Biographies & Memoirs


For my wonderful blog readers, with all my love.

The Archduchess


Born to obey.

In later life and like most other children, the young Archduchess Maria Antonia would love to hear the story of her own birth, which had interrupted the work of her mother Empress Maria Theresa, who was busily and with her usual tireless single mindedness working away at her mountain of official papers and dispatch boxes on All Souls Day,  2 November 1755, when the pains of labour finally began to overwhelm her.  Keen as always to use her precious time as productively as possible, the resourceful Empress called for her dentist and asked him to pull out a painful tooth, reasoning that she would not notice this additional torment against the pangs of childbirth.

The baby, an unusually tiny girl, was born at around half past eight in the evening and after an inspection by her proud parents, Maria Theresa and her husband, the Emperor Francis, and the attending physicians, was whisked away to the soft and muted world of the royal nurseries at the Hofburg Palace, which currently housed four older siblings (the last of the Empress’ children, the Archduke Maximilian, would be born a year later), while her mother returned once again to her papers and carried on working. Thirty eight years old and in the prime of life, the Empress Maria Theresa had already given birth to fourteen children, of whom eleven were still living. This new baby was her eighth surviving daughter and although her arrival was undoubtedly pleasing to both her parents, it was not exactly extraordinarily exciting either, although the Empress, who loved gambling, may have experienced an extra little fillip at having won a bet against one of her courtiers, Count Dietrichstein, who had wagered that the forthcoming baby would be a boy.

However, commonplace though the arrival of yet another imperial baby might have seemed, it was still an occasion that required proper and formal celebration and the new baby was duly baptised a day later in the presence of her proud father at the Church of the Augustine Friars in Vienna, where she was given the names Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna. The prefix Maria was a Hapsburg custom, designed to show their reverence for the Virgin Mary, but was never normally used - instead the daughters of Maria Theresa were referred to within the family by their second names, in this instance, Antonia.

While Maria Theresa recovered from the birth and immediately returned to her work, her new daughter was being tended to by a troop of nursemaids in the royal nurseries. Later on she would be under the charge of a governess, who would oversee her education, but for now she was primarily cared for by her wet nurse Constance Weber, a magistrate’s wife who had been specially selected as much for her beauty, ‘pure principles’ and good character (it being rather improperly believed that the appearance and personality of a wet nurse could be imbued along with her milk, which was probably fair enough if one was so unwise as to hire an alcoholic or opium eater for the job) as for the quality of the nourishment that she was expected to provide. Frau Weber moved into the Hofburg with her own baby son Joseph, who was just three months older than her royal charge and, as was the usual arrangement, shared her milk between the two with Joseph becoming known as the little Archduchess’ ‘frère de lait’, her milk brother, a bond that would last throughout their lives.

However, although Maria Theresa had no direct part in the upbringing of her daughters, she still kept a close eye on the royal nurseries and personally supervised the appointment of staff and the programme of education. The sixteenth century vogue for scholarly princesses as exemplified by the likes of Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey was long since over and by the time Maria Antonia was born it wasn’t considered important for the imperial Archduchesses to have more than basic literacy and a smattering of Italian and French. The more courtly skills of dancing, music, conversation and singing were considered of far more importance for a group of girls who were being carefully groomed for insertion into the most exalted courts in Europe, where women were expected, without exception, to be pleasing to both the eye and ear and would rarely be called upon to participate in anything more onerous than the most basic social chit chat.

However, although the Empress’ ambitions for her daughters were extremely grand, their upbringing was rather less so, albeit in the splendid surroundings of the imperial palaces: the stately Hofburg, a massive 2,600 roomed edifice in the centre of Vienna where Maria Antonia was born and the family usually spent their winters; the charming, airy summer palace of Laxenburg and the beautiful and enormous Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna, with its gorgeous gardens and wonderful menagerie of rare and domestic animals, which was a source of great delight to the imperial children. As was the custom, the imperial household moved between their different residences depending on the time of year but seemed most particularly happy when they were spending time at Laxenburg, which was by far the least formal and most laid back of all the royal palaces, where the royal children had a beautiful series of playrooms, the walls and ceilings painted with charming rustic scenes and fanciful trompe l’oeil birds and flowers. It was here that Maria Theresa and her French husband Francis could mostly fully indulge their taste for an almost bourgeois informality and what the Empress would refer to as ‘gemütlich’ or rather ‘cosiness’, a taste that they would pass on to their youngest daughter, Maria Antonia.

Of course it was nothing new for a royal family to have a favourite country hideaway where they would take only the most select band of courtiers, who at Laxenburg were all required to follow a strict dress code of red coats for the gentlemen and red gowns for the ladies, and frolic in a world of bucolic make believe interspersed with vigorous hunting excursions into the surrounding countryside. For time immemorial, monarchs have done their best to escape from the pressures of royal life by creating private little bolt holes for themselves of admittedly varying degrees of magnificence and privacy. After all, Versailles had started life as a hunting lodge before being transformed into a bulging great monstrosity and cathedral to excess, and by the late eighteenth century, within its walls and behind its splendid state rooms there existed secret little warrens of rooms where the royal family, who couldn’t even have dinner without being stared at by multitudes of reverent strangers, could retreat to their more private occupations and hobbies.

However, the tone at the imperial court was far more informal than that at Versailles, although they were still capable of putting on a proper and extraordinarily lavish show of almost byzantine magnificence when the occasion called for it. Overall though the Viennese court was gossipy, fun loving and low key, with the imperial family themselves leading the way in the enjoyment of simple pleasures like sleigh rides in the snow at Schönbrunn, picnics on the banks of the Danube river, exchanging gifts at Christmas and dressing up in capes and masks for the famous Viennese carnival. As a young woman, Maria Theresa was almost as light hearted and pleasure seeking as her daughters but things changed dramatically after the premature death of her beloved husband Francis at the celebrations for the wedding of his son Archduke Leopold to the Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain in August 1765. Consumed by grief, she cut off her lovely fair hair, eschewed the grand dresses and jewels in which she had taken so much delight in favour of heavy mourning, no longer danced at balls or appeared at the theatre and became even more austere and formidable than ever.

If Maria Theresa’s love of simple living away from court, numerous offspring and exclusive and certainly excessive delight in her husband were reminiscent of her distant relative Queen Victoria, then so too was her all consuming manner of mourning him as she gave herself wholeheartedly up to grief, noting despondently in her prayer book that her ‘happy married life lasted 29 years, 6 months and 6 days; this is 335 months, 1540 weeks, 10781 days and 258744 hours.’ That her beloved Francis had not been an entirely perfect husband and had indeed been something of a womaniser, who conducted liaisons with much younger women at court, was now discreetly swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Obviously, the unexpected death of Emperor Francis was to have sad repercussions for all of his children, particularly his eldest son Joseph who now found himself Emperor and in the unhappy position of acting as a rather superfluous co-ruler with his domineering mother at the age of just twenty three, but the nine year old Maria Antonia was especially distraught as she had long been her father’s pet and was said to be his favourite child and most particular mignonne. In later years she would tell her friends about the last time she saw her handsome, cheerful father when he set out with his gentlemen to travel to Innsbruck for her brother’s wedding but then suddenly turned back to embrace her one last time, almost as if, she would later recall, he had somehow known that he would never see her again and had had a premonition of the terrible sorrow that would be her lot in life.

The imperial family’s love of simple middle class living is perhaps perfectly illustrated by the family portrait painted by Maria Antonia’s elder sister Maria Christina, which depicts the family on St Nicholas Day in 1762. The Emperor is shown at his ease before the fire, looking positively rakish in his dressing gown, slippers and night cap and with a clear stubble on his chin, while his devoted wife, the Empress stands behind his chair in the simple blue dress of a well to do Austrian hausfrau, looking pleased as punch as she smiles out of the painting, her hands resting on the back of his chair as she serves him his morning cup of hot chocolate. Only four of the imperial children are depicted in the painting, the rest presumably getting up to mischief elsewhere: eight year old Ferdinand is shown crying as his pretty elder sister Maria Christina, who at first glance looks more like a fresh faced and charmingly dressed young governess than an Archduchess of Austria, presents him with his Krampus gift of birch rods arranged as a switch in his shoe, obviously a punishment for acts of naughtiness, while the youngest imperial child, six year old Archduke Maximilian, who has clearly been much better behaved than his elder brother rather smugly tucks into a delicious looking pile of iced heart shaped gingerbread biscuits on the carpet. Most charming of all though is the diminutive figure of the seven year old Maria Antonia, who peeps out from behind her mother’s skirts and proudly holds up her splendidly dressed new doll to the viewer, clearly thrilled with her latest acquisition.

