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Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie Antoinette

From the glorious Versailles Palace to her final days in the grim Conciergerie prison, read on as I share tantalising glimpses into the life of Marie Antoinette.


Versailles Palace Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Versailles Palace



She was the Queen of excess in a time of great want, so I have conflicting feelings about Marie Antoinette. I feel great compassion for the suffering she endured at the end of her life but she made poor choices and appeared to have a lack of sense at a time when both of these qualities would have served her.


Versailles Palace Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Versailles Palace Gardens


Versailles Palace

It's at Versailles where she spent the majority of her life and where her every movement was subject to scrutiny that we first follow in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette. Married to the future Louis XVI at the tender age of fourteen, she moved to Versailles from the much smaller court at Vienna where she had grown up.


Versailles Palace Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Versailles Palace Gardens

Perhaps she never wanted the fishbowl life she was destined for. Every part of her day was a spectacle, from the morning levee to eating and childbirth. Every aspect of her life was watched and judged by those around her, while outside of the Palace, even before the French Revolution began, pamphlets distributed across France ridiculed her.


Versailles Palace Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Versailles Palace


Petit Trianon

Four years after she married Louis XVI, he gave her the Petit Trianon, a place to retreat to away from this daily circus. Still within the grounds of Versailles, Petit Trianon was far enough away for Marie Antoinette to have an occasional sanctuary of her own. On the walls she hung vast portraits by her favourite court painter the female artist Louise Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun and she furnished the rooms with a feminine touch in delicate floral patterns. The clothes she wore were chosen from her vast collection of dresses using fabric sample books, some of which have survived. Everything was to excess, her hair was worn in a style that rose to three feet in height and was decorated with feathers and other adornments. At Petit Trianon she could invite whomever she liked and follow her own pursuits such as music nights and billiards. It was surrounded by its own parkland and Marie Antoinette chose to landscape them in the fashionable English style of the time with informal meandering paths and follies. This parkland has retained its relaxed feel and when we visited the cherry blossom was in full bloom, with lawned areas and pretty vistas all around.


Petit Trianon, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac


Petit Trianon, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Marie Antoinette's bedroom at Petit Trianon

The Queen's Hamlet

A few years later Marie Antoinette in 1783 commissioned a hamlet with a fairy tale world of imitation cottages around a man-made lake. In this make-believe rustic village, the Queen employed five people to run a dairy and keep sheep, pigs and chickens, but it was very bad timing. Many people in France felt by doing this she was making fun of the peasants whose lives in stark contrast to this tranquil idyll were barely surviving and were in dire want. In the heat of a spring day with renovations on the Queen's Hamlet almost complete her vision has been restored for the public to enjoy. It's really a blissful place to visit and you can see the charm it must have had for her. However, at the time her hamlet was seen as where Marie Antoinette would 'play' at being a shepherdess, a perception that has continued ever since.

The Queen's Hamlet, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
The Queen's Hamlet

The Queen's Hamlet, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Marie Antoinette's Hamlet

The Queen's Hamlet, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac


The Women's March on Versailles

Meanwhile, by 1789 events in Paris had reached crisis point and a group of women, followed by Lafayette and some disaffected National Guard marched on Versailles. They marched in the rain with the women arriving first and were barred from entering the Palace. The following day Lafayette entered the Palace on his own for a private conference with the King and expressed the wish for the royal family to return to Paris with them. Matters seem in hand and Lafayatte goes off to sleep but the following morning at day break the market women find a way into the Palace via the Cour de Marbre.

In Simon Schama's mighty Citizens he describes the scene:
Terrified by the firing and yelling, Marie-Antoinette ran barefoot, holding her slippers and crying out loud, "My friends, my friends, save me and my children." A passageway took her to the King's quarters, but Louis had himself gone in search of the children. For more than ten minutes the Queen hammered desperately on the locked door while the crowd clattered through the Hall of Mirrors in enraged pursuit of the "Austrian whore" and the outnumbered bodyguards who retreated by stages through the enfiladed state rooms.

Helen Maria Williams, a contemporary of Marie Antoinette and chronicler of the tumultuous events in France at this time, visited Versailles Palace a couple of years later and shared the following account in her Letters Written in France.

