home | opinion index


previous | next

Zealots and Marie Antoinette

France's king Louis XVI and his queen consort Marie Antoinette might have been able to remain in their palace with Louis as a constitutional monarch, going along with the French Revolution. But France was at war with Austria and Prussia, and the war inspired hatred. Marie-Antoinette had been an Austrian princess who had married King Louis in 1772 when she was fourteen.

On July 25, 1792, the commander of the combined armies of Prussia and Austria, the the Duke of Brunswick, issued a proclamation threatening that if the French royal family were harmed then French civilians would be harmed. Instead of being intimidated, a mob of several thousand enraged Parisians sacked the king's palace and killed a few of the king's Swiss guards – whose job it was to protect the royal family. Louis and Marie Antoinette escaped, but France's legislative body gave in to the passions of the Parisians, removed the remainder of the king's powers and declared him a prisoner. Louis and Marie Antoinette were arrested and imprisoned in the tower of a medieval Paris fortress.

The kind of constitutional monarchy that had been developing in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, where royalty would have little political power but respect, was not to be in France. On September 21, France's legislators declared France a republic.

War fever the passions of revolutionaries continued in France. Legislators put Louis on trial and found him guilty of treason. In their debate as to his punishment Thomas Paine – an international revolutionist and member of France's legislature – saw no benefit accruing from executing the king. Instead, he favored Louis' exile to the United States, which had benefited from his support during the war that brought the United States into being.

Louis was separated from his family and tried in December. There was fear among some legislators that voting for anything less than Louis' execution would appear less than loyal to the revolution. Paine and some others voted against execution, but the motion to execute passed, and on January 21, 1793, Louis climbed the wooden stairs to the guillotine. With calm and dignity he spoke his final words before his head was separated from his body:


The fortress that held Louis XVI and members of his family as prisoners. Today the spot is a Paris subway station named Temple.

I die innocent of all crimes laid to my charge. I pardon those who have occasioned my death. And I pray to God that the blood you are about to shed will never be visited on France.

Marie Antoinette, 37, the mother of two, languished helplessly in prison and plunged into mourning. She refused to eat or exercise. Her health was declining. By this time she was suffering from tuberculosis and possibly uterine cancer that caused her to hemorrhage frequently.

Many who supported the Revolution still saw Marie Antoinette as a danger and an evil, while at the center of power what remained of moderation was in decline. The passions of war and enemy-exaggeration put Paine into a Paris prison. The more moderate faction among anti-monarchists were the Girondins. They looked with disdain upon the crude fanaticism that was rising in influence. The issue exercising the fanatics continued to be the survival of the revolution. They viewed the moderate Girondins as betraying the revolution by questioning the direction that they, the fanatics, were taking.

From April through August, the fanatics, including Jacques Hebert and Jean Marat, accused the Girondins of treason – a word that was often to be employed by zealots in defense of their cause.

Meanwhile France's real war with foreign armies had been growing in intensity. A foreign army was invading France, and people within France opposed to the revolution were rioting in both the east and west of the country. On 17 August the legislators voted for drafting citizens into the military, and on September 5 they institutionalized what would become known as The Reign of Terror: a policy of systematic and lethal repression of perceived enemies within the country.

Back on July 3, Marie Antoinette's son, Louis Charles, eight-years-old, was separated from her and given to the care of a cobbler, under government supervision. On August 1, Marie Antoinette was removed from her prison-apartment at the Temple tower and thrown into a more depressing and smelly room in the prison called the Conciergerie and labeled prisoner 280. Left behind at the Temple were Marie Antoinette's daughter, not quite fifteen, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, and Louis' youngest sister, Elisabeth.

The government forced Marie Antoinette to appear before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Its proceedings against her began on October 14. The charge was aiding the enemy and inciting civil war within France. She was given less than one day to prepare her defense.

Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine. (Pen and ink by Jacques-Louis David, 16 October 1793)

The charges against Marie-Antoinette were not easily substantiated, and rather than being careful in separating rumor from fact, the zealots were eager to malign. At the trial she was accused of having orchestrated orgies in Versailles many years before, of having sent great amounts of money to her native Austria and of having practiced incest with her son, among other things.

The Scottish writer, Carlyle (1795-1881) was to write that Marie Antoinette's answers were "prompt, clear, often of Laconic brevity." According to Carlyle she was pressed by the prosecutors, who asked, "You persist then in denial?" She replied:

My plan is not denial: it is the truth I have said, and I persist in that.

A jurist complained that she had not answered the incest charge. She had been composed until then, and she replied:

I have not answered because Nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a Mother, I appeal to all the Mothers that are here.

