Marie Antoinette

Queen consort to Louis XVI of France 1774-1793

Painting of Marie Antoinette with her children

Imagno/Getty Images

Marie Antoinette is most known for supposedly saying "Let them eat cake," as well as for her support of the monarchy against reforms and against the French Revolution, and for her execution at the guillotine.

Early Life and Marriage to Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette was born in Austria, a daughter of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. She was born on the same day as the famous earthquake of Lisbon.

As with most royal daughters, Marie Antoinette was promised in marriage in order to build a diplomatic alliance between her birth family and the family of her husband. (Her sister, Maria Carolina, was married to Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, for example.) Marie Antoinette married the French dauphin, Louis, grandson of Louis XV of France, in 1770. He ascended the throne in 1774 as Louis XVI.

Marie Antoinette was welcomed in France at first. Her frivolity contrasted with the withdrawn personality of her husband. After her mother died in 1780, she became more extravagant and this led to growing resentment. The French were suspicious of her ties to Austria and her influence on the King in attempting to foster policies friendly to Austria.

Marie Antoinette, formerly welcomed, now was vilified for her spending habits and opposition to reforms. The 1785-86 Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a scandal in which she was accused of having an affair with a cardinal in order to obtain a costly diamond necklace, further discredited her and reflected on the monarchy.

After an initial slow start at the expected role of child-bearer — her husband apparently had to be coached in his role in this — Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in 1778, and sons in 1781 and 1785. By most accounts she was a devoted mother. Paintings of the family stressed her domestic role.

Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

After the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, the queen urged the king to resist the Assembly's reforms, making her even more unpopular, and leading to the attribution to her of the remark, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" — "Let them eat cake!" In October 1789, the royal couple was forced to move to Paris.

Reportedly planned by Marie Antoinette, the escape of the royal couple from Paris was stopped at Varennes on October 21, 1791. Imprisoned with the king, Marie Antoinette continued to plot. She hoped for foreign intervention to end the revolution and free the royal family. She urged her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, to intervene, and supported a declaration of war against Austria in April 1792, which she hoped would result in the defeat of France.

Her unpopularity helped lead to the overthrow of the monarchy when Parisiennes stormed the Tuileries palace on Aug. 10, 1792, followed by the establishment of the First French Republic in September. The family was imprisoned in the Temple on August 13, 1792, and moved to the Conciergie on August 1, 1793. There were several attempts to escape, but all failed.

Louis XVI was executed in January 1793, and Marie Antoinette was executed by the guillotine on October 16 of that year. She was charged with aiding the enemy and inciting civil war.

Also Known As: Maria-Antoine, Josephe-Jeanne-Marie-Antoinette, Marie-Antoinette

Marie Antoinette Biographies

  • Madame Campan, The Private Life of Marie Antoinette
  • Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006)
  • Marie-France Boyer, The Private Realm of Marie Antoinette (2006)
  • Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (2001)
  • Chantal Thomas, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette (2001)
  • Evelyne Lever, Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France (2000)
  • Dorothy Moulton Mayer, Marie Antoinette: The Tragic Queen (1969)
  • Stanley Loomis, The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen and the Flight to Varennes (1962, 1972)
  • André Castelot, Queen of France: A Biography of Marie Antoinette (1957)
  • Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman (trans. 1933; 2002)
  • Hilaire Belloc, Marie Antoinette (1909; 2d ed. 1924)