Biographies & Memoirs

Madame Deficit


My fate is to bring bad luck.’

Everything changed for Marie Antoinette when she finally became a mother. Reared since early childhood to believe that one of her primary functions was to bear children for some unknown prince, she had regarded the lack of a child as a shameful failure and a total betrayal by her own body. She had done her best to distract herself from this great lack in her life and had in the process lost of her husband’s affection and the respect of her people. Now, however, Louis loved her more than ever but could she also regain the love of their people? Only time would tell but for now the future looked promising as the young couple celebrated the birth of their baby by distributing money to their favourite charities and attending a celebratory Mass at Notre Dame. Naturally, there was some disappointment that the baby had turned out to be a girl rather than the hoped for Dauphin but they were both still only in their early twenties and now that they had defied all expectation and had one child, surely more would follow?

Meanwhile, the main care of the little princess, who was to be known as Madame Royale at court, fell to the charge of the royal governess, the Princesse de Guéménée, whose rather rakish lifestyle makes her seem like a most unsuitable person for such an important charge. However, this was typical of Versailles where all the most plum jobs had been passed down through families for generations, regardless of the suitability of the latest incumbent. In this instance, Madame la Princesse was the niece of the former royal governess Madame de Marsan, who had had the charge of Louis XVI and all of his siblings until her retirement, upon which the Princesse had taken over the post.

The Princesse de Guéménée had been born Victoire Armande de Rohan at the beautiful Hôtel de Soubise in the Marais district of Paris, the daughter of Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise and his second wife, Anne Thérèse de Savoie, which made her a relative of the Princesse de Lamballe as well as the Comtesse de Provence and Comtesse d’Artois. Clever, lively and extravagant, the Princesse was known to be something of an eccentric, who was always surrounded by several tiny dogs wherever she went, some of whom she claimed were able to communicate with the dead. She had also, more seriously, been accused several times of cheating at cards, not that this discouraged Marie Antoinette from attending her card parties in her apartments which the Emperor Joseph, who thoroughly disapproved of the sophisticated Princesse, described as nothing better than a ‘gaming hell’. However, for all her faults, Victoire, who had five children of her own, seems to have had an affectionate, fun loving nature that young people really responded to. Even Madame Élisabeth, Louis’ pious youngest sister (her elder sister Madame Clotilde had been married to the Prince of Piedmont, the brother of the Comtesse de Provence and Comtesse d’Artois, in August 1775), who had entered her charge after the departure of Madame de Marsan, was very fond of the Princesse de Guéménée although, unlike Marie Antoinette, she managed to resist the lady’s attempts to make her attend her rather risqué parties.

The low key atmosphere that had prevailed during the Queen’s pregnancy continued for quite some time to come as Marie Antoinette devoted herself to her daughter and allowed herself to delight in the entirely novel but thoroughly delightful joys of new motherhood. Duty compelled her to continue to attend the weekly card parties, suppers and balls that had always formed an important part of her routine but she took much less joy in the rakish soirées and clandestine excursions to the masked balls that had once delighted her so much.

In the spring of 1779, Marie Antoinette was struck down by a bad case of measles which left her so debilitated that she was encouraged by her physicians to completely retire from court life for three weeks and recuperate in the peace and quiet of the Petit Trianon. Up until now she had only been there during the day and although there was a pretty bedroom set aside for her use, had never actually stayed the night so naturally she was delighted to be packed off to her favourite little bolthole, which she had transformed into a house entirely to her own taste. There was only room for her most favourite ladies to stay with her though, while the rest of the household stayed at the nearby Grand Trianon. Unfortunately, Madame de Polignac had also fallen ill with measles and was unable to join her.

Although Marie Antoinette felt genuinely poorly at first, she still managed to have the most delightful time as she spent her days eating strawberries in her lovely new gardens and lazily drifting across the Grand Canal on a boat. The evenings were spent in the new salon where she was attended by her favourites: the always loyal Duc de Coigny, Baron de Besenval, Count Esterhazy and the Duc de Guines (whose influence over the Queen was considered especially harmful by Count Mercy), who took turns to amuse her with light conversation and the occasional musical interlude. It was all completely harmless but as usual the malicious tongues of the court gossips had plenty to say about the whole thing, especially as the King, who had never had measles and so was kept away for fear of contagion, was not present although he visited on one occasion and stood out in the courtyard, calling up to the Queen who leaned out of her bedroom window like Juliet to his unlikely Romeo.

It was around this time that Marie Antoinette was painted for the first time by Madame Vigée-Lebrun, whose portraits of the Queen remain amongst her most iconic representations. Their association began when Marie Theresa asked the Count Mercy to approach Marie Antoinette to request two full length portraits for a room filled with family portraits. Forgoing the usual court painters, Marie Antoinette chose someone new for this important commission: a rising star in art, the Parisian portraitist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who had already painted Marie Antoinette’s brother in law the Comte de Provence. It was to be the first painting in a series that was to immortalise both sitter and artist in the eyes of posterity: when one thinks of Marie Antoinette, it is the vision of her as painted by Madame Vigée-Lebrun that one usually sees, either dressed in shimmering white silk with plumes in her powdered hair, radiant in blue silk and holding a rose in the gardens of the Petit Trianon, shyly smiling in soft white muslin or holding her precious children close while surrounded by the splendours of Versailles.

She was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty,’ Madame Vigée-Lebrun later wrote in her memoirs. ‘Marie Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face. To any one who has not seen the Queen it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and all the nobility combined in her person. Her features were not regular; she had inherited that long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian nation. Her eyes were not large; in colour they were almost blue, and they were at the same time merry and kind. Her nose was slender and pretty, and her mouth not too large, though her lips were rather thick. But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.’

The first of the paintings, a full length work depicting the twenty three year old Queen in white silk, was sent off to Vienna in January 1779 and the Empress immediately fired off a letter saying how delighted she was with it while Marie Antoinette liked it so much that she ordered another copy to be hung in her apartment at Versailles. Marie Antoinette was painted several times during this period by a wide variety of different artists but none managed to capture her essential charm and freshness as well as Vigée-Lebrun, who managed the hitherto apparently impossible feat of managing to capture a likeness while at the same time hinting at the elusive charm that made Marie Antoinette so irresistible in person and softened those rather heavy Habsburg features.

The period of convalescence at Petit Trianon was just the beginning of Marie Antoinette’s gradual withdrawal from court life as she pursued a more informal and private existence. Whereas before she had become a mother the Queen had perhaps been a little too visible thanks to her hectic Parisian social life, now she was not seen enough and would often spend weeks on end at the Petit Trianon surrounded only by the congenial company of her closest friends and enjoying the delights of the gardens, small farm and the theatre, completed in 1780, where she put on amateur theatricals for a very select audience and, tellingly, made a point of always playing simple village maidens, milk maids and servant girls - women who were free of expectation and responsibility in a way that the Queen of France could never be.

When Marie Antoinette entered a room at the Petit Trianon no one was expected to stop what they were doing and rise, as they were at the palaces, but instead could continue playing the piano, reading or sketching without doing anything more than politely acknowledging the Queen’s arrival. At Versailles too, things were taking a more informal tone. In 1783, it was decided that gentlemen could appear before the Queen in a plain frock coat and not the glorious court dress previously demanded. While debutantes being presented for the first time could now wear coloured dresses instead of the formal black, which had previously been worn. Otherwise, court dress for women barely changed over the years and remained the formal grand habit of a panniered gown with a tightly laced bodice and short sleeves that revealed the pearly white shoulders of the wearer. For more informal occasions, the court ladies would wear the much less constrictive robe à la Française, which was much more becoming and far less unwieldy to wear.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Marie Antoinette was copying her husband by creating a veritable warren of stairs, corridors, mezzanines and exquisite little rooms behind her apartments at Versailles, where she could escape from the prying eyes of the courtiers and be entirely herself with only a few of her most favoured companions. Here there was to be found a library, some pretty little sitting rooms and a billiards room as well as rooms for her maids. It was all very cosy but again added to the general feeling that the Queen was gradually vanishing from public life, which naturally gave rise to rumours that she clearly had something to hide - after all, Louis XV’s well known passion for privacy was popularly supposed to have derived from his dissolute and sexually promiscuous lifestyle which he wished to keep a secret from both his courtiers and the general public so why should it not be the same case with Marie Antoinette, whose fondness for both handsome young men and clandestine behaviour were both so well well known?

In the spring of 1780, her childhood friends the princesses of Hesse-Darmstadt came to visit Paris and Marie Antoinette was delighted to be reunited with them after so many years apart and show them around her world. They were immediately honoured with invitations to the most hallowed precincts of the Petit Trianon with Marie Antoinette writing that: ‘It’s looking so beautiful that I should be charmed to show it to you… I shall be quite alone so don’t dress up; country clothes and the men in frock coats.’ The young Queen truly relished what she fondly imagined to be a simple bucolic country existence and considered it to be a much needed respite from what she increasingly regarded as the relentless and tiresome drudgery of court life.

