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Who was Marie Antoinette?

Some historical figures are so infamous that their names are eternally burned into pop culture, giving nearly everybody a passing knowledge of who they are. But there's much more to these icons than just a passing knowledge. Take Marie Antoinette, for example. Most of us know that she was a polarizing figure who helped to usher in the French Revolution, apparently lived in luxury and threw lavish parties, and may or may not have uttered the legendary words, "let them eat cake." But who was she really, and did she really say that famous line?

Who was Marie Antoinette?

Memorial to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, Paris, France
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If there’s a “tl;dr” (too long, didn’t read) abridged answer, it’s that Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France and the wife of Louis XVI. Her love of extravagance and reckless spending and her husband’s laissez-faire (hands-off) approach to caring for his citizens helped to usher in the French Revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy, and both of their deaths by the guillotine. But this is too simplistic and clinical. So, let’s dig deeper.

Marie Antoinette wasn’t French

Aerial view of Vienna, Austria
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Marie Antoinette was born on November 2, 1755, in Vienna, Austria. That’s correct: She wasn’t French. As was common during this period, international marriages between royal families were about building alliances. Marie was the 15th of 16 children born to Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa. In 1765 she was betrothed to marry Louis XVI — who at the time was only 11 and next in line for the throne. On May 16, 1770, the two were wed.

A strategic marriage — and that’s all

The marriage between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette might have been a great way to build bridges between Austria and France, but there’s little evidence that the actual relationship was more than frosty. It’s believed that the marriage was never officially consummated until 1777, resulting in the birth of the couple’s first child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte in 1778.

She was a constant source for the rumor mills

Being in the public eye has never been easy, but being a royal back in the day might have been worse than it is today. Thanks to things like a royal court full of intrigue and an expectation to do everything within the public eye, there was very little that didn’t escape examination or gossip. And since Marie Antoinette was known for having an exuberant personality, there were rumors that she had multiple extramarital affairs.

Rumor mills turned to hate

The Petit Trianon at the Versailles Palace, France
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Of course, she didn’t do herself any favors by carousing and partying almost daily and living in a separate residence from Louis XVI at the Petit Trianon, a private palace created for her on the grounds of Versailles. But Marie Antoinette’s expensive tastes and ability to run up a tab led to her being labeled Madame Deficit in the 1780s. While the nation wasn’t paying its debts, and more citizens struggled to make ends meet, Marie was throwing parties and building expensive structures on the Versailles grounds. Her obliviousness didn’t endear her to the people, making her an ideal target for the argument against monarchies.

But for all her vanity and extravagance, Marie wasn’t as heartless as the history books paint her. While it’s a bad idea to spend money like water when most of your country is starving, she did give significant money to charities across France.

There’s no proof she said, “let them eat cake”

Piece of white vanilla cake on white plate with white background
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It’s a line that’s often tossed around. But more than 200 years after her death, there’s no proof that she uttered this callous statement. What most historians believe she might have said (because there’s still no proof) is “qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which can be loosely translated as “Let them eat bread.” Whether she did or didn’t say this specific statement, what is known is that in 1789 this response was shared with Frenchmen across the country, and they weren’t pleased. By all accounts, “Let them eat cake” is considered one of the main catalysts for the French Revolution.

She had a head for leadership

Being a wartime ruler isn’t ideal, but it’s a reality that royalty faces. Sadly, Marie Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, wasn’t known as the best leader. And when the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, he was too fearful to act. The queen stepped up to the plate and began to call on the monarchy’s allies to escape a deadly situation.

A horrific end

Marie’s escape plan failed, the monarchy was abolished in 1792, and the royal couple was arrested. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was put to death after being tried and convicted of treason. Months later, on October 16, Marie Antoinette was tried and found guilty of treason and theft. She also was sentenced to death by the guillotine at the age of 37.

An old wooden guillotine
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Marie Antoinette is a polarizing figure. On the one hand, she’s historically remembered as a beautiful and fashionable woman who influenced style during her lifetime. But she also serves as a cautionary tale that a leader who ignores the needs of his or her people — whether they’re the head of a country or a business — is inviting mutiny.

Medically, Marie Antoinette Syndrome is a real condition in which a person’s hair turns white rapidly. It’s believed that the night before her execution, Marie’s hair turned from ash blond to completely white.

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