Marie Antoinette: The last Queen of France

The wife of Louis XVI experienced the wrath of the Revolution, ending herself on the scaffold with her husband and becoming the country’s final queen. A look back at her turbulent life.

Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette, is remembered as one of France’s most renowned queens. The Revolutionary Tribunal found her guilty of treason and she was executed by guillotine in Paris on October 16, 1793. Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She stoked the flames of animosity with her carefree demeanor and callous disregard for the people’s pain. She fought against the rebels with unsuspected power and bravery, proving herself to be a staunch counter-revolutionary. Also known as “The Austrian” or “Madame Deficit,” she appears to have followed her own road to the scaffold.

Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria

Palace of Versailles, Queen's bedroom, bust of Marie Antoinette in 1783.
Palace of Versailles, Queen’s bedroom, bust of Marie Antoinette in 1783.

The daughter of Francis of Lorraine and Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette was raised and educated by a series of governesses. Her fate was already sealed by her mother, who planned to marry her off to the grandson of Louis XV. She received an education that placed more emphasis on external attractiveness than intellectual development. She perfected her posture, danced and mastered the piano, but for a long time ignored the written word, other languages and history. In contrast to Versailles, he grew up in a less strict atmosphere, free from restrictions and close to nature.

Louis XVI’s wedding at Versailles

In the end, Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria finally succeeded: The Duke of Choiseul initiated negotiations for the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI in order to improve relations between the French monarchy and the Habsburgs by marrying their children to each other. Marie Antoinette was brought to Versailles at the age of 15 to marry the then-very young Dauphin Louis. The year was 1770. The splendid celebrations that followed turned into a nightmare for the people of Paris. More than a hundred people suffocated to death when crowds went wild during a spectacular and costly fireworks display over the city.

Newly alone and unfamiliar with court life in France, Marie Antoinette spent her fortune on frivolous pursuits and, when her husband abandoned them, quickly fell into a life of excess and frivolity. Among the young aristocracy, she had a clique of social outcasts, the greedy and the immoral. Maria Theresa bombarded the Austrian Ambassador Mercy d’Argenteau and her daughter with a barrage of letters, concerned that her motherly advice and guidance were of little use.

The unpopularity of Marie Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette and Kids.
Marie Antoinette and Kids.

The accession to the throne of her husband on May 10, 1774, did not cause Marie Antoinette to reconsider her conduct. However, she did become more dependent on her newfound power to dismiss certain courtiers and ministers at will. It didn’t help that seven years into her marriage, Marie Antoinette still hadn’t produced any heirs for the monarch, and public opinion toward her became more negative in Paris. Multiple rumors circulated regarding her purported affair with the young Swedish lieutenant Axel von Fersen.

Her first child, a daughter called Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, was born in 1778. Even when she gave birth to the dauphin, Louis Joseph, three years later, the public was still not on her side. Furthermore, Antoinette made no effort to hide her Austrian heritage, which worked against her. Even the derogatory moniker “Austrian” was openly applied to her. Repercussions from the jewelry incident (The Affair of the Diamond Necklace) were still being felt in 1785. Through the Cardinal of Rohan, jewelers Boehmer and Bassange requested 2,000,000 livres ($16.5 million in 2022) from the Queen to pay for a diamond necklace.

However, Queen Antoinette was not aware of the necklace since it was a gift from Louis XV (her father-in-law) to his mistress. Following the revelation of the scandal, the monarch submitted the matter to Parliament. It was determined that the Count and Countess of La Motte were guilty, but the Cardinal of Rohan and the Count of Cagliostro were innocent.

The Cardinal of Rohan had been easily deceived by the Countess due to his foolish wish to be close to the Queen. Therefore, Queen Marie Antoinette’s reputation suffered greatly, despite the fact that she was innocent. Because of her declining popularity as a result of this incident, she reduced her expenditures. But the harm had been done; from this point on, she would be held responsible for the poor harvests and dwindling royal treasury.

“Let them eat brioche!”

Marie Antoinette was said to say some horrible things about her people. When her people complained that there was not enough bread, she replied, “Let them eat brioche!” This response showed the gap between the well-off and the working poor was widening, which made the situation worrying. This was a distinction that Marie Antoinette would not have understood in respect to these words.

