May 16

This Day in History

General Interest

May 16, 1770:

Louis marries Marie Antoinette

At Versailles, Louis, the French dauphin, marries Marie Antoinette, the daughter of Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. France hoped their marriage would strengthen its alliance with Austria, its longtime enemy. In 1774, with the death of King Louis XV, Louis and Marie were crowned king and queen of France.

From the start, Louis was unsuited to deal with the severe financial problems he had inherited from his grandfather, King Louis XV. In addition, his queen fell under criticism for her extravagance, her devotion to the interests of Austria, and her opposition to reform of the monarchy. Marie exerted a growing influence over her husband, and under their reign the monarchy became dangerously alienated from the French people. In a legendary episode, Marie allegedly responded to the news that the impoverished French peasantry had no food to eat by declaring "Let them eat cake."

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Marie and Louis resisted the advice of constitutional monarchists who sought to reform the monarchy in order to save it, and by 1791 opposition to the royal pair had become so fierce that the two were forced to attempt an escape to Austria. During their trip, Marie and Louis were apprehended by revolutionary forces at Varennes, France, and carried back to Paris. There, Louis was forced to accept the constitution of 1791, which reduced him to a mere figurehead.

In August 1792, the royal couple was arrested by the sansculottes and imprisoned, and in September the monarchy was abolished by the National Convention. In November, evidence of Louis' counterrevolutionary intrigues with Austria and other foreign nations was discovered, and he was put on trial for treason by the National Convention. The following January, Louis was convicted and condemned to death by a narrow majority. On January 21, he walked steadfastly to the guillotine and was executed. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was convicted of treason by a tribunal, and on October 16 she followed her husband to the guillotine.

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