Misunderstood Queen: Marie Antoinette

This is a special post for me, because Marie Antoinette and I share a birthday, and from childhood I've been fascinated with the beautiful Queen who lost her head in the French Revolution. For along time Marie Antoinette suffered from the reputation as being nothing more than an empty-headed beautiful woman who famously declared to the masses, "Let them eat cake!" (Actually according to Antonia Fraser in her biography of the Queen, she never said this.)

But was she a victim of circumstances or did she contribute to the demise of the monarchy by her prolifigate and licentious behavior at court? Recently, several new biographies that are a little more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette have come out and Sophia Coppola's movie was released last year (which I saw on my birthday).

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia on November 2, 1755 in the Hofburg Palance in Vienna, to Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Lorraine. Maria was the 15th of Maria Theresa's 16 children and the final girl. Called Antoine as a child, she was spoiled and petted by her family who could deny her nothing. She was blonde with porcelain skin and vivid blue eyes. The Hapsburg court was relaxed and convivial. Maria Antonia's parents were an actual love match which was rare in the 18th century, particularly among royalty where the most one could hope for was mutual tolerance.

The little Archduchesse's education was left in the hands of her governess who was happy to spend her time spoiling the high spirited girl instead of teaching her. Antoine spent more time playing than studying to the point that she was barely able to read and write in her native German. She did however excel in music, drawing and dancing. When Antoine was ten her father died suddenly. Her mother Maria Theresa wore mourning for the rest of her life, while she ruled Austria with her son Joseph, much to his dismay.

In order to cement an alliance with France, Maria Theresa arranged a marriage between Louis-Auguste and Antoine. Since her older sisters were either already married, disfigured by small pox or dead, Antoine was the only choice. Maria Theresa wanted the alliance in order to stave off the threat of Prussia. Antoine was given a crash course in French history and customs towards which she proved an indifferent student. Her teeth were also straightened to make her conform more to the French idea of beauty. Nothing could be done about her lack of a bosom however, except to hope that she would fill out more when she gave birth.

In April of 1770 when Antoine was still only 14, she was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste with her brother filling in as the groom. At the border to France, Antoine was stipped of her Austrian clothing and regarbed in clothing that was fashionable at the French court, transforming into Marie Antoinette. Even her little pug was taken away from her.

When Marie Antoinette first arrived in France, she was much loved by the French people. However, the aristocracy of France was another matter entirely. A marriage had been promoted between Louis Auguste and the House of Savoy, which would have been more pleasing to certain factions at court. Instead, Louis' two younger brothers married Savoy princesses.

Matters were not helped by the indifference of the Dauphin. At the time of their marriage, Louis was barely fifteen, fat, awkward and shy. He preferred hunting or working in his locksmith shop to spending time with his bride. And then there was the matter of providing an heir for France, a matter that took seven years to resolve. On numerous occasions, and as tactfully as possible, Marie Antoinette tried to bring up the subject of “living in the intimacy” required of their vows, as did his physicians. Finally in 1777, he finally managed the feat. But the impasse was resolved only when Marie Antoinette’s brother, the brusque Emperor Joseph II of Austria, arrived at Versailles to have a talk with his sister about her spendthrift ways. Joseph was digusted at the discovery, he wrote to his cadet, Archduke Leopold, in Vienna, that the King “has strong, perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating but still erect, and bids goodnight.” If he had been there, he swore, he would have had Louis whipped “so that he would have come out of sheer rage like a donkey.”

Apart from the ongoing humiliation of having her bedsheets checked for blood, and her periods monitored by ambassadors to every court in Europe, the ordeal of Marie Antoinette’s prolonged virginity kept her in limbo. As long the marriage could be annulled, she had to cultivate an “appearance of credit” with the King. Cultivating the appearance of virtue might have been a more politic strategy, but Marie Antoinette chose to model her style and behavior on those of a royal paramour. Previous royal Queens had been nondescript and all but invisible. The French court was ruled by the Louis XIV's mistress en titre Madame de Montespan, and Louis XV's mistresses Madame de Pompadour and lastly Madame du Barry.

