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 Marie Antoinette is among the most sensationalized characters in history. The reasoning behind this has remained the subject of chatter between historians for centuries. More people are familiar with her exploits as the spirited queen of France than of her husband who bears the name most closely associated with the French aristocracy.

There’s quite a bit of reasoning behind this. But, it all begins with a marriage that would ultimately bring the monarchy of France to its knees in front of the guillotine.

 

The history of marriage is hardly just misty-eyed witnesses looking on pleasantly exchanged vows between people bonded by eternal love. Among aristocratic families, marriage was used a tool to solidify political, economic, and military partnerships between powerful families. Veritably using two people, who were often just children, as bargaining chips. The marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was no exception.

 

On November 2, 1755, Marie Antoinette was born in Austria. She was the 15th child and 11th daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, who didn’t flinch at using her daughters strategically. In France, the grandson of the current monarch Louis XV became next in line to the throne at 11 years old upon the boy’s father’s -- Louis Ferdinand -- untimely death. Naturally, this made timid, young Louis Auguste the next in line to the French throne. Within a short time, Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste (now the XVI) were promised to one another in a marriage contract that would unite the houses of two royal families who were formerly hostile toward one another.

 

The betrothed children didn’t know one another and Louis XV sent a French tutor to Austria to teach Marie Antoinette how she should behave as French royalty. She was a wild girl. She did things her own way and was described as a tad lazy, difficult to teach, and prone to not taking things seriously. But, she was kind, loving, and had a refreshing presence. This would be first displayed at her meeting of King Louis XV in 1770.

 

Her procession to France for her marriage to the young Louis Auguste was as extravagant as one can imagine to match the French monarchy. Upon arriving in May 1770 it was reported that the now 14-year-old Marie Antoinette, on a whim, ran up to the carriage of Louis XV and curtsied. Certainly not how one traditionally approaches the most powerful king in Europe, the crowd of two families who historically didn’t get along was understandably tense. But, in true Marie Antoinette fashion, her confidence and kind, yet unconventional behavior immediately won Louis XV’s heart.

 

The heart she didn’t win over was her betrothed. For all of her social extravagance and bold-hearted extroversion, Louis Auguste was quite the opposite. A quiet boy, he lived in the shadow of predecessors that made him feel unworthy and this showed in his demeanor. Both of their demeanors aside, they were married on May 16, 1770, in Versailles. As was customary of royal marriage, they were to consummate it before witnesses, but they did not. This was unheard of, bringing doubt and scorn upon the court, especially toward Marie Antoinette. Their marriage remained unconsummated for seven years, well after the death of Louis XV in 1774. This was the beginning of the end.

 

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette operated in different ways and on different schedules. He was indecisive and quiet, she knew what she wanted and was lighthearted about it. However, her lightheartedness and penchant for wild extravagance did not sit well with the people of France. Along with the peoples’ disdain for their quiet, weak king, they saw a queen who was utterly oblivious to the situation of her people. Worse still, she didn’t seem to care, nor did her behavior change. When word of Marie’s behavior reached her royal mother in Austria, the Empress sent a prophetic letter to her uncontrollable daughter saying, “You lead a dissipated life. I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.”

 

The Empress could not have been more correct. Antoinette’s disregard for her people’s plight became more apparent as she continued to make exorbitant expenses while they starved and plunged into poverty. Chief among these was her own private estate, the Petit Trianon. It was anything but petit and the extent of her desires for a veritable playhouse was in the range of two million francs. Louis XVI initially gave this to her as a wedding gift, but later she added more to it, making a place where she could be in private with her most trusted circle of friends. The king himself was never a part of the festivities at the Petit Trianon and remained kept to himself. Of course, this brought the rumors of sexual impropriety about the Queen that were the initials sparks of revolution and the downfall of the monarchy. To her credit, the rumors of her sexually scandalous affairs are widely regarded as untrue and though Louis XVI and her weren’t a match made in heaven, they cared for one another very much. This didn’t stop the revolution from coming as the people of France became more and more angered at the neglect of their King and Queen.

 

In the end, the French Revolution sued for democracy and Louis XVI was kept alive to make the transfer from monarchy to democracy legally legitimate. This ended a reign that lasted around 1,000 years. For the Queen, she was ill-treated in prison and in court. The French disdain for her Austrian heritage had always been underlying, but it was now in the forefront of their minds, along with the tome of rumors (and truths) surrounding her lifestyle. Ultimately, she was sentenced to death by guillotine and, at 37 years old, in 1793, she approached the platform. When told to have courage, prior to kneeling before the blade, she regally responded, “Courage? The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when my courage is going to fail me.”

 

From day one, a marriage that was planned by two families to bring their houses together erupted into political chaos and changed the socio-historic makeup of a country (and beyond). Losing everything in the process, it was surely not the happily ever after Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were looking for.




Sources:

Covington, Richard. “Marie Antoinette.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Nov. 2006, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/marie-antoinette-134629573/.

McLaren, Brittany. “The Many Faces of Marie Antoinette: Rewriting the Portrait of a Queen through the Enlightenment, Political Pornography, and the French Revolution.” Syracuse University, 2011, surface.syr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1295&context=honors_capstone.

 

About the Author

Matt Kightlinger has worked in the carriage ride industry for 15 years and is an avid history buff.