Marie-Antoinette

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Wilde, Robert. "Marie-Antoinette." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2015, thoughtco.com/marie-antoinette-biography-p2-1221100. Wilde, Robert. (2015, October 18). Marie-Antoinette. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/marie-antoinette-biography-p2-1221100 Wilde, Robert. "Marie-Antoinette." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/marie-antoinette-biography-p2-1221100 (accessed October 20, 2017).
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Marie Antoinette. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Summary

Austrian noble and French Queen Consort whose position as a hate figure for much of France helped contribute to the events of the French Revolution, during which she was executed.

Early Years

Marie-Antoinette was born on November 2nd, 1755. She was the eleventh daughter - eighth surviving - of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. All the royal sisters were called Marie as a sign of devotion to the Virgin Mary, and so the future queen became known by her second name – Antonia – which became Antoinette in France.

She was bought up, like most noble women, to obey her future husband, an oddity given that her mother, Maria Theresa, was a powerful ruler in her own right. Her education was poor thanks to the choice of tutor, leading to later accusations that Marie was stupid; in fact, she was able with everything she was competently taught.

Dauphine

In 1756 Austria and France, long term enemies, signed an alliance against the growing power of Prussia. This failed to quell the suspicions and prejudices each nation had long held for each other, and these problems were to affect Marie Antoinette deeply. However, to help cement the alliance it was decided that a marriage should be made between the two nations, and in 1770 Marie Antoinette was married to the heir to the French throne, Dauphin Louis. At this point her French was poor, and a special tutor was appointed.

Marie now found herself in her mid teens in a foreign country, largely cut off from the people and places of her childhood.

She was in Versailles, a world were almost every action was governed by fiercely employed rules of etiquette which enforced and supported the monarchy, and which the young Marie called ridiculous. However, at this early stage she tried to adopt them. Marie Antoinette displayed what we would now call humanitarian instincts, but her marriage was far from happy to start with.

Louis was often rumoured to have had a medical problem which caused him pain during sex, but it’s likely he simply wasn’t doing the right thing, and so the marriage initially went unconsummated, and once it was there was still little chance of the much desired heir being produced. The culture of the time – and her mother – blamed Marie, while close observation and attendant gossip undermined the future queen. Marie sought solace in a small circle of court friends, with whom later enemies would accuse her of hetereo- and homosexual affairs. Austria had hoped that Marie Antoinette would dominate Louis and advance their own interests, and to this end first Maria Theresa and then the Emperor Joseph II bombarded Marie with requests; in the end she failed to have any affect on her husband until the French Revolution.

Queen Consort of France

Louis succeeded to the throne of France in 1774 as Louis XVI; at first the new king and queen were wildly popular. Marie Antoinette had little regard or interest in court politics, of which there was a lot, and managed to offend by favouring a small group of courtiers in which foreigners seemed to dominate. It’s not surprising that Marie seemed to identify more with people away from their homelands, but public opinion often angrily interpreted this as Marie favouring others instead of the French.

Marie masked over her early anxieties about children by growing ever more interested in court pursuits. In doing so she gained a reputation for outward frivolity – gambling, dancing, flirting, shopping – which has never gone away. But she was irreverent out of fear, self doubting rather than self absorbed.

As Queen Consort Marie ran an expensive and opulent court, which was to be expected and certainly kept parts of Paris employed, but she did so at a time when French finances were collapsing, especially during and after the American Revolutionary War, so she was seen as a cause of wasteful excess. Indeed, her position as a foreigner to France, her expenditure, her perceived aloofness and her early lack of an heir led extreme slanders to be spread about her; claims of extra marital affairs were among the more benign, violent pornography was the other extreme.

Opposition grew.

The situation isn’t as clear cut as a gluttonous Marie spending freely as France collapsed. While Marie was keen to use her privileges – and she did spend – Marie rejected the established royal traditions and began to reshape the monarchy in a new fashion, rejecting stark formality for a more personal, almost friendly touch, possibly derived from her father. Out went the previous fashion on all but key occasions. Marie Antoinette favoured privacy, intimacy and simplicity over the previous Versailles regimes, and Louis XVI largely agreed. Unfortunately, a hostile French public reacted badly to these changes, interpreting them as signs of indolence and vice, as they undermined the way the French court had been built to survive. At some point the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ was falsely attributed to her.

Historical Myths: Marie Antoinette and Let them eat cake.

 

Queen and Mother

In 1778 Marie gave birth to her first child, a girl, and in 1781 the much longed for male heir arrived. Marie began to spend more and more time involved with her new family, and away from previous pursuits. Now the slanders moved away from Louis’ failings to the question of who the father was. The rumours continued to build, affecting both Marie Antoinette – who had previously managed to ignore them – and the French public, who increasingly saw the queen as a debauched, idiotic spendthrift who dominated Louis. Public opinion, on the whole, was turning. This situation worsened in 1785-6 when Maria was publicly accused in the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’. Although she was innocent, she took the brunt of the negative publicity and the affair discredited the whole French monarchy.

