When Marie Antoinette was born, it seemed that her path in life was set, and a glittering path it was too. Yet, the wheel of fortune turned radically for this woman, who was an Austrian archduchess by birth and the French queen by marriage. Marie Antoinette’s life was one marred by scandal and the political machinations of a country she had long struggled to understand. This led to Marie Antoinette’s death, which was one of the most ignominious in history. Read on to discover seven facts about this woman, from the sweet and salacious to the downright sad.
1. Marie Antoinette Had an Idyllic Childhood
As far as childhoods go, it is fair to say that from all accounts Marie Antoinette’s was idyllic. Marie Antoinette (born Maria Antonia, and known affectionately by the family as ‘Antoine’) was the last of her mother’s fifteen children, and what a mother she was — Maria Teresa, the Empress of Austria. Maria Teresa was at the height of her powers and happiness when Marie Antoinette was born. She spent many happy years at Schonbrunn Palace with the stern yet loving Empress, her congenial father, Emperor Francis I, and her many siblings.
According to biographer Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette enjoyed the splendid parks and gardens of Schloss Schonbrunn and Laxenburg (the family’s holiday residence, where the young archduchess learned to appreciate the simpler things in life). The young archduchess embraced equestrian pursuits and whiled away the colder months sledding in a swan-shaped sleigh, dressed in fine furs.
Paintings of the happy family from this time depict them with their beloved pet dogs, enjoying each other’s company in informal settings, and enjoying pastimes such as dancing and music. These childhood experiences would shape Marie Antoinette’s adult life and her years as the Queen of France — for better or worse.
2. Her Hair is the Subject of Enduring Fascination
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Her name conjures up images of big dresses and even bigger hair. This is of little wonder given the numerous portraits and paintings of Marie Antoinette that show her infamous style. Her pouf, adorned with flowers, feathers, and jewels, was her signature look. Marie Antoinette’s hair was said to be ash-blonde in extreme youth, then turned light brown as a young woman. Unfortunately, after her first pregnancy, her thick locks fell out and grew back fine and wispy. Marie Antoinette turned to her own personal hairdresser, Leonard Autie, to tend to her forlorn tresses.
The solution was simple; the queen began to wear wigs. Autie adorned them with tulle, ribbon, flowers, feathers, and so on. At one point, Marie Antoinette’s pouf measured four feet high. The queen’s wigs were said to have been powdered white with flour. Given that her people were starving due to grain shortages, this seems to have been a major political blunder on her part.
And speaking of politics — the French queen started a fashion trend of wearing ornaments in her wigs in keeping with a particular theme. For example, Autie created waves of hair then perched a model ship atop these waves to celebrate a French naval victory. Sadly for this tragic woman, the last haircut she ever had was just prior to her beheading when her tresses were roughly hacked off with shears by her executioner before she was led to the guillotine.
It was said that her hair had turned white overnight due to the shock of her predicament. While modern-day scientists do not believe that this is possible, the sudden whitening of one’s hair in the modern era is referred to by doctors as ‘Marie Antoinette Syndrome’.
3. Marie Antoinette Was a Teetotaller
Despite being constantly surrounded by alcohol, Marie Antoinette did not imbibe, other than to take an occasional sip of Champagne. Rather, she was fond of special water brought in from Ville d’Avray, lemonade, and drinking chocolate.
The French queen was so fond of drinking chocolate that she brought her own chocolatier with her from Vienna to Versailles when she married the future Louis XVI.
This man was known at the Royal Court as “chocolate maker to the Queen” and his specialty was drinking chocolate infused with almond and orange blossom.
4. She Gave Birth in Public
The Sun King, Louis XIV, decreed that all French queens and princesses should give birth in public, to assure that the child was legitimate and that no imposters could be inserted into the royal crib. Therefore, when Marie Antoinette finally produced a child after eight barren years of marriage to Louis XVI (due to both a physiological impairment and a lack of knowledge on her husband’s part), all of Versailles showed up to watch the big event. It was even said that two chimney sweeps clambered up on top of some furniture to get a better view of the action, which took place on the 9th of December, 1778. All of the bodies in the Queen’s Bedroom, plus the general chaos, caused the room to overheat and Marie Antoinette fainted.
