|Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution by William Hamilton, 1794|
In the early hours of 16th October 1793, a famous widow awaited her last sunrise in a dingy cell at La Conciergerie, as hated by some as she was loved by others. Separated from her children and with her husband long since executed, Prisoner 280 had endured a vicious trial, the charges laid before her ranging from incest to treason and through all of it, the outcome was never really in doubt, her fate sealed long ago. The woman in question was, of course, the widow Capet, Queen Consort of France and Navarre, Marie Antoinette.
The small cell was a world away from the splendour she had known, the queen's once vibrant life reduced to a lonely existence of prayer, contemplation and unhappiness. She had never recovered from the death of her husband in January that year, let alone her separation from what remained of her family and now, in the closing hours of her life, she was to know little comfort.
|Marie Antoinette's Cell at La Conciergerie|
Just a few hours earlier Marie Antoinette had been found guilty of treason by the Revolutionary Tribunal; there was no right of appeal and the lady did not ask for mercy as none would be forthcoming. Instead, she was taken to her cell to await the coming day and her inevitable appointment with the executioner. She was not allowed to see her family again and if her husband had been afforded some measure of dignity in his final hours, this was not to be her fate.
As the night drew on, Marie Antoinette wrote a final, heartfelt letter to Madame Élisabeth, her sister-in-law, imploring her to care for the children who would be left behind. The tear-stained missive was never delivered and within the year Élisabeth too would die on the guillotine. With her letter finished, Marie Antoinette penned a few final lines in her prayer book, which would later be found among the papers of Robespierre:
"My God, have pity on me! My eyes have no more tears to cry for you my poor children; adieu! adieu!"
|Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine by Jacques-Louis David, 1793|
The sun had not yet risen when Marie Antoinette was joined by her maid, Rosalie Lamorlière, who arrived at the cell of her mistress to carry out her final duties. Rosalie helped Marie Antoinette dress in a simple white cap, kerchief and gown and assisted at her final toilette, all performed in the presence of her jailers. One can only imagine the solemnity and sadness of these final hours before Rosalie took her leave and her mistress returned once more to her prayers.
The morning progressed all-too quickly then and Marie Antoinette received a procession of visitors from prison and court officials to Henri Sanson, the famed revolutionary executioner. With her hair cut short and hands bound, Marie Antoinette was taken to Cour du Mai where a tumbrel awaited to carry her to her fate. Calmly, she protested that her late husband, Louis XVI, had made his last journey in a carriage and was protected from the crowds who gathered to watch him pass but the officials told her that times had changed since then, she was to face the people of Paris head on.
Accompanied by a sworn priest, Sanson and his assistant, and travelling a route lined with heavy security, Marie Antoinette endured the ride to the scaffold in regal silence. As the mob heckled and jeered she showed no fear, maintaining her dignity until, at the sight of the towering guillotine in Place de la Révolution, she faltered momentarily. With the calls of the crowd ringing in her ears Marie Antoinette gathered herself, stepped down from the tumbrel and calmly climbed the steps to the scaffold.
From that point on Marie Antoinette never faltered in her composure; stepping on Sanson's foot, she apologised to him before saying a final prayer for her family. Just as Louis had faced the guillotine with composed dignity, so too did his queen go to the National Razor without a trace of the fear she must surely have felt. Just after noon the blade finally fell, ending Marie Antoinette's life. Once her head had been displayed to the crowd, her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery and there is would remain until 1815 when both Marie Antoinette and Louis were exhumed and interred at the Basilica of St Denis.
|Funerary monuments of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette|
Throughout her life and since her death she has been lionised and demonised, held up as a martyr and a traitor and yet at the last she was simply a bereaved wife terrified for the fate of her soon to be orphaned children. Whether royalist or revolutionary, one cannot deny that Marie Antoinette showed dignity to the end, regal in every sense of the word.
Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.