Everyone thinks they know the story of Marie Antoinette, the selfish and hedonistic Queen of France who ended up headless at the climax of the French Revolution. The retelling of her story is a glaring example of how history is written up by the winners. Marie Antoinette, originally an Austrian Archduchess, embodied everything that the French public came to hate so passionately in the run-up to 1789: she was a foreigner and a royal.
1 “Let them eat cake!”
One of the most infamous phrases attributed to Marie Antoinette and perhaps the most ludicrous one. Marie Antoinette was no dummy and when the people of France were starving for bread, there is no way she would have uttered such boorish words. Contrary to popular belief, Marie Antoinette was an empathetic Queen who made charitable donations and openly displayed her tender temper; she was initially well liked by the French public. The phrase has been traced all the way back to a letter by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written 18 years before Antoinette was born.
2 Madame Deficit
Often characterized as a spendthrift with expensive taste who ultimately drove the country to bankruptcy, it is misguided to blame France’s financial turmoil solely on Marie Antoinette. Even though the reports of sky-high sums of state cash spent on dressing the Queen are not exaggerated, the Queen’s wardrobe was only a small fraction of the entire royal budget, much of it spent on things like funding the American Revolution that ended up benefiting France very little. Marie Antoinette was not overly vain nor did she particularly enjoy the elaborate, constricting dress code of the court.
What one must understand is that the opulent French court demanded its Queen to wear heavy wigs, intricate dresses and bright make-up. Looking the part simply came with the title of Queen. Compared to other European courts the French were especially strict and traditional. This is not to say that Antoinette did not enjoy some of the dressing up, but deep down she was at her happiest wearing simple white dresses at her idyllic Petit Trianon and the fake, rustic village that was built on the grounds of Versailles, advocating the simplicity of countryside life.
3 Whore of Babylon
The venomous French pamphlets known as libelles often portrayed Marie Antoinette as a licentious adulterer with a carnivorous appetite for both men and women. She was rumoured to host scandalous orgies at Versailles, fuelled by excessive drink. The truth was quite the opposite: for the first seven years of her marriage Antoinette remained a virgin as the couple were unable to consummate the marriage. Antoinette was also rather condemning of the various extramarital affairs that were commonplace at Versailles and restrained from drinking alcohol. However, there is some evidence that she had a long-term, tender liaison with a Swedish Count that spanned for years. The two were very close but it is unclear whether the relationship had a sexual nature, and in any case was most likely approved by the King.