History In The Headlines

10 Things You May Not Know About Marie Antoinette

By Christopher Klein
On the morning of October 16, 1793, Henri Sanson entered the prison cell housing Marie Antoinette, the 37-year-old former queen of France who only hours before had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death. The red-hooded executioner sheared Marie Antoinette’s beloved locks to allow for a quick, clean cut of his guillotine blade. Moments after cutting her hair, Sanson cut off her head as a joyous crowd cheered, “Vive la nation!” On the 220th anniversary of her execution, learn 10 surprising facts about Marie Antoinette.
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1. Marie Antoinette was born an Austrian princess.
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1755, Archduchess Marie Antoinette was the 15th and last child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the powerful Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

2. She was only 14 years old when she married the future Louis XVI.
To seal the newfound alliance between longtime enemies Austria and France that had been forged by the Seven Years’ War, the Austrian monarchs offered the hand of their youngest daughter to the heir apparent to the French throne, Dauphin Louis-Auguste. On May 7, 1770, the 14-year-old royal bride was delivered to the French on an island in the middle of the Rhine River, and a grand procession escorted the archduchess to the Palace of Versailles. The day after Marie Antoinette met the 15-year-old future king of France, the two were wed in a lavish palace ceremony.

3. It took seven years for the future king and queen to consummate their marriage.
Politics literally made strange bedfellows in the case of Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste. Just hours after they first met, the young teenagers were escorted to the bridal chamber on their wedding night by the groom’s grandfather, King Louis XV. After the king blessed their bed, gave both a kiss and left the room to allow them to start work on producing a royal heir, nothing happened between the two relative strangers that night. Apparently, nothing happened for the next seven years either. The dauphin suffered from a painful medical condition that rendered him impotent, and the palace gossip soon circulated around Europe. Finally in 1777, Maria Theresa dispatched one of her sons, Emperor Joseph II, to Versailles to intervene, and the problem was rectified either because the now King Louis XVI underwent surgery to correct the problem or because, in the words of the emperor, the couple had been “two complete blunderers.” Within a year, Marie Antoinette bore the first of the couple’s four children.

4. Marie Antoinette was a teen idol.
Unlike during her years as queen, Marie Antoinette captivated the French public in her early years in the country. When the teenager made her initial appearance in the French capital, a crowd of 50,000 Parisians grew so uncontrollable that at least 30 people were trampled to death in the crush.

5. Her towering bouffant hairdo once sported a battleship replica.
As Will Bashor details in his new book, “Marie Antoinette’s Head,” royal hairdresser Léonard Autié became one of the queen’s closest confidants as he concocted her gravity-defying hairdos, which rose nearly four feet high. Autié accessorized the queen’s fantastical poufs with feathers, trinkets and on one occasion even an enormous model of the French warship La Belle Poule to commemorate its sinking of a British frigate.

6. A fairy-tale village was built for her at Versailles.
While peasants starved in villages throughout France, Marie Antoinette commissioned the construction of the Petit Hameau, a utopian hamlet with lakes, gardens, cottages, watermills and a farmhouse on the palace grounds. The queen and her ladies-in-waiting dressed up as peasants and pretended to be milkmaids and shepherdesses in their picturesque rural retreat. Marie Antoinette’s elaborate spending on frivolities such as the Petit Hameau infuriated revolutionaries and earned her the moniker “Madame Deficit.”

7. Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”
When told that starving French peasants lacked any bread to eat, the queen is alleged to have callously declared, “Let them eat cake!” There is no evidence, however, that Marie Antoinette ever uttered that famous quip. The phrase used to encapsulate the out-of-touch and indifferent royals first appeared years before Marie Antoinette ever arrived in France in philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s description of Marie-Therese, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. The remark was also ascribed to two aunts of Louis XVI before it was apocryphally tied to Marie Antoinette.

8. The trumped-up charges against Marie Antoinette included incest.
Nine months after the execution of the former King Louis XVI, a Revolutionary Tribunal tried the former queen on trumped-up crimes against the French republic that included high treason, sexual promiscuity and incestuous relations with her son Louis-Charles, who was forced to testify that his mother had molested him. After a two-day show trial, an all-male jury found the former queen guilty on all charges and unanimously condemned her to death.

9. She was buried in an unmarked grave and then exhumed.
Following the execution of Marie Antoinette, her body was placed in a coffin and dumped into a common grave behind the Church of the Madeline. In 1815, after the Bourbon Restoration returned King Louis XVIII to the throne following the exile of Napoleon, he ordered the bodies of his older brother, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette exhumed and given a proper burial alongside other French royals inside the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis.

10. A U.S. city is named in honor of Marie Antoinette.
When a group of American Revolution veterans founded the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory in 1788 at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, they wanted to honor France, which had been instrumental in assisting the patriots against the British. They named their new community—Marietta, Ohio—after the French queen and even sent her a letter offering the monarch a “public square” in the town.

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Categories: French History, French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, Royalty