However, although 1780 began brightly for Marie Antoinette it would end with tragedy. Her mother Maria Theresa had been ailing for quite some time but had struggled on, her indomitable spirit refusing to accept that it was time to slow down. On 3 November she wrote to her daughter: ‘Yesterday, I spent the time more in France than Austria, and I remembered all the happy times in the past, which is indeed gone. Just the memory consoles me.’ It was to be her last letter to Marie Antoinette as just a couple of days later the Empress caught a chill while praying in the family vault beneath the Capuchin church. The chill turned into pneumonia and after two terrible weeks the Empress died in the arms of the distraught and sobbing Joseph.

It took eight days for the terrible news to reach Versailles and when it eventually did, Louis insisted that the Abbé de Vermond should be the one to tell Marie Antoinette that her mother, who had been the mainstay of her life, was gone. ‘Crushed by most dreadful misfortune, I cannot stop crying as I write to you,’ she wrote to Joseph. ‘Oh, my brother, oh, my friend! You alone are left to me in a country which is, which will always be, dear to me! Take care of yourself, watch over yourself; you owe it to all… Adieu, I no longer see what I write. Remember that we are friends and allies. Love me.

Marie Antoinette was completely devastated by her mother’s death, perhaps sensing that without Maria Theresa’s overbearing care and, admittedly often entirely unwelcome, advice, she was from now on adrift in the world without a proper anchor to keep her from harm. Her mother may have been prophesying doom and all manner of woe ever since the giddy, thoughtless Marie Antoinette first arrived in France over ten years earlier but at least she had been able to be reasonably confident that should the worst happen, Maria Theresa would be there behind her to pick up the pieces, dust her down and put everything right again. Could she trust Joseph, now Emperor in fact as well as name, to do the same for her?

Inconsolable, Marie Antoinette retreated for several weeks to the peace of the Petit Trianon where she remained sequestered alone but for her closest friends Madame de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. She gave herself up completely to grief, reminiscing for hours about her childhood and berating herself for not paying proper attention to her mother’s well meaning advice while she still had the chance. It was only now that she had lost her forever that Marie Antoinette finally came to realise just how much her mother had loved her and, equally, how much she had lost.

Louis, it seems, was one of those clumsy, awkward men who have the gift of being able to truly step up to the mark when called upon to do so and he was a rock now for Marie Antoinette. He sat for hours with her, listening to her outpourings of grief and regret and always seemed to know exactly what to do and say to make her feel better. The couple were drawn together by Marie Antoinette’s sorrow and within a couple of months were surprised and delighted to find that she was pregnant once again. Intimidating though she may have been in latter years, Maria Theresa had always retained a certain dry sense of humour and she would no doubt have appreciated this unlooked for result of her passing, especially as she had spent the two years since Madame Royale’s birth haranguing her daughter constantly about the necessity of having another baby.

Marie Antoinette’s second labour began on the morning of 22 October 1781 with, as before, the Princesse de Lamballe summoning the King and other dignitaries to the royal bedchamber where the Queen was pacing back and forth in order to alleviate her pain. However, keen to avoid the terrible and mortifying press of people that had attended the Queen’s last lying in, Louis restricted the audience this time to just those who absolutely had to be there with the Comte d’Artois, aunts and Princesse de Lamballe representing the royal family. Also present were Marie Antoinette’s most favoured ladies: the Comtesse de Mailly, Comtesse d’Ossun, Princesse de Chimay and Comtesse de Tavannes as well as the Princesse de Guéménée, who was waiting to take the baby to the royal nurseries. Everyone else was banished to the outer rooms of the Queen’s apartments to wait for news.

As is common with second labours, this one was much quicker than the first and was over in around an hour and fifteen minutes when the Queen gave birth to a healthy child. The baby, as was the custom, was immediately whisked away to be washed and swaddled before the King, weeping and his voice trembling with emotion, brought the child back to Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Madame, Monsieur le Dauphin asks for permission to enter.’

The wonderful news was announced to the crowds of courtiers waiting outside and spread like wildfire through the palace so that by the time the Princesse de Guéménée, looking as proud as if she had given birth to the heir to the throne herself, appeared with the baby in her arms and seated in a bath chair so there would be no risk of dropping the precious heir on his way down to the chapel to be baptised, there were enormous crowds thronging the Hall of Mirrors to see her go by. King Louis hurried in the wake of his son, unable to take his eyes off this most miraculous and longed for child, and grinning affably at the shouts of congratulations. Finally, he felt that he had done his duty and furthermore proved himself to be a man like any other.

The baby, who weighed thirteen livres and measured twenty two inches in length, was baptised Louis Joseph Xavier François in the glorious chapel at Versailles before being taken off to the royal nursery to meet his sister Madame Royale and be placed into the care of his wet nurse, the wonderfully named Madame Poitrine (Madame Breast). Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette, completely worn out, rested in her bedchamber where shortly she would received the homage of the Parisian market women, who regaled the happy royal couple with some salacious couplets about Louis’ sexual prowess before trooping off to enjoy a splendid supper in the royal apartments.

Shortly after the Dauphin’s birth, on 21 November 1781, the wily old Maurepas, Louis’ chief advisor and Chief Minister and uncle of Madame de Polignac, passed away. There was immediate debate about who would be his successor as Chief Minister but Louis surprised everyone by rejecting Loménie de Brienne, who was the choice of the Queen’s party and making it known that from now on he would be ruling alone, with the Comte de Vergennes as advisor. This news was greeted with delight by Mercy and the Emperor Joseph, who had taken up Maria Theresa’s mantle when it came to persuading Marie Antoinette to make herself the power behind the throne. However, Marie Antoinette had very little taste for politics and her few attempts at persuading King to take her advice had had mixed results. She had failed when it came to restoring Choiseul but then again had undoubtedly had a hand in the disastrous appointment of the Comte de Ségur as Minister of War and the fall of Turgot in 1776 after he had attempted to put through plans for a more egalitarian tax system that no longer disproportionately favoured the aristocracy. The principle danger here though, as Louis knew all too well, was that Marie Antoinette had no real grasp of politics and based her political opinions on personal likes and dislikes and, worse, whatever her friends, specifically the ambitious and grasping Polignac cotérie, and family chose to tell her. Her advice could therefore never be trusted as she was usually acting as the mouthpiece of other people.

This ill starred princess either did not know how to consider people’s feelings or was not prepared to do so,’ Madame de la Tour du Pin would later recall. ‘When she was displeased she allowed it to be evident, regardless of the consequences. And this did great harm to the King’s cause. She was gifted with a very great courage, but very little intelligence, absolutely no tact and worst of all a mistrust always misplaced in those who were most willing to serve her.’ However, even if her political use was severely limited by her own deficiencies, Marie Antoinette could still be useful in other ways. When her brother and Empress Catherine II of Russia were in cahoots and planning to partition the Ottoman Empire, Joseph asked Marie Antoinette to lend a hand and royally entertain the Empress’ son and heir Tsarevitch Paul and his wife Archduchess Maria Feodorovna when, travelling incognito as the Comte and Comtesse du Nord, they visited Paris in May 1782. Their visit was not altogether popular with Louis and Vergennes, who did not at all approve of the Austrian alliance with Russia or their plans for the Ottoman Empire and were well aware that although the Tsarevitch was keen to make his visit look like simple tourism, he had actually been sent by his mother to try and gain some French support. When Marie Antoinette, following her brother’s instructions, asked to be allowed to entertain them, Louis was grateful to hand the baton over to her, relieved to have nothing to do with it.

Marie Antoinette spared no expense when it came to entertaining their Russian guests, who were treated to a concert in the Peace Room, a splendid supper party, a trip to Trianon, several magnificent galas and a fancy dress ball in the royal opéra where Marie Antoinette again appeared dressed as Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of her ancestor Henri IV, with the Pitt diamond, valued at 2 million francs, attached to her plumed hat. The whole visit was extraordinarily expensive, with the Queen and her ladies spending a fortune on dresses from Rose Bertin and Madame Éloffe and the Russian party spending even more in order to compete with the famously fashionable French courtiers.

There was also a visit to the famous porcelain factory at Sèvres, which had long enjoyed the particular patronage of the royal family, which involved a special week every year when the company’s new wares would be laid out on display at Versailles so that the court could make purchases. The Russian visitors spent over 300,000 francs at the Sèvres factory, with the additional treat of discovering that a particularly lovely lapis blue toilette set which the Grand Duchess had particularly admired was to be a personal present from Marie Antoinette.

The visit ended with a formal court ball in the Hall of Mirrors where the Queen danced with the Tsarevitch and Louis partnered Maria Feodorovna. However, although the Russian party left Versailles completely overawed and delighted by the reception they had enjoyed, Marie Antoinette was pleased to see them go, having taken one of her sudden dislikes to the Tsarevitch after he had asked her some very impertinent questions about her falling out with Madame du Barry, who was still banished from the court.

