Let Them Eat Cake: The Real Marie Antoinette

No one is more synonymous with the French Revolution than Marie Antoinette. Notorious spendthrift, Austrian spy, and licentious adulterer, Marie became the focus point for everything the French public despised about the Monarchy and the wider Aristocracy. After all, upon hearing the French peasants could not afford bread, she said “Let them eat cake!” Except she didn’t. A vaguely named “Grand Princess” supposedly uttered that statement before Marie Antoinette’s arrival in France. Is it possible many of Marie’s infamous traits were exaggerations, if not outright slander? If so, who was the real Marie Antoinette and what kind of Queen was she?

Born on 2nd November 1755 as Maria Antonia, Marie was the youngest daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Emperor Francis. Despite expensive private tutoring, Marie did not have an academic mind. Even at age ten she found it difficult to write in German, her first language. However, Marie was a talented dancer and musician gifted with a beautiful voice. She could play the harp, harpsichord, and flute. At seven she had a remarkable meeting with Mozart, who was the same age. Legend has it little Mozart proposed to Marie.

When the old enemies Austria and France cast aside their rivalry to thwart British and Prussian interests, they sealed their new friendship with a royal marriage. Marie  married Louis XV’s grandson and heir, Louis, the Dauphin of France in 1770. She was only fifteen. She took the name Marie Antoinette. Marie was popular among the common people for her beauty and pleasant personality, but at court, those who opposed the Austrian alliance focused their hatred on her.

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Unschooled in the schemes of the French court, the teenage Marie got caught in the crossfire. Madame du Barry was the long-term mistress of Louis XV and had considerable political influence. At their first meeting during a formal dinner, Marie asked a courtier who she was. The courtier said her job was to give pleasure to the King. Naïve, Marie replied that du Barry would be her rival at such a role. Another noblewoman took Marie aside to exactly explain why du Barry was there. Shocked at such immortality, Marie did not warm to her.

Louis XV’s sisters loathed du Barry and convinced Marie to ignore her at court. Offended by Marie’s slights, du Barry complained to Louis XV. This prompted Empress Theresa and the Austrian ambassador to pressure Marie to acknowledge her. On New Year’s Day 1772, Marie mentioned in du Barry’s direction “There are a lot of people at Versailles today.” Though vague, it was enough to please her. While the brief conversation saved Austro-Franco relations, historians often view the event as the first of several political blunders at court.

She didn’t have long to perfect her political skills. Louis XV died in 1774 after contacting smallpox. At nineteen, Marie became the Queen of France, with her husband taking the throne as Louis XVI. In her early years, Marie opted to stay out of politics. Instead, she spent vast amounts of money on clothes, jewelry, and gambling. Many blamed her for the economic problems France was suffering. They argued it was impossible for the country to pay off its debts with a hedonistic queen.

By 1777, Marie’s unpopularity had reached new heights. In fairness, Marie was no more unpopular than the mistresses of previous kings, including Madame du Barry. Du Barry also had extravagant taste and the French treasury was in a terrible state before Marie became queen. A new wave of political pamphlets against her caused her brother Joseph, now the Holy Roman Emperor, to visit. While Joseph no doubt gave Marie a stern lecture, he was also there to assist in a more intimate matter. Though married seven years, Louis and Marie had no children, Marie had not been pregnant once. Rumors circulated about the pair. Was Louis homosexual? Was Marie having affairs? Joseph discovered nothing prevented the two from conceiving other than a lack of knowledge. He later referred to them as two “complete blunderers” to his brother Leopold. Joseph’s intervention paid off. Louis and Marie had their first child, Marie-Therese, in 1778.

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After motherhood, Marie Antoinette reinvented herself as the mother of the nation. She abandoned heavy make-up and wide hooped dresses for simpler, rustic styled clothing, often made using fabrics like muslin to repeal the unpopularity of her previous spending habits. She received a small amount of popularity when she gave birth to a son in 1781, Louis Joseph, the long-awaited Dauphin of France.

