Her hair was piled atop her head, often ornamented with jewels or trinkets. Her face was always made up, and she wore the finest gowns and jewelry. At only 19 years old, she was a Queen, and in the tumultuous times in which she lived, she soon became a symbol of all that was wrong with French royalty.
Let’s explore the life of Marie Antoinette…the woman who was the face of royal excess during the French Revolution.
Though now inextricably linked with France, Antoinette wasn’t a native of the country. Descended from the Hapsburg line, she was born into royalty in Austria.
Marie Antoinette entered the world in 1755. She was the daughter of the Empress of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like many born into a royalty, she had a lengthy name…she had a lengthy name…Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna.
Growing up, she was educated by private tutors. Her education focused on morality and religion. That was typical at the time for an aristocratic female’s education. Though she had a private tutor that worked with her, Antoinette was no great shakes at academics. In fact…she could barely read and write her native German…much less the French she also had to study.
As one of her tutors described… “she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach.”
Antoinette grew up during the seven years war. She was only eight years old when it ended, but the outcome of the conflict quite seriously affected her future.
You see, as the Empress of Austria, Antoinette’s mother was a political leader. At the end of the seven years war, it was in her best interest to keep an alliance between the French and the Austrians… and in the 18th Century, the best way to forge an alliance was through marriage.
Two years after the war ended, when Antoinette was but ten years old, her mother pegged the 11 year old heir to the French crown as her best bet for a son-in-law. The necessary arrangements were made, and at the age of only 14 years old Antoinette was married off into foreign royalty….Louis August de Bourbon.
Early Years in France
Even Marie Antoinette’s entry into France as a teenager was a spectacular affair. Her caravan was made up of nearly 60 carriages accompanied by 117 footmen and 376 horses! The destination for this veritable parade was a royal retreat in the forest outside Paris. But they had to make a stop as they approached the border with France…Antoinette had to be dressed to look the part of French royalty. Her hair was powdered, her makeup was done up, and she put on a dress that matched the lavish expectations of the French court.
When they arrived, Antoinette showed herself to be just a teenager. She was impulsive, and unable to control her excitement about being in a new place, about to meet her soon-to-be husband. Rushing out of the carriage, she dashed up to the King of France…when she curtsied, he was charmed.
But the king’s grandson, the future husband of Antoinette, did not share his betrothed’s extroverted personality. He did not dash up to her upon her arrival…instead he averted his eyes, gave her a quick, formal kiss on the cheek, and then stayed silent. Meanwhile, Antoinette and the King chatted away merrily.
Only days after Antoinette met Louis, the two were married. The May 16, 1770 wedding ceremony was held in the chapel of the famed Palace of Versailles. Antoinette’s dress was white and silver, an opulent gown decked out in diamonds. But there was a major problem with the gown…it wasn’t the right size. For any bride, discovering on your wedding that your dress doesn’t fit well would be a nightmare. Imagine being the future queen, with all eyes of the court and country on you.
Antoinette didn’t fret however…at least not publicly. She was expected to walk down the aisle and take the hand of Louis Bourbon in marriage. So that’s what she did, with her shift showing through the back of her dress in between rows of sewn on diamonds.
The ceremony itself was a long mass, and the groom had on a dour expression for the entire time. Then, when it came time to seal the contract with the signatures of the bride and groom, Antoinette dripped ink on her signature, obscuring the name. Doing so was considered bad luck for the marriage.
And things didn’t get any better as the day went on. It was traditional in this era for newlyweds to be followed up to their bedchamber by a crowd. In the case of Antoinette and Louis, the crowd included royal dignitaries and an archbishop. The bishop gave a blessing, the crowd dispersed, and the couple disappeared behind drawn curtains and undressed.
But as it would seem the entirety of Europe knew by the next day…they didn’t consummate the marriage as was expected of newlyweds. And for the next seven years, they still didn’t consummate the marriage.
To this day, there’s never been a clear answer about why it took so long for the two to fulfill this marital obligation. Historians have put forward theories … two of the most popular theories are that Louis had phimosis, a condition that meant sex was painful for him, or simply that the two teenagers were just young and confused. It seemed the whole world knew about the lack of intimacy between the young royals, including Antoinette’s mother.
Antoinette and her mother regularly corresponded via letter, and their discussions offer a glimpse into Antoinette’s early years in the French court. She was homesick…
“Madame, My very dear mother, I have not received one of your dear letters without having the tears come to my eyes.”
And she disliked the French custom of royalty being attended to always…
““I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world,” she complained to her mother in a letter.
Her mother spent time in her letters admonishing her daughter for her frivolous behavior at court …as well as for not performing her marital obligations. In one letter, she told Antoinette that in order to be a good wife she needed to “lavish more caresses” on Louis.