Once her awkward guests had gone, Marie Antoinette took herself off to the Petit Trianon for a few weeks, doubtless congratulating herself on the success of her hostessing even if she winced a bit at how much it had cost. However, the true costs were yet to be counted as the people grumbled about such extravagance at a time when the nation’s coffers were known to depleted almost to the point of bankruptcy by the wars in America. Worse still was to come later on in the year when the Prince de Guéménée, husband of the Royal Governess, declared himself to be bankrupt with astonishing debts of over 33 million livres. This catastrophe caused an enormous scandal at court with wider repercussions elsewhere as the fall of the powerful Guéménée family also ruined countless tradesmen and others who were owed vast sums of money and would now never be paid. The ripples caused by the Prince’s bankruptcy were to be widespread and devastating, not least for his wife who was now in awkward position when the full extent of the disaster became known, as it was considered utterly unthinkable for the wife of someone so completely ruined to continue as governess to the royal children.

Marie Antoinette, who was very fond of the Princesse, did everything she could to help even though Mercy counselled her to keep her distance so that she wasn’t tainted by association, but had to accept the Princesse’s resignation of her post in October 1782, exactly a year after the birth of the Dauphin. She managed to secure a huge pension for the couple though and encouraged the King to buy the Princesse’s country estate at Montreuil, near Versailles, for his sister Élisabeth who had fallen in love with the spot during her numerous visits there when she was under the charge of the disgraced governess.

The whole dismal affair was talked about everywhere and although Marie Antoinette had had nothing to do with the Guéménée’s debts, it still had a parlous effect on her already dwindling popularity, which had revived a little after the birth of the Dauphin but then plummeted sharply when word of the extravagance that attended the Russian visit started doing the rounds of Paris. With the country teetering on the verge of financial disaster, the excessive spending of the royal family and those close to them was being held up to scrutiny and this very public disgrace of two key members of the royal household was considered a justification of the criticisms that were beginning to be directed at the frivolity and wastefulness of the court in general and the Queen in particular.

The not entirely unexpected appointment of Madame de Polignac (who had recently become a Duchesse) to the post of Royal Governess also caused murmuring at court as the position had been passed down through the Rohan family for years and to bestow it elsewhere and, furthermore, on someone who was not from one of the most prominent blue blooded families at court, was considered extremely controversial, if not provocative on the part of the Queen. Here again, Marie Antoinette’s personal feelings had got the better of her - she had never quite liked the numerous Rohan family since hearing that their scion Prince Louis de Rohan (now Cardinal de Rohan), who had performed Mass before her in Strasbourg when she first arrived in France, had been going about the place saying insulting things about her mother. She knew that Madame de Polignac’s appointment to such a prestigious court position was not entirely appropriate but she didn’t care and in this she was unexpectedly supported by Louis, who would have preferred to place his children in the care of his aunt Adélaïde but knew better than to oppose Marie Antoinette in a matter of such personal interest to her.

Madame de Polignac didn’t have any complaints though. The post of governess came with a splendid thirteen room apartment next door to the rooms of the royal children, right on the palace terrace and overlooking the famous Orangerie. The enterprising Duchesse proceeded to build an elaborate wooden conservatory at one end of her rooms so that she would have more space to throw lavish parties three times a week, which were attended by the entire court as well as the Queen, who astounded everyone by behaving like a guest rather than the mistress of the palace.

In early 1783, Marie Antoinette posed again for Madame Vigée-Lebrun, this time choosing not to appear in a splendidly ornate court dress but rather a simple muslin gown of the sort that she liked to wear while frolicking with her children and pet dogs at the Petit Trianon. Although she still liked a good party, the twenty seven year old Queen was engrossed by her domestic life, preferring to spend her time at her own private residence rather than showing herself off amidst the splendours of Versailles. This portrait was intended to portray what Marie Antoinette was increasingly seeing as her true self; the real woman behind the glittering façade of the Queen of France.

The painting caused a sensation when it was displayed at the prestigious Paris Salon of 1783. Marie Antoinette and Madame Vigée-Lebrun, young women with minds full of all sorts of romantic and idealistic ideas about the simplicity and virtue of private life were entranced by the lack of etiquette in the painting, by the lack of heavy court gowns and jewels, by its essential charm and honesty. The critics and visitors to the Salon, however, were rather less charmed and saw in the lack of queenly decoration and etiquette a quite deplorable lesé majesté that acted as a metaphor for the gradual erosion of the dignity of both France and its royal family. It was also whispered that the Queen had posed in her shift, which of course was not at all the case and, worse, that the painting was deliberately intended to ruin the silk industry at Lyons, which formed an important part of the country’s revenues. The painting was intended for Versailles but Marie Antoinette was so upset by the reaction that she sent it to her friends the Princesses of Hesse-Darmstadt instead. Interestingly a very similar portrait by Vigée-Lebrun of the Comtesse de Provence dressed in a muslin gown with a pale blue sash was displayed nearby at the same time and received no way near so much opprobrium as the one of Marie Antoinette and was in fact praised.

A second portrait, painted in the same year, was far more popular as it depicted the young Queen in much the same pose, holding a pink rose, but this time dressed in shimmering pale blue silk, trimmed with costly lace and ribbons and with priceless pearls around her white throat. This was apparently more like how a Queen of France should look and indeed this painting remains the most iconic portrayal of Marie Antoinette even now, probably because it delivers the most perfect balance of majesty and coquetry, both of which are qualities associated with the doomed Queen.

Certainly, Marie Antoinette’s alleged coquetry was giving rise to plenty of talk that year as the handsome Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen, who was all chiselled high cheeks, steely blue eyes and pouting lips, had arrived back in Paris and been immediately accepted into the heart of the Queen’s circle yet again. It was rumoured that he was her lover but this seems very unlikely to have been the case. Marie Antoinette may have been capricious, rather shallow and essentially frivolous but she was also extremely personally modest and above all deeply devoted and loyal to her family. She may never have been madly in love with Louis, her ‘poor man’, but she respected him and furthermore knew that she owed him her loyalty.

However, that’s not to say that she wasn’t partial to the odd bit of harmless flirtation, as several other gentlemen of the court, such as the dashing Duc de Lauzun, could (and sadly would) testify to. That she, as we would say today, fancied Axel von Fersen cannot be doubted and that he, deeply flattered to have been singled out by the Queen of France, reciprocated her attraction is also very likely but it is very unlikely that this was ever acted upon or at least went further than perhaps the odd kiss if it even went as far as that. That Marie Antoinette, raised by her mother to be a dutiful spouse and bred for the very highest position, should compromise the French royal succession for the sake of a pair of fine eyes and a tumble in bed is unthinkable, while for Axel von Fersen it was her very untouchability, her unattainability that made her so irresistible.  One gets the sense from his letters that if Marie Antoinette had capitulated and welcomed him to her bed then his image of her would have been forever tarnished as his adoration was fuelled as much by her aloofness as by her gentle charm and obvious favouritism.

Marie Antoinette became pregnant again during the summer of 1783 but despite taking all of her usual precautions she suffered a miscarriage on her birthday in November. It was to have a devastating effect on her health and she did not fully recover for several months, which were naturally mostly spent in the seclusion and safety of the Petit Trianon. There were other worries too as the two year old Dauphin’s health began to give concern, whereas his sister Madame Royale continued to be a boisterous butterball of a child, all pink cheeked good looks and bouncing blonde curls, just as her mother had been in her youth.The Dauphin was wan and sickly though and it was becoming unpleasantly clear to his doting parents that it might be prudent to have another son to secure the succession should the worst happen.

In the meantime, Marie Antoinette lavished attention on her children, who took up residence with their households in the Grand Trianon so that she could keep them close to hand when she was living at the Petit Trianon. Sadly for the Queen though, the closeness that she had anticipated with Madame Royale failed to materialise as the child made it plain that she much preferred her father, probably because he was far less strict than her mother, who was fond of making her play with peasant children in order to curb her snobbish tendencies (even adopting a girl called Albertine to be her constant playmate) and on one occasion gave all of her toys away to the poor. While such egalitarian sentiments are obviously admirable, they don’t seem to have pleased the haughty little Madame Royale very much and when the Abbé de Vermond told her that her mother had almost died after suffering a fall from her horse, the little princess replied that she wouldn’t have minded, before going to explain that she wouldn’t mind not seeing her mother ever again because then she could do as she pleased.

