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History Makers: Marie Antoinette

From nation’s sweetheart to public enemy, Emily Brand reveals what it was that led her to the guillotine

When Marie Antoinette climbed the steps to the scaffold at around midday on 16 October 1793, her execution was hailed as the triumph of liberty over oppression. With shorn hair hidden under a cap and in a simple dress, she was unrecognisable from the queen addicted to extravagance, or the brutal harpy that had become familiar in popular prints. Standing on the executioner’s foot as she passed by, with her final words she begged his pardon. The blade of the guillotine fell. The crowd cheered, and some at the front rushed to mop up her blood with their handkerchiefs. Later that day, a revolutionary newspaper declared, “the globe is purified!”

Few would have imagined this tragic end for the child born at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, in 1755. The 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, she was christened ‘Maria Antonia’ and known to the family as Antoine. She and her siblings spent their childhood in the colourful court of Vienna while their mother charted out their futures, determined to use her large brood to national advantage. Though Austria and France had been enemies for some 300 years, a fragile wartime alliance had been established when Antoine was an infant. When peace came in 1763, the Empress set her eyes on the grandson and heir of Louis XV. Antoine’s matrimonial career seemed clear, and a French tutor was called.

On 19 April 1770, the 14-year-old archduchess married Prince Louis-Auguste in Vienna by proxy, and she left for France to meet her new husband in person. When Maria Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringen (henceforth, Marie Antoinette) was welcomed by the French royal family in May, her charm and “refreshing innocence” was widely admired, and while there were some mutterings about her Austrian heritage, her future seemed optimistic. A whirl of festivities at Versailles set the tone for the court she would cultivate over the next 20 years.

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December 2016