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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.