Saturday 16 October 2010

October 16th, 1793: The Execution of Marie-Antoinette

"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."

Lancelot de Carles and the Portuguese author of the Alcobaca account said that when Death came for Anne Boleyn in 1536, she was still at the height of her beauty. The glossy brunette tresses were immaculately coiffed; the glistening dark eyes, the long, elegant fingers, the trim waist and the smooth skin were all still intact in the waif-like 28 year-old. Her jailers had treated her with respect – bowing as they entered her presence; the Constable of the Tower even stammered over his words in informing the Queen that the time had now come to die. It was left to Anne to offer soothing words of polite comfort to her gaoler, rather than the other way round. On the scaffold, thousands had knelt before a woman who was still young, still glamorous and still beautiful.

When they came for Catherine Howard in 1542, the teenage Queen still radiated that potent mixture of vulnerability and sexuality which had made her so lethally attractive to men. When they came for Jane Grey in 1554, she was dressed demurely in black – still the perfect, prim, Protestant porcelain doll, her eyes aglow with quiet ecstasy at the prospect of being martyred for her faith. When they came for the Romanov Grand Duchesses in 1918, they were all young, all pretty; their ages ranged from twenty-two to seventeen. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were still recognisably the iconic princesses who had stared out from hundreds of photographs celebrating the domestic bliss of Russia’s last Imperial Family.

But when they came for Marie-Antoinette in 1793, France’s most iconic queen was no longer beautiful or even pretty. Rather, she was in every way – apart from the curious beauty endowed by dignity – positively and undeniably ugly. The sufferings she had endured over the last four years and especially in the last thirteen months had destroyed what remained of her good-looks. As the poor woman sat writing her last letter between the two fat wax candles in the grim, cold and dank prison cell at the Conciergerie in the pre-dawn darkness of October 16th 1793, anyone hoping to see the one-time goddess of ancien régime sophistication would have been cruelly disappointed. The trim waist which had once been encased in Rose Bertin’s legendary creations of haute couture had thickened and coarsened; the beautiful fair hair which the celebrity coiffeur, Monsieur Léonard, had once styled into everything from towering poufs decorated with diamonds, jewels, powder and feathers, to simple chignons inspired by country-maids, was long gone. The Queen’s hair had turned entirely grey over the last year and it had even begun to fall out. That skin – the ivory-white smoothness of which had once caused her aristocratic contemporaries to fall into raptures of both praise and jealousy – was no longer alabaster, but rather emaciated, almost ghostly. The skin had begun to sag as well, around her chin, neck, cheeks and eyes, in particular. The sparkling blue eyes, shared by so many of the Queen’s Hapsburg relatives, had dimmed and clouded over, as the days and weeks spent in a darkened prison cell ruined her eyesight. She was thirty-seven years-old.

In the last forty-eight hours, the Queen had eaten almost nothing and her body was now rapidly beginning to fall apart, as if it too sensed that the end was near and that there was no point in holding itself together any longer. The Queen’s monthly period had started a few days earlier, but it had quickly degenerated into a frightening case of vaginal hemorrhaging. She had to constantly change her menstrual linens and trying to find the time to do so discreetly, when she was apt to be interrupted by the revolutionary guards at any given moment, was difficult. For a woman who was always so protective over her privacy and mortified by nudity, it was particularly humiliating set of circumstances.

Since the execution of her husband, the late King, in January, the Queen had been a widow – “the Widow Capet,” as the new republican government insisted on referring to her. She had also been separated from her only son, 8 year-old Louis-Charles, with the boy being taken to a cell below hers, where he was submitted to an horrific catalogue of mental and physical abuse by his jailers. His screams could be heard rising through the stone floors, with the Queen lying down upon them, sobbing as she heard what she was powerless to fix. Later, the Queen had been removed from that prison and from the company of her daughter, 14 year-old Princess Marie-Thérèse, and her sister-in-law, 28 year-old Princess Elisabeth. It was to the unmarried Elisabeth that the Queen now wrote her final letter, beginning it shortly after she was returned to prison from her “trial,” with the news that she was to die the following morning.

