How Marie Antoinette waged a battle for survival
Marie Antoinette spent much of her reign engaged in a battle: first to cement her position as queen of France, and then to avoid the guillotine. Catriona Seth uses the queen’s letters to trace her desperate bid for survival
Make a callous remark betraying your indifference to other people’s suffering, and you might be accused of having a “Marie Antoinette moment”. We’ve all heard of Marie Antoinette. She is the French queen who displayed her disdain for the plight of her hungry subjects by exclaiming the immortal phrase: “Let them eat cake!” She’s also the French queen who – as every history lover knows – got her comeuppance by being sent to
And yet there’s a problem with this portrayal: Marie Antoinette never invited the French people to eat cake. Anti-monarchists propagated the falsehood using an anecdote that had circulated long before her birth.
Anyone who wants to discover the queen behind the myth might instead consider the following: “Our situation is awful. When I am really sad, I take my little boy in my arms, I hug him with all my heart, and that consoles me.” Marie Antoinette wrote scores of letters during her lifetime, many of which have been preserved. And, as the words above suggest, these letters tell a tragic story. They paint a picture of a woman engaged in a desperate battle for survival as her world fell apart. They help us locate the real Marie Antoinette.
Maria Antonia, as she was christened, began life not in France, but in Vienna. She was born on 2 November 1755, the 15th of 16 children of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa. Her mother, the queen of Hungary and Bohemia in her own right, used her offspring as pawns: their marriages consolidated her network. After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, Maria Antonia was sent to Versailles to wed the dauphin – the heir to the king of France – though they had never met. Preceded by a portrait destined to show her at her most beautiful, the 14-year-old left Vienna never to return.
She was, as Maria Theresa wrote to her on 3 May 1770, “where Providence meant for [her] to live”. Less than five years later, she would be queen of France.
Marie Antoinette, as she became known after her marriage, would be adored and reviled by public opinion: considered beautiful and kind by some, but accused of meddling in politics and favouring Austrian causes by others. She was deprived of official power, but armed with agency of her own through her cultivation of a striking image of queenship. She was a fashion icon whose likeness circulated through paintings and prints. Affection, rather than social hierarchy, dictated her choice of friends.
However, the queen became the object of much scurrilous gossip. She was accused of a string of imaginary affairs (with men, women and even animals) in an attempt to besmirch her reputation and, indirectly, to criticise the king’s weakness. Unlike his predecessors, Louis XVI did not have an official mistress (think of Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry in Louis XV’s case), and so Marie Antoinette became the object of criticisms traditionally reserved for the king’s favourites.
Royal dressing down
Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother, was a formidable woman, who sat at the apex of a vast letter-writing network. She received direct communications from her family but also reports from diplomats and civil servants. She was never above reprimanding adult sons and daughters for undignified comportment. Even being the wife of a head of state offered no protection against her wrath if you acted against imperial interests.
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The dowager empress demanded regular news. The young Marie Antoinette (whose handwriting was awful, as her mother pointed out) was a reluctant correspondent, even when dealing with family members. She sometimes tried to duck out of the obligation by getting someone to write on her behalf, simply adding a signature at the end.
Marie Antoinette wasn’t the most natural of letter writers: she failed to make mundane occupations interesting, and, for the most part, restricted herself to talking about who she had seen, what events had been organised and, occasionally, what she was reading. She did, however, confide to her mother that she found some court activities perplexing. Much of her life had to be lived in the public eye, like the daily ritual of her dressing ceremony. Etiquette at Versailles was more formal than in Austria – and women wore rouge on their cheeks, which she thought indecent.
This was a very unequal correspondence. Respect and affection characterise Marie Antoinette’s letters. On 17 May 1773, she wrote: “You are in Schönbrunn, my dear mama. Would that I could transport myself there! I would follow in your footsteps during your evening walks; I would be better placed to profit from your good advice and to show how my soul is full of respect and tenderness for the best of mothers.”
The queen noted that women wore rouge on their cheeks in the French court, which she thought indecent
Until her death in 1780, Maria Theresa used the exchange to attempt to control her daughter’s behaviour, upbraiding her for buying extravagant jewellery, wearing feathers in her hair, riding or spending time at balls. She sent conflicting messages. Instructed to follow French customs but never to forget her “German” birth, Marie Antoinette is forever bending over backwards to support her compatriots, the “Allemands”.
