Wednesday, 16 October 2013

"My Blood Alone Remains": The Execution of Marie Antoinette

Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna (Vienna, Austria, 2nd November 1755 - Paris, France, 16th October 1793)


Marie Antoinette Being Taken to Her Execution by William Hamilton, 1794
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
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
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.


Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution

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
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.


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23 comments:

  1. Marie Antoinette is one of history's misunderstood people. Because she was not French it was so easy for the French to blame her for her husband's myopia and the excesses of others. She was by far the more intelligent of the two, but she was the one who suffered most, she and her son. It is hard to like anything about the behavior of the French during this period.

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    1. Thanks for your comment; I agree that Marie Antoinette was misunderstood and certainly made a scapegoat. Her treatment was inexcusable.

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    2. The French revolution was a Blue Print for the Russian revolution, planned, financed and executed by the very same people

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  2. I agree Linda. Marie-Antoinette was very much misunderstood. From "let them eat cake" (being the law that there must be cake available if bread is not!) to being an outsider.
    Alone, bereft and miserable, she must have seen little hope for her children. Revolutions are viscous towards monarchies as Russia, Iraq and Iran would find out in later years.
    I hope she's at peace now.

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  3. Life was not all roses for a princess in those days, required to marry for political reasons, endure the requirements of the nation they went to, give birth in a crowd, and take whatever the people of the new nation dished out. The emotions she must have felt at the last. Dragged along through the streets, being jeered... no sympathy or consideration as she faced her death. How sad.

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    1. A royal marriage then was a business arrangement as much as anything, it's true. Marie Antoinette's final months are so moving, I cannot imagine what that last journey must have been like for her.

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  4. I just finished reading "Marie Antoinette" by Evelyne Lever. As an unsophisticated 14-year old, Marie Antoinette was thrust into a position that she was not prepared for. Had she been more intelligent and more politically inclined, she might have been able to influence her husband and avert some of the tragedy that followed. While I can understand the anger of the French people toward the aristocracy, I can not understand the inhumane treatment that they meted out to them. I have often wondered how in later years, after the blood lust had passed, they were able to deal with what they had done.

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    1. I haven't read Lever's biography yet but it is certainly on my list!

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  5. This an excellent post about how society can be so cruel. A proud and courageous women. About she time receive a decent burial. You can't blame her on what her husband was accuse. Seems like revenge to me.

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  6. If her body was 'thrown into an unmarked grave' how were they to find, exhume, identify and bury it in the Basilica some 22 years later, surely they found and reburied a pile of old bones origin unknown.

    Still I suppose it made the French of 1815 feel good, after all they didn't have much to feel good about that year did they?

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    1. I rather get the impression it was almost a best guess based on the remains they found; the grave contained bones, *matter* and a garter... You're right though, it wasn't really a year to treasure!

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  7. What a great lady. Such courage.
    Courage is something you are born with. So many showed fear and cowered before the blade, but not her.
    I probably would have fainted.

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    1. I don't know if I would have been so courageous in the circumstance either!

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  8. Marie Antoinette's marriage should never have taken place, she was too young and to inexperienced what was required by her being a French Queen. Saying that, arranged marriage's aren't always about love but a political statement... Queen Victoria married off her own children around Europe, knowing that one day they would be in a prominent position of power!

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  9. The stories from the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror are just too depressing. People are so cruel. Poor Marie and Louis.

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  10. What a shameful time to be part of the human race, though it is Maria's faith that endures.

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  11. the similarity between the French and Russian revolutions and maybe all revolutions...is after the initial revolt...and the breaking down of the old order...there is always a period of "bloodlust" aka "the Terror" in France... whereby rather than just removing the aristocracy from office... they set about butchering and slaughtering everyone they found who represented the "old order"...Hence the fate of poor Marie Antoinette and husband..likewise the Romanov family... I suppose you could argue that wd be the only true method of establishing another regime but maybe it is rather due to the anarchy that comes about from the breakdown of law and order that is the main culprit...

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