In January 1793, the radical new republic placed King Louis XVI on trial, convicted him of treason and condemned him to death. On January 21, 1793, he was dragged to the guillotine and executed. In October of that year, a month into the infamous and bloody Reign of Terror that claimed tens of thousands of French lives, Marie Antoinette was put on trial for treason and theft, as well as a false and disturbing charge of sexual abuse against her own son.
After the two-day trial, an
all-male jury found Marie Antoinette guilty on all charges. Marie
Antoinette was sent to the guillotine, as her husband had been several
months before, on October 16, 1793. On the night before her execution,
she had written her last letter to her sister-in-law, Elisabeth. "I am
calm," the queen wrote, "as people are whose conscience is clear." Then,
in the moments before her execution, when the priest who was present
told her to have courage, Marie Antoinette responded, "Courage? The
moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment when courage is
going to fail me."
Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France,
has been both vilified as the personification of the evils of monarchy
and exalted as a pinnacle of fashion and beauty. Marie Antoinette the
villain is perhaps best captured by the famous, although almost
certainly apocryphal, story that, upon hearing that the people had no
bread to eat, she remarked, "Let them eat cake." Marie Antoinette the
heroine is reflected in the obsessive scholarship on her choices in
wardrobe and jewelry, and the endless speculation about her extramarital
love life. Both of these takes on Marie Antoinette's character
demonstrate the tendency, as prevalent today as it was in her own time,
to depict her life and death as symbolic of the downfall of European
monarchies in the face of global revolution.
As Thomas Jefferson
once said, predicting the way Marie Antoinette would be viewed by
posterity, "I have ever believed that if there had been no Queen, there
would have been no revolution."