‘Let Them Eat Cake’: What Really Led to Marie Antoinette’s Execution? | History Hit

‘Let Them Eat Cake’: What Really Led to Marie Antoinette’s Execution?

Jon Bauckham

03 Feb 2021
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As well as her extravagant tastes and seeming disregard for France’s peasantry, Marie Antoinette is just as famous for her death by guillotine on 16 October 1793.

Executed in Paris nine months after her husband, King Louis XVI, the queen had become the subject of intense national hatred – a symbol of everything the revolutionaries sought to erase if the new French Republic was to succeed.

But how did Marie Antoinette end up being so widely loathed? And what happened in the weeks and months before the blade fell?

A profligate royal

Marie Antoinette had been regarded as a controversial figure long before her execution. 

Born in Vienna on 2 November 1755, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna – as she was originally known – was the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Austria and France were traditional enemies, so the decision to marry the archduchess to Louis, Dauphin of France (grandson of the reigning king, Louis XV), was certainly not welcomed by everyone.

After marrying the Dauphin on 16 May 1770, the teenage bride quickly became known for her love of parties, gambling and profligate spending, drawing the ire of the highly taxed French public. And, as time passed without the arrival of an heir (the couple would not consummate their marriage for seven years), rumours also spread that Marie Antoinette was embarking on sexual conquests elsewhere. 

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Over the coming years, this unsavoury reputation would be cemented by the distribution of pamphlets known as libelles, filled with pornographic cartoons depicting her engaged in trysts with both men and women. Although she had long been known as l’Autrichienne (‘the Austrian’), the phrase was increasingly deployed as a misogynistic pun – chienne being the French word for ‘female dog’, thus making her ‘the Austrian bitch’. 

But even when Marie Antoinette became queen in 1774 and eventually started producing children, her reputation took further hits – notably in 1785 when a minor aristocrat fraudulently obtained a diamond necklace using the queen’s name. 

While Marie Antoinette was entirely blameless in the affair, it destroyed her remaining credibility. Given that she had spent an astonishing 258,000 livres on clothing and accessories in that same year, it was seen as entirely possible – in the eyes of her critics – that the greedy ‘foreigner’ could have stolen such a necklace if afforded the chance. 

After her husband succeeded Louis XV as king in 1774, Marie Antoinette was gifted a château in the grounds of Versailles known as the Petit Trianon. Rumours that it hosted orgies and other scandalous activities only served to sour the queen’s reputation (Image Credit: Moonik / CC).

The gathering storm

1789, however, would prove to be a pivotal year in Marie Antoinette’s downfall. With France experiencing poor harvests and facing economic ruin due to its support for the American War of Independence, King Louis XVI convened an assembly known as the Estates-General.

Along with the clergy (the ‘First Estate’), the nobility (the ‘Second Estate’) and representatives of the common people (the ‘Third Estate’), Louis planned to raise taxes to clear the country’s debts.

But instead of solving the problem, the king was met with fierce opposition from the Third Estate, which presented him with a long list of grievances. When its representatives then found themselves shut out of the proceedings, they formed a new governing body known as the National Assembly (later the National Constituent Assembly), gaining support from members of the clergy and nobility.

An image depicting the Estates-General convening in Versailles, May 1789. Within weeks it would be dissolved and replaced with the National Assembly, which sought to establish a constitutional monarchy (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Although the king reluctantly accepted the Assembly’s legitimacy, rumours that he was plotting to dissolve it sparked widespread unrest – a chain of events that would lead to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July. Faced with further uprisings, Louis was forced to allow the Assembly to rule as France’s new government and begin drafting the country’s first constitution.

Having abolished feudalism, the revolutionary movement gained further momentum in October, when thousands of protesters – angry at rising bread prices – marched on Versailles and dragged the king and queen back to Paris, where they were taken to an old palace known as the Tuileries.

For many, the king’s return to the capital was viewed as a positive development – Louis XVI could now help France move forward as the head of a constitutional monarchy. Yet, in reality, the royals were made to live under house arrest, and were unwilling to bend to many of the revolutionaries’ demands.

To make matters worse, the couple’s eldest son and heir – Louis Joseph – had recently died of tuberculosis, and the king had spiralled into depression.

A failed bid for freedom

Feeling increasingly helpless, Marie Antoinette took the situation into her own hands. Over the coming months she appealed to foreign powers for assistance, hiding the contents of her messages in secret codes so they could make it past prying eyes. 

Eventually, Marie Antoinette plotted (with the help of her Swedish lover, Count Axel von Fersen) an escape to Montmédy – a royalist stronghold near the Belgian border. There, she surmised, the family could gain local support and ultimately incite a counter-revolution.

But the attempt, on the night of 20–21 June 1791, was an unmitigated disaster. Despite disguising themselves as servants, the king and queen were spotted in their carriage near Varennes and escorted back to Paris, humiliated. 

The French royal family is arrested at a house in Varennes, having been spotted by a local postmaster and removed from their carriage (Image Credit: Public Domain).

The failed escape only served to further radicalise the government and boost popular support for republicanism. Even though France’s first constitution was signed by the king in September 1791, the fate of the royal family was growing increasingly uncertain. 

Fearing that its troops would invade and restore absolute monarchy, the incumbent government (known as the Legislative Assembly) declared war on Austria in April 1792. When the war began to turn against France in August, armed revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries, and the king and queen were thrown into the Temple Prison.

By now, the royals were thought to be actively plotting against the nation’s interests. Marie Antoinette – an Austrian by birth – was regarded as the enemy within.

A painting showing the capture of the Tuileries on 10 August 1792. The insurrection was sparked by reports that the Prussian and Austrian forces promised to seek “vengeance” if the French royal family came to any harm (Image Credit: Public Domain).

The path to the guillotine

In September 1792, having thwarted a Prussian-led attempt to invade Paris, the emboldened revolutionaries decided to abolish the monarchy altogether.

Louis was separated from his family, stripped of his royal titles and made to take on the commoner name ‘Louis Capet’. Charged with treason and put on trial, he was found guilty and executed at the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde) on 21 January 1793. 

Marie Antoinette continued to pray for her safety, and that she would be able to remain at the Temple with her two surviving children, Marie Thérèse and Louis Charles. Yet even this privilege was taken from her, and she was transferred to a building known as the Conciergerie.

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On 14 October, Marie Antoinette was brought before a tribunal, charged with conspiring with the enemy and furnishing them with money and military intelligence. More upsettingly, she was also charged with sexually abusing young Louis Charles – an accusation that she strenuously denied. Nevertheless, after two days of intense questioning, the deposed queen was found guilty of her ‘crimes’. 

Transported to the Place de la Révolution in an open cart, Marie Antoinette ascended the scaffold shortly after midday on 16 October. As jubilant crowds cheered, the queen – clad in a simple white dress, with her hair cut short – was beheaded by guillotine.

Although Marie Antoinette’s remains would be reburied in 1815 during the Bourbon restoration, her body was taken to the city’s Madeleine cemetery and hastily interred in an unmarked grave.

While it had been a demeaning final few days, the queen remained resolute to the end.

“I have just been condemned, not to an ignominious death – it is such to the guilty alone – but to rejoin your brother,” she wrote to her sister-in-law on the morning of her execution. “Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I experience the tranquillity of mind ever attending a guiltless conscience.”

A hastily drawn sketch by revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David, showing Marie Antoinette being carted off to the guillotine, alongside a photograph of the queen’s funerary monument in the Basilica of Saint-Denis (Image Credit: Public Domain / Calvin Kramer, CC).

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Jon Bauckham