In the course of the trial, she had been accused of everything from paedophilia and incest to attempted genocide. To each charge, the Queen had responded with cold – almost bored – indifference, except when one of the lawyers for the prosecution kept pressing her to discuss in detail the allegation that she had sexually molested her son and that she had encouraged both her daughter and sister-in-law to help. The Queen stared stonily at her accuser – a lawyer of the radical Left called Jacques Hébert. He kept haranguing her – why wasn’t she answering? Why wasn’t she answering? Finally, the Queen stood and spoke in a voice dripping with icy fury and disgust: “If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother. I appeal to all mothers who might be present!” And then, to the horror of the judges, many of the women in the audience began to applaud the Queen and some of the fishwives of Paris began to cry out for the trial to be cancelled, after such an unfair accusation. Hearing of this fracas later, Robespierre broke a dinner plate in fury, castigating Hébert for giving Marie-Antoinette a moment of public sympathy.

Another high point came when the Marquis de La Tour du Pin de Gouvernet, the monarchy’s former Minister of War, was brought in as a witness and asked to verify the Republic’s claims that Marie-Antoinette had been supporting royalist attempts to overthrow the Revolution by military means. Instead of playing ball, the aged marquis entered the courtroom and bowed low to the Queen and continued to refer to her as “Your Majesty” or “Her Majesty,” despite the judges’ insistence she be addressed as either “the Widow Capet” or “Citizeness Capet.” Unsurprisingly, the marquis, too, was later sent to the guillotine. Yet, despite all this drama, the trial of Marie-Antoinette was a brief affair with the verdict of immediate execution having been pre-determined by the Committee of Public Safety. She was escorted back to the Conciergerie prison to await death on the following morning. As she passed by the cells, the nuns who were imprisoned there for adhering to their Catholic Faith, reached out their hands to try and touch the Queen’s black dress – begging her to pray for them when she entered Heaven.

In her letter to Elisabeth, her husband’s youngest sister who had so bravely shared their imprisonment rather than flee abroad and save her own life, Marie-Antoinette skirted over the ugly trauma of her trial and focused instead on the positives – as far as she was able.

October 16th, at half-past four in the morning.

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! It was only during the trial that I learned my daughter had been separated from you. Alas, poor child, I do not dare to write to her, for she would not receive my letter; I do not even know if this one will reach you. However, through you I send them both my blessing, in the hope that some day, when they are older, they will be with you once more and will be able to enjoy your tender care. If only they will both continue to think the thoughts with which I have never ceased to inspire them – namely, that sound principles and the exact performance of duties are the prime foundation of life, and that mutual love and confidence will bring them happiness. I trust my daughter will feel that at the age she has now reached she must always help her brother with the advice which her greater experience and her affection will enable her to give him; and that my son, in his turn, will give his sister all the care and will do her all the services which affection can stimulate; that they will both of them feel, whatever position they may find themselves in, they cannot be truly happy unless they are united - that they will take example from us. In our misfortunes, how much consolation we have derived from our mutual affection! Again, in happier times, one’s enjoyment is doubled when one can share it with a friend – and where can one find a more affectionate, a more intimate friend than in one’s own family?

I hope my son will never forget his father’s words which I here purposely repeat for him: Let him never try to avenge our deaths!

I have to speak to you of one matter which is extremely painful. I know how much my little boy must have made you suffer. Forgive him, dear sister; remember how young he is, and how easy it is to make a child say whatever one wants, to put words he does not understand into his mouth. I hope a day will come when he will grasp the full value of your kindness and of the affection you have shown both my children.

It remains to entrust you with my last thoughts. I should have liked to write them before the trial opened; but, apart from the fact that I was not allowed to write, things have moved so swiftly that I really have not had the time.