We were shewn the passages through which the Queen escaped from her own apartment to the King's on the memorable night when the Poissardes visited Versailles, and also the balcony at which she stood with the Dauphin in her arms, when, after having remained a few hours concealed in some secret recess of the palace, it was thought proper to comply with the desire of the crowd, who repeatedly demanded her presence. I could not help moralizing a little, on being told that the apartment to which this balcony belongs, is the very room in which Louis the Fourteenth died; little suspecting what a scene would, in the course of a few years, be acted on that spot.
All the bread which could be procured in the town of Versailles, was distributed among the Poissardes; who, with savage ferocity, held up their morsels of bread on their bloody pikes, towards the balcony where the Queen stood; crying, in a tone of defiance, "Nous avons du pain!" (Letter XI)
During the whole of the journey from Versailles to Paris, the Queen held the Dauphin in her arms, who had been previously taught to put his infant hands together, and attempt to soften the enraged multitude by repeating "Grace pour maman!"

Versailles Palace, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac
Entrance to the Hall of Mirrors

This must have been an utterly terrifying experience for the whole family. They were requested to return with the famished mob back to Paris. It was to be the last time Marie Antoinette would ever see Versailles again.

At Paris the royal family were initially housed at the Tuileries Palace, under house arrest with some freedom but this did not last. The royal family tried to escape from France and had reached Varennes when they were discovered. Their ignominious return to Paris was greeted by crowds of people lining the streets in silence. This fateful action led to greater mistrust in the royals and made many question their loyalty to France at a time when a foreign invasion was considered highly likely.

The family were moved to the Temple where they were now captives and just as Marie Antoinette had been used to, she was again a spectacle. Anyone that could afford the fee could pay the gaolers for a look at the royal family. The revolutionaries taught Marie Antoinette's son, the Dauphin to call his father Louis Capet, a mark of disrespect. When Marie Antoinette's best friend Princesse de Lamballe was savagely murdered, her head was placed on a spike and paraded outside Mare Antoinette's window so that she could see what had happened.

By January 1793 the royal family's fate was sealed and Louis XVI was beheaded. Perhaps Marie Antoinette knew it was inevitable that she would be next. On 1 August 1794 in the middle of the night she was separated from her son and daughter and taken to the Conciergerie prison, the final destination of 4,000 souls between 1793 and 1794. For those that could afford it prisoners would pay for a bed and a separate room but for those that could not they would be placed with everyone else with straw to sleep on and urine and defecation everywhere.

Conciergerie prison


For all including Marie Antoinette their entry into the prison would begin with registration where their details would be recorded in a book. At the Conciergerie we could see in one of the display cabinets, one of the books open to show the entries made by the registrar. The book was open on the 24 August 1793 when Marie Antoinette was one of its prisoners.


Conciergerie Prison, Notes from France - In the Footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, photo by modernbricabrac




Finally after months of incarceration and a further failed attempt at escape she faced a mock trial. The room was packed with people who wanted to see the Queen in her reduced circumstances, she was still a spectacle. Among the crimes she was accused of was that of incest with her son. She turned to the spectators and addressed them directly, "Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a Mother, I appeal to all the Mothers that are here".


There was nothing left for her but to face her final scene. Dressed simply in white, her hair was cut away just as it was for all prisoners before execution. Denied the privilege accorded to Louis XVI of a carriage she arrived at the site of execution in a dirty tumbril and suffered the abuse of the crowd. As she walked up the steps she turned towards the Tuileries where she had lived with her children and husband. She looked away and soon her blood covered the platform under the guillotine.

Although her daughter survived the French Revolution, her son, the little dauphin who was only 8 years old when his mother died was placed in a cell and suffered extreme neglect and died 2 years later of an infection. After his death an examination by a Doctor revealed countless scars on the child's body from physical abuse inflicted on him while imprisoned in the Temple.

In the space of two days we had visited Versailles Palace where we were in awe at the opulence we found there and a day later in Paris where we visited the Conciergerie prison where she spent her final 76 days, it was an incredible trip.

Happy travels

Sarah xx

photo 
Sarah Agnew
Blogger, Modern Bric a Brac
    

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