For instance, in 1782, the queen wrote a short note to the Austrian ambassador, Count Mercy-Argenteau, the Holy Roman Empire’s mouthpiece and the man she turned to in loco parentis when she needed advice. Marie Antoinette told him of the death of a French ambassador which had yet to be announced. A replacement would need to be appointed and so the queen asked Mercy-Argenteau if he might put forward a pro-Austrian suggestion that she could present to her husband as her own: “Let me know, please, what your ideas are regarding the Berlin position. It could be important for the emperor.”
This short missive – the equivalent of a text message nowadays – would have been hand-delivered discreetly by a trusted intermediary. The queen was circulating confidential information but she did so secure in the belief that this served the interests both of her birthland and of France.
When writing to her mother, Marie Antoinette’s letters dwell on any hint of illness. Health is central in many 18th-century correspondences. All too often, if you lived far from your loved ones, news that they were unwell would only arrive after their death. It was therefore important to offer reassurance at all times.
Maria Theresa also monitored any hint of pregnancy. She knew the French crown wanted an heir, and until Marie Antoinette had provided one she could be repudiated. The letters in which the young princess replied to what feels like maternal bullying make painful reading. On 13 October 1771 she wrote poignantly: “You will surely know, dearest mama, of the misfortune of Madame la Duchesse de Chartres, who has just given birth to a stillborn baby. While that is terrible, I would like to be at that point, but there is no appearance of this yet.” The queen’s husband spent little time with her: she partied into the night while he left early to go hunting. They slept in separate rooms and appeared incapable of getting on with starting a family. Marie Antoinette’s brother, Joseph, travelled to Versailles to collect information and give the couple instructions which involved going into minute anatomical detail.
On 30 August 1777, after more than seven years, the young queen could triumphantly announce that she was “in the most essential happiness” as her marriage had finally been consummated. Sixteen months later, she gave birth to her first child, surrounded by court officials. Her body was a matter of state, not just of private life. She would find motherhood fulfilling.
Marie Antoinette was deeply moved by the premature deaths of two of her children. The youngest, Sophie, her “dear little angel”, died of unknown causes in 1787 at 11 months. In June 1789, the royal couple’s elder son, the dauphin, fell victim to skeletal tuberculosis.
The queen really came into her own as a letter-writer during the French Revolution, an event that would turn her life upside down. In October 1789, less than 15 years after Louis XVI inherited the throne, the royal family was exiled from Versailles to Paris, where they lived under surveillance in the Tuileries palace. Their freedoms were now drastically curtailed.
Soon after arriving in the Tuileries, Marie Antoinette set about attempting to reverse the course of the revolution, and to avert what she feared would be a grisly fate for her and her family. Her weapon of choice was her pen. She used her correspondence to activate a political network, attempting to encourage foreign powers to intervene in favour of the French monarchy. But the simple act of sending and receiving letters was fraught with danger. As she was watched closely, the queen went to great lengths to ensure her words were kept safe from prying eyes.
In normal times, wax seals with a coat of arms made it impossible (in theory) for envelopes to be opened without the tampering being obvious. When she was corresponding with émigrés and representatives of foreign powers – which was banned during the revolution – Marie Antoinette made use of tricks reminiscent of spy novels. She hid letters in the lining of boxes or composed them in code. One type of cryptography she practised was what the French call encre sympathique or “sympathetic ink”: you write in lemon juice, and the page looks blank until it is held to a source of heat.
The queen also formulated polyalphabetic codes with certain contacts. A new cipher, based on a specific keyword, was created for every letter. Sender and addressee both owned copies of the same book. The first word of a page whose number figured at the top of the sheet would yield the key for decrypting the letter.
Armies on the march
During these tumultuous times, Marie Antoinette’s main correspondents were men: it was they, after all, who had the power to command armies, raise loans and negotiate treaties. Although she had not had a political education or been briefed to reign, the queen displayed considerable acumen. For instance, she wrote to ambassador Mercy-Argenteau requesting that Austrian troops be sent to Luxembourg, in the summer of 1791, to create a cordon along the frontier: “This movement will give [fiercely royalist French military leader] Monsieur de Bouillé a pretext to get his troops marching and assembled, and to be able to leave Metz with the Swiss and Germans who are there.” She also set out the need for an international congress and envisaged ways of leveraging funds and making a show of military might. All to no avail.
