Biographies & Memoirs

The Little Queen


Indiscreet pleasures.

King Louis fell ill while cavorting with Madame du Barry during a romantic getaway to the Petit Trianon, their little pleasure pavilion in the grounds of Versailles. At first the King insisted that he just had a cold, but when his symptoms took a more serious turn a physician was summoned who insisted that he return to Versailles immediately, telling the ailing King: ‘Sire, you must be ill at Versailles.’ Although there was not at first considered any reason to fear the worst, it was clear to everyone that should the King’s illness take a dire turn then it would be far more dignified to die amidst the baroque splendours of his bedchamber at Versailles than in his mistress’ pretty boudoir at the Petit Trianon. Even in the act of dying did etiquette and the terrible overriding fear of losing even the slightest bit of dignity rule the lives of the French royal family.

King Louis was whisked back to Versailles, where it was confirmed two days later that he had fallen prey to that scourge of royal families across Europe: smallpox. For the good of his soul, he was ordered to send the terrified Madame du Barry, who had never had smallpox and so had not acquired immunity, away but instead insisted, rather recklessly, that she remain beside him, which to her credit she did. Marie Antoinette, who had survived smallpox as a child and so was immune, also offered her service as nurse but was ordered, along with the her husband and his siblings, to stay in the safety of her apartments. Only the three aunts, who had never had smallpox, were permitted to remain by their father’s side and nurse him through his illness.

At first the doctors were fairly sanguine about the King’s prospects of making a full recovery but by 4 May it became clear to everyone that he was dying and when once again he was asked to send his mistress away so that he could confess and make his peace with God, he did not this time demur but instead entrusted her to the care of his Chief Minister, the Duc d’Aiguillon. The distraught Madame du Barry, who realised that she would reap all that she had sown once Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette, the girl that she had mocked and schemed against ever since her arrival in France, succeeded to the throne, left Versailles in the early hours of the morning in a plain hired carriage and hastened to Aiguillon’s château at Ruel. She was almost as unpopular as her royal lover and it was feared that she might be attacked by the large, more curious than upset, crowd that had begun to gather outside the palace when news of the King’s illness began to spread.

On the morning of 7 May the libertine King, by now in a terrible state and lying on a camp bed in his bedchamber, made his first confession for almost thirty years, the holy sacraments having been brought to his chamber by a long state procession headed by the Grand Almoner of France and the devastated Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette, who waited in the adjoining council chamber as the King confessed then received communion, promising to ‘uphold the faith and his religion and dedicate himself entirely to the welfare of his people’ should he make a miraculous recovery.

For Marie Antoinette the next few days were a nightmare as, barred from approaching the King’s rooms which were filled with a stench of death so terrible that his servants fainted and no one dared approach his deathbed, she waited for news with her husband. Louis Auguste was also in a terrible state and spent most of the time praying for his grandfather’s soul, when he wasn’t weeping helplessly in her arms. Despite all of his faults he had truly loved King Louis and could not yet bring himself to contemplate the fact of his imminent succession to the throne, which he did not feel at all prepared for. ‘I am the most unhappy man in the world,’ he told his wife as they waited together for the news of his grandfather’s death, which came at quarter past three on the afternoon of 10 May when a candle placed in the King’s bedchamber window was symbolically snuffed out and an usher stepped out to announce that the King was finally dead.

Immediately an immense crowd of courtiers, who had been loitering around the state rooms of the palace, rushed down the beautiful Hall of Mirrors, making ‘a terrible noise, exactly like thunder’ to the Salon of Peace at the start of the Queen’s rooms, where they found Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette, pale, tearful and clinging together like children, waiting for them. ‘Dear God, guide us and protect us. We are too young to reign,’ Louis Auguste whispered as they fell to their knees and led the court in a prayer. He was just nineteen years old while Marie Antoinette, his consort and the new Queen of France, was eighteen.

After receiving the homage of their new court, the new King and Queen of France were hustled out of the palace, where over a dozen people had now died of smallpox along with King Louis, and packed off in a carriage to the royal château at Choisy, which had been a favourite love nest of the now dead King and Madame de Pompadour and was a precursor in laid back, airy style and ambience to the smaller Petit Trianon. Sharing their carriage were Louis Auguste’s brothers and their wives, who all sat in stunned silence until the Comtesse d’Artois, only relatively recently arrived in France and still not in full command of the language, chanced a remark which because of her comical mispronunciation sent everyone off into fits of laughter, thereby breaking the ice.

Pretty, simply decorated and secluded, Choisy was the perfect place for the bereft, confused and frightened young royal couple to come to terms with both their loss and also the tremendous change in their circumstances. They remained there for several days, while in their absence from Versailles, the old King’s body, which was believed to be highly contagious, was driven with all speed and very little ceremony to the royal necropolis at Saint Denis to be quickly buried. The rather undignified haste with which hiscortège made the journey giving rise to mocking shouts of ‘Tally ho!’ from the populace, who showed a distinct lack of regret about his passing and were instead looking forward to an era of happiness and prosperity under the new régime, blissfully unaware that their new monarchs were a pair of frightened adolescents, considered by even their closest family and advisors to be in no way fit to rule.

However, on the surface, the new reign started off well with the new King sending 200,000 francs of his own money to be distributed among the Parisian poor and then refusing the increased income that was automatically given to him upon his succession. Marie Antoinette immediately followed suit by refusing to accept the Queen’s traditional droit de ceinture, an allowance dating from Medieval times that had been named for the girdles that the Queens of France had traditionally worn in the middle ages. ‘Girdles are no longer in fashion,’ the little Queen said in explanation, shrugging her scented shoulders. There was no need to add that conspicuous expenditure was also out of style - everyone knew that the royal coffers had been left in the parlous state by the extravagant Louis XV and that the country itself was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The philanthropic gestures of the new Louis XVI (the ‘Auguste’ of his youth was now summarily dropped) and Marie Antoinette had long since made them favourites in Paris, where they had the habit of responding with prompt generosity to any pleas for assistance from the populace and, indeed, were often the only members of the royal family to do so. Their open handedness now was seen as further proof that this new reign would be very different to the last, as was the young couple’s obvious fondness for each other. Previous Kings of France had squandered astronomical sums on their rapacious, expensive mistresses while more or less ignoring their wives, who led quiet lives out of the public eye, content to be trotted out on state occasions in between doing their duty and producing heirs. Now though there was a morally wholesome King who was obviously entirely in love with his wife and had eyes for nobody else. How could this be anything other than an augur for happier, more prosperous times to come? The days when unruly Kings had been kept in line by threats of Papal excommunication and interdict on their kingdoms were in the dim and distant past but even so, away from the enlightened circles of the court and cities, the eighteenth century was still a superstitious age and it was felt by many of his people that a sinful King was indicative of a more general rot at the very heart of the nation itself.

Nonetheless, not everyone was happy with this new and rather unusual status quo. For all their unpopularity, and most of them had been very unpopular indeed, the Kings’ mistresses in the past had almost always been French and, court factions and tiresome squabbling aside, therefore perceived as always being loyal to France and its interests. There had never been a foreign maîtresse en titre (although in Madame de Maintenon there had once been a French morganatic wife to the King) and the prospect of an Austrian mistress-queen with absolute and unrivalled influence over the King was both unprecedented and, in many quarters, disquieting.

It didn’t help matters that Louis XVI, so bumbling and clumsy but nonetheless always so well intentioned, had always been dismissed at court as something of a weak reed with none of his ancestor Louis XIV’s greatness nor even the saving grace of Louis XV’s indisputable charm. It now belatedly occurred to some people that more should have been done to check Marie Antoinette’s growing influence over such a clearly susceptible young man and that, perhaps, efforts should have been made to throw a few dainty young ladies in his way in order to distract him from his wife. Not that it would have worked - Louis was apparently entirely impervious to the charms of all women other than his wife and her ladies giggled behind their painted fans at his awkward manner and habit of never making eye contact when addressing them, preferring instead to stare either down at the floor or at a point somewhere above their shoulder.

Besides which, would Marie Antoinette, so outwardly outgoing, fun loving and popular, be content to relinquish her social life and the small influence she had apparently acquired over her husband and retire to the quiet, rather dull and dutiful life normally expected of a Queen of France? It seemed very unlikely. Horrified though she undoubtedly was by her new and unexpected pre-eminence at court, it was also quickly becoming clear that the new young Queen, like a kitten just beginning to show its claws, was beginning to relish her new power which she exercised by encouraging the compliant King to first banish Madame du Barry then dismiss her creature, the hated Duc d’Aiguillon from his position of Chief Minister. However, her attempts to have the Duc de Choiseul, whom she still revered as the one responsible for having doggedly arranging her marriage in the face of what she now knew was enormous opposition from the court and within the royal family itself, reinstated to his former position came to nothing when the King, who personally disliked Choiseul and had vowed never to reinstate him, also showed his mettle and instead, on the advice of his meddlesome aunt Adélaïde who was determined to usurp Marie Antoinette’s position at her nephew’s elbow, appointed the elderly Duc de Maurepas as his chief advisor.

