Marie Antoinette was born in 1755
a princess and archduchess
and was by most accounts the favorite daughter of the Hapsburg Empress of Austria
, Maria Teresa
. The Hapsburg
house was at the time the oldest royal
house in Europe
and one of the most influential
. Marie Antoinette grew up pampered and indulged
in Austrian Schonbrünn Palace.
Maria Teresa was a savvy ruler and after sealing an alliance with French Bourbon King Louis XV, arranged for her favorite daughter to be married to the Dauphin (crown prince of France), thereby securing Marie Antoinette a place as the future Queen of France, then possibly the most powerful country in continental Europe. At the age of 15, Marie Antoinette became the Dauphiness of France after a lavish and opulent ceremony and was quickly doted upon by King Louis XV who remarked on her beauty and fine full figure. In 1774, Louis XV died and Marie Antoinette, still in her teens became Queen of France.
But although she was given the most prestigious marriage possible at that time and lived in Versailles, the most decadent and opulent of European palaces, Marie Antoinette's married life was unhappy. Louis XVI was shy, homely and awkward and enjoyed the hunt and tinkering with clocks in his workshop. He kept early hours while Marie Antoinette indulged herself in keeping up with the latest fashions; trends in art, dance, couture and nightlife. Louis XVI was apparently slow to consumate the marriage and indeed had difficulty achieving erection by many accounts. Marie Antoinette suffered as she was taunted for her inability to produce an heir to the French thone, although by most accounts it was Louis XVI's failure in the act of love that left the Queen without child for so long.
In addition to the frustrations of the cold marital bed, Marie Antoinette became quickly bored with her position at court. Her days as Queen were filled with nearly endless court rituals and the following of strict etiquette implemented by the lavish, pageantry-loving Louis XIV. The young Queen grew tired of being always on display and missed the relaxed environment and freedom she enjoyed as a Princess in Vienna. Resentment between the queen and the high nobility grew as its members noticed her displeasure at attending de rigueur court functions.
Eventually, Marie Antoinette began to withdraw from court functions as she exercised her growing power as Queen. Marie Antoinette began to surround herself with a small clique of friends, most notably Yolande de Polignac and Thérèse de Lamballe and lavished expensive gifts and court position upon them. Marie Antoinette's pursuit of pleasure and her extravagances, including: lavish masked balls, gambling and expensive theatricals caused scandal and rumors to circulate among the nobility. There were rumors of infidelity, debauchery and excess. The Queen's pursuit of fashion was also commented upon and sometimes subject to ridicule and caricature. Every year she exceeded her already generous clothing allowance on voluminous dresses made of costly fabrics, ostentatious headresses and plumes.
The Queen did not heed the murmurings of the nobility and spent frivolously on her friends and entertainments and spent much of her time at Petit Trianon, a small palace adjoining Versailles that was given to her as a present by her husband. Marie Antoinette paid for extensive modifications to the palace, including the addition of a private theatre and a Temple of Love in its park. Marie also built a small rustic retreat called the hameau where she would pretend to be a milkmaid. The hameua was stocked with perfumed sheep and goats, although the actual milking and chores were done by servants.
By the late 1780s, Marie Antoinette was widely hated in France. Members of the nobility were envious of the Queen's lavish lifestyle and insulted by her dismissal of the rigid court etiquette. Gossip and rumor quickly surrouned the queen, much of it false and and entirely invented by the nobility. Stories of the Queen's sexual vice were common as were snide comments questioning the paternity of the royal children.
In the 1780's, the aspersions cast on the Queen's reputation reached their height with the Diamond Necklace Affair. Three persons were central to this scandal. Madame Lamotte, who schemed to gain a position at court, the Prince de Rohan a cardinal who was unhappy over his exclusion from Marie Antoinette's inner circle and a jeweller who was unable to convince the queen to buy an inordinately expensive diamond necklace originally designed for the Madame DuBarry, a lover of Louis XV. Lamotte convined both men that she was a lesbian lover of the Queen and further convinced the Prince de Rohan that the Queen wanted the necklace. Rohan obtained the necklace from the jeweller and gave it to Lamotte after meeting with a prostitute dressed at the Queen near the Temple of Love.
