Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated queen of France, is remembered for two things: losing her head and uttering the callous phrase, “Let them eat cake.” Though it is indeed true she was the last queen in the history of France, there was a lot more to this tragic queen. Surprising facts about Marie Antoinette actually reveal her to be a woman of character, intelligence, and strength.
Born in Austria in 1755, Marie Antoinette began life far from the mirrored halls of Versailles. Becoming queen of France would afford her extravagances and great wealth; but it would also bring her boredom, loneliness, and terror. Though it’s true she loved fashion, cards, and sweets, she also had a hard time adjusting to life at the French court and was often accused of being an outsider. She wasn’t just a queen: she was also a daughter, a mother, and a sister. Behind the legend of the doomed queen of France and the trappings of the French monarchy, Marie Antoinette was a real woman who lived, loved, and died in one of the most chaotic moments in modern history.
Even before and since her execution during the French Revolution, people around the world have imagined her in specific ways - especially in recent films. Some representations were cruel, while others were highly romanticized. The real Marie Antoinette existed somewhere between those extremes.
Her Austrian mother and the French king brokered the marriage between Marie Antoinette and Louis, the Dauphin and future King of France. It was a brilliant match for a younger daughter of an Austrian empress, and one that intended to bring peace between France and Austria. But the participants were quite young: Louis was only 15 and Marie Antoinette was 14. Despite their young age, their marriage was celebrated by the two families.
The couple did not actually meet until after their marriage - they married by proxy in April 1770. The new Dauphine of France then began a multi-week journey from Austria to her new home in the French court. She would never see Austria or her mother again.
Though Louis was kind to Marie Antoinette, their relationship stalled from the start - the royal couple did not immediately consummate their marriage. It took years of coaxing by both Marie Antoinette and her family. Maria Theresa counseled her daughter in letters from Austria and she even sent her son and heir Joseph II to France to give Louis a pep-talk into finally bedding his wife. In total, it took the couple seven years to consummate the marriage.
As the French Revolution became more radical and rejected the possibility of a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI and his wife were put on trial by a revolutionary tribunal. Louis was the first to be guillotined - he was executed in January 1793, only days after his sentencing.
Marie Antoinette’s trial happened six months later. The 32-hour trial was draining and humiliating for the ill queen, especially when prosecutors accused her of incest with her young son. Mustering up every ounce of dignity she had, the widowed former queen delivered a reply that shamed the courtroom into silence: “Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother. I appeal in this matter to all the mothers present in court.”
Her appeal may have restored her honor, but it did not save her life - she was sentenced to death, just as her husband had been.
Perhaps one of the best known Marie Antoinette quotes probably never happened. When the queen was told that peasants across France were starving, so the story goes, she vapidly responded, “Let them eat cake.” The story was meant to highlight just how out-of-touch and dismissive French royals were. There is no evidence to suggest that Marie Antoinette ever said this.