New Historian

Marie Antoinette – Incest, Child Abuse and Adultery?

Marie Antoinette (2)

<![CDATA[On 16th October, 1793, one of the highest profile casualties of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette, was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. France's last queen before the revolution, Marie Antoinette has come to symbolise all of the excesses of the French monarchy. Following the execution by guillotine of her husband Louis XVI nine months earlier, her fate seemed only a matter of time in the passionate revolutionary fervour of late eighteenth century France. On 14th October, Antoinette had been put on trial for a number of crimes, many of which have since been revealed as fabricated. The main charge against her was treason, an accusation built around the idea that she and her husband had conspired to launch a counter revolution. In reality, the trial was closer to an assassination of her character than an attempt to prove guilt of a particular crime. Among the charges were incest and adultery. Louis and Antoinette's son, Louis Charles, had been separated from his mother following the family's capture. Building on rumours that Antoinette allowed her son to share a bed with her when he was ill, the prosecutors constructed a story that he had been sexually abused by his mother. Exactly how Louis-Charles was treated while in jail is unclear, but somehow the prosecutors at Antoinette's tribunal managed to persuade him to testify against his mother. Then, as now, the mere hint of sexual abuse towards a child was enough to trigger widespread revulsion. The prosecutors had succeeded in painting Marie Antoinette as a complete degenerate, turning an already unpopular figure into a despised one. The all male jury found her guilty of all charges, and she was sentenced to death. Born in Vienna in 1755, Antoinette was the fifteenth child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Part of one of the most powerful families in Europe at the time, she soon drew the interest of other monarchies around the continent. At the age of fourteen she married the future Louis XVI, sealing a new alliance between former enemies Austria and France. Before Louis’ ascent to the throne Marie Antoinette was celebrated as a teen idol in France. Following his coronation however, she became increasingly unpopular. Although stories have inevitably been exaggerated or made up – most famously the belief that she responded to a peasants food shortage by declaring “Let them eat cake” – it is clear that she lived a life almost completely antithetical to her quiet, withdrawn husband. As France entered a period of political and economic turmoil, with support of the monarchical system increasingly sparse, Antoinette’s reportedly debauched life style drew greater and greater condemnation. Spending much of her time away from the king in her private castle, the Petit Trianon, rumours began to circulate of adultery, while pamphlets accused her of ignorance of the French people, greed, and debauchery. Of course, such depictions of the last French queen have stuck. We often consider her the archetype of the excesses of extreme wealth, failing to consider that such portrayals were likely often made with ulterior motives. Indeed, many historians since, such as Charles Duke Yong, have painted her as a generous, modest monarch who tried to reform the morals of the court. Undoubtedly, the French Revolution was a vital moment in the history of democracy, coming in a society which was deeply divided between class. But is accepting the cartoonish images of Marie Antoinette failing to grasp the true complexity of the factors at play in the conflict between monarchy and people?]]>

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