Marie Antoinette was furious and also not a little hurt and humiliated to have her wish in this matter so summarily snubbed by her husband. It seemed to her that in refusing to support Choiseul, to whom she felt so much gratitude, he was in essence harkening back to the anti-Austrian teachings of his hated old governor, the Duc de Vauguyon and acknowledging the fact that their marriage had not, initially at least, been of his choosing. However, there was nothing she could do about it and Maurepas at least had the benefit of being unaligned with any of the court factions and was indeed well known to be a man entirely devoid of ambition - an unusual stance perhaps in a royal minister but one that was greatly appreciated by his new master Louis XVI who, with extraordinary humility for a Bourbon King of France, frankly acknowledged himself to be lacking ‘both knowledge and experience’ in his first letter to his new advisor.

That the new King, who had been entirely excluded from the government of the nation by his grandfather, was desperately unprepared and in need of advice was an indisputable fact, although ironically he was the oldest new King of France for over a hundred and fifty years as his grandfather had succeeded at the age of five, Louis XIV had succeeded at four and Louis XIII had come to the throne at the age of eight in 1610. That the new King had reached his majority and could thus dispense with a regent was considered a huge point in his favour but to those who more closely knew him it was, again, the cause of some alarm for unlike his predecessors he would not be spending his boyhood learning statecraft during a long regency before being allowed to take up the reins of government himself but would instead be thrust straight into the deep end of kingship. However, the refusal to appoint the Duc de Choiseul his Minister of State had at least quietened some worries that Marie Antoinette would become the power behind the throne, giving as it did a clear signal that the new King, hitherto considered so weak and malleable, was determined not to become the cat’s paw of his wife and was in fact actively keeping her at a distance from his government.

As for Maria Theresa, who was being kept closely informed about events by Mercy, she too felt disquiet about the fact that her daughter and son-in-law had been called upon to reign too soon, being all too aware of how terribly unprepared they both were. She instructed the faithful Mercy to immediately report Louis’ every action to her so that she could judge whether he was following her own interests and also added that her daughter, who wrote to say that she could not ‘help but admire the disposition of Providence which chose me, the youngest of your daughters, for the finest kingdom in Europe. I am more than ever aware of how much I owe to the love of my august mother, who took such care and effort to get me such a good settlement’, should ‘never for a minute lose sight of all the possible ways of ensuring her complete and exclusive control over her husband’s mind’. Clearly, as far as Maria Theresa was concerned, they should make the best of the situation and set to work reaping the full benefits of the marriage they had brokered four years earlier. However, she looked set to be unexpectedly confounded and thwarted by Louis, allegedly so irresolute and meek, having the hitherto unimagined backbone to stand up to his wife and make it clear that he was not going to be the puppet of either her or her Austrian relatives, which led the Empress to eventually reluctantly conclude that ‘some of his behavioural traits make me… doubt that he will be very compliant and easy to control’.

When smallpox followed the royal party to Choisy they unwillingly left its delights behind and moved on to La Muette on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, where Marie Antoinette had spent the night before her wedding and which was a favourite summer residence of the young couple. The gates to the Bois de Boulogne were usually locked against the populace whenever the royal family were in residence but this time, to signal perhaps the new informal direction that they wanted their reign to take, Louis and Marie Antoinette ordered that they be left open so that the people could enter and walk about the shady avenues between the trees as usual. The Parisians were astonished and delighted to regularly see their new King and Queen having picnics in the glade with their friends or simply walking amongst them, arm in arm and clearly devoted to each other. There were cheers and applause on one occasion when the Queen, out riding on her stallion, came across the King on one of his walks and immediately dismounted and ran to greet him, whereupon he picked her up in his arms and kissed her in front of everyone. It made a pleasing contrast to their shy diffidence with each other just four years earlier and everyone was enchanted by it. Even Maria Theresa wrote from Vienna to compliment her daughter, saying: ‘Everyone is ecstatic, everyone is mad about you; there are expectations of great happiness; you bring new life to a nation which was in desperate straits and sustained only by its attachment to its princes.

Louis XV’s death was so horrible that it was not entirely surprising when Louis XVI and his brothers announced their intention of getting inoculated against smallpox, encouraged by Marie Antoinette who was already immune thanks to a minor childhood bout with the dreaded disease. Smallpox inoculation in the eighteenth century was still a relatively risky business though and there was a great deal of panic when the King’s intention was announced as it was feared that he might die too. Marie Antoinette, still erroneously believed to be the power behind the throne, was blamed for the whole thing and even accused of putting her husband’s life at risk with this foolhardy procedure. Luckily for everyone, however, the inoculation was a success and after a brief convalescence, Louis was fully restored to health.

The fledgling court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was a pleasure seeking one but for now, as they were still in mourning for the previous King, they delighted in the gentle pastimes of horse riding, picnics, quiet parties and concerts. On one occasion at La Muette, Marie Antoinette suddenly announced that she had never seen the sun rise and so a small party was arranged to climb one of the nearby hills at three in the morning and watch the day begin. Louis refused to come too as he liked his sleep too much but the others gamely trotted up the hill at the appointed time and watched as the sun rose over Paris, while Marie Antoinette exclaimed and sighed like a true child of Rousseau about the majestic wonder of nature.

The young royal couple had never been so close and as further proof of his great affection for his wife and knowing how much she disliked the stifling formality of court life, Louis presented her with the domain of the Petit Trianon, the delightful little pleasure pavilion in the grounds of Versailles where his grandfather had been taken ill not all that long before. This sad recent event didn’t seem to weigh too much on their minds though and indeed there wasn’t really much scope for such sentimentality at a court where every room had its sad little ghosts from the past. Marie Antoinette was clearly delighted by her present and immediately began to plan renovations to the main building, an exquisite little château just big enough for herself and only a few trusted companions, and the surrounding gardens, which she envisioned becoming a true paradise on earth where she could escape and truly be herself. Of course, people couldn’t help but notice that the Petit Trianon had previously always been the preserve of the old King’s mistresses, having originally been built for Madame de Pompadour and then passed on to Madame du Barry, and so for it now to given to the Queen was taken as another clear signal that they were living under different times and that Louis was obviously going to be a very different type of Bourbon King to his predecessors

The court stayed away from Versailles for almost six months, a halcyon honeymoon period for the new reign which they also spent at Compiègne, Marly and Fontainebleau as well as Choisy and La Muette. The summer and autumn of 1774 were delightfully sunny and warm, perfect honeymoon weather, which seemed to make the new reign seem even more enchanted and blessed. In keeping with the relaxed, optimistic mood, the new King and Queen took the opportunity to set a more informal tone at their court, surrounding themselves with people of their own age and making as many changes as they dared to the rigid ceremonial etiquette that had dominated court life for decades, for instance abolishing the custom of dining in public every day and also ending the custom whereby Marie Antoinette needed to be accompanied by two ladies in waiting at all times. Instead she now made do with a valet and two footmen, who were chosen for their good looks and impressive height and bearing. Another change was to allow the ladies of the royal family to dine with men who were not related to them, which meant that the King and Queen could now hold merry little twice weekly supper parties in their apartments to which they invited people whom they most particularly wanted to honour. Naturally, the competition for invitations was intensely fierce but guests were rewarded with the edifying spectacle of the young royal couple flicking rolled up bread crumbs at each other across the table so clearly thought it well worth the trouble.

However, this new informality could also go too far. Not long after his succession to the throne, Louis decided at the very last minute to attend a court ball being held in the Salon of Hercules, arriving without his usual entourage and a total lack of any fanfare so that no one noticed that he was actually present until, failing to push his way through the crowds to where his wife was holding court, he asked an absolutely astonished lady of the court if he could share her stool. Marie Antoinette found this immensely amusing but the rest of the court was scandalised by such un-majestic behaviour. It seemed extraordinary that a King should not even be noticed in his own ballroom. No one could imagine something like this happening to Louis XIV or even Louis XV and Maurepas was forced to warn his abashed royal master that ‘we are not accustomed to seeing our King count for so little in public.’

This diffidence and lack of presence on the part of the King would in time become increasingly problematic for both his ministers and his wife and nowadays it might even be wondered if Louis was on the autistic spectrum, although such a thing was unheard of in the eighteenth century. Certainly his total lack of interest in anything that bored him, his scruffy appearance, strange shambling manner, inability to hold eye contact, intense and often unusual interests, impressively retentive memory, difficulties with facial recognition (probably down to short sightedness but could facial blindness have been an issue as well?), social awkwardness and often inappropriate sense of humour might all suggest such a thing. Either way, what could be considered mere eccentricity in a normal man, was intolerable in a King.

However, it wasn’t just the King’s manners that were beginning to raise eyebrows at court. At the age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette hadn’t really grown up at all and wasn’t all that different to the quick tempered, petulant, fun loving and eager to please girl that had left Vienna over four years earlier. Although her powers of concentration had improved along with her French, she was still incapable of hiding her boredom while sitting through the interminable court ceremonies that now became her lot and caused much offence by openly yawning, rolling her eyes, fidgeting and giggling behind her diamond encrusted fan during presentations. Louis was also bored by royal ceremonies but hid it much better than his wife, although he could often be abrupt to the point of rudeness with people, even his ministers if he wasn’t interested in what they were saying. Many of the older courtiers now began to pessimistically wonder if their impetuous little Queen was ever going to grow up and it was certainly beginning to look as though her continued childlessness and lack of a properly fulfilling marriage were artificially prolonging her own childhood and were in danger of eventually trapping her in an extended adolescence.

