Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, September 22, 2008

Marie Antoinette: Part I

My first encounter with Marie Antoinette was when I was eight years old. My grandparents had recently moved to Paris, France and invited my family over for a summer vacation. While there, I visited the Château de Versailles, Le Trianon, Le Petit Trianon and le Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet). I was instantly enraptured, enthralled and awed at the rich history and culture of the French people, not to mention the beautiful queen with towering hair.

Since that first time, I have returned several times to visit the grounds. It is simply one of the most beautiful and enchanting places I have ever been.

Who exactly was the queen that everyone mistakenly quotes as having said, “Let them eat cake?”

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, was born an Austrian Archduchess on November 2, 1755 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Known as Madame Antoine, she was the fifteenth child to be born to Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his Empress, Maria Theresa from the House of Hapsburg.

A lot of how Marie was raised would come through when she later moved to France. In her home life, her parents had changed some of the court rules. For instance, Empress Maria Theresa did not like having the courtiers watch her give birth and banished them from the room, allowing certain people to come to court who otherwise would not be allowed, and being lax on the dress code at court. The family also had a private palaces where none of the courtiers would go. While there they were allowed to dress somewhat less conservatively, play with non-royal children, visit the gardens and menageries, and attend to their studies.

However sadly, because there were so many children, and her mother’s child favorite was Marie’s eldest sister, Archduchess Maria Christina, Marie didn’t receive that great of an education. She could barely read or write in her native language by the time she was twelve years old. She was also not that close with her mother, describing their relationship as one of ‘awe-inspired fear.’

In 1765, when the Emporer died and his eldest son inherited the throne, marriage arrangements were already in place for all of the daughters, to make alliances with surrounding countries. However in 1767, an outbreak of smallpox would drastically alter all of these plans, leaving Marie Antoine to be betrothed the French dauphin, at the age of twelve.

A dowry of 200,000 crowns, jewels, portraits and other memorabilia were placed, and on April 19, 1770, at fourteen years of age, Marie Antoine was married by proxy (her brother stood in as the bride-groom), and her name was restyled to Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France.

Nearly a month later, she met the sixteen year old French dauphin, Louis-Auguste, and the ceremonial wedding and ritual bedding took place on May 16, 1770 at the Château de Versailles.

After the ritual bedding, the couple were supposed to have consummated their marriage, however they did not, and it was a topic of contention in both the French and Austrian court for about seven years. There are several opinions on why the marriage was not consummated. One the couple was simply not attracted to each other and couldn’t be bothered, two, Louis was impotent, three, they were extremely young when they got married, and Marie looked even younger, perhaps they weren’t ready, and four he had a very large penis and she a small vagina which made consummation painful on both ends. Whichever, if any are true, the couple did manage to have four children after they got over their seven years of abstinence.

During that seven years Marie made of the most of her time as queen, having lavish parties, attending balls and operas, gambling, buying expensive clothing, etc... When she had her first child she did settle down a little. All during that time she was devoted to the people and the poor, giving alms, donating to charity, and even adopting a few poor children to be raised among her own. However, the people took little notice of this and rumors often flared. Perhaps because she was of Austrian decent and the French had been at war with Austria, thus not trusting her, or perhaps the people saw and only believed her faults and rumors, she was not so popular among the people.

They pictured her living extravagantly and having numerous affairs with both men and women. These rumors were flared by pornographic pamphlets that were distributed underground.

The king and queen held court at Versailles, and on the grounds

not far from the grand chateau was another, called Le Trianon. This was built by Louis grandfather as a place for the family to get away from court life. Not far from it is Le Petit Trianon, originally built by Louis’s father for his mistress Madame de Pompadour who died before its completion and was then given to Louis XV's next mistress Madame du Barry. Upon his accension to the throne, Louis XVI gave Le Petit Trianon to his then nineteen year old wife to use at her leisure.

Marie Antoinette did use Le Petit Trianon at her leisure and in fact developed a close circle of friends who she entertained there often and lavished with gifts. This made others of the court who had not been invited quite jealous and would end up spreading rumors about the queen to damage her reputation.

Also providing anger to some of the public was Marie’s Hameau de la Reine, or the Queen’s Hamlet, built in 1783. This was a rustic little village built in a secluded area of the park at Versailles near her Petit Trianon, complete with sheep, cows, a farmhouse, twelve cottages, a dairy and mill. It was supposed to represent a peasant village where Marie and her ladies would go dressed as peasants, milkmaids or shepherdesses and play.

I can see where the people would be offended by this, however she did employ several peasants to actually work on the farm, and provided very well for them. (It should also be noted she was not the only royal to build such a play village.)

Around this time she also bought another chateau, which had to be redecorated, and the people were growing more and more angry at the extravagances the queen was lavishing on herself, especially in light of the huge national debt and the people going hungry. Also at this time she became pregnant again giving birth to a second son in 1785. The people speculated that the boy was not even the king’s child.

It was also at this time that the diamond necklace affair too place. What could that possibly be? Sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. Well for all intrigue, mystery, and betrayal it should have been.