As Marie did begin to resist the pleas of her relatives to influence the King on behalf of Austria, and as Marie became more serious and engaged in the politics of France fully for the first time – she went to government meetings on issues which didn’t directly affect her – it so happened that France began to collapse into revolution. The King, with the country paralysed by debt, tried to force reforms through an Assembly of Notables, and as this failed he became depressed. With an ill husband, a physically ill son, and the monarchy collapsing, Marie too became depressed and deeply afraid for her future, although she tried to keep the others afloat. Crowds now openly hissed at the Queen, who was nicknamed ‘Madame Deficit’ over her alleged spending.

Marie Antoinette was directly responsible for the recall of Swiss banker Necker to the government, an openly popular move, but when her eldest son died in June 1789, the King and Queen fell into a distraught mourning. Unfortunately, this was the exact moment when politics in France decisively changed. The Queen was now openly hated, and many of her close friends (who were also hated by association) fled France. Marie Antoinette stayed, out of feelings of duty and the sense of her position. It was to be a fatal decision, even if the mob only called for her to be sent to a convent at this point

The French Revolution

As the French Revolution developed, Marie had an influence over her weak and indecisive husband, and was able to partly influence royal policy, although her idea of seeking sanctuary with the army away from both Versailles and Paris was rejected. As a mob of women stormed Versailles to harangue the king, a group broke into the queen’s bedroom shouting they wanted to kill Marie, who had just escaped to the king’s room. The royal family were coerced into moving to Paris, effective prisoners. Marie decided to remove herself from the public eye as much as possible, and hope that she wouldn’t be blamed for the actions of aristocrats who had fled France and were agitating for foreign intervention. Marie appears to have become more patient, more pragmatic and, inevitably, more melancholic.

For a while life went on in a similar manner to before, in a strange sort of twilight. Marie Antoinette became then more pro-active again: it was Marie who negotiated with Mirabeau on how to save the crown, and Marie whose distrust of the man led to his advice being rejected. It was also Marie who initially arranged for her, Louis and the children to flee France, but they only reached Varennes before being caught. Throughout Marie Antoinette was insistent she would not flee without Louis, and certainly not without her children, who were still held in better regard than the king and queen. Marie also negotiated with Barnave on what form a constitutional monarchy might take, while also encouraging the Emperor to start armed protests, and form an alliance which would – as Marie hoped – threaten France into behaving. Marie worked frequently, diligently and in secret to help create this, but it was little more than a dream.

As France declared war on Austria, Marie Antoinette was now seen as a literal enemy of the state by many. It is perhaps ironic that at the same instance as Marie began to distrust Austrian intentions under their new Emperor – she feared they would come for territory rather than in defence of the French crown – she still fed as much information as she could gather to the Austrians to aid them.

The Queen had always been accused of treason, and would be again at her trial, but a sympathetic biographer like Antonia Fraser argues Marie always thought her missives were in the best interest of France. The royal family were threatened by the mob, before the monarchy was overthrown and the royals properly imprisoned. Louis was tried and executed, but not before Marie’s closest friend was murdered in the September Massacres and her head paraded on a pike before the royal prison.

Trial and Death

Marie Antoinette now became known, to those more charitably disposed to her, as Widow Capet. Louis’ death hit her hard, and she was allowed to dress in mourning. There was now debate over what to do with her: some hoped for an exchange with Austria, but the Emperor wasn’t overly worried about his aunt’s fate, while others wanted a trial and there was a tug of war between French government factions. Marie now grew very physically ill, her son was taken away, and she was moved to a new prison, where she became prisoner no. 280. There were ad hoc rescue attempts from admirers, but nothing came close.

As influential parties in the French government finally got their way – they had decided the public should be given the head of the former queen - Marie Antoinette was tried. All the old slanders were trotted out, plus new ones like sexually abusing her son. While Marie responded at key times with great intelligence, the substance of the trial was irrelevant: her guilt had been pre-ordained, and this was the verdict. On October 16th 1793 she was taken to the guillotine, exhibiting the same courage and coolness with which she had greeted each episode of danger in the revolution, and executed.

A Falsely Maligned Woman

Marie Antoinette exhibited faults, such as spending frequently in an era when royal finances had been collapsing, but she remains one of the most incorrectly maligned figures in Europe’s history. She was at the forefront of a change in royal styles which would be widely adopted after her death, but she was in many ways too early. She was let down deeply by the actions of her husband and the French state to which she had been sent, and cast aside much of her criticised frivolity once her husband had been able to contribute a family, allowing her to ably fulfil the role society wanted her to play. The days of the Revolution confirmed her as an able parent, and throughout her life as consort she exhibited sympathy and charm. Many women in history have been the subject of slanders, but few ever reached the levels of those printed against Marie, and even fewer suffered as greatly from the way these stories affected public opinion. It is also unfortunate that Marie Antoinette was frequently accused of exactly what her relatives demanded of her – to dominate Louis and push policies favouring Austria – when Marie herself had no influence over Louis until the revolution. The question of her treason against France during the revolution is more problematic, but Marie thought she was acting loyally to the best interests of France, which was to her the French monarchy, not the revolutionary government.