However, as with the later Victorian court, this near obsession with appearing as middle class and ‘ordinary’ as possible had a darker flip side in that it also fostered a certain restrictive, stiff lipped and often depressingly narrow minded bourgeois attitude towards morality and duty, that would all too often cast a cloud over the lives of Maria Theresa’s children and in particular her daughters, who were raised to have an equal fear of God and their mother, considering both as omniscient and terrifying as the other. As might be expected at the imperial court, there was always a heavy emphasis on religious observation with daily Mass and devotions and a strict adherence to the timetables of the church, which included fasting for Lent and being marked with a cross on the forehead on Ash Wednesday.  However after Francis’ death, the court became increasingly gloomy which would have a marked effect on the moods of the young Archduchesses, who now became even more terrified of drawing their mother’s censorious eye, always so quick to find fault and sharply comment upon it, upon themselves. However, at the same time they were desperate for her affection and there can be no doubt at all that for all her scolding and nit picking, Maria Theresa loved her children deeply.

At the time of Maria Antonia’s birth in 1755, there were already seven surviving Archduchesses, the eldest of whom, Maria Anna, was at seventeen, old enough to be her youngest sister’s mother and would probably have already been married off had she not unfortunately been physically delicate since birth and prone to debilitating bouts of ill health, which rendered her sadly quite ineligible in an age when European princelings were looking about for robust wives who could hopefully provide them with lots of children. Maria Anna was bright as a button though and a great favourite with her father, who shared her taste for science, archaeology and politics - all of which were considered unusual interests for young women at that time. It’s likely though that foibles that might well have been discouraged in one of her more marriageable younger sisters were tacitly tolerated in Maria Anna.

Although Maria Anna was their mother’s eldest surviving child, it was her next daughter, Maria Christina, the talented artist of the family who went by the nickname ‘Mimi’,  who was Maria Theresa’s undoubted favourite, probably initially because she had the good sense to be born on her mother’s birthday but then later because she was apparently the most talented and intelligent of the royal daughters. The obvious favouritism shown by the Empress for Mimi was to be a source of contention amongst all the sisters, who competed for their fearsome mother’s approval and attention. Although all of the imperial Archduchesses were made very aware that their ultimate duty was to marry well for the sake of Austrian interests, it was Mimi alone who was permitted the very great privilege of following in their mother’s footsteps and marrying for love when she rejected the Duke of Chablais, the suitor that her parents had chosen for her and instead begged to be allowed to marry her cousin Prince Albert of Saxony, who was virtually penniless and an altogether less eligible match for an imperial Archduchess and the favourite daughter of the Empress. However, this favouritism would inevitably win the day for Mimi, when the Empress perceived that allowing her daughter to marry a penniless prince would mean being able to keep her always close at hand rather than having to sacrifice her to a grand foreign match, which would in all probability mean never seeing her again. Prince Albert was therefore further ennobled with the Duchy of Teschen, while Mimi was presented with an enormous dowry, which enabled the young couple to live in high style at the imperial court after their marriage.

Even this unusual favour might have been overlooked by the others had not Mimi been a telltale who delighted in reporting her younger siblings’ misdeeds to their mother and sowing discord between them all, with the aim, of course, of enhancing her own position of most favoured child. Maria Antonia, who was thirteen years Mimi’s junior, came to loathe her eldest sister whose bossy, high handed ways and intellectual snobbishness left her with a permanent suspicious dread of what would later be termed ‘bluestockings’. For the rest of her life, Maria Antonia would eschew the company of intellectually sophisticated women, such as the cultivated and delightfully louche salonières of Paris, in favour of what she regarded as more straightforward and much less challenging companions, who shared her own interests and when Mimi herself later visited France, Maria Antonia, now Queen of France and no longer the despised little sister, took great pleasure in snubbing her.

Mimi was also often at loggerheads with her brother Joseph, who was heir to the throne and would become Emperor after the death of his father, although he was forced to take a back seat to his mother, who retained a firm grip on affairs of state and had no great wish to delegate to her son. Resenting the fact that Mimi was clearly his mother’s favourite was one thing but when his own adored first wife, Isabella of Parma, a granddaughter of Louis XV, began to also show a marked preference for his sister’s company, writing her passionate letters and spending all of her time with her, he clearly decided that enough was enough and the two never really got on again.

The third surviving daughter was Maria Elisabeth, a charming and lively little blonde, who was considered to be by far the most lovely of the Archduchesses, despite some stiff competition, particularly from Mimi, Maria Amalia and Maria Josepha. Known within the family as Leisl, she looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her pretty mouth but wasn’t nearly as nice as she looked. Deprived of what she considered to be her rightful Queen Bee status among the siblings by the continued presence of Mimi after her marriage, she was disliked by the younger girls thanks to her sharp put downs and tendency to flirt with whatever handsome young men happened to be about the place - a habit that gave her watchful mother quite a few misgivings too as she worried that Maria Elisabeth’s flirtations would eventually lead to a scandal that might damage her all important marital prospects, particularly with the trio of Bourbon princelings: Ferdinand of Parma, Ferdinand of Naples and, most grand of all, the Dauphin of France, whom she had currently set her sights on as the most eligible and potentially useful prospective sons-in-law in the wake of the Seven Years War, which came to an end in 1763.

Charming, intelligent and frivolous, the Archduchess Maria Amalia was the fourth surviving daughter of Maria Theresa and one of Maria Antonia’s favourite sisters, probably because she could be relied upon not to tell tales back to their mother and also liked to indulge her younger siblings rather than put them at odds with each other, unlike her elder sisters. Of a slightly satirical turn of mind, Maria Amalia had little patience with her mother’s behaviour and unlike the other daughters, was less desperate for approval which meant that they were frequently at loggerheads, particularly when Maria Amalia became of marriageable age and declared that she didn’t see why she shouldn’t be allowed to choose her own husband as her elder sister Mimi had done. Of all the sisters, she was the most sociable and most popular in Viennese society.

After Maria Amalia there came Maria Johanna and then Maria Josepha, two little sweet natured princesses born just over a year apart and as alike as two peas in a pod. The two girls were as close as twins and raised virtually together, sharing rooms and lessons until Maria Johanna, the elder of the pair, tragically died of smallpox at the age of just twelve. Maria Antonia, who had survived a mild bout of smallpox at the age of two and was consequently immune from that point onwards, was seven years old at the time and her elder sister’s illness and horrible death would have a profound effect on her. It was even more distressing for Maria Josepha however, an already shy and quiet girl who became even more withdrawn after Maria Johanna’s death and, not unsurprisingly, developed a terrible and morbid fear of smallpox.

Of all her sisters, however, it was the mischievous, delightfully pretty and strong willed Maria Carolina, known within the family as ‘Charlotte’, who was just three years older, who would always remain closest to Maria Antonia’s heart and would be her ally, best friend and most trusted confidante during her childhood in Austria. As the two youngest Archduchesses, Maria Carolina and Maria Antonia were so close in age, they were brought up together as Maria Johanna and Maria Josepha were, sharing rooms and lessons and paired off together during court entertainments, when the talented imperial children would sometimes dance and sing for the entertainment of the other guests.

