Marie-Antoinette; unfinished portrait by Alexander Kucharsky, 1791–1792
Marie-Antoinette; unfinished portrait by Alexander Kucharsky, 1791–1792

Lock her up! In this case, they not only locked her up but also cut off her head. It is not often that a queen is arrested, tried, and publicly executed. Henry VIII had two of his wives beheaded, one after a trial, the other by bill of attainder, but their executions took place in the privacy of the Tower of London. Marie-Antoinette’s problem was not her husband, Louis XVI, who was tried and executed for treason in January 1793. At the time of her own trial nine months later, she found herself the former queen in a year-old republic. Although the prosecution of the king could be justified by the revolutionaries on legal and political grounds, the proceeding against his queen raised more eyebrows, since in France a woman could never hold the throne in her own right.

Marie-Antoinette suffered her fate because of her reputation as a heedless spender of public funds, behind-the-scenes manipulator of ministers, counterrevolutionary conspirer, and, not least, unbridled libertine. She had been a controversial figure almost from the moment she set foot in France in 1770 as the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, for the Austrian Habsburgs had long been sworn enemies of France. The diplomatic and military realignment that had taken place during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), in which France and Austria were allies, had not pleased everyone at the French court, and those who opposed it did not hesitate to feed the rumor mill against Marie-Antoinette. Later, the revolutionaries had only to mobilize this often pornographic pamphleteering to their own ends. In death she became for some a martyr of a dazzling age now tragically darkened, for others a reprehensible symbol of aristocratic arrogance, as conveyed by the apocryphal remark “let them eat cake” (when there was no bread). Over time, the queen perhaps got the last word, as she gained an enduring celebrity as the embodiment of youth, elegance, and taste.*

The most influential purveyor of the martyr image wrote presciently about her a full four years before her death. The Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke reacted with fury to the uprising of October 1789, in which thousands of Parisian market women tramped in the rain to Versailles, attacked the chateau with the men who had joined them, and dragged the royal family to Paris. The queen was forced to flee her private rooms through a secret passage to avoid being killed. Two of her bodyguards were hacked down. Burke nostalgically recalled seeing Marie-Antoinette in person when she was still a young wife and not yet queen: “I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy.” He expected ten thousand swords to leap to her defense in October 1789, and “little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men.”

The queen’s degradation—“that elevation and that fall!”—prompted Burke to formulate his doctrine of conservatism, in which he defended monarchy, religion, and tradition as essential to good order. From the spectacle of her adversity he concluded that

the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded…. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

Thanks to the “new conquering empire of light and reason,” he lamented, “all the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.” The consequences for royalty already loomed: “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order.” Burke would not have been surprised that the royal family’s bungled attempt to flee Paris in June 1791 spurred the diffusion of crude images of the king and queen as barnyard animals being returned to the stable.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Burke stands Will Bashor, as is evident from the subtitle of his book, Marie Antoinette’s World: Intrigue, Infidelity, and Adultery in Versailles. That is, unfortunately, the only comparison that can be drawn between the two authors, because while Burke was inspired by the queen’s fate to think deeply about the social and affective bases of governing, Bashor simply seeks to provide titillation. Following in the footsteps of a long line of detractors, he blames her downfall on her own “thoughtless, fantasy-driven, and notorious antics.” He reproduces large swaths of the pornographic pamphlets written against her and devotes a full chapter to the entirely speculative hypothesis that she suffered from a sexually transmitted disease. The few facts of her life are overshadowed by analysis of her handwriting and her astrological chart.

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Although Bashor admits that the queen faced her execution with a bravery that was noted even by the fiercest republicans, his only interest is her sexual reputation. Thus the final chapter, titled “Guilty?,” focuses exclusively on the charge of adultery rather than the accusations raised at her trial. Bashor pronounces her guilty of adultery but forgivable because she had been sent to “a life in the vile environment of the Château of Versailles.”