In their pursuit of justice, the Zealots described Marie Antoinette with the passion and moral righteousness that Hannah Arendt was to caution against. And those considering the fate of Marie Antoinette pursued the Zealot's tendency to over-estimate the power of those whom they consider enemies. Marie Antoinette believed in monarchy and she no doubt thought it would be proper for her son to rule France as Louis XVII. But allowing her to return to her family in Austria would not have increased the danger to France from Austria. Europe was full of monarchs and people who hated the French Revolution. It is highly unlikely that in Austria she would have made that monarchy a greater force against France.

Who knows? A little more softness by those in power might have reciprocated. But softness tends to be inimical to zealots. Actually, their lack of it would turn the revolution against them, and they too would trudge up the wooden stairs to the guillotine.

Softness did not always help. Marie-Antoinette had not wanted her daughter to grow up to be as haughty as her husband's unmarried aunts. She had invited children from working-class districts to dine with her daughter, and she had attempted to teach her daughter about the sufferings of others.

The trial's outcome is said to have been decided before it posed its questions to Mari-Antoinette. After two days of proceedings she was declared guilty of treason. She was to be executed the following day.

At 4:30 in the morning, October 16, 1793, she composed a letter to Louis' younger sister, Elizabeth, still imprisoned at the Temple.

It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death but to rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in the final moments.

I am calm, as one is when one's conscience is without reproach. I deeply regret leaving my poor children. You know that I lived only for them and for you, my good and tender sister, you who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you! I have learned from trial that my daughter was separated from you. Alas! The poor child. I do not venture to write to her; she would not receive my letter. I do not even know whether this will reach you.

Receive to both [my children] my blessing. I hope that one day when they are older they may be able to rejoin you and enjoy to the full your tender care. Let them both think of the lesson which I have never ceased to impress upon them: that the principles and the exact performance of their duties are the chief foundation of life and that their friendship and mutual confidence will make them happy. Let my daughter feel that at her age she ought always to aid her brother by the advice which her greater experience and her affection may inspire her to give him. And let my son in his turn render to his sister all the care and all the services which affection can inspire. Let them, in short, both feel that, in whatever positions they may be placed, they will never be truly happy except through their union.

Let [my children] follow our example. In our own misfortunes how much comfort has our affection for one another afforded us! And, in times of happiness, we have enjoyed that doubly from being able to share it with a friend. And where can one find friends more tender and more united than in one's own family? Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically. Let him never seek to avenge our deaths.

I have to speak to you of something that very much pains my heart. I know how much pain the child must have caused you. Forgive him, my dear sister; think of his age, and how easy it is to make a child say whatever one wishes, especially when he does not understand it. [She is referring to the court getting from her son a false story of incest.]

It will come to pass one day, I hope, that he will better feel the value of your kindness and of your tender affection for both of them. It remains to confide to you my last thoughts. I should have wished to write them at the beginning of my trial. But besides that they did not leave me any means of writing and events have passed so rapidly that I really have not had time.

I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed. Having no spiritual consolation to look for, not even knowing whether there are still in this place any priests of that religion (and indeed the place where I am would expose them to too much danger if they were to enter it but once), I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness He will mercifully accept my last prayers as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy. I beg pardon of all whom I know, and especially of you, my sister, for all the vexations which, without intending it, I may have caused you. I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done to me. I bid farewell to my aunts and to all my brothers and sisters. I had friends. The idea of being forever separated from them and from all their troubles is one of the greatest sorrows that I suffer in dying. Let them at least know that to my latest moment I thought of them.

Adieu my good and tender sister. May this letter reach you. Think always of me. I embrace you with all my heart, as I do my poor dear children. My God how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Adieu, adieu! I must now occupy myself with my spiritual duties, as I am not free in my actions. Perhaps they will bring me a priest. But I here protest that I will not say a word to him but will treat him as a total stranger.

At eleven in the morning she was in a cart taking her to the same place of execution as her husband – the Place de la Révolution (present-day Place de la Concorde). Soldiers and cannon were at their place to protect against a plot to rescue her. She climbed the wooden stairs, hearing more of the shouts of Vive la République and Down with Tyranny to which she seemed to pay no heed.

On the platform of death she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot and said her last words:

Monsieur, I beg your pardon.

Her sister-in-law Elizabeth never received Marie Antoinette's letter and was kept in ignorance of Marie Antoinette's execution. Seven months after Marie-Antoinette's severed head was shown to the Paris crowd, Elizabeth too was beheaded.

Copyright © 2010-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.