However, although the two smallest Archduchesses were outwardly a most delightful pair of girls, all big blue eyes, pretty pink pouts and fair ringlets, they were apparently a pair of terrors, who led their nurses and governesses a merry dance and were frequently reprimanded by their mother, who would often exasperatedly complain that of all her daughters, Maria Carolina was the one who had most inherited her own bold spirit thanks to her propensity for playing practical jokes on the ladies of the court, behaving pertly and being generally full of mischief and mutiny. It’s likely that the more strong willed Maria Carolina was very much the ring leader in all of this, but the fact that Maria Antonia would retain a playful, teasing streak for most of the rest of her life suggests that she very much entered into the spirit of things and was not exactly an innocent bystander in her sister’s pranks. In the end, however, the Empress made good on her threats to separate the two and in 1768 they were indeed eventually divided and made to take their lessons alone.

Their chief governess during childhood was Countess Brandeis, a kind hearted and eager to please woman who never quite managed to strike a proper balance between indulging her flighty young charges and instilling them with a reasonable level of education. Keen that her daughters should fit into whatever grand spheres that marriage placed them within, Maria Theresa insisted upon a broad education that encompassed literacy, languages (primarily Italian, taught by the famed librettist Metastasio, and French, although some Latin was optimistically attempted too), mathematics, history and Geography, none of which were taught to a very vigorous level, it being considered enough that the girls should at least know a smattering of information - enough to render them not entirely ignorant and able to keep up their end during social conversations. There was also an extremely heavy emphasis on filial duty, obedience and moral decorum, with Maria Theresa herself declaring that her daughters were ‘born to obey’ and ensuring that they were brought up to place their allegiance to Austria above all else, which would naturally cause them to walk a tricky tightrope when their inevitable marriages made them rulers of various other countries, with different and occasionally conflicting interests.

To this end, the Empress insisted upon maintaining a daily correspondence with her children’s tutors and governesses, making sure that she was kept informed of everything that happened, however insignificant it might seem. Possibly it would have suited her better to take complete charge of their upbringings herself but as her state affairs and enormous work load made this impossible, she did the next best thing and kept as close an eye as possible on their development, even occasionally summoning them into her presence to discuss their progress with, naturally, particular emphasis on their various failings. Maria Antonia must have absolutely dreaded these conversations with her formidable mother for she was never left in any doubt that her unimpressive intellectual abilities were an enormous disappointment to the exacting Maria Theresa.

It’s not that Maria Antonia was stupid though, in fact far from it and as we will see, with a proper tutor she showed herself capable of making astonishing progress in quite a rapid amount of time. However, her natural inclination tended more towards laziness than application and the good hearted, undemanding Countess Brandeis proved herself quite unable to inspire and motivate her charge to do any better, probably because she was so keen to please and valued the liking of her pupils above their educational attainments. From an early age Maria Antonia struggled with both her reading and writing, finding the former tedious and the latter just too much like hard work so that her exercises were a mess of blotches, crossings out, misspellings and sloppy letter formation. In the end, the Countess, by now fearful of the Empress’ censure decided it might be better to do the exercises herself in pencil and get her pupil to trace over the words in ink - a most unsatisfactory way of going about things but definitely the easiest on both governess and pupil, even if it meant that the latter never really quite improved, while the former must have quaked in her shoes at the thought of the dread Empress finding out about her subterfuge.

 Her lack of interest in reading could not be so easily rectified or hidden however and was once again down to laziness as well as a worrying inability to pay proper attention or concentrate for more than short periods of time. As Countess Brandeis and eventually the court of France were soon to realise, the young Archduchess Maria Antonia had an absolute horror of ever feeling the slightest bit bored and would as a result strenuously avoid anything that forced her to concentrate or was of no interest - something of a flaw in a young girl who might well one day become a head of state and be expected to sit through long state events or make polite conversation about subjects that were of no immediate relevance to her. In not forcing her young charge to apply herself more or at least attempt to instil some discipline and application, Countess Brandeis, for all her good natured intentions, was in fact doing the young Maria Antonia a grave disservice.

Lessons took up only a small part of the day though (although probably more than enough as far as Maria Antonia was concerned) and the rest of the time was employed with all the delights that the royal palaces could offer to a cheerful and energetic group of young people. Although the elder children were significantly older than their youngest siblings they still, for the most part, all got along together reasonably well and later on Maria Antonia would reminisce happily about afternoons spent skating and sledging with her older brothers and sisters at Schönbrunn and Laxenburg, interspersed no doubt with enthusiastic snowball fights and cups of hot chocolate and soft warm gingerbread. Riding and hunting were also favourite occupations - the latter being considered an essential part of court life for both men and women because of its unique opportunities for relatively informal access to the monarch. Many an otherwise obscure nobleman had risen to dazzling favour simply because of his prowess in the hunting field, while displaying superior horsemanship was a well tried and tested way for ladies of the court to catch the King’s eye as well.

Music was also extremely important at the imperial court as both Maria Theresa and Francis passed on their love of music to their children, all of whom learned to play an instrument and took singing lessons, which was particularly important in the case of the girls in an age when women were expected to be entertaining adornments who must always be ready to be called upon to please and divert their companions with an impromptu musical interlude. In time the royal children were able to form a small orchestra and would play both at private family gatherings and to a much bigger audience at court events. Maria Antonia made her first public debut at not quite four, singing French couplets at a court gala to celebrate her father’s name day in October 1759, followed by her brother Ferdinand enthusiastically playing the kettle drums, Joseph performing with his cello and Maria Elisabeth and Maria Christina showcasing pieces on the piano. Although her academic progress was rather less than stellar, music was something that Maria Antonia could readily excel at and she would show particular aptitude with the harp, which she was taught by Joseph Hinner, and singing as well as being able to sight read music. One of her most charming portraits from this period shows her playing her spinet in a lovely court dress of sky blue silk, trimmed with pearls, lace and fur. One of the mischievously smiling Archduchess’ hands is hovering over the keys as the other turns the pages of her music.

There was music everywhere at the imperial court during the childhood of Maria Antonia and her siblings as her family were great patrons to musicians, with some of them even becoming teachers to the royal children, in particular Gluck, whom she would later promote and honour with her patronage in Paris. It is her legendary encounter with the young Mozart however that is perhaps most well known, although it is not known if the story of the child prodigy composer tripping over then spontaneously proposing to the pretty Archduchess Maria Antonia after she impulsively ran forward to help him up off the floor is apocryphal or based in fact. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of character for either of them to have behaved thus so may well be true.

Where there is music there must naturally also be dancing and it was in this most essential of courtly arts that Maria Antonia, who naturally managed to hit just the right balance of grace and enthusiasm, was held to particularly dazzle. It’s likely in fact that her exquisite dancing and polished deportment went a long way towards excusing her lack of ability in other arenas as the ability to strike an impressive pose on the dance floor was considered of tremendous and indeed paramount importance at the time. Certainly the young Maria Antonia would frequently be called upon to take the starring role in performances with her siblings, enchanting everyone at court with her precocious poise. It’s little wonder therefore that she takes a prominent position, her arms elegantly extended and small feet placed just so, in the lovely Meytens painting of some of the imperial children dancing together in the Gluck operetta Il Parnasso Confusio, which was composed and performed in honour of her brother Joseph’s second marriage to Josepha of Bavaria, which took place in January 1765 when she was just nine years old. Certainly Maria Antonia herself was fond enough of this painting to ask for it to be sent to her in France and it took pride of place in her Petit Trianon, acting as an endearing reminder of what she was pleased to recall as a most happy and carefree childhood.

The physical well being of the entire imperial family was under the care of Dr Gerhard van Swieten, a educationalist and physician who was to become something of a lifestyle guru to Maria Theresa and was especially closely involved in helping to plan and supervise the upbringing of the imperial children. An enlightened man who would also be responsible for improving health care for all classes of society and took a great interest in the science of medicine, Van Swieten took an almost Rousseau like line when it came to his young charges, recommending plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise to build their strength and health, as well as a nourishing and simple but healthy diet of noodle soups, eggs, fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and very little in the way of rich red meats, possibly influenced by the Habsburg tendency to become alarmingly overweight as a result of over indulgence. His optimistic attempts to put Maria Theresa, whose own mother had ballooned to such tremendous proportions in later life that she eventually completely lost the use of her legs, on a diet were unsuccessful but he had better luck with her children, with Maria Antonia in particular retaining abstemious eating habits throughout her life.