John Hardman occupies a middle position on this spectrum of opinions, but his stance is not just middle-of-the-road. Marie-Antoinette: The Making of a French Queen presents her as much more than a symbol whose meaning is in the eye of her beholder. In Hardman’s telling she is neither martyr nor voluptuary but rather a serious participant in politics. Despite her lack of education, Marie-Antoinette quickly learned to make her way among the various factions at the French court, and from 1787 onward, Hardman claims, she intervened with increasing success in the selection of ministers and the determination of policy. She was able to act in this manner because the king lost his nerve in the face of a growing fiscal crisis and the adamant refusal of the courts and specially convened aristocratic assemblies to agree to his plans for reform. The real twist in the tale came in 1791, however, when the queen entered into an improbable alliance with Antoine Barnave, a brilliant twenty-nine-year-old lawyer from Grenoble and leading revolutionary.

Barnave was one of the three commissioners from the National Assembly sent to accompany the royal family back to Paris after their attempted flight that June. Hardman’s evocative pages on the “squalid” eight days it took them to return set the stage for what followed, which he calls a duumvirate, an experiment in joint rule by the queen and Barnave during four crucial months at the end of 1791. As the sun beat down and ominously silent crowds gathered alongside the carriage carrying the royal family, one of the other commissioners flirted with the king’s sister while taunting the queen about her presumed affair with the Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, who had organized the ill-fated flight. Barnave, in contrast, showed real concern for the family and gradually won the confidence of the queen. After their return to Paris, and despite the official fiction that the royal family had been kidnapped, the king and queen were kept under strict surveillance, making it impossible for Barnave to visit them in a public manner. So he and the queen exchanged secret letters using a simple code for names. (Barnave was called ‘2:1,’ after the alphabetic position of the first two letters of his name.)

The supposed goal of this pact was a strengthened constitutional monarchy. The king would agree to accept a constitution in the belief that Barnave could engineer changes in the monarch’s favor. The queen would get her brother, the Austrian emperor Leopold II, to signal his acquiescence by renewing the alliance between the two countries, and this recognition would prompt the king’s two brothers and other important émigrés to return to France and stop fomenting counterrevolution. War would be avoided, order would be restored, and the revolution, Barnave hoped, would end with the guarantee of fundamental changes but the monarchy still in place.

None of these plans came to fruition, though they were no more fantastical than the other options then under consideration. In a country shaped by centuries of monarchical rule, a republic remained inconceivable for most people, including the majority of the National Assembly, even after the flight of the king and queen. It only became a viable alternative when war threatened to destroy the revolution altogether; the republic was not declared until September 1792.

The monarchists proved incapable of formulating a unified position, however, much less a united government. The ultra-royalists wanted war with Austria because it would provide the émigré aristocrats huddling across the border with the armies needed to defeat the revolutionaries and bring back the old regime. Constitutional monarchists aimed to avoid war, and at first they had the advantage that Leopold, his sister’s travails notwithstanding, preferred to see France beset by internal turmoil that would keep it preoccupied at home rather than venturing abroad. The emperor convinced himself that the mere threat of retaliation would force the revolutionaries to back down and that if war came—which it did, at least partly in response to his and Prussian attempts at intimidation—it would be short and entirely to his advantage, especially once he concluded a secret alliance with his arch-enemy Prussia in February 1792.

War turned out to be unavoidable, but only after the initiatives undertaken by Barnave and others failed to shore up the monarchy. In April 1792 the king himself proposed a declaration of war on Austria because he dreamed that it would finally bring resolution. Either France would lose within months or, if French armies managed somehow to prevail, the aristocratic commanders would turn their troops back on Paris and chase out the increasingly bumptious republicans. These projections proved as illusory as those of Austria and Prussia. The menace and then reality of invasion galvanized the people of Paris and radicalized the deputies who had been elected to a new Legislative Assembly in September 1791. They arrested the king in August 1792 and called a constitutional convention that began by declaring a republic, then brought him to trial and executed him as a traitor.

