The French Revolution was unprecedented in its brutality when impoverished commoners vented their fury on the French aristocracy with a viciousness that was barbaric and frightening.
Austria-born Marie Antoinette married the future French king Louis XVI when she was just an innocent and naive 15-year-old. Marie Antoinette was not a wicked woman. Like the rest of the French aristocracy, she was oblivious to the suffering of the common man and looked on the trappings of luxury and an extravagant lifestyle almost as a divine right.
The young couple soon came to symbolise the excesses of the reviled French monarchy and Marie Antoinette in particular became the target of a great deal of vicious gossip and hatred. She was the foreigner — the Austrian woman who was living off the fat of the starving French people.
Marie Antoinette did not have an easy marriage and her official duties were minimal. Her ample free time was spent socialising and indulging her extravagant tastes, which bordered on the bizarre. For instance, she had a model farm built on the palace grounds so that she and her ladies-in-waiting could dress in elaborate costumes and pretend to be milkmaids and shepherdesses. This kind of behaviour was deeply offensive to the majority of the population who barely had enough to eat.
The resentment and hatred increased day by day, exacerbated by widely circulated newspapers and pamphlets that mocked the queen’s profligate behaviour and spread false pornographic rumours about her.
Soon it became fashionable to blame Marie Antoinette for all of France’s ills. The truth was that France’s financial difficulties were not the queen’s fault.
Eighteenth century colonial wars, particularly the American Revolution in which the French had intervened on behalf of the colonists, created an enormous debt for the French state. The privileged few such as the Catholic Church (the First Estate) and the nobility (the Second Estate) did not generally have to pay taxes but the ordinary people were squeezed by high taxes.
Resentment was against this exacerbated by the conspicuous spending of the nobility.
The King tried to correct this iniquitous system but his efforts were stymied by the nobility. Once again, the young queen became the convenient target for the rage of the common man and the popular press called her Madame Veto and the Austrian whore.
In 1789, representatives from the clergy, the nobility and the common people met at Versailles to come up with a plan for the reform of the French state, but noblemen and clergymen were still reluctant to give up their prerogatives.
The simmering hatred and anger of the common man imploded in 1789 and a mob of Parisian women protesting the high cost of bread and other goods marched to Versailles, dragged the entire royal family back to the city and imprisoned them in the Tuileries.
In June 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette managed to escape and fled towards the Austrian border.
The royal family returned to Paris and Louis XVI was restored to the throne.
Now, many revolutionaries began to argue that the worst enemies of the state were not the nobles but the monarchy.
In April 1792, partly as a way to test the loyalties of the king and queen, the Jacobin (radical revolutionary) government declared war on Austria. But the deplorable state of the French army ensured that this military adventure was a total disaster, a turn of events that was blamed on the foreign-born queen. Another mob stormed the Tuileries, overthrew the monarchy and locked the family in a tower.
And thus began the brutal purge of the reviled aristocracy. Unfortunately, as happens in such cases, a great many innocents in the nobility became targets for public anger and were murdered. The revolutionaries began to massacre royalist prisoners by the thousands.
One of Marie Antoinette’s best friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was dismembered on the street and revolutionaries paraded her head and body parts through Paris.
Marie Antoinette lost custody of her young son who was forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest before a Revolutionary tribunal.
In 1793, the king was executed followed by the queen who was convicted of treason and sent to the guillotine. She was 37 years old.