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.