Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the wife of Louis XVI and the Queen of France between 1774 and 1792.
Marie Antoinette’s fate has made her the best-known of her 15 brothers and sisters who included the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and Queen Maria Carolina of Sicily.
Born in Vienna on 2 November 1755, Maria Antonia Anna Josepha was the fifteenth of the sixteen children of Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan of Lorraine. She was a charming, lovely girl but had no desire to apply herself to her studies. Given her charming nature, governesses were not strict with her. She was poorly educated and by the age of 10 could barely write and read, though she excelled in music and dance.
Marie Antoinette was very close with her older sister Maria Carolina (Charlotte). They were schooled together and would play together constantly. Sadly, when the girls grew older and were betrothed to foreign royal courts, their mother split them up to receive separate educations and the girls were not permitted as much time together.
Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter, and with so many sisters before her, she was not considered a serious player in her mother’s matchmaking schemes. When elder sisters fell prey to smallpox and an alliance was needed to seal a treaty with France, Marie Antoinette was the only eligible daughter left. At the age of 10, she was contracted in marriage to the young Dauphin of France, who would eventually grow up to be Louis VIX.
Preparation for Versailles
Not only was her education lacking for a future Queen of France, but the Empress felt that her daughter also lacked physically. French hair stylists were brought over to fix her high hairline which, at the time, was considered unfashionable. She also underwent a painful dental procedure, like an early version of braces, to straighten her front teeth. Her shoulders were considered uneven, so Marie Antoinette was laced into special corsets to correct her posture.
Aside from the physical and educational demands, Marie Antoinette was also schooled in dance, etiquette, dress and even correct ways to walk in the court of Versailles. Tutors were brought over from France to get the archduchess ready for her new life.
By the spring of 1770, now aged fourteen, she was deemed ready for France.
Dauphine of France
The young archduchess was married by proxy (with someone standing in for the groom) on 19th April, 1770. She then set of on the months long journey to France, saying goodbye forever to her family.
Marie Antoinette’s refreshing ways and graceful deportment enchanted the French court. At first, the young dauphine was the darling of court society. However, she faced a problem in her new marriage which would jeopardise her position.
Marie Antoinette’s new husband was a boyish fifteen-year-old, introverted and unsuited to rule. He was shy with his bride, and possibly had been poisoned against her by those still cautious of an Austrian alliance. The young bride had been instructed by her mother to make every effort to win the affection of her husband. Her chief duty as a wife was to have as many children as possible but it would take seven years of marriage before Louis would even come near her at night. This was bad news for Marie Antoinette for, when coupled with her feud with the King’s mistress, her position at court became uncertain.
The young dauphine grew frustrated with her uncertain position. She formed friendships with lively young women of the court and began to earn her reputation as a frivolous spendthrift due to her late night gambling parties and escapades into Paris for masked balls.
Queen of France
King Louis XV died suddenly of smallpox on 10 May 1774. The future of the monarchy now lay in the hands of the young heir to the throne and his wife. The situation in the country was anything but favourable for a transfer of power. The new king Louis XVI was taking over the reins of a Great Power at a time of crisis which had left France economically drained and politically weakened.
Louis Auguste took the name of Louis XVI. He was just twenty years old when he was crowned king and seemed to be overwhelmed by his new duties. As a person he was conscientious and honest, but was also indecisive introverted, preferring the company of his hunting dogs to members of the court.
By contrast, Marie Antoinette, the young queen at his side, was regarded as grace itself: charming and partial to any diversion that relieved the rigid routines of courtly life. She became a trend-setter in fashion and lifestyle. She was hugely extravagant with clothes and jewels, and her expenditure on amusements astounded even the court at Versailles which was no stranger to luxury.
In 1778 Marie Antoinette bore her first child, a daughter who was baptised Marie Thérèse after her grandmother. In 1781 the long-awaited male heir was born. Christened Louis Joseph, he died however from tuberculosis at the age of seven. The succession now passed to the second son Louis Charles, born in 1785. The youngest daughter Marie Sophie, born in 1786, died in shortly after she was born.
With the birth of her children Marie Antoinette began to resent the public, frivolous life she led at Versailles. She began to spend a lot of her time at the Petit Trianon with only her children and favourite friends for company. She even had built a small play village to teach her children about peasant life. She toned down her extravagant dress, opting instead for a simpler fashion. The court of Versailles was not impressed with her change of fashion – many old courtiers though it was unsuitable for a queen o be so simply dressed. Poor Marie Antoinette; she couldn’t win.
Being away from court as often as she was, Marie Antoinette was accused of neglecting her duties as queen, wife and mother, accusations which were then broadcast further afield by her numerous enemies. This increasingly open criticism of the queen was given additional fuel by the tense economic situation, as France was donating huge sums in support of the American War of Independence against Britain. However, the people saw the extravagance of the queen as the reason for their plight. The derisive nickname of ‘Madame Deficit’ for Marie Antoinette began to make the rounds.
The Necklace Affair
Marie Antoinette ignored the growing hatred against her, failing to realise how serious the situation had become. Things reached their lowest point when the so-called Necklace Affair became public. This involved an extremely valuable diamond necklace that disappeared without her knowledge after her name had been forged on certain documents. Although the queen was proved innocent, her name had been smeared in the eyes of France and her reputation would never recover.
The French Revolution
The road to Antoinette’s downfall began on August 10th, 1792, when thousands of Parisians attacked the Tuileries palace and forced the Legislative Assembly to suspend the monarchy. On August 13th the royal family was relocated to the Temple fortress, where they were held under close guard and in poor conditions. Antoinette lived in the Temple for 14 months, during which time her husband was executed.
In August 1793 Antoinette was separated from her children and shifted to a dungeon in the Conciergerie. There she was watched by male guards around the clock, even when dressing or attending to her toilet. On October 14th the deposed queen, now titled as the Widow Capet, was presented for trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal
At noon on October 16th, Marie Antoinette was driven to the Place de la Révolution and, like her husband 10 months before, placed under the guillotine.