Of all the names associated with the French Revolution of 1789, Marie Antoinette’s is probably the most widely familiar. Artist Jacques-Louis David’s rendering of the former queen being carted off to her execution is one of the most recognized sketches in history. However, it was also a far cry from the opulently staged portrait settings in which she’d normally been painted.
Born an archduchess of the House of Hapsburg in 1755, Maria Antonia was one of a long line of children born to the Austrian Queen-Empress, Maria Theresa, and her husband. In 1770, her mother sealed an alliance with France by marrying her off to the heir to the throne, the future Louis XVI. Upon arriving in Versailles, she became known as Marie Antoinette. One of the revolution’s earliest casualties, she was 37 at the time of her execution in 1793.
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10 A Pawn in the Hands of Powerful Men
Had she been born only a few years earlier or later, Marie Antoinette might have lived a perfectly ordinary existence by royal standards. Probably married off to some eligible prince or other, she may have presided over a grand household, had children, and died of old age, her name no more famous today than those of her ten sisters. This would have suited her just fine, considering she was, by general accounts, quite an ordinary person.
As it happens, she was born at a crucial point in European history amid an unprecedented softening in Franco-Austrian relations. Her mother, a passionate believer in raising children who were politically expedient, put her in a carriage to France at age 14 and charged her with promoting Austrian interests in a foreign and hostile court with a very different culture. She struggled desperately to find her way, but her reputation and, indeed, her life remained almost completely in the hands of the powerful men who surrounded her, starting with her husband.
9 France’s Problems Had Begun Long Before Her Arrival
By the time of Marie Antoinette’s arrival in France, the kingdom had been in serious trouble for decades. Louis XV, her grandfather-in-law, had been on the throne since the age of five. However, his attention to the government was constantly interrupted by a succession of mistresses, which tarnished the reputation of the crown. Provincial bodies called “parlements” had also gotten into the habit of impeding royal policy, including desperately needed fiscal reforms.
Farming methods had remained basically unchanged for centuries, leaving France especially vulnerable to inclement weather. This led to less food and higher prices, a disastrous mix for a rising population. The noble classes, whose influence extended to the aforementioned parlements, escaped almost all taxation and fervently opposed any infringement upon their historical privileges. All these were factors far beyond the influence of a queen consort.
8 Primary Target of Xenophobia
Eighteenth-century Europe wasn’t particularly known for its openness to foreigners. Although the revolutionaries eventually turned against King Louis XVI, too, there can be no denying that Marie Antoinette’s German lineage, as well as her sex, meant she was uniquely demonized. It’s important to note that prior to the alliance her mother contracted, Austria and France had been at odds with each other for centuries.
The marriage between Marie Antoinette and the future Louis XVI was meant to cement a new state of friendship and cooperation between the two rival countries. Unfortunately for the princess, this meant trying to balance loyalty to Austria and her family’s interests with fulfilling her destiny as the future queen of France—quite a burden to place on the shoulders of a 14-year-old girl. Accusations of disloyalty to the French people would plague Marie Antoinette until her death.
7 Became Queen Far Too Young
In 1774, Marie Antoinette’s grandfather-in-law, Louis XV, died after becoming infected with smallpox. At her husband’s coronation, she was reduced to playing a mere spectator. Even at this early stage in their reign, the state’s finances were in such bad shape, with a deficit of over 20 million livres, that a double coronation was ruled out. She also had not yet borne a son, which kept her in the bad books of royal advisers.
Far too young to gain so much power, both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were overwhelmed and consequently made poor choices at crucial moments in their reign. Only eighteen when she became queen, it would take at least a decade before she began to mature in earnest, at which point she might have made a success of the role. Instead, she spent the early part of her queenship playing favorites, partying, and spending—things all twentysomethings do but which, in her position, proved catastrophic to her reputation.
6 She Had No Real Power as a Consort
Although Marie Antoinette was portrayed by propagandists as wielding undue influence on the king, in practical terms, she held no administrative power, nor was she part of the day-to-day running of the country. This was because, as a consort, she was not a queen in her own right but only through marriage. Her rank and title came from her husband’s position as king. The government was headed by and answerable to Louis XVI, not the queen.
In eighteenth-century France, the notion that the king’s wife should hold any significant power was anathema on two levels. First, she was a woman, and the French were so opposed to rule by women that they’d banned them from inheriting the throne altogether, even if a king had no sons. Second—and in Marie Antoinette’s case, this was the graver sin—having been born an Austrian princess, she was a foreigner who came from a rival royal house.