At Schönbrunn, Maria Theresa constructed two new wings to house her growing family, with the rambunctious pack of Archdukes being housed in the new right wing, which became a bevy of dogs and rampaging adolescent boys squabbling, playing pranks, duelling in the gardens and wrestling in the galleries, while their sisters lived rather more decorously in the left wing in a cosy and comforting feminine fug of hot chocolate, rosewater and floral scent, although one wonders how harmonious their apartments actually were with eight young women of such varying temperaments and with their own natural bonds and rivalries, living so close together. At the age of five, each of the girls graduated from the royal nursery and was presented a charming suite of five rooms, which followed the formal pattern of their parents’ apartments - with an outer audience chamber where guests could be formally received and the rooms becoming increasingly more private as they approached the inner sanctum of the bedchamber with its closets.

Just as her apartment at Versailles would become a colourful and beautiful riot of flowers, drawings, precious little objects and dogs, so too were her rooms at Schönbrunn, which she filled with the things that she loved best. Picking flowers in the gardens was a favourite pastime of the youngest Archduchesses and the vases in their rooms would have overflowed with the sweet scented fruits of their labours, especially in the summer. Encouraged like other girls of high station to always have some embroidery to hand to keep herself occupied, there would have been cushions and other small pieces worked by her own hand and those of her sisters, as well as sketches and paintings. Maria Theresa took great delight in her daughters’ artwork and even had one of the rooms at Schönbrunn entirely decorated with examples of their prowess, with prime position, naturally, being given to the work of the talented Mimi.

Like all of the family, Maria Antonia was fond of animals and her particular favourite was an extremely pampered little pug named Mops, with whom she would romp in the gardens along with her sisters and friends. Fully aware that her children would find it of benefit to be able to mix with people from all stations, Maria Theresa encouraged them to make friends with young people from outside their family circle, including the children of their wet nurses, whom they were brought up to regard as foster siblings, with Maria Antonia in particular becoming very close to her lait frèreJoseph Weber and his family. Other friends were, as might be expected, drawn from amongst the children of nobles and officials at their mother’s court, with both Maria Carolina and Maria Antonia becoming especially friendly with the Princesses Frederica (who would go on to become mother to the famous royal beauties Frederica and Luisa of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), Louise and Charlotte of Hesse-Darmstadt, the three eldest daughters of the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, who were distant cousins of the imperial Archduchesses.

Maria Antonia would refer to the pretty and extremely pleasant bevy of Hesse-Darmstadt girls as her ‘dear princesses’ and would become particularly fond of Princess Charlotte Wilhelmine, the middle daughter, to the point that she even at one point paid her the signal honour of picking up her pen in order to labour through a heartfelt letter to the princess, in which she concluded that, ‘I can’t convey to you the depth of my feeling for you’. Based on this, it seems likely that her charming cousin was the first in a series of close and warm female friendships with which Maria Antonia would find comfort, acceptance and succour throughout her life and the Hesse-Darmstadt princesses would remain close friends until the very end with Maria Antonia treasuring their letters and portraits and excitedly enjoying their company whenever one of them happened to visit Paris.

Although by our modern standards we may consider Maria Antonia to have been pampered, perhaps even a little spoilt by the grandeur of the surroundings that she grew up in and the comforts of her every day life, it’s likely that she herself would have been surprised by this as she would always in later life contrast the relative informality and happiness of her childhood in Vienna with the etiquette obsessed discomforts of life at Versailles and the signal lack of affectionate gesture within the French royal family, which had left her husband, destined to be one of the greatest Kings in Europe a wreck of insecurities and shambling awkwardness while she herself shimmered with the confidence and vitality that came from being raised in the heart of a loving and supportive family where a Germanic frankness rather than French obfuscation was the order of the day. In her view, growing up amidst the splendours of the French court had ruined her husband whereas the relative simplicity of her own upbringing had been much more successful, even if it had not adequately prepared her for life at Versailles, and therefore was to be emulated when it came to their own children.

Unfortunately, despite the grand celebrations that marked the occasion, the second marriage of Maria Antonia’s handsome eldest brother Joseph, who was always an object of great awe and admiration to his youngest sisters, was no more happy than his first to Isabella of Parma, which had ended with her death at the age of just twenty one in November 1763. The unfortunate Isabella had sadly possessed a rather morose, morbid and undoubtedly depressive personality, which was quite at odds with the lively good humour of the imperial family and cast a veil of gloom over all their gatherings thanks no doubt to her habit of regaling her husband and his family with such alarming statements as, ‘Death speaks to me in a distinct voice that rouses in my soul a sweet satisfaction,’ which sounds more like the bad poetry of a modern day goth teenager than the utterances of a pampered eighteenth century princess and serves as a reminder perhaps that adolescents in the past were just as likely to be drawn to the gothic and macabre as they are nowadays and indeed probably had much more scope for their ghoulish introspections. She also, more worryingly from a dynastic point of view, developed a horror of the sexual act, which devastated her adoring husband, who then had to watch as his wife shunned him in favour of his own sister, Mimi.

The young couple still managed to do their duty though and produced a single living child, Maria Theresa, a lively little thing who was named for her doting grandmother (who had with her usual domineering high handedness declared that all the first born daughters of her offspring should be named after herself), before Isabella expired of smallpox a year later after giving birth to a stillborn daughter whom she insisted should be named Maria Christina in honour of her favourite sister-in-law. Mimi for her part then chose this moment to show her grieving brother the amorous and extraordinarily passionate letters that his dead wife had written to her over the years, thinking that they might alleviate his terrible grief by proving that Isabella had not been worthy of it. Instead, not entirely unexpectedly, they just made matters worse.

Devoted to the memory of his first wife, the heartbroken and completely bereft Joseph had initially resisted all thoughts of remarriage but then had been forced to capitulate to his mother’s demands that he do his duty and provide himself with a male heir. Deciding that he couldn’t possibly love anyone as much as he had loved Isabella and thwarted in his original plan to marry her younger sister Maria Luisa, who was already betrothed to the heir of the King of Spain, he declared that one princess was as good as another, refused to take any part in the hunt for a second wife and left the decision to his parents, who duly selected a second cousin of impeccable lineage for the task. Docile, good natured but rather boring, Maria Josepha was not an unattractive young woman but from the very first she failed to appeal to Joseph, who professed himself horrified by her ‘charmless’ figure, pimpled face and bad teeth. However, Joseph was no Henry VIII and so he made the best of things, leading what he referred to as a ‘bachelor’ life and avoiding his wife’s company as much as possible. So unhappy was the marriage that Joseph’s irreverent and outspoken little sister Maria Carolina declared that if she had the ‘great misfortune to be Joseph’s wife, I would run away and hang myself from one of the trees at Schönbrunn’. To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, there were to be no children from this union.

A much more congenial sister-in-law was the delightful and gregarious Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain, who married Maria Antonia’s elder brother Archduke Leopold in 1765 and whose wedding celebrations in Innsbruck were cut so dramatically and tragically short by the death of her new father-in-law Emperor Francis. Sadly for everyone however, the newly weds, who had become Grand Duke and Duchess of Tuscany upon Francis’ death, moved to Florence immediately after their wedding and returned to Vienna only once in the spring of 1770, shortly before Maria Antonia’s wedding, which meant that the two sisters-in-law, Maria Luisa and Maria Antonia had very little time to get to know each other before the latter left Austria forever.

By 1767, the question of the youngest girls’ marriages became of even more pressing moment as Maria Theresa worked hard to fix the rapidly crumbling friendship that had sprung up between Austria and France in the wake of the alliance formed by their common enemies England and Prussia during the Seven Years War and which had been sealed with the Treaty of Versailles in 1756. However, Austria and France were not natural allies and in the face of Louis XV’s increasing apathy, Maria Theresa desperately tried to bring about an alliance in the time honoured fashion of a marriage between one of her daughters and Louis’ heir, his grandson Louis Auguste. At the same time, she was keen to further reinforce the friendship between Austria and the Bourbons by marrying two other daughters to Ferdinand of Naples and Ferdinand of Parma, both of whom were great great grandsons of Louis XIV, while the latter had the additional benefit of also being grandson of Louis XV.