Marie became involved in governing the country, but her policies benefited Austria at the cost of her French popularity. She pressured France to intervene on her brother’s behalf for his claim to the Bavarian throne and convinced Louis to support America during the War of Independence to slight Britain. These military interventions cost money France did not have. Marie’s conservative minister appointments to the cabinet did nothing to change the structure of the regime. A decree by the Minister of War declared a candidate for military office required a coat of arms. This blocked commoners from reaching high positions in the military, regardless of talent. Not only did this cause stagnation in the armed forces, it was the main grievance and cause of the French Revolution.

Political pamphlets describing the sexual lives of Marie Antoinette and her friends grew in popularity around the country. Over time, they focused on Marie. They suggested she was in a lesbian relationship with her two closest friends, the Princess de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac; claimed Louis XVI was not the father of her children, and said the queen had multiple affairs, including with the former king and Louis’ grandfather, Louis XV. The pamphlets highlighted Marie’s Austrian heritage and played her as an enemy of the French state.

Marie needed an escape. She turned to her beloved Petit Trianon in the grounds of Versailles with a greater ambition in mind. In 1783, Marie created her own mini farming village within its grounds. An idealized version of a typical French village, she stocked the picturesque hamlet with real animals. Marie hired a full-time farmer to tend them and grow crops, and milkmaids and herdsman to act like real villagers. Marie, her children, and close friends dressed as country peasants, wearing “simple” clothing and “working” by tending animals and crops. While the Hamlet was Marie’s perfect escape, others saw it as isolating herself in a surreal world, and mocking the French peasantry.

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She bore a second son, Louis Charles, in 1785. However, in that same year a scandal occurred from which Marie never recovered. In 1772, Louis XV wanted to gift Madame du Barry a diamond necklace. It cost 2 million livres ($14 million in 2015 USD). A necklace of such magnitude took time to create. Louis XV died before its completion and Madame du Barry left court. Since its cost had almost bankrupted them, the jewelers needed to sell it. In 1778 Louis XVI offered to buy it for Marie but she refused. The jewelers traveled across Europe to find a buyer but were unlucky. Upon their return, they again offered the necklace to Marie in 1781. She again refused.

A trickster called Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, who desired a life of unparalleled luxury, hatched a plan. By 1784 she was a mistress of Cardinal de Rohan. Jeanne learned Rohan was trying to gain Marie’s favor to become a minster. She convinced Rohan she was Marie’s friend and would speak on his behalf. In reality, Marie barely knew Jeanne. Rohan wrote notes to Marie. Jeanne replied in her name. The correspondence became so frequent, Rohan believed Marie had fallen in love with him. Rohan begged Jeanne to meet Marie. Jeanne set up a secret night-time liaison, hiring a prostitute with a likeness to Marie to talk to him. Jeanne swindled large amounts of money from Rohan, claiming they were for the Queen’s charity work. Having met the “Queen” himself, Rohan had no reason to doubt her. Using Rohan’s money, she had the life she wanted. As Jeanne boasted about her friendship with Marie, many assumed she told the truth.

The jewelers of the diamond necklace approached Jeanne to sell Marie the necklace. Jeanne saw an opportunity to get it for herself. Pretending to be Marie, she sent messages to Rohan asking him to buy the necklace on her behalf, as it would be unseemly to buy such an extravagant item when the French financial situation was so dire. Marie would pay Rohan back in secret. Rohan approached the jewelers with his messages from “Marie,” explaining the situation. After Rohan bought the necklace, he went to Jeanne’s house, where he believed she would deliver it to Marie. Instead Jeanne’s husband took it to London, where he had it destroyed to sell off the diamonds.

The jewelers, tired of waiting for payment, went to Marie. She told them she had never bought the necklace. Once she heard their story, she and the king summoned Rohan for an explanation. Rohan produced his letters from “Marie Antoinette de France,” forgetting monarchs did not use surnames. Furious, Louis XVI sent him to the Bastille. They arrested Jeanne three days later, allowing her to destroy evidence in the meantime. They whipped, branded, and sentenced her to life imprisonment. Thus, Marie became one of the first victims of identity fraud. Instead of siding with Marie, the political pamphlets declared her spending habits so obscene, she resorted to immense fabrications such as this to blame others for her faults. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was the final nail in the coffin for the Monarchy. It never recovered.

