Marie Antoinette was herself the 15th of 16 children born to the formidable Austrian empress Maria Theresa. The Holy Roman Empress managed to give birth and have an annoying tooth extracted on that fateful day of November 2, 1755, all the while attending to the business of empire when she wasn’t bothered by her labor pains.
Motherhood in those days WAS as much the duty of a royal as governance. Maria Theresa was the rare female royal (along with Catherine the Great) to be the actual ruler rather than a mere consort, but most other royal daughters knew from the cradle that their primary function was to marry well and to bear heirs for their adopted kingdom. Maria Theresa considered the marriage she helped to broker between her youngest daughter and Louis Auguste, the grandson of Louis XV, the greatest political coup of her career; the union of the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties was a treaty between two countries that had been enemies for upwards of 950 years. That was the easy part. Who could have foreseen that Marie Antoinette’s own biology and other, outside, circumstances would conspire against her (and young Louis), that she had not inherited her mother’s astonishing fertility. Nor, as it turned out, had she married a husband eager to fulfill his connubial obligations.
Lucky for her, Marie Antoinette loved children and eagerly looked forward to motherhood. Unluckily, she had irregular menstrual periods. And Louis most likely suffered from a medical condition that rendered an erection (let alone penetration and intercourse) horrifically painful, so no wonder he didn’t look forward to his nightly visits to her bedchamber. They were married by proxy in Austria on April 19, 1770 with Marie Antoinette’s brother Ferdinand taking Louis’s place at the altar, and were formally wed in France in the chapel at Versailles on May 16. That night the marital bed was blessed by the archbishop and the bridegroom’s lusty grandfather King Louis XV exhorted the frightened and naïve teens (who’d been taught little about the birds and the bees) to do their duty for France. Young Louis famously wrote a single word in his hunting journal to refer to the events of May 16, 1770—rien—nothing—meaning that he had not gone hunting on his wedding day. But rien is exactly what happened in their marriage bed that night. And rien is what continued to occur for years—all the way until the summer of 1777.
Meanwhile, the childless Marie Antoinette, unfulfilled, and with nothing else to occupy her, as Louis denied her any political input, directed her prodigious energies elsewhere, developing a mania for fashion and interior design, high-stakes gambling, dances and late-night masquerades. By surrounding herself with a select coterie of close friends and admirers of both sexes, her detractors started rumors that she was sleeping with all of them. The vicious gossip spread, and people both inside the court and beyond were quick to believe it.
The monarchs’ first child, a daughter, Marie Thérèse, wasn’t born until December, 1778. But because she was a girl she could not inherit the throne. Marie Antoinette was upset, and her own mother seemed to blame her for failing, (the fact that the child was named after the empress hardly made up for the fact that it was not a boy). Louis was not perturbed, however. He quoted a few lines of verse from his favorite poet about how precious his little daughter would be to him, and assured Marie Antoinette that they would have more children and a son would be born soon enough. But she suffered more than one miscarriage as they continued to try for an heir.
Finally, on October 22, 1781, Marie Antoinette did what she came to France to do back in May of 1770—bear an heir to the Bourbon throne. Her son, the dauphin Louis Joseph was born. But he was a sickly boy. His spine was malformed and he suffered from a pulmonary disorder.
Motherhood changed Marie Antoinette. Her prior giddiness had been an outlet to replace the lost opportunities to fulfill her maternal instincts. During this era, the new-age philosophies of Jean Jacques Rousseau were all the rage. Marie Antoinette and other aristocratic women of France and England were in the vanguard of following his dictates. When she was pregnant with her first child (and assumed it would be a son), Marie Antoinette informed her mother of her intentions to follow Rousseau.
“Ma chère maman is very kind to worry about my darling future child. I can assure her I will take great care of it. But the way they are brought up now they are less hampered than we were when I was little. They are not swaddled; rather, they are always in a crib or held in the nurse’s arms, and as soon as they are old enough to tolerate the open air, they are introduced to it little by little until they become fully accustomed to the outdoors, and after that, they are always outside in the sunshine. I think this is the best way to raise them. Mine will be downstairs with a small grille to separate him from the terrace (so that he cannot get out on his own and do himself some injury); thus he may learn to walk faster than he would on a polished parquet floor.”
Marie Antoinette would bear another son, Louis Charles, in 1785, and a daughter, Sophie Hélène Béatrice, the following year. Unfortunately, the little girl would not live to see her first birthday. Marie Antoinette was devastated. “She would have been my friend,” the queen grieved. And yet, she was derided for mourning her daughter; her grief was considered excessive for the passing of a mere infant girl! Little Louis Charles, on the other hand, was as healthy as a horse. Unlike his older brother, he was “as sturdy as a typical peasant youngster,” resembling his stout father.
The dauphin’s health declined steadily over the years and both parents were deeply affected by his astonishing maturity in coping with his lifelong afflictions, and mourned his premature passing at the age of seven. His June 4, 1789 death came in the midst of the unprecedented meeting of the three Estates General in the town of Versailles. The Clergy, the Nobility, and the Proletariat were convening to reform the government in the hopes of transforming it into a constitutional monarchy—the prelude to Revolution, as things would transpire. The delegates were so callous (and yet they accused the sovereigns of a lack of sympathy for the needs of the people) that they would not permit Louis even a single day to grieve for the loss of his heir, interrupting him shortly after he received the tragic news, in order to demand his participation in the political events of the day. Marie Antoinette was horrified. “At the death of my poor little dauphin, the nation hardly seemed to notice,” she famously lamented.
When the Revolution came to their doorstep, Marie Antoinette insisted that the family remain together and, ironically, through four years of house arrest and increased demoralization and deprivation at various locales in Paris, she and Louis endeavored to keep things as “normal” as possible for their two surviving children. They played games with them, read to them, kept up with their schooling, and took walks in the gardens when permitted. In 1793, when Louis Charles was ripped from Marie Antoinette’s custody and taken away to be re-educated by a staunch revolutionary, taught to despise her, his executed father, and his beloved aunt, the queen’s heart was broken, and it was then, I believe, that Marie Antoinette began to lose the will to live.
Marie Antoinette and her Two Oldest Children
Marie Antoinette and her three oldest children; her son points to the empty cradle where the image of her second daughter, princesse Sophie Helene Beatrice, was painted out after the baby died at 11 months old
Marie Antoinette's oldest child, Marie Therese, "Madame Royale," painted after her mother's death, as an adolescent, after the Revolution
Marie Antoinette's oldest son, Louis Joseph, first dauphin, who died at age 7 on June 4, 1789
Marie Antoinette's second son, Louis Charles, the second dauphin, who died in imprisonment in the Temple in 1795 at the age of 10. Romantics like to believe that he was smuggled away by a Scarlet Pimpernel-type rescuer and replaced with a changeling, but recent testing has proved that DNA from the heart of the little boy who died there matches Marie Antoinette's.
Thank you to Juliet Grey for telling us of Marie Antoinette's Greatest Triumph. People forget behind the clothes, hair and money, Marie Antoinette was a loving mother.
Thank you also to Amy Bruno and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for including me in this wonderful Book Tour.