Marie Antoinette: History’s Fortean Queen (by Greg May)


After a few months’ break, PublisHistory returns with a fascinating essay on France’s tragic last queen, Marie Antoinette. Thanks to Greg May.

It seems as if almost as much ink has been spilled on the life of Marie Antoinette as there was blood shed on the scaffold during the French Revolution. Perhaps no other female historical figure has captured the public’s fascinations more than has this tragic Queen of France.

Unlike her predecessors – who were overshadowed by the royal mistresses – Marie Antoinette is the only queen of France whose name is indelibly etched in the minds of the public. (How many French queens do you know whose biographies could fill a library shelf?) Under Salic Law, a queen of France could not rule; she was merely the wife, or consort of the king. Her meddling in politics did more to make her unpopular with the already disgruntled populace than did her reputation for extravagance.

Louis XIV – that egomaniacal creator of Versailles and court etiquette – dallied with Madames d’Montespan and Maintenon; Louis XV was kept smiling in the royal boudoir by the Pompadour and du Barry; but the shy, ineffectual Louis XVI – who married the Austrian archduchess in 1770 – broke tradition by not taking a mistress.

Marie Antoinette has become an historical legend and cult figure; the guillotine not only gave her immortality but an induction into fortean history: events and circumstances of her life seem to indicate she was born under a ‘dark star’ – orbited by sinister synchronocities.

Her birth date – November 2 – is known as ‘The Day of the Dead’ on the Gregorian Calendar. The day before her birth in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon killing an estimated 30,000 people and creating a tsunami which – before it swept over the city – exposed the seafloor of the Lisbon harbor. Damage to the city was so great the King and Queen of Portugal could not attend her christening in Vienna.

The royal couple just happened to be her godparents. 1

A pawn in a political marriage arranged by her mother – Empress Maria Theresa of Austria – 14-year old Maria Antonia said ‘Auf Weidersehen’ to her family at Schonbrunn and ‘Bonjour’ to the French court at Versailles.

Along the way, a ceremony was held in a newly-constructed pavilion on an island in the Rhine River; Maria Antonia divested herself of all things Austrian and became Marie Antoinette, the future Dauphine of France. Decorating the walls of the pavilion were a series of tapestries –on loan from the Archbishop of Strasbourg – which created a mural depicting the Marriage of Jason and Medea, one of the Greek Tragedies.

These decorations with their horrible subject matter caused a student from the University of Strasbourg to remark, “What! At the moment that the young princess is about to step on to the soil of her future husband’s country, there is placed before her eyes a picture of the most horrible marriage that can be imagined! Might one say that the most awful specter has been summoned to meet the most beautiful and happy betrothed?” 2

These words by the young Goethe could not have foretold her foreboding future any better.

On her wedding day at Versailles 10 May 1770 the nervous Dauphine misspelled her name and spilled ink on the marriage certificate. The blot can still be seen on the document. 3

The Parisian populace celebrated her marriage to the Dauphin, the future king of France with a ‘Joyeus Entree’ as they welcomed Marie Antoinette to their capital 30 May 1770. While the party-pooper Louis stayed home, the delighted Dauphine was cheered by a sea of admirers as she stood on a balcony overlooking the Place Louis XV. Twenty three years later this same public square would be the place of execution for the King and Queen of France.

Eighteenth-century Paris was a medieval town with narrow, winding dead-end streets and slums inhabited by 600,000 people. Those famous sewers – the subterranean haunts of the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ – were under construction at the time. A fireworks exhibition was planned for the Dauphine’s entertainment.

A wagonload of Chinese fireworks became ignited resulting in an explosion that caused hundreds of terrified holiday-makers to stampede through the narrow streets and fall to their deaths in the newly-dug trenches. Six hundred people were killed and countless others injured in the accident which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the world’s great historical tragedies (Dauphine’s Reception/Joyeus Entree). 4

Forteans savor the story of the ‘Versailles Time Slip’ wherein two English schoolteachers allegedly journeyed ‘back in time’ when they visited Versailles in 1901. While searching for the Petit Trianon – Marie Antoinette’s beloved ‘getaway’ – Eleanor Jourdain and Anne Moberly observed gardeners and groundskeepers dressed in eighteenth-century attire and structures on the grounds that had not existed since 1789; moreover, they noticed a woman sitting alone wearing the same informal ‘country style’ dress that the Queen favored when she could escape the stiff formalities of the court.

