Marie Antoinette in Versailles
The life of Marie Antoinette continues to fascinate us long after her death.
She rose to become the last queen of France, surrounded by the heights of obscene luxury. But by the relatively young age of 37, she was executed by the hands of the French Revolution.
In this one person, we find the story of a monarchy that was both flagrantly wealthy and doomed. And as she fell along with her husband, their deaths sparked off a series of events that would change Europe and the world forever. It was the end of an old order and the birth of a new kind of nation.
To truly appreciate the story of Marie Antoinette, let’s look at the details of her extravagant lifestyle.
Then, on your next trip to Paris, you can join me on a tour and walk through the same streets and visit the same palaces that served as the backdrop to the extraordinary life of the last Queen of France.
The Early Life of Marie Antoinette
She was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna on November 2, 1755. Her birthplace fit her royal family: Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. Her mother was none other than Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburgs — one of the most powerful people in the world at the time.
As a child, she had difficulty with her studies. Though her family invested a lot of money in her private education, she couldn’t even write in her native German by age 10, and her conversational skills lagged as well.
What finally unlocked her intellect was musical education. Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer who worked for the Habsburg court, tutored the young Marie. Eventually, she became skilled at the harp, flute, and harpsichord, as well as becoming a delightful singer and dancer.
It was the arts that allowed the child to grow into a confident and self-possessed young woman.
Preparing for Her Future
When she became engaged to the young Louis XVI, she was sent a new tutor to bring her French and general education up to royal standards. While he found the child intelligent and tender-hearted, he also found her “lazy and extremely frivolous…”
French Ambassadors also tended to her fashion sense, training her in all the ways to carry and dress herself in their culture. In Austria, the trend was to dress simply and present yourself as austere. But the streets of Paris expected something very different, and Marie had to learn all the details of French fashion. These lessons, it turns out, would make a major impression.
The ambassadors also used an early form of braces to straighten her teeth, an extremely painful process, all to make her smile at court more acceptable. Along with that, she had to learn the intricate set of etiquette rules that defined the French court — probably the most complex system of manners on the continent.
This must have been absolutely overwhelming for the young girl, but she gradually learned how to fit into her future home.
Becoming the Next Queen
Marrying a dauphin — the term for the eldest son of the King of France — isn’t easy. Vienna’s Marie Antoinette was married to Louis XVI to ensure peace between Austria and France, a political move meant to strengthen these countries against Great Britain and Prussia.
To reinforce the lovelessness of their marriage, Louis did not even attend their wedding. When they later had a public wedding ceremony at the Palace of Versailles, it ended with a ritual bedding — a practice of family and members of the court placing the couple in their nuptial bed. Apparently, not much happened that night, and not much would happen for years — a matter of much royal gossip, no doubt.
Making matters worse, the mistress of Marie’s new father-in-law wielded immense political power, and she used it to isolate the dauphine. Scandal and feuds already plagued Marie, who was only 14 at the time of her wedding.
Despite these problems, she was popular with the public. Her beauty and compassionate personality made her beloved, at least for a time.
Her life at Versailles
Being the dauphine, she lived at the Palace of Versailles. It was here that all that training for the French court was put to work. Life at the palace granted little privacy, requiring her to perform her role around the clock.
From the moment she woke up, people dressed her and conversed with her. Throughout the day, her duties included charming the hoard of nobles that passed through Versailles on any given day.
This must have been extremely alienating, as we have letters from this time that she sent to her mother. In these, she writes about her longing to return to Austria and her disdain for the complete lack of solitude her new role afforded her.
Taking the Throne
Louis XV died on May 10, 1774 — making Marie’s husband King of France. While that made her Queen, she found herself rather powerless, with little influence on the decisions of her husband.
As queen, she was at least able to win herself some much needed peace and quiet. She used her position to secure alone time that had been robbed from her since she married Louis XVI.
But it wasn’t all about privacy for her. She had a penchant for socializing late into the night, much unlike her husband who was practical and introverted. Marie’s gregariousness and charm made her a favorite at court.
After seven years without consummating the marriage, rounds of doctors and advice from his brother-in-law finally made Louis ready. Marie became pregnant, and she would go on to have several children with the King and potentially one with the Swedish Count Axel Von Fersen — if rumors are to be believed.
It’s good to be Queen
Though not very powerful, she did have access to wealth. And she was not afraid to use it. Her husband gave her the Petit Trianon, a château at Versailles. After she redecorated, the rumor was that everything had been covered in jewels and gold.
Her extravagance would become famous, especially her sense of style. At the time, the people of Paris and the French court looked to her as a fashion icon — always clothed in elaborate dress and perfectly done hair.
Rose Bertin, her personal stylist, was instrumental in designing and carrying out the trend-setting looks that Marie donned.
Her approach to hair was especially notable, with the Queen wearing it in large vertical styles that seemed to defy the laws of gravity. This was achieved by a full team of hairdressers that employed hair pins, wigs, and any other device necessary to pull off the look of the day. These were then adorned with jewelry, feathers, and in one case even a model battleship!
Altogether, it is said that her annual fashion budget reached above $3 million in today’s terms.
The Charity of Marie Antoinette
But Marie wasn’t heartless about her extravagance. She ended the Queen’s Belt tax, money that would have gone to her, after hearing about the desperate conditions of the poor. She was also a philanthropist, helping her husband found the Maison Philanthropique to help widows, the blind, and the elderly.
She raised her children to serve peasants, and she gave money to the poor rather than buy Christmas gifts. She took her children on many charitable trips, and even adopted three destitute children while providing for many more to get an education.
She built housing for peasants, created the Maternity Society for unwed mothers, and sold off flatware to buy grain for people during the famine of 1787-88. During that famine, the royal family only ate inexpensive bread as a cost saving measure to afford more charitable giving.
So while she was renowned for spending large sums on herself, she was also quick to spend it on those less fortunate.
The Death of Marie Antoinette
The displays of excessive wealth that made the Queen so popular in some circles also led her to be seen as an example of the rottenness in the monarchy. As crowds chanted, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the royal family more and more looked like the ultimate embodiment of oppression, inequality, and division.
She became known in the press as Madame Deficit, a moniker that pointed to the ever-growing lavishness of Marie’s lifestyle. Her mother even cautioned her against her spending in personal letters, but the Queen continued to live like, well, a queen.
She was later falsely accused of being involved in the theft of a necklace, making her popularity diminish rapidly.
Did Marie Antoinette say “let them eat cake”? No. But during bread riots late in her reign, her extravagance was seen as part of the problem with the monarchy. By the time the revolution swept through the nation in 1789, the position of the royals was undermined and eventually undone.
A crowd even stormed Versailles demanding bread and later cornered Marie who was trying to protect her children. She was saved by cooler heads and allowed to go to Paris as a prisoner in a palace at the center of the city. But when the royals tried to escape, they were brought back and placed in a commoner’s prison. Soon, the king was guillotined and Marie lived nine more months in prison.
Eventually, her son was convinced to betray his mother, leading to her death by guillotine on October 16, 1973.
Whenever I pass over the grounds of Versailles, the story of Marie Antoinette and her extravagant life always comes back to me. She was remarkable, complicated, and controversial — a one-of-a-kind woman living through big historical moments. Hers is another story that makes visiting Paris such a remarkable experience.
Read about my Versailles tour and come see the same palaces that Marie Antoinette lived her exceptional life in.