Antoinette had actually said the words. Marie Antoinette came to Versailles much later, in 1770, and she became queen in 1774.

The Real Marie Antoinette: A Sensitive Queen and Loving Mother 

So why did Marie Antoinette become the unfortunate one who got bad press?

If you look at French history at that time, the aristocrats were already facing the heat from the restless peasantry and working class. Their obscene extravagances, utter apathy and disregard to public outcry was building up a maelstrom of vindictive politics. Bread, in the times of acute poverty, became a national obsession.

Marie Antoinette, along with her King husband Louis XVI, became the scapegoat for the rising tide of rebellion. Marie Antoinette was aware of the public suffering, and often donated to several charitable causes, according to Lady Antonia Fraser, her biographer. She was sensitive to the suffering of the poor, and often driven to tears when she heard of the plight of the poor. However, despite her royal position, she either did not have the drive to remedy the situation, or probably lacked political finesse to protect the monarchy.

Marie Antoinette did not bear children in the initial years of her marriage, and this was projected as the queen’s promiscuous nature. Rumors flourished about her alleged affair with Axel Fersen, a Spanish count in court. Gossip flew thick inside the ornate walls of the Versailles palace, as Marie Antoinette was accused of participating in a crime that later came to be known as the “diamond necklace affair.” But perhaps the most slanderous accusation that Marie Antoinette had to bear with was having an incestuous relationship with her own son. It may have broken the mother's heart, but on the face of it all, Marie Antoinette remained a stoic, and dignified queen who bore it all. At the time of her trial, when the Tribunal asked her to respond to the accusation of having sexual relations with her son, she answered:

“If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother.”

She then turned to the crowd, who had gathered to witness her trial, and asked them:

“I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?”

Legend has it that when she spoke these words in court, the women in the audience were moved by her earnest appeal.

However, the Tribunal, fearing that she may evoke public sympathy, hastened the legal proceedings to sentence her to death. This period in history, that later came to be known as The Reign of Terror, is the darkest period, that eventually resulted in the downfall of Robespierre, the chief perpetrator of royal massacres.

How the Queen Was Guillotined for a Crime She Never Committed

Having a tarnished image never helps, especially when the times are rough. The angry rebels of the French Revolution were looking for an opportunity to put down the aristocrats. Fanned with a raging fanaticism, and bloodlust, wild stories were spread through illegal press, that portrayed Marie Antoinette as a barbaric, impudent, and selfishly arrogant, the Tribunal declared the queen as a the “scourge and the blood-sucker of the French.” She was immediately sentenced to death by guillotine. The bloodthirsty crowd, seeking vengeance found the trial fair and just. To add to her humiliation, Marie Antoinette’s hair that was well known throughout France for its elegant poufs, was shorn, and she was taken to the guillotine. As she walked up to the guillotine, she accidentally stepped on the toe of the guillotine. Can you guess what this shallow, selfish, and insensitive queen said to the executioner? She said:

““Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”

That means:

Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.”

The unfortunate beheading of a queen wronged by her people is a story that will remain an everlasting blot in the history of humanity. She received a punishment far greater than her crime. As an Austrian wife of a French king, Marie Antoinette was destined for her doom. She was buried in an unmarked grave, forgotten by a world filled with vile hatred.

Here are some more quotes from Marie Antoinette which she did say. These quotes reveal the dignity of a queen, the tenderness of a mother, and the agony of a woman wronged.

1. “I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long.”

These were Marie Antoinette’s famous words at the trial, when asked by the Tribunal whether she had anything to say about the allegations made against her.

2. Courage! I have shown it for years; think you I shall lose it at the moment when my sufferings are to end?”

On October 16, 1793, as Marie Antoinette was taken in an open cart towards the guillotine, a priest asked her to have courage. These were her words she flung at the priest to reveal the stoic composure of a regal woman.

3. “No one understands my ills, nor the terror that fills my breast, who does not know the heart of a mother.”

A heartbroken Marie Antoinette spoke these words in 1789, at her beloved son Louis Joseph’s demise of tuberculosis.