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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

Born: November 2, 1755
Vienna (now in Austria)
Died: October 16, 1793
Paris, France

French queen

M arie Antoinette was the queen of France at the outbreak of the French Revolution (178799). Her extravagant lifestyle, which included lavish parties and expensive clothes and jewelry, made her unpopular with most French citizens. When the king was overthrown, Marie Antoinette was put in jail and eventually beheaded.

A royal marriage

Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna (now in Austria), the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. She was the eleventh daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Francis I (17081765) and the empress Maria Theresa (17171780). In 1770 she married Louis XVI (17541793). Louis was the French dauphin, or the oldest son of the king of France. He became king fours years later in 1774, which made Marie Antoinette the queen.

The personalities of the two rulers were very different. Louis XVI was withdrawn and emotionless. Marie Antoinette was happy and careless in her actions and choice of friends. At first the new queen was well liked by the French citizens. She organized elegant dances and gave many gifts and favors to her friends. However, people began to resent her increasingly extravagant ways. She soon became unpopular in the court and the country, annoying many of the nobles, including the King's brothers. She also bothered French aristocrats, or nobles, who were upset over a recent alliance with Austria. Austria was long viewed as France's enemy. Among the general French population she became the symbol for the extravagance of the royal family.

The queen intervenes

Marie Antoinette did not disrupt foreign affairs as frequently as has been claimed. When she first entered France she interrupted an official German greeting with, "Speak French, Monsieur. From now on I hear no language other than French." She sometimes tried, usually without great success, to obtain French support for her homeland.

The queen's influence on domestic policy before 1789 has also been exaggerated. Her interference in politics was usually in order to obtain jobs and money for her friends. It is true, however, that she usually opposed the efforts of reforming ministers such as A. R. J. Turgot (17271781) and became involved in court scandals against them. Activities such as the "diamond necklace affair," where the queen was accused of having an improper relationship with a wealthy church official in exchange for an expensive necklace, increased her unpopularity and led to a stream of pamphlets and articles against her. The fact that after the birth of her children Marie Antoinette's way of life became more restrained did not alter the popular image of an immoral and extravagant woman.

The last days of the monarchy

In the summer of 1788 France was having an economic crisis. Louis XVI yielded to pressure and assembled the Estates General, which was a governmental body that represented France's three Estatesthe nobles, the church, and the French common people. Marie Antoinette agreed to the return of Jacques Necker (17321804) as chief minister and to granting the Third Estate, which represented the commoners, as many representatives as the other two Estates combined. However, after such events as the taking of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (French citizens overran a Paris prison and took the weapons stored there), Marie Antoinette supported the conservative court faction that insisted on keeping the royal family in power.

On October 1, 1789, the queen attended a banquet at Versailles, France, during which the French Revolution was attacked and insulted. A few days later (October 45) a Parisian crowd forced the royal court to move to Paris, where they could control it more easily. Marie Antoinette's role in the efforts of the monarchy to work with such moderates as the Comte de Mirabeau (17491791) and later with the constitutional monarchist A. P. Barnave (17611793) is unclear. But it appears that she lacked confidence in them. On June 21, 1791, the king and queen were captured at Varennes (a border town in France) after trying to escape. Convinced that only foreign assistance could save the monarchy, the queen sought the aid of her brother, the Holy Roman emperor Leopold II (17471792). At this time, many French military officers left the country. Thinking that France would be easily defeated, she favored a declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. On August 10, 1792, a Paris crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace and ended the monarchy.

The queen is dead

On August 13, 1792, Marie Antoinette began a captivity that was to end only with her death. She was jailed in various Parisian prisons. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to escape, Marie Antoinette appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal. She was charged with aiding the enemy and inciting civil war within France. The tribunal found her guilty and condemned her to death. On October 16, 1793, she went to the guillotine. (The guillotine was a machine used during the French Revolution to execute people by beheading them.) Marie Antoinette aroused sympathy by her dignity and courage in prison and before the executioner.

For More Information

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Lever, Evelyne. Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Thomas, Chantal. The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

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Marie Antoinette (1755–1793)

MARIE ANTOINETTE (17551793)

MARIE ANTOINETTE (17551793), queen of France. Josèphe-Jeanne-Marie Antoinette (Maria Antonia, archduchess of Austria) married Louis-Auguste, dauphin of France, on 16 May 1770. Louis XVI (ruled 17741792) and Marie Antoinette ascended the throne in 1774. The youngest daughter of the sixteen children of Maria Theresa (17171780), archduchess of Austria and queen of Bohemia and Hungary, and Francis I (ruled 17451765), Holy Roman emperor, Marie Antoinette wed at age fifteen to secure a tenuous Franco-Austrian alliance. A French tutor educated the archduchess in religion, history, the classics, and the arts. Not an adept learner, though enthusiastic, Marie Antoinette excelled in artistic pursuits. Her parents married for love, shared the same bed, and took joy in parenthood, unusual for the eighteenth century. Marie Antoinette's days were divided between courtly etiquette and the unceremonious family quarters. Maria Theresa's moral code permeated the court and influenced her children. Marie Antoinette venerated her loving, albeit highly principled mother, but she was especially attached to her father. His death at the age of fifty-six devastated the ten-year-old Marie Antoinette, and sorrow attended her throughout her life. This burden typified her complex personality, which was often eclipsed by her public image as a pitiless and spendthrift queen.

The duc de Choiseul, foreign minister to Louis XV, and Maria Theresa orchestrated the political match between Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, an excruciatingly shy adolescent of sixteen years whose chief delights were hunting and puttering in his locksmith shop. The marriage was politically disastrous and personally fragile for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The enmity France bore for this Austrian queen was almost pathological. The hostility toward Marie Antoinette from both the educated elite and the populace forever impugned her character. She suffered rumors of infidelity and infertility in the seven years before she gave birth to a daughter and finally the dauphin, born in 1781. Marie Antoinette was comforted by Louis XVI, who ultimately came to love his charismatic bride and to whom he paid unfettered affection in public.

By 1774 the queen endured unspeakable venom at court and in Paris from those outraged at the monarchy for an unjust social order. Scandals proliferated, assuming a life of their own; "Madame Déficit" became the favorite political scapegoat. Marie Antoinette incensed her enemies with her disdain for etiquette and her expenditures, and she was condemned for trafficking with unsavory friends. Her untamed and extravagant conduct incited the authors of a libelous underground street discourse, already active by the time she came to France, and these authors exposed the decline of the monarchy. By the 1780s clandestine pamphlets targeting Marie Antoinette circulated widely, most notably in Essais historiques sur la vie de Marie Antoinette d'Autriche (c. 1789). Scurrilous works of this nature circulated in places like the Palais-Royal in Paris, a forum for public discontent, as well as at Versailles. The writers actively fed into public perceptions of Marie Antoinette as immoral and dissolute. Their fantastic charges of lesbian affairs, incestuous debauchery, and a demasculinization of men undermined the legitimacy of the monarchy.

The public refused to see Marie Antoinette as a loving and dutiful mother. This contemptuous response to the queen continued in the Diamond Necklace Affair of 17851786. Marie Antoinette was proclaimed guilty in the court of public opinion for this infamous case of stolen goods devised by the adventuress Jeanne de La Motte and a gullible dupe, Cardinal de Rohan, both jockeying for position at Versailles. Events spun out of control in 1789. Hungry market women from Paris stormed Versailles, forcing the king and queen's exile and house arrest in the Tuileries palace in Paris, followed by the monarchs' failed escape to Saint-Cloud on Easter in 1791. The escalating political turmoil of 1792 led to their trials and incarceration in the Conciergerie, the jail on the Seine in Paris.

While Marie Antoinette's critics have denigrated her, modern scholarship dispels distortions that blur her import. From her early days at court, Marie Antoinette was high-spirited, mischievous, and witty; she once masqueraded as a Sister of Charity before Louis XVI, and they howled together over his naïveté. She supported the arts and sought to relax the stiff decorum of the court while cultivating her keen need for privacy. Her loyal friendships defined her, none more so than that of the king, who sustained her in the anguish of relentless character defamation. Following the king's execution on 21 January 1793, Marie Antoinette on 16 October 1793 rode bravely erect in the tumbrel to her execution at the Place de la Révolution, a proud queen, devoted mother, and faithful wife.

See also Diamond Necklace, Affair of ; France ; Louis XVI (France) ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Revolutions, Age of .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Source

Maria Theresa. Marie Antoinette. Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau, avec les lettres de Marie-Thérese et de Marie Antoinette. Paris, 18741875.

Secondary Sources

Cronin, Vincent. Louis and Antoinette. New York, 1975.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, 1989.

Rosamond Hooper-Hamersley

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was queen of France at the outbreak of the Revolution. Her activities and reputation contributed to the decline of the prestige of the French monarchy.

Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Francis I and the empress Maria Theresa. In 1770 she was married to the French Dauphin, who 4 years later ascended the throne as Louis XVI. The personalities of the two rulers were very different: while Louis XVI was phlegmatic and withdrawn, Marie Antoinette was gay, frivolous, and imprudent in her actions and choice of friends. She soon became unpopular in the court and the country, antagonizing many of the nobles, including the King's brothers and those Frenchmen who regretted the recently concluded alliance with Austria, long regarded as the traditional enemy; for the population as a whole she became the symbol for the extravagance of the court.

Although Marie Antoinette did not intervene in foreign affairs as frequently as has been asserted, she soon forgot her statement on first entering France, when she interrupted an official greeting in German, "Speak French, Monsieur. From now on I hear no language other than French." She sometimes sought, usually without great success, to obtain French support for Austrian objectives, for example, against Prussia and the Low Countries.

The Queen's influence on domestic policy before 1789 has also been exaggerated. Her interventions in politics were usually in order to obtain positions and subsidies for her friends. It is true, however, that she usually opposed the efforts of reforming ministers such as A. R. J. Turgot and became involved in court intrigues against them. Such activities, as well as her associates and personal life, particularly the "diamond necklace affair," when it appeared that the Queen had yielded herself to a wealthy cardinal for an expensive diamond necklace, increased her unpopularity and led to a stream of pamphlets and satires against her. The fact that after the birth of her children Marie Antoinette's way of life became more restrained did not alter the popular image of an immoral and extravagant woman.

In the summer of 1788, when Louis XVI yielded to pressure and convoked the Estates General to deal with the fiscal crisis, Marie Antoinette agreed, or appeared to agree, to the return of Jacques Necker as chief minister and to granting the Third Estate as many representatives as the other two combined. However, after the meeting of the Estates General in May 1789 and such events as the taking of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), Marie Antoinette supported the conservative court faction most insistent upon maintaining the Old Regime.

On Oct. 1, 1789, the Queen was received enthusiastically at a royalist banquet at Versailles during which the Revolution was denounced and its symbols insulted. A few days later (October 4-5) a Parisian crowd forced the court to move to Paris, where it could be controlled more readily. Marie Antoinette's role in the efforts of the monarchy to work with such moderates as the Comte de Mirabeau and later with the constitutional monarchist A. P. Barnave is unclear, but it appears that she lacked confidence in them. After the attempt of the royal couple to escape was thwarted at Varennes (June 21, 1791), the Queen, convinced that only foreign intervention could save the monarchy, sought the aid of her brother, the Holy Roman emperor Leopold II. Convinced that France, in its weakened condition, with many officers already émigrés, would be easily defeated, she favored the declaration of war on Austria in April 1792. On Aug. 10, 1792, the Paris crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace and ended the monarchy (the following month the National Convention established the First French Republic).