I die in the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion, in that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed. Having no hope of spiritual consolation, not even knowing whether there are still priests of that religion in France, and feeling that should there be such I should expose them to great risks were they to visit me here, I sincerely ask God’s forgiveness for all the faults I have committed since I was born. I trust that, in His goodness, He will hear my last prayers, as well as those which I have long been making that, in His pity and His goodness, He may receive my soul.

I ask the forgiveness of all those whom I have known, and, especially of you, my sister, for the sorrow which, unwittingly, I may have caused them. I forgive my enemies the evil they have done me. I here bid farewell to my aunts and to my brothers and sisters. I had friends. The thought of being separated from them for ever and of their distresses is among my greatest regrets in dying. Let them know, at least, that down to the last they were in my mind.

Adieu, my good and affectionate sister, I trust that this letter will reach you. Continue to think of me. I send you my most heartfelt love, and also to my poor, dear children. How heartbreaking it is to leave them for ever! Adieu, adieu. I must now devote myself entirely to my spiritual duties. Since all my actions are under restraint, it is possible that they will bring a priest to me. I declare, however, that I shall not say a word to him, and that I shall treat him as an absolute stranger.

There, the Queen’s letter breaks off suddenly and it never resumes. She had been right about a few things - namely that the letter would never reach Elisabeth. Bizarrely, it was allegedly later found under Robespierre's mattress, along with a lock of Marie-Antoinette's hair. But she was wrong about Elisabeth having been already separated from Marie-Antoinette's daughter. That would come, but not for several months, and only in preparation for Elisabeth's own execution, which occurred in May of the following year. Why the letter ended so abruptly, even without a parting signature from the Queen, is, however, anybody's guess. Perhaps Marie-Antoinette wanted to leave herself time to pray, since – as she had just written – any priest brought to her would be one who had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, rather than the Vatican, and, as such, the Queen felt she could not in good conscience receive the Last Rites from him. Equally probable is the theory that the Queen was quite simply overtaken by mental and physical exhaustion and had to lie down. Half-an-hour later, the last of the Queen’s servants – the last of a list which had once contained hundreds – hesitantly entered the cell, where she found the Queen stretched out on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, her eyes open.

17 year-old Rosalie Lamorlière had known Marie-Antoinette only during the last few months of her life, when she had been assigned to take care of her by the wife of the Conciergerie’s chief jailer, Madame Bault, Rosalie’s normal employer. Madame Bault appears to have had great sympathy for the deposed Queen, in fact, at times, it seems more than likely that she was a secret monarchist. Rosalie, too, like most of Marie-Antoinette’s servants, quickly developed a worshipful affection for her new mistress and, in the years after the Queen’s execution, she felt it was her duty to solemnly record and disseminate the true story of Marie-Antoinette’s last weeks on Earth. As Lady Antonia Fraser wrote in her 2002 biography of the Queen: “Marie Antoinette was always a hero to her valets.”

Tears were streaming down Rosalie’s face as she approached the Queen’s bed. She had prepared some soup for the Queen and begged her to eat it. “Madame,” she said, “you had nothing to eat yesterday evening, and took almost nothing during the day.” Marie-Antoinette smiled, telling Rosalie that there was little point, but seeing the maid-girl’s distress the Queen gamely tried to eat a few mouthfuls, before making arrangements to get changed. The Sun had already risen over the capital city and from outside the prison walls, Marie-Antoinette and Rosalie could hear the sounds of the drums beating to announce the impending death of the arch-traitor to the Revolution. Soldiers were already being strategically placed throughout the city, to prevent any attempts to rescue the Queen on her way to the scaffold and Robespierre later ordered the cavalry to be sent to re-enforce them.


Back in the prison cell, Marie-Antoinette had realised that she needed to change her menstrual linen again – the old cloths were now soaked with blood. The few guards and gendarmes who had now entered her cell refused to leave when the Queen asked them to give her a few moments in private to change her underwear. Blushing, she therefore had no choice but to crouch in a corner while Rosalie shielded her as best she could and change into new linens. Then, Rosalie helped Marie-Antoinette step out of the black widow’s dress which had worn as mourning since the beheading of her husband ten months earlier. The Committee had decreed that she was not allowed to go to her death in mourning. Another dress was selected, although the Queen did manage to weave some black ribbon around her bonnet, as sign of respect for her dead husband.

