Marie Antoinette was the last queen of France before the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy in August of 1792. Her extravagant spending, despite the dwindling fortunes of France, triggered popular discontent leading in part to the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, Austria on November 2, 1755. She was the 15th child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Teresa, empress of Austria. Her childhood was relatively carefree and her education focused mainly on moral and religious principles while her brothers pursued more academic subjects.
She was betrothed to Louis Auguste of France in 1765 to preserve a fragile alliance between France and Austria with the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Louis Auguste, then an 11-year old grandson of the reigning king of France, Louis XV, had become heir to the throne following the demise of the king’s son, Louis Ferdinand.
A tutor sent by Louis XV to instruct the future queen of France in 1768 found her to be more intelligent than generally supposed, but difficult to teach due to her laziness and frivolousness. Marie was married in May of 1770, but had trouble adjusting to a married life. She penned frequent letters back home that revealed her extreme homesickness and discomfort with some rituals required of the royal family. For instance, she was upset by the requirement that she put on make-up in the presence of dozens of courtiers.
She became queen in 1774 at age 19 after Louis XV died and Louis-Auguste succeeded him as Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were of contrasting personalities. While the king was introverted, shy, and known to be indecisive, Marie was outgoing, bold, vivacious, and a lover of extravagant fashions, parties, and gambling. On hearing of their troubles in marriage, Maria Theresa sent her son, Joseph II, to France in 1777 to counsel them. A year later, Marie Antoinette bore a daughter named Marie Therese Charlotte.
From 1780, Marie started spending more time at her private castle, Petit Trianon, almost always in the absence of the king. At this time, rumors emerged of her affair with Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen. The 1780s also saw poor harvests and financial downturns in France, but despite this, Marie Antoinette continued to lead an extravagant lifestyle that increasingly angered the public. A diamond-necklace scandal, in which a thief had posed as the queen and obtained and smuggled a 647-diamond necklace to London, severely tarnished her reputation despite her innocence. Unmoved, Marie started the construction of an extravagant retreat, the Hameau de la Reine, in Versailles in 1786.
The French Revolution began in July 14, 1779 with peasants and workers storming the Bastille prison. In the midst of the crisis, Louis XVI acted almost paralyzed and Marie Antoinette stepped up to meet with advisers and ambassadors and to dispatch letters to other European rulers appealing for their help in saving the French monarchy. She hatched a plot to sneak the royal family out of France in June 1791, but they were captured and returned to Paris. Following dreadful massacres in Paris, the National Convention did away with the monarchy, established the French Republic and detained the king and queen. King Louis XVI was charged and convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Months later, Marie Antoinette was charged and convicted with treason, theft, and false charges of sexual abuse against her son. She was executed on January 21, 1793 by guillotine.
“There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”
“Courage! I have shown it for years; think you I shall lose it at the moment when my sufferings are to end?”
“I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all.”