Upon returning to the main palace, the two schoolmistresses noticed a portrait of Marie Antoinette bore a striking resemblance to the woman they had observed on the grounds of Trianon; she was sitting in the same vicinity of the park where a page found the unhappy Queen in October 1789 to warn her that an angry mob was marching on Versailles. The next day, the mob forced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to vacate Versailles and live in the Tuilleries Palace in Paris . On August 10, 1792 the mob stormed the Tuilleries forcing Louis and his family to seek protection from the Legislative Assembly. The monarchy was suspended and the royal family thrown into prison.

The date of Jourdain and Moberly’s visit to Versailles in 1901 was August 10. 5

A fascinating fortean figure is the mysterious, ageless Comte d’Saint-Germain, whom Voltaire described in his ‘Oeuvres’ as “a man who never dies, and who knows everything”. 6 The Comte was said to have been associated with the court of Louis XIV and was whispered to have been a spy for King Louis XV but had made so many enemies at court he had to leave France. He returned to Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI and tried to warn Marie Antoinette of the approaching dangers for the French monarchy but the King’s Minister ordered his arrest, so once again the Comte fled France. 7

We can’t help but wonder if Marie Antoinette’s life might have had a happier ending with history being re-written had she been allowed to consult with the Comte d’Saint-Germain. At the beginning of the Revolution, the King and Queen paid for advice from the Comte d’Mirabeau (1749–1791) who played a dangerous double game by paying lip-service to both royalty and Revolution. When this treason was discovered after his death, Mirabeau’s remains were exhumed and flung onto a dung heap. 8

Another figure shrouded in mysticism who entered the Queen’s life was the occultist Giuseppe Balsamo or Count Cagliostro (1743–1795) who initiated the Comte d’Saint-Germain into the rites of Freemasonry as well as recipes for youth and immortality (so THAT was the Comte’s secret!) Cagliostro entertained the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette with ‘magic suppers’ and sold elixers and ‘medicines’ to the courtiers until he was banished from Versailles after being implicated in the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace ‘.

This scandal was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in ruining the Queen’s reputation and is believed by many historians – and Napoleon himself – to have been the spark that lit the fuse of the French Revolution. The ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’ is the most incredible confidence trick ever perpetrated. The ‘fall guy’ or dupe in this eighteenth-century melodrama was the Cardinal d’Rohan, Grand Almoner of France (1734–1803) who was tried – and exonerated – by the Parliament of Paris for his role in the Affair. Rohan just happened to be the nephew of the Archbishop of Strasbourg – the same man who provided the tapestries which mortified Goethe and greeted the eyes of an innocent Maria Antonia in 1770 just before she stepped foot on French soil. 9

If that Diamond Necklace wasn’t enough to bring misfortune, Marie Antoinette was the owner of the cursed ‘French Blue’ – later known as the Hope Diamond. The dazzling 112.5 carat stone was purchased by King Louis XIV in 1668 for his mistress, Madame d’ Montespan (1640–1707). This scandalous royal whore was implicated in the ‘Affair of the Poisons’ wherein a number of fortune-telling ‘wannabe witches’ were tried and executed for dispensing poisons to their noble clientele.

An even darker scandal involved black magic and sacrificing babies with Montespan’s nude body as the altar. Could the mistress of Louis XIV have used the jewel as a ‘talisman’ in these rituals, thus incurring the curse? A century later, the ‘French Blue’ was in the possession of Queen Marie Antoinette who loaned it to her friend, the Princess d’Lamballe. The ill-fated Princess was murdered by the mob during the royal family’s imprisonment; her severed head mounted on the end of a pike and waved before the Queen’s prison window. 10

On the eve of her flight from Paris, the Queen entrusted her jewels to her hairdresser, Monsieur Leonard (1758–1820). This effeminate, high-strung chatterbox created those towering extravaganzas that once adorned the heads of the female nobility – many which fell under the sharp blade of the guillotine. In a state of hysteria, Leonard was ‘kidnapped’ and driven to a meeting place on the frontier where the royal family would be met by a detachment of loyal hussars; Louis would then issue an ultimatum to the rebels back in Paris.

Always the Queen of Fashion, Marie Antoinette wished to be well-coiffed upon meeting her saviour army – a rendezvous that was not to be. The unnerved hairdresser turned the Queen’s casket of jewels over to General Bouille, who entrusted it to one of his officers. The next day, the officer was found wounded and dying. (There were no skirmishes or battles to have caused his injuries). Was the ‘French Blue’ amongst the Queen’s jewels?

During the Reign of Terror, Monsieur Leonard was denounced by the Revolutionary Tribunal for having served the Queen. He was sent to the guillotine 7 July 1794 yet reappeared in Paris in 1814 having spent twenty years since his ‘death’ living in Russia! Sanson – the Paris executioner – was just as much of a stickler in performing his duties on the scaffold as was Monseiur Leonard when it came to dressing hair.

