It’s one of the most famous quotes in history. At some point around 1789, when being told that her French subjects had no bread, Marie-Antoinette (bride of France’s King Louis XVI) supposedly sniffed, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—“Let them eat cake.” With that callous remark, the queen became a hated symbol of the decadent monarchy and fueled the revolution that would cause her to (literally) lose her head several years later. But did Marie-Antoinette really say those infuriating words? Not according to historians.
'Let them eat cake’ is the saying most frequently attributed to Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate consort of Louis XVI of France. Her supposed indifference to the fate of the peasantry gave an edge to her alleged extravagant follies and general irresponsibility in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. Later, these views were combined with images of her dignified conduct at her trial and of her courageous bearing on the scaffold to create an enduring example of human tragedy.
The story of revolution and resistance in 18th-century France is a complicated one, and no two historians tell the story the same way. However, it is clear that for the revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette’s significance was mainly, powerfully symbolic. She and the people around her seemed to represent everything that was wrong with the monarchy and the Second Estate: They appeared to be tone-deaf, out of touch, disloyal (along with her allegedly treasonous behavior, writers and pamphleteers frequently accused the queen of adultery) and self-interested. What Marie Antoinette was actually like was beside the point; the image of the queen was far more influential than the woman herself.
The campaign against Marie Antoinette likewise grew stronger. In July 1793, she lost custody of her young son, who was forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest before a Revolutionary tribunal. In October, she was convicted of treason and sent to the guillotine. She was 37 years old.
However, many revolutionaries began to argue that the most insidious enemies of the state were not the nobles but the monarchs themselves. In April 1792, partly as a way to test the loyalties of the king and queen, the Jacobin (radical revolutionary) government declared war on Austria. The French army was in a shambles and the war did not go well—a turn of events that many blamed on the foreign-born queen. In August, another mob stormed the Tuileries, overthrew the monarchy and locked the family in a tower. In September, revolutionaries began to massacre royalist prisoners by the thousands. One of Marie Antoinette’s best friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was dismembered in the street, and revolutionaries paraded her head and body parts through Paris. In December, Louis XVI was put on trial for treason; in January, he was executed.
She was pretty, charming and a princess. At 14, she was married to the heir to the throne of France to cement a political alliance; at 19 she became queen of a kingdom approaching bankruptcy. She was extravagant, an avid gambler and a good mother; she loved beautiful clothes and jewelry...
Her fashion statements "were, in every sense, accessories to the campaign she waged against the oppressive cultural strictures and harsh political animosities that beset her throughout her twenty-three year tenure in France," writes the author. "In charting Marie Antoinette's fateful course from the gilded halls of Versailles to the blood-splashed steps of the guillotine, historians rarely emphasize the tremendous importance that her public attached to what she was wearing at each step along the way."
he queen's influence on domestic policy before 1789 has also been exaggerated. Her interference in politics was usually in order to obtain jobs and money for her friends. It is true, however, that she usually opposed the efforts of reforming ministers such as A. R. J. Turgot (1727–1781) and became involved in court scandals against them. Activities such as the "diamond necklace affair," where the queen was accused of having an improper relationship with a wealthy church official in exchange for an expensive necklace, increased her unpopularity and led to a stream of pamphlets and articles against her.
With the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the preservation of a fragile alliance between Austria and France became a priority for Empress Maria Theresa; cementing alliances through matrimonial connections was a common practice among European royal families at the time. In 1765, the son of French Emperor Louis XV, Louis, dauphin de France (also known as Louis Ferdinand), died, leaving his 11-year-old grandson Louis Auguste heir to the French throne. Within months, Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste were pledged to marry each other.
Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, was born Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. She was the 15th and second to last child of Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria, and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor.