Category Archives: French Revolution

Let Them Eat Cake

‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ or ‘Let them eat cake’, is a famous quite generally attributed to Marie Antoinette in popular culture and she is said to have uttered it after being told that the people of France had no bread. However, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said this. In fact, there is every proof that she never said it.

So when was it first attributed to Marie Antoinette? 1843- 50 years after her death and in the Victorian Era, notorious for historical inaccuracies. The Victorians were also the ones who decided that all rumours concerning the Tudors were true and laid the basis for the majority of widely believed historical inaccuracy today. Most modern historians would ever trust the things that Victorian historians made fact. Also, considering all of the gossip and pamphlets against her at the time of her reign and downfall I think if she did ever say it there would be an almost certain public outcry and much propaganda attacking her for the quote.

When was the phrase first introduced? It was written in book six of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written in 1765 (when Marie Antoinette was 9) and finished in 1769, before she was even in France. Rousseau doesn’t specify who said the quote, merely saying ‘some great princess’. As there are many inaccuracies in the Confessions anyway, it could be said that the quote never existed at all.

Does the quote fit Marie Antoinette’s character? Certainly not. We have much evidence that Marie Antoinette was a very charitable person. When some people were crushed to death at a display during her wedding celebrations, she visited the relatives of the victims and offered support. She very often gave food and money to the poor and if any particular cases in which she could help in were bought to her attention she’d be more than willing to help and would offer much support. She devoted much time to charity and this makes the quote very unlikely for her to have said.

Concerning the bread shortages which occurred during her reign (1775 and 1788), she wrote in a letter to her family (where she could have been entirely honest about events) that ‘It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness’, which certainly doesn’t support the ‘let them eat cake’ thoughts of things.

There is no evidence that the quote belongs to Marie Antoinette and it would be lovely if  popular culture stopped attributing it to her. It’s become part of her identity today and really darkens her character. As Antonia Fraser states in her biography of Marie, ‘It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.’


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Filed under 18th Century, French Revolution, In the media..., Misjudgment debate

The Final Eighteen Months of Queen Marie Antoinette

I realised when looking at comments on my earlier post, that we really do pick out the negatives of the life of Marie Antoinette and exaggerate them greatly until we have a completely negative image. What does this mean? We ignore the positives. I can’t blame anyone- it’s so easy to become hypnotised by the propaganda. Well, here’s my account of the final eighteen months of the life of Queen Marie Antoinette and I hope it will show her in a positive and sympathetic light. It starts in the midst of the French Revolution…

