Six Surprising Facts about Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is probably best known for her death, as a queen shockingly executed by guillotine at the height of the French revolution. But there’s lots more to know about her interesting and sometimes scandalous life. I’ve got six surprising facts about Marie Antoinette for you, as part of my countdown to The Wardrobe Mistress publication day on August 15th.

1). She came from a huge family

The daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, Marie Antoinette had fifteen (!) siblings. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, as she was called before becoming a French dauphine, was the second youngest. All of them had royal titles.

2.) She had many hobbies

Since her reputation for fashion and trendsetting has lasted hundreds of years, this one might be surprising. Marie Antoinette’s interests ranged from riding – including sleigh rides, which she had fond memories of from her childhood in Austria – to gardening, interior decoration, the theatre, and music.

She decorated the royal property of Saint-Cloud in her favourite colours, also choosing the furniture with care. She preferred light colours like pale blue and green, as well as lavender grey. The Great Bathroom at Versailles was painted this colour, and decorated with sea motifs of shells and corals. She disliked orange and never wore it.

At her favourite retreat of Petit Trianon, she envisioned a romantic garden filled with trees, a paradise where one could wander in peace. She also enjoyed the jardin Anglais, a landscaped style of gardening the depicted an idealized view of nature with groves of trees.

3.) Before her marriage, she had her teeth straightened

Historical dentistry doesn’t sound appealing to anyone, but poor Maria Antonia had her teeth straightened at a young age. In fact, when she was ten years old, negotiations began for her marriage to the dauphin of France, and it was deemed important that she become more physically attractive to the French. This included a new hairstyle to play down her forehead (considered too high) and straightening her teeth. The early form of braces was a horseshoe-shaped device made of metal. Gold wire was threaded through the evenly spaced holes – much like modern braces, but a little more rustic and made of gold! It was called “Fauchard’s Bandeau”, named after Pierre Fouchard, who was significant to the development of modern dentistry and orthodontics.

As a new technology, and without the aid of any modern painkillers, the braces were likely quite painful. However, Marie Antoinette’s smile was considered quite charming and pretty, so it seems to have been a successful ordeal.

4.) She contributed to philanthropic efforts

Aside from being generous with her friends (which she was – sometimes she even had signature perfumes made for them as gifts), Marie Antoinette liked to help others wherever she could. She established a home for unwed mothers, and often made visits to poor families to distribute food and money. Once, before she was queen, her carriage accidentally ran over a wine grower. Marie Antoinette rushed out of the carriage to assist the wounded man, and paid for his family’s expenses for the next year while he recovered from a broken limb.

Two years before the start of the revolution, in 1787, she also provided grain for struggling families and downgraded the quality of grain for the royal family so that there was more to share.

5.) She was only nineteen years old when she became Queen of France

She had been dauphine of France for several years, but when Louis XV (the predecessor of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI), passed away on May 10, 1774, she became queen. The late king had been ill for some time, and when the candle in his window was extinguished to show that he had succumbed to his sickness, all the courtiers who had been hovering outside his rooms stampeded toward Marie Antoinette and Louis, determined to be the first to pay compliments to the new rulers. Apparently the crash of their footsteps made a sound like thunder.

Together, Marie Antoinette and Louis knelt and prayed for their future, with the words “Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign.”

6.) She cared about the revolution and tried to help

In contrast to her husband, Louis XVI, who often remained indecisive, Marie Antoinette took action to address the issues spurring the revolution, and to protect the royal family. She met with ministers and ambassadors, and corresponded with other sovereigns. Her increased involvement in politics led the king to rely on her advice, and he occasionally baffled his royal ministers by leaving the room to consult with her if she was not present at the meeting. When France’s popular finance minister, Jacques Necker, was dismissed by Louis, she sought to appease the people’s outrage and persuaded Louis to reinstate him, even though she and Necker had not always agreed and were sometimes enemies.

It is worth noting, however, that in her youth, Marie Antoinette remained mostly indifferent to political schemes. She became more involved as political tensions rocketed dangerously high, at which time it was possibly too late.

 

I hope I’ve passed along some extra facts about Marie Antoinette besides that she said ‘let them eat cake’ – or did she? More details about the life of the scandalous French queen to come!

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

Order links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

 

Bad Decisions in History: featuring Alfonso VI

I suspect I’ve got something a little more obscure for this month’s Bad Decision in History. At least, it was for me. I hadn’t even heard of Alfonso VI of Portugal, or his more popular brother Prince Pedro, or Alfonso’s wife Princess Maria Francisca of Savoy until I came across their rather scandalous story in a correspondingly rather scandalous book, Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics, by Eleanor Herman. I recommend this book, by the way. Spanning multiple countries as well as centuries, it provides an often witty but well-researched and informative view of queens and princesses in history and their state marriages, exploring the nuances of the political climates as well.

