Marie Antoinette, the little Austrian archduchess with reddish-blonde hair, was but a child when she was reluctantly packed off to France by her mother Queen Maria Theresa for a marriage of convenience with the French Dauphin. She was only 14 when she married the future king of France and met her 15-year-old prince two days before the wedding. The marriage had nothing to do with love — it was a political alliance. Austria and France were long-time enemies and had become allies in 1756 to fight Prussia and England in the seven-year war.
Maria Theresa advised her daughter to accustom herself to the manners of the French, become a good queen, a good wife and above all, trust her husband. The princess, upon her arrival in Paris, was met not by a handsome and dashing prince who would sweep her off her feet but by a pudgy, clumsy and tongue-tied man — hardly the type who could guide, and be affectionate to, a young princess struggling to cope with a foreign country’s customs. They got married on May 16, 1770 with fireworks, and sumptuous banquets attended by guests resplendent in diamonds. It was one of the most dazzling occasions in Versailles.
The wedding night was a disaster. Marie Antoinette was left alone in her opulent, gilded room. She tried to connect with her husband, but it was futile. With negligible official duties, she flung herself into a dazzling social life and the trappings of luxury bordering on the extreme and the bizarre, which would prove to be her undoing in the end. The prince had no interest in socialising and perhaps knew that the courtiers made fun of him. But he had a strong sense of morality and a kind heart. He sought relief from his loneliness in books and carpentry, and was happiest galloping through the forests, hunting wild boar and deer.
The story of Marie Antoinette and the events that led to the revolution evoke fascination. Here are some facts about Marie Antoinette:
Days 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, who blessed their bed and left the room to allow them to start work on producing a royal heir. But nothing happened between the two relative strangers that night or apparently for the next seven years. The dauphin suffered from a painful medical condition that rendered him impotent. Finally in 1777, the problem was rectified either because the now King Louis XVI underwent surgery or because in the words of the emperor, the couple had been “two complete blunderers” till then. Within a year, Marie Antoinette bore the first of the couple’s four children.
It is ironic that the woman who was so reviled later on, actually captivated the French public in her early years in the country. When she made her initial appearance in Paris, a crowd of 50,000 people grew so uncontrollable that at least 30 were trampled to death.
The royal hairdresser Léonard Autié became one of the Queen’s closest confidants. He concocted her gravity-defying hairdos, which were nearly four feet high. He accessorised her fantastical poufs with feathers, trinkets and on one occasion, a huge model of the French warship La Belle Poule to commemorate its sinking of a British frigate.
When told that the starving French peasants lacked any bread to eat, the Queen is alleged to have callously declared, “Let them eat cake!” But there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette uttered these infamous words.
On the morning of October 16, 1793, Henri Sanson entered the prison cell housing Marie Antoinette, who only hours before had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death. The red-hooded executioner lopped off Marie Antoinette’s beloved locks to enable 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!”
Following Marie Antoinette’s execution, her body was placed in a coffin and dumped in 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 be given a proper burial alongside other French royals inside the Basilica Cathedral of St Denis.