Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, daughter to Francis I Holy Roman Emperor and Empress Maria Theresa, who in her own right was the last ruler of the House of Hapsburg in Europe. Marie Antoinette was the second-to-last child whose education was neglected as her mother’s focus turned to the marriages of elder children and ruling a vast range of kingdoms. At 15, Maria Antonia was a political pawn and hastily prepared then married to Louis-Auguste, heir to France, and became known as Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are famous for being the rulers who were removed from power during the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette is famously thought to have replied to a comment about the need of French peasants for bread, “Let them eat cake!” The origin of this thought is from a Les Confessions by Jean Jaques Rousseau, where he wrote, “Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit: Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” translated into English: “Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche.” When this was written, Marie Antoinette was the highest ranking princess in France, but beyond this one sentence there is no evidence or even clear attribution.
Marie Antoinette’s character was frequently disparaged in media and writing presented to the French public, probably unfairly. She was thought to be a lesbian, an adulteress, a liar and trickster, greedy, and cruel. While her style was extravagant and her spending was obscene, other accusations don’t stick, but a public obsession with her perceived faults was fueled by scandals (like the Diamond Necklace Affair) and tabloids or other publications where she is made out as villainous. Few recognized her political influence that was beneficial, be it the more peaceful relations with Austria and Kingdoms ruled by her brothers or her support for the Naval leaders that joined with George Washington in the fight for American independence from Britain.
Her short rule as Queen was cut short by the French Revolution and the monarchy was disbanded. Marie Antoinette was found guilty of treason and executed by guillotine, her body thrown into a mass grave with some of the many, many victims of the guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution. It is impossible to know how much of the violence that resulted from anger and negative feeling towards the aristocracy was fed by false stories and tabloids (or in today’s terms “fake news”) about the French monarchs.