Although the princess only turned five at the end of 1783, her future marriage was still a topic of considerable importance with several glittering matches, ranging from the heir of the King of Sweden to various Habsburg cousins on Marie Antoinette’s side, being considered. Closer to home there was also the Duc d’Angoulême, the eldest son of the Comte d’Artois and the Duc de Valois, the eldest son of the Duc de Chartres, who would be Duc d’Orléans one day. Although Marie Antoinette was naturally hoping for a match that would keep her daughter in France, she could not bring herself to approve of a marriage into the Orléans family now that her early friendship with the Duc de Chartres, who had acted as her host at the Palais Royal on more than one occasion, had soured into an icy feud thanks to her not entirely unfounded suspicions that he was responsible for some of the nasty rumours circulating about her. When the Duc de Chartres formally requested the hand of the princess for his son at the start of 1784, he was turned down flat by her parents which had the effect of increasing his enmity towards Marie Antoinette, whom he regarded as entirely responsible for this humiliation. In hindsight it was probably not the wisest course of action to offend the Duc and turn down this opportunity to ally themselves with the powerful and, above all, very popular house of Orléans but the events of 1789 were five long years away and no one could ever have predicted what terrible calamities lay in the future.

  By the summer of 1784, Marie Antoinette had recovered from her miscarriage and was beginning to feel much more optimistic about the future. It was during this period that she oversaw the building of her pretty little hamlet at Petit Trianon, a masterpiece of elaborate set design which the Queen fondly imagined looked just like a real peasant village. Here, she could oversee the milking of specially imported pure white Swiss cows, feed her hens and help her children pet the rabbits. The sight of Marie Antoinette frolicking in her white frock and straw hat (both of which cost a fortune), was utterly charming to be sure, but not everyone was a fan. ‘Perhaps by spending a little more, Her Majesty would have been able to erase the look of misery worn by our real hamlets within a radius of thirty leagues and improve the dwellings that are the homes of so many decent citizens, instead of representing them in their hideous decay,’ the Marquis de Bombelles wrote, admittedly with some justification.

In June 1784, Louis and Marie Antoinette were astounded by the news that the eccentric King Gustav III of Sweden had suddenly arrived, fashionably incognito of course, at Versailles to pay a surprise visit. That he had brought the dashing Axel von Fersen with him in his train was probably of small consolation to the French royal couple as they hastened to greet their unexpected guest with all the necessary pomp and aplomb. In fact, so hasty were their preparations that Louis, who had been hunting in the forests at Rambouillet when the news of Gustav’s arrival came, appeared in odd shoes, which earned him a gentle rebuke from his famously soignée wife, who naturally looked immaculate as ever.

King Gustav stayed for six weeks and despite his unexpected arrival, Louis and Marie Antoinette put on an astonishing and most gratifying parade of entertainments for his amusement, culminating in a wonderful party at the Petit Trianon on 27 June, where the guests had to wear white and were treated to ballets and music by Grétry as they wandered freely about the pavilions, hamlet and new English gardens, all of which were illuminated by thousands of coloured lanterns for the occasion. Marie Antoinette also found time during the visit to whisk off to Paris for the gala performance of Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro, which had been previously banned by the King due to its seditious nature, and was reportedly very much amused by this tale of aristocratic iniquity, assignations and mistaken identity. Her husband, only too aware of the calumnies that were being spread about his wife and her friends, thought that Beaumarchais’ play would do them all untold harm but Marie Antoinette, who loved to be at the forefront of all that was fashionable even if it was at the cost of her own dignity, believed that it was all just a piece of harmless fun and no worse than the Shakespeare plays that Louis was so fond of.

Marie Antoinette, who had become so large during pregnancy that it was thought that she was expecting twins, gave birth to her third child, another son, at half past seven in the morning of 27 March 1785. As was the custom, the baby was immediately whisked away to the royal chapel to be baptised Louis Charles and was given the title Duc de Normandie by his overjoyed father before Madame de Polignac took him off to the royal nursery on the ground floor, where he joined Madame Royale and the Dauphin. As with his elder sister, Marie Thérèse Charlotte, his last name was given in honour of his godmother, Marie Antoinette’s favourite sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples.

However, whereas the births of her two eldest children had been greeted with universal acclamation, Marie Antoinette was astounded to be greeted by silent, resentful crowds when she drove into Paris for the formal thanksgiving ceremony at Notre Dame after the birth of Louis Charles, whom she referred to as her ‘chou d’amour’. Until that moment she had had no real idea just how unpopular she actually was and was completely shocked and bewildered by the experience. ‘Why do they hate me so much?’ she asked her husband upon her return to Versailles. ‘What have I ever done to them?’ Her unpopularity was further increased when the King, who in his usual clumsy way was seeking only to show his gratitude and affection to his wife, purchased the Orléans’ family’s rather grand country seat, Saint Cloud on the outskirts of Paris for 6 million livres (with the assistance of his brilliant Director General of Finance, Calonne who had temporarily abated the pressure on the royal coffers by borrowing large sums of money) and presented it to Marie Antoinette.

The main impetus for this rather expensive and foolish purchase was the ongoing major renovation work going on at Versailles (in fact, Louis and Marie Antoinette had even considered rebuilding large parts of the palace until they realised that this plan was financial unfeasible) which made it advisable to have another large residence near Paris. It was also thought that the air at Saint Cloud, which was built on a hill overlooking the city and had famously beautiful gardens that swept down towards the Seine, was far healthier than that at Versailles, which after all had been built on a swamp, and would therefore be better for the royal children, in particular the ailing Dauphin. The purchase of Saint Cloud was still an act of folly though and the fact that it now belonged to Marie Antoinette just made the situation far worse as it was completely unprecedented that a foreign Queen of France should own property in her own right and therefore have the right to dispose of it as she pleased. That she had already said that the property would be inherited by one of her younger children did not matter - people were worried that it would somehow become the property of the hated Austria and that the Emperor would therefore have a foothold in France, as if having his sister on the throne with the King popularly supposed to be under her thumb, wasn’t bad enough.

Marie Antoinette ignored all of the murmurings and threw herself wholeheartedly into the refurbishment of Saint Cloud, which hadn’t been visited by the Orléans family for quite some time and was in serious need of an overhaul, which the Queen enthusiastically delivered, installing beautiful pastel coloured panelling and filling the rooms with exquisite furniture and costly decorations. She took great delight in posting rules there ‘by order of the Queen’ and insisted that all of the servants wore her own personal livery and if she knew that this was causing opprobrium in certain quarters, she didn’t seem to care one little bit.

In the wake of the Duc de Normandie’s birth and the purchase of Saint Cloud, rumours about the Queen’s private life began to multiply at an alarming rate. There had always been ill-natured whispers about the paternity of the royal children, but never on quite the same scale as now when all of Paris was talking about the fact that the latest royal baby had obviously been conceived during the Swedish royal visit when King Gustav had had the dashing Axel von Fersen, whom the Queen was known to have a liking for, amongst his entourage of handsome young men. Pamphlets, leaflets, ribald songs and erotic novels about the Queen’s alleged sexual exploits with a variety of partners that included her brother-in-law Artois and friends Yolande de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe began to appear in such great numbers that the Parisian police could barely keep tabs on the situation, although they seized and destroyed as many as they could. However, countless more were being openly sold in the arcades of the Palais Royal and many even made their way to Versailles where they were left on chairs in the royal salons and even on occasion surreptitiously placed where the Queen herself would see them.

Marie Antoinette did her best to laugh all of this off but the real danger lay in the fact that although the pamphlets and rhymes were seen as amusing little pieces of nonsense in the glittering and sophisticated salons of Paris and Versailles there was a risk that they were being taken as fact by the less erudite and cosmopolitan citizens of her country. The sullen reception that she had received in Paris after the birth of the Duc de Normandie certainly suggested that her star was not so much on the wane but had fallen completely and the rumours of her promiscuity had had much to do with this. ‘How many times have you left the marriage bed and the caresses of your husband to abandon yourself to Bacchantes or satyrs and to join yourself with them through their brutal joys?’ one pamphlet demanded of the Queen. The message was clear - Marie Antoinette was a bad woman, a bad wife and a bad Queen.

Not that the rumours were entirely restricted to the gutter press of Paris, however. There had been all sorts of lurid little tales floating around the candlelit rooms of the royal palaces for years: whispers about the Queen’s flirtations with various gentlemen of the court and raised eyebrows over her close friendships with Madame de Polignac and Madame de Lamballe, which were obviously completely innocent but, then as now, malicious tongues will find fodder wherever they can and can twist even the most innocuous things to make them appear far more sinister than they actually are. There was also plenty of talk about Marie Antoinette’s secretive behaviour at Versailles and the other palaces where she insisted upon locking herself away in her private cabinets and even the King would often find himself left out in the cold on the other side of the door. There had been much laughter, for example, over the occasion at Fontainebleau when poor Louis had traipsed past several amused courtiers to visit his wife’s bedchamber at night only to find the door firmly locked against him. The unfortunate and extremely embarrassed King had then had to perform the very worst sort of walk of shame past a crowd of sniggering courtiers, who hid their smiles behind the painted fans and wondered just what the Queen was trying to hide.