She was also exceedingly rude to the older ladies of the court, a grave mistake when many of them were actually extremely influential and could have done much to smooth her way at court and make life easier. In alienating them, she was also alienating some of the grandest families in France and forcing more people to lend an ear to the malicious little tales and songs that were starting to circulate about her, most of which came from the apartments of Madame Adélaïde, the grandest older lady of all. ‘I don’t know why women over the age of thirty bother showing their faces at court,’ Marie Antoinette said on one occasion with the blissful lack of foresight of youth, causing a furore and making many women declare that if that was how she felt then they wouldn’t come back again. Others, however, wondered if she would feel the same way when she herself turned thirty.

There was also an unfortunate incident at La Muette when all the ladies of court came in their mourning clothes for the old King to pay homage to the new Queen, some of them looking really quite macabre in their black weeds and elaborately veiled headdresses. One of Marie Antoinette’s younger ladies, the Marquise de Clermont-Tonnerre, was so amused by this weird spectacle that she sat down on the floor behind the other ladies in waiting and began to mock them mercilessly in an undertone while Marie Antoinette, herself perturbed by the strange sight, tried her best but naturally completely failed to hide her laughter, completely affronting the visiting ladies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, one of her first moves after becoming Queen was to appoint her dearest friend the Princesse de Lamballe to the position of Surintendante de la maison de la reine (which had now swollen to over five hundred people), an old and extremely highly salaried position which was revived specially for her and outranked the haughty Madame de Noailles, already very offended by Marie Antoinette’s impolite behaviour towards the older members of the court, who immediately tendered her resignation as Mistress of the Household, doubtless to Marie Antoinette’s great relief. The position of Surintendante was one that required great tact and social aplomb, neither of which were skills that the Princesse was exactly replete with. A silly little affected mouse of a woman, she was so nervous and highly strung that she once fainted clean away at the sight of a painting of a lobster.

Although she had all the enormous personal wealth and polished, well dressed veneer of a great court lady, Madame de Lamballe was, like Marie Antoinette, completely out of her depth and in no way suitable for such an important court job. Also, although she gave all the appearance of being a wispy, ethereal, special little snowflake, Madame la Princesse was at heart also extremely proud and just as ambitious and grasping as anyone else who entered Marie Antoinette’s circle at this time and worked tirelessly to promote the interests of her family while at the same time neglecting her own post and insulting the other court ladies by refusing to invite them to balls and supper in her apartments, which was one of the traditional duties of the Surintendante, claiming that her ill health and royal status made it impossible and wilfully ignoring the fact that her enormous salary was intended as recompense for hosting such gatherings. The ladies began to stay away from Versailles in protest and Marie Antoinette was forced to intervene and demand that her friend perform her duties properly.

As Surintendante it was the Princesse de Lamballe’s duty to supervise Marie Antoinette’s daily routine at Versailles and the royal family’s other residences: Fontainebleau, Marly, La Muette and Compiègne as well as, later on, Saint Cloud, Rambouillet and the Tuileries. Whereas the King’s routine, laid out so precisely by Louis XIV that you could set your clock by it, was dynamic and busy, the Queen’s, in contrast, was languid and involved many empty hours which had to be filled. In the early years of her queenship, Marie Antoinette was a late riser who liked to have a lie in after coming back from the delights of Paris in the early hours of the morning and would lounge in bed with her breakfast of hot chocolate infused with cinnamon and coffee and Austrian pastries for quite a while, dreamily sticking pins in her wardrobe book to select the day’s clothes and chattering about the previous evening’s exploits, before finally rolling out of bed and heading off to have her daily bath. Her official toilette, attended by the Princesse de Lamballe, a lady in waiting, the First Woman of the Bedchamber and two ladies, would then follow. Madame de Lamballe had the honour of helping Marie Antoinette into her lace edged petticoat before the lady in waiting poured the lavender scented water that she used to wash her hands then handed her a fine lawn chemise, although this honour would be given to any ladies of the royal blood that happened to be present.

The rest of the Queen’s elaborate dressing ritual would then follow as she was laced into her morning gown and had her hair dressed and powdered by Léonard, who came from Paris every morning for this purpose, his apparently endless store of juicy gossip about the courtiers being a definite bonus to his ministrations. When she was ready, Marie Antoinette would then go down to Mass in the royal chapel, either accompanied by her ladies or with the King, who would come to collect her on Sundays, when the official weekly court was held at Versailles. The royal party would progress down the Hall of Mirrors and Marie Antoinette would make a point of nodding and smiling at anyone that she wished to show favour to or pointedly blanking those whom she did not want to notice.

Mass took place at midday and Louis, Marie Antoinette and the royal princesses would observe from a gallery above the rest of the congregation, while the Queen’s ladies threw their trains over their panniers and rushed to find spots close by. Each lady was attended by a page boy carrying her missal in a large red velvet bag, trimmed with gold fringe but as Madame de la Tour du Pin would later recall rather ruefully, the ladies would hardly ever get to read it for the scramble to find a pew took so long that the priest would already have moved on to the Gospel before they had found the right place.

When Mass was over, the Queen would curtsey to her husband and then return to her apartments, again making a point of stopping to talk to favoured people on the way. Once back in her rooms, she would amuse herself with her friends, play cards with her ladies or withdraw into her private rooms in the ever growing maze that lay behind her state apartments to play her harp, listen to the Abbé de Vermond read or, more thrillingly, consult with her favourite dressmakers Rose Bertin and Madame Éloffe who came out from Paris at least once a week to show off their latest designs or discuss ideas for new gowns and pieces of millinery, until it was time to go off to dinner, which was eaten publicly in the Antechamber of the Grand Couvert in the Queen’s apartments.

Marie Antoinette and Louis would sit in front of the fire on two large green armchairs placed behind a small table laid with just two places and covered with a white tablecloth that came down to the ground, on top of which was an array of dishes. A semi circle of stools was placed about ten feet in front of them where the grand ladies who had the privilege of being permitted to sit on a stool in the royal presence could observe them eat, while everyone else arranged themselves behind. As Madame de la Tour du Pin would later recall: ‘The King ate heartily, but the Queen neither removed her gloves nor unfolded her napkin, which was a very big mistake. As soon as the King had drunk his wine, everyone curtseyed and left.’ The abstemious dining habits drilled into Marie Antoinette as a child remained with her for the rest of her life as she would always eat very sparingly and would never touch alcohol, despite the rumours that floated about her dissipated social life. The fact that she was expected to take meals while being stared at by curious bystanders can’t have helped matters very much either.

On Sundays, the courtiers would then head off to pay their respects to the rest of the royal family in their apartments, with Madame de la Tour du Pin later recalling that everyone loved calling on the Comte d’Artois, who was ‘young and had that charming appearance which he was never to lose. Great efforts were made to please him, for to succeed was a guarantee of fame.’ That he had an eye for the ladies of the court didn’t hurt either. Everyone then returned to the Queen’s apartments for seven, when the Queen would play cards in public until, yawning behind her fan, she either headed off to bed or to Paris for more congenial entertainment. On other days of the week, Marie Antoinette and her ladies would be left to their own devices until the early evening when there were either the usual court entertainments such as the weekly balls, supper parties, card games or concerts or she was free to go off to the capital to amuse herself at the opera, theatre or at a ball before coming back in the early hours and falling back into bed again.

Louis’ coronation took place at Rheims on 11 June 1775 with the entire court in attendance. There had been suggestions that the ceremony should take place at Notre Dame in Paris, which would be both more economical and also appeal to the good nature of the Parisians, who had so loathed the old King. However, Louis was adamant that tradition must be upheld and so they all trooped off to Rheims as usual. Marie Antoinette took no active part in the coronation itself, an attempt by Mercy to have her crowned alongside her husband having been firmly rebuffed with it being pointed out to him that Queens had traditionally always been accorded separate coronations in France and that the position of this one, who remained childless five years after her marriage, was by no means secure even if her husband seemed so fond of her. To add further insult to this undoubted injury, the Comtesse d’Artois, wife of Louis’ youngest brother, had recently announced her pregnancy, which only served to further highlight the fact that the Queen herself had failed to conceive.

Marie Antoinette gave every appearance of being entirely unconcerned by her exclusion from the ceremony, although it must have rankled at least at some level, and consoled herself by ordering a magnificent new dress and an exceedingly high feathered headdress from Rose Bertin for the event, which she no doubted regretted when the coronation day turned out to be swelteringly, headdress droopingly, hot. Although she was not herself to be crowned, Marie Antoinette sat in a place of honour close to her husband and was seen to be visibly moved by the coronation ceremony, even having to withdraw for a few moments when she was completely overcome by tears. Afterwards, she appeared on her newly crowned husband’s arm and the couple promenaded around Rheims, receiving the applause and acclamations of their people. Later she would write to her mother that: ‘The sacred ceremony was perfect in every way. Everyone is delighted with the King, and rightly so. From the grandest to the humblest of his subjects all were equally enthusiastic. There was even a moment during the coronation when the ceremony was interrupted by an outburst of spontaneous acclamations. It was so touching that however much I tried I was unable to restrain my tears.’

