Poor Marie Antoinette. Seldom has a French queen been as maligned as this young woman during and after her reign as Dauphine of France (heir apparent to the throne – 1770 to 1774); and Queen of France and Navarre – 1774 to 1792). She was the 15th (seriously) child of Holy Roman Emporer Francis and Empress Maria Theresa. They sure kept busy. Married at the age of 14 in 1770 to King Louis XVI, Marie served her role as Queen fittingly and with political correctness, although rumours to the contrary dogged her entire reign. Rumours about cakes, bread, a diamond necklace, Austria and promiscuity helped to lead to her unfortunate and unfair beheading at the age of 37. It wasn’t until 8 months after her husband’s execution, that Marie Antoinette was convicted for treason to the revolution, and, after a trendy haircut, executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793. However I am getting far ahead of myself and the Cole’s notes of Marie’s fascinating life story. Let us begin by listing her many positive traits, proving that Marie really wasn’t a bad sort:
- She took over the throne at only 14, already cultivated and prepared to rule France alongside her husband. Not bad for a teenager.
- She was educated, beautiful, gracious, and loyal to both France and Austria, her country of birth.
- She changed the style of heavy makeup and hooped dresses at court to lighter gowns such as muslin, and straw hats during sunny weather. This was frowned upon but definitely a step forward for women in terms of comfort and liberation.
- Marie performed at charitable functions and attended certain religious ceremonies.
- Marie-Antoinette was a generous patroness of charity and saddened by the plight of the poor.
- Marie had no political influence over her husband; ergo, she couldn’t do anything to alleviate the sufferings of the French commoners.
- Marie was a very good mother and refused to hand over her children to nannies, as was customary of the monarchy at the time.
- It was these types of behaviors Marie conducted that added to her unpopularity. The rumours about her supposedly malicious acts were simply that: rumours. Her fall from grace began when Marie stepped outside of the traditional boundaries of Dauphine, and brought about very positive changes. The court didn’t see the changes as positive, and this helped to turn the tides against our Marie.
Now here is the bad list and it is certainly incriminating: Poor Marie was accused of:
1. Being extravagant with expenditures (alas, this was true). Marie Antoinette began to spend more on gambling and clothing, with cards and horse-betting, as well as trips to the city and new clothing, shoes, pomade and rouge. In her defence, she was expected by tradition to spend money on her attire, so as to outshine other women at Court, being the leading example of fashion in Versailles.
2. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace. This one’s a biggee. Marie was falsely accused of defrauding the crown jewellers at the cost of a very expensive diamond necklace (probably worth a few million today). The Affair (not love affair, rather as in episode), was historically significant as one of the events that eventually led to the French Revolution. In actuality, there is no evidence to support the accusation and it is highly unlikely that Marie committed this fraud.
3. Supposedly, Marie had the bastard, illegitimate child of the handsome Swede, Axel Von Fersen, a fancy, hoity-toity Swedish count. He was allowed to hang out at the French court because his father had long been a favourite of the French. Nothing like a little nepotism. What happened was this: on 27 March 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her second son, Louis Charles. The delivery occurred exactly nine months following Fersen’s second visit to the court and his subsequent exit. This did not escape the attention of both courtiers and the poor. There is much historical speculation about the parentage of this child however public opinion towards her decreased noticeably. Decreased noticeably? It seems to me that she was already in France’s bad books. How could she possibly get in further? As for Fersen, was he the queen’s lover? Who knows? Who cares? She did her duty as queen with difficult childbirths, tolerating a husband who dismissed her political opinions about Austria, practically ignored her unless she was giving birth to an heir and a spare, and a mother who nagged her continually. If she found acceptance in someone else’s arms, good for her. She was due for decadence, and not just in the way of clothes or estates.
3. Sexually abusing her son. This was according to Louis Charles, who, through his coaching by a high-ranking official in the court, one of Marie’s decided enemies, Hébert, and Louis’ guardian, accused his mother. Perhaps the young boy regretted the lie. Perhaps he believed it. Either way, Marie broke down into such grief during her trial that even the women who were supposedly part of the upcoming Revolution and therefore not a Monarchy sympathizer, felt sorry for her, and also wept.
4. “Let them eat cake“. My personal favourite (partly because I am a sugar addict and I love Betty Crocker). This is the traditional translation of the French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de le brioche.” Marie Antoinette supposedly said those words during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband. Upon being alerted that the people were suffering due to widespread bread shortages, the Queen is said to have replied, “Then let them eat brioche.” As one biographer of the Queen notes, it was a particularly useful phrase to cite because “the staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 per cent of their income, as opposed to 5 per cent on fuel; the whole topic of bread was therefore the result of obsessional national interest.” Since there was great concern about the poor starving due to a bread shortage, the princess’ comment meant they could eat brioche instead of bread, and therefore survive.
A second point arguing against Marie’s culpability is that there were no famines during the reign of King Louis XVI,and only two incidents of serious bread shortages, which occurred, first, in April–May 1775, a few weeks before the king’s coronation, and again in 1788, the year before the French Revolution. The 1775 shortages led to a series of riots, known as the Flour War, la guerre des farines. Letters from Marie-Antoinette to her family in Austria at this time revealed an attitude totally different to the let them eat cake mentality:-
The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Henri Languille, on 28 June 1905. After the prisoner was decapitated, the doctor held the severed head in his hands and afterward made his report: The eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. The movements ceased. I called in a strong, sharp voice”, Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any contractions.Languille’s eyes fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. It wasn’t a vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people. It was living eyes. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again. I called out again and once more the eyelids lifted and fixed themselves on mine, with even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I made a third call but there was no further movement and the eyes took on the glazed look seen in the dead.
What the good doctor is suggesting is known as lucid decapitation, where the brain continues to function separate from the body. However, it is argued that what appears to be a head responding to the sound of its name, or to the pain of a pinprick, may be only random muscle twitching or automatic reflex action. At the very least, it seems that the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure causes a victim to lose consciousness in a few seconds. A modern novel entitled Severed, supposedly exists somewhere in the archives of Amazon.com, that explores this concept. I have read about it but haven’t been able to find it. If you can, kindly zap me about it. The author explores the possible final thoughts inside the heads of people who have been decapitated. Anne Boleyn is one of his subjects. I’d love to read what was on her mind. Cool.
Another account of lucid decapitation tells of an automobile accident during the 20th century. In 1989, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Korean war was riding in a taxi with a friend when it collided with a truck. The witness was pinned to his seat, and the friend was decapitated by the collision:
As for Marie Antoinette, although it sounds intriguing, I doubt her severed head could hear, see, think, or talk. I also doubt the head was able to eat, brioche, or anything else offered to it on a platter.Perhaps the French people of Louis XVI’s reign who condemned an innocent woman, and were fortunate enough not to part with their own heads during the Revolution, should have skipped the brioche and eaten their words, contrary to all popular rumours.