Born into one of Europe’s most illustrious families, the little Archduchess Marie Antoinette of Habsburg harmonized a majesty and a sweetness that were truly touching to those around her. Her mother, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, did her utmost to educate her daughter for her future. A splendid future seemed to smile upon her from the cradle; but alas, it would have been difficult to find anyone more superficial in that second half of the 18th century.
Yes, the girl with graceful and well-defined features, whose crystal-clear blue eyes enchanted everyone, used her charm to impose her own will on others, finding in this an effective means to evade the obligations that etiquette imposed on her. Consequently, as the famous Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recounts, “when she was but thirteen, there had become obvious the dangers implicit in her character – that of one who had abundant capacity and very little will.”1
If she had grown up under the auspices of her strict mother, perhaps she would have been set right. However, her destiny changed rapidly as preparations began for the marriage of the Archduchess of Austria to the Crown Prince and future King of France, Louis, who would be the sixteenth of that name.
The wedding of Marie Antoinette
In 1769, Louis XV officially asked the Empress for the hand of the fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette in order to unite her with his grandson. Thus, the two most eminent houses of Europe, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, would come together in an alliance from which a new, even more glorious strain could be born…
Once on French territory, Maria Theresa’s daughter met the man who was to marry her. The contrast was striking. She was agile, gentle, affectionate and beautiful; he was stout, cold and profoundly shy. The young Bourbon did not seem very committed to the new relationship. In fact, as a rule, only two things really interested him: hunting and good food…
After the not-so-romantic marriage ceremony, Marie Antoinette was ushered into the court at Versailles.
The conquest of Paris
What would Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan think, seeing that young girl conquer, with her smile, the power-holders of a kingdom with much more aplomb than they would have done with iron, fire, blood, sweat and tears?
Despite her own inexperience and the subtleties of court life, the princess managed to triumph with finesse in that first battle. However, the taking of France was not yet complete; the capital still had to be marched upon. After an inexplicable three-year delay, on June 18, 1773, she finally obtained from Louis XV authorization to visit Paris.
The carriages glittering in the daylight, the silk dresses and the tricorn hats on the powdered hair of the nobles announced the pompous arrival of the court in the City of Light. Unceasing exclamations arose from the dazzled people.
Having arrived at the Tuileries Palace, Marie Antoinette went to the window and was startled to see such a huge crowd. Seeing the princess’ astonishment, Marshal de Brissac declared with typically French courtliness: “Madame, I hope His Highness the Dauphin will not take it amiss, but you have before you two hundred thousand Parisians who have all fallen in love with you.”2
However, it was not only Marie Antoinette who conquered Paris. The capital had also captivated her, perhaps too much…
The throne without the queen
Marie Antoinette em 1769, in 1769, shortly before her marriage with the Dauphin, by Joseph Ducreux – Palace of Versailles (France)
The bells tolled, announcing the death of the king and the consequent accession of Louis XVI to the throne. It can readily be imagined how, for Marie Antoinette, the thousand obligations of court, now even more demanding because of her state as queen, taken together with her husband’s indifference towards her, all amounted to an unbearable burden.
This situation explains – though certainly does not justify – the path taken by this soul, so little accustomed to self-discipline from childhood. Night escapes from Versailles to the Parisian balls – masked, so as not to be recognized; long getaways at the Trianon, a rich palace adorned with parks, vegetable gardens and country houses, in which she spent her days at expensive parties; and so many other shallow amusements. Such excesses were exploited by the press, unscrupulously filling the accounts with details as obscene as they were fictitious.
The days went by, and with them the years, the extravagances and the lies. However, the queen’s behaviour did not improve until one event changed her life: the birth of her children.
The couple had four descendants, two of whom died prematurely before the Revolution. This profound metamorphosis – brought on by her maternity – led Marie Antoinette to abandon her careless games for a time in order to devote herself to the precautions of pregnancy and, later, to her duties towards her offspring.
