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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For the former royal family, now prisoners in the Temple tower, the next two months passed improbably in something like domestic tranquility. While the king schooled his 7-year-old son, Louis Charles, in the dramas of Corneille and Racine, the queen gave Marie Thérèse, 13, history lessons, played chess with her husband, did needlework and even sang at the harpsichord. Then, on November 20, Louis' letters to foreign powers plotting counterrevolution were discovered in a strongbox hidden in the Tuileries. Louis was taken from his family, locked up on the floor below them and, on December 26, put on trial. Maximilien Robespierre, a chief architect of the Revolution, and the fiery journalist Jean-Paul Marat were among the many radical leaders who testified against him during a three-week trial. "It is with regret that I pronounce the fatal truth," proclaimed Robespierre, "Louis must die, so that the country may live." After a unanimous vote by members of the Convention (with a few abstentions) that Louis had conspired against the state, members of the more moderate revolutionary faction argued that the former king should be confined until the end of the war with Austria, then sent into exile. Even English philosopher Thomas Paine, elected to the Convention as a hero of the American Revolution, pleaded for the royal family to be banished to America. But it was not to be. Louis, 38, was condemned to death on January 16, 1793. He was allowed to spend a few hours with his wife, son, daughter and sister before being led to the guillotine on January 21 and executed before a crowd estimated at 20,000.

Six months later, on August 2, the Widow Capet, as Marie Antoinette was now known, was transferred to the Conciergerie, a dank prison dubbed "death's antechamber." Louis' sister, Elisabeth, Marie Thérèse and Louis Charles remained in the Temple tower. Later that month, the queen recognized among her visitors a former officer, the Chevalier Alexandre de Rougeville, who dropped at her feet one or two carnations (accounts differ) containing a note that said he would try to rescue her. A guard spotted the note, and when public prosecutor Antoine Fouquier-Tinville learned that Royalists were scheming to free the former queen (the plan became known as the Carnation Plot), he moved to put her immediately on trial.

Emaciated and pale, Marie Antoinette maintained her composure at the trial, a grueling 32-hour ordeal carried out over two days. She responded with eloquence to the prosecutor's litany of accusations—she was guilty, he said, of making secret agreements with Austria and Prussia (which had joined with Austria in the war against France), of shipping money abroad to Louis' two younger brothers in exile and of conspiring with these enemies against France. Accused of manipulating the king's foreign policy, she coolly replied: "To advise a course of action and to have it carried out are very different things."

On the first day of the trial, the prosecution delivered a bombshell, presenting testimony by young Louis that he had sex with his mother and his aunt. (Caught masturbating by his jailer, the boy had invented the story to shift blame onto the two women.) The former queen summoned up a stirring denunciation. "Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother," she replied. "I appeal in this matter to all the mothers present in court." The prosecutor's ploy backfired as the audience reacted with abashed silence. But the trial's conclusion was foregone. With civil war threatening to destroy the new Republic, "Marie Antoinette was deliberately targeted," says Fraser in the PBS production, "in order to bind the French together in a kind of blood bond." Found guilty of treason, the former queen was sentenced to die.

On the eve of her execution, Marie Antoinette wrote a last letter, to her sister-in-law, entreating Elisabeth to forgive young Louis for his accusations and to persuade him not to try to avenge his parents' deaths. "I am calm," she reflected, "as people are whose conscience is clear." Before the former queen left prison the next morning, October 16, 1793, the executioner cut off her hair and bound her hands behind her. A priest counseled courage. "Courage?" Marie Antoinette shot back. "The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me."

As an open tumbrel cart carrying the condemned woman rolled through the streets to what is now the Place de la Concorde, Marie Antoinette, two weeks shy of her 38th birthday, but appearing far older, maintained a stoic pose, captured in Jacques-Louis David's harsh sketch (below) from the rue Sainte-Honoré. When the guillotine sliced off her head at 12:15 p.m., thousands of spectators erupted in cheers. Her body was placed in a coffin and tossed into a common grave in a cemetery behind the Church of the Madeleine.

Still imprisoned in the Temple tower, Louis Charles remained isolated from his sister and his aunt, who was also executed, in May 1794, as an enemy of the people. In June 1795, the 10-year-old boy, a king—Louis XVII to Royalists—without a country, died in the Temple tower, most likely of the same tuberculosis that had felled his elder brother. Six months later, his 17-year-old sister was returned to Austria in a prisoner exchange. She ultimately married her first cousin, the Duke d'Angoulême, and died childless at age 72 in 1851 outside Vienna.

Fersen became a trusted adviser to the Swedish king. But he never forgave himself for not saving the woman he loved on the flight to Varennes. "Why, ah why did I not die for her on the 20th of June?" he wrote in his journal. Nineteen years later, on June 20, 1810, a Stockholm mob, wrongly believing that he had poisoned the heir to the Swedish throne, beat him to death with sticks and stones. He was 54.

In April 1814, following Napoleon's exile to Elba, Louis' brother the Comte de Provence, then 58, returned from his own exile in England to assume the French throne as Louis XVIII. The following January, he had the bodies of his older brother and the queen disinterred and reburied in the Saint-Denis Cathedral near Paris, where idealized stone statues of the royal couple now kneel in prayer above the underground vault.

Marie Antoinette would likely have been perfectly happy to have played only a ceremonial part as queen. But Louis' weakness forced her to take a more dominant role—for which the French people could not forgive her. Cartoons depicted her as a harpy trampling the constitution. She was blamed for bankrupting the country, when others in the high-spending, lavish court bore equal responsibility. Ultimately, she was condemned simply for being Louis' wife and a symbol of tyranny. Thomas Jefferson, minister to France under Louis XVI, famously asserted that if Marie Antoinette had been cloistered in a convent, the French Revolution would never have taken place. Perhaps Jefferson goes too far. Certainly she became a scapegoat for nearly everything that was wrong with France's absolutist, dynastic system. But it's also clear that in their refusal to compromise, Louis and Marie Antoinette lost everything.

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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