Should you go looking for the prison cell in which Marie-Antoinette spent her last few months, it no longer exists. Imprisoned in the former medieval fortress of the Conciergerie on the Quai d’Horloge in the centre of Paris before her ‘trial’ and death, the dank and dark cell in which she rested, alone, unable even to kiss her children goodbye, was later turned into a memorial. The death of Marie-Antoinette by the sharp blade of the guillotine may have been quick, but her death sentence began well before.
At a ball in 1781, Marie-Antoinette was dressed in a blue gown all sprinkled with sapphires and diamonds; beautiful, young, adored by all, having just given a Dauphin to France, not dreaming of the possibility of a backward step in her brilliant career, she was already on the edge of the abyss. What happened to the Queen, and why was she so unpopular in France?
When Marie-Antoinette arrived in France she was initially adored for her youth, her beauty, her vitality, her generous nature. The old king Louis XV was especially enamoured with his grandson’s new bride. But the palace of Versailles, steeped in courtly rituals and traditions, was not for the faint-hearted. Would she be strong enough to survive life at the palace?
On 2 November 1755, a tiny but healthy baby girl entered the world. Not an ordinary world, hers was the sprawling royal Hofburg complex in Vienna where kings and queens had been born since the 13th century. Nor was she an ordinary baby girl; she was Marie-Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria, who would be crowned Queen of France whilst still a teenager. She was born into privilege and wealth but would end her days in a dank prison on the Seine river; her life would be horrendously cut short by a revolutionary government thirsting for revenge. Here is the first of a series of articles on the life of Marie-Antoinette – daughter, wife, queen, mother, a fashion icon and a hated symbol of a repressive regime.