Louis XV had commissioned jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge to create a beautiful diamond necklace for his mistress, but he died before purchasing it. The jewelers then went to Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, but they declined. She *gasp* found the necklace too extravagant to spend the money on (It would be worth $100 million today). The people would of course forget that she refused this necklace and several years later it would come to surface again.

A lady of court named Countess de Lamotte, was an impoverished woman. She sought friendships at court that could better her situation, and even became the mistress of one Louis René Édouard de Rohan, Cardinal of France. Rohan had been trying for quite some time to get into the inner circle with the queen, hoping to also then get into the amorous action that was rumored about.

Naturally for Rohan, when Lady Lamotte approached him, and seduced him with her words of being the queen’s lesbian lover he was entranced, and thus ensnared in this harpy’s trap.

Lamotte spread it around that she was the lesbian lover of the queen, and somehow persuaded Rohan with forged letters that the queen wanted him to get her THE diamond necklace, in exchange for personal favor. She even went so far as to have him meet with a prostitute dressed like the queen in the gardens at Versailles who told him to buy the necklace and she would pay him back. Rohan being gullible enough to fall for it, retrieved the necklace on credit and gave it to a valet who was to give it to the queen.

However, the valet turned out to be Lamotte’s husband who then pried the diamonds from the necklace and sold them in Paris. The jewelers started pounding on Rohan’s door who didn’t have the money yet from the queen and so the jewelers sent the queen a letter who promptly ignored their inquiry. Needless to say when another letter arrived the queen paid more attention, and promptly had everyone arrested and insisted on a public trial. Unfortunately her unpopularity was already such that people thought it possible she really did have the necklace, and perhaps she instigated the whole thing. Also at this time the nobles who did not like their queen were trying to assert their own power. They found Rohan not guilty, however he was stripped of his title and banned from court. The Lamottes were sentenced to life in prison and to be branded as thieves, even though the Comte de Lamotte was already in England living lavishly.

After this fatal blow to her reputation, the queen was liked even less by her people, who truly believed she played a part in it.

Within a year Lamotte escaped to London, and there published numerous pamphlets that were distributed in France about her lesbian affair with the queen, which only further damaged Marie Antoinette’s reputation.

Because of her rapidly declining position among the people, and Louis giving her an increasing role in politics led to the decline of his popularity and the faith of the nobles and people in the monarchy. Thus began the French Revolution, which is another entire blog in itself.

As far as the rumor that Marie Antoinette on the eve of the revolution upon hearing her people were starving and had not bread, that she responded, “let them eat cake,” there are several misunderstood issues.

First off, the term was “qu'ils mangent de la brioche,” which does not translate to “let them eat cake,” but rather brioche, which is a type of sweet bun. Second of all, it wasn’t Marie, but in fact has been attributed to Maria Therese of Spain, wife of Louis XIV, nearly 100 years prior.

Proof of this is Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on the quote when Marie Antoinette was only ten years old. Obviously she wasn’t even married then.

Come back this Friday (9/26/08) for Part II of Marie Antoinette.


Kathryn Lake Hogan said...

Great post! Can't wait for Part II.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Kathryn!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Eliza, I share a birthday with Marie Antoinette, and I blogged about her last year on our shared birthday. She's fascinating. Mattel came out with a Marie Antoinette Barbie one year that I absolutely covet but it was like $400!

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Elizabeth!! How fascinating to share your birthday with her!! I'll have to read your blog, I always LOVE reading what you write! They really made a Barbie???? Oh man, I love Barbies... gonna have to start saving my pennies :)

Anonymous said...

I have a completed manuscript, The Queen's Dollmaker, about a London dollmaker who is accused of smuggling money and jewels to the imprisoned Marie Antoinette inside fashion dolls. You might be interested in it when I eventually (hopefully) get it published.

My second WIP is The Duke's Ballerina, about John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset, and his scandalous affair with an Italian ballerina. Sackville was the English Ambassador to King Louis XVI's court, and he was rumored to have had an affair with the Antoinette (of course, who wasn't?). Sackville left Paris at the fall of the Bastille, and later purchased approximately half the diamonds from the infamous necklace that so ruined Marie Antoinette's reputation.

Again, hopefully one day you can read all about it. ;-) Thanks for your post about one of the most fascinating women who ever lived.


Eliza Knight said...

Hi Christine! I would LOVE to read them! Please keep me informed!


Bearded Lady said...

Marie Antoinette is a tough one to tackle. Too many rumors and gossip.

Regarding the Diamond Necklace Affair - The Comtesse de la Motte (I think you have a typo in her name?) certainly lied about her relationship with Marie, but I doubt she would have used lesbian tales to entice Rohan. I believe the Cardinal de Rohan had more of a romantic crush on Marie that would have been sullied by whisperings of Marie’s lesbian lovers. That’s not the kind of pillow talk he wanted to hear.

Of course the pamphleteers had a field day with the lesbian insinuations after the scandal erupted.

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Bearded Lady,

Thank you for your comments. I have seen her name spelled both ways. And I agree that her claims were lies.

There is a great article about how she enticed Rohan at this site:


Whether or not she enticed him with her lesbian tales or not, she certainly did spread it around Europe!


Renee Knowles said...

Great post, Eliza! I loved reading more about this history. Your blog is always a wealth of info!