“Let them eat cake!”

The fact that brioche was more expensive than bread plays a great role here. This quote, allegedly from a “grand princess,” first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions,” written in 1782. And the fact that Marie Antoinette was so unpopular helped to attribute this saying to her. In fact, this phrase seems to be said by Victoire of France, one of Louis XV’s daughters. Moreover, there is no evidence that such a phrase was ever used by Antoinette. Nevertheless, the expression lives on and is often used, sometimes jokingly, as “Let them eat cake.”

Marie Antoinette facing the French Revolution

Marie Antoinette, while still grieving over the loss of her 7-year-old son, the dauphin Louis Joseph, to illness, did not hesitate to urge King Louis XVI to fight the revolutionary forces. The Queen’s pride led her to reject the concessions that La Fayette, Mirabeau, and Barnave, the more moderate figures, offered to her. Because the concept of a constitutional monarchy was abhorrent to Antoinette. Rather than go to her parents, she went to her brothers Joseph II and Leopold II for assistance.

Marie Antoinette tackled the crisis with grace and fortitude that shocked onlookers. Since the 5th and 6th of October, 1789, the royal family had been imprisoned at the Tuileries. Queen Marie Antoinette, ever the fighter, persuaded her husband to evacuate Paris with their children on June 20, 1791. The group was eventually picked up in the town of Varennes and returned to the capital city under heightened tension.

The people’s anger for the Queen was reignited when Leopold II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was rumored to be leading an impending war against France. This led to Louis XVI approving the Constitution under pressure on September 14, 1791. The riot of August 10 was sparked by the Brunswick Manifesto, which was published in France on August 1, 1792. The family was taken to Temple Prison when the enraged mob stormed the Tuileries.

Marie Antoinette in the Conciergerie

Despite the murders of September 1792, Marie Antoinette was optimistic that her life would be spared. Most of her close friends had been slaughtered and the severed head of the Princess of Lamballe hung outside her window. Her husband was executed after a long trial on January 21, 1793. But Marie Antoinette’s second son, Louis Charles (b. 1785), was taken from her very soon after and used against her.

They separated Antoinette from her child and took her to the Conciergerie the following month. The trial against her was about to begin. She was buried alive with horrible accusations, but she still insisted on keeping her head high and prayed silently to be spared. Her lawyers’ arguments were irrelevant since the outcome of the trial had already been decided.

Guillotined, the death of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death at around 4 a.m. on October 16. At the age of 38, on October 16, she submitted herself to the scaffold with all the grace she could muster. One of his shoes was probably lost at some point at the top of the stairs. The Museum of Fine Arts in Caen has acquired this piece.

With the other, she stepped on the foot of the executioner Henri Sanson and said to him: “Sir, I beg your pardon, I did not do it on purpose,” which were her last words. Marie Antoinette’s fate and the years of hostility against her left an indelible mark on the history of France. Accused of being “the scourge and leech of the French” and the one who pushed the King to betray, the Queen, by crystallizing the fury of the people, had considerably tarnished the image of the monarchy before the Revolution broke out.

Her relationship with Axel von Fersen

According to legend, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette met in 1774 and fell in love with each other. A book published by L’Archipel entitled “Marie Antoinette et le comte de Fersen – La correspondance secrète” (Marie Antoinette and the Count of Fersen: Secret Correspondence) explains this story. Axel von Fersen, Louis XVI’s political advisor at the Palace of Versailles, fell in love with Queen Antoinette and the two began exchanging letters across Europe.

The Count de Fersen was therefore the “love of her life” for the French Queen. Even more shocking, the book implies that Fersen was the biological father of Louis Charles, the future King Louis XVII (1785–1795) and Sophie Béatrice (1786–1787) [Louis XVI’s second daughter who died in infancy].

The letters exchanged by the two lovers were not released and properly decrypted until the publication of the aforementioned book in 2016. Invisible inks, duplicate envelopes, secret seals, numbers, code names, etc. were all utilized by the Count of Fersen and Marie Antoinette to conceal their unavowable devotion. On October 29, 1791, Axel von Fersen would write to the Queen, “Farewell, my dear friend, I love you and shall love you all my life fiercely.” After the royal escape attempt failed on June 2, 1791, Marie Antoinette wrote to him: “If I am here at all, it is only to express my undying love for you. […] Farewell to the most adored of men.”

