Marie Antoinette

The teenage queen was embraced by France in 1770. Twenty-three years later, she lost her head to the guillotine. (But she never said, “Let them eat cake”)

Marie-Antoinette, her children, and Madame de Tourzel face the mob at the Tuleries on June 20th, 1792. (The Tuileries, 20th June 1792)
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Whatever Marie Antoinette's faults—in addition to her renowned extravagance, she was unable to comprehend the French people's thirst for democracy—she did not respond to news that starving Parisians had no bread by saying: "Let them eat cake." According to Fraser, this monumental indifference was first ascribed, probably also apocryphally, to Maria Theresa, the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV more than a century before Marie Antoinette set foot in France. Still, for more than two centuries, historians have debated whether Marie Antoinette bore the blame for her fate or was a victim of circumstance. Although she remained a fervent supporter of absolute royal power and an unrepentant enemy of democratic ideals, her many acts of compassion included tending to a peasant gored by a stag and taking in a poor orphan boy and overseeing his education. "She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss any opportunity of doing so," wrote Madame Campan, the First Lady of the Bedchamber. The softhearted queen, it seems, hungered more for tenderness than power.

The opposite might be said of her mother, Austrian empress Maria Theresa, who regarded her eight daughters as pawns on the European chessboard, to be married off to seal alliances. She barely paused in her paperwork to give birth on November 2, 1755, to her 15th child, In France, Louis Auguste, the 11-year-old grandson of French monarch Louis XV, became a prime matrimonial candidate when, in 1765, his father, Louis Ferdinand, died, making the grandson heir to the throne. Within months, 10-year-old Antoine was unofficially pledged to Louis to cement the union of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons—bitter rivals since the 16th century.

Dispatched to Vienna in 1768 by Louis XV to tutor his grandson's future wife, the Abbé de Vermond encountered an easily distracted 13-year-old who could barely read or write her native German, much less French. But "her character, her heart, are excellent," he reported. He found her "more intelligent than has been generally supposed," but since "she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, she is hard to teach." Blessed with thick, ash-blond hair, large, grayish blue eyes and a radiant complexion, Marie Antoinette possessed a delicate beauty, marred only slightly by a pouty Hapsburg lower lip.

For her May 1770 wedding, she was escorted to France amid an entourage that included 57 carriages, 117 footmen and 376 horses. Arriving in the forest of the royal château of Compiègne, some 50 miles northeast of Paris, the 14-year-old Antoine, now called by the more formal Marie Antoinette, impulsively dashed up to Louis XV ("Après moi, le déluge"), waiting with his grandson outside their carriage, and curtsied, instantly winning over the king, who kissed her. Perhaps intimidated by her forwardness, the 15-year-old bridegroom gave her a perfunctory kiss, then hardly glanced at her as she chatted away with the king on the ride to the château. The awkward, myopic heir apparent suffered from feelings of unworthiness, despite a facility for languages and a passion for history, geography and science.

Louis Auguste de Bourbon and Marie Antoinette were married on May 16, 1770, in the royal chapel at the palace of Versailles. The next day, news that the union had not been consummated spread through the court. It was only the beginning; by all accounts, the marriage went unconsummated for seven years. By this time, Louis XV had died (of smallpox, in 1774) and his teenage grandson had acceded to the most powerful throne in Europe.

After encouraging her daughter to "lavish more caresses" on her husband, Maria Theresa dispatched her son, Joseph II, as she put it, to "stir up this indolent spouse." Whatever he said apparently did the trick; in any case, the couple wrote to thank him. Many historians conclude that Louis suffered from phimosis, a physiological handicap that makes sex painful, and that he eventually had surgery to correct the problem. Biographer Fraser, however, contends that the pair were simply, as Joseph reported to his brother Leopold, "two complete blunderers."

Added to any sexual frustration Marie Antoinette may have felt was her homesickness ("Madame, My very dear mother," she wrote, "I have not received one of your dear letters without having the tears come to my eyes.") and her rebellion against court etiquette ("I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world," she complained in 1770 of a daily ritual at which dozens of courtiers hovered). She sought escape in masked balls, opera, theater and gambling. "I am terrified of being bored," the 21-year-old queen confessed in October 1777 to her trusted adviser, Austrian ambassador Comte Florimond Mercy d'Argenteau.

Where Louis was indecisive, thrifty and over-serious, Marie Antoinette was quick to make up her mind, extravagant and lighthearted. He loved being alone, tinkering with locks; she craved the social whirl. When Louis went to bed, around 11 p.m., Marie Antoinette was just revving up for a night of festivities. By the time she awoke, around 11 a.m., Louis had been up for hours. "My tastes are not the same as the King's, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working," the queen wrote to a friend in April 1775. And what exorbitant tastes she had! She bought a pair of diamond bracelets that cost as much as a Paris mansion. She sported towering bouffant hairdos, including the "inoculation pouf," a forbidding confection that featured a club striking a snake in an olive tree (representing the triumph of science over evil) to celebrate her success in persuading the king to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Informed of her daughter's behavior by Mercy, Maria Theresa fired off letter after letter warning Marie Antoinette to mend her ways. "You lead a dissipated life," the mother railed in 1775. "I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue."

Cloistered in the luxury of Versailles, the royal couple was oblivious to their subjects' plight. A failed harvest had made the price of grain skyrocket, and mobs were rioting in the streets of Paris, demanding cheap bread. Crushing taxes were also taking their toll on the populace. Meanwhile, the queen gambled recklessly, ordered expensive jewelry and clothes and spent a fortune on creating her own private domain at Versailles—the Petit Trianon. The three-story neo-Classical château was originally built on the grounds of Versailles in 1762-68 by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. Louis XVI had given it to Marie Antoinette in June 1774, a few days after he became king, when she asked for a hideaway. ("This pleasure house is yours," he told her.) "She wanted a domain reserved for her intimate circle of friends," says Baulez, as we tour the Trianon. "But unfortunately, this exclusion made everyone else at court jealous." Palace gossip spun outrageous tales about "scandalous" and "perverse" goings-on at the Trianon, giving anti-monarchist pamphleteers material for salacious underground cartoons. How could the queen spend the nation's money, at a time of financial crisis, on her private hideaway, critics asked.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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