I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.
I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister…
Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths.
I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed…
I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done me.
-Excerpt from Queen Marie Antoinette’s last letter, written at 4:30am to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth of France, 16 October 1793.
Today we remember Her Most Christian Majesty Queen Marie Antoinette of France and Navarre, guillotined by the radical French Republic on 16 October 1793. May her memory, and that of her martyred son and husband, be eternal!
Born on 2 November 1755 to the Austrian Habsburg monarch Maria Theresa (1717-1780, r. 1740-80), reigning Queen of Hungary and Croatia, Archduchess of Austria, and from 1745-65 de jure Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire, and her husband, Prince Franz Stefan, Duke of Lorraine (1708-1765), Holy Roman Emperor, Princess Maria Antonia, as she was known before her marriage, had a happy and warm childhood. Her mother and father created a warm, informal family life in the royal palace of Schoenbrunn in Vienna centered around their devout Catholic faith.
At the age of 15, in 1770, Maria Antonia became Dauphine (Crown Princess) of France upon her marriage to the Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France (1754-1793), favourite grandson and heir of the ailing King Louis XV of France of the Bourbon dynasty.
Upon her husband’s accession to the French throne as Louis XVI on 10 May 1774, when she was only 18, Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre.
Denied any real political influence, Marie turned her attentions to fashion, arranging elaborate parties and banquets, card games, and gardening. She established a friendship through letter correspondence with Queen Charlotte of Great Britain, consort of King George III.
The royal couple were widely ridiculed by the French public for their failure to produce an heir; Marie Antoinette’s brother the Emperor of Austria Joseph II even weighed in on their marital problems, as did their mother Empress Maria Theresa, who gave her daughter rather forward advice on how best to begin a normative sexual life with her husband the King. Finally, reportedly after a small surgical correction (possibly circumcision) the King and Queen began to enjoy a normal married life. After eight years of marriage, the Queen at last gave birth to a daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte (1778-1851), the first of her four children, and in 1781 to a son and heir, the Dauphin Louis Joseph (d. 1789). In 1785 she gave birth to a son who would survive Louis XVI by several years, Louis Charles (d. 1795, r. de jure as Louis XVII from 1793-95).
Within the Kingdom of France, a growing number of the population eventually came to dislike her, accusing L’Autrichienne, “the Austrian woman” (a nickname given Marie Antoinette upon her arrival to France by Louis XV’s hostile daughters,Mesdames de France), of being profligate, promiscuous, and of harbouring sympathies for France’s enemies, particularly Austria, her country of origin. The Diamond Necklace affair further damaged her reputation. The Queen later became known as Madame Déficit because France’s financial crisis was blamed on her lavish spending and her perceived opposition to the social and financial reforms of the more liberal-minded ministers Turgot and Necker. To counter anti-monarchical sentiment which focused particularly on the Queen’s alleged (but false) extramarital affairs and financial irresponsibility, Versailles royal portraitists released several paintings of the Queen with her children, showing her as a faithful wife and devoted mother.
During the French Revolution, after a mob of angry Parisian women (and armed men) stormed the Palace of Versailles in October 1789 — attempting to kill the Queen and slaughtering the royal Swiss Guards — the revolutionary government placed the royal family under house arrest in the Paris Tuileries Palace.
Several events linked to Marie Antoinette, in particular the royal family’s bungled June 1791 attempt to flee to Varennes, and her perceived support for Austria against the revolutionary government, had disastrous effects on French popular opinion: over a year later, on 10 August 1792, the attack on the Tuileries forced the royal family to take refuge at the National Assembly.
On 13 August 1792, the family was imprisoned — ostensibly for their own safety from the mob calling for their heads — in the Temple. On 21 September 1792, Louis XVI was formally deposed as King and the monarchy declared abolished. Around this time, Marie Antoinette said to one of her close friends, Madame Campan:
… If the factions assassinate me … it will be a fortunate event for me; they will deliver me from a most painful existence… I am his wife; I will not suffer him to incur the smallest risk without my sharing it.