Then, Sanson, the public executioner, entered her rooms to cut-off the last of her hair, to leave her neck exposed for the blade of the guillotine. To her obvious displeasure, her hands were bound roughly behind her back and the woman who had once been the cynosure of the ancien régime and the darling of high society was brusquely escorted from her cell, leaving behind an hysterically sobbing teenage serving girl and a single gold watch - a childhood gift from her mother, the Empress Maria-Teresa, inheritrix of an imperial legacy that stretched back to Charlemagne. That little watch, still ticking as it slowly counted down the final moments of its owner’s life, was all that remained of a life that had begun in the imposing grandeur of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna and then been played out in the gilded magnificence of Versailles, where Marie-Antoinette had stood, centre-stage, during the twilight of the Old World.

Once upon a time, centuries before, the Conciergerie had been a royal palace before becoming a prison, so perhaps it was appropriate in some way that it was Marie-Antoinette’s last earthly residence. Taken out into the courtyard, she was roughly manhandled to the back of the cart – an open, wooden tumbrel, used to transport criminals and prostitutes. Her late husband had been given a closed carriage and a priest of his own choosing. Marie-Antoinette’s shame was to be displayed before the entire population of Paris and a republican priest now sat next to her, attempting to offer his spiritual services to her. As she had promised Elisabeth, she politely refused them.

Curiously, and stupidly, the republic’s insistence that she was not allowed to wear black meant instead that Marie-Antoinette was able to go to her death garbed in an altogether more potent colour – white. Like the chic glamour of Anne Boleyn’s dark gown or the liturgically-inspired crimson worn by Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, Marie-Antoinette’s white made a dazzlingly significant statement to those who had come to watch her die. Chronicling the Queen’s aesthetic in 2006, Professor Caroline Weber of Columbia University wrote: “[To republicans] her outfit was pathetic … a hideous, haggard crone, justly deprived of all her ci-devant splendor. But among the spectators, expressions of outright derision were apparently few and far between. By most accounts, as the spectral white figure was escorted through the double hedgerow of navy-blue-coated soldiers who lined her path, the crowds reacted with stunned, leaden silence. Past them rode a woman not covered in jewels, not crowned with feathers; a woman neither outlandishly dressed up nor offensively dressed down; a woman so bereaved that her very mourning gown had been taken away; a woman whose modest pile of remaining clothes was to be shipped off to the female prisoners of the Salpêtrière after her death… Marie Antoinette’s stylish, unfailingly contentious wardrobe had vanished forever. Even before she reached the guillotine, this aspect of her history, her body, her being, had been erased – leaving her only white. But the erasure perhaps revealed even more than it concealed, condensing as it did the whole of her perilously fashionable past. White the color of the fleur-de-lys and of a young bride’s complexion. White the color of a corset’s whalebone stays. White the color of costume parties and sleigh rides in the snow. White the color of powdered hair, coiffed by Bertin and Léonard – or by the mob. White the color of the muslin gaulle, imported or otherwise: pretty at Trianon, perverse in Paris. White the color of Boehmer’s diamond necklace and of “Austrian” ostrich feathers. White the color of the monarchist cockade that launched the march on Versailles. White the color of the Princesse de Lamballe’s skin and hair, mirror images of Marie Antoinette’s own, and fatally sullied for her sake. White the color of true-blue loyalist emblems. White the simultaneous coexistence of all colors: revolutionary blue and red, royalist violet and green. White the color of the locks that she saw the executioner slip into his pocket as he sheared her head to prepare her for her fate. White the color of martyrdom, of holy heaven, of eternal life. White the color of a ghost too beautiful, or at least too wilful, to die. White the color of the pages on which her story has been written – and will be – written. Again and again and again.”