Part of the problem might have been their different schedules and lifestyles. Though married, they lived two very different lives. Antoinette was as outgoing and social as ever, but her husband remained quiet, avoiding the frivolities of court life that his wife so enjoyed. The differences grated on the marriage. Antoinette wrote to a friend,
“My tastes are not the same as the King’s, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working.”
He would often go to bed well before midnight, while she was just getting started with her parties late at night. Then, she’d wake up late morning after he’d already been up tending to his duties or studies from an early hour.
Eventually, Antoinette’s brother was sent to France to talk to Louis. It’s not clear what Antoinette’s brother said to Louis, but after their chat, the couple was finally able to consummate their marriage.
By the time their marriage was consummated, Louis’ father had died and the two had been king and queen for three years.
She was 21 years old.
Years as Queen
As Queen, Antoinette’s tastes remained lavish much to her mother’s dismay. In an almost portentous letter, her mother wrote:
“You lead a dissipated life, I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.”
Her hair itself was a mark of her opulence, with wigs and ornamentation piled feet atop her head. Her hair was so extravagantly done she could even hide tiny vases of water in it to keep the ornamental flowers fresh. Leonard Autie, her hairdresser, became a cultural icon in his own right. The women of the court and of high society in Paris began emulating Antoinette’s hairstyles, with mourning women even going so far as to ornament their towers of hair with urns.
Her jewelry was also flashy…two of her diamond bracelets were worth as much as an entire mansion in Paris.
Just getting dressed in the morning was literally a production. One of Antoinette’s maids would hold up a book of fabric samples for her to help her decide what to wear. Then, she’d put on layers of under garments including a frame for under her skirt to emphasize her hips. A corset of course, then layers of fabric and her dress. Again, her mother did not approve.
“As you know, I have always been of the opinion that fashions should be followed in moderation but should never be taken to extremes. A beautiful young woman, a graceful queen, has no need for such madness. On the contrary, simplicity of dress is more befitting and more worthy of a queen. I love my little queen and watch everything you do and feel I must not hesitate to draw your attention to this little frivolity.”
The royal couple was living well, and showing it off. But the people of France weren’t sharing in the opulence, and not all of the French population was impressed with their new queen’s luxurious style.
In the late 1770s, the harvest in France wasn’t going well. Grain was at a premium, prices were skyrocketing, and farmers and peasants were hurting. There were literal riots in the streets over bread. It is during these riots that Antoinette was supposed to have said “Let them eat cake.” But she never actually did… that phrase was attributed to her much later, in 1843.
Antoinette may have never uttered that famously callous phrase, but she certainly wasn’t sympathetic to the plight of the peasants. In fact, even as her subjects were suffering she continued spending even more. She gambled, and she spent money to construct her own private retreat at Versailles. The building, known as the Trianon, already existed. Antoinette, though, she needed to make it her own. She installed artificial rivers, a rotunda, and a series of what appeared to be rustic cottages. Once inside, it became clear they were anything but… they were furnished in the typically comfortable style of the wealthy, complete with pool tables. Silk hangings and other ornate wall decor, fine china and luxury furniture brought the cost of the retreat to an astounding two million francs.
Beyond the cost of the decor and the property, the Trianon caused other problems for Antoinette among her subjects. People wondered why a Queen would need such a retreat, and so they jumped to conclusions and began spreading rumors and gossip. The Queen was hosting men, they said. Obscene gatherings had to be happening at the Trianon…why else would she need a lavish getaway for just herself and her friends?
One rumor persisted…that of Antoinette’s affair with Swedish diplomat Axel de Fersen. In 2016, a team of researchers announced that a decoded letter showed Antoinette and de Fersen’s relationship went beyond just discussing matters of state.
Among the decoded passages is this:
“I will end [this letter] but not without telling you, my dear and gentle friend, that I love you madly and that there is never a moment in which I do not adore you.”
The two had first been introduced in 1774, and saw each other more and more as Fersen attended more events at the French court. He left Europe for a time to fight in the American Revolution, but that didn’t dim the feelings between him and Antoinette. Another letter that survived the centuries has Fersen telling his sister that he could never marry because his one true love was already taken.
The queen was giving the people of France a lot to talk about.
Discussions of Antoinette as a traitor to her husband, and about her frivolity with money were spread in pamphlets distributed throughout France. Drawings of Antoinette accompanied acerbic words, showing her in her extravagant dress and driving ire toward her and the rest of the royal family.
As the king and queen were acting as if nothing was different about life, the people of France were getting angrier and angrier.
In 1789, King Louis had sent troops to Versaille and Paris and French citizens were starting to worry it might be a move to dissolve the National Assembly. In response, 900 Frenchmen descended upon Paris and stormed the Bastille prison. They stole weapons and ammunition, but the event was much more than just a stockpiling of weapons … it was a symbol of the people being ready to take on the powerful forces of the monarchy. The Bastille was a fortress, but it was also the prison where political enemies were kept. It was a symbol of the monarchy’s power, and by taking it over the people showed just how weak the monarchy could be.