Court at Versailles was much more rigid than Marie Antoinette was used to. From the time she got up in the morning until she went to bed at night, she was never alone. The thought of which unnerved her. She wrote to her mother about how she despised being dressed by her ladies in waiting and having to eat meals in front of the public. Versailles was not unlike a small city state. It could hold up to 20,000 people. At any given time 3,000 Princes, courtesans, ministers and servants were in residence. Rival factions at court were constantly jockeying for position and favors with the King. The palace was a cesspool of disease, the corridors teemed with human waste and garbage. The palace was also open to anyone wishing to visit. Security, of course, was strict, but any subject, as long as he or she observed proper etiquette was allowed.

Marie Antoinette did herself no favors when she first arrived by refusing to speak to or acknowledge the King's mistress, Madame du Barry. Du Barry took it upon herself to gossip and backstab against the Dauphine until Marie Antoinette was persuaded to finally speak to her, an event that occured a year after she arrived at court. Much of Marie Antoinette's behavior at this time stemmed for her reaction to her marital frustration, her homesickness, and coping with the rigidity of court life. Behind her back, she was called L'Autrichienne, which could loosely be translated as Austrian bitch. Many of the nobility disliked her for no other reason than she was Austrian and foreign.

It didn't help that her mother was constantly sending her letters, criticizing her for her behavior, her failure to produce an heir, and exhorting her to remember her duty to Austria. Marie Antoinette complained to her mother that she had no influence, that the King was not willing to listen to her, because of his own Anti-Austrian sentiment.

As time went by, Marie Antoinette was openly rebellious. She chose her own friends from amongst the younger members of court, in particular the Duchesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. She yawned and giggled her way through royal ceremonies. More time and effort was spent on her clothing and redecorating her rooms at court, all to stave off the inevitable boredom that must have been a constant companion. Marie Antoinette began going out alone, or with friends, venturing forth to Paris to attend the theater or balls disguised as ordinary citizens. She insisted on choosing her own clothes instead of having them just handed to her, and even whether or not to wear stays or corsets.

Marie Antoinette loved the outdoors, particularly hunting (probably the only thing that she and her husband had in common), despite the fact that it was considered masculine and too dangerous. She even defied her mother and her advisors by wearing breeches and riding astride like a man, instead of using a sidesaddle. When she had her portrait painted, dressed in her riding clothes, her mother was appalled. She said that it was the portrait of an actress not a future Queen.

In 1774, Louis XV, the Dauphin’s grandfather, died suddenly of smallpox, at sixty-four. “God help us,” nineteen-year-old Louis XVI exclaimed, “for we are too young to reign.” As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette had no official role, and no real political power. Her main role was to provide an heir or two to the throne. Four years later, Marie Antoinette finally presented her husband and France with a child, a daughter named Marie Therese Charlotte, the only member of the royal family to survive the revolution. Over the next several years, Marie gave birth to three more children, the longed for Dauphin who died young, Louis Charles (the fugure Louis XVII) and a daughter Sophie. Once her children were born, Marie Antoinette seemed to calm down, more settled and mature. She was a devoted and besotted mother to her children, and a good spouse to Louis. But the damage was done to her reputation.

18th Century France had no supermarket tabloids, instead they relied on pamphleteers to spread rumors and malicious gossip. Because the pamphlets were printed privately, they were too numerous for the government to surpress. Marie Antoinette was accused of everything from lesbian affairs to affairs with various men at court, including Count Hans Axel Fersen, a Swedish diplomat that Marie Antoinette had first met at court when they were both 18. There is no concrete evidence that they were indeed lovers, but they were certainly intimate friends, and Fersen was the architect behind a later rescue attempt for the Royal family. She was blamed for the country's financial problems, because of her extravagant lifestyle, despite the fact that one could argue that her extravagance provided employment for tradesmen, milliners, dressmakers, mantuamakers and others.