When the jeweller approached the Queen for payment, Lamotte's scheme unravelled. After learning the basic information in the scandal, both the Queen and King were outraged that Rohan thought the Queen would use a go-between to obtain a necklace. Prince de Rohan, a cardinal and the highest member of the Church in France was arrested on the Feast of Assumption before the entire court. The Queen demanded public vindication and the king orded a trial before the Parliament of Paris. The trial was a model of sensationalism with scandals of the Monarchy being aired and brought to life before france. The charlatans, the prostitute who resembled the queen, and many of the highest nobles of France. Evantually, Prince de Rohan was acquitted on the charge of insulting the Queen by the nobility. This ruling effectively stated that given the Queen's reputation it was not unreasonable for Rohan to think that Marie Antoinette would use him as a go-between and in the end exchange sexual favors for a diamond necklace.
The court did convict the much less important noble Lamotte, and she was branded on her breast and imprisoned. But she eventually escaped prison and exacted revenge by circulating an untrue tale that she was indeed the Queen's lesbian lover and the Queen was sexually insatiable. The story was patently false, but was widely circulated and believed.
Ironically, as the Diamond Necklace Affair erupted into scandal and the hatred of the Queen grew, she became more mature and less given to excess. She was spending less time with the Paris night life and more time attending to her husband and four children. As she passed thirty, Marie tended towards darker colors and less ostentatious fashion. Marie also reduced the number of servants in Versailles in attempt to cut costs.
In the late 1780's, France had suffered several bad harvests and the poor were suffering. The Queen was good-hearted and kindly and attempted to aid the poor of France. She often attended benefits for charity and used her old retreat, the hameu to aid many impoverished families. None of her acts of kindness was noticed during the suffering, however. What was remembered was that the queen had played at being a milkmaid at hameau while real peasants starved. The people perceived her as being insensitive and began circulating a rumor that she said haughtily, "let them eat cake" (although this too was false) when told of the widespread starvation.
France was also suffering form huge debts incurred under Louis XIV and Louis XV which Louis XVI seemed powerless to reform. France's costly aid to the american colonies during the Revolutionary War between 1778 and 1783 also increased the deficit. In an attempt to revive the Queen's popularity portraits were made showing the Queen and her young children. This attempt backfired when detractors noticed the Queen's lavish costume and dubbed her "Madame Deficit".
During this time, Louis XVI most needed support from the nobility. However, his increasing reliance on his wife's advice was widely resented and the position of the monarchy weakened among the nobility. His attempts at financial reforms were unheeded by the nobility. In 1789, the desperate king called the Estates General for the first time in 175 years. This was unique because it gave representation to common men as one of the three estates able to vote (the estates being the clergy, the nobility and the commoners). Louis was attempted to get to the support of the common people to try to force his needed reforms. Unfortunately, this backfired as the Bourgeoisie especially were not content with the limited role of the Third Estate as envisioned by their king. Members of the third estate declared themselves the national assembly and vowed not to adjourn until France had a constitution.
Despite Marie Antoinette's assertions that Louis take strong and decisive action, he lacked the will to make open opposition. The Queen was firmly opposed to any reforms that would give greater power to the common people. Finally troops were called to threaten the position of the national assembly. However, Louis' hesitation had been costly, and commoners did not want to see the Third Estate suppressed especially after a taste of success. A mob seized the Invalides and obtained a supply of firearms. They then needed gun powder and decided to attack one of the symbols of the French Monarchy, the Bastille, a prison and fortress in Paris. Louis once more failed to take prompt action and the mob was successful in the taking of the Bastille. Louis went to Paris in a feeble attempt to restore calm, but momentum had already overtaken any efforts he might have made to keep his position.
The storming of the Bastille struck fear into the heart of many nobles who knew of the poverty of the commoners and feared their vengeance. Many members of the royal court fled the country. Versailles was only 20 miles from Paris and Marie also feared the Parisian mobs and advised Louis to leave for the country and quell rebellion from afar, but Louis refused to leave Versailles. The Queen did successfully convince Louis to increse troops from the provinces which she felt would be loyal to the crown. However, Marie's actions and proud bearing made it easy for her to be thoroughly vilified by revolutionaries. Peasants revolted through the countryside in fear that the King under the control of the Queen her "austrian committee" would stamp out revolution. In August, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published and this renounced noble titles.