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The French treasury depleted, despite various cutbacks. France suffered from several expensive wars; a large royal family provided for by the state; and a reluctance on the aristocracy or clergy to help pay these costs. Political pamphlets declared Marie had single-highhandedly ruined the French treasury, giving her the nickname of “Madame Déficit.” Marie tried to curve her unpopularity with propaganda portraying her as a caring mother, but could not salvage her reputation. To add kindling to the fire, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy escaped prison and fled to London, where she published slanderous stories of her affair with the queen. The birth and death of a baby daughter, Sophie Helene, did nothing to help Marie Antoinette.

Hoping for a solution to the French money crisis, Louis XVI announced his intention to bring back the Estates General, the traditional elected legislature of the country, comprising representatives of the First Estate (the Church), Second Estate (Nobility) and Third Estate (everyone else). It had not convened since 1614. When the Estates General opened on 5th May 1789, it was a disaster. Dissent erupted between the democratic Third Estate (the educated bourgeois and radical aristocrats) and the Second Estate (the conservative nobility).

Marie Antoinette busied herself with the health of the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, who had contracted tuberculosis. In June 1789, little Louis Joseph died. There was no time to mourn as the political situation in France suddenly went in a radical new direction.

On 20th June 1789 the Third Estate found the door to its appointed meeting place closed by order of the king. Its members made an oath not to separate before it had given the nation a constitution. This was the first time French citizens stood in direct opposition to the king. The boldness of this response encouraged widespread riots and protests across France, culminating in the storming of the Bastille on 14th July. Despite the dramatic changes that followed (such as abolishing feudalism and publishing a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen), life at Versailles continued. In Paris, bread became sparse. Angry Parisians marched on Versailles. They forced the royal family to leave, taking them to the Tuileries Palace. Marie Antoinette never saw Versailles again.

marieantoinetteeMarie established a relationship with the moderate revolutionaries, including the influential Comte de Mirabeau. It seemed likely they would reform France as a constitutional monarchy, with Louis XVI abdicating. Mirabeau’s death in 1791 ended the alliance. Increasing conflicts with revolutionaries fortified Marie’s determination escape Paris with her family. They missed multiple opportunities because Marie would not go without Louis, who hesitated to leave. Once he agreed, they made their attempt on 21st June 1791. Rather than opt for two smaller, faster, inconspicuous coaches, Marie and Louis chose one large, slow coach. This cost them valuable time and caused suspicion traveling across the countryside. A solder recognized Louis and arrested them. The incident destroyed their remaining support and aided the republican cause.

On 21st September 1792, the government declared the French Republic. The fall of the monarchy was complete. The French Republic executed Louis XVI on 21st January 1793. The revolutionaries took Marie’s son, Louis Charles, and brainwashed him against his mother. They set her trial date for 14th October 1793. Marie and her lawyers had less than a day to prepare a defense. The list of crimes they tried her for are incredible—organizing orgies; sending treasury money to Austria; massacring guards; declaring her son to be the King; and incest. Her son accused her of this, under pressure from his jailers.

Heartbroken, instead of responding to her accusers, Marie turned to the mothers in the room, asking them how could any accuse her of such a false crime, and declaring her innocence. On 16th October 1793, they sentenced Marie Antoinette to death, with her execution in a few hours. She and her lawyers had expected life imprisonment. She rode in an open cart to the guillotine, located an hour away. Despite jeers from the crowds, Marie kept her composure. Upon climbing the scaffold, she stepped on the foot of her executioner. She said, “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.” These were her last words.

It’s unsurprising that her life is more complicated than what has emerged from historical mythos. While we can see her decisions as reckless, her parents also cast her into a foreign court as a teenager with no political experience. Forced to learn through trial and error, she lost her life. Some circumstances, like The Affair with the Diamond Necklace, were beyond her control. While Marie Antoinette was not the queen France required during its financial upheaval, it’s hard not to argue she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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