How and why did the people of France kill Marie Antoinette?

On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette, former Queen of France and Navarre, mounted an open tumbrel led by cart horses, her hands bound behind her.

With a constitutional priest beside her, she was driven through the chill autumn morning from the Conciergerie, where she had been held prisoner, over the Pont au Change, toward the rue Saint-Honore, past the lodgings of the “Incorruptible Patriot” Robespierre, to the place de la Revolution.

“Vive la Republique!” “A bas les tyrans!” shouted the hordes who had come out to witness the final degradation of their Queen. Her once luxurious hair, now white, was cropped beneath a bonnet, her sumptuous silks replaced by simple cotton.

She calmly climbed the scaffold, then accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner, Henri Sanson. “Monsieur,” said Marie Antoinette, “I beg your pardon. I did not do it on purpose.” These were her last words before her head fell beneath the blade of the guillotine, and they are an apt comment on her entire life.

Twenty-three years earlier a young, naive, and uneducated girl of 15 was brought to France and welcomed by the populace as their future Queen. This was a daughter of the great Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who, for political reasons, had proposed to Louis XV the marriage of Marie Antoinette and his grandson Louis-Auguste Capet, future King of France. The young couple were married in the splendor of Versailles in 1770, and four years later the Dauphin (Louis-Auguste) was crowned at Reims.

Then began a fairy-tale life for the young Queen, whose extravagances had no limit. Her silks and brocades numbered in the hundreds, a household of 500 ministered to her every need, and each morning a hairdresser drove from Paris in a coach drawn by 6 horses to style her hair.

In those days of rococo artifice, women wore their hair combed up on top of their heads in fabulous arrangements, sometimes three feet high, topped with precious objects, which might depict a garden or a hunt. Marie Antoinette had her own palace, the Petit Trianon, where she indulged her lavish tastes and whimsical desires. At “Little Vienna,” as she fondly called it, the Queen reigned supreme, posted orders for the servants, kept a certain social set on hand to amuse her, and opened a small theater for further diversion.

From Austria, Maria Theresa watched with increasing apprehension and wrote frequently to her frivolous daughter. “I know only too well how extravagant you are. If you are not careful, you will lose, through these follies, the good will that you had at the beginning. Everybody knows that the King is thrifty, so you will receive all the blame. I hope I do not live long enough to see the disaster which will probably result.”

Marie Antoinette paid no attention, and the charming life lapsed into decadence, infested with scandal and intrigue, disturbed by mounting debts. Some of those at the court of Versailles proved opportunistic and disloyal; rumors were spread about the Queen’s supposed affairs and misconduct.

More importantly, the populace at large, plagued by burdensome taxes and inflation in the years preceding the Revolution, began to see the Queen as symbolic of gross inequality and bureaucratic corruption. She blithely earned the nickname Madame Deficit. The young Queen also meddled in international politics, not always in the best interests of her country.

In response to requests from her Austrian relations, Marie Antoinette made concessions for financial and military assistance in both 1778 and 1784, against the wishes of her husband. This and a certain amount of favoritism in her appointment of ministers proved potent ammunition at her trial some years later. The French disliked Marie Antoinette’s influence over the King, not only because of what she actually did, but because they could not abide the idea of being ruled by a woman.

If Marie Antoinette had her faults, she cannot be said to have caused all that troubled France. Nevertheless, she and Louis XVI became the obvious scapegoats for decades of oppression, discord, and economic difficulties, exacerbated by the excesses of the regime of Louis XIV. The populace was seething, and the King was ineffectual.

On July 14, 1789, the people stormed the Bastille, and the Revolution was under way. They rioted at Versailles on October 5 and 6, abducted the royal family, and brought them to the Tuileries Palace in Paris with the intent that here they might rule more effectively, reform the constitution, and control inflation. Instead the King and Queen attempted an escape, only to be captured again in Varennes.

In 1792 mobs stormed the Tuileries in a bloody siege. The National Convention, the second revolutionary assembly, assumed sole authority, brought Louis XVI to trial, and found him guilty of supporting counterrevolution and of killing Frenchmen. He was guillotined in 1793 and “the Widow Caper confined to the Conciergerie under constant surveillance.

As Marie Antoinette sat in her damp cell without heat, adequate furnishing, books, or even a mirror, which particularly troubled her, the Terror was unleashed on France and revolutionaries Robespierre and Danton reached the height of power.

At last the convention agreed that it was “time to root out every trace of monarchy,” that the hapless, and by now insignificant, widow should be tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal, whose methods Danton underscored: “Let us be terrible, to spare the people being terrible.”

Marie Antoinette was brought to trial on the evening of October 12. Heavily guarded, she was led upstairs to the Palais de Justice, dark except for two candles to light her face. The prosecutors had found virtually no tangible evidence against the Queen and so resorted to popular rumor, a dizzying tirade of truth and lies.

The clerk read a lengthy document accusing her of causing the riots of October 5 and 6, 1789, and inciting the King’s flight to Varennes, his vetoes of National Assembly decrees, and his deception of the French people. Deputy Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville charged that Marie Antoinette had ordered Swiss Guards to fire on the French who stormed the Tuileries, and that she had obtained their loyalty with numerous bottles of liquor. There was a ludicrous charge that the Queen carried two pistols with her at Versailles in order to shoot the Duc d’Orleans.

Time and again the prosecutor referred to the sumptuous banquets and parties that had occurred at Versailles, laying particular weight on the exorbitant sums spent at the Petit Trianon. Furthermore, Marie Antoinette was said to have sent gold to her brother, the Emperor of Austria, for war against the Turks, and to have betrayed French military secrets to foreign powers.

On October 13 the trial was resumed. Forty witnesses were called in to testify. Questions and accusations were hurled at Marie Antoinette, to which she responded with remarkable calm and resourcefulness.

“Do you regard a King essential to the welfare of the nation?” “An individual cannot judge of that.”
“Do you regret your son’s loss of the crown?”
“I shall regret nothing for him when France shall have been made happy.”
“During the revolution you have not ceased to work against liberty, to intrigue with foreign powers.”

“Since the beginning of the revolution I have denied myself all foreign correspondence, and I have never had a decisive voice in the internal affairs of government.” Here Marie Antoinette blatantly lied, and all who were present knew it.

Finally, just as Anne Boleyn was charged with incest with her brother when Henry VIII wanted to get rid of her, Marie Antoinette was charged with having such a relationship with her eight-year-old son. Assistant Prosecutor Hebert produced a signed confession that he had extorted from the frightened Dauphin. To support this preposterous claim, Hebert ascribed to the Queen an even more hideous motive: that she wished to injure her son, weaken his powers, and thus continue to dominate him even on the throne.

Some of the charges of the Revolutionary Tribunal had some truth, while others were blatantly ridiculous, but the outcome was predictable from the start. Marie Antoinette was pronounced guilty of instigating plots to assist foreign powers and outside enemies financially, thus strengthening their armies, and to start a civil war within the Republic of France.

She was condemned to death at 4 A.M. on October 16, 1793, leaving her only a few hours in her cell before facing the angry mob that had once applauded their Queen.