Key dates of the history of Marie Antoinette

The execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16 1793. Heritage Images / Getty Images
The execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793. Heritage Images / Getty Images.

November 2, 1755: Birth of Marie Antoinette

Known by her full name, Marie-Antoinette-Josèphe-Jeanne d’Autriche-Lorraine, she entered the world on August 16, 1755, in Vienna. Her parents, Francis I of France and Maria Theresa of Austria, had 14 previous children, making Marie their fifteenth. From the moment she opened her eyes, her mother had set her sights on the oldest grandson of King Louis XV of France for a marriage.

May 16, 1770: Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette

Dauphin Louis or Louis XVI, grandson of Louis XV, married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Lorraine and Maria Theresa of Austria, at Versailles. They were 14-year-old and 16-year-old in order. Choiseul, the Minister, wanted to strengthen the alliance with Austria so as to restrain the aggression of Prussia and England. The anti-Austrian sentiments, however, won out, and Marie Antoinette derisively dubbed “The Austrian” very soon. The two spouses, victims of the Revolution, were guillotined in 1793.

May 10, 1774: Louis XVI, King of France

Louis XVI, the grandson of the recently deceased Louis XV, ascended the throne of France with his wife Marie Antoinette. As an honest and intelligent monarch, he confidently claimed power. But he was so painfully timid that he failed to make a strong impression. A few years later, the kingdom’s finances collapsed due to the American Revolutionary War and Queen Antoinette’s irregular spending. The situation continued to deteriorate until the beginning of the French Revolution.

19 December 1778: Birth of Marie Thérèse

Marie Antoinette had her first child eight years into her marriage. Marie-Thérèse, a girl, was called “Madame Royale” by her admirers. Marie Antoinette was a doting mom who prioritized providing a carefree, natural environment for her kids, free from the constraints of social convention.

October 22, 1781: Louis Joseph is born

The birth of Marie Antoinette’s son Louis Joseph, the successor to the French throne, came almost three years after the birth of her daughter. As with his sister, the young dauphin was showered with love and care from his parents. But his health was precarious, and in 1786 he began exhibiting indications of tuberculosis. His health deteriorated rapidly, and he passed away on June 4, 1789, under the Estates General. The royal family was unable to grieve because of the revolutionary climate in France.

March 27, 1785: The future Louis XVII is born

Louis Charles, Duke of Normandy and future King Louis XVII, was born to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Upon his brother’s death in 1789, Louis Charles learned about the French Revolution’s awful occurrences.

July 1785: The affair of the Queen’s necklace before the judges

The courts exonerated Cardinal Rohan but gave the Countess de La Motte a whipping and a life sentence. The infamous con artist known as the Count of Balsamo (then known as Count Alessandro Cagliostro) was expelled from France. Queen Marie Antoinette’s discontent with the Cardinal of Rohan was used by La Motte and Balsamo to coax 2 million livres ($16.5 million) out of the cardinal.

The cardinal felt he could redeem himself from the Queen by lending money for a diamond necklace. Considering her state of royalty, she could not openly indulge in such a desire. The deception was uncovered when the cardinal approached the Queen for the money. Despite the fact that Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with the scandal, she was badly judged by the people and the monarchy was again seen to be unreliable.

May 1787: Marie Antoinette in favor of Loménie de Brienne

The French monarchy’s monetary affairs were entrusted to Loménie de Brienne when the Queen ordered that Calonne be removed from his position. The gathering of prominent citizens had voted against his reforms. Loménie de Brienne was put in charge of the Royal Council of Finances, but she was unable to fix the disastrous state of the kingdom’s finances.

August 25, 1788: Necker is recalled by the King

Queen Marie Antoinette successfully lobbied for Louis XVI to fire Loménie de Brienne and reinstate the well-admired Necker in his position as Minister of Finance. It seemed that Marie Antoinette had now realized the depth of the animosity she had endured for so long. She made an effort to utilize her sway with the King to make things right, but her efforts were fruitless.

