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Marie Antoinette: History, Life & Fate

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  • 0:02 Perfect Princess
  • 1:21 Life of Luxury
  • 2:46 Turn for the Worse
  • 3:55 The Guillotine
  • 5:18 Legacy
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet Marie Antoinette, the wife of French King Louis XVI. We will get to know Marie Antoinette as we study her early life, her years as the French queen, and her tragic end.

A Perfect Princess

Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna, better known as Marie Antoinette, was born November 2, 1755, to Maria Theresa, the empress of Austria, and François I, the Holy Roman Emperor. As a member of the royal Hapsburg family, the little princess led a carefree life surrounded by luxury. She was educated, as most royal girls of her day, with an emphasis on religion and morality more than academic achievement.

When Marie was 10 years old in 1765, her mother arranged for her marriage to 11-year-old Louis Auguste, the grandson of French King Louis XV. Maria Theresa was seeking a political alliance that would end the rivalry between the Hapsburgs and the French Bourbon dynasty once and for all, and she didn't hesitate to involve her young daughter in the plan.

Marie did not marry immediately, however. At age 13, she received further education, which was designed to give her the knowledge she needed to be a queen. Her tutor described her as 'more intelligent than has been generally supposed,' but 'rather lazy and extremely frivolous.' The blue-eyed, blond-haired, pretty Marie was clearly more interested in being a perfect princess than a future queen.

A Life of Luxury

On May 16, 1770, Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste, ages 15 and 16 respectively, were married. They were polar opposites. He was quite studious and introverted, while she was outgoing, extravagant, and a social butterfly.

When the couple finally ascended to the French throne in 1774, Marie settled into a life of luxury and diversion. She focused her attention on collecting expensive clothing and jewelry, wearing elaborate hairstyles, attending parties, and gambling. The fanciful Petit Trianon at Versailles became her own personal playhouse, complete with winding paths, little streams, grottoes, a glass music salon, a miniature hamlet, and even a working farm. The whole extravagant creation cost two million francs, or, in today's money, six million dollars.

Marie invited many friends to share in her own little world. The king, however, was not usually one of them, for the queen seemed much more interested in her lover, Swedish diplomat Axel von Fersen. Pretty soon, Marie's reputation among the French people had become pretty tattered. The French despised her extravagance while they struggled with starvation, debt, high taxes, and bad harvests. Marie's life of luxury, however, was about to end as events in France took a sharp turn for the worse, at least as far as the monarchy was concerned.

Events Take a Turn for the Worse

In the mid-1780s, Marie's reputation darkened even further when a group of crooks impersonating the queen stole a diamond necklace worth 1.5 million francs. The queen had nothing to do with the crime, but the French believed that she was guilty, and they hated her more than before.

The French Revolution began in 1789, and that October, a mob descended on Versailles, killed several guards, and forcibly brought the royal family, the king and queen and their two children, to the palace of Tuileries in Paris. The indecisive Louis wasn't sure what to do about the situation, so Marie took charge, working hard to rally support for the royal family, guide government officials through the crisis, and preserve her country from what she saw as insanity.

Nothing seemed to work. The Revolution progressed, and the king and queen decided to escape from France. Their attempt, orchestrated by Fersen, failed on June 20, 1791, and the royal family went back to Tuileries, now under guard. The king tried to work with the French assembly. He even promised to uphold the new constitution, but the days of France's monarchy were limited.

To the Guillotine

On August 10, 1792, an angry mob stormed Tuileries. The French Revolution had entered into its radical Reign of Terror, and people were being beheaded right and left. The royal family ended up as prisoners in the Temple Tower, but most people didn't even acknowledge them as royalty anymore. France's National Convention had abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. French leaders were clamoring for the king's execution, and Louis XVI met his fate on the guillotine on January 21, 1793.

Marie was confined to a dark dungeon six weeks later, and after a two-day trial on trumped up charges of treason, adultery, and even incest, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. In reality, French leaders viewed the queen as a liability that needed to be eliminated. Marie faced her death bravely, saying, 'I am calm as people are whose conscience is clear.'

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