On April 20th 1792 France declared war on Austria. Prussia allied with Austria. In June, the Jacobins begun to become more and more radical and started to favour the idea of a republic in France. This was dangerous for King Louis XVI, so he replaced his Jacobin ministers with more moderate Feuillants. On 20th June, a large crowd invaded the Tuileries and demanded the return of the Jacobin ministers. The king was forced to don a liberty cap and toast the health of the people. On July 25th, Austria and Prussia issued the Brunswick Manifesto, a document threatening to invade France if any harm should come to the royal family. It reached Paris on 28th July. On 29th, Robespierre called for the removal of the king. Between August 3rd and 10th, Parisians petition the Legislative Assembly to suspend the powers of the king, but they do nothing. On August 10th the Monarchy fell after Sans-culotte militants invaded and pillaged Tuileries, forcing the Legislative Assembly to suspend all royal power and place to royal family under the protection of the National Assembly. Under pressure from the Sans-culottes, on 11th August, the National Assembly voted to call the election of a National Convention by universal male suffrage to replace itself and write a new constitution. The Assembly authorised the arrest of all those suspected of being an enemy of the Revolution and banned all royalist newspapers. On 13th August the royal family were imprisoned in the Temple Tower. September 2nd to 6th saw the September Massacres. About 1500 people were taken from the prisons of Paris and executed. Amongst them was the best friend of Marie Antoinette. Princesse de Lamballe, whose head was paraded around the city. Marie Antoinette fainted on hearing the news of the death of one of her closest friends. On 20th, the French army defeated the Prussians at Valmy. The Legislative Assembly is dissolved and replaced by the by the National Convention. On 22nd, the abolition on the Monarchy was completed by the National Convention. France was now a republic and discussions for a new constitution began. On October 11th the National Convention appointed a largely Girondin committee to create the new constitution. On December 11th the Treason trial of Louis XVI begun. Ten days later the English House of Commons encouraged war with France to help protect Louis. But it was too late. By 17th January 1793 the French had found their king guilty of Treason and condemned him to death. He was allowed one last supper with his family when he urged his son not to seek vengeance. On 21st, the king was taken to the guillotine and was executed as a traitor to his own country. Thus, Marie Antoinette was restyled by the Convention as ‘Widow Capet’, as ’Capet’ was often mistook as the family name of the French Monarchy. At this time she refused to eat and her health was in rapid decline. In February and March there were riots in Paris, but not over the death of a king, but because of a desperate food shortage.  On February 1st, France declared war on Great Britain and the Netherlands and on March 7th on Spain. Catholic and Royalist revolts began in western France. On March 10th, the Revolutionary Tribunal was created to try enemies of the Republic. On 21st surveillance committees were created to identify suspected enemies of the Revolution or traitors to the nation. In April Robespierre proposed a new version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which restricted property rights and established society’s duty to achieve the well-being of all citizens. On June 24th, the Convention approved this far more radical Constitution to be ratified by national referendum, but immediately suspended it for duration of national emergency and war and it is never put into effect. During this, the fate of Marie Antoinette herself was being decided. Some believed that her death was necessary, others that she should be exchanged for French prisoners of war or for a ransom from the Holy Roman Emperor. At the start of July, the Dauphin, Louis Charles, was ordered to be separated from the royal family. But when the commissioners came on the night of the 3rd, Marie Antoinette would not let them take her son, even after the commissioners threatened to kill her. It was only when, two hours later, that the guards threatened to kill her daughter, Marie-Thérèse, that she handed the child over. Then Louis Charles was put under the protection of Antoine Simon, a drunkard shoemaker, and was imprisoned  on the floor below his mother and sister in the Temple Tower. Here he suffered beatings and torture and was forced to drink large quantities of alcohol. He was taught by Simon to curse royalty and the aristocracy and to blaspheme. He was frequently threatened with the guillotine which caused him to faint. He was told that he had fallen from his parents’ favour and that they did not want him, although they were both still alive. And Marie Antoinette, much to her dismay, could do nothing to help her son. On 13th, Charlotte Corday assassinated the Jacobin leader, Jean-Paul Marat. She was sent to the guillotine aged just twenty-four on 17th.

Things were going no better for Marie Antoinette. I think this quote pretty much sums her life up:

‘I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long.’

