Marie Antoinette is one of history’s most famous queens. The flaxen-haired Austrian archduchess who arrived in France as an ill-educated fourteen-year-old had danced her way through Versailles as a teenage bride, careless of the undercurrents that would eventually sweep her intelligent but emotionally immature husband from the throne. The spendthrift Madame Deficit, the hated foreigner and sexual libertine of a thousand salacious news-sheets became the physical embodiment of the frailty of the French monarchy twenty-four years later, unrecognisable from suffering and illness, as a jolting farm-cart conveyed her to the guillotine.
The drama of the last year of her life, which saw the royal family degraded and imprisoned, the king executed, her son removed from her and the conditions of her confinement become ever more sordid, is the stuff of nightmares. Its full horrors have only recently come to light. Most biographies of the queen devote only a chapter or two to this period. ‘To Kill a Queen’ will reveal the full story of Marie Antoinette’s agony and courage, based on new material drawn from private archives in the UK and seldom-used French and American sources.
Here is the queen’s experience in her own words and that of the four brave women who supported her during this terrible year. For despite the growing harshness of her treatment, Marie Antoinette was not alone. Her sister-in-law, Madame Élisabeth, her daughter, Marie- Thérèse, her servant at the Conciergerie, Rosalie Lamorlière and the extraordinary English actress and royalist supporter, Charlotte Atkyns, all attempted to alleviate her ordeal. Their fidelity and ingenuity are a potent reminder of the loyalty the queen inspired.
Less uplifting is the hesitant response of the British and American governments in the face of the fear and uncertainty about the course of the French Revolution, which coloured their unwillingness to respond. There was much hand-wringing but no practical help. Nor did the Austrians, Marie Antoinette’s own blood, come forward to assist her. This international neglect is a key element in understanding her fate.
So, too, is the ambivalence of the leaders of the revolution in France. Divided at home and harried abroad, Danton, Robespierre and their colleagues were under enormous pressure. It is time to look again at the challenges they faced and why, ultimately, the decision was taken to sacrifice Marie Antoinette.
This policy found its final expression in the queen’s trial, the original transcript of which has recently been rediscovered. It was a show trial with only one outcome, a breath-taking piece of judicial murder which reveals all the pent-up hatred against a doomed woman. From early in the morning of 14 October 1793 until four in the morning of the 16th, Marie Antoinette faced her accusers, conducting herself with extraordinary dignity and fortitude. She seems to have clung to the hope, right until sentence was pronounced, that she might be expelled rather than executed. After the verdict, she wrote her own testament to Madame Élisabeth, herself a victim of the guillotine the following year. At the end, Marie Antoinette went to her death with something like relief. So much suffering vanished when the blade of the guillotine fell.
Dr Linda Porter has a B.A. and a D.Phil from the University of York, where she studied under the direction of two inspirational professors, Gerald Aylmer and Gwyn A. Williams.
She spent nearly ten years lecturing in New York, at Fordham and City Universities among others, before returning with her American husband and daughter to England, where she embarked on a complete change of career. For more than twenty years she worked as a senior public relations practitioner in BT, introducing a ground-breaking international public relations programme during the years of BT’s international e...
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