France had intervened in the American Revolution on behalf of the colonists, which created major debts for the French state. Including the negative impact the 18th-century colonial wars in total had on France economically, the french working class began to struggle for survival. The people who owned properties such as the Catholic Church (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate) did not have to pay taxes, but the ordinary working class had to pay high taxes and began resenting the royal family and their luxurious lifestyle.
Her husband, King Louis XVI attempted to form a more representative system of taxation, which was prevented by the nobility. The press blamed Marie Antoinette and named her "Madame Veto", even though she was not the only wealthy person in France. The clergy, nobility and common people met at Versaille to reform the French state in 1789. As the clergymen and noblemen resisted giving up on their privileges, the "Third Estate" delegates formed a "National Assembly" that was to place the government in the hands of the people for the first time.
As conditioned worsened for the French people, cartoonists and reporters depicted Antoinette as the "Austrian whore" who did not prioritize people. In October 1789, a group of Parisian women marched to Versaille and protested against the high cost of goods and imprisoned the royal family in the Tuileries. In June 1791, Marie and Louis XVI fled Paris for the Austrian border. Rumor has it the queen's brother, Holy Roman Emperor was waiting there with troops, ready to invade France and overthrow the revolutionary government. This rumor further damaged the queen's image and portrayed her as a traitor.
The royal family and Louise XVI restored the throne and the people began resenting the monarchs above the nobles. In April 1792, the Jacobin, radical revolutionary, tested the loyalty of the monarchs by declaring war on Austria, and the defeat of the french was yet again blamed on the foreign queen, Marie Antoinette. In August, another mob overthrew the monarchy and imprisoned them in a tower. Revolutionaries began to massacre the prisoners by the thousands. Marie's best friend, Princess de Lamballe was dismembered in the street and the revolutionaries paraded her head and body parts across Paris. Eventually, Louis XVI was put on trial for treason in December and executed in January.
Marie Antoinette lost custody of her young son, who was forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest in July 1793 and by October, she was convicted of treason and sent to the guillotine. She only lived for 37 years.
It is clear, that Marie Antoinette was a powerful symbol to the revolutionaries. The pamphleteers accused the queen of adultery and many reasons, building the image of a self-interested woman. A story was once fabricated about her, that around 1789, when Marie was told that the french had no bread, she said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—“Let them eat cake.” According to historians, the story is false and only made to damage the queen's image. Marie Antoinette was in fact an intelligent woman who donated often to charitable causes and displayed sensitivity towards the ordinary french people. The story of “Let them eat cake” has in fact been around since before Marie. Something similar was first told about Marie-Thérèse, Spanish princess married to King Louis XIV in 1660, uttering that the french people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pâté). During the 18th century, several other ryals were blamed for the same remark including two aunts of Louis XVI. Also a story of a noblewoman who said "Let them eat cake!" is written in the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions around 1766, which is when Marie was only 11 years old!
A famous scandal that ruined the queen's image was the diamond necklace scandal that the Crown Jewelers, Böhmer, and Bassenge had been trying to sell for years. The necklace had about 650 diamonds and weight approximately 2,800 carats. It was presented to Louis XVI in 1782, but the queen declined the offer. However, the necklace was bought by the cardinal on behalf of the queen and a major scandal and affair story spread across France, damaging Antoinette's reputation. This scandal greatly contributed to the falling of the monarchy and Marie Antoinette's death.
Cover Image Credit: Erik Cornelius, National Museum, Sweden. Painting by Swedish portraits Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, commissioned by Gustave III.