Louis was the man of the hour. Having the good sense to realize that his queen was in desperate need of fresh air, he used his large frame to push his way through to the windows and threw open the shutters, which had previously stopped up due to the draughtiness of the room. Once the cold air entered the chamber, the Queen was revived and she gave birth to their first child, Marie Therese, named in honor of her mother and nicknamed ‘Madame Royale’.
It was said that Marie Antoinette’s mother insisted the windows at Schonbrunn Palace be kept open even during winter, believing the frigid air to have a restorative effect. Perhaps on some subconscious level, Marie Antoinette was transported back to her time in her mother’s care, enough to revive her flagging body.
5. She Loved Jewelry
An inspection of the portraiture of Marie Antoinette completed prior to the French Revolution often shows her bedecked with glittering jewelry. She was particularly fond of diamonds and pearls. According to biographer Antonia Fraser, she brought some “fine white diamonds” with her from Vienna to Versailles, yet it was as Dauphine and then Queen of France that her jewelry collection really took off.
When she arrived at Versailles, Marie Antoinette was given a necklace of large pearls, which was a family heirloom reserved for the new Dauphine; a diamond-encrusted fan, which was a gift from the King, Louis XV; a bracelet with her cipher “M.A.”, ornamented in diamonds; and the piece de resistance, a parure of diamonds. Marie Antoinette’s jewelry collection grew over the years, many items of which went to auction at Sotheby’s in 2018, sold by the Bourbon Parma family.
One of her final acts as queen was to have her collection packed for safe-keeping just prior to her family’s failed attempt to flee France. The jewels ended up with her daughter, Marie Therese, who was the only member of the family to survive the French Revolution. Marie Therese had no children of her own, so she bequeathed the jewels to her relations, the Bourbon Parma women.
Perhaps Marie Antoinette’s love of bling stemmed from her mother, Empress Maria Teresa, whose own personal tastes were quite different. She once stated that the bounty which came from the East—lacquers, tapestries, and mirrors—were of far greater value to her than “all the diamonds in the world”. It would seem that the young Dauphine was utterly entranced by the glittering jewels of the French Court, the likes of which she had never seen in Vienna.
6. Marie Antoinette Was the Victim of a Smear Campaign
In other versions of this etching, the caption states that it is the passport of a Russian baroness, in reference to Marie Antoinette adopting a false identity when trying to flee from France. The leopard’s spots were supposed to indicate that the queen cannot change her ways despite her new identity. Also, note the snakes in Marie Antoinette’s hair. The artist has done this to liken her to Medusa, who in the ancient Greek myth was deadly to anyone who looked upon her.
This image is just one of many examples where Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI were portrayed as being greedy, stupid, and immoral. Louis was often portrayed as a pig or riding a pig. It was not only printed propaganda, such as a cartoon depicting the queen in a lesbian tryst with her friend, the Duchesse de Polignac, that smeared the Queen’s reputation in France. Many songs were sung about her too. Perhaps the most damaging was a song that implied that she had an incestuous relationship with her own son Louis Charles, the Dauphin.
Marie Antoinette was perhaps the biggest victim of propaganda in history. She may not have been perfect, and she may have been pleasure-loving and ignorant, but the way she was portrayed in these pamphlets and songs was untrue. However, the fact that much of it was based on lies was irrelevant. The tide of public opinion was turned against Marie Antoinette irrevocably as a result of this intensive smear campaign. Marie Antoinette’s death was now on the horizon.
7. Marie Antoinette’s Death Was Tragic
Marie Antoinette’s death is arguably one of the most well-known in modern history. Nine months after her husband, the King, was executed by beheading on the guillotine, it was Marie Antoinette’s turn. During her final days in prison, she conducted herself with dignity and courage, and prior to her death, she was stalwart in her belief that she had been wronged, given that her husband and her beloved children had been taken away from her.
On the 16th of October, 1793, three years after the French Revolution had begun, Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, made her way to the guillotine in front of a large crowd. As she ascended the stairs to the guillotine, she accidentally trod on her executioner’s foot. A true lady to the very end, she apologized to him. At 12.15 pm, the last Queen of France’s head was sliced cleanly from her body, and Marie Antoinette’s death was complete. Her severed head and body were unceremoniously dumped next to her open grave at the Rue d’Anjou while the grave-diggers stopped work for lunch. It was just long enough for one Madame Tussaud to sculpt the hapless Queen’s face in wax, thus preserving Marie Antoinette’s death mask for posterity.