This Day in History: October 16th

Today in History: October 16, 1793

Exécution_de_Marie_AntoinetteDuring the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was one of the most hated and prominent targets of the French revolutionaries. The French people disliked her because of her foreign birth (particularly being from Austria, the bitter enemy of France at the time) , ostentatious lifestyle and perceived haughtiness. There was also talk of her having adulterous affairs with members of both sexes, which led to Parisians derisively referring to her as the “Austrian Whore.”

Needless to say, it wasn’t difficult for the masses to pin all their frustrations with the monarchy squarely on the Queen. Ultimately the French people’s hatred of her resulted in her being beheaded on this day in history, 1793.

Did she deserve this hatred and eventual killing at the hand of her former subjects? Not really. She was mostly just a convenient target for the mob.

Marie Antoinette was born on November 7, 1755 in Vienna, Austria, the 15th offspring of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife the Empress Maria Theresa. During Marie’s youth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was roughly the same as age as Marie, had come to play for the imperial family. After the performance, when the musician was playing with the children and nearly slipped and fell, Marie deftly stepped in and caught him. A grateful Mozart told her “I’ll marry you someday.”

But fate, and her imperial parents, had other plans for Marie’s marital prospects. Marie Antoinette married the Dauphin (Crown Prince) of France when she was 15 in order to strengthen the political ties between Austria and France. In 1774, her husband became King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became the Queen of France.

Initially, her beauty, eloquence, and personality endeared the people to her. But as matters degraded between the general public and the aristocracy, she became the favorite member of the elite class to vilify. Throughout most of her time in France, she was frequently accused of such things as: incest with her son; having numerous affairs with just about every man or woman she came in contact with; attempting to weaken France so that Austria could take over; attempting to bankrupt France through political intrigues and lavish spending (she was nicknamed “Madame Déficit”); attempting to siphon the funds in France’s treasury to her brother Joseph II of Austria; attempting to defraud jewelers of the cost of a certain extremely expensive diamond necklace; wishing to bathe in the blood of her political enemies (I can’t make this stuff up); orchestrating orgies; being the “power behind the throne”, influencing many of the king’s decisions that were seen as hurting France (nicknamed “Madame Veto”); plotting to kill the Duke of Orléans; orchestrating the massacre of Swiss Guards; etc.

In reality, there is little evidence that any of these things took place, save her lavish spending. However, her spending habits were nothing compared to most French royalty at the time, which is somewhat surprising, considering the Queen was expected to out-do everyone else. But it should be noted, that’s relatively speaking. By most standards through history, her spending habits were indeed ridiculous for most of her time as queen. Unlike many of her fellow aristocrats, though, she did include extremely generous charitable contributions to the poor of France in her spending habits.

Angry mobs have never been known to let little things like facts get in the way of their blind rage and Antoinette quickly became public enemy number one.

When the situation fully degraded, the King and Queen made a desperate attempt to escape with their family to Austria in 1791, where Marie’s brother was now Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, but they were captured by revolutionary guards and forced to return to Paris.

Marie had been embroiled in secret negotiations with French monarchists and her brother the Emperor to save the monarchy and the Royal Family. News of Marie attempting to save her and her children’s lives enraged the French even further. When France and Austria waged war in 1792, the Royal Family was charged with treason, which ended the monarchy. Louis XVI was put on trial, sentenced to die and was executed in 1773.

Marie Antoinette, now known as the “Widow Capet” by the Revolutionaries, was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on Oct 14, 1793. Pretty much every single charge against her was unfounded such as organizing orgies and incest with her son, among other fabrications. She was soon sentenced to die for these fictitious crimes.

On the morning of October 16, her hair was shorn off, and she was rolled through the streets of Paris in an open cart wearing a simple white dress. Just after noon, she climbed the stairs to the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution and accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner when she reached the top. Her last words on this Earth were, “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.” Moments later, the former Queen of France, just two weeks shy of her 38th birthday, was no more.

Popular history has gone on to remember her pretty much how the French viewed her as the mobs were busy lopping off her head, which is yet another injustice heaped on the poor woman.  If you’re curious to read a bit about the real Marie Antoinette, check out our article: Marie Antoinette Never Said “Let Them Eat Cake”.

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