Marie Antoinette’s Death: How Did She Die and Why?

The story of Marie Antoinette’s death still fascinates and horrifies. The former French queen was found guilty of treason in October, 1793, and sentenced to death.

Dec 27, 2021By Lauren Nitschke, BA Psychology, GradDip in Secondary Education, GradCert in History
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The tragic end of Marie Antoinette, anonymous artist, 1793, via the British Museum

 

In 1793, four years after the French Revolution began, Marie Antoinette was no longer Queen of France. Her husband, King Louis XVI, had been executed for crimes against France, and she too had been issued the death penalty after a swift trial. Imprisoned, separated from her children, and subjected to humiliation by her captors, it is said that she went to the guillotine willingly. This woman, who had once led such a splendid existence, had been brought low by the hand that fate dealt her. This is the story of Marie Antoinette’s death.

 

Marie Antoinette’s Death: from Beloved Princess to Despised Queen

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Madame Royale Cared for by Doctor Brunier, by Jean-Baptiste Mallet, 1793, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

Marie Antoinette had arrived in France as a young Austrian princess. Her natural grace and charm won the hearts of the French. Yet as the years went by, her reputation was marred by various scandals, some true and others not. Various factors came into play that contributed to Marie Antoinette’s death. Some were her own doing, and others were out of her control.

 

For example, Marie Antoinette’s husband Louis was physically unable to have sex with her until he underwent a minor medical procedure, which led to their union being barren for the first eight years. Frustrated, Marie Antoinette escaped into a life of frivolity, dancing, gambling, and spending money on fashion, to avoid having to face her marital woes. Obviously, this did nothing to endear her to her people.

 

Other factors that made Marie Antoinette hated amongst the populace were cruel slander. Her close female friendships were twisted into lesbian liaisons, and she was even falsely accused of incest. By the time of Marie Antoinette’s death in 1793, she was the most reviled woman in France.

 

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace

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Répresentation Exacte du Grand Collier en Brillants des Srs. Boëhmer et Bassenge, by Nicolas Antoine Taunay, c. 1785, via the Metropolitan Museum

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One of the most damaging scandals that irrevocably turned the tide of French sentiment against Marie Antoinette was the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. While the French queen was innocent, it mattered not. The damage to her already dubious reputation had been done.

 

In 1785, the Comtesse de la Motte conspired to steal a diamond necklace (worth 1.6 million livres) that had been made by Parisian jewelers for King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry. However, the king had died before the piece was completed. The jewelers, who were by this stage in great debt, then tried to sell the necklace to Marie Antoinette, but it was not to her taste.

 

The Comtesse’s plan involved disguising a prostitute as the queen and presenting her to the Cardinal de Rohan, who had fallen out of favor with both Marie Antoinette and her mother, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria. The imposter met with Cardinal de Rohan at night, and told him that if he bought her this necklace then his royal favor would be restored. He agreed to purchase the piece via installments.

 

When the cardinal failed to pay the first installment, the jeweler went to the queen. The entire plan was exposed, and the Comtesse and her accomplices were duly punished. Sadly for Marie Antoinette, despite her innocence in this affair, it merely confirmed in the minds of the populace her reputation for extravagant spending. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was a contributing factor to Marie Antoinette’s death.

 

The March on Versailles

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The Bravery of Parisian Women on October 5, 1789, by Jacques-Phillipe Caresme, 1789, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

The poor women of Paris had had enough by October 5th, 1789. Spurred on by the scarcity of bread, without which they could not feed their families, and rumors of lavish feasts hosted by the royal family for military personnel, they marched on the royal palace at Versailles.

 

A crowd of 7,000 assembled outside the palace and demanded that the royal family return to Paris, a demand to which the king reluctantly agreed. The queen and her family were placed under house arrest at the Tuileries; Marie Antoinette’s death would not happen for another four years after this event.

 

Flight to Varennes and Arrest

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Louis XVI bids farewell to his family the day before his execution, by Eberhard Siegried Henne, c. 1795, via University College London Art Museum

 

On June 20th, 1791, the French royal family tried to flee from Paris. Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and their three children donned disguises, and with the help of Count Axel de Fersen, who was deeply devoted to the queen, they fled the Tuileries at midnight. Their destination was the Austrian Netherlands, some 200 miles away.

 

Marie Antoinette is credited with making a fatal error in judgment regarding the count’s escape plan. He wanted the family to split up and travel in two carriages, thus making the trip faster. The queen insisted that they travel together. This larger carriage was slow and cumbersome, and they missed the rendezvous with their military escort. This fatal decision was a contributing factor to Marie Antoinette’s death.

 

By this stage, news of the royal family’s escape had reached the National Guard, and they were intercepted en route. The royal family was escorted back to Paris under guard, in a journey which took four long days to complete, in stifling hot weather. At one of their overnight stops in a town called La Ferté, both the king and queen were offered avenues of escape from the inn where they were housed. Both refused, instead steadfastly vowing to stay together, no matter what may come.

