Famous for her elaborate hairstyles and luxurious lifestyle, Marie Antoinette was actually something of a tomboy growing up in her native Austria. An avid horseback rider, she preferred hunting and hated being put on display. She was no fan of pomp and circumstance, where everyday activities like getting dressed and having a meal were turned into overhyped extravaganzas. But her mother Empress Maria Theresa put an end to her gamine hijinks, reminding her that she was supposed to act like a proper young lady at the Palace of Versailles.
Popular opinion portrays this woman as selfish and uncaring but she led an extraordinary life
Like many royal marriages of her day, the marriage between 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, and Louis-Auguste de France was a marriage of diplomacy and Maria Theresa worried that her daughter would fail Austria. She was quick with a rebuke if she thought Marie looked “slovenly” and in her letters to her often-homesick daughter, she continually reminded her to wear clean clothes and spiff up her hair. The young Marie Antoinette didn’t play fast and loose with her budget, but after a while, all that scolding from her mother had its effect.
At the time of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to 15-year-old Louis, France and Austria had been locked in the Seven Years War, so the Austrian monarchs, Francis 1, of the Holy Roman Empire, and her aforementioned mom, Queen Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina of Bohemia offered their young daughter’s hand to seal the new alliance between the two countries. The young couple was married on May 7, 1770, in an elaborate palace ceremony.
But Louis didn’t become king immediately. That didn’t happen until 1774, when his grandfather, Louis XV died.
Thus, the new life of Marie Antoinette began and the young woman who was once uncomfortable with excess became the queen who was known for it. This unquestionably led to her downfall in the midst of the French Revolution.
Popular opinion portrays this woman as selfish and uncaring but she led an extraordinary life and I’m including five facts about Marie Antoinette that you may not know.
1. Members of the American Revolution named a city after her.
A group of veterans of the American Revolution wanted to recognize France’s efforts to help them in their fight against the British. After founding the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory in 1788 at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, these patriots named their new community (Marietta, Ohio) after the French Queen, and even sent her a letter offering her a “public square” in the town.
2. It was seven long years before Louis and Marie Antoinette consummated their marriage.
It was traditional for the king’s courtiers to accompany the royal couple in their bed-chamber to watch the goings-on and for the young Marie, this was hardly the height of romance. And she remained frustrated for a long time. She was more than ready sexually to frolic with her husband but it was slow going. She lived in a constant state of anxiety that Louis would remain cold to her and she’d be denounced as a failure, only to be sent back to Austria and her repressive mother. A mother, who, it turns out, never failed to remind her of this in letters to her daughter, reminding her to “lavish more caresses” on Louis.
Marie’s situation was further complicated by the fact that everyone in France knew there was something wrong in the royal bedroom. This wasn’t just an issue of physical gratification, however. The country needed an heir to the throne.
It wasn’t long before young Louis’s impotence was widely discussed, all the way from the court at Versailles to the streets of Paris, where pamphlets that mocked his disability were distributed. The king wasn’t happy with this state of affairs either. His son’s predicament must have perplexed him because his own experiences were completely different. Indeed, this king had a raging sexual appetite that was matched by his mistress Madame du Barry.
Louis XVI, while intelligent, was a bit on the pasty side. He loved studying languages and was an avid locksmith and hunter and seemed to have little time for beautiful Marie. This led her to tell a friend “My tastes are not the same as the King’s, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working.”
Some historians believe Louis may have suffered from phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin of the penis is too tight and doesn’t loosen when the penis is erect. It’s a condition that makes sex painful. There was an operation at the time to ameliorate the condition, but Louis may have balked at the idea because such delicate surgery would be risky. Historians have debated this, and some believe he did go under the knife because it wasn’t long after this that the couple finally consummated their marriage.
But if life with Louis was boring in the bedroom, there were always other bedrooms for her to entertain herself in.
3. The bedroom of Hans Axel von Fersen, for instance.
Marie met the handsome young Swedish soldier at a ball in January 1774. She was still the dauphine (not the queen yet), and Fersen was at the beginning of his military career. Women were instantly attracted to Fersen and Marie was drawn in by his solemn personality and chivalrous demeanor. She invited him to Versailles where he became a favored guest. Fersen was equally attracted to Marie but his military career burgeoned into a diplomatic post, meaning he spent much time overseas, especially to the American colonies, where he fought the colonists on behalf of France.
But their alliance was stepped up several notches after Louis became king. That’s when he gave her Petit Trianon, a three-story “pleasure house” tucked within the vast grounds of the Palace at Versailles. The house was originally intended for Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, and was built between 1762 and 1768. Marie was smitten with the house and expanded the grounds to include a farm and a town that she called Le Hameau (The Hamlet). But the property was as expensive as it was beautiful, costing Louis two million francs ($6 million in 2006 terms) to construct.
And for the young Marie Antoinette, this joint was definitely jumping. Friends of the royal court considered it an honor to be invited there, and those who weren’t invited there began circulating rumors of the Queen’s reputed sexual dalliance with a close friend, the Duchesse de Polignac. It’s reported that Louis never slept here but did visit when theatrical performances were held.
Fersen, however, was a frequent visitor and had his own apartment right above Marie’s. Correspondences between the two reveal a very intimate relationship between the two lovers. They even wrote about everyday things, like purchasing a stove. While this relationship was surely an affair of the heart, Marie also pursued her wifely duties of producing a new king for France, but it’s unclear if the children she bore were Louis’s or Fersen’s. Either way, Louis treated the kids as if they were his, and Marie and her Swiss lover were careful to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
While the French Revolution was in its infancy, Fersen took action, trying to rescue Marie Antoinette and her family when they were imprisoned at the Tuileries. Raising large sums of money, he even mortgaged his house to help them escape, which was ultimately unsuccessful because the family was recaptured in Varennes, near the Austrian border.
