Marie Antoinette’s death at the guillotine remains something she is best known for. The French Revolutionary government beheaded Marie Antoinette at the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Her guilty verdict was decided before her trial even started, but still a trial was held, where all the false accusations against her character that had been circulating around France for years were used as evidence. Since her accusers lacked solid evidence of her treason, Marie Antoinette was “judged according to the pornographic fantasies of a whole nation,” and the rumors in the pamphlets about her were taken as truth and held against her as evidence of her guilt (Thomas 18).
From the time of the Diamond Necklace Affair in 1785 and afterward, public opinion towards Marie Antoinette fell drastically and her public image never recovered, ultimately resulting in her death by the guillotine in 1794. The crown jeweler, Boehmer, created a diamond necklace priced at 1.8 million francs that he hoped to sell to Louis XV for Madame du Barry. When Louis XV refused it, he attempted to sell it to Marie Antoinette, but she also turned down his offer. The Comtesse Jeanne de La Motte took advantage of this situation and convinced the Cardinal de Rohan that she was a close personal friend of the queen, and that if he purchased the necklace for her, their tense relationship would be mended (Thomas 47). The Cardinal de Rohan believed La Motte and purchased the necklace from Boehmer, then trusted it to La Motte to deliver to the queen, who handed it off to her husband instead, who then tried to sell the diamonds (Thomas 47). The King and Queen put the Cardinal de Rohan and La Motte on trial once the scheme was found out, but the Paris parlement found the Cardinal innocent of forgery and fraud (Thomas 48). Though she had no knowledge of the events, the blame for this scandal fell on Marie Antoinette, and she was portrayed as a “spendthrift and a vindictive slut who would stop at nothing to satisfy her appetites” (Thomas 48). This series of events, known as the Diamond Necklace Affair, “permanently tarnished the Queen’s image,” not because she had any role in it, but because the acquittal of the Cardinal de Rohan suggested that the nation thought her capable of such an underhanded act and accepted Rohan’s claims that he believed the queen approved of the purchase (Thomas 182). After this scandal, public opinion against the queen continued to deteriorate and only became worse once the French Revolution broke out in 1789.
On October 5, 1789, a group of mostly women from Paris marched to Versailles to protest the high unemployment rates and rising prices of bread. The crowd prevented the royal family from fleeing Versailles, and the next day demanded the royal family come to Paris. They acquiesced to the demands and the crowd delivered them to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. At this point, it was still the goal of the Revolution to install a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. But, many felt that for a constitutional monarchy to be successful, Louis XVI needed a queen who was not publicly hated like Marie Antoinette was, and called for the couple’s divorce (Lever 244).
By the winter of 1790, the royal family was plotting their escape from Paris. On June 20, 1791, the royal family fled in a carriage with Madame de Tourzel and Madame Eilsabeth, but the group was intercepted at Varennes, a town outside of Paris, on their way to the border. The royal family was escorted back to Paris, and after this incident, the nation no longer trusted their king. From this point on, the idea of a constitutional monarchy became more and more unlikely as the nation’s hostility towards the queen spread to the king as well:
“…the irate populace demanded the deposing of a king whose duplicity was now patently obvious. For the first time, people spoke openly of a republic” (Lever 263).
The Tuileries Palace became a prison for the royal family and they were watched carefully at all times (Lever 263). On August 13, 1792, they were brought to the Temple Prison and on September 21, the monarchy was officially abolished and France became a republic (Lever 285). Not long after this pronouncement, the Convention made the decision to put Louis XVI on trial. In January, the king was found guilty, sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded by the guillotine.
Next, the people turned their attention to the queen. Marie Antoinette was taken to the Conciergerie on August 2, 1793 and interrogated. She lived there as a prisoner until her trial started a few months later. At the trial, most of the accusations against her were unfounded rumors that came straight from the pamphlets written about her. For instance, the popular charge of her “depleting the national treasury” through her excessive spending because a serious allegation at her trial, even though her spending had no impact on the nation’s economy (Lever 300).
The revolutionaries also used the widespread rumors of her wild sexuality to accuse her of being a negative influence on her husband and son. During her pre-trial questioning, her interrogator brought this up directly, saying: “It was you who taught Louis Capet the art of dissembling by which he so long deceived the good French people” (Lever 297). To her accusers, it was her who corrupted her husband and convinced him to flee the country and reject the ideas of the Revolution, making her “the prime instigator of Louis Capet’s treason” (Lever 298).
Just as Marie Antoinette’s influence allegedly forced her husband into treason, her accusers also brought in “evidence” of her uncontained sexual perversity affecting her son. The man charged with reeducating the dauphin claimed that he caught him masturbating one day, and when questioned about it, the boy said that his mother taught him to do it (Lever 296). He was further questioned about these habits, and the report reads:
“…his very pernicious habits by his mother and aunt and that several times they had amused themselves watching him repeat the practices in their presence and that very often this took place when they made him go to bed between them. From the way in which the child explained things, he made it clear that once his mother made him come close to her; that this resulted in copulation and a swelling in one of his testicles, for which he wears a bandage, and that his mother advised him never to speak of it; that this act took place several times since” (Lever 196).
These rumors of incestuous relations between Marie Antoinette and her son, brought up at her trial came directly from a pamphlet, Testament of Marie Antoinette, the Widow Capet (Thomas 20). The popular accusation of lesbianism also came up as evidence during her trial (Castle 131).
Though clearly false, the rumors in the pamphlets were so ingrained in the French people by this point that most of them were taken as fact and used them against her while condemning her to death. Similar to the stories in the pamphlets, there was no amount of wild accusation in her trial that was considered too evil for her to have committed, such as her instigation of the Champ de Mars massacre, which also came up during her trial (Lever 300). Like this example, most of the accusations had no roots in truth, but nevertheless held significant weight in her trial and led her prosecutors to declare her guilty and sentence her to death.