At first it was proposed that Maria Amalia should marry Ferdinand of Naples and Maria Carolina should marry Louis Auguste of France, which seemed ideal as his grandfather, Louis XV was her godfather, while their elder sister Maria Elisabeth, the loveliest of them all, could marry the widowed French king. However, Ferdinand’s father Charles III of Spain had objected to the first of these matches on the grounds that Maria Amalia, at five years his senior, was too old for his son. It was therefore arranged that he would instead marry her younger sister, the delightfully pretty sixteen year old Archduchess Maria Josepha, who was her brother Joseph’s favourite sister, while Maria Amalia instead was eventually betrothed to Ferdinand of Parma, who was also five years younger than her but, on the advice of his grandfather Louis XV, who took the pragmatic view that one princess was much like another when it came down to it, declared that he wasn’t about to be fussy about which Archduchess he married.

Nevertheless, it seemed that Maria Amalia, the social butterfly of the family, had other ideas. Encouraged by her sister Mimi’s love match with Prince Albert of Saxony, she had fallen helplessly in love with yet another handsome young cousin Prince Charles of Zweibrücken, who was, as far as the smitten Maria Amalia was concerned, the embodiment of a Teutonic hero with blond hair, steely blue eyes and chiselled good looks. Upon being informed of her upcoming marriage to the Duke of Parma, she declared that she would be doing no such thing and would instead be marrying the Prince of Zweibrücken, arguing that it was not really such a bad match as the handsome Charles was heir of his childless cousin, the Elector of Bavaria. However, as far as Maria Theresa was concerned, a chancy heir was in no way competition for a prestigious Bourbon princeling who was already in possession of his inheritance and so she insisted that Maria Amalia renounce Charles and do her duty by marrying Ferdinand.

It seems odd perhaps that Maria Amalia, who was as strong willed in her own way as her sister Mimi, should have bowed her head and given in to her mother’s demands, instead of defying her and perhaps making off with her handsome prince in the dead of night. However, princesses in real life rarely behave like the ones in romantic novels and having been brought up since childhood to worship at the altar of filial duty and to regard the word of her mother as tantamount to the word of God himself, there really was no question of Maria Amalia seriously disobeying Maria Theresa in a matter of such seriousness, however much she may have secretly wished to do so. There were threats and tears and shouting of course, Maria Amalia being one of the more emotive and demonstrative of the Archduchesses, but it was all so much hot air and everyone knew it.

However, not for nothing is 1767 commonly referred to as Maria Theresa’s ‘annus horribilis’, for just as she was able to congratulate herself on having pulled off a frankly incredible coup in this triple alliance between her family and the Bourbons, disaster struck in the form of yet another outbreak of smallpox, that most dreaded of eighteenth century diseases, which had already claimed the lives of her daughter-in-law Isabella, her daughter Maria Johanna and her favourite son Charles Joseph in January 1761. This time the disease killed Maria Theresa’s poor unloved daughter-in-law Maria Josepha and left her daughter Maria Elisabeth permanently disfigured as the result of its ravages, which removed all possibility of marriage with the fastidious Louis XV, whose taste for pretty young women was well known throughout Europe.

Potentially most disastrously of all though was the fact that Maria Theresa herself was struck down by the disease and indeed came so close to death that the Last Sacrament was given and her family went into a panic, unable to comprehend the possibility that they might actually be about to lose her. Luckily though, the indomitable Empress pulled through and made a full recovery, to the tremendous relief of everyone, although it’s possible that her eldest son Joseph was not a little disappointed to see his chance to take full and complete charge come to an end, pleased though he must have been to see his mother, whom he revered as much as he was frustrated by her, recover.

Plans for the marriages carried on as before, with Maria Josepha due to leave Vienna in October 1767 to make the journey to Naples. However, shortly before her departure her mother insisted that she spend a night praying and keeping vigil in the imperial crypt of the Capuchin church in Vienna where her sister-in-law Maria Josepha had recently been interred alongside other members of the imperial family. To an impressionable young girl, already terrified of disease and death, this must have been an appalling ordeal and it was probably of no surprise to anyone when she collapsed and had to be carried back inside the palace afterwards. Sadly, her collapse was found to have far more sinister reasons than simple adolescent squeamishness but instead proved to be the first symptoms of smallpox, perhaps caught from noxious gases seeping from Maria Josepha’s improperly closed tomb but more likely, judging by the inoculation period of the disease, caught before she had even descended the steps to the crypt.

The unfortunate Maria Josepha died on 15 October, the very day that she had been scheduled to leave Vienna for Naples. Instead, as Leopold Mozart, who was in Vienna for the wedding celebrations, gloomily noted, ‘the Princess Bride has become the bride of a heavenly bridegroom’. Elsewhere, the news of Maria Josepha’s sad and untimely death was greeted with dismay as the Kings of Spain and France were as keen as Maria Theresa to see this union between Austria and Naples sealed for good. Her prospective bridegroom on the other hand amused himself by dressing one of his friends in a dress and putting sweets on his face to represent smallpox spots before parading him through Caserta palace, telling everyone that it was the Austrian Archduchess’ funeral procession. However, he raised no objection when he was informed that he was still to be married, only this time to Maria Josepha’s younger sister, Maria Carolina, who had been hastily offered as a replacement, inheriting her sister’s spectacular bridal trousseau as compensation for having to permanently forgo the grand match with the Dauphin of France that she had been cheerfully anticipating.

Like her elder sister Maria Amalia, Maria Carolina loudly and forcefully protested at being so summarily packed off to Naples but in the end she too was forced to give in and obey, although not at all meekly. Maria Carolina was married to Ferdinand of Naples in a lavish proxy wedding on 7April 1768 at the church of the Augustine Friars in Vienna, with one brother, Joseph walking her up the aisle and another, Ferdinand standing in for her absent groom. She left for Naples the same afternoon, taking public leave of her family in front of the entire court but then stopping her coach as it pulled away from Schönbrunn in order to jump down and embrace her beloved Maria Antonia, who was distraught, one last time. During her long journey to Naples, the devastated and apprehensive Maria Carolina wrote to her former governess, Countess Lerchenfeld, to ask that she should ‘write to me everything that you know about my sister Antonia, down to the tiniest detail, what she says and does and even what she thinks… Beg her to love me, for I am so passionately concerned for her.’ Later on, after her disappointing wedding night, she would write more ominously that, ‘I pity Antoinette, who still has all of this to face. When my sister has to confront this situation, I shall shed many tears.

Maria Amalia’s wedding took place just over a year later on 27June 1769, again in the church of the Augustine Friars and following the same procedure as Maria Carolina’s nuptials, with Joseph walking her down the aisle and Ferdinand standing in for the absent Duke of Parma. A few days later she departed Vienna for her new life in Italy, dropping a dutiful curtsey to the mother who had destroyed her happiness and forced her against her will into a marriage that she despised, before she left. They would never see each other again and their already shaky relationship was damaged beyond repair by the situation. Her disappointed suitor, Charles of Zweibrücken, would later, in an ironic twist of fate, marry Maria Amalia of Saxony, a first cousin of the Dauphin Louis Auguste, who had been promoted by his mother Maria Josepha of Saxony as a prospective bride for the French heir.

With Maria Carolina and Maria Amalia now safely married off, albeit resentfully, attention now turned to the most glittering prize of all - the Dauphin Louis Auguste of France. Although his parents had been implacable enemies of the Austrian alliance and would have preferred their son to be married to a German princess like his mother, they were both dead by 1767, leaving the way clear for negotiations between Louis XV and Maria Theresa to move on in earnest. At first, as we have seen, it was Maria Carolina, Louis’ goddaughter who was first mentioned as a prospective bride for the Dauphin but when she was betrothed to the King of Naples in 1767 attention turned to her hitherto unmentioned and unthought of younger sister, Maria Antonia, who was just over a year younger than the French prince. This French match was extremely close to Maria Theresa’s heart and she must have wondered just how hard it would be to persuade the French King to agree to it, considering that he himself had made a rather less than dazzling match to a Polish princess and then married his own son to a relatively obscure princess of Saxony. Surely a match with imperial Austria was far more impressive than both of these alliances?