However, bad as all of this may have seemed, things were about to take a turn for the worse for Marie Antoinette. On 12 July 1785, while the Queen was excitedly preparing for the court’s first period of residence at the newly refurbished Saint Cloud and painstakingly learning her lines for the role of Rosine in a private performance of Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville, the Parisian jeweller Charles Auguste Boehmer, who worked in partnership with Paul Bassenge, presented her with a very strange and perplexing note.


We are filled with happiness and venture to think that the last arrangements proposed to us, which we have performed with zeal and respect, are a further proof of our submission and devotion to Your Majesty’s order, and we have genuine satisfaction in thinking that the most beautiful set of diamonds now existing will belong to the greatest and best of Queens.’

Amused by what she believed must be an unfortunate misunderstanding, Marie Antoinette read the note out to her First Lady of the Bedchamber Madame Campan then, remarking that the letter wasn’t worth keeping, set fire to it with a candle. Boehmer and Bassange had visited her a few times in the past to beg her to buy a most extravagant and extremely outmoded looped necklace which had actually been made for Madame du Barry when she was at the height of her relationship with Louis XV and had her royal lover so completely wrapped around her little finger that he would have bought it for her without a single qualm. Marie Antoinette had never got over her adolescent loathing of Madame du Barry, who was still banned from ever returning to Versailles and this association with the hated former royal mistress would have been more than enough to put her off buying the necklace if it hadn’t also been utterly hideous and ruinously expensive at an eye watering 1.8 million livres. Always eager to please his wife, Louis at one point offered to buy the piece for her but Marie Antoinette, who thought it a most outmoded and crude piece of work and had, besides, begun to economise where diamonds were concerned, turned him down, saying that the country had more need of war ships than diamonds and besides she had enough of the latter anyway.

However, the cryptic note brought none of this to mind and instead Marie Antoinette thought that it must simply be a rather stupid ploy to persuade her into buying some other extravagant piece of jewellery. She instructed Madame Campan to let Boehmer know that she would no longer be patronising him and then would almost certainly have thought no more of the matter if it hadn’t been forced upon her attention once again and in rather more alarming terms after Boehmer visited Madame Campan later that same day and poured his tale of woe into her increasingly horrified and shocked ears. It seemed that having given up all hope of the Queen relenting and taking the now infamous necklace off his hands, Boehmer had been delighted to be contacted by the Cardinal de Rohan who informed him that he had been instructed to buy the necklace on behalf of Marie Antoinette, who wished the transaction to be kept secret. Convinced by notes that had allegedly been signed by the Queen herself, the jeweller had delivered the necklace to the Cardinal, who in return informed him that the Queen would make the first payment of 400,000 livres on 1 August and would make her glittering début in her purchase in the next few weeks.

A few days later Boehmer and Bassenge were summoned to Versailles in order to repeat their tale in front of Marie Antoinette, Vermond and the Minister of the King’s Household, the Baron de Breteuil, all of whom were appalled by the implications of what they were being told. Marie Antoinette was particularly incensed - she had hated the Cardinal de Rohan for years, ever since he’d been extremely rude about her mother, and had snubbed several attempts on his part to get into her good books. It seemed absolutely incredible to her that he, knowing full well how much she disliked him, could ever have believed that she would put such a commission into his hands or that she could have been in cahoots with him behind the back of the King.

However, Baron de Breteuil’s investigations were to uncover even worse revelations when further questioning of the unfortunate Boehmer and Bassenge brought the name of Madame de la Motte-Valois, a well known adventuress who claimed descent from the Valois kings and was obviously desperate to get accepted into the Queen’s inner circle, into the mix. Madame de la Motte-Valois had been going about Paris boasting of her friendship with Marie Antoinette and popularity at court where, she said, she was received everywhere as a cousin of the King and Queen and was privy to all their little secrets. It was all lies, of course, but the desperate jewellers had fallen for it hook, line and sinker and asked her if she would have a word in Marie Antoinette’s ear about the diamond necklace. After taking a look at the piece in question, Madame de la Motte-Valois had promised to do her best and at the start of 1785 had returned to inform them that she had succeeded in her quest and managed to persuade the Queen to buy the jewels. According to Madame de la Motte-Valois, Marie Antoinette had been secretly hankering after them all along but had not dared to openly buy them for fear of displeasing the King and drawing further adverse comment about her extravagance.

At the same time as she was enmeshing the unfortunate Boehmer and Bassenge in her web of lies, Madame de la Motte-Valois was also spinning a fairytale for her lover Cardinal de Rohan, who was well known to be desperate for the Queen’s favour and a chance to reinstate himself in her good books. The Cardinal, who was clearly a rather credulous man, was only too willing to believe that Madame de la Motte-Valois was friends with the Queen and after she appeared to set up a secret midnight meeting between him and Marie Antoinette in one of the secluded groves at Versailles, he was like putty in her hands and agreed to act as go between with the jewellers in the purchase of the fabulous necklace, his haughty aristocratic authority dispelling any lingering concerns that they might have had about the veracity of Madame de la Motte-Valois’ claims to be on intimate terms with the Queen. It was the Cardinal who had taken charge of the necklace after the jewellers brought it to the Hôtel de Rohan at the start of February and he who had made the arrangements for payment before it was passed on to Madame de la Motte-Valois, who had allegedly been instructed to take it straight to the Queen.

However, when Marie Antoinette failed to appear in public wearing the fabulous necklace, Monsieur Boehmer had begun to get rather nervous about the whole transaction. Reports that Madame de la Motte-Valois had gone on a massive shopping spree then departed Paris in order to take up residence in her extremely opulently furnished château were also very worrying and in the end the jewellers had decided to break their silence and approach Madame de Campan, in order to find out what had happened.

At first the Baron de Breteuil had advised keeping the whole affair from the King until more was known about the Cardinal’s involvement. However, on 14 August he decided that the time had come and laid the whole sorry affair in front of his master, who in turn discussed it with his advisor Vergennes and Lord Chancellor Miromesnil. Breteuil, who was wholeheartedly the Queen’s man, was all in favour of publicly humiliating the Cardinal for this act of lese majesté but the more canny Vergennes and Miromesnil were mindful of the terrible scandal that this might provoke and instead hastened to advise the King to tread carefully and privately question the Cardinal about the affair before he made any rash decisions.

The Cardinal was ordered into the presence of the King, Queen and three Ministers the very next day, 15 August 1785. It was the Feast of the Assumption and Marie Antoinette’s name day and the whole of Versailles had turned out en masse to watch the procession and attend that morning’s Mass in the Queen’s honour. Having been out of royal favour for several years, Cardinal de Rohan was extremely surprised to be informed that he had been summoned to the King’s presence but, hopeful that his secret assignment for the Queen had marked a turn in his fortunes at court, he obediently made his way through the huge crowds in the Hall of Mirrors to the Council Room. However if he expected to find the King wreathed with grateful smiles he was sorely mistaken as instead he found himself being interrogated by Louis and his ministers, all under the cold and distinctly unfriendly gaze of Marie Antoinette who spoke only once to insist that the notes that had allegedly passed between herself and the Cardinal must have been forgeries.

When the Cardinal had left, Vergennes and Miromesnil counselled the King to tread cautiously and keep the whole sorry affair completely quiet, no doubt already fearing that there were further sordid revelations in the pipeline and all too well aware how much damage such a scandal, touching as it did upon the Queen’s alleged extravagance as well as her much whispered about personal relations with the courtiers, would do to Marie Antoinette’s already beleaguered reputation. However, Breteuil and the Queen, who had burst into tears, were determined to see the Cardinal fully punished for his actions and urged Louis to have him arrested and properly questioned. Never able to resist his wife’s tears, Louis duly gave the order to have the Cardinal arrested and his Lord Chancellor, no doubt rather reluctantly, stepped out of the Council Room and loudly gave the order to have Rohan apprehended at once. It would have been more usual for such a high profile arrest to take place in private so to have the Cardinal arrested so publicly and within the walls of Versailles itself was extremely shocking and had the effect of causing an immense scandal before anything was even known about the whole affair.

Madame de la Motte-Valois was arrested shortly afterwards and, naturally enough, denied everything, painting herself as the innocent patsy in the Cardinal’s schemes and claiming to have nothing to do with the necklace, which had, of course, now completely vanished from sight. The official investigations continued well into the summer until Louis called another meeting and, despite the continued reservations of Miromesnil and Vergennes, ordered that the Cardinal be put on trial so that his wife’s name could be completely cleared of any involvement in the matter. Marie Antoinette was horrified that the Cardinal, a man whom she absolutely loathed, could have been so stupid as to think for so much as a second that she would not only pass him secret notes behind Louis’ back but, far worse still, arrange private little assignations with him in the middle of the night. That a public revelation of such matters could hardly do her any credit did not at all weigh on her mind which was entirely focussed on both clearing her name and getting revenge on the arrogant Cardinal. It would have been a kindness on the part of Vergennes to point out at this juncture that her own reputation was by now so blackened that a public trial of this nature could only do harm no matter what the outcome was, but he remained silent and the whole miserable process continued.

Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette continued to distract herself with her performance as Rosine in The Barber of Seville which was put on at the Petit Trianon theatre in front of a very select audience made up of members of the royal family and the Queen’s own close little circle of friends. She had also thoroughly enjoyed her first proper stay at her new acquisition Saint Cloud, which had lived up to expectations and quickly become a favourite residence of the royal family. Marie Antoinette even opened up the gardens to the public and the curious Parisians had turned up in their droves to see the royal family disporting themselves in their country idyll and even managed to politely applaud when the Queen appeared on the flower lined and fragrant parterres holding the Dauphin in her arms and with Madame Royale trotting at her side in a pretty dress. However, if Marie Antoinette thought that this applause was indicative of a softening of the public mood towards her, she was to be sorely disappointed as the rumours were worse than ever thanks to the ongoing inquiry into the affair of the diamond necklace, the juicy details of which were, as had been gloomily predicted by Vergennes, being talked about all over Europe.

At the start of October, Marie Antoinette travelled by boat to Fontainebleau for the court’s traditional autumn visit to the palace, where the King was looking forward to some excellent hunting. The boat was a new purchase - a pleasure yacht in the English style, complete with a beautifully appointed salon, which had cost 100,000 livres. However, despite the glory of her arrival, looking like Cleopatra aboard her splendid new ship, the Queen was downcast during her stay at Fontainebleau, with the events in Paris clearly weighing heavily on her mind as La Motte-Valois and the Cardinal did their best to incriminate each other in their testimonies. However, the only person who was really incriminated, in the minds of the people at least, was the Queen. Although she had been amazed to hear that the Cardinal believed her to be the woman he met in the moonlight glade at Versailles, it seemed that no one else found this all that hard to believe, so thoroughly had Marie Antoinette’s reputation been tarnished over the years. When it was further revealed that the woman in question had in fact been a Palais Royal prostitute who traded off her spurious resemblance to the Queen, this made the whole scenario all the more appalling as people chuckled over the mental image of the proud Cardinal falling to his knees in reverence before a common whore. However, there were those who muttered that Queen or whore, there was no difference either way and therein lay the danger of the whole enterprise.

On 2 November, Marie Antoinette turned thirty and like plenty of other women she had some trouble reconciling herself to the inexorable onward march of time and became obsessed with her weight and appearance, declaring to Rose Bertin that she would be dressing more maturely from now on and renouncing the ostentatious fashions of her youth. Possibly she also regretted her foolish words as an arrogant nineteen year old Queen, when she had wondered why women over the age of thirty still bothered showing their faces at court. Although delightfully pretty by anyone’s standards as a young girl, by her thirties Marie Antoinette had filled out and become rather more rubenesque and was, in modern parlance, more a woman who made the best of herself than a natural beauty. Although never naturally blessed with great natural beauty she had, thanks to the artifice of wonderful clothes, elegant coiffures, make up, jewels, exquisite bearing and a winsomely charming demeanour, long been used to hearing herself described as the most beautiful woman at court - now, however, her new young ladies in waiting, newly married girls in their late teens and early twenties, were instructed by the older and wiser ladies of the court to stay out of direct sunlight so the fresh radiance of their complexions wouldn’t remind the Queen of the youthful good looks that she had now lost.

Marie Antoinette’s rejection of the pretty, frothy, beribboned gowns of her youth can be charted in the portraits of Madame Vigée-Lebrun who painted the Queen’s favourite portrait of herself in late 1785, depicting Marie Antoinette in a lace and fur trimmed gown of rich crimson velvet that opens over a skirt of saffron yellow silk. Her fichu is trimmed with exquisite lace and on her head there is balanced one of Mademoiselle Bertin’s famous poufs of white muslin trimmed with pearls. The Queen’s gaze is steady and somewhat amused and in her hands, neatly arranged on a green velvet cushion, she holds a book with her fingers marking the place - presumably to signify her renunciation of the frivolities of youth. It’s a delightful portrait and one of the very few that properly manages to convey Marie Antoinette’s famous charm, despite being more obviously sober in both palette and composition than her previous depictions.

Also captivating is another portrait that Vigée-Lebrun painted in the same year for the Comte d’Artois’ exquisite Paris residence the Château de Bagatelle, which was built in the Bois de Boulogne after Marie Antoinette, who loved a wager, bet her brother-in-law that he couldn’t build a château in less than three months. In the end it took sixty three months to complete and a grand full length portrait of Marie Antoinette, who was often entertained there, was commissioned for one of the salons. In this work, which bears some aesthetic resemblances to the later more famous painting of Marie Antoinette with her children, Madame Vigée-Lebrun painted the Queen against splendid surroundings, dressed in a sumptuous gown of rich blue velvet, trimmed with lace and fur and opening over a cream silk skirt. Once again she holds a book in her lap, her fingers marking the place, while her gaze is dignified with just a touch of amusement. This time though the overall effect is undoubtedly majestic thanks to the combination of that splendidly restrained yet still magnificent gown, the rich swags of crimson velvet falling from the table and the opulent beauty of the sitter herself, who presides over her palatial surroundings with a combination of both grandeur and grace.

One of her pages, Alexandre Tilly, described her at this time as having ‘eyes which were not beautiful but which were expressive of every disposition: benevolence or aversion were displayed on her countenance in a manner which was entirely her own… Her skin was admirable; her neck and shoulders also; the bust a little too full and the figure lacking in elegance; I have never seen such beautiful arms and hands. She had two ways of walking: one firm and a little hurried, but always noble; the other less vigorous, more poised.’ He added that: ‘In a word, she was the sort of woman to whom one would instinctively have offered not a chair but a throne.

With great insight into the character of the Queen that he served, Tilly also wrote that:  ‘She treated us all with a singular sweetness and we all adored her. Her most destructive fault, and one which did a lot of harm, was her dislike of all pomp and formality, the formality which is more necessary in France than anywhere else. She was childish and inconsequential, with no definite ideas except to free herself of the burdensome ties imposed by her rank. When she wanted to, no one could be more royal and dignified. One has never seen anyone curtsey so gracefully, singling out ten persons in one curtsey and giving to each in turn the regard which was their due.

Marie Antoinette’s charitable and philanthropic instinct never abated and each significant event in her court life, such as the births of her children, was marked with generous financial gifts to favourite charities, such as those set up for orphans or indigent wet nurses, while Louis also regularly emptied his coffers to assist the less fortunate. During the winter of 1784, he distributed three million francs of his own money and also ordered that much of the royal forest should be cut down to provide firewood for those who could not afford it. Madame de la Tour du Pin, one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting and the daughter of the delightfully pretty Madame Dillon who had been mistress of the Prince de Guéménée and such a favourite of the Queen early on in her reign until her premature death of consumption, would record in her memoirs that the Queen would walk around the games room at Versailles with a small bag in order to collect donations from the courtiers playing at the cards tables. Men were expected to give a gold louis, while women were asked for six francs - a mere pittance compared to the fortunes that were won and lost at cards at court on a daily basis, and yet this strategy ‘aroused considerable resentment among the younger courtiers’.

The Cardinal’s trial came to a dramatic conclusion on 31 May 1786, when Madame de la Motte-Valois and her accomplices were found guilty and the gullible Cardinal, whose family, the powerful Rohan clan had turned up to the court room all decked out in full mourning, acquitted. Marie Antoinette was incensed by this result and not at all pacified by the sentencing of the others, who were small fry in comparison to the hated Cardinal. She burst into tears when she heard the verdict, furious and deeply hurt that the judges had appeared to believe the Cardinal’s defence that he had totally believed the web of lies created by La Motte-Valois and seen no reason to doubt that the woman he met in the arbour at Versailles was not in fact the Queen. Others would go further and express their belief that the Cardinal had been the puppet of not one but two faithless women: La Motte-Valois and the Queen, who had probably colluded together to try and bring about his downfall. Either that or the entire blame lay at the door of Marie Antoinette who had engineered the whole thing in order to grab the diamonds without paying for them and bring down the Cardinal at the same time. Either way, although the Cardinal had been acquitted and the trial was at an end, Marie Antoinette felt as though she herself had been condemned by the judge’s verdict which had, as Vergennes had feared, only served to underline the fact that she was now so unpopular that the French people would believe her guilty of any calumny.

The news at the start of 1786, that Marie Antoinette was expecting another baby did nothing to cheer the depressed Queen up but rather made her feel even more pressured and put upon as she had considered her family complete and had no wish to undergo the rigours of pregnancy and childbirth once again. The King left her at Versailles for the last few weeks of her pregnancy while he went off to Normandy on a rare trip to the provinces, which lasted for eight days and involved visits to harbours and coastal fortifications. Astonishingly, it was the first time that Louis, who had only once in all his life left the environs of Paris and the Ile de France when he travelled to Rheims for his coronation, had ever beheld the sea. Marie Antoinette, however, would never see it and would instead have to content herself with her husband’s excited reports about his visit when he returned to Versailles to be greeted by herself and their three children, who shouted ‘Papa! Papa!’ when they saw the King approach, standing on the balcony overlooking the marble courtyard of the palace.