The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 is widely considered to be the start of the French Revolution. And things were moving fast. By October, the crowds of revolutionaries had grown to thousands. Ten thousand French commoners gathered outside Versailles, calling for the King and Queen to be dragged to Paris. Among them were thousands of women who had marched miles from Paris…along the way they were joined by men with guns.
When they showed up outside the royal residence, Louis didn’t know what to do. His first instinct was to escape, so he ordered his carriages prepared. But they were no match for the angry crowds. The carriages were ruined, and Louis and his family remained trapped in the palace.
They weren’t much safer inside, though. Some of the crowds tried to get at Antoinette, and they nearly succeeded. Two guards were killed as the crowd forced their way towards her quarters.
The crowds didn’t find Antoinette in her bedroom though…she had left earlier and was safe in the dining rooms of Louis’s quarters. Soon after, French troops under the command of Marquis de Lafayette arrived and were able to restore order. The peace was not to last, though. The crowds were able to capture the king and queen, and forced them back to Paris in a procession led by the heads of their dead bodyguards hoisted up on pikes.
Throughout the crisis, Antoinette was meeting with ambassadors and writing letters to other European officials, calling on them to help out the French monarchy. Louis, meanwhile, seemed at a loss for how to help.
Then, in 1891, aided by the help of her lover de Fersen – not Louis – Antoinette put together a plan to get the royal family out of France and away from the danger of an ever-growing anger from the public. The plan was to escape to the Netherlands, where they could plot a counter-revolution.
Antoinette proved herself able to make decisions and plan, but when it came time to escape her desire for luxury got in the way again. A French general had told the royals that their journey would be much safer if they made it in two, small, inconspicuous carriages. Instead, Antoinette demanded they use larger carriages that could be outfitted with a full silver dinner service and a wine chest.
Also joining the royal family in their luxurious carriage was de Fersen. The plan called for him to leave the royal family a short way into the journey, then meet back up with them at their destination. He wanted to travel the whole way as part of their group to offer protection, but Louis demanded he follow the plan and separate from the group.
Shortly after de Fersen’s departure from the group they ran into trouble. A peasant recognized the king, and was able to muster up a crowd to attack the carriage. They were dragged into a house and held captive. Eventually, they were allowed to return to Paris but still held captive in a palace.
The French Assembly allowed Louis to serve as King, but he didn’t really have any power. And Antoinette, well, she wasn’t much in favor of the Assembly at all. She was actively working against them, writing to officials throughout Europe about how terrible she thought the new constitution was. She was also pretty clear in how she felt about the members of the Assembly themselves, describing them as
“A heap of blackguards, madmen and beasts.”
During this time, Louis had also declared war on Austria. Things were falling apart all around Antoinette. And they were about to get worse.
In 1792, the French royal family was forced into the medieval Temple tower fortress. As they were held prisoner, the millennium-old monarchy of France was dissolved and a new French Republic took its place.
As all this was going on outside, the royal family tried to live a somewhat normal life in prison. Louis and Marie tutored their children, played chess, and played instruments. But they were also still trying to bring the monarchy back to power. It was this effort that ultimately undid her and Louis.
The couple had hidden the letters they received from foreign powers in a box inside the prison. When the correspondence was discovered, Louis was dragged on trial. He was ultimately sentenced to death, with the revolutionary leader Robespierre proclaiming
“Louis must die, so that the country may live.”
Antoinette and their children were able to spend a few final hours with him before he met his fate at the guillotine with 20,000 frenchmen looking on.
Months later, Antoinette herself would be the one on the platform. After Louis’ execution, she was brought to a new prison – a prison with the dire nickname of “death’s antechamber.” Here, a sympathetic military officer attempted to help her escape. When his efforts were uncovered, Antoinette was put on trial right away to avoid any danger of her escaping.
She was charged with treason and theft, and it was left up to an all male jury to decide her fate. It only took two days for them to decide she was guilty and should be sentenced to death.
The 37 year old queen made one final trip through the streets of Paris. Her hair shorn in preparation for execution, she sat stoically in her carriage on the ride to the guillotine platform where she would meet her fate.
When she arrived at the platform, the priest told her to have courage. Her response?
“Courage! I have shown it for years; think you I shall lose it at the moment when my sufferings are to end?”
From the moment she was born, Marie Antoinette was destined to play a role on the world stage. Her mother set her up for a powerful marriage, a marriage that thrust her into the midst of the French Revolution and made her the ultimate representation of the excesses of royalty. She was only alive for 37 years, but in that time she certainly left her mark on the world.