King Louis XV died suddenly of smallpox on 10 May 1774. The future of the monarchy now lay in the hands of the young heir to the throne and his wife. The situation in the country was anything but favourable for a transfer of power. The new king Louis XVI was taking over the reins of a Great Power at a time of crisis which had left France economically drained and politically weakened.
Louis Auguste took the name of Louis XVI. He was just twenty years old when he ascended the throne and wholly overwhelmed by his new duties. As a person he was conscientious and honest, but was also indecisive and rather stolid by nature, lacking self-assurance and kingly authority.
By contrast, Marie Antoinette, the young queen at his side, was regarded as grace itself: charming and partial to any diversion that relieved the rigid routines of courtly life, she became a trend-setter in fashion and lifestyle. She was hugely extravagant with clothes and jewels, and her expenditure on amusements astounded even the court at Versailles which was no stranger to luxury.
With thoughtless lack of concern for diplomacy she openly promoted her favourites and pursued a decidedly pro-Austrian policy. L’Autrichienne, as she was known in contemporary polemical pamphlets, provided a welcome focus for general criticism of the prevailing conditions.
In 1777 Marie Antoinette was visited by her brother, Emperor Joseph II, who as co-regent of Maria Theresa was celebrated across Europe in progressive circles as the epitome of an enlightened ruler. Joseph remained at the French court for two months, having regular talks with his sister and brother-in-law in which they also discussed the urgent issue of their childlessness. On his departure he handed his sister a 30-page document in which he warned Marie Antoinette of the consequences of her thoughtless conduct for public opinion, pointing out that her celebrated youthful charms which presently allowed her to get away with a great deal would soon decay: and then what would happen?
Another result of her elder brother’s visit was the news – which went around the whole of Europe – that the marriage between Marie Antoinette and Louis had at last been consummated in August 1777 after seven years of conjugal life. The exact reason for this delay, which evidently lay with Louis, has still not been satisfactorily explained. Some biographers give physical causes, surmising that Louis was suffering from phimosis which had then been surgically corrected, while others think that the probable reason was extreme inhibition.
Whatever the truth of the matter was, in 1778 Marie Antoinette bore her first child, a daughter who was baptized Marie Thérèse after her grandmother. Other children were to follow. In 1781 the long-awaited male heir was born. Christened Louis Joseph, he died however from bone tuberculosis at the age of seven. The succession now passed to the second son Louis Charles, born in 1785. The youngest daughter Marie Sophie, born in 1786, died in infancy.