October 5, 1789: The Parisian women demand bread

In the late afternoon, some thousand women marched in riot to Versailles. They were sick of being hungry and being forced to pay exorbitant prices, so they protested King Louis XVI. On the evening of October 5th and 6th, Louis XVI finally gave in and accepted the decrees he had been fighting against for so long. The Parisians stormed the castle in an attempt to bring the royal family back to the city. To comply, the King and Queen relocated to the Tuileries Palace, where they lived out their days as French captives.

June 21, 1791: Louis XVI arrested at Varennes

In the hamlet of Varennes-en-Argonne, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, their two children and the governess, disguised as servants, were captured. They had escaped from the Tuileries Palace the day before and joined the Marquis de Bouillé’s troops in Metz. However, the royal regiment was discovered at Sainte Menehould by postmaster Drouet, who alerted the authorities.

Antoinette’s family was sent back to Paris. The public felt betrayed that the King had left the country. The Assembly temporarily removed the King from office. Marie Antoinette tried to portray this royal escape as a counter-revolutionary kidnapping in order to curb the Republicans. However, everything led to the shooting on the Champ-de-Mars and the killing of about 50 people.

August 10, 1792: Capture of the Tuileries

Parisian rebels attacked the Tuileries Palace. The French Army’s disarray was blamed on the King, who was suspected of treason. The Duke of Brunswick, commander-in-chief of the Prussian Army, issued a proclamation in France on August 1 in which he threatened to level the city if the royal family was endangered. After the Sans-culottes (lower-class partisans) marched on the Tuileries, slew the Swiss guards, and plundered the palace, the King was forced to seek sanctuary in the Assembly. The royal family was imprisoned in the Temple when the King was overthrown.

August 12, 1792: The royal family imprisoned in the Temple

Two days after the Parisian uprising, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their two children were thrown into the jail of the Temple.

January 21, 1793: Death of Louis XVI

The execution of King Louis XVI.
The execution of King Louis XVI.

Louis Capet or Louis XVI, 39 years old, former King of France, was guillotined at 10:20 a.m. on the Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde). The Revolutionary Tribunal passed the death sentence in August 1792 while he was imprisoned with his family in the Tuileries. The delegates at the Congress branded him a national traitor. “My people, I die innocent! Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French,” were his last words. But the drumbeat announcing his execution drowned out his last words. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16.

July 3, 1793: The dauphin is taken from his mother

Louis XVII or Louis Charles was removed from his mother, Marie Antoinette, and given to shoemaker Antoine Simon shortly after his father’s death. Louis Charles was mistreated, tortured into testifying against his mother and sister, deprived of food, and thrown in prison. Two years after he had to leave his family behind, he succumbed to his condition and died.

It was the Revolutionary Tribunal public prosecutor, Fouquier Tinville who forced the small child to testify against his mother. Radical journalist Hébert claimed that his mother had incestuous connections. Louis XVII was reared among the common people after the death of his mother and was treated no better than the others. After being imprisoned in 1794, he was given to Simon, where he remained until his death in June 1795, and probably abused.

August 2, 1793: Marie Antoinette taken to the Conciergerie

The former Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who had been held with her daughter and sister-in-law in the Temple, was transferred to the Conciergerie. A trial was scheduled to begin shortly.

October 14, 1793: Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal

At the hands of the Terror (Reign of Terror), Marie Antoinette faced trial. The Revolutionary Tribunal that presided over her trial was quick and efficient. She was accused of treason, but also of being a lousy mother and an immoral woman, as well as of having wasted French funds on banquets and dresses.

Marie Antoinette was first taken into custody with King Louis XVI in June 1791 in Varennes. She spent the next year in the Temple before being transferred to the Conciergerie in August 1793. On October 16 after her day in court, she was publicly guillotined.

October 16, 1793: Marie Antoinette is guillotined

Marie Antoinette, the ousted Queen of France, was put to death in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde) in Paris on October 16 after a swift trial that had begun on October 14. She left her son and daughter behind with grace and dignity as she ascended the scaffold. The guillotine was her fate after she was convicted of treason. She had been incarcerated since the summer of 1792, just after the execution of her husband, Louis XVI.


By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.