The monarchy and the commoners were at uneasy impasse until October 1789 when a banquet for the royal guards was held at Versailles. Royal and Austrian banners were cheered and toasts made to the King and Queen while the tri-color banner of the people was trod under foot. Tales of the lavish banquet and scurrilous rumors of decadant orgies were spread in the Parisian slums at a time when bread was becoming in increasingly short supply. A mob of mainly women marched through the rain to Versaille to demand bread from the King. The Queen was blamed as the source of their problems and many vowed to slice her into pieces. The King held a brief audience with them but refused to depart nor fire on the women. That night the mob found an unguarded entrance and entered the apartments of the sleeping Queen. Two of her guards gave their lives to save her, and Marie ran from bed half naked and narrowly escaped her attackers.
The mob was unsatiffied and demanded that the royalty appear before them and return to Paris. Marie and Louis left Versailles and were installed in the Tuileries palace in Paris. There, they were virtually prisoners and under close scrutiny of the commoners. In 1790 and 1791, the revolutionary movement seemed to have stabilized, but it was merely the eye of the storm. The assembly gave new broad rights to the people at the expense of the nobles and clergy. The King oftened used his power to veto, but many reforms were voted into law despite this.
The Queen feared for her safety and conspired with noble emigrants and sought aid from other European rulers, including her brother Emperor Joseph of Austria. After the death of the leading moderate politician Conte Mirabeau in 1791 and actions which reduced the authority of the Clergy, Marie convinced Louis to flee France. With the help of her friend Axel Ferson (who was rumored to be her lover), the royal family assumed false identies as common travellers and escaped from Paris. However, their insistance on comfort made their coach lumbering and slow and it required extra horses and changes of horses and attraced much attention.
At one change, someone noticed an attractive woman who issued orders although dressed as a maid, he recognized the Queen from a gold piece given as a tip and rode ahead to alert the people of Varennes who confronted the Royal entourage upon their arrival. They were very neary to the Austrian-French border and an installation of loyal troops preparing to see them out of the country, but were taken by surprise at Varennes, captured and forced to return to Paris.
After the disastrous attempt at flight, Marie attempted work with constitutional monarchist Barnave to try to restore some royal prestige. She also sought aid from abroad to intervene in France and both Austria and Prussia threatened France on behalf of the royal family. France declared war on both in 1792, over the King's veto. In June the Tuileries was invaded and looted by a mob, and the King and Queen publically ridiculed, but as of yet unharmed. In July 1792, Prussia invaded france and the Duke of Brunswick threatened vengeance if any harm came to the Queen and King. The proclamation caused a sensation and in August, the Tuileries was again stormed by the populace who massacred 900 swiss guards. There was a short debate, and the assembly voted to suspend and end the monarchy, the royal family was imprisoned.
Hundreds of aristocrats were murdered in prisons in 1792. Madame Lamballe, a close friend to Marie Antoinette was summoned before tribunal, failed to swear an oath denouncing the Queen and was hacked to death by a mob. Pieces of her were paraded before Marie's cell.
In december 1792, Louis XVI was summoned before the National Convention and tried for treason, after a close vote he was sentenced to death and was executed by guillotine in January 1793.
After her husband's death, the Queen's son was taken from her despite her protestations that the boy be allowed to stay. She was then separated from her daughter and sister-in-law and derisively called the Widow Capet. Marie was then tranferred to months of solitary confinement in the dark and dank Conciergerie prison.
On October 14, the woman was awoken at midnight and forced to face the Revolutionary Tribunal. Her own son was forced to testify that she abused him. Although she made eloquent defense of all of the crimes real and imagined charged against her, the Queen was found guilty and ordered to death.
On October 16, 1793 the Queen rode in a garbage cart shorn of her formerly lustrous blond hair amid jeers and whistle. She sat straight and tried to retain dignity and a Queenly bearing. She was beheaded at noon before a mocking and gleeful crowd.
Information gleaned from many sources including Encyclopedia Brittanica and The Life of Marie Antoinette by Carter, et al.