10 Facts About Marie Antoinette | History Hit

10 Facts About Marie Antoinette

Jon Bauckham

26 Jan 2021
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

Marie Antoinette (1755–93) is one of the most famous figures in French history. Married to the future King Louis XVI while still a teenager, the Austrian-born queen is mainly remembered today for her expensive tastes and apparent disregard for the plight of her subjects, which only served to fuel the French Revolution.

But how much of what we think we know about Marie Antoinette is actually true? Here are 10 key facts about the royal – from her childhood in Vienna, to the guillotine.

1. Marie Antoinette belonged to a large family

Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna (as she was originally known) was born on 2 November 1755 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa, the archduchess was the 15th and penultimate child born to the couple.

Having such a large brood was politically useful, particularly for the Habsburg empress, who used her children’s marriages to forge Austria’s diplomatic ties with the other royal houses of Europe.

Maria Antonia was no exception, and she was soon betrothed to Louis Auguste, dauphin of France (grandson of the reigning monarch, King Louis XV), taking the name Marie Antoinette upon marriage. France and Austria had spent much of their recent history at loggerheads with each other, so strengthening the fragile union was of paramount importance.

Dan joins Martyn Rady to discuss one of history's most thrilling families, the Habsburgs. Ruling for almost a millennium, their imperial vision was perhaps best realised in Emperor Frederick III's AEIOU motto: Austriae est imperare orbi universe, "Austria is destined to rule the world."
Listen Now

2. She met Mozart when they were both children

Like many royal women, Marie Antoinette was largely raised by governesses. Academic success was not seen as a priority, but following her engagement to the dauphin, the archduchess was assigned a tutor – the Abbé de Vermond – to prepare her for life in the French court.

She was regarded to be a poor student, but one area in which she had always excelled, however, was music, learning how to play the flute, harp and harpsichord to a high standard.

Coincidentally, Marie Antoinette’s childhood saw an encounter with another (rather more talented) young musician in the form of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who performed a recital for the imperial family in 1762, aged six.

3. Her journey to France was a lavish affair – but she lost her dog along the way

Despite having only just met, Marie Antoinette (aged 14) and Louis (aged 15) were formally married in a lavish ceremony at the Palace of Versailles on 16 May 1770.

Her journey into French territory was a grand affair in itself, accompanied by a bridal party comprising nearly 60 carriages. Upon reaching the border, Marie Antoinette was taken to an island in the middle of the Rhine, where she was disrobed and placed in traditional French dress, symbolically shedding her of her former identity.

She was also forced to give up her pet dog, Mops – but the archduchess and the canine were eventually reunited at Versailles.

An image depicting the dauphin (the future King Louis XVI), being shown a portrait of Marie Antoinette prior to their marriage. His grandfather, King Louis XV, is seated in the centre of the picture (Image Credit: Public Domain).

4. The queen’s brother was enlisted to solve her marital ‘problems’

Following their wedding, the families of both parties eagerly waited for the couple to produce an heir.

But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (one theory is that Louis had a medical condition that made sex painful), the newlyweds did not consummate the marriage for 7 years.

Eventually, Empress Maria Theresa’s frustration with the couple led her to send Marie Antoinette’s brother – Emperor Joseph II – to Versailles to ‘have a word’ with Louis Auguste. Whatever he said, it worked, because Marie Antoinette gave birth to a daughter, Marie Thérèse, in 1778, followed by a son, Louis Joseph, three years later.

Two further children would be born during the course of the marriage, but only Marie Thérèse would survive to adulthood.

Marie Antoinette depicted with her three eldest offspring, Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph and Louis Charles. Another child, Sophie Beatrix, was born in 1787 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

5. Marie Antoinette built a pleasure village at Versailles

During her early years at Versailles, Marie Antoinette found the rituals of court life stifling. To make matters worse, her new husband was an awkward young man, who preferred to practise his hobby of locksmithing rather than going to the balls that Marie Antoinette enjoyed.

After Louis Auguste ascended the throne on 10 May 1774, the queen began to spend most of her time in an extravagant château within the palace grounds named the Petit Trianon. Here, she surrounded herself with numerous ‘favourites’, and held parties away from the prying eyes of the court.

She also commissioned the construction of a mock village known as the Hameau de la Reine (the ‘Queen’s Hamlet’), complete with a working farm, artificial lake and watermill – essentially an oversized playground for Marie Antoinette and her friends.

Marie Antoinette’s mock village at Versailles was designed by the architect Richard Mique. A building known as the ‘Queen’s House’, connected to a billiard room via a covered walkway, appears in the centre of the photograph (Image Credit: Daderot / CC).

