Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

William Nuitter: The Storming of the Bastille, after a painting by Henry Singleton, stipple engraving, 1.3.1792

On 14 July 1789 an armed mob stormed the Bastille, a medieval fortress used as a state prison that was a symbol of royal tyranny. This was the signal for a general uprising.

It is through suffering that one comes truly to know oneself.

Marie Antoinette, 1792

William Nuitter: The Storming of the Bastille, after a painting by Henry Singleton, stipple engraving, 1.3.1792

The shock of this event sent the court at Versailles into a state of paralysis. Within just a few weeks the centuries-old system of the ancien régime had collapsed. Marie Antoinette remained the primary focus of popular hatred. When a furious mob led by Parisian market women marched out to Versailles on 5 October 1789, Marie Antoinette was their target. Armed citizens forced their way into the apartments of the queen, who managed to get away to the king’s suite at the last moment. In order to calm the situation Louis promised the delivery of supplies of food. Subsequently the royal family was forced to leave Versailles and was taken to Paris in a triumphal procession.
There the royal couple resided in the Tuileries. Louis sank into apathy, while Marie Antoinette became extremely active. She started communicating secretly with foreign allies in the mistaken belief that her resolve would enable her to change the course of events at the last moment.
Priority was given to the scheme to escape from the clutches of the revolutionary forces. On 20 June 1791, on the initiative of Marie Antoinette, the royal family attempted to flee. With support from royalist sympathizers and organized by Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s confidant, the plan was to take the family over the border in a coach. But the conspicuous vehicle with its mysterious occupants aroused suspicions and when they changed horses at Varennes they were recognized. The family was brought back to Paris as prisoners in a humiliating procession. The nimbus of inviolability that had hitherto surrounded the king’s person had been destroyed once and for all.
When war broke out between France and Austria in the spring of 1792, Marie Antoinette was finally discredited in public opinion as a counter-revolutionary who had acted against the interests of the people with the aid of the foreign enemy. Military defeats destabilized the situation in the country, anti-revolutionary forces gathered and civil war threatened. This brought radicalization in its wake: on 10 August 1792 the royal palace was stormed and on 21 September the monarchy was abolished. The royal family was now imprisoned in the Temple, a fortified former monastery in Paris. Late in 1792 the trial for high treason began against the king, ending in his execution on 21 January 1793.
Soon afterwards Marie Antoinette was also brought before a revolutionary tribunal. The proceedings, which began on 14 October 1793, were nothing more than a show trial, the verdict a foregone conclusion. She was arraigned for high treason and accused of moral transgressions, including incestuous relations with her son. The latter indictment was based on manipulated statements made by the former crown prince. That Marie Antoinette could be considered capable of that sort of conduct shows the influence on public opinion of the defamatory pamphlets against the queen. The calm and resolute manner in which the Widow Capet, as Marie Antoinette was now called after the loss of her royal title, defended herself made a considerable impression on the tribunal and refuted the most outrageous of the accusations, but was not able to prevent her conviction.
The trial lasted two days and ended in a death sentence which was to be carried out without delay. Her hair shorn, Marie Antoinette was taken through the streets of Paris on a tumbril. According to eye-witness accounts, she preserved her dignity and composure to the last. She died under the guillotine on 18 October 1793, aged thirty-seven.
Her corpse was initially buried in an anonymous grave. Decades later it was exhumed and interred in Saint-Denis, the traditional burial ground of the French kings, by the side of her husband.
Her son Louis Charles died two years after his mother at the age of ten in unexplained circumstances. Her surviving daughter Marie Thérèse remained a prisoner until 1795 and was then taken to exile in Austria in exchange for French prisoners of war. There Madame royale, the symbol of Bourbon restoration, died childless at Schloss Frohsdorf in Lower Austria in 1851.

Martin Mutschlechner