Biography of Marie Antoinette, Queen Executed in the French Revolution

Painting of Marie Antoinette with her children

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Marie Antoinette (born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen; November 2, 1755–October 16, 1793) was the queen of France, executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. She is most known for supposedly saying "Let them eat cake," although the French quote translates more precisely as, "Let them eat brioche," and there is no proof that she said this. She was reviled by the French public for her lavish spending. Until her death, she supported the monarchy against reforms and against the French Revolution.

Fast Facts: Marie Antoinette

  • Known For: As the queen of Louis XVI, she was executed during the French Revolution. She is often quoted as saying, "Let them eat cake" (there is no proof of this statement).
  • Also Known As: Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna von Österreich-Lothringen
  • Born: November 2, 1755 in Vienna (now in Austria)
  • Parents: Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Austrian Empress Maria Theresa
  • Died: October 16, 1793 in Paris, France
  • Education: Private palace tutors 
  • Spouse: King Louis XVI of France
  • Children: Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Louis Charles, Sophie Hélène Béatrice de France
  • Notable Quote: "I am calm, as people are whose consciences are clear."

Early Life and Marriage to Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette was born in Austria, the 15th of 16 children born to Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. She was born on the same day as the famous earthquake of Lisbon. From birth, she lived the life of wealthy royalty, educated by private tutors in music and languages.

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 similar reasons. In 1770 at age 14, Marie Antoinette married the French dauphin Louis, grandson of Louis XV of France. He ascended the throne in 1774 as Louis XVI.

Life as Queen

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 Her charisma and lightness contrasted with the withdrawn and uninspiring personality of her husband.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

Marie Antoinette, formerly welcomed, became vilified for her spending habits and her opposition to reforms. The 1785–1786 Affair of the Diamond Necklace further discredited her and reflected poorly on the monarchy. In this scandal, she was accused of having an affair with a cardinal in order to obtain a costly diamond necklace.

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 unproven attribution to her of the remark, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!"— often translated as "Let them eat cake!" The phrase was actually first seen in print in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The Confessions," written before Marie Antoinette was queen.

In October 1789, the royal couple was forced to move from Versailles to Paris. Two years later, the attempted escape of the royal couple from Paris was stopped at Varennes on October 21, 1791. This failed escape was reportedly planned by Marie Antoinette. 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 she supported a French 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 Parisians stormed the Tuileries Palace on August 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 Conciergerie on August 1, 1793. The family made several attempts to escape, but all failed.

Death

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.

Legacy

The role Marie Antoinette played in French governmental affairs, both domestic and foreign, was likely greatly exaggerated. She was particularly disappointing to her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, for her inability to further Austrian interests in France. Her lavish spending, furthermore, did not significantly contribute to France's economic troubles before the revolution. Marie Antoinette, however, remains an enduring symbol, around the world and across history, of the extravagance of monarchy and aristocracy—against which revolutionaries define their ideals.

Sources

  • Castelot, André. Queen of France: A Biography of Marie Antoinette. Harper Collins, 1957.
  • Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Anchor Books, 2001.
  • Thomas, Chantal The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette. Zone Books, 1999.