As she passed by the crowds of thousands, some did call out insults, some laughed, some spat and pointed; a few cried out, “Vive la République!” Others remained silent; the secret police spotted several royalists in the crowd, with their faces conspicuously grief-stricken. Near the Church of the Oratory, a working-class woman bravely held up her infant son, to show her gesture of maternal solidarity with the Queen. The Queen gave no sign of seeing any of it – the sympathisers or the detractors. Her face was frozen into an expression of dignified acceptance. There was no token of fear to be seen on her, as she approached closer and closer to death. The moderately Left-wing paper Le Moniteur conceded that the former queen showed “courage enough,” while the more radical Père Duchesne called her “audacious and insolent,” writing that it was the kind of serenity endowed by habitual criminality. Only at one point, when they passed by the Tuileries Palace, did the Queen’s eyes fill with tears and her lips quiver – it was there that she and her family had lived under house arrest since the storming of Versailles, just over four years earlier. It was there, on a baking hot day in 1792, that the monarchy had made its last-stand for survival and the courtyards of the palace had run red with the blood of royalist soldiers as a result of its failure.

When the cart went past the Rue St.-Honoré, the great revolutionary artist, Jean-Jacques David, made a quick sketch of the Queen. It was heroically vicious, showing her proud, disdainful, bloated and ugly. However, as one of the queen’s later biographers noted, “Not even hatred, which made this picture, can deny the awful dignity with which Marie Antoinette endured the shame of her drive to the place of execution.” Seeing the sketch for the first time in 1955, Diana Mitford, Lady Mosley, wrote that it was enough “to bring tears to one’s eyes”; what David saw as ugly disdain, others were to see as heroic dignity. History is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Over an hour later, the cart finally reached the Place de la République, once the Place Louis XV now the Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine stood before a large statue of the Goddess of Liberty; “Lady Liberty,” as she would be renamed, when her image was re-invented, re-modelled and later exported to the United States in the following century. Liberty's cold, passive eyes stared down on the square, neither seeing nor knowing what was being done in the pursuit of the Revolution’s most seductive catchphrase. Earlier in the year, when the moderately republican Madame Roland had been sent to her death for insufficient zeal in the Revolution’s cause, she had turned to the statue and cried out, “O Liberty! What great crimes are committed in your name.” Marie-Antoinette made no such grand gesture, instead she simply stepped down lightly, “with bravado,” from the tumbrel and gazed up at the guillotine. Sensing a moment to make himself useful, the republican priest at her side spoke comfortingly, “This is the moment, Madame, to arm yourself with courage.” With death imminent, the Queen thawed and turned to him, with a smile: “The moment when my ills are going to end is not a moment when courage is going to fail me.”

She went up the steps confidently, stopping to apologise to the executioner when she accidentally trod on his foot. Having her hands bound behind her back limited her sense of balance and freedom of movement. She was strapped into place, lowered beneath the blade and secured. Sanson walked around her, flicked the lever and the blade fell. It was fifteen minutes after noon on Wednesday October 16th 1793 and Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France and Navarre, was dead, two weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday. Her body was hurled in a mass grave, where it was eventually lovingly recovered by French monarchists twenty years later and solemnly re-interred in the Cathedral of St.-Denis, where it rests to this day.

In the years since that terrible day in 1793, Marie-Antoinette has been constantly re-invented. Today, she is seen as both an icon of fashion and of wronged womanhood. The legend of Marie-Antoinette is a polymorphous one, in which the figure of the dead Queen has become everything from a gay icon to a de facto Catholic martyr; she is still considered by many European royalists to be “the incarnation of The Cause.” Feminists too have lamented over the sheer venom of the misogyny which was so brutally deployed against her by the Revolution; movie-makers are continually drawn to the story of a life which encompassed the twin polarities of privilege and privation, glamour and grief. But, it has been over seventy years since a truly realistic portrayal of her has been offered in an English-language movie. She has been dismissed by some scholars as "a feckless, ruthless and manipulative ultra-monarchist," while many others have been just as happy to present her as a self-indulgent bimbo – "frivolous without being funny, extravagant without being elegant." The false story of “Let them eat cake” is just one of many which refuses to go away, despite historians’ best efforts.

