The tragic tale of Marie Antoinette's death during the French Revolution is the stuff of legend. But while the story of Marie Antoinette ends with her beheading in 1793, the tragedy of her family continued to unfold long after her death.
Marie Antoinette and her husband, the Dauphin, were married for seven years before consummating their marriage—much to the chagrin of Marie's family, particularly her critical mother, the Empress Maria Teresa of the Holy Roman Empire. Marie's place in the royal household of France and Franco-Austrian relations absolutely depended on her producing a male heir, even before her husband became the King of France in 1774.
While Marie was fulfilling her wifely duties and setting fashion trends in the court at Versailles, France was starving. And while Louis XVI continued to send money abroad to support the Americans in the American Revolution, France's national debt exploded; taxes grew, settling most unfairly on the poor; and rampant unemployment combined with poor crops meant that by the late 1780s, France was a powder keg of dissension, anger, and resentment. And Marie, with her courtly ways, detached Austrian air, and unfortunate proclivity for spending masses of money, became the scapegoat.
Things rapidly went downhill for the French royal family after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789; by October, Marie, her husband, and their surviving children were removed from Versailles and moved to the Tuileries in Paris, where they were placed under house arrest. In 1792, the King was deposed and the family was imprisoned in the Temple in Le Marais. Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793; Marie followed 10 months later, on October 16.
Marie and Louis XVI had four children, all born before the French Revolution. But only one of them lived to adulthood.
1. Marie Thérèse
Marie Antoinette's first child was a girl named after her mother. When Marie Thérèse was born on December 9, 1778, Marie Antoinette suffered a convulsive fit and collapsed, not surprising after 12 hours of labor in her stuffy room and the possibly dangerous incompetence of her doctor. The Queen wasn't informed of the sex of the child until hours later. But when she woke, she reportedly said, “Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been property of the state. You shall be mine.”
After her parents were killed, Marie Thérèse became a true orphan. She remained in the Temple prison before her release in December 1795. Soon after, she was married to the Duc d'Angoulême, nephew to the new King, the self-styled Louis XVIII, and now heir to the throne of France.
As the Duchesse d'Angoulême, however, her life did not improve: Her marriage was an unhappy one and never consummated, the tragic circumstances of her early life had left her bitter and angry, and she was to spend most of her life exiled from France. She had not inherited her mother's famed beauty or her grace, though for a time, as her husband's claim on the throne became even more assured, she bore her mother's title: Madame la Dauphine.
In 1830, Marie Thérèse technically did achieve the title of Queen of France—for about 20 minutes, long enough for her husband the Duc to sign the abdication papers. She died in October 1851, at the age 72, still in exile. In her last testament, she forgave those who'd made her life so miserable, following, she said, the example of her parents.
2. Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France
The King's male heir and the next Dauphin of France was born in 1781. He was known as a bright kid, though he was often in poor health. After suffering from bouts of intense fevers, Louis Joseph died of tuberculosis in June 1789, a month before the infamous storming of the Bastille.
3. Louis XVII
Louis Charles was born in March 1785. Originally, he was set to become the Duke of Normandy. But after Louis Joseph’s death, he inherited the title of Dauphin of France and became heir to the throne.
After his father’s execution, Royalists continued to recognize the imprisoned child’s claim to the French throne. Louis was removed from his mother’s care not long before her execution; he later provided testimonies against Marie Antoinette (according to the Chateau de Versailles, he was manipulated by an abusive cobbler and forced to say his mother had molested him).
Louis died in prison at the age of 10, most likely of tuberculosis exacerbated by his brutal prison conditions. The coroner who performed the autopsy preserved the boy’s heart and kept it hidden for years. In 1975, the mummified organ—which had spent a stint in Spain after being stolen by a student—was sent to the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Marie Antoinette’s youngest child was born prematurely in July 1786. She died just a month shy of her first birthday.
A version of this story was originally published in 2010; it has been updated for 2021.