Although Marie Antoinette remained on outwardly good terms with her brothers-in-law and their wives, their relationship had soured a great deal after the succession of her husband. His brother Provence, always so resentful of Louis’ pre-eminence, was deeply jealous of him but still clever enough to treat both him and Marie Antoinette with the greatest respect. In fact it was rumoured at court that he had a bit of a crush on his sister-in-law, which just added to the secret hatred that he harboured for his brother. His wife, Marie Josephine and her sister Marie Thérèse now both cordially loathed Marie Antoinette though and took very little trouble to hide the fact, doubtless emboldened by Marie Thérèse succeeding where Marie Antoinette most clearly had not when she became pregnant. They now openly aligned themselves with the aunts and everyone knew that most of the jealous, nasty tittle tattle about the Queen almost certainly originated with them. Artois, the King’s handsome, charming youngest brother, was the only one whom Marie Antoinette counted as a friend as their tastes and personalities accorded so well and he was not spiteful or jealous like the others. However, his cheerful over familiarity and total lack of outward respect for both the King and Queen raised eyebrows at court and, in the case of the latter, kicked off several rumours that their relationship was rather more intimate than that of just brother and sister-in-law.

Although Louis and Marie Antoinette had become much closer in the immediate wake of his grandfather’s death and the prolonged honeymoon period of their early reign, they soon began to slide even further apart as Louis became caught up in the seemingly never ending work of government. Encouraged by Maurepas, he was also becoming increasingly suspicious of his wife’s allegiance to Austria, only too well aware of the constant letters that passed between the Empress, Emperor Joseph II, Mercy and Marie Antoinette, who was still being encouraged by her mother to seek total dominance over her husband and bend him to her will. There were practical issues too - now that Louis was living in the King’s apartments at Versailles, he was even further away from his wife than before and going to her rooms had become a mortifyingly public event requiring passage through the busy Bull’s Eye Chamber, which always seemed full of loitering courtiers who watched his every move with malicious amusement. To Marie Antoinette’s chagrin, he had installed Maurepas in the rooms formerly inhabited by Madame du Barry, which were linked directly to the King’s rooms by a private staircase, which was handy if he needed late night political advice but far less useful when it came to the important task of conceiving an heir to the throne. In the end, a passage way was built between the two apartments but still Louis’ conjugal visits were becoming increasingly infrequent and once again Marie Antoinette found herself back in the same frustrating position of a few years ago - more or less ignored by her husband, harangued by her disappointed mother and beset with worries about her vulnerable position at court, while all the while her enemies seemed to massing against her.

Thanks to the influence of her brother-in-law and her extravagant, foolish new friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Princesse de Guéménée and Lucie Dillon, all of whom were habitués of the Duc de Chartres’ incredibly wild Parisian set, Marie Antoinette began to spend more time at the Duc’s Parisian residence the Palais Royal where the balls were licentious, the gambling stakes were high, the parties were extraordinarily opulent and the champagne apparently never stopped flowing. Frustrated and distressed by the King’s apparent lack of interest in her and also her mother’s endless stream of complaints about her continuing childlessness, Marie Antoinette saw no reason not to throw herself headlong into this new, enticing and extremely glamorous world, where all that mattered were the latest fashions, the most up to date gossip, the throw of the dice and the turn of a card. The Duc de Chartres threw a splendid fancy dress ball for her at the Palais Royal, which she attended without the King, who did not at all approve of his handsome cousin’s dissipated lifestyle but at the same time did not stand in the way of his wife joining in. There were also sleigh rides during the winter and visits to the races, where Marie Antoinette caused a stir by travelling alone in her brother-in-law Artois’ open carriage, this being considered quite shocking behaviour. Again, Louis was absent and it began to be much remarked upon that the royal couple were rarely seen together at this time: the King preferring to stay behind at Versailles while Marie Antoinette went off to Paris every night to be amused.

‘I am so terrified of being bored,’ she told Mercy when he tried to talk to her about the dangerous effect that her extravagant and increasingly erratic lifestyle was having on her already precarious marriage. She found life at Versailles stagnant, dull and hostile and whereas once upon a time she had felt like she could count on Louis for support, he seemed to be becoming increasingly distant to her. She couldn’t remember the last time he came to her bedchamber and their sex life, never particularly fulfilling or all that amazing to start off with, was even worse than before as these days he was too tired by his duties of state to do more than make a desultory attempt to have sex before rolling over to his side of the great bed and starting to snore, which just incensed her even more. For his part, Louis was well aware of his limitations and how miserable his wife was but felt too overwhelmed by work and his own natural diffidence and awkwardness to do very much about it. Encouraged by the wily Maurepas, who was keen to see Marie Antoinette kept well away from any meddling in politics and believed her to be an agent of Austria at heart, he urged his increasingly capricious wife to enjoy her chaotic social life and spend as much money as she liked, hoping in this way to both distract her from her troubles and also, in some way, make amends for his own shortcomings.

Their interests also continued to be completely different and very rarely overlapped. While Marie Antoinette escaped the tedium and frustrations of her life by indulging in sartorial extravagances, gambling and other expensive and meaningless frivolities, her husband escaped the pressures of his own new, restrictive and bewildering role by retreating to his private forge, where he tinkered about happily with his tools and made locks and other small articles which he would shyly present to his family as gifts. He also enlarged the royal libraries for his personal use, whereas nowadays Marie Antoinette, as the Abbé de Vermond sadly noted, never so much as glanced at a book any more. Like his grandfather, Louis had always been fascinated by astronomy and he installed a comfortable armchair and telescope high up on the roof on Versailles so that he could both look at the stars and also spy on his courtiers, the latter rather surprisingly mischievous activity perhaps being more to Marie Antoinette’s taste than the rest. However, although she could never bring herself to take even the slightest bit of interest in his forge, Louis did on occasion scrub up, put on a splendid suit and accompany her to the balls that she loved so much. On one occasion he attended a costume ball dressed as Henri IV, one of his most popular ancestors (notably Marie Antoinette appeared dressed as Henri’s mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées rather than one of his two wives) and he made very rare appearances at the court balls that Marie Antoinette held twice a week (the one on Monday nights was costumed, which involved enormous expense) in her rooms, although it was rumoured that his wife and brother, Artois liked to put the clock forward so that he left an hour earlier than usual.

The star that was the Princesse de Lamballe was also beginning to wane as Marie Antoinette began to tire of her timidity and silly, pretentious affectations, although she still referred to her as her ‘dearest heart’ and fussed over her as much as ever. Instead she found herself drawn more towards the delightfully pretty Comtesse de Polignac, a niece of the Comte de Maurepas, who was newly arrived at court and was just the sort of charmingly frivolous and playful companion that Marie Antoinette most yearned for at this time in her life. The Comtesse shared the exact same birthday as the Princesse de Lamballe, which no doubt gave Marie Antoinette an excuse to throw an annual wildly extravagant party, but was a very different character. On the surface she was all huge soulful blue eyes, artlessly tumbling dark curls and languid charm yet she was also extremely amusing, excellent company and could always be relied upon to say exactly the right thing to placate Marie Antoinette, whose always erratic mood swings had become much worse, and distract her thoughts towards a more cheerful direction. However, like the Princesse de Lamballe, although on the surface Yolande de Polignac was all about sighing over clouds and flowers and enjoying innocent frivolities, she was at heart as rapacious as any royal favourite and managed to amass an enormous amount of wealth and favours for her large and grasping family.

Marie Antoinette didn’t care though. She had felt desperately lonely at court until Yolande came along and now gratefully showered her with affection, keeping her with her at all times and whole heartedly transferring the rather schoolgirlish crush that she had once had on the Princesse de Lamballe to her new friend, who to her great delight gave every appearance of reciprocating. Although the malign gossips of the court obviously whispered that there was something ‘unnatural’ about the Queen’s love for her friend, who was being accorded the sort of attention and honour that had always in the past been accorded to a King’s maîtresse de titre, it was almost certainly nothing more than another example of the intense friendships that flourished between women at this time, which took on an almost romantic cast thanks to the heatedly emotional language employed in the era and the fashion for extravagantly affectionate gestures between friends of both sexes. Although malicious court gossip hinted that the Queen and her favourite were engaged in lesbian orgies in the relative privacy of the Petit Trianon, where even the King had to wait to be invited, there was almost certainly nothing more scandalous than an innocent and sentimental girl crush going on between them.