Those who knew the real Marie-Antoinette painted a very different picture of the vulgar airhead or naïve and lonely spendthrift so beloved by modern accounts of the last Queen of France. The Comte de St.-Priest, one of her husband’s political advisers, who had disliked her and positively loathed many of her friends, wrote: “She was never evil or cruel. She never betrayed France and at moments of great danger she showed a kind of magnanimity.” The English politician and writer, Horace Walpole MP, said: “Mine is not grief… No, it is all admiration and enthusiasm!” Marie-Antoinette was, for him, “an unparalleled Princess.” Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, remarked that if one wanted to gain the true measure of Marie-Antoinette then one only had to contrast her behaviour with that of her enemies. Edmund Burke's beautiful reflections on her life and downfall are amongst some of the most exquisite pieces of panegyric in the English language. But perhaps the fairest assessment of her personality comes from Maxime de la Rocheterie, who wrote: "She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart..." Marie-Antoinette died a heroine and a lady. One does not have to be a monarchist to see that, obviously. The worst criticism that can be fairly levied against her is that, as a young woman, she was “a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive”. If such a criticism was the worst thing that one could have said against the leaders of the French Revolution, the world might have been a much happier place.


  1. Bravo! Beautiful, heartfelt commentary on this tragic event!

  2. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  3. Thank you all. You're very kind and all too polite to point out my mistake, for which I apologise. In paragraph 6, beginning with the words, "In the course of the trial," I accidentally deleted the Queen's response to the allegations concerning her son, Louis XVII. It is now restored.

  4. This was just beautifully written! Thank you for a respite from all the drier articles I've been reading lately (for my history M.A.! lol). :)

  5. "In the years since that terrible day in 1793, Marie-Antoinette has been constantly re-invented". That is very true... it all depends on where a person studied their history.

    But your post also suggests that Marie-Antoinette was being invented and re-invented during her own lifetime. And as her death was approaching.

  6. Beautiful, much like the other women who preceded her in death, her person was constantly being reinvented.

  7. Thank you for a beautifully written article about a terribly maligned woman. You might have expected that kind of behaviour in the Middle Ages, but that it happened just before the birth of the 19th century, in the land that has produced some of the world's greatest artists, writers and philosophers, it seems quite incredible.

    Susie Kelly - author of "The Valley of Heaven and Hell - cycling in the shadow of Marie-Antoinette"

  8. Very well written and truthful. Marie Antoinette was, like her poor husband before her, a victim of the merciless propaganda wheel of their time. Very sad really. It makes you wonder what history would have been like had they been allowed to live doesn't it?

  9. What a tragic and powerful story! Beautifully narrated, too. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  10. the revolt was initiated by duc de orlens and some dissatisfied nobles it was fanned by some lawyers Parisians and deserted guards it was fuelled by profiteers who created artificial scarcity of the food and the rumour mongers about indiscreet royalty played havoc and the foolhardiness of the king and the queen who could not take stock of the prevailing situation and could not tactfully handle the situation and did not kept a strong force including artillery around them to silence the dissidents and miscreants by a whiff of grapeshots as the Napoleon did they were the victims of their cocooned dreamy nay fairy-world actually the execution of the king and queen was wrong and senseless it was perpetrated by some power hungry persons mob was only manipulated and incited to riots and the bloodshed was for petty grievances and revenges it was deliberate orchestrated mutiny and revoltonly no revolution misconduct of frustrated literates and hungry illiterates the queen wasn’t as bad as portrayed moreover question of being royalist or revolutionar is out of context now some may be speaking out of emotional attachments they should not be accused we pray that madness must never occur the blood of king Louise XVI indeed visited the france and whole of Europe afterwards for many years

  11. loved it gave a true insight in Marie


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