The increasingly radical revolutionaries wondered what to do with the man they considered an “ex-king”: Should he be sent into exile, perhaps to America? Should he be kept a prisoner for life? Should he be killed? What about a trial? Leading Jacobin anti-monarchists such as Robespierre and Saint Just called for the immediate execution of Louis, with some urging the assembly not to try him at all, but kill him without trial. The verdict was a foregone conclusion: the radical majority of revolutionaries in the National Assembly convicted the King of treason against the French Republic on 20 January (despite the fact that Louis XVI had never sworn loyalty to it or acknowledged the abolition of the monarchy). They sent Louis XVI to the guillotine on 21 January 1793. As this account notes, the King went to his death with great calm and noble dignity, pardoning all those who took part in it and praying that France might be spared further political violence:
My account is based on that left by Fr. Henry Essex Edgeworth, an English man and the priest who accompanied the King, when he journeyed through Paris on that final morning.
King Louis XVI leaves his sorrowing family.
King Louis XVI says farewell to his family.
On January 20 1793 King Louis XVI was sentenced to death by the National Convention. The execution was scheduled to take place on the following morning. That evening the King was allowed to spend some time with his family, in order to take his leave. He explained to his sorrowing children what was going to happen on the following day. He asked his young son and heir, Prince Louis Charles, not to try to take revenge on the French people. When he left his weeping offspring to return to his own room, he told them that he would come back to see them in the morning. He knew that would not be possible, but he felt it would be comforting for them to feel that he might.
The last journey of a King of France.
On the following morning the King was up at 5 AM. At eight o’clock a guard of 1200 soldiers arrived to escort him to the place of execution. He was brought there in a closed carriage. There was little conversation between the King and the priest, as they were accompanied in the carriage by two gendarmes. Louis just asked his companion to point out various psalms, from the prayer book which he was carrying. The two guards appeared to be very impressed by the dignity and fortitude of their prisoner. They had never been in such close proximity to the King before. The journey to the scaffold lasted for about two hours and the streets were lined all the way by armed citizens of the new Republic. The carriage was also surrounded by the troops and drummers were marching alongside, with the intention of drowning out any cries of sympathy there might be for the unfortunate monarch. All the houses appeared empty and there were no faces appearing at any of the windows. All the activity was in the streets, where the populace were all rushing forward to the great square, to witness the completion of the crime. Whether they all approved it is not known.
Eventually the sad cavalcade arrived at the Place Louis XV, where the instrument of execution was set up. This huge square was shortly to be renamed the Place de la Revolution and is now known as the Place de la Concorde. The guillotine, that Louis XVI was executed on, was in the centre of the square. Thousands of the victims of the illusion of liberty were to follow him to their deaths, on it’s blood-soaked timbers in the following years.
When the king noticed that the carriage had stopped, he addressed himself to the two guards, regarding the priest.
‘I recommend to you this good man; take care that after my death no insult be offered to him – I charge you to prevent it.’
Right up till the end, this good man always showed concern for other people.
The execution of King Louis XVI.
When he disembarked from the carriage, he was surrounded by three guards who attempted to seize him in order to take off his garments. The King royally dismissed them and took his own coat and neckerchief off and arranged the collar of his shirt. For a moment, the soldiers were disconcerted by this show of spirit but they soon recovered and surrounded him again. This time it was in order to bind his hands.
‘What are you attempting?’ said the King, drawing back his hands. ‘To bind you,’ answered the wretches. ‘To bind me,’ said the King, with an indignant air. ‘No! I shall never consent to that: do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me. . .’
They gave up the attempt after that.
