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 The personalities of the two rulers were very different: while Louis XVI was phlegmatic and withdrawn, Marie Antoinette was gay, frivolous, and imprudent in her actions and choice of friends.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 on Marie Antoinette

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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