The infamous headsman – who beheaded more French celebrities than you could find today at a Cannes film festival – insisted upon taking off the same number of heads as the number of death certificates issued by the Tribunal. (We all have our ‘pet peeves’). A roll call and ‘head count’ was done with the condemned made to stand in numerical order at the foot of the guillotine. (This protocol allowed for an accurate account of the names of those executed for reporting in the republican gazettes). Leonard had two death certificates recorded in the Paris civil registers but they were both destroyed in the Paris Commune Fire of 1871, the same blaze that destroyed the dossier of the enigmatic Comte d’Saint-Germain. 11

As for the Queen’s jewels, their disappearance is as much of a mystery as the reappearance of Monseiur Leonard. 12

A sinister omen that haunted the Queen throughout her reign was a medieval dungeon that was part of the chateau in Paris owned by her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois. Known as The Temple, this seventeenth-century palace is where the foppish, younger brother of Louis XVI entertained with ‘pleasure parties’ and elegant suppers – in which Marie Antoinette was often the guest. 13 The main chateau overlooked the dungeon surmounted by four turrets which caused the Queen to shudder whenever she saw it. (Today we would say it gave her the ‘creeps’) On more than one occasion Marie Antoinette implored Artois to have it demolished.14

The Temple Tower would one day become the prison for the doomed royal family; for Louis and Antoinette it was the ‘antechamber to the guillotine’.

Another omen that became a prophecy fulfilled occurred right after the royal family’s escape plans were foiled. As the Queen was mounting the steps of the berlin to make the humiliating, three-day journey back to Paris under guard, a bystander shouted, “You’ll be looking on more steps than those!” – a premonition of her mounting the steps of the scaffold two years later.

Speculation as to whether Marie Antoinette and Swedish nobleman Count Axel Ferson (1755 – 1810) were lovers continues to titillate historians, biographers and the Queen’s ever-growing cult following. Any schoolboy who can read knows that Louis was lacking in everything from the social graces to l’art de l’amour. (Even though the royal marriage wasn’t consumated for seven years, Louis was one hell of a locksmith!) 15 Fersen was instrumental in arranging the flight of the royal family 20 June 1791 resulting in their recognition and arrest at Varennes. Nineteen years later to the day – 20 June 1810 – Fersen would be stomped to death by an angry crowd in Stockholm. 16

Marie Antoinette was Queen of France for nineteen years.

Nor have her children escaped speculation and mystery. Marie Antoinette was the mother of four children – immortalized in the portrait by court painter Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (1755 – 1842). Her fourth child, Sophie Beatrice died in infancy in 1787 having the artist paint her out of the picture since the Queen “could no longer bear to look at it.” Her eldest son, the Dauphin died of tuberculosis in May 1789 – just before the Revolution began. That made his younger brother, Louis Charles heir to the throne. Rumors that the boy had been rescued from prison and placed in hiding gave him the title “The Lost Dauphin” throughout history until DNA testing in 2000 proved he had really died in the Temple prison in 1795. 17

The tragic Dauphin is said to have died knowing the identity of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ – the secret told to him by his father, who was guillotined January 21, 1793.

Marie Therese Charlotte, or ‘Madame Royale’ (duchess d’Angouleme) was the only surviving member of the ill-fated French royal family. She lived to see the Bourbons return to the throne not once, but twice; but her uncle Louis XVIII was chased from his throne by Napoleon in 1815 and her younger uncle and father-in-law – Charles X – was deposed in 1830 when he tried to ‘turn back the clock’ with his royalist ideals.

Years of living in exile and with the horrific memories of the Revolution made the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette an embittered, withdrawn woman. Rumors that Germany’s ‘Dark Countess’ buried at Eishausen Castle in 1837 was really Madame Royale led to an exhumation of the Countess’ grave in 2003 in preparation for DNA testing; plans were made to compare bone fragments of the Countess’ with strands of Marie Antoinette’s hair.

A 28 July 2002 article in the THE TELEGRAPH by Tony Patterson suggested Madame Royale had been replaced by her ‘half-sister’ Ernestine de Lambriquet – the illegitimate daughter of Louis XVI – when she became pregnant after being raped by the Temple prison guards. Whether or not the DNA testing was actually done wasn’t necessary since Louis XVI had no illegitimate children; Ernestine was the daughter of one of the Queen’s maids at Versailles whom Marie Antoinette adopted to be a companion for the young Madame Royale. 18

Madame Royale died in 1851 and is buried at Castagnavizza in Slovenia.