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By then, Barnave had long since given up and gone back to Grenoble, and Marie-Antoinette had returned to her families, both the French and Austrian ones. She sent the French campaign plans to the Austrians and to Fersen, whom she loved and who was most likely her lover, and she arranged for the king to promise a subsidy to the Prussians to pay for their invasion. The sudden unraveling of the unlikely partnership between Barnave and the queen in early January 1792 raises many questions. Since no falling out between the two has been recorded, why did he leave Paris and attempt to retire from public life? Given Marie-Antoinette’s almost immediate reversion to the counterrevolutionary camp, was her liaison with Barnave ever more than a ruse to gain insight into the workings of the most powerful faction in the National Assembly after the royal family’s failed escape?

Hardman insists that both of them were sincere. Barnave saw an opportunity to get the queen and king to see the necessity of cooperating with the constitutional monarchists if they wanted to save the monarchy and themselves. To explain his departure, he cited family business and a simple desire to return home. A new assembly had been elected, and by law he could not serve in it. For her part, Marie-Antoinette implied in her letters to others that she never embraced Barnave’s views wholeheartedly, yet she never said anything negative or derisory about him or his closest associates. At the end of July 1791 she wrote to the Austrian ambassador:

I have reason to be fairly satisfied with…[Adrien] Duport, [Alexandre de] Lameth and Barnave. Right now I have a sort of correspondence with the last two which no one knows about, even their friends. I have to do them justice. Although they always stick to their opinions I have always found in them great openness, strength and a true desire to restore order and consequently royal authority.

Hardman pays little attention to Lameth, who was also a deputy, but this may simply reflect the accidents of history. Neither he nor Barnave wanted their secret contacts with the royal family to be known, and Barnave’s correspondence with the queen didn’t come to light until the late nineteenth century, when their letters were discovered in a castle that belonged to the family of Fersen’s sister. Marie-Antoinette had given her exchange of letters with Barnave to Fersen for safekeeping, even though he resented Barnave’s hold on the queen’s affection.

Antoine Barnave as both ‘The man of the people 1789’ and ‘The man of the court 1791’

Trustees of the British Museum

Antoine Barnave as both ‘The man of the people 1789’ and ‘The man of the court 1791’; artist unknown, 1791

In the face of persistent rumors, Barnave had repeatedly denied any commerce with the royal family after their return to Paris. A document discovered in the king’s papers in August 1792 sealed his fate. This “plan for a ministerial committee arranged with MM. Barnave and Lameth” appeared to prove that the two deputies had been consulting with the king and his ministers. Barnave was immediately arrested in Grenoble, where he spent fifteenth months in prison writing an account of the revolution and his participation in it. In those pages, and again during his trial, he insisted that he had had no personal contact with the queen or the royal family after their return to Paris. His trial took place in Paris a month after the queen’s and led to the same result: execution by guillotine. Lameth had fled into exile, which Barnave could also have done since he lived close to the Swiss border—a fact that he cited futilely in his defense.

The Barnave episode is fascinating, but in the end it occupied only a brief moment in the eventful, contentious, and tragic life of Marie-Antoinette. To call their alliance a duumvirate assigns it more weight than it merits. They could concert their efforts to obtain the outcomes they considered imperative, but their voices did not command authority on their own. They had to work through the ministers, and the ministers could pursue their own initiatives that ran counter to those of the queen and Barnave. Their hand-picked minister of war, Louis, Comte de Narbonne, wanted a war with Austria because he thought it would strengthen the monarchy, and he mistakenly believed that he could secure Prussian neutrality. Barnave gave up on the partnership with the queen once he saw that the war party was inexorably gaining ground.