 

Marie Antoinette’s Imprisonment

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Circular view of the Conciergerie,18th century, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

Marie Antoinette was taken back to the Tuileries, and it was reported that she maintained her dignified, queenly demeanor. Some applauded this, others simply considered it confirmation of her perceived haughtiness. The Queen of France was sent to the Temple on the 13th of August, 1792. Five weeks later, the monarchy was abolished. The royal family was housed in the Temple’s Small Tower, where they still had access to some of the luxuries they were accustomed to — fine food and wine, new clothes, clean sheets, and books to read. The queen was even permitted to have one of her beloved dogs join her in her rooms.

 

The following month, the full horror of the situation was made obvious to Marie Antoinette when her dear friend the Princesse de Lamballe was murdered and her head was paraded on a pike outside the queen’s windows. The queen fainted. Once she recovered, it was reported that she wept for the entire night.

 

In October, 1792, the royal family was moved once again, this time to the Temple’s Great Tower. Their living conditions were still agreeable under the circumstances; their rooms had a flushing toilet and wallpaper, and their food was served on silver. On January 20th, 1793, King Louis XVI of France, having been found guilty of conspiracy with foreign powers by the French National Convention, bid his queen and their children farewell for the last time and was executed by guillotine the following day. Marie Antoinette’s death would come soon enough.

 

Marie Antoinette’s Final Days

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The testament and last words of Marie Antoinette, 1793-1819, via the Metropolitan Museum

 

Marie Antoinette, no longer Queen of France, was now referred to as “the Widow Capet”. Capet was the name of a French royal house that ruled during the medieval period, and it was the one from which her husband was descended. Marie Antoinette was now 37 years of age. By this stage, her health had deteriorated a great deal, as a result of the trauma and grief she had experienced since the French Revolution began.

 

She was thin, her hair was white, and she now dressed in plain black and white clothing. The death of her husband left her in a state of deep melancholy; all she had left now were her children. Her eldest son, the Dauphin, had died of tuberculosis in the year the Revolution began, and one of her daughters had died during infancy. This left her with her younger son, Louis Charles, and her eldest daughter, Marie Thérèse. The former French queen was struck another blow when her son Louis Charles was separated from her, and again when she was removed from her daughter and taken to the Conciergerie on August 2nd, 1793.

 

After a two-day trial, Marie Antoinette was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by guillotine. Prior to this trial, the need for Marie Antoinette’s death had been debated, but now it was decided. On October 16th, 1793, she composed her testament and last words, in which she wrote: “I have just been condemned to death, not to a shameful death, that can only be for criminals… I am calm, as people are whose conscience is clear. My deepest regret is having to abandon our poor children… I only lived for them…”

 

Marie Antoinette’s Death

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The unfortunate Marie Antoinette Queen of France at the place of execution, 1793, via the British Museum

 

On the same day, Marie Antoinette was attended by her maid at 7 o’clock in the morning, who found the former French queen lying on her bed with her hand on her cheek, facing the window. She wore a black dress. Other than a few mouthfuls of broth, she would take no food. At 8 o’clock, she was made to change into a plain white dress, under the watchful eyes of her guards. Then the executioner attended to her and used his scissors to chop off her hair. Marie Antoinette fashioned herself a bonnet to cover her head.

 

Next, her hands were bound behind her back, but she had to ask to be unbound so that she could relieve herself in a corner. By 11 am, the journey to her place of execution began. Marie Antoinette was made to sit on the back of a cart that would take her to her death, and at one point on the journey, the cart jolted and she nearly fell out.

 

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The Queen of Louis XVI at the guillotine, 1793, via the British Museum

 

Finally, the procession reached the Place de la Concorde. Marie Antoinette had to endure jibes and insults from the crowd, but she had become immune to this after her time in prison and she held her head high. Some onlookers described her as a dignified figure, while her enemies accused her of being arrogant even now.

 

As Marie Antoinette ascended the stairs to the scaffold, she accidentally trod on the foot of her executioner. A lady to the very end, she apologized to him; her final words were “I did not do it on purpose.” The former queen of France lost her head at 15 minutes past midday. Marie Antoinette’s death was now complete.

 

Madame Tussaud managed to make a wax sculpture of Marie Antoinette’s face while the grave diggers sat down to eat their lunch. It had been left unattended on the grass, along with her body. Both the head and body were buried in a mass grave.

 

Marie Antoinette was eventually laid to rest in a manner befitting a queen, but it took 22 years for this to occur. She was given a Christian burial during the Bourbon Restoration and to this day she and her king lie with other French royalty in the Basilica of St. Denis, Paris.



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By Lauren NitschkeBA Psychology, GradDip in Secondary Education, GradCert in HistoryLauren is a past teacher of English and History. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, a teaching diploma, and post-graduate qualifications in History. Lauren is a Graduate Historian with the Professional Historians Association of Victoria and Tasmania (Australia). Her areas of special interest include Medieval History and Victorian England. She resides in rural Australia with her family and a multitude of furry friends.