For his part, although he was open to the idea of a match between his heir and the Archduchess Maria Antonia and more than awake to the extraordinary grandeur of such a marriage, Louis XV was also painfully aware of both his own sharply declining popularity in France and the similar antipathy directed towards their Austrian allies, who were regarded with great suspicion and hostility by the French populace. In short, he wasn’t sure if he was up to the job of further antagonising them with what was bound to be an extremely unpopular marriage. However, he listened to Maria Theresa’s approaches and allowed his Ambassador in Vienna, the Marquis de Durfort to politely admire the thirteen year old princess before he duly despatched not altogether glowing reports of the girl, whom he deemed extremely pretty but childish and rather badly educated, back to Versailles.

Eager to advance the marriage as much as possible, Maria Theresa now took a close look at the education of her youngest daughter. She had already had reason to bemoan Maria Antonia’s lack of aptitude and concentration in the past but had taken no real measures to rectify this. Now, however, the grooming of Maria Antonia to become a worthy morsel for French delectation became of paramount importance to the Empress and she bent her considerable energies to this end, overseeing every detail and overlooking nothing in her quest to transform her daughter into a French Dauphine both in appearance and actuality.

The first thing to receive attention was Maria Antonia’s previously desultory education, which even by the lax standards of the time was clearly in no way suitable for a future Queen of France. Upon investigation, Maria Theresa discovered that not only was her daughter’s native German execrable but her French was appalling too and would require a great deal of work to get it up to scratch. At first, two actors, Messieurs Aufresne and Sainville, were employed to get the young Archduchess up to speed but when Versailles, appalled that a prospective Dauphine was learning her French from a pair of common thespians, intervened, another, more worthy tutor was engaged for the unenviable task of ironing out all the problems with Maria Antonia’s education.

Charming, urbane and erudite, the Abbé de Vermond was a perfect choice to act as the Archduchess’ new tutor as he had the knack of teaching without really seeming to at all and also managed to quickly earn his young pupil’s admiration and trust thanks to his gentle methods and conversational manner of introducing subjects to her attention so that lessons were more like informal little chats than lectures. When he first took charge of her education in late 1768, the thirteen year old Maria Antonia spoke terrible French and was almost illiterate when it came to reading and writing both French and German, while her general knowledge about history and geography was poor to non existent. However, by the time she left Vienna in May 1770, matters were much improved to the extent that she now spoke fluent French and could read and write properly and was able to converse with relative confidence about the histories of both Austria and France, although there were still great gaps in her knowledge that might never be adequately filled.

While the Abbé de Vermond was taking charge of Maria Antonia’s education, the ladies were scrutinising her dress and appearance. Up to this point, her every day clothing had been relatively simple dresses of light cotton in the hottest part of summer, especially in the laid back surroundings of Laxenburg, and silk and velvet for the rest of the year, with her grandest dresses, trimmed with cascades of lace and sweet little ribbon bows being reserved for the grandest court ceremonies and galas. Versailles, however, was a completely different kettle of fish and a much grander wardrobe would be required if Maria Antonia was to impress the fussy French with her toilette. Thus a steady stream of fashion dolls, known as Pandoras, began to make their way from the finest dressmakers in Paris to the palaces of Vienna, where their exquisite dresses would be replicated for the Archduchess. A particular problem was caused by her corsetry which, entirely understandably, the young girl was totally unwilling to wear tightly laced or even at all and some persuasion was required to get her to wear a restrictive whalebone corset in the French style, thus creating a suitably elegantly slender silhouette for her new lavish dresses.

Maria Antonia’s hair was also a problem as, although, it was very thick and a lovely strawberry blonde colour, it had been totally neglected and was often allowed to hang loose about her shoulders, drawn back from her face by a simple black hairband and only worn up when she was likely to be seen by company or attending a court gala, when it would be pinned up, powdered and decorated with diamonds and a few discreetly placed roses and feathers. Once again, such informality was considered totally inappropriate by Versailles standards and so Maria Theresa appealed to the Duc de Choiseul, Louis XV’s minister, who was the chief supporter of the union between their two nations. Choiseul’s intimidating sister Béatrix, the Duchesse de Gramont came to the rescue and despatched her own hairdresser, Larsenneur to the Hofburg, where he modified the simple chignon style favoured by the late Madame de Pompadour, raising it slightly so that it would disguise the Archduchess’ high and rather bulging forehead and uneven hairline and accentuate her youth and charm.

Rather less pleasantly, the Archduchess’ crooked teeth were also deemed to require correction and in 1768, a pioneering French dentist by the name of Pierre Laveran arrived in Vienna bearing what probably appeared at first sight to be a terrifying torture device but turned out in fact to be an eighteenth century precursor of the modern dental brace, which had been invented by Pierre Fauchard. Poor Maria Antonia was forced to wear this device every day for three long months until her teeth were judged to be straight enough to pass muster. We can only imagine how much she complained about the indignity of this.

Of course, Maria Antonia’s transformation was not just sartorial - there were also hours of dancing and etiquette lessons with the great dancer Noverre to be endured as he taught her all of the latest and most popular dances at the French royal court as well as how to move and behave in society. Already, thankfully, naturally very graceful the Archduchess now had to learn how to move in the Versailles style, which involved a sort of mannered refinement and a peculiar way of walking, where the feet moved very fast beneath the heavy court dresses, giving the impression that the ladies were floating on air rather than walking along on anything so commonplace as feet. It was much harder work than it sounds thanks to the intense and extremely strict French obsession with etiquette and precedence, but it’s still likely that her time with Noverre was far more pleasurable than her brief but painful sessions with the royal dentist, Laveran.  

Decked out in the very finest Parisian style, her hair exquisitely dressed, her smile glittering and perfect and her manners that delightful mixture of grace and graciousness that would be expected from a Dauphine of France, Maria Antonia was then paraded like a prime piece of livestock in front of the French Ambassador, while her mother lost no opportunity to point her out amongst the dancers, pressing the unfortunate Ambassador to admire her daughter’s graceful carriage and winsome appearance and losing no opportunity to comment on her suitability as a future Queen of France. To all intents and purposes, Maria Antonia now looked, moved and behaved like a French woman and could even sound a bit like one too, although she never quite lost all traces of her German accent, but would the exacting French agree?

The favourable reports of both the beleaguered Monsieur de Durfort and the Abbé de Vermond, who was by now completely captivated by his graceful but indolent pupil, made a great impression on Louis XV and his advisors, who thought that the great efforts that had gone into schooling Maria Antonia for a French marriage did not at all count against her, proving as they did her malleability and quickness to learn and adapt to circumstances. Versailles, as they were fond of reminding themselves, was very different to Vienna and it would make life exceedingly uncomfortable for everyone should the princess prove herself unwilling to accept this.

In the summer of 1769, the French court were finally able to get a glimpse of this paragon for themselves when a lovely portrait of the Archduchess Maria Antonia arrived at Versailles for the inspection of her prospective family. Painted over five arduous sittings by the French royal artist Ducreux who had been despatched along with Madame de Gramont’s hairdresser from Versailles for this very purpose, the portrait depicts the princess as enchantingly pretty with a Dresden shepherdess fairness that is accentuated by the sky blue of her pretty gown and matching neck ribbon. Clearly Louis XV agreed with the general consensus that the Archduchess of Austria was utterly adorable for he now speedily agreed that Durfort, no doubt enormously relieved to have finally sealed this most awkward deal, should make a formal application to Maria Theresa for her thirteen and a half year old daughter’s hand, which he duly did on 6 June 1769.

Maria Theresa was utterly elated to have her dearest heart’s desire delivered to her at last and excitedly assured her daughter, who was bewildered, frightened and exhilarated in equal measures by the delight that her long expected betrothal was causing, that ‘if one is to consider only the greatness of your position, you are the happiest of your sisters and all princesses.’ Whether Maria Antonia would agree once she embarked on her new life far away in France was an altogether different matter.