In a letter to his sister, Fersen noted he would never marry because the woman he loved was taken. He met his death 20 years later when he was beaten by a mob of people in Stockholm who were enraged about his possible role in the death of the country’s crown prince.
4. The diamond necklace she never owned.
Two renowned jewelers, Charles Boehmer and Paul Bassenge were commissioned by Louis XV to craft an elaborate diamond necklace for his lover Madame du Barry. Weighing an astounding 2,800 carats the two men were certain they’d fetch 1.6 million livres (roughly equivalent to $100 million U.S. dollars). But as often happens when one is certain about things, their aspirations developed a rather large hole. Louis XV died before he was able to purchase the necklace.
Now Boehmer and Bassenge hoped Louis XVI would purchase the necklace for his queen, but Marie herself nixed that idea. Instead, she wanted the funds to go to France’s navy. The two men carried this expensive debt until one enterprising woman Jeanne de Lamotte Valois, who was having money problems of her own, somehow managed to purchase the necklace, with the idea of selling the diamonds separately. The Comtesse de Lamotte approached Cardinal de Rohan, who wasn’t particularly well-liked at the French Court. He’d served as the French Ambassador to Vienna from 1772-1774, and as such, Marie Antoinette and her mother considered him an enemy. So, the Comtesse lied to de Rohan, telling him that the queen desperately wanted the necklace but didn’t want to ask Louis for it. She suggested that if the good Cardinal could find a way to purchase it for Marie, he’d suddenly be in her good graces again and his reputation in the court would be restored.
Not content with one single act of trickery, the Comtesse had her lover, Rétaux de Villette pen letters imitating Marie’s writing. Then they were sent to the Cardinal, asking him to purchase the necklace. She even paid a prostitute with a reasonable resemblance to the Queen to have an intimate meeting with Cardinal de Rohan one evening in the gardens at Versailles. De Rohan managed to procure the necklace from Boehmer and Bassenge on credit and the jewelers handed the necklace to the Queen’s footman, who was actually Rétaux in disguise. Seizing the necklace, he headed instead to London.
And of course, Cardinal de Rohan couldn’t cough up the money when the first payment was due, so the jewelers hit up Marie Antoinette, who knew nothing about the necklace. After reaching London, the necklace was sold. Louis was in a right proper mood by now, and he had the Cardinal arrested. He was later acquitted of the charges and exiled. Lamotte was imprisoned but managed to escape and took up residence in England. Here, she spread as much propaganda about the queen as she could. But she didn’t really need to — Marie’s reputation was already tenuous, but this scandal destroyed it completely. The French people had already taken to calling her “Madame Déficit.” This was the beginning of the end for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
5. The famous phrase she never said.
Marie was known to be kind-hearted and generous despite her reputation for hard-partying and spending money. Over time she took in an orphan child and helped a peasant who had been gored by a wild animal. It’s really kind of sad that people think she said “Let them eat cake,” when she actually didn’t ever say this and this, unfortunately, helped seal her doom.
Sometime around 1789, it was being rumored that when she heard that her subjects had no bread she replied “Qu’ ils mangent de la brioche” (Let them eat cake).
But as Lady Antonia Fraser, the famed British author, notes in her biography of the queen, it would have been quite unlikely for this highly intelligent and benevolent woman who regularly donated to charities to even say something like this.
Some historians believe the phrase may have been uttered by Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. It’s reported she suggested poor French people eat “la croûte de pâté (the crust of the pâté). The phrase has also been attributed to other royals, including two aunts of Louis XVI, and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted in his book “Confessions” that a great princess (most likely Marie-Thérèse) uttered these words. And at the time when Rousseau was writing this Marie Antoinette was only ten years old.
But on July 14, 1789, 900 French workers, frustrated by near starvation, stormed the Bastille prison, acquiring arms and ammunition along the way. Crowds continued to grow restive and on October 6 of that year, a crowd of at least 10,000 people gathered outside the Palace of Versailles, demanding that Louis and Marie be brought to Paris. At the Tuileries Palace in Paris, Louis, who had a history of indecisiveness, said little, so Marie stepped in, meeting with advisers and ambassadors. In desperation she fired off letters to other European rulers, begging for help. Then came the aforementioned escape attempt, in June 1791. But that too was for naught. In September of that year, Louis agreed to a new constitution, which was drafted by the Constituent National Assembly. That only allowed him to keep his power in name only. It was merely symbolic.
Then the war began, between France, Austria, and Prussia, in 1792 and the radical Jacobin leader Maximilien de Robespierre called for the removal of the king. A series of horrific massacres in Paris led the Assembly to abolish the monarchy. The French Republic was established and the king and queen were subsequently arrested.
In January 1793, King Louis XVI was placed on trial, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death. He was summarily executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. Marie was sentenced to death several months later, in October, following the horrifying and bloody Reign of Terror, when tens of thousands of French citizens lost their lives. She was put on trial for treason, theft, and for sexual abuse against her own son (perhaps that will be another story for History Hustle on another day). She was found guilty at the conclusion of the two-day trial by an all-male jury.
In her last letter, written to her sister-in-law Elisabeth, the night before her death by guillotine, Marie seemed resigned to her fate, writing “I am calm, as people are whose conscience is clear.” During her final moments when the priest attending the execution told her to have courage, she replied:
“Courage? The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is going to fail me.”
Thus, ended the life of an influential woman who forever shaped the way we see France in an age full of grandiosity and poverty that spawned a revolution. It’s a testimony to the spirit of poor people and the strength with which they react when adversity seems unending. It’s tragic that Marie Antoinette is still blamed for something she never said but it’s even more tragic that poor people are forced to live in such poverty and perhaps it’s something we need to remember when we remember this powerful queen.
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