 On 2nd August 1793 Marie Antoinette was taken from her sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth, and her daughter, Marie-Thérèse, to the Conciergerie Prison. She was a former Queen, yet she was still Prisoner No. 280. There were various attempts to rescue her from her prison, but Marie Antoinette refused them all. A journalist and Politian had promised readers the head of Antoinette.’ It seemed that events were turning that way. On 5th September, the Reign of Terror began with Robespierre declaring terror the ‘order of the day.’ It would claim an estimated 18500-40000 lives. France was becoming an ever more dangerous place to be. Marie Antoinette was finally tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14th October. Unlike the king, who had been given time to prepare a defence, the queen was given less than a day to prepare for her trial. The whole event was a sham, probably intended to humiliate Marie Antoinette further. Most of the charges, if not all, were rumours and untrue. Amongst the charges were orchestrating orgies in Versailles, sending millions of livres of treasury money to Austria, plotting to kill the Duke of Orléans, incest with her son, declaring her son king and orchestrating the Diamond Necklace Affair and the massacre of the Swiss Guards in 1792. The charge of incest with her son is probably the most memorable. This was testified by Louis Charles himself after his training by Simon. In the trial, Marie Antoinette protested to the charge of incest emotionally, making a desperate appeal to the women of the audience who she felt would sympathise with her. She was right, and the same women who had stormed her palace in 1789 now supported her. Throughout the trial, she had remained composed, but when she was reminded of the charge of incest, she replied, ‘If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.’ She had the female audience with her, but ironically, the jury was all male. Another point of the trial that Robespierre would be disgusted by was when the Marquis de La Tour du Pin de Gouvernet, was brought forward as a witness to the charges that Marie Antoinette had been involved in plans to end the Revolution by military means, the Marquis bowed low to the queen and continued to call her ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Her Majesty’ despite the judges insisting she be called ‘Widow Capet.’ However, the outcome of the trial had been decided before it had even begun by the Committee of Public Safety. Marie Antoinette would never be found innocent. On 16th, she was found guilty of all charges and condemned to death, as her husband before her, by the infamous guillotine. As she was escorted back to her cell, the nuns in the Prison for adhering to their Catholic faith reached out their hands to her and begged her to pray for them when she entered Heaven. Lieutenant de Busne offered her a glass of water and his arm as she walked down the steep stairs, holding his hat as a sign of respect for the former Queen. In her cell again, she was given a candle, ink and paper, with these she wrote her final letter. This was to Madame Elisabeth, it started:

It is to you, Sister, that I am writing for the last time. I have just been sentenced to death, but not to a shameful one, since this death is only shameful to criminals, whereas I am going to rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the firmness which he showed during his last moments.

I am calm, as one may well be when one’s conscience

is clear, though deeply grieved at having to forsake my poor children. You know that I existed only for them and for you, my good and affectionate sister. You who, in the kindness of your heart, have sacrificed everything in order to be with us – in what a terrible position do I leave you!

The letter never reached Elisabeth. She also wrote a brief note in her prayer-book. It was 4:30am.

A seventeen year old called Rosalie Lamorlière had been assigned to wait on the Queen and had developed a deep affection for her mistress. It was now around 7am. Rosalie begged Marie Antoinette to eat the soup she had prepared. She accepted, seeing the logic of eating, but could only manage a small amount. To her there was no point in eating when her end was so near. She was told that she was forbidden to die in mourning, and that she could not wear black to the guillotine. She was still mourning her husband, and reminding the crowds of his fate would surely provoke some sympathy. Also, she had been suffering from what was possibly a uterine fibrora and had been bleeding excessively. Other than black, she had only a simple white cotton dress. She was certainly far away from her extravagant and expensive wardrobe for which she had been famed. When she wished to change her chemise, which had been stained with blood, the gendarme officer who had replaced Lieutenant de Busne as he had been arrested for showing too much respect, would not leave the room or even face the wall. So Marie Antoinette crouched in a corner of her cell with Rosalie doing her best to shield her. She probably would have found this extremely embarrassing, as she hated any violation of her privacy.  With her cotton dress she wore a black petticoat and a bonnet adorned with black to show some respect to her dead husband and hoped that the black petticoat would be enough to hide the blood. The former Queen looked old beyond her thirty-seven years, the Revolution had aged her. At 10am, Marie Antoinette was found kneeling in prayer. The Court clerk and judges then entered and, as required by law, read her sentence. Then Sanson, the public executioner, entered and bound her hands behind her back and cut her hair. Some say that she made a small protest, as the king’s hands had not been tied until he reached the guillotine. But alas, the queen was not to receive the same respect as her husband. She was taken to the clerk’s office for the last formalities. At 11am, she left the Conciergerie and is taken to the front of the Courthouse leaving Rosalie sobbing and a single gold watch– a childhood present from her mother. Here, two horses pulling an open wooden cart awaited her. Louis had been taken to his death in a closed carriage. It was yet another blow to her dignity. She would be treated, not as the former queen that she was, but as a common criminal. However, the security is large, with 30000 men called to prevent any escape. She was handled roughly onto the cart. There a sworn priest (that is, a priest that had sworn alliance to the Constitution) accompanied her. Yet again, there was a cruel comparison to the execution of her husband, as Louis had a priest of his own choice. Her shame was displayed to the many crowds. As she had promised Elisabeth in her last letter, she refused the services of the priest and treated him as a stranger. Sanson and his helper also sat in the cart, holding their hats in respect for the woman who was once their queen. As she passed the people, some spat, cried out insults, laughs. But there was also a subtle, stunned silence. The extravagant queen had gone. There were no lavish feathers or jewels; just white. People remarked on how calm she seemed as she sat very straight in the cart, her face morphed into dignified acceptance. Others comment on an air of hatred and bitter insolence. As she passed the artist Jean-Jacques David made his famous sketch. It this, some saw an awful, ugly woman full of spite, others a heroic dignity. She would be as controversial in death as she had been in life. At about 12pm, the cart finally reached its destination of the Place de la Revolution, where the Tuileries Palace could be seen. At one point, it is said that she looked up at it and her eyes filled with tears and her lips quiver, but soon she was composed and calmly stepped from the cart and climbed the steps to the scaffold and the guillotine. As she stood looking up at the guillotine, the priest turned to her and said: ’This is the moment, Madame, to arm yourself with courage,’ to which she replied ’The moment when my ills are to end is not a time when courage is going to fail me.’ Walking to the guillotine, she stepped on Sanson’s foot accidentally, and thus spoke her last words, which can be translated as: ‘Pardon me Sir, I meant not to do it.’ She was then strapped into place and lowered under the blade. At 12:15pm on 16th October 1793, the blade fell. And so ended the life of one of the most remarkable women France had ever seen.

