Although most historians of the French Revolution assign the French queen Marie-Antoinette a minor role in bringing about that great event, a good case can be made for her importance if we look more deeply into her politics than most scholars have. Perhaps the best way to frame the question to be resolved here is: why did Marie-Antoinette come to embody so much of what seemed so wrong about the Old Regime that her removal from power, and ultimately her execution, seemed necessary to achieve the goals of 1789?
One answer is that Marie-Antoinette, last daughter of the Empress-Queen Maria Theresa of Austria, entered France under dubious circumstances. Her marriage to the future King Louis XVI in 1770 was intended to strengthen the alliance that France had struck with Austria in 1756. Austria had been France’s most constant enemy for over two centuries, and it is not surprising that the alliance did not dispel deeply ingrained fears and resentments on both sides. In France, the Austrian alliance was widely regarded as a ruse whereby Austria was trying to weaken and possibly destroy France under the guise of friendship. Marie-Antoinette’s marriage to the next French king appeared to many observers in France as another Austrian maneuver to achieve that end, since it was widely believed that Marie-Antoinette, once she became Queen, would exercise considerable influence over her husband and act on orders sent to her from Vienna. Far from assuaging these fears by drawing attention away from Marie-Antoinette’s origins at the time of her wedding, her sponsors did everything they could to publicize her background since they were trying to reinforce the interdynastic foundations of the Franco-Austrian alliance. In particular they stressed the close mother/daughter relationship between Maria Theresa and Marie-Antoinette, who was widely represented as the heir to her mother’s stainless ‘virtue.’ That Marie-Antoinette would always be known as ‘the Austrian woman’ was thus not merely the product of her enemies’ efforts to defame her, but also the result of her sponsors’ foreign policy.
Despite continuing fears of Austrian bad faith, Marie-Antoinette—who presented a young , pretty, fresh face—was immensely popular at first, especially since she allied herself politically with ‘patriot’ forces struggling against the alleged corruption and ‘despotism’ of the royal court. Her numerous acts of benevolence were widely advertised by Marie-Antoinette’s handlers, who tried to maintain her ‘virtuous’ image by steering her away from involvement in court politics. But this image could not be sustained, especially after she became Queen in 1774. For one thing, Marie-Antoinette was in reality no saint. She soon began to gamble, and her notoriously expensive taste in fashions gradually erased her early image as a princess who truly cared for the people. Moreover, her late-night partying without the King give rise to false rumors of extra-marital affairs, rumors that were abetted by Louis XVI’s well known incapacity to consummate the marriage until 1777.
Second, as Queen with influence over government appointments and court patronage, Marie-Antoinette strongly championed her favorites at the expense of those who incurred her disfavor. Her leverage with the King increased with the birth of her first two children, a daughter in 1778 and a son in 1781, and by 1783 Marie-Antoinette could claim to have had a role in recruiting three government ministers. Such interventions won her supporters, but also created enemies who feared that she would purge them from office or strip them of court favors to which they felt entitled.
Finally, once Marie-Antoinette’s brother, Joseph II, took overall command of the Austrian state following the death of Maria Theresa in 1780, he pursued an expansionist foreign policy that not only clashed with French interests, but also raised questions about the loyalty of Marie-Antoinette, since on multiple occasions Joseph asked her to garner French support for his adventures. Indeed, beginning in the early 1780s, false, but widely credited rumors circulated that Marie-Antoinette was sending enormous sums of French government money to Vienna in support of Joseph’s aggression against French allies like Turkey.
Had France not experienced major financial and diplomatic crises at the end of the 1780s, Marie-Antoinette would almost certainly have been spared her fate. But once France entered into a revolutionary spiral in 1787, three factors virtually assured that she would become one of the ensuing Revolution’s victims. First, in the wake of the King’s failure to get his financial plan adopted, Marie-Antoinette acquired more influence in the government that she had ever exercised, which at this critical moment made her seem largely responsible for the monarchy’s slow collapse. Second, far from showing support for the patriotic rising of 1789, Marie-Antoinette sided with the most reactionary members of the government, who sought to repress it. Finally, having always been ‘the Austrian woman,’ Marie-Antoinette fell under immediate suspicion for aiding and abetting France’s enemy, Austria, once war between these two allies erupted in April 1792. If Marie-Antoinette did not ’cause’ the French Revolution, her declining reputation and often unwise decisions certainly helped discredit the Old Regime and made its replacement seem necessary for the salvation of the nation.
Featured image credit: ‘Marie Antoinette being taken to her Execution, 1794’ by William Hamilton (1751-1801). Vizille, musée de la Révolution française. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.