Marie Antoinette

Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Amy-Jane Humphries

Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, and his wife Empress Maria Theresa. In 1770, as part of the peace process between the Empire and France, Marie was married to the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste. The marriage was unpopular with the French public.

Portrait of Maria Theresa and family by Martin van Meytens (1756). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

In 1774, Louis-Auguste became King of France and Marie became its queen. Their ongoing childlessness became a grave cause for concern. Satirical pamphlets mocked Louis’s failure to sire an heir. Finally, in 1778, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Marie-Thérèse.

Three other children followed, and Marie attempted to cultivate the image of a devoted mother to offset her increasingly dire reputation. The delay in producing heirs may have simply been due to the couple’s youth and inexperience but it gave rise to rumours of infidelity.

Marie’s purported sexual impropriety was compounded by the financial problems of France for which she was largely blamed. Marie spent vast amounts of money on the arts, fashion, and gambling and used her influence to oppose reforms that would have alleviated their financial woes.

After the Storming of the Bastille in 1789, France moved towards establishing a constitutional monarchy where the King had to work with the National Constituent Assembly. The lavish lifestyle of the queen and the court continued until a mob descended on Versailles.

The royal family then moved to Tuileries Palace where they were effectively under house arrest. Their attempted escape in 1791 lost them any public support that still remained. From then on, they were allowed no privacy and remained under armed guard.

Attempts to save the royal family by the Austrians was the beginning of the end for the king and queen. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished, and Louis was accused of treason. He was found guilty and was executed in January 1793. Marie’s trial and execution followed in October.

Portrait of a young Marie Antoinette by Joseph Ducreux (1769). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Recommended Reading

Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (London: Widenfeld and Nicholson, 2001)

Chantal Thomas, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

Évelyne Lever, Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)

John Hardman, Marie Antoinette: The Making of a French Queen (London: Yale University Press, 2019).

%d bloggers like this: