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Marie-Antoinette

MARIE-ANTOINETTE

MARIE-ANTOINETTE (1755–1793), ruled as queen of France, 1774–1792.

The queen of Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) has been associated with unwittingly contributing to the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1789 and the overthrow of the monarchy in 1792. She has also been viewed as one of the Revolution's most tragic victims.

The daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I (r. 1745–1765) and Maria Theresa (r. 1745–1780) of Austria, Maria Antonia was scarcely in her teens before she was apprenticed by her parents into becoming the partner of the French Dauphin, surviving heir of Louis XV (r. 1715–1774). By the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, France had allied itself with Austria, its perennial foe since the fifteenth century, and the marriage was designed to strengthen the alliance. The wedding took place in 1770, when she was fifteen years old. Henceforth Maria Antonia was Marie-Antoinette. Although the engagement and marriage sparked wide rejoicings within France, a bad augury occurred when, during celebrations in Paris, a crowd panic led to a major incident in which over a hundred people died.

Marie-Antoinette never really recovered the popularity that she had enjoyed in the context of her marriage. Indeed, she became increasingly unpopular as time went on. Maria Theresa and her advisers saw her as a conduit for pro-Austrian sentiment at the French court and as an intelligence source to buttress Austrian diplomacy. The Austrian envoy in Paris, Florimond Claude Mercy-Argenteau (1727–1794), was the hub of this operation that stimulated attacks on the newcomer by court factions antagonistic to the Austrian alliance. In addition, the initial failure of Louis to consummate their marriage—possibly due to a malformation of his penis, but more likely as a result of uncertain psychosexual problems—also caused whispering against her. A pornographic pamphlet campaign emerged, blackening her character by attributing to her every sexual vice, even after she became queen in 1774. The sensitive and rather exposed position that Marie-Antoinette came to inhabit was made even more problematic by the fact that, almost alone among French kings, Louis declined to take a mistress. This upset the informal system of political checks and balances in the king's entourage and attracted to the royal couple hostilities that in other reigns would have been channeled against the royal mistress and her cronies.

Court tittle-tattle aimed against Marie-Antoinette was not stilled by the resolution of her husband's sexual problems and by the appearance of children: a daughter in 1778, a son and royal heir in 1781 (who was to die in 1789), a further son in 1785 (the ill-starred "Louis XVII," who died in prison in 1795). The antagonisms she aroused never went away. Her impatience with court ceremonial, her insouciant meddling at the fringes of court politics, her cozy relations with male and female favorites, her delight in fashion and shopping were all held against her. Although she appears to have been completely blameless in the so-called Diamond Necklace Affair of 1784–1786 (when a cardinal, hoping to win her favor, offered her a fabulously expensive necklace of diamonds that was then stolen by plotters who had tricked the prelate), this scandal further promoted allegations about her sexual conduct and general waywardness. As the grave state of the government's financial problems became increasingly clear in the late 1780s, moreover, l'Autrichienne—a denigratory sobriquet that denoted "Austrian woman" but also evoked "bitch" (chienne)—was believed to have contributed to impending bankruptcy through extravagant spending. To what was already a somber charge-sheet against "Madame Déficit," as the scandal-sheets were now calling her, was added the accusation of having contempt for the people of France. She almost without doubt never uttered the famous phrase "let them eat cake" when told of the generalized hunger throughout the country in the years 1788 and 1789—but she was widely believed to have done so. Her unpopularity by 1789 has often been held to have compromised the respect felt for the monarchy at this difficult time.

In 1789, Marie-Antoinette sided with reactionary court factions against the Revolutionary cause—a fact that almost triggered her lynching by rioting crowds in the "October Days," an event that led to the royal family relocating away from Versailles to the Tuileries palace in central Paris. In following years, she continued to be widely attributed a nefarious, counterrevolutionary and pro-Austrian role. The fact that Louis XVI, never a decisive character, had been virtually paralyzed into depression and vacillation by events since late 1787 made her role in shaping royal policy appear more important. When the royal family, seemingly fleeing the country, was captured at Varennes in June 1791, she again bore the brunt of attacks. Subsequently she supported the country's drift into war against Austria and ancien régime Europe, confidently expecting the European powers to rescue Louis XVI from his predicament. Once war had broken out, however, the position of l'Autrichienne became even more exposed. Rumors of treasonous machinations at court had some foundation, moreover: she passed secret intelligence about French strategy and troop dispositions to the Austrian emperor.

The overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792 led to the royal family being incarcerated in the Temple prison. The king's execution in January 1793 left the revolutionaries in a quandary as to the position of the ex-queen. Her fate became caught up in waves of radicalism in the summer of 1793 caused by civil and foreign war and worsening economic crisis. She was separated from her son, Louis XVII, placed in the Conciergerie prison, by this time an antechamber to the scaffold, and on 14 August 1793 brought to trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Oddly, the public prosecutor, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (1746–1795), almost overlooked her treason during the 1792 campaigns and rested his case on Marie-Antoinette's alleged role in the flight to Varennes and other events in which she had often in fact played only a peripheral role. Fouquier-Tinville also accused her of committing incest with her son—a charge in line with earlier political pornography, but in reality so preposterous that it almost triggered a wave of sympathy for the ex-queen in the courtroom. Yet her fate was predestined, and on 16 October she was guillotined.

The vertiginous scale of Marie-Antoinette's fall from grace, her ignominious end, and the dignity with which she comported herself in the last months of her life gave undeniable pathos to a personage arguably less important than the myths that she unwittingly generated.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Louis XVI.

bibliography

Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London, 2001.

Goodman, Dena, ed. Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. London, 2003.

Lever, Evelyne. Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. London, 2000.

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

Colin Jones

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