When Marie Antoinette died under the heavy blow of the guillotine on Oct. 16, 1793, it was a decidedly unglamorous affair. That’s not to say it wasn’t a celebration: Many French revolutionaries were ecstatic to bid the extravagant queen adieu forever. After the blade came down, the executioner brandished Marie Antoinette’s head in a triumphant wave so that the entire crowd could see it.
Yet for the thousands of people gathered to watch the scene, it was a disappointment. They’d wanted to see the 38-year-old woman quake in fear and cower penitently. A well-known 18th-century journalist and revolutionary, Jacques Hébert, wrote in the newspaper Le Père Duchesne that she was “bold and impudent to the very end” [source: Amiel]. Despite the fact that the executioner had cut off all her hair and ordered her to don a threadbare white shift (likely soiled by the time she made it up the steps to the guillotine — she’d been hemorrhaging for days), she maintained her composure.
Marie Antoinette’s death was one of the biggest scandals of her life. Was it good riddance or not? To this day, there are wavering opinions about the young queen. Sympathizers point to the fact that young Antoine, as she was called in her native Austria, was nothing more than a bargaining chip for her mother. When she was only 10 years old, her mother arranged for her to wed Louis Auguste, a carefully orchestrated union that would join the Austrian Hapsburgs and the French Bourbons. But detractors argue that while she had very little say in the conditions of her life, she certainly could have lived her days at court in a fashion more befitting the queen of a nation on the cusp of revolution.
While there’s no point in deliberating her virtue or vices, we can delight in being voyeurs into the opulent court at Versailles, the scene of many Marie Antoinette scandals. We begin with the oft-quoted dismissal of her hungry subjects.
5.’Let Them Eat Cake!’
As famous as she is for having proclaimed, “Let them eat cake,” when she heard that the peasants were starving from the dearth of bread, Marie Antoinette actually never said it. The young queen was known to be quite tender-hearted, in contrast to her less flattering attributes as a spendthrift and wild reveler. There are accounts of her administering aid to a peasant who’d been gored by a wild animal as well as taking in an orphaned boy. Besides accounts like these that attest to her kind and generous nature, there are straightforward facts that disprove her utterance of this scandalous remark.
The expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions,” a treatise penned in the late 18th century. There’s a possibility that Rousseau turned the phrase himself; other historians think it may have been uttered by Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was a noblewoman of Spanish descent who wed Louis XIV [source: Covington].
And the expression isn’t as callous as it may sound. From an economical standpoint, it was a perfectly logical thing to say.
What Rousseau or Maria Theresa actually said — whatever the case may be — is “qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” This doesn’t mean “let them eat cake;” it means “let them eat an egg-based bread” [source: Goldberg]. The type of bread to which the speaker referred is a more luxe loaf than the typical flour-and-water bread of the Parisian pauper. A French law mandated that bakers sell their brioche at the same price as their inexpensive bread if this supply ran out. Later on, the law would be the downfall of the hungry lower classes when bakers responded by baking very short supplies of bread to save themselves from economic ruin.Marie Antoinette had plenty of enemies in Paris, and it was easy to fabricate stories about the queen’s spendthrift habits. Very likely, someone attributed this line to the wrong royal and the tale seemed true enough to stick.Along with Marie Antoinette’s image as a bonbon-eating, costumed and powdered confection of a lady comes her reputation as a lover of fine things. From loaves to carats, we’ll explore another weighty scandal on the next page.
4.The Diamond Necklace Affair
Like most good scandals, this one involves a smattering of diamonds, a prostitute and forged correspondence. We’ll begin with the diamonds.
Jewelers Böhmer and Bassenge nearly went broke creating a necklace that they presumed King Louis XV would buy for his mistress Madame du Barry. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, the jewelers thought they’d fetch 1.6 million livres for the stunner — that’s roughly equivalent to 100 million U.S. dollars in today’s market. Unfortunately for Böhmer and Bassenge (and Madame du Barry), the king died before he could purchase it. They hoped that the new king, Louis XVI, might agree to buy the necklace for Marie Antoinette. Whatever frivolous reputation she may have acquired later in her reign, Marie Antoinette made a patriotic, sentient decision to discourage Louis from purchasing the necklace. She reasoned that he’d be better off putting the money toward France’s navy[source: Muschamp].