Was it the first step towards a more orderly and sedate life? It seems plausible; fate, however, did not grant her the chance, for “at the very time when Marie Antoinette’s internal unrest was waning, a period of unrest was beginning for the world.”3
The queen without a throne
Little by little, the Queen’s popularity declined, not only owing to her bad habits, which unfortunately were once again becoming widely publicized, but also because her subjects wanted to hold her responsible for the financial crisis that was shaking France.
Then, another drop was added to the caldron already on the verge of boiling over: the so-called “diamond necklace affair”, a huge misjudgement enveloped in a thousand treacheries and lies, which led Marie Antoinette to ask Louis XVI to have Cardinal de Rohan arrested and publicly tried.
It is difficult for us in the twenty-first century to imagine the scandal involved at that time in a monarch demanding the imprisonment and prosecution of a prince of the Catholic Church. And to make matters worse, the accused was declared innocent, at least of that fault…
However, as we have said, this was a mere drop of water. In the eyes of public opinion, the prestige of the monarchy was dead. All that was needed was a puff of wind to turn the corpse into dust.
The royal family leaves Versailles
On July 14, 1789, the fall of the Bastille marked the beginning of a string of violent social upheavals – admittedly, very well coordinated – to which history gave the name of French Revolution.
A few months later, on October 5, a horde of women, together with some men in disguise to guarantee the success of the aggressive operation, left the capital for Versailles, in order to bring the royal family back to Paris. From then on, they would have to reside in the old Tuileries Palace, under a thinly disguised regime of house arrest.
What a difference between this situation and life in the past! From the parties at the Trianon and the bustle of the balls, to seclusion, silence, sobriety. In that environment Marie Antoinette began to understand the silent language of suffering; she found the calm that purifies, recollects and brings order. There she came to know herself and took another step towards a so long-delayed maturity.
The queen devised plans for escape and alliances, but they all failed, either because of the king’s indecision or a lack of allies. Only one thing consistently gave her happiness: the company of her children. For them she continued to fight.
With the help of Fersen, a faithful friend to the point of risking his life to save her, she planned and executed the famous flight to Varennes on June 20, 1791, which was frustrated at the last minute when, through a series of imprudent actions on the part of Louis XVI, the true identity of the fugitives was discovered.
From then on, the aggression and terror directed against the royal family only increased until culminating in the bloody abolition of the monarchy.
On August 10, 1792, instigated primarily by Danton, a mob invaded the Tuileries and massacred the guard, with excesses of savagery that decency prevents us from narrating.4 In letters of blood, these atrocities immortalize on the pages of history the day when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ceased to be the monarchs of France.
From there, the family was moved to the Temple, the former palace of the Knights Templar – the reason for its name – well known to the Queen who, in her youth, had visited the King’s brother who lived there. But now there would no longer be the joy of the feasts and the echoes of dancing, but the heavy thud of soldiers’ footsteps and ditties against the monarchy.
The monotony of that captivity was interrupted by other noises, such as that of the mob carrying a new trophy, the bloodied head of the Princess of Lamballe, to show to the queen. The king was advised not to let his wife to approach the window, but that was not necessary: Marie Antoinette fainted on hearing of her friend’s beheading.
A few months later, on January 21, 1793, another head rolled, and with it a crown. Louis XVI was dead. On that day, “the guillotine had given Marie Antoinette, sometime Archduchess of Austria, then Dauphiness, and at length Queen of France, a new name – ‘Widow Capet’.”5
But much more was to come. The Revolution wanted to deal her another blow: to separate her from her beloved son, the dauphin of France. And for the boy’s guardian they chose a shoemaker named Simon, who had shown himself a zealot for the cause of the rebels. So, after having stripped Marie Antoinette of her crown, her friends and husband, they also robbed her of her son. What more could they do?
