Marie Antoinette, née Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, the fifteenth and penultimate child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, came to Versailles at the tender age of 14 to marry the 15-year-old Dauphin, or future king, Louis-Auguste, grandson to King Louis XV. The two future monarchs had grown up so pampered that when Louis XV died of smallpox in 1775, just five years after their royal nuptials, even they knew they were not ready for the responsibility before them.
“Dear God,” prayed Louis XVI, falling to his knees, “guide us and protect us. We are too young to reign”.
As you read here, Louis XVI inherited a France burdened by debt and crippling poverty. He was unprepared to cope with the looming crisis that faced his country. Marie Antoinette was not permitted a political role, nor did she want one. As Queen of France, she had one main job: to produce a male heir.
Yet the King was as adept in the bedroom as he was on the throne. Seven years passed before he and Marie Antoinette produced a child, and 11 long years before the Queen gave birth to a boy, the first Dauphin, Louis Joseph, in 1781.
In the meantime, Marie Antoinette became the target of libel and gossip, both in and outside Court. Her interests during these years included fashion, gambling, opera, the staging of plays in which she often played a role, and the creation of a vast private pleasure garden at the Petit Trianon. These pastimes were costly at a time when French peasants were surviving largely on bread.
The Queen made things worse for herself by alienating important members at Court when she retreated to the Petit Trianon and refused to invite them for visits!
Simultaneously, the King saw an opportunity to get back at Britain for his grandfather’s humiliating loss in the Seven Years War. He agreed to send troops and aid totaling 2,000 million livres to support the American revolutionaries. In the 1770s this sum could have fed and housed 7 million French citizens for a year. With France already teetering on financial collapse, this expenditure was seen by many as irresponsible. Indeed, it would have a calamitous effect on the French economy.
Yet, it was the Queen who was blamed. The people dubbed her, “Madame Deficit”. Though she had given her adopted country four children, including two potential heirs to the throne, she would never live down in the eyes of her subjects the reputation that tainted her from her early years at Versailles.
Things went from bad to worse for the Queen during the Diamond Necklace Affair. More on that tomorrow.
Painting of 12 year old Marie Antoinette, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Painting of the new King of France, Louis XVI, 1775, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of Marie Antoinette with her eldest children, Madame Royal and the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Petit Trianon of Versailles by Colocho, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2001.
The French Revolution. The History Channel, 2008.
Towle, Sarah B. Time Traveler Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine. In progress.