Marie Antoinette

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Marie Antoinette was born in 1755, daughter of Holy Roman emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria and queen of Hungary and Bohemia. Her marriage to the dauphin (crown prince) of France was arranged to cement an alliance between Austria and France and in 1770, aged just 14, Marie Antoinette 1 travelled to France to become its queen.

During the early years of the young and ill-matched couple's marriage Louis suffered from a medical condition which prevented him from having children. The French people tended to blame Marie Antoinette for this failure to produce an heir to the throne and she was widely disliked. The young queen was not used to the rigid formality of the court at Versailles and her insistance on personal freedoms such as going out alone or with a few companions, instead of surrounded by attendants aroused the disapproval of the court.

When Louis XV died in 1774 Marie Antoinette's husband was crowned Louis XVI and three years later 2 the queen bore him a daughter, Marie Therese Charlotte (called Madame Royale). It appears that Marie Antoinette then settled down to married life and became a devoted wife and mother.

An Unpopular Queen

The queen was disliked by her adopted people for a variety of reasons. Partly just for her Austrian blood, partly for her formerly frivolous ways. She was rumoured to have had numerous affairs, particularly with Swedish diplomat Count Hans Axel Fersen, a favourite of hers. She was mocked and reviled in popular pamphlets and widely if probably unjustly referred to as a whore. She was also known as Madame Deficit and blamed for the country's financial crisis. While she certainly had been extravagant in her personal affairs in her youth, however, Antoinette was by no means responsible for France's financial difficulties. As a woman and a foreigner she made a convenient scapegoat and the radical press of the time took full advantage of this popular prejudice.

Although Marie Antoinette became less extravagant as she settled into married life and motherhood, the people never changed their opinion of her. Perhaps the worst slur on her reputation resulted from a scandal known as the Diamond Necklace Affair. Although Marie Antoinette was innocent it was widely believed that she had aquired an astronomically expensive diamond necklace and refused to pay for it. The whole thing was a con-trick concocted by a woman posing as a French aristrocrat under the name of Mme La Motte. The Diamond Necklace Affair contributed greatly to Marie Antoinette's extreme unpopularity and final calamitous end.

While the causes of the revolution that erupted in France in 1789, there is no doubt that much popular anger focused on Marie Antoinette personally. When a mob of angry women marched on Versailles in LINKOctober, they were shouting for the queen's blood as much as for the bread they were demanding. When Marie Antoinette heard about the approaching mob she remained calm. "I know they have come from Paris to demand my head, but I learned from my mother not to fear death and I shall await it with firmness," she said. Rather different to the traditionally quoted and apocryphal 'Let them eat cake!'

The royal family were taken to the Tuileries palace and remained effectively imprisoned in the capital for years. In 1791 Axel Fersen3, arranged their LINKescape. The plan called for Louis and Marie Antoinette to leave Paris in a small, fast coach; their children would travel separately to avoid suspicion. But Marie Antoinette refused to leave her children, insisting that the entire family travel together in a large, slow coach. It was a decision that sealed their fate, for the royal party made slow progress, missed their rendezvous with forces loyal to the crown, were recognised in the village of Varennes and arrested.

During the year of constitutional monarchy Marie-Antoinette was active in negotiating with the deputies of the Legislative Assembly and also had communications with her family in Austria, urging them to come to Louis's aid. In 1792, however, the institution of royalty was officially abolished in France and the Capets were moved to the Temple Prison. They were treated fairly well and were permitted to live together. In December of that year Louis's trial began and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On January 21, 1793 he went to the guillotine leaving Marie Antoinette in prison with their two teenage children.

Life after Louis

For several months after Louis's execution the queen, now 'the Widow Capet', remained in prison with her son Louis Charles4 and his sister, Marie Therese Charlotte. The children, particularly Louis Charles, were often sick and the queen had to care for them as best she could. Some months later it was decided to separate young Charles Louis from his mother, for no apparent reason. A few weeks later Marie Antoinette was also separated from her daughter and finally the former queen was taken from her cell in the middle of the night and taken to the squalid Conciergerie prison. Louis Charles and Marie Therese Charlotte remained in the Temple. They never saw their mother again.

In October Marie Antoinette was 'tried', convicted of treason and sentenced to be guillotined. On October 16, 1793 she was paraded through the streets of Paris in an open cart and publicly guillotined to the great delight of the parisian crowd.

Marie Antoinette's son Louis Charles (now called King Louis XVII by the monarchists and émigrés) was kept in prison until he died of tuberculosis in 1795. There was always some doubt over the final fate of the boy and several impersonators claimed to be Louis's heir in the first half of the nineteenth century. More than two hundred years later, however, in 2000, DNA experts announced that tests conducted on the heart of the boy who died in prison proved conclusively that he was indeed Marie Antoinette's son.

Marie Antoinette's daughter, Madame Royale, survived the revolution. She became the duchesse d'Angouleme and exercised considerable influence during the reigns of her uncles Louis XVIII and Charles X

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

1A name she assumed at this time - here christian name was originally Antonia2Thanks to minor surgery that enabled Louis to have children3rumoured to be Marie Antoinette's lover4Officially declared Louis XVII by his uncle the future Louis XVIII, safely in exile in England

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