Did Marie Antoinette Give Birth in Public?

Marie Antoinette had to give birth to her first child in front of a huge public crowd, but the experience did not go well.

Aug 15, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
did marie antoinette give birth in public


In one of the most unusual traditions in history, royal queens customarily gave birth in front of huge crowds. The bizarre and cruel trend arose in order for witnesses to ensure the baby was safely delivered, and that there was no trickery or scandal taking place. French Queen consort Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child in front of a swarm of 200 people at the palace of Versailles, including princesses, dukes, countesses, and royal staff. However, the experience was so horrifying for her that her subsequent three births were a far more private affair. 


Marie Antoinette Was Expected to Give Birth in Public

louis xiv portrait
Portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1700, via the Louvre


French King Louis XIV, known as ‘The Sun’, issued a decree to ensure all queens and princesses should give birth in public. He instilled the rule in order to ensure that a legitimate royal child was being born, and to make sure no imposter child could be placed in the royal household. Witnesses were also present in order to confirm the sex of the baby, at a time when only sons were allowed to continue the leadership of the throne. Marie Antoinette was expected to follow the same tradition as her ancestors, whether or not she actually wanted to. 


Her First Birth Was Attended by Huge Crowds

marie antoinette with children
Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun


One of the reasons why Marie Antoinette’s first birth was such a popular event was because her child had been a long time coming. In fact, it was eight years into her marriage to King Louis XVI before the queen conceived a child, making the final arrival of the new royal a hotly anticipated occurrence. When news broke of her first birth in 1778, a huge swarm of up to 200 onlookers from the palace of Versailles gathered to watch as the long-awaited royal baby was born.


One chambermaid gave a shocking account of the build up to the great event, noting, “When the obstetrician said aloud, ‘The Queen is going to give birth!’, the persons who poured into the chamber were so numerous that the rush nearly killed the Queen.” She even described how two chimney sweeps “climbed up onto the furniture for a better sight.” 

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The Birth Did Not Go Well

Portrait of Marie Therese Charlotte first daughter of Marie Antoinette by Adolf Ulrich Wertmuller 1786
Portrait of Marie Therese Charlotte, first daughter of Marie Antoinette, by Adolf Ulrich Wertmuller, 1786


The crush of people was only the beginning of Marie Antoinette’s problems during her traumatic birth. In fact, she was in labor for twelve hours before the baby was born. Following the birth, she collapsed and had a convulsive fit. The chambermaid described how the oppressive atmosphere had led to the queen’s subsequent collapse, noting, “the arrival of the inquisitives… sucked the air out of the Queen’s bed chamber, which then caused the room to become hot and stifling. Blood rushed to the queen’s head, and she fainted. For a moment everyone thought she had died.”


Her collapse meant she did not find out the gender of her baby for a full hour after giving birth. While the public had hoped for a boy, the Queen was reportedly delighted with her baby girl, Marie-Therese, as a record of her first words to her new baby prove: “You shall be mine; you shall have my undivided care, shall share all my happiness, and console me in my troubles.”


Subsequent Births Were More Private

Portrait of Louis Joseph Xavier Francois first son of Marie Antoinette by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller 1784
Portrait of Louis Joseph Xavier Francois, first son of Marie Antoinette, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, 1784


Given the traumatic nature of her first birth, the King changed the rules surrounding Marie Antoinette’s subsequent three birthing experiences. While she still had an audience of onlookers made up of trusted ministers and advisors during each of her following births to Louis Xavier Francois, Louis XVII, and Sophie Helene Beatrix the spectators were far fewer, resulting in a much easier and more straightforward experience for the Queen.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.