Since today is Marie Antoinette‘s birthday (the ripe old age of 260), I decided to make the whole month about my favorite doomed French queen. The posts to follow in this series will span the month of November and will relate to the people who were close to her during her life: her mother, her husband, her friends and more. Keep in mind, I didn’t get to include all the details I wanted so please forgive the bits and pieces I had to skip over for the sake of keeping this somewhat brief.
And no. She did not actually say “Let them eat cake” in response to people not being able to afford bread. I just wanted to clear that up right out of the gate. Okay, let’s get started.
Maria Antonia was born in 1755 in Vienna, Austria. As the youngest of several daughters, she was originally not intended to be the bride of the French dauphin so she wasn’t full prepared for the task. Her powerful mother, Empress Maria Theresa, used her children like playing pieces in a game of matrimonial chess but her plans were interrupted when illness struck the family.
Antonia was not terribly interested in her education. She also didn’t speak French and she could hardly even write in her native language, let alone in French. But she was pretty and charming and a skilled dancer, and the only daughter left to be married off, so she’d have to do. Her preparation for life as Dauphine of France was swift but thorough. A portrait of Antonia was sent to Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France and her future husband, so he could see what his bride looked like.
At the age of 14, Antonia made the long trek to the border of Austria/France, about 700 miles from Vienna. She was put into a French style gown and went by the French equivalent of her birth name, Marie Antoinette. Although she and the dauphin had already been married by proxy the month before, this was the first time she would meet Louis-Auguste, age 15. She couldn’t have been totally impressed by him-he was plump, shy, a bit awkward and he lacked charm of any kind. The two were formally married at the Palace of Versailles on May 16.
Marie Antoinette’s most important goal, at least to her family and the people of France, was to produce an heir as soon as possible. Louis-Auguste’s father had died early before reaching the throne, as did the father of the current king, Louis XV. A male heir was needed to keep the line of succession secure, and keep the powerful House of Bourbon in tact.
However, if a couple doesn’t have sex, then the chances of producing an heir are… well… it wasn’t happening. Nothing happened on the wedding night. The young couple would be put to bed by their attendants, they would kiss goodnight and that was that. This went on for several years. Letters from Antoinette’s mother include worried comments about the marriage being dissolved because the couple hadn’t even consummated the relationship.
Court life at Versailles allowed for many happy distractions though. Marie Antoinette developed a love of parties, gambling and buying extravagant gowns. The towering hairstyles Antoinette is known for did not come cheap. But she alone can’t be blamed for the high cost of her lifestyle. This was Versailles, the vast palace built by Louis XIV, the Sun King himself. If you were not dressed in the newest fashions, you may as well hide yourself away in a dungeon.
But Versailles was located several miles from Paris. These French nobles and the royal family were secluded, and generally very blind, to the growing hatred of the monarchy building in Paris. As the nobles decked themselves out in more and more jewels, Parisian commoners became hungrier. (I’m going to discuss further reasons for France’s money problems in the blog post about Louis XVI.)
When Louis XV died in 1774, Louis-Auguste became Louis XVI, King of France and Marie Antoinette was his Queen. On hearing the news, Louis said, “O God! Guide us, protect us. We are too young to reign.” Both of them were ill-prepared for the task ahead.