The royal wedding was scheduled for the following May and from that point on, Maria Theresa kept an even closer watch over her daughter, who was both excited and apprehensive about her rapidly approaching nuptials. Meanwhile, the preparations for the forthcoming marriage were gathering pace as both sides hammered out the terms that would make up one of the most important marriage contracts of the period, which would hopefully cement the peace between France and Austria forever.

Perhaps feeling that she did not properly know her youngest daughter who had suddenly been propelled into the limelight, one of Maria Theresa’s first actions after the betrothal was to take Maria Antonia with her on a private pilgrimage to the basilica at Mariazell in northern Styria, where mother and daughter could take communion and pray together at a shrine devoted to the Virgin Mary. Then as now, a road trip was considered an excellent way of getting to know someone better and Maria Theresa would have been watching her daughter closely during their time together, assessing her character and beginning to dispense advice about her future life. For her part, Maria Antonia was no doubt delighted to be spending so much unprecedented time alone with her mother, whom she had always idolised as much as feared. She had previously informed Mimi of her childish jealousy that her eldest sister saw so much of their mother and now, to her delight, she had her all to herself.

When they returned to Vienna in the autumn of 1769 it was to find preparations for the royal wedding gathering pace and while Maria Theresa turned her attention to the tiresome details of dowries, jointures, titles, contracts and precedence, Maria Antonia in her turn was enveloped in the excitement of choosing her enormous trousseau, which was costing her mother 400,000 livres and being provided by the best dressmakers in Paris. Even more delightfully, she spent hours day dreaming about her fiancé, about whom she knew very little other than that he was tall, had blue eyes and was extremely fond of books. The latter point being probably of very little recommendation to a girl who never so much as touched a book unless she absolutely had to, but the other details probably gave her plenty to moon about as wedding fever gripped the imperial court over the winter of 1769.

Just as the public obsessed about every detail of Lady Diana Spencer’s life before the royal wedding in July 1981 so too did the Austrians and French clamour for images and information about the Archduchess Maria Antonia, whose wedding was already being lauded as the precursor of a period of the greatest peace and prosperity for both their nations. Prints and medals depicting either Maria Antonia on her own or alongside her fiancé Louis Auguste were issued in their thousands, while everyone who had ever had even the slightest bit of contact with the Archduchess could no doubt dine out on their reminisces for weeks on end. When it was announced that the little Archduchess would be attending a masked ball in December 1769, almost four thousand people turned up in the ballroom, desperate to catch a glimpse of her as she did the rounds of the room on her mother’s arm, bowing gracefully to the other dignitaries and occasionally dancing with one of her brothers.

Maria Antonia handled being suddenly thrust into the spotlight with enormous aplomb and received multitudes of compliments for her confident poise and charming manners, even when being stared at and jostled by hundreds of people. After a childhood spent on the very fringes of the imperial family, she particularly enjoyed this opportunity to spend more time with her mother and be treated as an equal by her siblings, who had never really paid all that much attention to her until now. Although her lessons with Abbé de Vermond continued, she was now also expected to take more part in the social life of the court and attended the twice weekly card parties in her mother’s splendidly furnished apartments, where her brothers taught her how to play cards and gamble, an essential skill at the royal courts where everyone was expected to join the candlelit card tables in the evening and indulge in a little good-humoured gambling for relatively small stakes. In time the monotony of adult court life would really wear Maria Antonia down but at first it was extraordinarily thrilling to be allowed to stay up late with her family and the other courtiers, to make small stakes on the turn of a card with money out of her own special velvet gambling purse and to be praised and flirted with by all the gentlemen and probably a few of the ladies as well.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Habsburg celebration without some sort of terrible tragedy occurring and this duly came to pass in January 1770 when Maria Antonia’s beloved little niece Maria Theresa, who was the only child of her brother Joseph and his wife Isabella of Parma, died. The little girl was just seven years old and as the youngest royal child at the imperial court was the pampered pet of her grandmother, father and the various aunts and uncles still living at home. Joseph was completely devastated by her death as he had regarded her as his last bond with her beloved mother, while for her part Maria Antonia too was very much distressed as she had loved to play with her niece in her rooms.

Shortly after the little girl’s extremely sad funeral, another more intimate but equally momentous event occurred when Maria Antonia woke up on 7 February with the ominous cramps that signified the beginning of her first period. An important occasion in any girls life, this was of even more enormous significance when that girl was destined to become Queen of France and Maria Theresa lost no time in communicating the happy news to Louis XV in Versailles, keen to assure him that her daughter enjoyed normal fertility and would presumably have no trouble providing his grandson with a whole bevy of children.

Although nowadays the subject of menstruation is considered a private affair that might perhaps be discussed only with a close group of friends, the periods of a Dauphine of France were very much public property and talked about avidly by everyone from her family to the courtiers and then down to the ordinary people of Paris. Living in such close quarters at Versailles, surrounded at all times by attendants and servants and having barely a moment to themselves, the basic bodily functions of the royal family were considered fair game and open to open scrutiny. It was a situation that Maria Antonia in particular would never quite reconcile herself to and she was no doubt not a little mortified by the gleeful chatter about her menses, although she never failed to duly inform her mother of the arrival of ‘Générale Krottendorf’, as the ladies of her family referred to their periods, in her letters home to Vienna after her marriage. Not much is known about the unfortunate Générale who lent her name in such a way, but it must be assumed that she was not, after the first visit at least, considered the most welcome of guests. When the lady died at the end of 1779, Maria Theresa would write to her daughter, who was hoping to become pregnant, that ‘the Générale Krottendorf has just died. I hope that she will stop visiting you…

Maria Antonia was due to leave Vienna on the morning of 21 April and the rest of the month passed in a whirl of glorious celebrations and last minute preparations for her departure. Much like any other wedding there were all the usual last minute hitches, panics and small triumphs, all massively amplified by the international significance of the whole event. Maria Theresa, now faced with the prospect of seeing her youngest daughter, to whom she had become extremely close in recent months, leave for good now became rather flustered by the prospect and decided to move the girl into her own rooms for the last few weeks of her time at home so that she could spend as much time as possible with her before she left.

This signal honour, which had been accorded to none of her sisters, must have been both an incredible treat and an awful torture for poor Maria Antonia, who was thrilled to be so close to her mother and to have the comfort of her reassuring presence at such an emotional time, but also exhausted by the Empress’ punishing routine which she was now expected to share - up at 4am every morning and then late to bed in a room with all the windows open, as was Maria Theresa’s custom. There were also lengthy and often mortifying lectures to be endured about queenship, behaviour, religion and, most embarrassingly of all to a young girl of just fourteen, married life, with the Empress drawing on the example of her own happy and fruitful marriage with Francis to embellish her advice and homilies, wilfully forgetting of course that she had only permitted one of her own daughters to marry for love as she had done and had in contrast condemned all of the rest to loveless marriages of state, which were in no way comparable to the close and intimate relationship that she had enjoyed with her own husband.

To Maria Antonia, shivering in her little bed in the gloom of her mother’s opulent bedchamber, which had been hung with black velvet since the death of her husband, in the Hofburg palace, listening to Maria Theresa’s voice rambling on about the delights of the marriage bed, it must have been hideously awkward. However, it was fortunate for her that she didn’t know just yet quite how inappropriate and sadly inadequate her mother’s well meaning advice about sex and marital relations actually were. Alongside this, Maria Antonia also began to have weekly private audiences with her eldest brother Joseph, who did his best to instil some political understanding in his flighty little sister. As Maria Antonia had always rather hero worshipped Joseph, she actually enjoyed these meetings enormously, especially as he had followed Abbé de Vermond’s lead and arranged them as cosy little chats rather than more intimidating lessons, hoping by this measure to at least vaguely capture her capricious interest. It’s doubtful that Maria Antonia proved herself a satisfactory pupil to Joseph but she took away enough information to make him feel at least relatively confident that she wouldn’t show herself up at Versailles and could be relied upon to work for Austrian interests after her marriage.