At her trial in October 1793, Marie-Antoinette faced three main accusations: that with the connivance of the king’s brothers and ministers she had squandered the nation’s finances, that she had informed France’s enemies of the war plans, and that she had fomented civil war in various regions of the republic. She could not but be guilty since she was a royalist in a republic, and her own future depended on overthrowing that republic. Though her reputation for expensive baubles was well deserved, the kingdom’s financial problems went much deeper than her extravagant expenditures on diamonds and renovations of Versailles, her gifts to favorites, and even her offers of funds to her brother the emperor (the revolutionaries never learned of the promises to pay the Prussians if they invaded). She did betray French campaign plans to the Austrians, and her very existence might have helped provoke civil war, but the former had no real effect on the course of the war, and while in prison after August 1792, she was hardly in a position to conspire with anyone.

The parade of other charges raised at her trial make it clear that more was at stake than the guilt or innocence of the former queen. The public prosecutor concluded his opening statement with a scurrilous diatribe that reflected the influence of all those underground pamphlets claiming to detail the promiscuity of the queen:

That finally the widow Capet, immoral in every respect, the new Agrippina, is so perverse and so familiar with every crime that, forgetting her quality of mother and the limits placed by the laws of nature, she did not blush to give herself over (with Louis Charles Capet [her eight-year-old son] and by his own admission) to indecencies whose very name makes one shudder.

Her son had been kept separate from her for the three months preceding her trial. Repeatedly badgered to inform on his mother, he finally signed a statement that she had taught him to masturbate and that as a consequence he was left with a swollen testicle that needed treatment. When pressed on this charge, the former queen refused to dignify it with a response on the grounds that “it would be against nature for a mother to reply to such an accusation.”

Marie-Antoinette’s spirited defense of herself at the trial confirms Hardman’s portrait of her as intelligent, knowledgeable, and quite capable of standing up for her own interests. He sees a mixture of contradictory qualities: she was a loving mother, an interfering wife, vengeful to a fault, a high-stakes gambler, and before 1789, at least, a compulsive pleasure-seeker who could not have enough diamonds, dresses, hats, or horses. Even Hardman, however, has trouble answering the nagging question that confronts anyone who reads the slightest scrap about the queen: Why was she so hated? He considers all the reasons cited then and since—her attempts to govern from behind the throne, her extravagance, her willingness to do anything for her favorites—but finds them inadequate to explain the level of detestation she clearly inspired.

A satisfying answer to the question requires a bit more speculation than Hardman wants to entertain. Part of it is perennial. It is difficult to resist the parallel with Hillary Clinton, who despite her educated manner, sober clothing, and wonky intelligence was similarly dragged through the mud because she was a woman close to and possibly actually in power. Some people, women as well as men, find the idea of women in power terrifying and hence will believe anything about them. Part of the answer, however, is very much contingent on the events and particular personalities of the 1790s. Fashioning a republic out of a centuries-old monarchy was no small task.

The most determined republicans fastened upon the king as the essential sacrificial victim in securing that transition, though they would not have put it that way. If the king was executed after a trial by the assembled representatives of the nation, then a new order could be established. In the event, the king turned out to be an unsatisfactory victim; he had never professed anything but love for his people, and with his mild manner, even at his trial, he hardly seemed an incarnation of evil that deserved eradication. The queen, “the Austrian bitch,” fit the bill in a way that the king never could. Killing her, after heaping every manner of opprobrium on her head, was an act of ritual purification. It failed to work, and more deaths followed. The queen ended up being remembered for her youth and not as the white-haired woman in a white shift who kept her gaze trained on the buildings she passed on her way to the guillotine.

  1. *

    Her image was the theme of a recent exhibition at the Conciergerie in Paris, where she was imprisoned before her execution and which is now a historical monument. “Marie-Antoinette: Metamorphosis of an Image” (October 16, 2019–January 26, 2020) brought together hundreds of personal items, postcards, posters, video clips of movies, and dresses to show the continuing power of the figure of the queen.