Who was Marie Antoinette?

Aquila Magazine for kids, March 2015.

ScanWho was Marie Antoinette?
Marie Antoinette was executed in the French Revolution. But was the last Queen of France really as out of touch as people thought? And did she really say that people who couldn’t afford bread should just eat cake instead?

Marie Antoinette was born in 1755 in Vienna, as an Archduchess of the Austrian Empire. Baptised Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, the girl was described as “small but completely healthy”, and had a happy childhood with her 15 brothers and sisters. Considering what was customary for a royal family at the time, Marie Antoinette had a pretty relaxed upbringing. The children were allowed privacy from the rest of the court, so they could dress more casually, learn from their teachers, and play in the gardens, often with regular kids.

In those days, royal marriages were tools for forging alliances between countries. For this reason, Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Duchess, decided her daughter should marry the boy set to become the next king of France. Marie Antoinette was only 15 when she was married to 16-year-old Louis, and the teenagers had never met when they were married in a ceremony where they weren’t even present. Before she left for France to start her new life, Marie Antoinette’s mother told her daughter to never forget she was Austrian, even when she was the Queen of France. But the French had other ideas, as young Marie Antoinette was made to get rid of all her Austrian belongings, even her clothes and her dog, replacing everything with French things.

Life for Marie Antoinette wasn’t easy once she arrived at the Palace of Versailles. As the Queen, she had to deal with everyone at court keeping an eye on her, gossiping about what she got up to. Her marriage to Louis was difficult, partially because the couple didn’t have children for eight years, something that caused a lot of speculation around the court. They eventually had four kids: Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Marie Sophie, who the Queen was very close to as she took care of their upbringing and education herself.

But for all those years before her kids were born, Marie Antoinette had few royal duties, so she didn’t actually have all that much to do. As a young girl far from her family, the Queen spent much of her time socialising, and buying fancy clothes and jewellery. She liked to ride horses, but also enjoyed gambling on cards and horse races. At a time when France was struggling financially, stories about the Queen spending a lot of money were spread around, and criticised in the newspapers. The Queen and her friends, it was written at the time, “loved pleasure and hated restraint; laughed at everything, even the tattle about their own reputations; and recognised no law save the necessity of spending their lives in gaiety”.

As the first lady of the court, Marie Antoinette was supposed to set standards for fashion, so she’d buy a lot of new dresses, shoes, hats, perfume and makeup, sometimes even going into debt to pay for everything. At a time when many people were poor or starving, it looked bad that a woman who had so many luxuries would play dress-up with her friends, running around on a model farm dressed up as milkmaids and shepherdesses. This was considered insulting to real farmers, even though Marie Antoinette was probably just trying to fill her time, recreating the playful games of her childhood in Vienna.

While she did spend a lot of money, Marie Antoinette was certainly not to blame for all of France’s financial problems, as many people liked to say. The country was in debt mainly because of its involvement in the American Revolution, which cost far, far more than the Queen’s extravagant wardrobe. The royals’ money splurging did give the impression of being out of touch, but the social unrest in France was more based in the fact that ordinary people had to pay high taxes, while the richest people who owned the most land did not.

In the winter of 1788, the rising prices of bread led to a crisis in France, and Marie Antoinette was rumoured to have responded to the problem by saying: “Let them eat cake!” This wasn’t actually true, as Marie Antoinette gave a lot of money to charity and would have known better than to say something so silly. But people wanted someone to be angry with, and it was easy to blame the Queen had a reputation of spending too much money and not caring much about the people.

Once the French Revolution started in July 1789, the royal family quickly realised they were in danger and left the Palace of Versailles for Paris. Marie Antoinette tried to stay out of things and focus on her children, still hoping her son would become king of France one day. But as the revolution roared on, the monarchy was declared over and the royal family stripped of their titles. To make sure the King could never reclaim his power, the revolutionaries executed King Louis for treason, and as the Queen, Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate nine months later. She was 39 years old when she was executed by guillotine, after a rushed trial. Somehow, Marie Antoinette managed to get hold of a pristine white dress and bonnet for the occasion, determined to make a final impression of defiance. Her last words was to her executioner, after she accidentally stepped on his foot: “Pardon me Sir, I didn’t mean to do it.”

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Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.