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The Actual Reasons Marie Antoinette Was Executed

February 23, 2021 2.3k views12 items

As one of the French Revolution's best-known victims, Marie Antoinette remains a compelling, complicated figure. But why was Marie Antoinette executed?

Born in 1755, Marie Antoinette became Queen of France in 1774 when her husband became King Louis XVI. The young royals inherited an increasingly troubled France. As discontentment simmered in the 1780s, many French subjects targeted their frustration directly at Marie Antoinette, who became known for her seemingly frivolous decadence and fashion. All of that discontentment boiled over into the French Revolution in 1789.

What specifically forced Marie Antoinette to the point of no return? Years of infractions - whether real or perceived - and PR disasters, mixed with plenty of xenophobia and misogyny, damaged the queen's reputation. She became the revolutionaries' boogeyman, embodying everything they were fighting against. Some moves against her were totally baseless; others represented legitimate political concerns. But whether justified or not, all of the accumulated ill-will towards Marie Antoinette ensured that she wouldn't survive the French Revolution.

  • Photo: Jean-Étienne Liotard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    She Was An Outsider

    Marie Antoinette was born an Austrian archduchess. Her mother Empress Maria Theresa ruled the Holy Roman Empire from Vienna. After Marie Antoinette departed her native land as a teenager in 1770 to become a bride of France, she would never return.

    According to historian Thomas Kaiser, the conversion of an Austrian archduchess into a French queen alarmed many in France:

    Austria had been France's most constant enemy for over two centuries, and it is not surprising that the alliance did not dispel ingrained fears and resentments on both sides.

    Kaiser wrote that Marie-Antoinette's marriage to the next French king appeared to many observers in France as another Austrian maneuver to weaken and take down France. It was widely believed that as Queen, Marie-Antoinette "would exercise considerable influence over her husband and act on orders sent to her from Vienna."

    Despite having spent the majority of her life in France, Marie Antoinette couldn't quite shake her xenophobic subjects' conviction that she was a suspicious foreigner. Consequently, her critics sometimes deployed language drenched in xenophobia and misogyny when they called her an "Austrian b*tch."

  • Photo: Franz Xaver Wagenschön / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Louis XVI And Marie Antoinette Were Just Teenagers When They Started Ruling France

    When Marie Antoinette arrived in France, she officially took on the role as Dauphine of France, or the wife of the heir to the throne. She wasn't yet 15; her new husband was just shy of 16. 

    The royal couple didn't have to wait long to become France's new king and queen. In 1774, King Louis XV, Marie Antoinette's grandfather by marriage, passed, making her 19-year-old husband King Louis XVI.

    Louis and Marie Antoinette were initially popular in France, though that soon slipped away. Their youth ultimately worked against them, as both Marie Antoinette and Louis struggled to find their footing.

  • Photo: Heinrich Lossow / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    She Became Known For Her Extravagance

    Centuries after her life, Marie Antoinette remains synonymous with extravagance. But how accurate is that image?

    Marie Antoinette really did indulge in luxury. She not only maintained a separate residence at the Petit Trianon on the Versailles estate, complete with a grand house and working farm; she also indulged in still-costly chocolate and high fashion. But as historian Caroline Weber has argued, Marie Antoinette's fashion choices weren't vapid and frivolous; they had genuine political meaning, as she "turn[ed] her clothes and other accouterments into defiant expressions of autonomy and prestige."

    In the years leading up to the Revolution, France fell into a deep financial crisis. Satirists and the press placed the blame squarely on the queen's shoulders, labeling her "Madame Déficit" for her supposedly wasteful spending. France's financial crisis was much larger than the queen's indulgences, however. In fact, Marie Antoinette reduced her own spending in light of the nation's crisis.

  • She Opposed Democratic Ideas

    Marie Antoinette was many things, but a champion of democracy was not one of them. As the daughter of an empress and the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette believed that royals ruled by right rather than by consent of the governed. When the National Assembly tried to pass certain reforms - like the abolition of feudalism and the chipping away of royal authority - Marie Antoinette disagreed with them and supported using military force to put an end to the revolution.

    At the same time, she pragmatically welcomed the idea of constitutional monarchy, even as she hoped to see the Revolution end.

    Marie Antoinette's distrust of democracy as a political institution didn't mean that she was dismissive towards commoners. In fact, she sympathized with the poor, albeit from a position of extreme privilege.