The days before Maria Antonia’s departure were marked with a series of splendid court entertainments, including a gala hosted by her mother on 16 April when she was finally presented with two portraits of her fiancé Louis Auguste. Delighted to finally set eyes on her future husband, she asked to have one placed by her bed where she could see it at all times and immediately fastened the other, a miniature surrounded with diamonds, to the front of her dress. Although the French prince was not quite the handsome prince of her daydreams and most fervent imaginings, he did at least look kind, which counted for a great deal more if the not so veiled hints of marital disappointment and discord in the letters of her sisters Maria Amalia and Maria Carolina were anything to go by. If she no longer sighed over the prince then at least she could look at his likeness and feel reasonably reassured that she was not being sent to some sort of monster.

The next day, Maria Antonia formally renounced all of her rights to both her mother’s imperial lands and also the territories formerly owned by her father in Lorraine. After which her brother hosted an enormous supper party for 1,500 guests at the Belvedere palace, where Maria Antonia took the place of honour during the feast and then led the dancing at the masked ball afterwards, which was attended by a further six hundred people, the very crème de la crème of Viennese society. The ball went on until seven in the morning with the guests fuelled by a sumptuous supper and copious amounts of alcohol as well as lemonade, hot chocolate and coffee. The Archduchess Maria Antonia, thrilled and excited by all of this attention, danced until three in the morning when she was finally whisked away to her bed in her mother’s room in the Hofburg.

The following evening there was another enormous party, this time hosted by the French Ambassador at the Liechtenstein Palace, where again the Archduchess danced alongside several hundred guests until well past midnight, after enjoying a splendid firework display accompanied by Turkish music. It was Maria Antonia’s last night as an unmarried Archduchess of Austria and as she looked around at the other guests, people that she had known her whole life, she must have felt a tinge of sadness at the prospect of leaving them all behind, while they in turn were sorry to be losing such an enchanting addition to the Austrian court.

The proxy wedding of Maria Antonia and the absent Dauphin Louis Auguste, so hotly anticipated by everyone, finally took place at six o clock on the evening of 19 April, with the Archduke Ferdinand yet again standing in as bridegroom for one of his sisters. This time, however, it was not Joseph but the Empress herself who led the blushing bride, dressed in a gorgeously opulent gown of silver brocade and lace, up the aisle of the church of the Augustine Friars, where her mother and sisters had been married before her and she herself had been baptised at just a day old, and past the entire imperial court to where the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Visconti was waiting to officiate.

After the wedding ceremony, Maria Antonia, now officially Dauphine of France and henceforth to be known by the French form of her name: Marie Antoinette, was escorted back to the Hofburg for a splendid wedding banquet, where once again she took the position of honour although sadly with her brothers rather than her groom at her side. Did she wonder how the Dauphin Louis August was feeling far away in Versailles, knowing that he was now officially a husband to a girl that he had never met? Probably not - at just fourteen and every bit as silly, selfish and shallow as any other girl of her age, Marie Antoinette (ironically perhaps for someone who has been the subject of so many novels written in the first person) was almost certainly not given to such moments of introspection and if her mind did indeed wander to the as yet unknown boy sitting in his grand apartments at Versailles, she probably didn’t dwell on him all that much.

Marie Antoinette departed Schönbrunn forever early in the morning of 21 April and like her sisters was expected to say her last farewell to her mother, whom she knew that she might never see again, in front of the entire court, who had gathered together before the great palace to see her off. The departures of her sisters Maria Amalia and Maria Carolina had been hideous occasions, punctuated by a great deal of indecorous sobbing and fuss. To the relief of everyone, however, Marie Antoinette behaved extremely well and did her best to hide her nervous dread as she embraced each of her family in turn before falling to her knees before her mother for a final blessing. It was an emotional moment for them both and Maria Theresa could barely restrain her tears as she hugged her daughter one last time, saying, ‘Farewell, my dearest child, a great distance will separate us’ and extolling her to ‘do so much good to the French people that they will say that I have sent them an angel.’ Her mother’s weeping set Marie Antoinette off as well and they clung together sobbing until finally the Archduke Ferdinand picked his sister up and deposited her in the luxurious and beautifully decorated carriage, more like a gorgeous jewellery box than a vehicle, that had been sent from France to collect her. As the carriage made its way down the avenue at Schönbrunn, the golden flowers decorating its roof waving gracefully with each bounce of its suspension, the little Dauphine was seen to be hanging half out of the open window, sobbing and waving to her family before finally her head popped back inside and she was gone for good.

No detail of Marie Antoinette’s journey to France had been overlooked, with special attention even being paid to the furnishings of the bedchambers that she would inhabiting at her stops along the way. In keeping with her newly exalted station it was decreed that all furnishings, including her commode and bidet should be covered with imperial red and gold and that her curtains should be made from gorgeous crimson taffeta. Such magnificence was not at all to Marie Antoinette’s taste, which tended more towards light pastels and the pretty muted hues of sugared almonds and spring flowers, but for this most important journey, it was accepted that proper attention must be paid to her status.

Also of great importance was the procession that was to accompany the Dauphine to the French border and which would amount to a travelling court in its own right, designed both to ensure that the princess had every conceivable comfort during her long journey and also reinforce an impression of Austrian might and magnificence. To this end, fifty seven coaches were put into service to carry all of the ladies in waiting, officials, courtiers, doctors, cooks and dressmakers considered necessary for such a great undertaking and twenty thousand horses were commissioned to ensure that journey stages went as smoothly as possible. To further ensure the smoothness of the journey, orders were given in October 1769 to completely repair all of the roads that Marie Antoinette was to travel over so that not a single bump would disturb the tranquility of her voyage as she played cards, played with her little dog Mops, who was accompanying her to the border and gossiped with her friends, which included Princess Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt.

The first stage of Marie Antoinette’s journey was a short one and involved an overnight stay at the monastery at Melk, where she was reunited with her brother, Joseph, who did his best to cheer her up while at the same time reminding her that she ought to be grateful for the position that she had, thanks to a series of tragedies and disasters, found herself in. For her part, Marie Antoinette was exhausted and emotionally wrung out after the ordeal of having to say goodbye to her mother and was observed to look morose and bored at the obligatory after dinner entertainment: an opera performed by the monastery’s pupils.

Her journey to the French border continued the next day and would take two and a half weeks to accomplish, with the journey, which was spent cooped up in the confined splendour of the carriage, seeming like an interminable torture to a young girl used to spending her days rushing about the gardens of Schönbrunn, practising her dancing for hours on end or playing with her dog in the splendid, echoing galleries. Her chief companion during the journey was the Princesse de Paar, one of her mother’s dearest friends, who was entrusted with the care of the Dauphine until she was handed over to the French. However, this much older lady was no substitute for the mother that Marie Antoinette had left behind in Vienna, whose parting gift had been a small gold watch, which the Archduchess kept on her person at all times.

The long arduous journey, which was the most that Marie Antoinette had hitherto and would ever see of her own native country, was enlivened with several stops along the way so that the Dauphine and her party could stretch their legs and enjoy a night in proper beds and also be splendidly feted by the inhabitants of the various towns that they passed through. It was also an opportunity for Marie Antoinette to meet with relations from both sides of her family, such as her mother’s cousin the Elector of Bavaria, who treated her to a sumptuous couple of days at the exquisite Nymphenburg Palace, where she was housed in the Amalienburg Pavilion and her father’s sister Princess Charlotte of Lorraine, the Abbess of Mons, who had almost been married to her cousin Louis XV before he was married off to Marie Leszczynska instead.

Marie Antoinette’s last night on German soil was spent at Schüttern Abbey on the edge of the Black Forest on 6 May. A few days earlier, she had had the great joy of receiving a letter from her mother, which had been written by the Empress after her departure from Schönbrunn and followed her across Germany until it finally made it into her hands. Already desperately home sick and feeling terribly apprehensive about what lay ahead, Marie Antoinette treasured this last link with her formidable mother and as she traced the bold handwriting and read her words, she must have felt a little bit comforted by this last reminder of Maria Theresa’s love and care for her even if naturally the letter itself was really nothing more than a list of advice and instructions, entitled ‘Regulation to Read Every Month’ and reminding the little Dauphine, already trembling at the thought of what the next few days would bring that ‘All eyes will be fixed upon you.’



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