The necklace languished in the jewelers’ possession until a desperate, enterprising woman named Jeanne de Lamotte Valois devised a plot to pull herself out of debt by acquiring the necklace and selling it for parts. The Comtesse de Lamotte appealed to Cardinal de Rohan, who was rather unpopular at court. From 1772 to ’74, he’d served as the French ambassador to Vienna, where he became a quick enemy of Marie Antoinette’s mother — and of Marie Antoinette herself. The comtesse told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette desperately wanted the diamond necklace but that she didn’t want to ask Louis for it. Lamotte slyly suggested that if Cardinal de Rohan could find a way to procure it for Marie Antoinette, his good reputation would be restored at court.
Lamotte had her lover, Rétaux de Villette, write letters in Marie Antoinette’s hand and send them to the cardinal, asking him to buy the necklace [source:Covington].
The comtesse even paid a prostitute who looked like the queen to have a secret tête-à-tête with the cardinal in the Versailles gardens one night. At last, the cardinal wrangled the diamonds from Böhmer and Bassenge on credit. The jewelers presented the necklace to the queen’s footman for delivery — only the footman was Rétaux in disguise. He seized the necklace and headed to London.
When his first payment was due, Cardinal de Rohan couldn’t cough up the amount. The jewelers demanded money from Marie Antoinette, who had no knowledge of the necklace. By then, the necklace had been sold. A furious Louis had the cardinal arrested; later, he was acquitted of all charges and exiled. The scheming mastermind Lamotte was imprisoned but broke free and took up residence in England. There, she spread propaganda about the queen — though she needn’t have bothered.
Marie Antoinette’s reputation (already hanging tenuously in the balance) was ruined. The scandal confirmed that she was, indeed, “Madame Déficit.” The diamond necklace affair would be one of the final straws before the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s death sentence.
But before her head rolled, the good times did. Next, we’ll peek into her boudoir and investigate her affair with a Swedish soldier.
3.The Deed With the Swede
When Louis officially became king, he gave Marie Antoinette Petit Trianon, a three-story “pleasure house” tucked away in the vast grounds of Versailles. The house had been under construction from 1762-68 — it was intended for Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV. Marie Antoinette was delighted with her acquisition and expanded its domain to include a rustic farm and town that she called Le Hameau (“the hamlet”). Quaint as the property may have been, it cost Louis 2 million francs to build (nearly 6 million U.S. dollars in 2006) [source: Covington].
She passed her time in these shrouded quarters, and members of the court considered it a great honor to be invited there. In fact, those who weren’t invited to Petit Trianon circulated rumors about the queen’s debauchery and reputed love affair with her close friend the Duchesse de Polignac. Louis never slept over at Petit Trianon, though he did visit to attend theatrical performances in which Marie Antoinette played the parts of Babet and Pierette, provincial dairymaids [source: Fraser].
Fersen was a much more frequent visitor. He had his own apartment directly above Marie Antoinette’s, and judging from the correspondence between the two of them, they had a very intimate relationship. In one series of correspondence, they wrote about the acquisition and arrangement of a stove [source:Covington]. While they were involved, Marie Antoinette still pursued her wifely duty of creating an heir to the throne; there’s really no way to tell if her children were Louis’ or Fersen’s. But Louis accepted the children as his own, and Marie Antoinette and her lover were careful to avoid any unwanted pregnancies.
When Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned at the Tuileries during the first thrust of the French Revolution, Fersen was instrumental in plotting their escape. He borrowed large sums of money and even mortgaged his house to help them flee, and he never did pay it back in full — nor did the escape work. The party was apprehended in the town of Varennes, miles from the Austrian border.
Fersen outlived his lover by nearly 20 years. On June 20, 1810, he was beaten to death by a Stockholm mob for his suspected involvement in the crown prince’s death.
In a letter he wrote to his sister, Fersen explained that he would never marry because the woman he loved was taken. In the next section, we’ll look at the sturdy man who stood between the two lovers.