Marie Antoinette’s wax likeness admired in museums worldwide can be attributed to a Swiss modeler, Marie Gresholtz (1761-1850) who learned the art at her uncle’s waxworks in Paris. During the Reign of Terror, Madamoiselle Gresholtz was forced by Robespierre to model heads of his enemies vomited from the guillotine. (We can’t help but smile knowing that he, too would be one of her models). She fainted when she saw the Queen pass by her uncle’s museum in the tumbril on her way to execution 16 October 1793.

Marie Antoinette’s decapitated corpse laid on the grass in the cemetery of the Madeleine until a hasty burial with quicklime November 1, 1793. 19 This gave the future Madame Tussaud time to immortalize her features in wax. (In time, the Tussaud family would acquire the guillotine blade that beheaded the Queen for exhibition in their Baker Street museum in London).

An apocryphal story from the Restoration tells how the search party that included the writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand were able to identify the Queen’s remains from the cemetery – manured by the guillotine’s victims and covered with quicklime – by the shape of her jawbone. Mandibular pragnathism – the jutting of the lower jaw – was a Habsburg family trait which – for some of her ancestors – was a gross deformity. In the case of the Queen, it gave her that charming smile that even her enemies admired.

Even though she never uttered the words, “Let them eat cake” we still enjoy licking the icing whipped by her iconic imagery.

Notes and Sources

  1. Some sources say as many as 60,000; no doubt countless bodies were swept to sea by the tsunami. Hilaire Belloc. Marie Antoinette. Tess Press/Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc. New York. 1909 pp. 18 – 20
  2. The choice of decorations may have been an indication of the unpopularity of the Franco-Austrian alliance. Carolly Erickson. To The Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette. William Morrow and Company Inc. New York. 1991. p. 348
  3. Her full name was Josepha Jeanne Marie Antoinette. She spelled Jeanne ‘Jeann’. Hilaire Belloc. Marie Antoinette. Tess Press/Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc. New York. 1909. p. 50
  4. Joan Haslip. Marie Antoinette. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. New York. 1987. p. 23
  5. Fortean Times (FT278)
  6. Timothy Good. Earth: An Alien Enterprise. Pegasus Books LLC. New York. 2013. p. 405
  7. Matt Lamy. 100 Strangest Mysteries. Arcturus Publishing Ltd. Metro Books. New York. 2003. p. 155.
  8. Joan Haslip. Marie Antoinette. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. New York. 1987. p. 276
  9. Andre Castelot. Queen of France. (translated by Denise Folliot) Harper & Brothers. New York. 1957. pp. 203 – 216
  10. Colin Wilson & Damon Wilson. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved. Carroll & Graf Publishers/Running Press Books Publishers. Pennsylvania. 2008. p. 228
  11. Louis Leon Theodore Gosselin. The Flight of Marie Antoinette. (The Case of Monseiur Leonard). William Heinemann, J.B. Lippincott Company. London, Philadelphia. 1906. pp. 221 – 237
  12. The ‘French Blue’ reappeard in London greatly reduced to 44.5 carats; it was purchased by London banker Henry Thomas Hope in 1830. Colin Wilson & Damon Wilson. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved. Carrol & Graf Publishers/Runnning Press Books Publishers. Pennsylvania. 2008. Pp. 228 – 229
  13. Joan Haslip. Marie Antoinette. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. New York. 1987. p. 267
  14. Hilaire Belloc. Marie Antoinette. Tess Press/Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc. New York. 1909. p. 164
  15. Louis suffered from ‘phimosis’ – the tightening of the foreskin which made erections painful. At the urging of his brother-in-law, Emperor Joseph of Austria he finally submitted to circumcision which – in the eighteenth century – was painful and frightening. Oliver Bernier. Secrets of Marie Antoinette. Doubleday & Company Inc. New York. 1985. p.223
  16. Evelyne Lever. Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. Farrer, Straus and Gireaux. New York. 2000. p.307
  17. Deborah Cadbury. The Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge and DNA. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 2002. p. 274
  18. Carolly Erickson. To The Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette. William Morrow and Company Inc. New York. 1991. p. 174
  19. Evelyne Lever. Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. Farrar, Straus and Gireaux. New York. 2000. p.305; Andre Castelot. Queen of France. (translated by Denise Folliot). Harper & Brothers. New York. 1957. p. 423

One thought on “Marie Antoinette: History’s Fortean Queen (by Greg May)

  1. Thank Mr May for setting us straight, A very Sad , tragic piece of history about Marie Antoinette. Losing her 2 children to death & then to have the other 2 imprisoned & there was nothing she could do about it. You feel her pain & deep sorrow reading about it.
    I hope one day to visit France, I have always been interested in Marie Antoinette.
    sincerely, Terri Diaz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s