In fact, relieved that his wife had made a close friend at court and almost certainly entirely deceived by Yolande de Polignac’s deceptively sweet and innocent demeanour, Louis encouraged this friendship to blossom, although he baulked somewhat when he learned what sort of company the new favourite was keeping in her new and extremely lovely apartments at Versailles, where she entertained her lover, the Comte de Vaudreuil, apparently with the full complacency of her husband, Monsieur le Comte. She was also encouraging Marie Antoinette to squander even greater sums in her pursuit of distraction so that by the late 1770s her extravagances were becoming worrying even to her indulgent spouse and, more troublingly still, her public popularity began accordingly to wane.

This fall in Marie Antoinette’s popularity was also fanned by the stories about the Queen’s behaviour that were beginning to leak out from Versailles and be whispered around Paris where her critics tutted over the tale of how her carriage broke down on the way to a ball and she had been forced to hail a common hackney carriage to take her to her destination. Marie Antoinette, so desperate for novelty, had considered this an enormous adventure and told everyone she met about it the next day but it was very much frowned upon outside her own rather rakish and cocky circle. There was also general condemnation over the fact that she still visited the masked balls at the Opéra with her brothers-in-law and friends, where Provence had caused an immense stir by punching a total stranger in the face after being jostled by him. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the King had accompanied her every now and again, after all the sentimental Parisians loved to see the royal couple mooning over each other in public, but he was always left behind at Versailles and would often rarely see his wife for weeks on end as she rushed off to balls in the evening, arriving back at Versailles in time for Mass before going off to bed for the rest of the day so as to refresh herself for another round of dissipation later on.

In November 1776, Marie Antoinette turned twenty one and to celebrate there were several fetes, balls and parties arranged at Fontainebleau where the court was enjoying its traditional autumn stay. By this time the heedless little Queen was completely obsessed with gambling and entreated her husband to allow some proper Parisian gambling bankers to come to the palace for a special game of Faro, a much more exciting game that was played for far higher stakes than the polite cavagnole enjoyed by the older members of the royal family. Louis agreed to her request but stipulated that they could remain in the palace for one game only. The bankers duly arrived and the game was played in the apartments of the Princesse de Lamballe with all of Marie Antoinette’s circle, including Yolande de Polignac and the Duc de Lauzun, who was said to be madly in love with the Queen and to be conducting a surreptitious flirtation with her, in attendance. The gamers paused in the early hours of the morning then resumed again in the evening, eventually lasting for thirty six hours. When Louis gently remonstrated with his wife, she laughingly reminded him that he although he had agreed to a single game he had not, however, stipulated how long it should last. ‘You are all a worthless bunch!’ Louis replied, joining in her laughter.

At the end of her life, Marie Antoinette’s cosmetics were reduced to a tarnished mirror, a swansdown puff with some powder and a vial of scented water. As she patted the powder onto her already pallid cheeks, she must have reflected with some wonder and sadness about the fact that not too long ago, her toilette had been one of the high points of the court day, attended by dozens of courtiers, all vying for attention and dictated by an arcane and complex etiquette that had been handed down for generations. Ironic then that Marie Antoinette’s own tastes inclined towards the discreet and modest. To the ordinary people, she was a haughty, spoiled, pampered creature who delighted in extravagance and ceremony whereas those who were closest to her, knew that on the contrary she preferred simplicity and a total lack of pomp and fuss.

She had an unerring and exquisite taste and the beautiful objects owned and worn by Marie Antoinette still exert a tremendous fascination today. Sadly the ravages of the Revolution resulted in the destruction of Marie Antoinette’s fabulous wardrobe and much of her belongings were either looted, sold abroad or lost forever but enough remains for us to have a very good idea of the luxury that she liked to surround herself with. The Queen’s clothes collection was vast, with three whole rooms put aside at Versailles just to store it. The rooms were open to public so it was possible to visit the Queen’s clothes, just as you could go and watch her have dinner or walk past on her way to Mass in the morning and it’s likely that to the fashion mad ladies of Versailles a trip to the Queen’s wardrobe, where her amazing gowns were laid out on special shelves to keep them from crumpling and other damage, was viewed with as much reverence as seeing her in person.

Marie Antoinette was given a fixed allowance of 120,000 livres a year for clothes and accessories, a vast sum that was somehow never quite enough (she spent 258,000 livres in one year), probably because at some point along the line etiquette had decreed that eighteen pairs of pastel coloured gloves scented with violet, hyacinth or carnation and four new pairs of shoes had to be ordered for her on a weekly basis along with other such items that seemed like small fry but amounted to vast sums when added together. Her weakness for the designs of Rose Bertin was also a problem as each of her gorgeous dresses which had swooning, romantic names like ‘Indiscreet Pleasures’, ‘Heart’s Agitation’ and ‘Stifled Sighs’ cost around 1,000 livres, sometimes even 6,000 livres each, which quickly mounted up when you were ordering dozens at a time along with matching shoes, perfumed fans, feathers and extravagant hair decorations.

Strictly speaking, Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe purchases were supposed to be restricted to orders of thirty six dresses for the summer and thirty six for the winter but the Queen adored fashion and so ordered far more, bypassing the usual court dressmakers and instead directly consulting with the fashionable couturiers of Paris. According to etiquette she was only supposed to wear dresses once and had to change three times a day but clearly seventy two dresses a year wasn’t going to cut much of a dash at Versailles and so she ordered more. Once worn, favourite dresses were kept and carefully looked after, and perhaps cleverly altered, so that they never looked anything less than brand new but others were given away to her ladies in waiting, who saw this as being one of the most valuable perks of what could be a very arduous and tiresome job.

When the Queen’s gorgeous bedchamber was renovated in the last century, several pins were discovered wedged between the wooden floorboards, a remnant of the elaborate daily ceremonial that surrounded the dressing of the Queen. Every morning before she got out of bed, Marie Antoinette would be presented with the gazette des atours, a huge book full of fabric swatches from each of her gowns and she would place a pin in the dresses that she wanted to wear that day, which would then be brought down from the wardrobe in vast green taffeta (which was provided brand new every day) covered baskets.

Marie Antoinette would change three times in the course of the day: first of all there would be a formal silk or velvet gown to be worn to Mass, followed by a lighter, more informal muslin, lawn or cotton dress for the rest of the day and then finally a gorgeously elaborate evening dress to be worn to dinner, concerts, balls or the theatre in Paris, where Marie Antoinette had private boxes at the Opéra House, Comédie Française and Comédie Italienne. The young Queen’s preference was for light fabrics and pale, pastel colours such as a soft lemon yellow, dove grey, pale green and lilac. Again, Madame Bertin was inventive, taking an almost poetic pleasure in thinking up names for different shades – ‘Incendie de l’Opera’ was a vivid orange red; ‘Cheveux de la Reine’ a soft gold inspired by her hair colour and, most poetically, ‘Caca Dauphin’ was a pale brown.

Marie Antoinette took as much care of her person as she did her clothes and her beauty regime was extensive. At night she would sleep wearing gloves lined with wax, rose water and sweet almond oil and she probably treated her hair with a wash of saffron, turmeric, sandalwood and rhubarb in order to accentuate its strawberry blondness. Before she applied her make up, she would carefully cleanse her skin with Eau Cosmetique de Pigeon, followed by Eau des Charmes astringent and then Eau d’Ange, a gentle whitener. After this, white paint was carefully applied to her face, followed by a dusting of scented powder then kohl around her eyes and a touch of rouge to her cheeks. Sticks of pomade scented with rose, carnation or vanilla were used to gloss her lips, eyebrows and eyelashes. Marie Antoinette had survived a childhood bout of small pox relatively unscathed bar a few scars but it is likely that she still enjoyed the fashion for black velvet beauty patches – perhaps applying one to the corner of her mouth, which signalled her wish to be kissed or one on the forehead, which suggested that the wearer was haughty.

There was a definite emphasis on the senses – Versailles at this time was absolutely foul smelling and the courtiers did everything they could to keep the smell at bay. Marie Antoinette’s rooms were scented with a profusion of fresh flowers, melted fragrant pastilles, pot pourri, oils and perfumed sachets. She particularly loved the fresh scents of orange blossom, lemon, rose, lavender and violet and her rooms would have smelled heady and sweet as you entered them. The Queen loved to douse herself with eau de fleur d’oranger (orange blossom water); simple violet, rose and jonquil scents or more complex perfumes made with vanilla, musk, lavender, iris, jasmine and lily or lemon, cinnamon, angelica, cloves and coriander. It seems that everywhere she went, she wanted to be surrounded by gorgeous fragrances.

Unusually for the time, Marie Antoinette insisted on frequent baths and her bathroom at Versailles still exists with simple dove grey walls and a sloping tiled floor so that the water could drain away. Her perfumer Fargeon invented for her the bain de modéstie, which involved donning a flannel chemise so that her body would not be exposed even to the gaze of her ladies in waiting. Once in the bath she would sit on a large pad filled with sweet almonds, pine nuts, linseed, marshmallow root and lily bulb while she washed herself with muslin pads filled with gentle and exfoliating bran and soaps scented with herbs, amber and bergamot, before settling back in the water to daydream about what the future might hold.

Glimpses of this world of beautiful lace trimmed dresses, scented hair and delicately applied cosmetics can be gleaned from the portraits of Marie Antoinette during this time. She was perhaps one of the most painted Queens of France and portraits exist from every period of her life, charting her development from wide eyed ingénue to dignified Queen, dressed in elaborate silks and with a glittering crown on the table beside her. However, her famously luminous complexion was difficult to accurately capture and as she grew older and her features developed, artists seem to have difficulty reconciling her strong and not conventionally attractive Habsburg looks with the annoyingly intangible qualities of charm and charisma that the vivacious little Queen exuded in real life. Certainly her mother would frequently complain about the likenesses that made their way to Vienna and Marie Antoinette would be forced to explain that the available artists were not quite up to scratch.

The famous 1775 portrait by Jean-Baptiste Gautier-Dagoty, which depicts the young Queen in an extraordinarily elaborate swagged and embellished state gown with the robes of state falling elegantly from her shoulders and one small hand resting lightly on a prominently positioned globe is considered very pleasing to modern eyes but failed to come up to scratch at Versailles, where it was roundly denounced as a hideous and amateurish daubing. It was actually intended as a present for Marie Antoinette’s mother but she decided that she was too scared to send it to Vienna and so instead presented it to a friend. Gautier-Dagoty’s 1776 goache painting of the Queen sitting in her beautifully flounced dressing gown in her exquisite bedroom at Versailles surrounded by friends, her milliner, musicians, hairdressers and poor Gautier-Dagoty himself, shown hard at work on his earlier portrait, was much more successful, as were his portraits of her sisters-in-law, whom he managed to make look exceedingly pretty.

On 6 August 1775 the Comtesse d’Artois, wife of Louis’ youngest brother went into labour at Versailles and gave birth to a son, the Duc d’Angoulême. Although the new régime had gone some way towards abolishing the outmoded ceremonials of the past it had not yet managed to do away with the tradition whereby ladies of the immediate royal family gave birth in public, a most humiliating ritual designed to ensure that no tiny interlopers could be smuggled into the royal bedchamber to take the place of still births or girl babies. Not that the Comtesse, thoroughly enjoying her new and unprecedented prominence at court as the first of the trio of wives to give birth, cared about this and indeed she probably relished having as many people as possible there to witness her triumph. Etiquette decreed that Marie Antoinette should be present at the birth along with her husband and although she found this to be an intensely painful experience, fully aware that the censorious eyes of the court were trained as much on her as on the labouring Comtesse, she bore it as gracefully as she could and even managed to smile and compliment the overjoyed new parents when their son was eventually born.

However, on her way back to her apartments, she was rudely harangued by a crowd of market women, the traditionally self appointed voice of the Parisian people, who demanded to know when she would give the nation a Dauphin and shouted crude advice about what she should be doing with the King to make it happen. Overwhelmed, humiliated and devastated, Marie Antoinette broke down as soon as she reached the relative safety of her magnificent bedchamber and according to her First Lady of the Bedchamber, the sympathetic Madame Campan, cried for a long time. When her friend, the Duchesse de Chartres gave birth to a stillborn child, the Queen told her mother that she envied her even this sadness for she longed so much to be pregnant and feared that it might never happen.

Encouraged by her friends, Marie Antoinette now became even more extravagant and reckless than ever, seeking to forget her personal troubles with an endless round of parties, gambling and self indulgence. Her innocent flirtations with those handsome, sophisticated womanisers the Duc de Lauzun (who was said to be the secret illegitimate son of the Duc de Choiseul, who was married to his aunt and had also been his mother’s lover), the Prince de Ligne and the Duc de Coigny, the latter the acknowledged lover of her friend, the Princesse de Guéménée, caused much comment at this time, even though they were almost certainly just meaningless and entirely understandable distractions from her dissatisfactory marriage. While Marie Antoinette loved to flirt and to be admired as the most beautiful lady at her court, she was not by nature a very sensual woman and the thought of taking these brief little infatuations any further would have appalled her, although on the other hand there was talk at court that she had told her friends that she wished the King would take a mistress and that she would be ‘neither grieved nor very annoyed’ if it happened as he ‘might thereby acquire more vitality and energy’. Perhaps more troublingly in the long term, she also developed a fascination with jewels, particularly diamonds, encouraged by the Princesse de Guéménée, who had extremely expensive tastes herself and persuaded the Queen to buy a pair of beautiful diamond earrings from the Swiss jeweller, Boehmer for the amazing sum of 400,000 francs. Huge sums were also spent on the continued beautification of the Petit Trianon which became her refuge now against the mounting disapproval of the court and Count Mercy’s endless boring lectures about her mounting debts which Louis, with typical generosity, insisted upon paying off.

Like many other young people at court, Marie Antoinette was also gripped by a passion for all things English, particularly horse racing and country dances, which she loved to dance with young British gentlemen visiting the court. She sent to London for her riding habits and smattered her conversation with a few choice English phrases, although it must be assumed that she stopped short of reading the translations of Shakespeare’s plays that were popular at the time and such a favourite with her husband. She also delighted in making friends with English visitors, in particular striking up a very close friendship with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire who visited Versailles in 1775. The two young women had met before but it was during this visit that they really hit it off, perhaps because they realised that they had a lot in common - both had been married at a young age to men that they didn’t love, had difficult relationships with overbearing and highly critical mothers, had a tendency to form extremely close and passionate friendships with other women and had had difficulties conceiving a child and were hiding their frustrations and unhappiness beneath a brittle veneer of fashionable frivolity. Yes, Georgiana and Marie Antoinette probably had much to talk about over the hot chocolate and cakes that were served when they got together at the Petit Trianon.

Another, perhaps more surprising friendship was the one that developed over the years between Marie Antoinette and her British counterpart Queen Charlotte. It had long been the custom for the British and French rulers to write polite letters of acknowledgment of happy and sad events in each other’s life, maintaining at least a pretence of friendship even when hostilities raged between the two nations. However, a true friendship sprang up over the years between Charlotte and Marie Antoinette, who had both been in their teens when they were sent away from their own countries to be married and had become queens before they were out of their twenties. Although their personalities were markedly different and Charlotte, obviously, had never had any problems conceiving children (by May 1774, when Marie Antoinette became Queen of France, Charlotte already had ten children and would go on to have five more) they were still drawn together by the things that they did have in common which included a typically Germanic lack of pretension and a certain wry sense of humour. Later on, when things turned sour for Marie Antoinette, Charlotte would urge her to escape to England and even had apartments made ready for the French royal family should they make it to London. Sadly they were never used.

Rather touchingly, Marie Antoinette also at this time adopted a little peasant boy called Jacques, who had the bad luck to be knocked down by her carriage while she was travelling past Louveciennes. The impetuous Queen immediately jumped down to make sure that the boy was unhurt and then, upon learning that he was an orphan and had five other siblings besides, offered to raise him at court before whisking him away to a new and doubtless bewildering life in the lap of luxury at Versailles. Her mother did not at all approve of this measure, which was as foolish as it was well meaning, but Marie Antoinette did not care and for a time was fully absorbed in her new role as ‘mother’ to Jacques before she once again lost interest and returned to her former pleasures although she continued to supervise the boy’s education and send an allowance to his family as payment for keeping him.

Increasingly troubled by the reports of Mercy and the Abbé de Vermond, who at one point handed in his notice, which the Queen refused to accept, Maria Theresa redoubled her efforts to force her daughter to take a more sensible course in life, foreseeing that her current hedonistic lifestyle could only end in ruin. She was also profoundly shocked by Marie Antoinette’s dismissive, almost contemptuous way of speaking about the King, even referring to him as ‘the poor man’ which to Maria Theresa’s mind suggested that there had been a severe diminishment in her respect towards him. The continuing lack of a royal baby, which she blamed on the fact that Marie Antoinette and Louis did not share a room every night, also weighed heavily on the Empress’ mind and she never ceased to lecture her daughter about how best to accomplish this while at the same time apparently completely failing to grasp that Marie Antoinette’s marriage and, indeed, husband were very different to how her own had been.

In the end, she decided that the best course of action was to send Marie Antoinette’s eldest brother, Emperor Joseph II, to Paris to speak to the hapless pair and find out what was happening - or rather, not happening. A previous royal visit from Marie Antoinette’s younger brother, Archduke Maximilian had ended badly due to some arguments with the royal dukes over precedence as the young Archduke was travelling incognito as a lowly count, as was the fashion at the time, but still demanded that proper reverence be paid to him as the brother of the Queen which the royal dukes, unsurprisingly, refused to do. It was determined that this visit would go much more smoothly and, unlike the last one, cause the Queen of France, already in such a precarious position, no residual embarrassment.

The Emperor Joseph II, travelling incognito as Count von Falkenstein, arrived at Versailles on the morning of 18 April 1777. Unlike his youngest brother, he had no wish to insist upon the full honours that were due to his rank but instead rather relished being treated as a lowly count just as his sister Marie Antoinette loved to play at being an ‘ordinary’ woman at the Petit Trianon. The always faithful Abbé de Vermond was waiting to discreetly escort the Emperor through the secret back staircases and passages of the palace to where his sister, dressed in a simple mourning gown (her godfather, the King of Portugal had recently died) and with her hair loosely pinned up and lightly powdered as she had been so impatient to see him that she’d rushed away from her morning toilettebefore it was finished, was waiting for him in the warren of intimate private rooms that lay behind her opulent bedchamber.

