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Marie-Antoinette

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As Marie did begin to resist the pleas of her relatives to influence the King on behalf of Austria, and as Marie became more serious and engaged in the politics of France fully for the first time – she went to government meetings on issues which didn’t directly affect her – it so happened that France began to collapse into revolution. The King, with the country paralysed by debt, tried to force reforms through an Assembly of Notables, and as this failed he became depressed. With an ill husband, a physically ill son, and the monarchy collapsing, Marie too became depressed and deeply afraid for her future, although she tried to keep the others afloat. Crowds now openly hissed at the Queen, who was nicknamed ‘Madame Deficit’ over her alleged spending.

Marie Antoinette was directly responsible for the recall of Swiss banker Necker to the government, an openly popular move, but when her eldest son died in June 1789, the King and Queen fell into a distraught mourning. Unfortunately, this was the exact moment when politics in France decisively changed. The Queen was now openly hated, and many of her close friends (who were also hated by association) fled France. Marie Antoinette stayed, out of feelings of duty and the sense of her position. It was to be a fatal decision, even if the mob only called for her to be sent to a convent at this point

The French Revolution

As the French Revolution developed, Marie had an influence over her weak and indecisive husband, and was able to partly influence royal policy, although her idea of seeking sanctuary with the army away from both Versailles and Paris was rejected. As a mob of women stormed Versailles to harangue the king, a group broke into the queen’s bedroom shouting they wanted to kill Marie, who had just escaped to the king’s room. The royal family were coerced into moving to Paris, effective prisoners. Marie decided to remove herself from the public eye as much as possible, and hope that she wouldn’t be blamed for the actions of aristocrats who had fled France and were agitating for foreign intervention. Marie appears to have become more patient, more pragmatic and, inevitably, more melancholic.

For a while life went on in a similar manner to before, in a strange sort of twilight. Marie Antoinette became then more pro-active again: it was Marie who negotiated with Mirabeau on how to save the crown, and Marie whose distrust of the man led to his advice being rejected. It was also Marie who initially arranged for her, Louis and the children to flee France, but they only reached Varennes before being caught. Throughout Marie Antoinette was insistent she would not flee without Louis, and certainly not without her children, who were still held in better regard than the king and queen. Marie also negotiated with Barnave on what form a constitutional monarchy might take, while also encouraging the Emperor to start armed protests, and form an alliance which would – as Marie hoped – threaten France into behaving. Marie worked frequently, diligently and in secret to help create this, but it was little more than a dream.

As France declared war on Austria, Marie Antoinette was now seen as a literal enemy of the state by many. It is perhaps ironic that at the same instance as Marie began to distrust Austrian intentions under their new Emperor – she feared they would come for territory rather than in defence of the French crown – she still fed as much information as she could gather to the Austrians to aid them. The Queen had always been accused of treason, and would be again at her trial, but a sympathetic biographer like Antonia Fraser argues Marie always thought her missives were in the best interest of France. The royal family were threatened by the mob, before the monarchy was overthrown and the royals properly imprisoned. Louis was tried and executed, but not before Marie’s closest friend was murdered in the September Massacres and her head paraded on a pike before the royal prison.

Trial and Death

Marie Antoinette now became known, to those more charitably disposed to her, as Widow Capet. Louis’ death hit her hard, and she was allowed to dress in mourning. There was now debate over what to do with her: some hoped for an exchange with Austria, but the Emperor wasn’t overly worried about his aunt’s fate, while others wanted a trial and there was a tug of war between French government factions. Marie now grew very physically ill, her son was taken away, and she was moved to a new prison, where she became prisoner no. 280. There were ad hoc rescue attempts from admirers, but nothing came close.

As influential parties in the French government finally got their way – they had decided the public should be given the head of the former queen - Marie Antoinette was tried. All the old slanders were trotted out, plus new ones like sexually abusing her son. While Marie responded at key times with great intelligence, the substance of the trial was irrelevant: her guilt had been pre-ordained, and this was the verdict. On October 16th 1793 she was taken to the guillotine, exhibiting the same courage and coolness with which she had greeted each episode of danger in the revolution, and executed.

A Falsely Maligned Woman

Marie Antoinette exhibited faults, such as spending frequently in an era when royal finances had been collapsing, but she remains one of the most incorrectly maligned figures in Europe’s history. She was at the forefront of a change in royal styles which would be widely adopted after her death, but she was in many ways too early. She was let down deeply by the actions of her husband and the French state to which she had been sent, and cast aside much of her criticised frivolity once her husband had been able to contribute a family, allowing her to ably fulfil the role society wanted her to play. The days of the Revolution confirmed her as an able parent, and throughout her life as consort she exhibited sympathy and charm.
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