 Her story really is one of true tragedy and irony. Her end still evokes me to shed a tear each time I remind myself of it. I know she is one of the most controversial women ever to have lived but I challenge you not to find just a little sympathy for her and a shudder and the true ignorance and cruelty that we can give to others. I think dear Marie is one whose legend will never die and will always be seen differently in the eyes of each beholder.

Here is the sketch. What are your opinions on it?

File:Jacques-Louis David - Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine.jpg


Filed under French Revolution, In the media..., Misjudgment debate, Mistreatment of women

Madame Tussaud.

It has shocked me recently how many people do not know that Madame Tussaud was a real person yet think that Sherlock Holmes is true historical figure… Often people have heard of the real woman but know nothing at all about her and yes, there are a lot of people who think she was a Victorian. If you’re thinking that this is you don’t fret because you are certainly one of many. Say ‘Madame Tussaud’ to most people and they will tell you if they have been to the waxworks in London. Yes, Marie Tussaud did find the famous waxworks, but there is so much more to the story than that…

Anna Maria ‘Marie’ Grosholtz was born on 1 December 1761 in Strasbourg, France. Her father, Joseph Grosholtz was a German soldier and killed two months before Marie’s birth in the Seven Years’ War. Her mother took her to Bern, Switzerland, where she spent the first five years of her life where her mother worked as a housekeeper for Dr Philippe Curtius. Dr Curtius was a physician, wax modeller and artist. It is from him that the young Marie learnt the art of wax. In 1765 Marie and her mother moved to Paris with Dr Curtius. Marie enjoyed a great friendship with Curtius, calling him ‘uncle’ and I suppose he became the father-figure of her life. In 1770 (Marie Antoinette marries the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste, about now) Curtius opened a museum in Paris featuring life-sized wax models. Marie learnt much from her mother’s employer and met some of the great celebrities of the day including Benjamin Franklin, Francois Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1778 she created her first wax figure of none other than Rousseau. She later modelled Voltaire and Franklin.

Marie’s great talent was soon recognised and she was appointed by the Royal Family to be the art tutor to King Louis XVI’s younger and most adored sister, Madame Elisabeth in 1780. She was then invited to live at the magnificent Palace of Versailles. However at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 she was called back to Paris by Dr Curtius. Curtius was actively involved in the Revolution, participating in the Storming of the Bastille and entertaining some of the Revolutionary leaders. Marie met some important figures, including Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte.

