Born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, Archduchess of Austria, the woman known as Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre on May 10, 1774. Her marriage to Louis-Auguste was designed to create peace between Austria and France after the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 and the onset of the Seven Years’ War. She survived shifting political sands of palace intrigue and upheaval between European countries but couldn’t survive the revolution boiling over in her own adopted nation. Here are 10 facts about a woman we love to make up myths about.
1. Marie Antoinette was only 14 years old when she married the future Louis XVI.
Marie Antoinette became a queen as a pawn, a child bride at 14 paired with a 15-year-old Dauphin to seal the union between two countries that had previously been at odds. The marriage took place by proxy on April 19, 1770 in Vienna, with Marie Antoinette’s brother standing in for the groom; a ceremonial wedding occurred May 16 at the Palace of Versailles.
2. Marie Antoinette wanted to ride horses but rode donkeys instead.
Looking to connect with her hunting enthusiast husband, Marie Antoinette sought to learn horseback riding, but was told (particularly by her escort to France, the Count of Mercy-Argenteau) that it was far too dangerous. Fortunately, riding donkeys was deemed acceptable, so the court sought calm, pleasant donkeys for Marie Antoinette to ride. She grew so enamored of her donkey-accompanied treks into the woods that she would host processions into the forest as often as three times a week with onlookers gathered for the spectacle.
3. Marie Antoinette gave generously to others.
The flattened historical view of Marie Antoinette as a puff-headed monster who loathed the poor obscures her generally kind, giving nature. She founded a home for unwed mothers, visited and gave food to poor families, and, during the 1787 famine, sold off the royal flatware to buy grain for those in need. Her generosity wasn’t solely institutional, either. One story shows her jumping quickly to the aid of a vintner who was hit by her carriage, paying for his medical care, and supporting the family until he was able to work again.
4. Marie Antoinette's spending wasn't the main cause of the French Revolution.
It’s easy to see Marie Antoinette and all of Louis XVI’s court as profoundly out of touch with the people of 18th century France because they continued a lavish tradition of royalty in the face of crushing debt and rampant squalor. However, the idea that Marie Antoinette’s expensive whims were to blame for the country’s economic woes is a myth.
When the couple ascended to the throne, the country was already in deep trouble financially, and Louis XVI’s monetary policies failed while he sent massive amounts to support the American Revolution. Propaganda of the time that was typically aimed at kingly mistresses was aimed at Marie Antoinette (since Louis XVI had no mistresses), and populist presses depicted her as being even more extravagant than she was.
5. Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake."
Anti-royal propaganda of the era was so effective that we still believe it to this day, including the idea that Marie Antoinette’s response to the plight of the French not being able to afford bread was “Let them eat cake.” The next time a friend brings that up at a party (happens all the time, right?) you can bet all the money in your pocket that it’s not true. Or, at least, that there’s no record of her having ever said it. On the other hand, stories of oblivious royals suggesting richer pastries when bread’s not available date back to the 16th century, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau told a similar story about “a great princess” in Confessions, but it’s doubtful he was referring to the then-teenaged Marie Antionette.
6. Marie Antoinette had a peasant farmyard built at Versailles.
Marie Antoinette can’t escape all accusations of extravagance, though. Like other royals, she had expensive tastes, but her construction of a replica of a peasant farmyard where she and her friends could dress up like shepherdesses and play at being poor farmhands was beyond the pale. Built in 1783, Le Petit Hameau (“The Little Hamlet”) looked like a real farm except the farmhouse interior’s opulence was fit for a Queen.
7. Marie Antoinette loved children.
Despite not consummating their marriage until seven years in, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI eventually had four children: Marie Thérèse in 1778, the Dauphin Louis Joseph in 1781, Louis Charles in 1785, and Sophie in 1786. Sophie died before her first birthday, and Louis Joseph died at age 7 (probably from tuberculosis), but Marie Antoinette also adopted several children. They included the daughter of a maid who died, and the three children of an usher following his death. When some loyalists attempted to rescue her from the Revolutionary forces, she responded that she “could not have any pleasure in the world” if she abandoned her children.
8. Marie Antoinette could have been rescued from execution.
After Louis XVI was executed, Marie Antoinette—then called Widow Capet and prisoner 280—was imprisoned in the Conciergerie. Her friend Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville visited her wearing two carnations, one of which concealed a note promising her bribe money to help her escape. He dropped it while in her cell and either it was picked up by the guards, or Marie Antoinette read it and scribbled an affirmative response that was then read by the guards. On the night of the attempted escape, the guards were bribed and Marie Antoinette was brought down to meet her rescuers, but one of the guards foiled their plan despite already having pocketed the bribe.
9. Marie Antoinette apologized to her executioner.
For someone who lived such an extraordinary, lavish life, Marie Antoinette’s final words were profoundly humble. On her way to the guillotine, the very instrument of death that was used to kill her husband 10 months prior, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot and said, “Pardon me, sir. I meant not to do it.”
10. Marie Antoinette was buried in an unmarked grave, but didn't stay there.
After her execution at 12:15 p.m. on October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette's body was dropped into a mass grave in the Madeleine cemetery, which was closed the following year because it had reached capacity. During the Bourbon Restoration following the fall of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s bodies were exhumed on January 18, 1815, and given a royal burial at the Basilica of St. Denis just a few days later. Their remains are still there, but the Expiatory Chapel dedicated to them was designed in 1816 on the site at the Madeleine cemetery where they’d previously been unceremoniously interred.