On August 13 Marie Antoinette began a captivity that was to end only with her death. She was first imprisoned in the Temple with her family and, after Aug. 1, 1793, in the Conciergerie. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to obtain her escape failed, Marie Antoinette appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, charged with aiding the enemy and inciting civil war within France. The Tribunal found her guilty and condemned her to death. On Oct. 16, 1793, she went to the guillotine. As did Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette aroused sympathy by her dignity and courage in prison and before the executioner.

Further Reading

Most biographers of Marie Antoinette have been popularizers or men of letters rather than professional historians. In English, recommended are Hilaire Belloc, Marie Antoinette (1909; 2d ed. 1924), generally objective despite Belloc's sympathy for the monarchy; and Stefan Zweig, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman (trans. 1933), the subtitle of which suggests the interpretation. A more recent and good introductory account of the Queen is Dorothy Moulton Mayer, Marie Antoinette: The Tragic Queen (1969). See also André Castelot, Queen of France: A Biography of Marie Antoinette (1957). □

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (ăntwənĕt´, äNtwänĕt´), 1755–93, queen of France, wife of King Louis XVI and daughter of Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. She was married in 1770 to the dauphin, who became king in 1774. Her marriage had been made to strengthen France's alliance with its long-time enemy, Austria. The union, however, was not altogether popular, and Marie Antoinette's actions only increased hostility toward her. She constantly sought the advice of the Austrian ambassador and attempted to influence French foreign policy in favor of Austria.

Unhappy in her marriage, which remained unconsummated for seven years, she surrounded herself with a dissolute clique, led by Yolande de Polignac and Marie Thérèse de Lamballe, and threw herself into a life of pleasure and careless extravagance. Her notorious reputation led to scandals such as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and to rumors concerning her relations with officers of the guard and with Hans Axel Fersen. The famous solution to the bread famine, "Let them eat cake," is unjustly attributed to the queen, but it is certain that Marie Antoinette lacked understanding of economic problems. With the birth of her first son, her life became more sedate.

Although she had contributed to the downfall of A. R. J. Turgot in 1776 and was hostile to Jacques Necker, her influence on the king's decisions during the first two years of the French Revolution (1789–91) has been exaggerated. She was brought with the king from Versailles to Paris (Oct., 1789) and was seized at Varennes when the royal family attempted to escape (1791). Despite her hatred of the Revolution, the apathy of the king forced her to conduct negotiations first with the comte de Mirabeau, then with Antoine Barnave. Simultaneously, however, she secretly urged Austrian intervention; after war was declared, she fully identified the cause of the Bourbon dynasty with that of France.

After the storming of the Tuileries palace (Aug., 1792), she and her husband were removed to the Temple and accused of treason. The king was executed in Jan., 1793. Marie Antoinette's son was taken from her (see Louis XVII), and she was transferred to the Conciergerie. Known derisively as the "Widow Capet," she was tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal (Oct. 14–15, 1793), found guilty, and guillotined (Oct. 16). In her last misfortunes she displayed steadfastness, courage, serenity, and dignity. Her portraits, notably by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, are well known.

Among Marie Antoinette's published correspondence see Lettres de Marie Antoinette (2 vol., 1895–96) and Olivier Bernier ed., Secrets of Marie Antoinette: A Collection of Letters (1986). See also biographies by S. Zweig (tr. 1933), A. Castelot (tr., 1957), D. M. Mayer (1969), P. Huisman (tr. 1971), J. Haslip (1987), A. Fraser (2001), and C. Weber (2006).

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (1755–93) Queen of France. Daughter of Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria, she married the future Louis XVI in 1770. Her life of pleasure and extravagance contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. She initiated the royal family's attempt to escape in 1791, was held prisoner, and then finally guillotined.

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