|Marie Antoinette’s Rise to Power
Queen of France, 1755 - 1793
Marie Antoinette was born November 2, 1755 in Vienna, Austria. She was the youngest and most beautiful daughter of Francis Stephen I and Maria Theresa, Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Marie Antoinette was brought up believing her destiny was to become queen of France. She married the crown prince of France in 1770. Four years later she became queen when her husband was crowned King Louis XVI (House of Bourbon).
The stories of Antoinette's excesses are vastly overstated. In fact, rather than ignoring France's growing financial crisis, she reduced the royal household staff, eliminating many unnecessary positions that were based solely on privilege. In the process she offended the nobles, adding their condemnation to the scandalous stories spread by royal hopefuls. It was the nobility that balked at the financial reforms the government ministers tried to make, not the King and Queen, who were in favor of change. In truth, Antoinette and Louis were placed in harms' way not only by elements of their personalities, but by the changing face of political and social ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1789 a mob descended on the palace at Versailles and demanded the royal family move to the Tuilerie palace inside Paris. From that point on the King and Queen were virtual prisoners. Antoinette sought aid from other European rulers including her brother, the Austrian Emperor, and her sister, Queen of Naples. After a failed attempt to flee Paris in 1791 Antoinette continued to seek aid from abroad. When Austria and Prussia declared war on France, she was accused of passing military secrets to the enemy. On August 10, 1792 the royal family was arrested on suspicion of treason and imprisoned. On January 21, 1793 King Louis XVI was convicted and executed on the guillotine.
Marie Antoinette was cruely treated during her final days of captivity. Her best friend, the Princess de Lambelle, was killed and her severed head was put on a pike and paraded in front of the Queen.
Her children (Marie Therese and Louis XVII) were taken from her. Louis XVII was subjected to abuse by the family's jailers and later died, supposedly of Tuberculosis and malnutrition. Marie Therese, her firstborn daughter was the only family member to survive. For additional information about Marie Antoinette and Louis's children, click here.
Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. She was executed without proof of the crimes for which she was accused. She was only 37 years old.
The Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon I. The succession went to the closest living relative of Louis XVI who became Louis XVIII. He had escaped to Britain where he sat out the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The new monarchy had a bumpy road, lasting until 1848 and the ascension of Napoleon III. After Napoleon III abdicated in 1871, France became a republic.
Marie Antoinette was the queen of France at the outbreak of the French Revolution (1787–99). 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 (1708–1765) and the empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780). In 1770 she married Louis XVI (1754–1793). 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 (1727–1781) 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 Estates—the nobles, the church, and the French common people. Marie Antoinette agreed to the return of Jacques Necker (1732–1804) 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 4–5) 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 (1749–1791) and later with the constitutional monarchist A. P. Barnave (1761–1793) 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 (1747–1792). 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.
Terror > The Execution of Marie Antoinette
> A Summary of what happened...
Many French people hated the Queen for her Austrian blood and her expensive tastes. Marie Antoinette was called Madame Deficit and blame was placed on her for the country's financial problems. As she matured, Marie Antoinette became less frivolous. She tried to change her image by wearing simple gowns and posing for portraits with her children, but her efforts had little effect on the brutal public. In October, she was tried by a mock trial, as was her husband. Marie Antoinette was convicted of treason and sentenced to be guillotined. On October 16, 1793 she was taken through the streets of Paris in an open cart. She maintained her dignity until the bitter end. On the scaffold she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot, and her last words were, "Monsieur, I ask your pardon. I did not do it on purpose."
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In 1785, Louis René Édouard Cardinal de Rohan tried to regain his position in the royal court by acting as an delegate to acquire a valuable diamond necklace for Marie Antoinette. Rohan ordered the necklace from a jeweler who gave it to him believing he was the Queen's agent. The necklace was never seen again. It is believed that Rohan took the necklace to London, where it was broken up and sold. When the jeweler failed to receive payment, Rohan was arrested and charged with fraud. He was exiled to a monastery. The more popular myth which helped discredit the monarchy on the eve of the Revolution, was that Marie Antoinette sold herself to the Count for this necklace.