Marie Antionette, baptized Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, was born in Vienna, Austria. She was the daughter of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, then rulers of the Hapsburg Empire.
By the time she was 14, however, Antionette had been shipped off to Paris to marry Louis Auguste, who would ultimately become King Louis XVI, continuing the incestuous network of European royalty that had become tradition by the 18th Century.
Antoinette was baptized a Catholic and her formal education was more religious than academic. This was the norm for pre-Enlightenment female aristocrats, the more secular subjects–math, arts and sciences–having been reserved for the boys.1
Though her behavior as the Queen of France was often the subject of moral scrutiny, (it is generally accepted that she had a long-term affair with the Swedish diplomat to France, Count Axel von Fersen, among other excesses)2 a heartfelt letter to her sister written the night before her execution professes her devotion to the Catholic faith. She wrote:
I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed… I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness, He will mercifully accept my last prayers, as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy.3
A deathbed confession? Perhaps. Nevertheless, Antoinette was most certainly a Catholic.
“Let them eat cake”
It is disputed as to whether or not Antoinette ever actually uttered those words. However, she was quite well-known for her excessive, luxurious lifestyle, often staying up nights to drink, gamble and socialize. Furthermore, while the average French citizen toiled in poverty, Antoinette was commissioning the construction of new, elaborate palaces and additions to the already-decadent Versailles.4 Regardless of what she may have said, Antoinette was, is, and still remains a symbol of economic inequality between the privileged classes and the masses.
She wasn’t the naive airhead she is often portrayed to be, either. In fact, she was relatively savvy politically. Her husband, Louis XVI, was rather introverted and often avoided the more pressing political concerns that landed at his doorstep. And when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it was Antoinette that gathered her advisors, made decisions and sent letters to other European monarchs asking for assistance.5
Still, in a symbolic gesture signaling the end of the era of European monarchs, Antoinette was convicted of treason and executed at the guillotine on October 16, 1793.6
Antoinette’s death was the beginning of a period of violence in France–and to some degree the rest of Europe–that ultimately toppled European hereditary rule and began Western governance by the principles of the Enlightenment, principles that still persists to this day. Her story and the circumstances of her fall serve as an unheeded warning to oligarchs and aristocrats who, era after era, continually seem to think that their exploitation of the masses will go unanswered. Who do you think will be the next Marie Antoinette?