5 Not the Deficit-Causing Spendthrift She Was Portrayed to Be
There’s no denying Versailles was opulence come alive, and certainly, Marie Antoinette was a part of that. She knew of no other world, having been brought up in luxury and moved all her life only between different royal residences. To suggest she would’ve had any inclination that the royal family should ever go without, for whatever the reasons, would be overstating. Still, the same is evidently true for most monarchs throughout history.
Versailles alone cost an obscene amount to maintain, as it does today. The extended royal family all had large households and the finest accommodations. But even just before the revolution broke out, court expenditure accounted for only seven percent of the national spending, while over 40 percent went to the national debt. The simple truth is even if Marie Antoinette had never spent a dime during her 23 years in France, it wouldn’t have solved the country’s problems nor prevented the revolution.
4 Suffered for Her Husband’s Poor Decision-Making
Seriously ill-suited for kingship, Louis XVI only succeeded his grandfather at 19 because his own father and elder brother had both predeceased him, making him the new heir. By almost all accounts, he wasn’t good at it. Even with the kingdom in massive debt, he consented to helping the American War of Independence, a somewhat peculiar cause for a monarch to take up. Unluckily for Marie Antoinette, this was whom destiny—or, more accurately said, her mother—intended she marry.
Throughout their reign, the queen was almost always shut out of policymaking. This was a shame considering that in the years leading up to their executions, she proved herself more capable, astute, and responsive than her husband, who by then had fallen into serious depression. Prone to snoring in important meetings and constantly plagued by indecisiveness, Louis XVI just wasn’t up to the task of facing down the calamitous tidal waves that engulfed his family. Eventually, Marie Antoinette would pay for the union with her life.
3 Demonstrated Committed Loyalty to France and Her Husband
Not long after arriving at Versailles, Marie Antoinette was coined “the Austrian,” a demonstration of the court’s disdain for the new alliance. But by the time of the revolution, the queen had spent almost two-thirds of her life in France. She’d also had several children whose interests took precedence in her mind over those of her family back in Austria, including the new emperor, her brother Joseph.
In one exchange, she plainly told her brother’s ambassador that it was not Vienna’s place to interfere in France’s ministerial appointments, leading Austria to characterize her contemptuously as a bad investment. When the revolution broke out, royal advisers repeatedly urged the queen to flee with the children, but she insisted her place was at her husband’s side. In one last attempt at freedom, she took charge of an escape plan from Paris, but the royal family was recognized along the way and forcibly returned to Paris.
2 Never Said “Let Them Eat Cake”
The “Let them eat cake” allegation is so closely tied with Marie Antoinette’s name that it’s included in depictions of her even when making the point that she never said it, such as in director Sofia Coppola’s 2006 biopic. Certainly, there’s no genuine proof that she did, nor would it have been in keeping with her character. However, similar statements have also been attributed to other people throughout history, so there’s a certain amount of folklore associated with the quote.
By the time of the monarchy’s downfall, Marie Antoinette had been vilified in almost every conceivable fashion. If it were true that this callous remark had contributed to people’s anger, it would’ve been referenced in contemporary materials, such as newspapers or revolutionary pamphlets. In fact, the earliest in-print association of the quote with her name arrived many decades after the revolution, and even this was in the form of a rebuttal.
1 Withstood a Merciless Campaign of Bad PR
Marie Antoinette was one of the earliest victims of a sustained, unrelenting campaign of character assassination. By the time her husband became king, the monarchy had already lost some of its luster. What followed over the next two decades can only be described as a hailstorm of bad PR and libelous propaganda spread to discredit the royal family and, most specifically, the queen. It is hard to overstate how scandalous the accusations were, most of them sexual in nature.
Much of the material was outright pornographic, something we normally wouldn’t associate with 18th-century society. Among other things, the queen was regularly portrayed as a spy, an adulteress, and a sexually debauched nymphomaniac. The state’s financial woes were also attributed to her. In the most vicious exercise of all, her younger son was coerced into testifying at her trial for treason that his mother had molested him.
Soon after Marie Antoinette’s execution, a new pamphlet appeared, this one depicting her in hell. If true, the years leading up to her death certainly would’ve provided ample preparation.