This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

October 15th 1793 – Queen Marie Antoinette of France is tried and convicted of treason

Marie Antoinette’s execution on 16 October 1793: Sanson, the executioner, shows Marie Antoinette’s head to the people

The legendary Marie Antoinette was the last-born daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian-based Hapsburg rulers of central Europe. She was born in the year 1755. As a younger child and a daughter, it was probably expected that her life would be less impactful than that of her siblings, but by the twists and turns of fate she would become a symbol of everything that was wrong with the monarchies of Europe.

Raised in the Imperial Palace in Vienna, she had a childhood fairly typical of royalty of the 18th century, being placed under the care of servants and being introduced to court visitors, one of whom, Mozart, she met at the age of seven. Mozart was of similar age and, as a child prodigy, was already impressing the nobility of Europe with his musical talent.

Unlike some royals, Marie enjoyed a good relationship with much of her family, particularly with her sister, and had a complicated but still loving relationship with her mother, who liked to call her ‘the little Madame Antoine’.

Maria Theresa with her family, 1754, by Martin van Meytens

Marie excelled in her artistic studies, being skilled in playing the flute, harp and harpsichord. She was also renowned for her excellent singing voice and was a skilled dancer.

Her academic studies were far less successful, and she was unskilled in writing in French, German or Italian, the three languages of the Austrian court. She would later be tutored by a Frenchman at the request of the king of France, who said she was intelligent but lazy and frivolous.

Marriage of Marie Antoinette with Louis-Auguste celebrated in the Royal Chapel of Versailles by the Archbishop-Duke of Reims on 16 May 1770

After 1756, with the end of the Seven Years’ war, the Austrians decided to seek a peace agreement with their long-time enemy, the French, so that they could focus on restricting the power of Prussia, a rising power in northern Germany.

The French were growing concerned over the rising power of the British and so also sought better relations with the Austrians.

As part of this change in policy, in 1770 the French king requested Marie’s hand in marriage for his son Louis and the two were wed, first by proxy in a ceremony where her brother stood in for her husband, and then for a second time in person once Marie reached France.

She was 15 at the time.

 As part of the marriage agreement, she had to renounce all claims to her family’s territories so that France could not use the claims at a later date to justify conquest of Hapsburg territories.

Upon arriving in France Marie was quickly swept up in court politics, with some people in the French king’s court being hostile to her, as they saw her as a proxy for her homeland, until recently France’s mortal enemy.

She was however charming and attractive and was popular amongst the common people who saw her as a fitting princess for their prince.

Marie Antoinette dans son salon (by Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier-Dagoty, 1777)

When her father-in-law died in 1774, her husband became Louis XVI and she became queen of France. As queen she spent huge amounts of money on fashion, palaces, gambling and hairstyles and, as France was suffering from severe government debt and economic turmoil at the time, her popularity with the common people began to slip.

She also suffered a dip in popularity along with her husband, as they had not consummated their marriage, something that left the marriage open to annulment and also meant that the marriage would not produce an heir to the throne. Apparently, this was due to her lack of interest in her husband and her husband’s ‘reluctance to exert himself’. This would only change when Marie’s brother the Holy Roman Emperor visited Paris and upon discovering the situation pressured the couple into having sex. Eight months later the queen discovered she was pregnant; she would give birth to a daughter.

During her time as queen, she often pressured her husband into various conflicts in support of her homeland and against the British, particularly in support of Britain’s rebellious American colonies. Involvement in these conflicts would further worsen France’s fiscal situation. She was also instrumental in supporting the conservative factions in the French court, who opposed any reforms to French society and the monarchy. 

In 1781, she gave birth to a son, the heir to the throne of France, once again called Louis. Rumours would grow that both her son and daughter were in fact not her husband’s children, something which modern historians cannot rule out, as she was discovered by researchers to have had at least one affair. These rumours were spread across France in inflammatory pamphlets which claimed that the queen was involved in all manner of debauched sexual activity. This often took on a xenophobic tone, with the claims suggesting that she had learned this behaviour while in Austria.

Her reputation took a massive blow when she was falsely accused in 1784 of being involved in a plot to defraud the French crown’s jewellers. While she was ultimately found not guilty, a widespread belief persisted that she was in fact guilty; this would massively damage not just her reputation but also that of the French monarchy and be used in part as a justification for the French Revolution.

She gave birth to another son in 1785, also called Louis, precisely nine months after the return of her lover to the French court following his absence for some time – something that did not escape the notice of her detractors. These rumours of infidelity, the fraud scandal and her extravagant lifestyle meant that by the mid-1780s Marie’s popularity had collapsed in the eyes of the public.

According to Wikipedia, this state portrait of Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children, Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph holding up the drape of an empty bassinet signifying the recent death of Marie’s fourth child, Sophie, was meant to improve her reputation by depicting her as a mother in simple, yet stately attire (by Vigée-Lebrun, 1787).

With her husband suffering from depression at the worsening political and economic crisis in France, Marie became more powerful in court, and in an attempt to repair her reputation with the public took a more active role in politics. Seeking to reform the country’s finances, the monarchy called the Assembly of Notables for the first time in 160 years, in order to give legitimacy to their proposed reforms. The Assembly failed to pass the reforms and, as Marie had not attended it while it was in session, she was accused of trying to undermine the body.

While the crisis developed in France, Marie was distracted from politics by her eldest son’s becoming seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1787; she would be concerned with her child’s poor health until his death in 1789, something which unsurprisingly deeply affected her mental wellbeing. Marie went into mourning just as the French Revolution was beginning.

Storming of the Bastille and arrest of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, 14 July 1789

As the revolutionaries began demanding a major constitutional change, Marie attempted to crush the revolt by supporting the appointment of a new hardline minister who, she hoped, would smash the rebels with mercenary troops. This only provoked riots in Paris, which led to the storming of the Bastille and the collapse of royal authority.

The royal family came under siege by the rebels over the next few years, but sought to cooperate with them, most of the rebels at this stage mostly still believing in the monarchy and seeking reform rather than abolition.

Fearing the more hardline elements among the revolutionaries, Marie and Louis decided in 1791 that they would flee Paris for a part of France controlled by those still loyal to the monarchy. This escape attempt failed and now crowds began to jeer her and her husband in public.

Arrest of the royal family at the house of the registrar of passports at Varennes on the night of 21 June 1791 (by Thomas Falcon Marshall, 1854)
Maximilien Robespierre

From this point on, she and her husband remained under close guard accompanied at all times by groups of soldiers.

Over the course of 1792 the moderate revolutionaries attempted to negotiate a solution to the crisis but these talks broke down, in part because Marie was seen as insincere in her attempts to form a moderate government.

The revolution began to take a much more radical turn and in late 1792 the monarchy was abolished by the rebels.

Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine (pen and ink by Jacques-Louis David, 16 October 1793)

Soon after, her husband was put on trial and in January of 1793 was executed by the revolutionaries.

Chaos reigned and with much of Europe mobilising for war against the new republic, a group of hardline radicals led by Maximilien Robespierre took control of the revolution in April of 1793.

These radicals almost immediately began to consider executing Marie, and she was brought before a show trial in October of 1793, where she was found guilty of treason, among a host of other crimes both real and imagined.

After being taken through the streets in a cart open to the jeering crowds, Marie was executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793, her last words – after stepping on the executioner’s shoe – being: ‘Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose.’

Marie-Antoinette’s execution [Museum of the French Revolution,]

Marie is most famous for allegedly saying, when told that the peasants had no bread, ‘Let them eat cake’. There is no evidence that she ever said this and it’s very likely this was simply fabricated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attributed to her by her opponents.

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