6. A diamond necklace helped destroy her reputation

When Marie Antoinette first arrived in France, she had been warmly received by the public – despite hailing from a country that was once a hated foe.

However, as rumours of her personal expenditure began to circulate, she came to be known as ‘Madame Déficit’. France had spent vast sums of money supporting the American Revolutionary War, so the queen’s allowance of 120,000 livres per year to spend on clothes (many, many times the salary of a typical peasant) did not go down too well.

But Marie Antoinette’s poor reputation was further tarnished in 1785, after an impoverished minor aristocrat – the Comtesse de La Motte – fraudulently acquired a diamond necklace under her name.

A modern replica of the infamous diamond necklace, alongside a portrait of Louis XVI by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. The king’s reaction to the scandal only served to damage the reputation of the royal family (Image Credit: Public Domain / Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Using forged letters and a prostitute disguised as the queen, she fooled a cardinal into pledging his credit to pay for the necklace on Marie Antoinette’s behalf. However, the jewellers never received the full payment and it was discovered that the necklace had been sent to London and broken up.

When the scandal was revealed, Louis XVI publicly punished both La Motte and the cardinal, imprisoning the former and stripping the latter of his offices. But the king was widely criticised by the French people, who interpreted his haste to act as confirmation that Marie Antoinette may have still somehow been involved.

The queen’s reputation never recovered, and the revolutionary movement gathered pace.

7. No, she never said “Let them eat cake”

Few quotes have gone down in history quite like Marie Antoinette’s alleged retort “Let them eat cake” (or more accurately, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) when told that the French peasantry did not have any bread to eat.

Although the quip has long being associated with the queen, there is no evidence to suggest that she ever said it. In fact, the quote (attributed to an unnamed princess) first appears in a text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, penned in 1765 when Marie Antoinette was still a child.

Professor of Modern History David Andress talks Dan through the French Revolution: the causes, the context, its significance and its wide-felt consequences.
Watch Now

8. The queen plotted an ill-fated escape from revolutionary Paris

In October 1789, three months after the storming of the Bastille, the royal couple were besieged at Versailles and brought to Paris, where they were effectively placed under house arrest at the palace of Tuileries. Here, the king was forced into negotiating terms for a constitutional monarchy, which would greatly limit his powers.

With her husband weighed down by stress (made worse by the illness and death of his heir, Louis Joseph), Marie Antoinette secretly appealed for outside help. Assisted by her Swedish ‘favourite’, Count Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette hatched a plan in 1791 to flee with her family to the royalist stronghold of Montmédy, where they could initiate a counter-revolution.

Unfortunately, they were discovered near the town of Varennes and taken back to the Tuileries, humiliated.

A 19th-century painting showing the French royal family being arrested following their failed escape on the night of 20 June 1791 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

9. Her closest confidante met a grisly end

In April 1792, France declared war on Austria, fearing its troops would launch an invasion in a bid restore the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. However, after defeating a Prussian-led coalition army at the battle of Valmy in September, the emboldened revolutionaries proclaimed the birth of the French Republic and did away with the monarchy altogether.

By this point the king and queen were already imprisoned, as was a coterie of their confidantes. Among them was Marie Antoinette’s close friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, who was thrown into the notorious La Force prison.

Having refused to swear an oath against the royal family, Lamballe was dragged out onto the street on 3 September 1792, where she was attacked by a mob and decapitated.

Her head was then marched to the Temple prison (where Marie Antoinette was being held) and brandished on a pike outside the queen’s window.

Dan talks to Adam Zamoyski, a historian who has recently written a new biography of Napoleon.
Listen Now

10. Marie Antoinette was originally buried in an unmarked grave

In September 1793, 9 months after her husband’s execution for high treason, Marie Antoinette too was brought before a tribunal and charged with numerous crimes, including sending money to the Austrian enemy.

Most alarmingly of all, she was also accused of sexually abusing her sole surviving son, Louis Charles. There was no genuine evidence for this latter charge, but the queen was nevertheless found guilty of her ‘crimes’ on 14 October.

Two days later – wearing a plain white dress, with her hair cut short – Marie Antoinette was publicly guillotined, aged 37. Her body was then dumped in an unmarked grave in the city’s Madeleine cemetery.

The queen’s remains would later be retrieved and placed in a tomb alongside her husband, but it was certainly a grim end for a woman who had lived a life of opulence.

Like her husband, Marie Antoinette was executed at the Place de la Révolution, later renamed the Place de la Concorde in 1795 (Image Credit: Public Domain).

 

Tags: Marie Antoinette

Jon Bauckham