However, during the Reign of Terror Marie was arrested. She was imprisoned with Josephine de Beauharnais, later wife of Napoleon and more commonly known as simply the ‘Empress Josephine’. Marie’s head was shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine even before supporters of Curtius had her released. She was employed to make death masks of victims of the Revolution including Marat, Robespierre and even Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. She was given the grotesque task of digging though the Revolution’s mass graves to find heads of those that may be of interest and the masks were often paraded around streets as trophies. It couldn’t have been very pleasant, but it saved her life.

In 1794 Curtius died, leaving his whole collection of waxworks to Marie. In 1795 she married Francois Tussaud; they had two surviving children, Joseph and Francois. In 1802 Marie Tussaud moved to England with her eldest son, Joseph, then four years old. Due to the Napoleonic Wars, she was unable to return to France so travelled throughout Great Britain and Ireland with her growing collection. In 1821/2 her younger son joined her. In 1835 she opened her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street, London. In 1838 she wrote her memoirs. In 1842 she made a self-portrait, still on display in the entrance to the London museum. She died on 16 April 1850 aged eighty-eight- a remarkable achievement considering the times and how she came so close to death.

Madame Tussaud’s wax museums have grown to be one of the most popular London tourist attractions and has branches worldwide. A few of her sculptures still survive today and are on display. I’m not sure if I agree with the publicity of the museums but they carry her name and legacy. Although it does nothing to educate people about this most remarkable woman.


Filed under French Revolution, In the media..., The Unknown...

Marie Antoinette in Popular Culture.

When it comes to Marie Antoinette and women like her, there is much dispute in who she actually was. Today, we watch films and read books, each offering various characterisations of these women. These are all very different and leaves us wondering which is accurate as none of us really have the time to go down to the British Library in London to pour through a series of primary sources for several hours which we know won’t come to any help anyway as Marie Antoinette wasn’t British and even in her own time was much maligned. So it all comes down to one thing- the Amazom reviews. Yes, I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. Unless it’s just me…

Over the years we’ve seen much of Marie Antoinette in popular culture. The earliest film I can recall was made in 1938… Those of you who know me best will know which part I actually watched- the execution. I’m not sure why but I do tend to judge a film on the quality of the final days of anyone who is executed. This film I was not particularly fond of. I found something a little sickly about it with the scene which I think is supposed to be Fersen. But I really did love the references to the darkness of poor Louis-Charles, so I’m really not sure what to think… There was another b&w film but I just can’t think what it is! I had a look around the web but can only find a tiny clip as part of a fan video. My personal favourite is next- L’Autrichienne, 1990. It follows the last days of Marie Antoinette and I think that it really offers a very sympathetic approach to her life. I think the a certain quote was used in the writer’s research:

‘I was a Queen and you took away my crown; a wife and you killed my husband; a mother and you deprived my of my children: my blood alone remains- take it, but do not make me suffer long.’

It really empathises this and I did really enjoy the film. It had a very detailed trial, showed her as a woman, and makes you really admire her no matter what you’ve seen before. And no Fersen, but Rosalie instead! (Rosalie was a maid who served Marie Antoinette in her final days). There is just one issue with this film it’s all in French. I know absolutely no French, so that was a slight problem… But I enjoyed it much anyway. There is also then ‘The Affair of the Necklace’, staring Joely Richardson (plays Katherine Parr in The Tudors). This film follows the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’ before taking you forwards to the ends of the characters. Once again, it was slightly more  sympathetic when it came to the execution, though it didn’t thrill me enough to watch the rest of the film. There is also another French film with Jane Seymour as Marie Antoinette. It’s a film about the Revolution and I really enjoyed this one too. It showed Marie Antoinette the mother, wife and Queen without a mention of adulteress, whore, spendthrift etc. Same problem though and no English subtitles. And then of course there is the one we all know… 2006 saw the film that apparently was based on Lady Antonia Fraser’s biography, Marie Antoinette: A Journey. Hmm… I’ve got that biography and it certainly wasn’t like the film. This has the rather ludicrous (in my opinion anyways) scenes such as ‘I want candy’ and an affair with Fersen. This shows the Queen as an adulteress, a silly girl who expected everything to be done for her and a major reason for the French Revolution. I couldn’t find any sympathy in this film at all. I just couldn’t stand it because of the awful characterisations, and yet there were some truly beautiful scenes with Marie-Therese, the breakdown with the letter, running through some le Petit-Trianon etc… But I think the negatives outweighed the positives in her portrayal.

However, which does the modern-world choose to believe? For many, it’s the 2006 one. It’s the film our history teacher (under the influence of something methinks) showed us, it’s the one the tribute videos use, the one that comes up first in a video search, the one everyone knows. And now it’s becoming the image of Queen Marie Antoinette in popular culture. It annoys me and I can’t deny it… The film gives the rumours and propaganda used against her more so than things like the memoirs of her friends, her final days… It seems as if their only primary source was the charges held against her at her trial (a load of rubbish that her enemies made up including incest with her son). It shows her as a awful wife, a mother only to her eldest daughter and little more than a girl.  If I remember rightly it does not include Sophie-Beatrice (her youngest who died at eleven months) and doesn’t take you as far as the death of her eldest son, Louis-Joseph.

I think that the film gives us a pretty bad impression of the final Queen of France as probably justifies the Revolution itself. But the real Marie Antoinette I think is summed us well by her herself in the quote I mentioned above.

She was an Archduchess of Austria and a Queen of France. It was a time when they were enemies. The marriage between her and Louis XVI came about only because of a small alliance in the seven-years’ war. It was difficult for her from both sides: the Austrians expected her to mend the relations between the countries and heal old wounds; the French hated her almost from the start because she was Austrian. She was given no say in the way her country was ruled despite her roles as Dauphine and Queen. Her mother, the formidable Maria-Theresa, has a staunch Catholic and brought her daughters up so; at the time in France religion was growing old- no one wanted faith anymore and the corruption of Church made it something hated just as the court-culture had begun to be.

She was a wife to Louis XVI. When they married, she was just 14 and he 15. It took them seven years to consummate the marriage. This was so often blamed on Marie Antoinette when in fact it is safe to say that Louis was the guilty one. He was reluctant to consummate the match as many people hating the Austrian alliance tried to turn him against her and for a while he believed that she would manipulate him. He was also a very shy boy and it was only on persuasion from Marie Antoinette’s brother that their marriage was finally consummated. He treated her with a coldness in public which must have been a great humiliation to her. However, the marriage grew loving as the years went on and she never left her black from his execution to her own (she was forbidden to die in mourning.)

She was a mother to four children. She had the woes of any other woman of the time, losing her youngest daughter, Sophie-Beatrice, when she was eleven months old. Her eldest son, the Dauphin Louis-Joseph, died aged seven at the beginning of the Revolution. When he had been born, she had been told, ‘Madame, you have fulfilled our wishes and those of France, you are the mother of Dauphin’; on his death from TB eight years later, the revolution was starting and the event was literally ignored. There was also a rumour of a miscarriage which was noted in the memoirs of Madame Campan. She suffered like anyone else as Queen and the Revolution took her further. Louis-Charles, her youngest son, was taken from her after much of a fight. When threatened with her life, Marie Antoinette would still not hand her son over. It was only when her daughter, Madame Royale Marie-Therese, was threatened that she allowed Louis to be taken from her. He was subject to mental and physical torture which poor Marie Antoinette could do nothing to stop as she heard his screams. He died soon after her aged ten from abuse.

So next time you’re watching a film about Marie Antoinette remember the woman behind the rumours.

Here’s a few clips from L’Autrichienne made into a short film (please click the link I can’t work out embedded).


Filed under French Revolution, Misjudgment debate, Mistreatment of women