Finally, there was a knock on her cell door at two o’clock in the morning, informing her that she was to be tried by the Revolution and that she must move to another prison, the Conciergerie, also known as the “antechamber of death”. While the Queen dwelt in that terrible place, the interrogations began.
A mob invades the Tuileries and inscribes on the pages of history, in letters of blood, the day on which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ceased to be the monarchs of France
“The Taking of the Tuileries Palace”, by Jean Duplessi-Bertaux – Palace of Versailles (France)
To die is a victory
On October 14, 1793, the Widow Capet appeared before the tribunal. Standing before her accusers, she showed not the least sign of nervousness. At most, she occasionally ran her fingers over her chair as if playing a harpsichord.
The jury spouted accusations devoid of proof or logical order. They achieved nothing apart from showing the trial to be moved more by blind hatred than by the oft-touted values of the Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity.
Hébert, the canniest in that band of puppets, then decided to play his last card, which would subject Marie Antoinette to a torture perhaps worse than death: he accused her of committing scandalous sins with her own son. However, the falsehood of those attacks was so blatant that they fell flat. There was silence. The Queen did not say a word.
Finally, with her head held high and strong emotion, she declared in a tone proper to great souls: “If I have made no reply, it is because nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother! I appeal in this matter to all the mothers present in court.”6 Could a mother commit such an abuse? Her words exploded like a bomb in Hébert’s hands. In that hour, the majesty of Marie Antoinette, annihilated by hours of interrogation, sent a current of commotion through the room and left the prosecutors fearful of losing control.
Meanwhile, the accusations continued. There was a lack of evidence, it is true, but what did it matter? The inquiry would be the proof… Thus, the condemnation was voted without further delay. On October 16, 1793, the guillotine sent tumbling to the ground that head covered with once-golden curls, now ashen from so much suffering.
This last change, though only a detail, seems to sum up Marie Antoinette’s life. Suffering had imparted to the lady who had had everything in life, the only quality she lacked: venerability.
The joyous Queen of France, whose laughter had the charms of an unclouded happiness, drank the cup of gall destined for her by Divine Providence with dignity, determination, and Christian resignation
Marie Antoinette with her children, during the attack on the Tuileries Palace – Museum of the French Revolution, Vizille (France)
A precious homage
At the close of this article, we would not dare to omit some words of Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a man who admired Marie Antoinette with true transports of enthusiasm, through a prism so Catholic that he did not hesitate to choose her as the theme of the first speech in his life, delivered at a meeting of Marian congregants:
“Amidst the collapse of the political and social edifice of the Bourbon monarchy, when all the world felt the ground crumble under its feet, the joyous Archduchess of Austria, the winsome Queen of France – whose elegant poise was reminiscent of a Sèvres figurine, and whose laughter had the charms of an unclouded happiness – drank the bitter draughts of the immense cup of gall with which Divine Providence resolved to glorify her, with admirable dignity, determination, and Christian resignation.
“There are certain souls who are great only when the gusts of misfortune break over them. Marie Antoinette, who was vain as a princess and unforgivably frivolous in her life as a queen, when faced with the maelstrom of blood and misery that inundated France, underwent a surprising transformation; and the historian, filled with awe, sees from the queen arise a martyr, and from the doll a heroine.”7 ◊
1 ZWEIG, Stefan. Marie Antoniette. London: Cassell, 1960, p. 5.
2 Idem, p.74.
3 Idem, p.179.
4 For a realistic, powerful and, in a certain sense, repugnant description of what happened on that day, see: ESCANDE, Renaud (Dir.). Le livre noir de la Révolution Française. Paris: Du Cerf, 2008, p.53-64.
5 ZWEIG, op. cit., p.484.
6 Idem, p.558.
7 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Maria Antonieta, arquiduquesa d’Áustria, rainha de França e Viúva Capeto [Marie Antoinette: Queen of France and the Widow Capet]. In: Opera Omnia. Reedição de escritos, pronunciamentos e obras. São Paulo: Retornarei, 2008, v.I, p.84.