2.The Brick Wall in the Bedroom
The couple wed in May 1770, and the ceremony and ensuing celebration had all the trappings of a lavish royal fête. At Versailles, custom permitted the king’s courtiers to accompany the newlyweds to their bedroom, where they reposed on display. It did little to stoke the fires of passion.
Marie Antoinette was frustrated. She was willing and able to sexually receive her husband; as a matter of fact, she lived in a state of anxiety that he would never warm to her and that she’d be sent home to Austria as an utter failure. Her mother, Maria Theresa, reminded her of this danger at every possible juncture in their correspondence. She wrote to Marie Antoinette to “lavish more caresses” on Louis [source: Covington]. What’s more, it was painfully clear to everyone that something was wrong with the couple. It wasn’t just the young couple’s physical gratification at stake: France was waiting for Marie Antoinette to produce an heir to the throne.
News of Louis’ impotence spread from the court of Versailles to the streets of Paris, where pamphlets mocking his powerlessness were distributed. The propaganda planted the seed that if Louis couldn’t perform in the bedroom, he certainly couldn’t perform on the throne. Louis XV watched forlornly as his grandson failed to execute his mission; the reigning king had a rapacious sexual appetite and an insatiable mistress, Madame du Barry.
Louis was doughy, impressionable and more fascinated by locks, languages and hunting than he was by his lovely young wife. Marie Antoinette explained to a friend, “My tastes are not the same as the King’s, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working” [source: Fraser]. But different tastes or not, Maria Theresa wasn’t going to take the news lying down. She sent her son Joseph to assess the couple’s damage. He called them “two complete blunderers” and surmised that nothing else stood in their way of consummation.
Joseph may not have been entirely correct in his analysis. Louis had been diagnosed with a condition called phimosis in which the foreskin of the penis is tighter than normal and doesn’t loosen upon arousal. This condition made sex very painful. There was an operation available to correct the condition, but Louis was reluctant to go under the knife. Some historians think he finally acquiesced and had the procedure while some say he never did; regardless, the couple finally consummated.
Marie Antoinette and Louis later wrote to Joseph, thanking him for his help. Who knows what suggestive advice he might have whispered in their ears during a walk around the grounds of Versailles?
A siren call even sweeter than her husband’s voice roused Marie Antoinette from her malaise at court.
1.The National Wardrobe
When she was a young girl in Austria, Marie Antoinette was rather rough-and-tumble. She liked horseback riding and hunting. But at Versailles, her tomboy tendencies were squeezed out of her with each tightening of her corset. Marie Antoinette hated being put on display and having grand ceremonies made out of everyday activities like getting dressed and eating meals.
She need only receive a letter from her mother to remind her of her place. Marie Antoinette was, after all, in a marriage of diplomacy — Maria Theresa couldn’t stand for her daughter to fail Austria. Though she acquired the reputation of a spendthrift, Marie Antoinette wasn’t always so fast and loose with her budget. Her mother rebuked Marie Antoinette for keeping a slovenly appearance, and the letters she wrote to her homesick daughter were full of reminders about wearing clean clothes and grooming her hair [source: Schmidt].
Marie Antoinette doffed her unfashionable togs for the latest in French couture from the house of Rose Bertin. During Louis’ reign, he incurred more than 2,000 million livres in debt by contributing reinforcements to the American Revolution; Marie built up her debt in her closet [source: History Channel]. She had nearly 300 dresses made annually for her various social engagements at the court of Versailles, her private parties at Petit Trianon and for the stage of her jewel-box theater [source: Amiel].
But it wasn’t just dresses that Marie and her couturier fussed over. She had an original hairstyle commissioned — the gravity-defying pouf — and even had an exclusive fragrance made for her by Jean-Louis Fargeon (also her glovemaker). Marie Antoinette’s elixir evoked the gardens and orchards at Petit Trianon, and it was supposedly so strong a scent that it gave her away during her family’s plotted escape from the Tuileries [source: Street].
Her pricy parties and extensive wardrobe earned Marie Antoinette the moniker Madame Déficit. She couldn’t shake the title — not that she tried. Marie Antoinette was far removed from the revolutionary murmurs in Paris. And her ignorance ultimately culminated in her death sentence.
To learn more about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, traipse over to the next page.