Marie Antoinette had not seen her eldest brother, whom she had hero worshipped as a child, for seven years and wept with joy as she threw herself into his arms and embraced him, delighted beyond measure to be reunited with someone from her own family and furthermore one who had always seemed so capable and supportive. Surely, she felt, if anyone could sort out the mess that she had made in France, it would be Joseph? She took him into one of her private sitting rooms and for the next few hours poured all of her troubles and woes into his apparently sympathetic ears, sparing no detail about her unfulfilling marriage, desperate wish to have a child and sad attempts to distract herself and at the end, to her immense relief, Joseph did not read her the riot act but instead promised to do all that he could to help.

She then took him to meet the King for the first time and found that, rather touchingly, Louis had made a great deal of effort to look presentable for his brother-in-law which made a good first impression and probably confounded Joseph’s preconceived ideas about the King of France being a scruffy, badly dressed clown. They then took luncheon together at a table placed at the end of Marie Antoinette’s bed and everything looked set for a very cordial visit.

Joseph stayed in Paris for over three weeks, having a whale of a time exploring the city and its environs and spending lots of time with his beloved sister who introduced him to all of her friends and spent most of her afternoons alone with him, talking about her life and its problems to this most sympathetic and kindly of listeners. However, after listening for hours to the shy yet astonishingly frank confidences of both the King and Queen about their sex life and relationship, Joseph suddenly went on the offensive and started to lay down the law. First of all he told Marie Antoinette that he didn’t approve of her friends and considered them at best frivolous and stupid and at worst downright iniquitous. Secondly, he informed her at an evening soirée that they were attending without the King, that she ought to pay her husband more attention and made her go off and fetch Louis, who no doubt protested strenuously to be dragged away from his books, telescope and forge, to the party.

Most crucially though, he took a great interest in the young couple’s sexual issues, writing to his brother Archduke Leopold that ‘in his conjugal bed, he has normal erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, then withdraws without ejaculating, and still erect, bids good night. This is incomprehensible because he sometimes has nocturnal emissions, but while inside and in the process, never; yet he is content, and says quite frankly that he is doing it purely from a sense of duty and without any enjoyment. Oh, if I could only have been present once, I would have taken care of him; he should be whipped so that he would discharge sperm like a donkey. My sister, moreover, has very little temperament and together they are two complete fumblers.’ Ouch.

He further commented that Louis was ‘badly brought up; his appearance works against him, but he is honest… The man is weak but no fool.’ About his sister Marie Antoinette, he was far more harsh, saying that she was ‘fulfilling neither her duties as a wife nor her duties as a Queen in satisfactory fashion… She is empty headed and driven to run all day from dissipation to dissipation. She thinks only of having fun. She feels nothing for the King. She is a likeable and honest woman, a bit young, unreflective, but deep down honest and virtuous.’ All of this would form the basis of the instructions that Joseph left with Marie Antoinette upon his departure, which he hoped would go some way towards rectifying her poor attitude towards both her marriage and her husband.

Look into yourself. Do you put all your efforts into pleasing him? Do you study his desires and his character and try to conform to them? Do you try to make him enjoy your company - beyond all other objects or amusements - and the pleasures you can grant him, where, without you, he would find only a void? Do you make yourself essential to him? Have you persuaded him that no one loves him more sincerely than you, or takes his glory and happiness more to heart? Does he see your affection focused exclusively on him?’ Although Joseph could totally understand why Louis, so lacklustre and shambling beside the debonair Duc de Lauzun and other highly polished gallants of Marie Antoinette’s circle, had failed to capture either her attention or affection, he was still very clear that it was her absolute duty to make the King love her no matter what.

He also strongly criticised the ‘dreadful fecklessness’ of her current lifestyle, addressing poor Marie Antoinette in the strongest terms because he had come to the conclusion that shaming her was perhaps the only way to make the reckless young Queen, of whom he was actually genuinely extremely fond, see sense. ‘What is it that you want? To be unknown and play the role of a person different to yourself? Why the need for adventures and naughtiness? Why mingle with a crowd of libertines, girls, strangers, listening to their conversation and replying in kind? What indecency! The King left alone for a whole night at Versailles and you mixing with the Paris riffraff!

Marie Antoinette was exceedingly distressed both by her brother’s departure and his final missive before leaving which she saw as a personal attack not just upon herself but also her dearest friends, whom he made no secret of thoroughly disapproving of. However, she was also forced to admit the truth of his words and did her best to comply with his advice by toning down her whirlwind of a social life and trying to spend more time with the King and less with her friends. In October she proudly wrote to her mother that ‘I hardly ever stay up late at night any more, and I hardly went out all summer, both for my health and because I know a little better how to spend my time at home than in the past. I read, I embroider, I have two music masters, one for voice, the other for the harp; I have started drawing again - all that keeps me busy and entertains me.

She also told her mother that she was gambling much less but pointed out that etiquette decreed that she still play in public three times a week. These public royal card games took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and occurred at a large round table set up in the Salon of Peace that lay between Marie Antoinette’s rooms and the Hall of Mirrors. However, unlike the gambling that went on at the Palais Royal or apartments of the Princesse de Guéménée, the stakes at the royal table at Versailles were exceedingly small and they were really only a way of making the presented ladies, who were allowed to either take part in the game or decorously sit and observe on stools placed against the walls, feel included.

As for Louis, nothing remains of the advice that Joseph left for him but we can be sure that it was expressed in equally blisteringly forceful terms and doubtless reminded the young King that it was his duty towards his wife and his nation for him to man up and do the deed properly, whether he liked it or not. Like Marie Antoinette he was doubtless exceedingly stung and humiliated by whatever the forthright Joseph said to him but similarly was forced to concede that his brother-in-law was in the right and so do his best to comply.

Although the young couple would never fully regain the honeymoon atmosphere of the beginning of their reign, they made a great deal of effort to increase the intimacy and affection in their marriage by once again walking about arm in arm in public and taking the signal step of spending two hours every day closeted alone together in their rooms, Joseph having advised his sister to ‘get him to bed with you in the afternoon as there’s no use waiting until after supper, when he is already sunk in a state of apathy’. Finally, on the morning of 18 August, not all that long after Joseph’s departure, the King shyly came to see his wife after she’d had her bath and they fully consummated their marriage for the first time. ‘I am now enjoying the most essential happiness of my entire life,’ Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother. ‘It has already been more than eight days since my marriage was perfectly consummated; the event has been repeated and again yesterday more completely than the first time…. I do not think I am pregnant yet, but at least I have the hope of being so any day.’

In fact, Marie Antoinette was not to become pregnant until the following spring. She wrote to her mother on 19 April 1778 that: ‘Already eight days ago I wanted to tell you something of my hopes but did not dare to do so, for fear of how upset you would be if they failed to materialise.’ Luckily, her hopes turned out to be reality and the royal pregnancy was announced the following month, causing enormous excitement at court where quite a few people had long given up all hope of the Queen ever conceiving a child. As might be expected, Louis was pleased as punch about the great news and his approaching fatherhood gave him a new swagger and confidence while his wife renounced her former chaotic life and instead took up more gentle pursuits, preferring to spend her time in solitude at the Petit Trianon, supervising the planting of her new gardens, than staying up until all hours gambling and dancing with the Polignac and Chartres sets.

Marie Antoinette’s first and much longed for pregnancy should have been a peaceful and halcyon time but was instead marred by the eruption of hostilities between Prussia and Austria after her brother, emboldened by the death of the Elector of Bavaria, laid claim to territories in southern Bavaria which were immediately contested by the King of Prussia, who had no wish to see his Austrian enemies grab still more land. To the annoyance of Marie Antoinette, the French came down firmly on the side of the Prussians and she soon found herself caught between a rock and a hard place, beset on one side by passive aggressive recriminations from her family who ordered her to secure French support and kept at arm’s length on the other by her husband who informed her, not unsympathetically, that ‘the ambitions of your family are going to upset everything. They started with Poland and now it is Bavaria. I am annoyed on your account.’

As might be expected, Marie Antoinette completely lacked the political acumen to be able to navigate the pitfalls of such a situation and, unsurprisingly, ended up pleasing nobody. Although her natural instincts were now to be loyal to her adopted country France, she had tried her best to placate her family by promising them as much assistance as she was able to procure, which when it failed to materialise ended up leaving them disappointed and, worse, aroused the old feelings of distrust in her husband and his advisors, especially Maurepas. However, when it came to the fledgling war between America and England, in which the French had thrown their support behind the American republicans, Marie Antoinette had no qualms about wholeheartedly supporting the French in what looked set to develop into a war with England itself, even though she had many English friends, including the charming Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Queen Charlotte herself.