Bad Decision: Constantly acting like an utter buffoon in spite of knowing the entire country prefers one’s charismatic rival as a potential king.

In the summer of 1666, Princess Maria arrived in Portugal for her wedding to King Alfonso VI. When her ship arrived, her husband-to-be was nowhere to be seen. He was sulking in the palace, since he didn’t even want to get married and only agreed to the match because he feared that if he didn’t, his younger brother Pedro would ascend the throne instead.

By the time Maria met Alfonso, she probably wondered if being Queen of Portugal was worth the price of being his wife. By all accounts, Alfonso VI was a ridiculous figure. Afraid of catching cold, he rarely ventured outside, and when he did, he wore half a dozen coats and several hats, perched one on top of the other.

they could tell

As with Joey, people could tell. Especially when Alfonso wore four hats.

He was also immensely obese, and allegedly preferred to be served his meals while lying down in bed, eating and drinking to the point of being sick. Not clever, he had once tried to shoot a comet out of the sky. He had little regard for the well-being of his subjects, and one of his favourite past times was apparently to gallop through the streets with his friends, knocking down hapless pedestrians. He was also rumoured to be impotent, possibly as a result of a near-fatal fever as a child. In order to combat these rumours, he hired prostitutes to tell tales of his bedroom prowess, and found a young girl who resembled him so that he could claim her as his illegitimate daughter. (Later, the girl’s mother swore that Alfonso had tried but been incapable of sleeping with her and her daughter was not his).

young alfonso

Okay, obviously no painter dared to portray an unflattering picture of mentally unstable Alfonso wearing seven coats and four hats. This one of him as a child is the best I could find. It kind of looks like he might poke himself in the eye though.

In contrast, Alfonso’s younger brother Prince Pedro was well-regarded by the people. Gallant and handsome, he seemed a better match for Maria, and indeed, a better candidate for the King of Portugal.  He and Maria became close and visited each other for hours every day.

Due to Alfonso’s impotence, as well as his and Maria’s distaste for each other, the marriage remained unconsummated, and it seems that Maria and Pedro cherished hopes of the marriage being annulled. If Alfonso were deemed incompetent to rule, not a farfetched idea given his erratic behaviour and inability to produce an heir, then Maria and Pedro would likely be able to obtain a papal dispensation to marry and reign instead.

They were not the only ones who wished for this. Alfonso was a cruel and unpredictable enough ruler that an anti-Alfonso faction naturally grew around Maria and Pedro, who was seen as more politically astute and peaceful. Alfonso allowed his favourites to behave however they wished, and his favourites were mostly like him, crude and drunken, sometimes vicious. Allegedly, he routinely brought prostitutes to the royal bedchamber, and in spite of their instructions to spread tales of his sexual prowess, it seemed to be generally well-known within the royal residence that Alfonso mostly watched his favourite courtiers lie with them, unable to fully participate in the act himself.

Maria knew of this, but cared little about her despised husband’s activities. However, when Alfonso began insistently inviting her to his bedchamber in the following spring, nearly a year after the still-unconsummated marriage, she refused. Royal custom dictated that the King should come to the Queen’s chambers, where her ladies would be nearby. Maria knew Alfonso desired an heir, believing it would cement his position as king and decrease Pedro’s credibility as a rival. Possibly fearing that he planned to have one of his favourites sire an heir in his stead, or perhaps just sick of the marriage altogether, she retired to a convent in November of 1667 and announced that she considered the marriage null and void due to nonconsummation. The bishop of Lisbon agreed, and Prince Pedro and his retinue of soldiers prevented Alfonso from forcibly removing Maria from the convent.

maria francisca

Maria Francisca of Savoy. Maybe it’s just a flattering portrait, but she even looks like someone clever who would take matters into her own hands when necessary.

Maria’s dowry, which should have been returned now that the marriage was over, had already been spent, so the councilor’s suggested she marry Pedro instead. Maria and Pedro wed in April of 1668, and Pedro agreed to reign as regent since his brother was still alive. Alfonso was placed in confinement in the Azores. He was not ill-treated, unless one considers providing exceedingly generous portions of food and alcohol as such. Alfonso continued to gain weight and suffered ill-health, including dropsy (the historical term for swelling of the feet and legs). Allegedly, sometimes he preferred to lie down on the floor and have an attendant roll him down the hallway instead of walking. He died of a stroke in 1683, at which point Maria and Pedro officially became Queen and King, although they had been acting as such for fifteen years already. Pedro ruled as Peter II. He and Maria had one child together early in their marriage, but no others. When Maria died shortly after Alfonso, Pedro remarried in order to produce more heirs.

Outcome: Alfonso’s fear of his brother as a rival came true, since he was dethroned and replaced by Pedro as ruler of Portugal. Always somewhat a figure of ridicule, his reputation took a turn for the worse. He died in confinement at the age of forty.

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