When Marie Antoinete began to favor the more natural chemise look which followed the natural shape of the body, she was accused of mounting an affront to the modesty and dignity of the monarchy. It seemed to confirm the rumors that she was indecent and immoral. The Affair of the Necklace was yet another nail in the coffin of the Queen's reputation, despite evidence that she had nothing to do with it. The Affair was dreamed up by Countess Jeanne de La Motte, and it involved a diamond necklace worth more than 1.6 million livres that was created for Madame du Barry. The King died before he could take possession or even pay for the necklace. The jewelers tried to entice Marie Antoinette, but she wisely refused to accept the necklace as a gift from her husband. He'd already given her the Petit Trianon, her private retreat on the grounds of Versaille where she could have privacy away from the Court to indulge in her love of theatricals and to spend time with her intimate court(which gave rise to even more scurrilous rumors about what went on there).

The Countess de la Motte used the Queen's name to get Cardinal de Rohun to purchase the necklace for her. The Cardinal complied in the hopes of getting into the Queen's good graces. When the scheme was revealed, the Queen demanded that the culprits be brought to justice at a trial to publicly clear her name. Unfortunately the trial did more damage, as the malicious rumors and gossip were brought up to reveal how easy it was for the Cardinal to be duped. The good will of the French people had already evaporated as the King's economic policies failed. When Louis was first crowned, there was hope that the new regime would bring new ideas and reforms to governing France. After awhile, the King seemed to lose interest in government.

In October of 1789, the Royal Family were forced to leave Versailles for the Tuileries. Two years later, the aborted rescue attempt occured. The plan might have succeeded if Marie Antoinette hadn't insisted on not being seperated from her children. Instead of several small coaches, they traveled in one cumbersome one. The Queen's brother awaited the Royal family just across the border, but they were caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris.

The monarchy was abolished in the fall of 1792 by the National Convention, declaring France a republic. In early 1793, after a short trial, Louis XVI was convicted of treason and beheaded. He was allowed one final meal with his family where he urged his young son and heir not to see revenge for his death. Shortly afterwards, Marie Antoinette's two children were taken from her. The Dauphin was fed alcohol and abused in an effort to force him to accuse his mother of incest at her trial in October.

After her husband's death, the Queen wore black in defiance. Her hair had turned white during her confinement and she may already have been dying from uterine cancer. All through her imprisonment, Marie Antoinette bore it stoically. She was a month away from her 38th birthday when she was taken from the prison of the Conciergerie, and paraded in an open oxcart to the scaffold in the Place de la Revolution. There was an eerie silence from the crowd along the route, the same people who probably screamed obscenities at her in 1789. Even on the scaffold, she apologized for stepping on the foot of her executioner. Dressed all in white, Marie Antoinette went to her death like the Queen that she was. Her son, Louis-Charles died in prison at the age of ten, alone and brutalized in the Temple prison, despite persistent rumors that he survived.

Marie Antoinette was an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Her downfall was almost pre-ordained. The revolutionary spirit was over a hundred years in the making and it would have taken a stronger man than her husband to turn back the tide. Although Marie Antoinette's extravagance and willfullness maybe have contributed to the revolution, it was not the only cause. Perhaps if she had been better educated by not only her mother but also her husband's grandfather, she might have escaped the pitfalls that inevitably tripped her up.

Further reading:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey - Antonia Fraser

Sex with Queens - Eleanor Herman

To the Scafforld - Carrolly Erickson


Anonymous said…
I just saw the movie on TV and I felt sorry for her and felt that she was wrongfully blamed and accused.
Eion Maison said…
I have not seen these movies, I will.
Your blog is so rich!
FaithFiveBIFive said…
I found your blog on google. I am righting a paper on the distortion of the memory of Marie Antoinette and such. Do you thin you could email me any of the sources you used or anything you think could help if you know of anything
Thanks so much
Nicole Farparan

Bfox1018 said…
Hello i found this blog on google and i am writing a paper about Marie Antoinette and was wondering if you had any comments on how you think she was wrongfully accused, and if you think she could be compared to anyone of our time i would greatly appreciate your input thank you
Brandon Fox
MrsP said…
I agree she was at fault in many things, but I also think she was doomed no matter what she said or did.
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