Saturday, July 14, 2012

Happy Bastille Day! In Remembrance of Marie Antoinette

Young Marie Antoinette
On this Bastille Day 2012, I would like to comment on one of the most celebrated victims of the French Revolution--Queen Marie Antoinette. The newest movie  about the legendary French Queen by director Benoit Jacquot  recounts the last days of the royal family in Versailles starting on July 14, 1789 the day of the storming of the Bastille.  It escalated on October 5, 1789 when an angry and hungry mob of Parisians marched to Versailles demanding the return of the royal family to Paris.  Since her unfortunate demise, Marie Antoinette has been the subject of many books, movies, plays and even a Japanese manga.  The fascination for the queen is stronger than ever 271 years after her decapitation. While today she is viewed by many authors and historians as a modern, liberated women who tried to change the rigid conventions of the French court, in her times she was reviled by the French populace who considered her as a hedonistic and frivolous spender with an "immoral" life-style. Her life as a princess and subsequently queen was a  fairy tale that ended tragically.  Here are some key dates that marked the life of Marie Antoinette.

Born on November 2, 1775 Maria Antonia of Austria led a charming and idyllic childhood in Vienna's Hofburg Palace.  Born into a family of ten children, she was the youngest of daughters of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria Theresa.

Marriage of Dauphin and Marie Antoinette
To preserve the alliance of France and Austria forged after the Seven Year War, Maria Antonia was married at 12 years of age to Louis August, Dauphin of France first by proxy in 1763 . Three years later, she was sent to to France to live at the French Court. The princess and the dauphin were married in a lavish ceremony in Versailles Palace on May 16, 1770.  She was now called Marie Antoinette.

At first the Dauphine received a warmed welcome by the French people who were charmed by her beauty and personality. When she visited Paris for the first time in 1773, a massive crowd came to cheer her. However, many in the French court disliked her and most notably the Contesse du Barry,  favorite of Louis XV.

In 1775 King Louis XV dies of smallpox and his grand son Louis August is crown King Louis XVI in Reims.
Madame Vigier le Brun

After 8 years of marriage, Marie Antoinette gives birth to a daughter Marie Therese Charlotte, also called Madame Royale.  In 1781, a son Louis Xavier Francois is born and was heir to the throne. He will unfortunately die of tuberculosis at the age of 8 in June 1789.  A second son Louis Charles was born is 1785, the future Louis XVII. Finally a baby sister Sophie Helene Beatrice de France  was born in July 1786 but died 11 months later.

Marie Antoinette suffered from poor reputation. Many pamphlets and libels portrayed her as a dissolute, adulterous, empty headed, frivolous, spendthrift..  In truth, she did spend excessive amount of money on clothes, jewelry and gambling.  Around 1785 she was the victim of a bizarre and scabrous swindle that tarnished even more her reputation. At the center of the affaire, was a diamond necklace which had been commissioned by Louis XV for his favorite Madame du Barry.  It was was elaborate in design and consisted in 647 diamonds.  A con-artist Jeanne de Lamotte Valois constructed a plan whereby she persuaded the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace on behalf of the queen who was too embarrassed to ask her husband Louis so expensive a present. Jeanne de Lamotte's lover Retaux de Villette forged letters supposedly from the queen imploring the Cardinal to buy the necklace.  The Cardinal who wanted to return to the good graces of the queen, acquired the necklace and delivered it to an impostor disguised as the queen.  In the hands of thieves, the necklace was smuggled to England where it was taken apart and sold piece by piece. When the jewelers demanded payment to the queen, the queen had no idea what they were talking about.  Livid, she demanded that the Cardinal de Rohan be arrested and stand trial. He was acquitted by parliement against the wishes of the king. Though innocent, Marie Antoinette was considered by the public the guilty one.

Marie Antoinette at the
On October 5, 1789 the royal family returned to the Tuileries Palace where they were  held hostage.  After a failed attempt to escape in 1790 the king and his family were returned to the Tuileries where they stayed until  1792 when the monarchy was abolished on 21 of September.   The king, queen and their two children were then imprisoned in the sinister Temple prison.  Found guilty of treason, the King is executed on January 21, 1793 on Place de la Revolution, today Place de la Concorde in front of an estimated crowd of 20,000.  In the summer of 1793 Marie Antoinette is taken to the Conciergerie where she will be imprisoned till October 1793.  Ordered to stand trial on October 14 on charges ranging from treason to her role in the Diamond Necklace affair and sexual depravity.  On October 15 she is found guilty by a panel of 9 male judges and condemned to death.  The next day october 16 she is executed by guillotine.  The young dauphin died  at the age of 10 in his jail brutalized and alone.  Her daughter  was exchanged for French prisoners and sent to Austria.  She returned later to France and became Duchesse d'Angouleme. She died childless at the age of 72.

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