16 October 1793 – Marie Antoinette
Visions of a life rife with excesses fuelled 18th century Frenchmen to harangue their queen, Marie Antoinette, with accusations of crimes against the proletariat; supposed crimes that were ultimately to turn a nation against her.
France was being torn apart by food shortages, money shortages and general discontent. Amid this suffering, the royal family and surrounding friends were painted as being far removed from the nation’s pain. Instead they enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, while the people starved or struggled to earn an adequate living.
Of course the commentators at the time jumped on the libellous bandwagon and the stories got more and more immoral as they cooked up tall tales that served to ridicule the Austrian-born queen’s reputation.
Marie Antoinette became the focus for the nation’s hatred, fuelled not least by their vehement dislike of all things Austrian.
Her marriage to Louis XVI had been strategic (as were most royal weddings during this era). The Hapsburgs were doing well in Europe and her mum was pretty good at the whole leading a country thing.
So her bloodline was a strong selling point. The underlying tack was that she’d have her mum’s ear and France hoped that would impart some of the supremacy in their direction, while the Austrians were keen to extend their control over neighbouring states.
The problem was the new couple had married painfully young, and maybe at 15 she had not been versed in all things strategic, so the bottom line was both camps thought she sucked. Indeed her own brother branded her a ‘dupe’ according to ‘Wikipedia’ as she had shown no evidence of helping the Austrian cause.
She valiantly tried to defend herself, saying ‘Would it be wise to have scenes with [Louis XVI’s] ministers over matters on which the king would not support me?’
Fair play to her, but it was no wonder she was eventually sidelined. So Marie Antoinette turned her talents to her other key role: motherhood, specifically to produce the much-coveted heir and spare. And she certainly delivered on the old sprogging front, ejecting a dauphin on demand. But it turned out that the spare was to be a key issue, because boy was that dauphin a sickly boy.
Sadly, she couldn’t win, because when the spare came along, he was made of much sterner stuff than his older brother, prompting accusations that he must have been bastard.
Well, what was a girl to do, faced with that kind of animosity?
Withdrawal was her answer and the queen cosseted herself with close friends. Here she messed up too, because part of that retreat included the construction of a mini village and shock, horror, the purchase of her very own house, which was not the done thing when there were palaces to languish in.
It was seen as spectacularly spendthrift at a time when the French nation was groaning under the weight of debts, rung up in part and ironically while fighting a war against the Austrians just seven years before the two countries had been united in marriage.
And hers was a small voice against this kind of merciless onslaught of bad publicity and conjecture.
Perhaps the best-known urban myth is her coquettish ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to information that bread was facing skyrocketing inflation. Of course that quip was never true, but she was vilified nevertheless and with key insurgents helping to stir up trouble, she faced a formidable opposition.
But the killer came in the shape of a diamond necklace, which Marie Antoinette never actually asked for.
Turns out, it was the work of a cardinal by the name of de Rohan, and according to several sources, his actions came in the wake of the queen’s flat refusal to purchase the ostentatious bauble.
But de Rohan got suckered into buying the bling in a bid to get into her good books.
Well, that was it: open season for all the critics to crawl out from their venomous hidey holes and literally let rip. Bizarrely, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the queen who came away from the whole saga most tarnished.
De Rohan was naturally taken to court, but walked away a free man, leaving the discredit squarely on the queen’s regal shoulders as yet more evidence of her flagrant displays of excess.
Anyone who could, had a pop at the beleaguered head of state. Then, a woman by the name of Jeanne de Lamotte waded in. She’d been jailed for her part in the necklace saga and had been released only to start touting stories that she’d slept with the queen.
It was the stuff of tabloids – lesbian harlot and a cuckolded king – the people of France were loving it, after all they needed a focus for the all-pervading sense of dissatisfaction permeating the country.
And the proletariat was mobilising. Fuelled by discontent, the masses were easily seduced by the attractive and compelling arguments for an egalitarian state with no aristos to siphon off much-needed funds.
At the epicentre of this animosity sat the royal family, who epitomised the very decadence of the class they depised.
Mum’s the word
So began Marie Antoinette’s fight for survival. Her PR machine kicked in and the key spin lay in her portrayal as a mum. And not just any old mother, but the mother of the next king of France.
By now she was in her 30s and with that came a sober makeover aimed primarily at complementing the demeanour she was trying to convey.
The queen even came into her own as a politician, helping to soothe wranglings between her husband and the assembly.
These were all valiant attempts, but they were way too little, way too late and to an audience who really couldn’t give a toss. They so wanted someone to blame for their difficulties and Marie Antoinette was fair game, and perfect fodder mainly because she was Austrian. That had always been at the root of everyone’s gripes and her being head of state had never been easy for them to stomach, given their supreme sense of nationalism.
This period in French history was and remains one of its bloodiest. The upper echelons of society fled or risked losing their heads at the foot of Madame Guillotine, in the bloodbath that was the French Revolution, which kicked off in 1789.
During this hazardous period, the royal family faced the ultimate dilemma. As monarch what could Louis do? Scarper and leave his country to fend for itself or stand his ground and act like a monarch? Faced with this bleak decision, the answer was a no-brainer. Stay put. And the family stayed with him.
Inevitably the mob descended and ‘stormed the bastille’ and the family were unceremoniously dumped in prison and stripped of their titles.
Husband Louis Capet, as he was now known, went first and his head hit the decks pretty sharpish on 21 January 1793.
Marie Antoinette was to follow nine months later, by this time suffering from cancer and not in the best of health.
Her trial was particularly grim. Various accounts state that she stood accused of treason, but for her, probably the most heartbreaking was that she’d sexually abused Louis Charles, the spare, who was now heir to the throne now his older brother and dad were both dead. And apparently Louis has been coached into admitting this in court.
The crimes stuck and she was found guilty of treason. And as had been the case with her husband, she was stoic about her impending doom.
‘I was queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains; take it, but do not make me suffer long.’
Thankfully they obliged and Madame Guillotine’s fatal slice was swift and final. She died just under three weeks shy of her 38th birthday and while she was initially thrown in an unmarked grave, her body was exhumed 22 years later and put to rest in a place befitting her regal status.
In case you were wondering, Louis junior festered in a jail and died of tuberculosis. On a happier note, his sister outlived them all and went on to become a duchess.