However, all these political contretemps could not entirely diminish the joy that Marie Antoinette found in her pregnancy. The proud expectant mother sent regular reports about her health to her mother and was often to be found measuring her waist as if to reassure herself that, after all those years of longing, a child was indeed growing inside her. When she felt the baby’s first movements she immediately hastened to Louis’ apartments and announced: ‘Your Majesty, I have come to complain about one of your subjects, who has had the audacity to kick me in the stomach.’ Louis was thrilled and immediately lifted her up into his arms and kissed her in front of everyone.

Although there were still weekly card parties, balls and suppers at Versailles, the overall atmosphere was altogether more muted and low key as everyone waited for the royal baby to be born. Marie Antoinette no longer travelled by carriage for fear that this might bring on early labour and so the usual summer excursions to Compiègne and Marly were cancelled. Instead, the Queen fled the stifling apartments of Versailles for the Petit Trianon, which she had transformed into a sumptuous jewellery box of a house since Louis had presented it to her with the words: ‘Vous aimez les fleurs. J’ai un bouquet à vous offrir’.

It’s easy to see why Marie Antoinette lost her heart to the Petit Trianon though – built along the lines of a small and compact chateau and exquisitely decorated in light, fresh colours, it was the perfect size for a tiny court with only enough bedrooms to house the Queen, her children and a couple of her closest companions, which included her sister in law Madame Élisabeth, Madame de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. As with all the royal palaces, there was a special Trianon Livery – scarlet and white, which was worn by all visiting gentlemen and would have made a striking spectacle set against the delicate gilded panelling, which had been designed to set off the golden haired beauty of a mistress but was now the backdrop of a queen.

Over the years, Marie Antoinette probably spent her most happy hours at the Trianon either overseeing her extensive (and extremely expensive) plans for the gardens, playing with the animals on her farm, putting on plays before extremely exclusive audiences in her theatre and entertaining friends in the beautiful pavilions. Although her world there was extremely private, she did from time to time show especial favour to visiting royalties by throwing wonderful parties in the gardens, complete with illuminations, dancing and fireworks, all carefully orchestrated and planned to highlight the exquisite beauty of her personal domain.

The rooms of the Petit Trianon remain one of the most perfect examples of late eighteenth century design and mark the moment when the rococo frivolity of the mid part of the century began to give way to the more austere beauty of the neo-classical. Keen to stamp her own personal taste on the building, Marie Antoinette very deliberately eschewed the grandeur of nearby Versailles and instead filled her rooms with pale greens, blues and pinks and hung soft painted muslins at the windows and around her bed. The paintings too were a mixture of romantic classical scenes and portraits of her own brothers and sisters, most of whom she would never see again. Rumours gradually spread across France that the Petit Trianon was a temple to excess with diamond encrusted panelling and all manner of lavishness to frame the orgies of the woman they were beginning to regard as a Courtesan Queen. The truth was actually very different, although her critics would probably have had heart attacks if they’d known how much she was squandering on the gardens rather than the actual decor of her house, which remained a simple and unstuffy antidote to the stifling splendours of Versailles and the perfect retreat from the rigours of a pregnancy in the public eye.

To underline the difference between Versailles and the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette also dressed completely differently there – eschewing the powdered coiffures, stiff panniered gowns and jewels that formed her court attire and instead favouring softly flowing silks and her favourite muslins, un-powdered loosely dressed hair styles and straw hats. Obsessed with theatre, it must have seemed natural and perhaps even comforting to Marie Antoinette to don different costumes for what she must increasingly have seen as her two completely different lives – as the elegant and sparkling Queen of France and also the private individual, quietly tending her flowers and drinking herbal tea in a muslin dress and straw hat at the Petit Trianon.

There was a new arrival to Marie Antoinette’s close circle of friends that year when the handsome Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen arrived back in France after an unsuccessful attempt to woo an heiress in England. The young Axel loved Parisian high society and was also hopeful of securing a commission in the French army in the war against England. Although the Queen had certainly not been pining for him during the four years that had passed since they first met and briefly chatted at the Opéra ball, she was glad to have him back at Versailles, where his good looks and charming manner won hearts everywhere. However, it didn’t take long for jealous whispers about Marie Antoinette’s obvious admiration of this good looking and rather dashing young man to start doing the rounds, even though the flirtation between them was almost certainly entirely innocent, not least because of the Queen’s pregnancy.

There were also, predictably, all the usual malicious rumours about the paternity of the royal baby, probably fanned by Louis’ disgruntled younger brother the Comte de Provence who saw his position as heir to the throne slipping away from him. It was whispered around the louche salons of Paris that the baby had actually been fathered by either the Duc de Lauzun or Duc de Coigny, both of whom were known to be particular favourites of the Queen, who had the much prized entrée to the Petit Trianon. It was all nonsense of course but had the effect of making Marie Antoinette retreat still further away from the court, hurt that her much longed for happiness was being tarnished so cruelly and turning more towards the few people that she felt she could really trust.

Like many other expectant mothers, Marie Antoinette took a great deal of interest in her appearance, turning to the redoubtable Rose Bertin to provide her with lovely, flowing new gowns to make her feel more comfortable and attractive. Mademoiselle Bertin started to make wonderful breezy silk gowns, known as lévites for her royal mistress, which were designed to accommodate the growing royal bump, which the royal physicians thought was measuring very large for her dates, and also keep her cool during what turned out to be a scorching hot summer, when it was so hot that the Queen had to spend all day indoors and could only venture out in the evening when it was cooler and musicians were hired to play on the terraces while she took the air beneath the stars. There were also concerns about Marie Antoinette’s hair, which had a habit of thinning whenever she was under emotional strain and which now began to fall out in clumps, a common enough problem in pregnancy, which her hairdresser Léonard had to conceal with artful use of hair pieces, feathers and poufs of muslin.

The long awaited royal labour began in the early hours of 19 December 1778, when Marie Antoinette began to feel ominous pains shortly after midnight and realised that her time had come. The Princesse de Lamballe was immediately summoned to preside over the event and word was sent to everyone who had the right to be present with the King arriving at three in morning, full of excitement and also not a little fear too for childbirth in the eighteenth century was still a very risky business indeed. Marie Antoinette had chosen Charles-Toussaint de Vermond, the brother of Abbé de Vermond, to act as her accoucheur and under his watchful eye she paced her chamber until eight in the morning when, overwhelmed by the pain, she took to the little delivery bed that had been placed next to the ornate fireplace in her chamber.

As Marie Antoinette laboured, she was attended by Vermond, physicians and midwives and surrounded by the royal family, the princes and princesses of the blood and her closest friends while beyond in the cabinet next door there was crammed the rest of the royal households and everyone else who had the right to be present at such an auspicious event. The rest of the court, their numbers swollen by nobles who had travelled to Versailles just for the day, found whatever space they could in the outer rooms of the Queen’s apartments and the Hall of Mirrors, where they lounged against the walls as they waited for news of the royal delivery to spread. The whole situation must have been absolutely intolerable for a woman so fastidious and concerned with her privacy but it’s likely that, at least once the pains of labour had begun in earnest, Marie Antoinette probably didn’t care who was there to see it although she was no doubt glad to have the steadfast, practically minded Louis keeping vigil at her side.

The baby, a little girl, was born at around 11.30am. At first she did not make a sound and there was panic when it was thought that she had been born dead but then the first cries were heard and all was well. Enthralled by his daughter, Louis went off with the rest of the royal family to watch the child being washed and swaddled in the next room leaving Marie Antoinette, who had not yet been informed of the child’s sex, to the ministrations of the midwives. However, within moments of the King leaving the room, the Queen had a convulsive fit and lost consciousness, no doubt overcome by exhaustion and the sweltering heat of the room in which the windows had been sealed up to prevent even the slightest wintry breeze touching the precious newborn. Seeing that the Queen had collapsed some of the gentlemen jumped up and tore the windows open, which revived her from her faint.

Shortly after this the King returned with their daughter and Marie Antoinette was allowed to hold her for the first time. Naturally both Marie Antoinette and Louis had hoped that their first child would be a Dauphin, as girls were barred by Salic Law from succeeding to the throne, but they hid any disappointment well. For now they were both just truly delighted to finally be parents at last. ‘Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account,’ Marie Antoinette, visibly moved, said to her daughter. ‘A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine; you shall have my undivided care; you will share all my happinesses and you will alleviate my sufferings.’

Marie Antoinette spent the next eighteen days recuperating from the birth of her daughter. As was the custom she remained in bed and received her friends Yolande de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe there, propped up against lace edged pillows and dressed in a charming lace and ribbon trimmed peignoir and a delightful cap which hid the fact that her hairdresser Léonard had given up with her hair and persuaded her to have it cropped so that it would grow back stronger. She was extremely proud of her baby, who had been christened Marie Thérèse Charlotte (the first two names were in honour of her mother, while Charlotte was almost certainly for her favourite sister Maria Carolina, the Queen of Naples), and kept her beside her as much as she could. She even tried to breastfeed for a time, even though it was far more usual for women of her status to exclusively employ wet nurses as her own mother had done. Naturally, this deviation from tradition caused some consternation in Vienna, with Maria Theresa making her displeasure known.

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