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Marie-Antoinette

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Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Marie Antoinette

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Summary

Austrian noble and French Queen Consort whose position as a hate figure for much of France helped contribute to the events of the French Revolution, during which she was executed.

Early Years

Marie-Antoinette was born on November 2nd, 1755. She was the eleventh daughter - eighth surviving - of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. All the royal sisters were called Marie as a sign of devotion to the Virgin Mary, and so the future queen became known by her second name – Antonia – which became Antoinette in France. She was bought up, like most noble women, to obey her future husband, an oddity given that her mother, Maria Theresa, was a powerful ruler in her own right. Her education was poor thanks to the choice of tutor, leading to later accusations that Marie was stupid; in fact, she was able with everything she was competently taught.

Dauphine

In 1756 Austria and France, long term enemies, signed an alliance against the growing power of Prussia. This failed to quell the suspicions and prejudices each nation had long held for each other, and these problems were to affect Marie Antoinette deeply. However, to help cement the alliance it was decided that a marriage should be made between the two nations, and in 1770 Marie Antoinette was married to the heir to the French throne, Dauphin Louis. At this point her French was poor, and a special tutor was appointed.

Marie now found herself in her mid teens in a foreign country, largely cut off from the people and places of her childhood. She was in Versailles, a world were almost every action was governed by fiercely employed rules of etiquette which enforced and supported the monarchy, and which the young Marie called ridiculous. However, at this early stage she tried to adopt them. Marie Antoinette displayed what we would now call humanitarian instincts, but her marriage was far from happy to start with.

Louis was often rumoured to have had a medical problem which caused him pain during sex, but it’s likely he simply wasn’t doing the right thing, and so the marriage initially went unconsummated, and once it was there was still little chance of the much desired heir being produced. The culture of the time – and her mother – blamed Marie, while close observation and attendant gossip undermined the future queen. Marie sought solace in a small circle of court friends, with whom later enemies would accuse her of hetereo- and homosexual affairs. Austria had hoped that Marie Antoinette would dominate Louis and advance their own interests, and to this end first Maria Theresa and then the Emperor Joseph II bombarded Marie with requests; in the end she failed to have any affect on her husband until the French Revolution.

Queen Consort of France

Louis succeeded to the throne of France in 1774 as Louis XVI; at first the new king and queen were wildly popular. Marie Antoinette had little regard or interest in court politics, of which there was a lot, and managed to offend by favouring a small group of courtiers in which foreigners seemed to dominate. It’s not surprising that Marie seemed to identify more with people away from their homelands, but public opinion often angrily interpreted this as Marie favouring others instead of the French. Marie masked over her early anxieties about children by growing ever more interested in court pursuits. In doing so she gained a reputation for outward frivolity – gambling, dancing, flirting, shopping – which has never gone away. But she was irreverent out of fear, self doubting rather than self absorbed.

As Queen Consort Marie ran an expensive and opulent court, which was to be expected and certainly kept parts of Paris employed, but she did so at a time when French finances were collapsing, especially during and after the American Revolutionary War, so she was seen as a cause of wasteful excess. Indeed, her position as a foreigner to France, her expenditure, her perceived aloofness and her early lack of an heir led extreme slanders to be spread about her; claims of extra marital affairs were among the more benign, violent pornography was the other extreme. Opposition grew.

The situation isn’t as clear cut as a gluttonous Marie spending freely as France collapsed. While Marie was keen to use her privileges – and she did spend – Marie rejected the established royal traditions and began to reshape the monarchy in a new fashion, rejecting stark formality for a more personal, almost friendly touch, possibly derived from her father. Out went the previous fashion on all but key occasions. Marie Antoinette favoured privacy, intimacy and simplicity over the previous Versailles regimes, and Louis XVI largely agreed. Unfortunately, a hostile French public reacted badly to these changes, interpreting them as signs of indolence and vice, as they undermined the way the French court had been built to survive. At some point the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ was falsely attributed to her.

Historical Myths: Marie Antoinette and Let them eat cake.

Queen and Mother

In 1778 Marie gave birth to her first child, a girl, and in 1781 the much longed for male heir arrived. Marie began to spend more and more time involved with her new family, and away from previous pursuits. Now the slanders moved away from Louis’ failings to the question of who the father was. The rumours continued to build, affecting both Marie Antoinette – who had previously managed to ignore them – and the French public, who increasingly saw the queen as a debauched, idiotic spendthrift who dominated Louis. Public opinion, on the whole, was turning. This situation worsened in 1785-6 when Maria was publicly accused in the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’. Although she was innocent, she took the brunt of the negative publicity and the affair discredited the whole French monarchy.
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