The pathway to the guillotine was very rough and the priest feared that his King might stumble on the way to his death. King Louis XVI, however, walked resolutely forward and straight up the steps to the awaiting blade. He marched directly across the platform and silenced, with a look alone, the drummers who were standing at the base of the scaffold. Then, in a voice that seemed loud enough to be heard all over the city, he addressed the crowd. These were the final words of this King of France to his people.
“I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”
He was attempting to proceed when an officer on horseback screamed at the drummers to start beating. They immediately commenced and any further words King Louis XVI might have been trying to say were drowned out.
Many voices in the crowd could be heard encouraging the executioners to perform their task. It was but the work of a few moments, to hustle the King into position and take off his head with one blow from the guillotine. For a moment, a hush fell over the throngs of people. But when one of the soldiers took the head of the dead king and showed it to them, they commenced cheering and throwing their hats in the air.
Thus died the saint and martyr King Louis XVI. His very last thoughts were for the welfare of the people who were murdering him. Remember this on the 14th of July (Bastille Day).
Marie Antoinette, kept afterwards in a state of close guard with no privacy, deeply mourned her husband. By this time her once-splendid hair had turned white from stress.
It was only a matter of time before the hatred and fury of the radical revolutionaries returned to the person of the hated Queen. Shortly after the King’s murder, she was removed from her children, and imprisoned in a dank and foul-smelling room in Paris’ Conciergerie prison. In October 1793 she was charged with treason against the Republic and conspiring with Austria (her late brother Leopold II had been, and his son Francis II, her nephew, was now the reigning Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor). She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defense.
After a two-day trial begun on 14 October 1793, during which even the women of Paris (who hated her) felt her inquisitors went too far by forcing her son Louis XVII to testify against his mother and accuse her of molesting him, Marie Antoinette was convicted by the revolutionary tribunal of treason. When asked what her response was to the charges against her, the Queen ignored them, except the charge of incest with her own son, which she vehemently and eloquently denied:
I thought that human nature would excuse me from answering such an imputation, but I appeal from it to the heart of every mother here present.
Like her husband before her, Marie Antoinette was allowed no appeal. Her jailers refused her request to see her children one last time, so she spent her last hours in prayer and writing this letter to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth, who would ultimately follow the Queen to the guillotine in 1794*:
16th October, 4.30 A.M.
It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.
I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister. You who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you! I have learned from the proceedings at my trial that my daughter was separated from you. Alas! poor child; I do not venture to write to her; she would not receive my letter.
I do not even know whether this will reach you. Do you receive my blessing for both of them. I hope that one day when they are older they may be able to rejoin you, and to enjoy to the full your tender care. Let them both think of the lesson which I have never ceased to impress upon them, that the principles and the exact performance of their duties are the chief foundation of life; and then mutual affection and confidence in one another will constitute its happiness. Let my daughter feel that at her age she ought always to aid her brother by the advice which her greater experience and her affection may inspire her to give him. And let my son in his turn render to his sister all the care and all the services which affection can inspire. Let them, in short, both feel that, in whatever positions they may be placed, they will never be truly happy but through their union. Let them follow our example. In our own misfortunes how much comfort has our affection for one another afforded us! And, in times of happiness, we have enjoyed that doubly from being able to share it with a friend; and where can one find friends more tender and more united than in one’s own family? Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths.
I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed. Having no spiritual consolation to look for, not even knowing whether there are still in this place any priests of that religion (and indeed the place where I am would expose them to too much danger if they were to enter it but once), I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness, He will mercifully accept my last prayers, as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy. I have to speak to you of one thing which is very painful to my heart, I know how much pain the child must have caused you. Forgive him, my dear sister; think of his age, and how easy it is to make a child say whatever one wishes, especially when he does not understand it. It will come to pass one day, I hope, that he will better feel the value of your kindness and of your tender affection for both of them. It remains to confide to you my last thoughts. I should have wished to write them at the beginning of my trial; but, besides that they did not leave me any means of writing, events have passed so rapidly that I really have not had time.