Throughout the revolution the outcast queen expended great energy engaging with people whom she believed might help her cause. These included the French statesman Breteuil and Count Mercy-Argenteau, who both had the ear of foreign monarchs. She also won over the politician Antoine Barnave, who was sent to escort the royal family back to Paris after they were intercepted while attempting to flee the capital in June 1791.
The escape attempt took place at night, with the royal family disguising themselves as members of the entourage of “Baroness Korff” (a role played by the children’s governess, Mme de Tourzel). The king was to be Monsieur Durand, the baroness’s steward; Marie Antoinette was to be the governess; and the little dauphin was disguised as a girl. They were heading for a royalist stronghold called Montmédy on the eastern border of France. They were intercepted at Varennes-en-Argonne and escorted back to the Tuileries by armed guards.
The failed plot to leave Paris had been partly masterminded by the Swedish count Axel von Fersen. He was extremely supportive of the royal family and dearly loved by the queen – some people believe they had a full-blown affair. While the degree of scrutiny to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, and the high moral standards she set herself, make this impossible to confirm, she clearly had strong feelings for Fersen (see opposite page). Redacted passages in their correspondence, thought to have been blacked out by a prudish 19th-century descendant of the Fersens, led to speculation that they might contain evidence that the relationship was not platonic. Modern scientific techniques indicate that Fersen himself suppressed parts of the letters which included information about state secrets or terms of endearment.
The Varennes episode exacerbated the distrust between the monarchy and reformers. The prospect of dialogue now appeared increasingly distant.
Marie Antoinette's parting words
As the royal family’s situation deteriorated during their confinement, Marie Antoinette reflected on the precarious position in her letters. That summer, keenly aware that her life was at risk, she wrote to Count Mercy-Argenteau: “It is in unhappy times that one feels more greatly what one is. My blood runs in my son’s veins and I hope one day he will show himself the worthy grandson of Maria Theresa.” Her last letter to the diplomat, on 4 July 1792, reminds him of his attachment to her mother, the late empress, and asks him to intervene to save her and her family.
Things came to a head on 10 August 1792 when the Tuileries palace was stormed and the royal family forced to take refuge in the National Assembly. They were now jailed in the Temple (a medieval fortress converted into a prison), from where Louis XVI was taken to be tried and executed in January 1793.
Her last note read: 'My eyes have no more tears to cry for you my poor children; farewell!'
In August 1793 Marie Antoinette was removed from the Temple, where she had languished in captivity alongside her sister-in-law and daughter, and placed in solitary confinement, mostly without access to pen and paper, in the Conciergerie prison. Her fate now seemed all but inevitable.
Then, while the queen was in the Conciergerie, a royalist sympathiser, the Chevalier de Rougeville, deliberately dropped a carnation in her cell. At its heart there was apparently a rolled-up piece of paper containing a message which the queen destroyed before attempting to answer it by pricking out a line saying she was under surveillance. We don’t know what the note said but a later transcription, whose accuracy cannot be guaranteed, suggests it read something like: “I am under surveillance. I talk to nobody. I trust you. I will come.” The message was discovered, and in the autumn of 1793 Marie Antoinette was forced to endure a summary trial on (partly) trumped-up charges. On 16 October, she was put to death.
- Read more about the final days of Marie Antoinette
A long testamentary piece, written in the wake of her condemnation, was published a few years after Marie Antoinette’s execution. Addressed to her sister-in-law, it seeks forgiveness from anyone she might have offended and asks her family to be kind and thoughtful, rather than to seek revenge. The queen’s last note, scrawled in a prayer book on the morning of the day she was executed, simply reads: “My Lord, have pity on me! My eyes have no more tears to cry for you my poor children; farewell, farewell!”
Given that it’s more than 200 years since Marie Antoinette wrote these words, we’re incredibly lucky that so many of her original letters survives. These missives give us a clearer view of a remarkable woman. And they allow us to trace that woman’s development: from the teenager who lived in fear of her mother’s rebuffs to the strategist whose suggestions went unheeded by those who might have intervened to avert her fate.
Catriona Seth is Marshal Foch professor of French literature at the University of Oxford. A new drama on Marie Antoinette will arrive on BBC Two on Thursday 29 December 2022 at 9pm, with all episodes available on BBC iPlayer from that date
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine