Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Queen Marie Antoinette

A portrait of the queen by her friend Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun
Researching is a task at once exciting and frustrating. The reason is simple: history books do not so much present facts as interpret them. When you can dig a little deeper than your average encyclopedia entry, you’ll uncover mysteries and deep, dark secrets...but you’ll also find some refreshing truths.

My case in point: Queen Marie Antoinette. For years, history has portrayed her as wicked and selfish at worst, silly at best. yes, well, guess who wrote the books that first villainized her--the books that were referenced and quoted for centuries? That’s right--the same revolutionaries who had her guillotined.

In fact, the villainization was necessary for the decapitation. Early on, the leaders of the French Revolution decided that they needed every royal out of the way, lest loyalists rally behind them and counter the revolutionary progress. Some of the earliest seeds of discontent were deliberate lies about the queen, carefully posed to destroy her reputation. 

Here’s some truth: Maria Antonia, the young Austrian princess who came to wed Louis XVI, was innocent and eager to please. Her Austrian ways were simpler than those to which the French court was accustomed. Her enemies said: “Don’t trust the foreigner. She wants to gain control of France for her own uncouth but grasping country.” 
In her desire to win the people’s trust, the princess threw lavish parties at her own expense. Her enemies said: “Our taxes are heavy so that the uncouth foreigner can have frivolous parties.” 
Truth: Compared to the friendly Austrian princess, Louis was shy and cold. He never went out of his way to welcome his wife or even befriend her. Marie Antoinette found friends among others in the court. Her enemies said: “The money-hungry foreigner is plotting against us with her friends.” 
Another reality: Marie Antoinette, young and very innocent, did not conceive a child for many years after marrying Louis. It worried her and pained her immensely. When at last she became pregnant, her enemies said, “The uncouth foreign queen, determined to steal our money and plot against us, has had an affair with one of her friends, and the child is his. What a wicked, wicked queen.” 
Marie Antoinette was a conscientious queen, who tried to encourage the nobles, used to two generations of opulence, to embrace a simpler life. As a trend-setter, she eschewed silk, and donned straw hats decorated with potato flowers. She encouraged the nobles to eat together at the palace and provided simple meals for them, while demanding that more food leave the palace kitchens to be given to the poor. She was also a caring, devoted mother, who took an active role in educating her own children to be wise, learned and spiritual human beings. But when the time came to get her out of the way, her enemies said: “The queen says if we have no bread to eat cake! She is a stupid, selfish foreigner. And she abuses her children! The evil monster must die! (And by the way, what ugly clothes she is wearing these days. How unqueenly.)”

You can see how the lies built one upon another. And for centuries, many of these lies have been accepted as fact. Only recently, with the uncovering of documents hidden at the time, with the scientific analysis of DNA evidence, are historians realizing the full extent to which Marie Antoinette was maligned. This is why research is frustrating.

But it is also exciting, because one can also discover beautiful truths. I recommend reading the queen’s last letter before her death, where you can see the extent of her trust in God, her love for her children, her forgiveness of her enemies. It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

Another recommended source is Deborah Cadbury's excellently researched The Lost King of France: a True Story of Revolution, Revenge, and DNA. I will warn you, it is for mature readers, and not for the faint of heart. It broke mine, when I read it. I literally sobbed for hours when I learned the truth of the terrible things that were done to the royal family, but I hug my children tighter now and pray that they, no matter what tragedies life brings them, will have the faith and courage of the martyred queen of France.


  1. I did go and read Marie Antoinette's letter. Touching to say the least. Thanks, as usual, for a meaty, thought-provoking, and informative post. Truth is usually more complex than sound bytes will allow.

  2. History books have a biased angle depending on the writer's views. You don't always realize it, though, until you read two different ones back-to-back. It can be frustrating! We won't ever truly know exactly what went on and why in history. If only we could travel back in time and see it for ourselves!

  3. Wonderful post (and heart-wrenching letter). Yes, history often has to be written and re-written. May you have success unearthing more gems during your research and bringing them to the light.

  4. Such an interesting woman and time period! Thanks for the reminder. Now I want to find a great biography on her.

    New follower here. I’m enjoying reading my fellow “A to Z”ers. I look forward to visiting again.