I beg pardon of all whom I know, and especially of you, my sister, for all the vexations which, without intending it, I may have caused you. I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done me. I bid farewell to my aunts and to all my brothers and sisters. I had friends. The idea of being forever separated from them and from all their troubles is one of the greatest sorrows that I suffer in dying. Let them at least know that to my latest moment I thought of them.
Farewell, my good and tender sister. May this letter reach you. Think always of me; I embrace you with all my heart, as I do my poor dear children. My God, how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Farewell! farewell! I must now occupy myself with my spiritual duties, as I am not free in my actions. Perhaps they will bring me a priest; but I here protest that I will not say a word to him, but that I will treat him as a total stranger.
Following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Louis XVI’s brother King Louis XVIII ordered his late brother and sister-in-law buried in a magnificent tomb befitting their royal status. Here they lie to this day. May God have mercy on them, remember them in His Kingdom, and one day restore the Bourbon monarchy in France:
Mort à la République! Mort aux les traîtres républicaines! Mort à la Révolution! Mort à le drapeau tricolore! Mort aux tyrans! Mort à Robespierre et Saint-Just! Mort aux Jacobins! Vive la monarchie de France! Vive le roi et la reine de France! Vive la liberté!
*Tried before the revolutionary tribunal and accused of being “the sister of a Tyrant”, Princess Elisabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, responded: “If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am!”. She was convicted, and guillotined the following day.
- Castelot, André (1957). Queen of France: a biography of Marie Antoinette. trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Harper & Brothers. OCLC 301479745.
- Cronin, Vincent (1989). Louis and Antoinette. London: The Harvill Press.ISBN 978-0-00-272021-2.
- Fraser, Antonia (2001). Marie Antoinette (1st ed.). New York: N.A. Talese/Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-48948-5.
- Fraser, Antonia (2002). Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2nd ed.). Garden City: Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-385-48949-2.
- Goodman, Dena (2003). Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. Routledge: New York, NY.
- Hermann, Eleanor (2006). Sex With The Queen. Harper/Morrow. ISBN 0-06-084673-9.
- Hibbert, Christopher (2002). The Days of the French Revolution. Harper Perennial.ISBN 0-688-16978-3.
- Lanser, Susan S. (2003). “Eating Cake: The (Ab)uses of Marie-Antoinette”. In Goodman, Dena. Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-93395-7.
- Lever, Évelyne (2006). Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. London: Portrait. ISBN 978-0-7499-5084-2.
- Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
- Seulliet, Philippe (July 2008). “Swan Song: Music Pavillion of the Last Queen of France”. World Of Interiors (7).
- Weber, Caroline (2007). Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. Picador. ISBN 978-0-312-42734-4.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary (1795). An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe. St. Paul’s.
Recommended further reading:
- Bashor, Will (2013). Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution. Lyons Press. p. 320. ISBN 978-0762791538.
- Lasky, Kathryn (2000). The Royal Diaries: Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles: Austria-France, 1769. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-439-07666-1.
- Loomis, Stanley (1972). The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen and the flight to Varennes. London: Davis-Poynter. ISBN 978-0-7067-0047-3.
- MacLeod, Margaret Anne (2008). There Were Three of Us in the Relationship: The Secret Letters of Marie Antoinette. Irvine, Scotland: Isaac MacDonald. ISBN 978-0-9559991-0-9.
- Naslund, Sena Jeter (2006). Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-06-082539-3.
- Romijn, André (2008). Vive Madame la Dauphine: A Biographical Novel. Ripon: Roman House. ISBN 978-0-9554100-2-4.
- Thomas, Chantal (1999). The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette. Trans. Julie Rose. New York: Zone Books. ISBN 978-0-942299-40-3.
- Vidal, Elena Maria (1997). Trianon: A Novel of Royal France. Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press. ISBN 978-0-911845-96-9.
- Zweig, Stefan (2002). Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-3909-2.