Just over a week later on 9 July, Marie Antoinette’s labour began. Keen to put off the inevitable and also rather alarmed as the baby was not due for a few more weeks, she at first claimed that all was well and the pains were due to indigestion before finally having to concede defeat at around half past four in the afternoon when the ministers were summoned to attend the royal birth. Sophie Hélène Béatrice was born three hours later and from the start it was clear that like her eldest brother the Dauphin, this new baby was far from robust, which just added to Marie Antoinette’s feelings of dejected lassitude. She was also physically ailing and suffering from unexplained pains in her legs, terrible headaches and feelings of breathlessness which were probably all due to anxiety and depression. When her sister Maria Christina visited Paris for a month in the summer of 1786, Marie Antoinette made very little effort to see her and caused great offence by not inviting her to the Petit Trianon and a few months later she turned down an opportunity to visit her brother Joseph in Brussels, claiming that her fragile health and that of the Dauphin and baby Sophie would not allow it.

Later on in the year the royal family went to Fontainebleau for the customary autumn visit, little realising that this was to be their last stay in the splendid old Renaissance palace. Marie Antoinette inhabited rooms as opulent as those at Versailles, including her pretty boudoir decorated in shimmering mother of pearl which had only just been completed for her that year and which she would barely have a chance to enjoy. Madame Vigée-Lebrun, the Queen’s favourite portrait painter saw her there that year and later recalled in her memoirs that: ‘When the Queen went for the last time to Fontainebleau, where the court, according to custom, was to appear in full gala, I repaired there to enjoy that spectacle. I saw the Queen in her grandest dress; she was covered with diamonds, and as the brilliant sunshine fell upon her she seemed to me nothing short of dazzling. Her head, erect on her beautiful Greek neck, lent her as she walked such an imposing, such a majestic air, that one seemed to see a goddess in the midst of her nymphs. During the first sitting I had with Her Majesty after this occasion I took the liberty of mentioning the impression she had made upon me, and of saying to the Queen how the carriage of her head added to the nobility of her bearing. She answered in a jesting tone, “If I were not Queen they would say I looked insolent, would they not?”

Things went from bad to worse in 1787, which started with the death of Louis’ friend and advisor Vergennes in February, just when the King needed his support and level headed advice more than ever in the face of a financial crisis that threatened to tip the country over the edge of bankruptcy. The distraught Louis cried when he heard the news and lamented that ‘I have lost the only friend that I could rely on, the only minister who never betrayed me’ and his distress deepened when rumours began to spread that his wife had poisoned Vergennes in order to put a stop to his consistently anti-Austrian policies.

Without Vergennes at his elbow, Louis floundered when confronted with the facts about his country’s financial situation which involved a deficit of 112 million francs and appalling debts, many of which were due to the French involvement in the American Revolution. Calonne, whose clever juggling of loans had enabled the purchase not just of Saint Cloud but also that of the château of Rambouillet for Louis, came up with a plan for a radical tax overhaul that would free up some extra cash but as it involved taxing the property of the nobility, who had been living it up tax free up until then, this was bitterly opposed at Versailles and led to the ignominious fall from grace of Calonne and calls for the return of his predecessor Jacques Necker, whose resignation in 1781 was blamed on Marie Antoinette, who had been displeased by the attention he drew to the enormous expenses of the court and the extravagant financial favours being showered on her friends, particularly Madame de Polignac. It would be another year before Necker was recalled to office and hailed as the saviour of France but in the meantime things would only get worse for the beleaguered Queen of France as she was harangued by Count Mercy and her brother about the appointment of replacements for both Vergennes and Calonne. It was her duty, they told her, to ensure that both posts were filled by people sympathetic to the Austrian alliance. However, Marie Antoinette had had enough of playing piggy in the middle between the interests of Austria and those of France and curtly informed Mercy that: ‘It is not right for the Viennese court to appoint ministers to the court of Versailles.’ However, it was her choice Loménie de Brienne who was appointed to the position of Director General of Finance in the end.

The atmosphere at court was becoming increasingly gloomy. As Madame de la Tour du Pin wrote in her memoirs: ‘It was the fashion to complain of everything. One was bored being in attendance at court. The officers of the Garde de Corps, who were lodged in the château when on duty, bemoaned having to wear uniform all day; the ladies of the household could not bear to miss going to supper in Paris during the eight days of their attendance at Versailles. It was the height of bon ton to complain of their duties at court, profiting from them nonetheless. All the ties were being loosened, and alas it was the upper classes which led the way.’ Attendance at court was extremely poor (the royal couple held ‘court’ on Sundays and for religious festivals and occasionally on Tuesdays, when the ambassadors would come to pay their respects) and even the Queen’s balls were very scantily attended, which led to a lack of partners and general disgruntlement all round.

The royal couple were becoming increasingly elusive. Louis had sunk into a depression after the death of Vergennes and spent all of his time either hunting, eating, sleeping or crying on his wife, while Marie Antoinette hid herself away either at the Petit Trianon or in the warren of tiny rooms behind her state apartments and saw very few people. Even Madame de Polignac, from whom she was becoming increasingly estranged, was being kept at arm’s length as the Queen began belatedly to realise that it was the favours that she had showered upon Yolande and her set that had, in part at least, contributed to this terrible mess. However, with Louis wallowing in a state of depressed apathy, it fell to Marie Antoinette, encouraged by Loménie de Brienne, to take up a more active role in the government. She had taken no interest in politics in the past and had very little wish to get involved now but the circumstances demanded that she do her best to support the weakened King - which of course played straight into the hands of her enemies who could now go about the place saying that she was meddling in politics and entirely to blame for everything that went wrong.

She was even beginning to feel alienated from people who had always been wholeheartedly on her side, such as the Duc de Coigny, who had always been one of her greatest admirers but had fallen out with the King and Queen when their financial reforms at court had forced him to lose one of his most prestigious and fiscally rewarding positions. The Comte de Vaudreuil and Duc de Polignac also lost positions and income and became noticeably icy around the Queen and her husband as did many others who also found themselves bereft of valuable favours and offices in the royal economy drive. Marie Antoinette had always counted upon her little faithful cotérie of friends to boost her ego and offer a sweetened antidote to the unpopularity and censure that she faced elsewhere but it seemed as though even they were beginning to desert her now that she had cut off their supply of favours. It must have made the already downcast Queen wonder if she had ever truly had any friends at all.

There were some consolations though. The Princesse de Lamballe was as faithful as ever and Marie Antoinette was also beginning to spend more time with her Mistress of the Robes the Comtesse d’Ossun, who was an altogether more steady character than Yolande de Polignac and her rakish set and did her best to cheer the disconsolate Marie Antoinette up with quiet supper parties and balls in her apartments. The Queen, who had once once danced until dawn, rarely danced nowadays but she obliged the kindly Comtesse by politely taking part in a few dances before sitting out the rest.

Marie Antoinette also did her best to foster a friendship with her young sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, who had turned twenty three in 1787. Élisabeth was a sweet natured and extremely devout girl, very similar in appearance to her eldest brother Louis and passionately devoted to both him and her youngest brother the Comte d’Artois, who could do absolutely no wrong in her eyes. On her sixteenth birthday in May 1780, the princess had left the nursery behind for good and moved into her own apartment at Versailles which Marie Antoinette, with typical generosity, had arranged to have freshly and most sumptuously decorated. The princess had never made any secret of her wish to be allowed to become a nun like her aunt Louise and as the years went by without any sign of a suitable husband (the princess told Madame d’Oberkirch that ‘I could only marry a King’s son, and a king’s son must reign in his father’s states so that I would no longer be a Frenchwoman. Better to stay here at the foot of my brother’s throne, than to ascend another’) it is probable that her brother and those who loved her were worried that she too might take flight in the middle of the night and run away to a Carmelite convent.

However, her new rooms overlooking the Orangery were in a complete contrast to the tiny nun’s cell that her soul desired. She had eight rooms to herself: two antechambers, a reception room, a bedroom (hung with green Lyons damask in the summer and crimson silk velvet in the winter), a grand cabinet, a billiard room, a library and then a private boudoir, all of which were furnished with the most exquisite taste and luxury. She also now owned the Princesse de Guéménée’s delightful country house at Montreuil and was happily doing it up although her brother had ordered that she would not be allowed to spend the night there until she turned twenty five in 1789. Always delighted to offer a surprise to someone that she loved, Marie Antoinette had revealed the news of the purchase of Montreuil in a typically playful manner by suggesting to Élisabeth that they drive out to the house together to say goodbye before surprising her with the keys when they arrived.

However, despite this generosity and thoughtfulness, the two young women never really hit it off. Although she would never say so to Marie Antoinette, Madame Élisabeth very much disapproved of her sister-in-law’s ramshackle lifestyle, the dissolute company that she insisted upon keeping and, perhaps worst of all, the disrespectful manner with which she occasionally treated and spoke of the King. Meanwhile, for her part, Marie Antoinette found Élisabeth’s gentle manners and rigid piety extremely dull and perhaps sensed the disapproval that the younger woman tried so hard to conceal, fearing that it would hurt her brother’s feelings. However, for now they muddled along well enough and Marie Antoinette liked her sister-in-law’s company enough to have a room prepared for her beneath the eaves of the Petit Trianon so that she could stay there with her.

However, her main comfort during these dreary last years of the ancien régime was the elegant Swede Axel von Fersen, who had returned to France in the summer of 1787 and immediately hastened to the side of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Although they were almost certainly not lovers in the sexual sense, they were definitely very close with Axel seeing himself as a sort of chivalric knight chastely adoring and defending the honour of his lady while Marie Antoinette, whose life seemed full of cares and troubles, sought solace in his flattering attentions and the fact that he never seemed to ask anything of her, unlike everyone else. The fact that, like her, Fersen was an outsider and also didn’t come with a demanding family and clinging troop of hangers on all clamouring for money and positions can’t have hurt either. Although they probably weren’t sleeping together, it is likely that Marie Antoinette, wishing to keep him close, invited Axel to stay in the warren of rooms that lay behind her apartments, which were so secret that one of her own pages was astounded to come across them after the court left Versailles for good in 1789.

Besides her tattered reputation and the ever worsening financial crisis, Marie Antoinette was also desperately worried about the health of her children. The delicate Dauphin was still continuing to give concern and on 14 June 1787 her youngest daughter Sophie, who had been weak and ailing since birth, died at the age of just eleven months old probably as a result of convulsions brought on by teething. Marie Antoinette was devastated to lose one of her children and referred to the baby as her ‘little angel’ when she took her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth to the Grand Trianon to view the child lying in state beneath a tiny coronet and a mantle embroidered with gold fleur de lys. According to court etiquette princesses were not officially mourned until they had reached the age of seven so only her immediate family wore black in her memory that summer.

Nonetheless, there was a last lingering reminder of Sophie in the painting of the Queen surrounded by her surviving children which was painted by Madame Vigée-Lebrun in 1787, where the Dauphin points towards the baby’s blue silk swathed empty cradle, the child herself having been hastily painted out after her death. To modern eyes, Marie Antoinette, dressed in opulent crimson velvet trimmed with exquisite lace, looks careworn and rather older than her thirty one years and even Vigée-Lebrun’s famously flattering brush couldn’t conceal the coarsening of the Queen’s once radiant complexion, her double chin or the puffiness of eyes that sparkled not with happiness but with tears. Overall though the portrait is a triumph that cleverly draws inspiration from paintings of the holy family to create something both stately and touching.  For many though this portrait evokes feelings of sadness, representative as it is of a way of life and a family that was rapidly approaching destruction.

The portrait of the Queen and her children, for which Madame Vigée-Lebrun was paid an enormous 18,000 francs, was due to be displayed at that year’s Salon in Paris. However, it arrived late and when the empty frame was displayed for a few days before its arrival, someone pinned a placard saying ‘Behold the Deficit!’ inside. However, the painting itself was to be a great success, much to the relief of its artist who, well aware of the unpopularity of its chief sitter, had stayed away from the Salon for fear of hearing it insulted. When the exhibition ended it was transferred to Versailles and placed where Marie Antoinette could see it every day as she passed by on her way to morning Mass, while the King informed the extremely gratified Madame Vigée-Lebrun that ‘I know nothing about painting, but you make me like it.’

Meanwhile, the political situation was worsening by the day as Loménie de Brienne, well meaning but completely lacking the brilliance of the likes of Calonne and Necker, battled to save them from financial ruin, was aghast at the ever increasing deficit and struggled to make the King, now completely sunk into apathy, assert himself against his opponents. Louis, never the most prepossessing of figures at the best of times, was cruelly lampooned everywhere and mocked for his corpulence, laziness and lack of vigour, which of course included sexual ability as well as political acumen. The worst insults, however, were as always reserved for Marie Antoinette, the foreign Queen who was now compared to Catherine de’ Medici, Isabeau of Bavaria and Messalina, all women who were deemed to have brought disgrace upon their sex by behaving in an ‘un-womanly’ way. Then as now, women who refused to remain meekly silent and were seen to step out of line and meddle in affairs that were considered best left to their menfolk, were derided as being somehow unnatural and immoral - their ‘vices’, of course, being traits that their powerful male counterparts were usually congratulated for. That Marie Antoinette was actually nowhere near as politically savvy, intelligent or ruthless as the likes of Catherine de’ Medici is perhaps her tragedy but this fact didn’t spare her from having a placard saying ‘Tremble, tyrants’ placed inside her box at the theatre.

In August 1787, Louis made a rare visit to the lit de justice at the parliament, in order to give his support to Loménie de Brienne’s extremely unpopular financial reforms. However, when he tried to push the edicts through he was loudly opposed by his cousin the Duc d’Orléans who had set himself up as a liberal opponent of the royal party and a mouthpiece for the disaffected nobility. Furious, Louis stalked out of the hall then had the recalcitrant Duc exiled to his château at Villers-Cotterets, far away from his rabble rousing circle at the Palais Royal which had become the source of some disturbingly anti-monarchist sentiments, inflamed by Orléans himself who now came out as Marie Antoinette’s greatest and most implacable enemy although social politesse still continued between the two politically estranged sides of the royal family with Marie Antoinette and Louis acting as very generous god parents to the Duc’s eldest sons at their official baptism in May 1788.

Added to these public troubles, there were private ones too as the Dauphin’s health became increasingly worse and his despairing parents were forced to confront the fact that their sweet natured and handsome little boy was unlikely to live for much longer. In March 1788 he was sent to live at Meudon, a charming château with a famously beautiful view that had in the past been the traditional residence of the Dauphins of France. Here he resided in great comfort with the Duchesse de Polignac and his tutor the Duc d’Harcourt in attendance. His parents visited as often as they could, although his mother was extremely distressed by his appearance which was emaciated and twisted by tuberculosis. However, the air at Meudon was said to be extraordinarily good and so she was still hopeful that he would make a miraculous recovery.

Unable to face the court let alone the general populace, Marie Antoinette moved to the Petit Trianon in July but it was a sad shadow of former summers spent there as she held no balls or any sort of galas and instead played games of bowls, read sentimental novels and plucked out melancholy tunes on her harp. She kept her two other children Madame Royale and the Duc de Normandie close by her and even entertained the aunts to a splendid supper, where they were served roast suckling pig, capon in breadcrumbs and German waffles amongst other treats. The King sought distraction from his cares by spending most of his time hunting at Rambouillet but came to Trianon every day to dine quietly with his wife and children when they weren’t at Meudon keeping the Dauphin company. The state apartments of Versailles lay silent and empty, deserted by everyone.

Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette’s hopes for the nation were not quite so sanguine as those she harboured for her son. The political and financial crisis proved unstoppable and steadily worsened throughout 1788 as Loménie de Brienne and his efforts to resolve matters became increasingly discredited and the King increasingly powerless to do anything to stop the tide rising against him. Finally, on 8 August Louis took the step of announcing a meeting of the Estates General hoping that this would calm his critics and show that he was ready, willing and able to deal with the mounting crisis. The Estates General was a coming together of the three notional estates of France - the nobility, clergy and commons (known as the ‘third estate’) where voted for representatives met to discuss the issues of the day. However, although it sounds much like a contemporary parliament there had been no meeting of the Estates General for a hundred and seventy five years so this was a bold and significant move on the part of Louis and his council.

There was a small respite from all the strife when the three ambassadors of Tippoo Sahib, King of Mysore arrived at Versailles on 12 August and took up residence at the Grand Trianon where the air was soon filled with the scent of spices from their meals. Their formal reception took place at the main palace when they were received by the royal family and rest of the court in the magnificent Hercules Room where the King, looking suitably majestic, was waiting for them on his throne, Marie Antoinette at his side on an armchair. Their daughter the nine year old Madame Royale, who had just recovered from an alarming fever, was sitting amongst the most important ladies on a brocade covered dais to the side.

Everyone was fascinated by these exotic visitors to the court and the grand reception rooms of the palace were crammed full of courtiers, all dressed in their very finest clothes and eager to catch a glimpse of the three ambassadors and their entourage as they made their way through Versailles. After the formalities had been dispensed with they were taken on a barouche ride around the park and treated to a display by the beautiful fountains before returning to the lofty marble colonnades of the Grand Trianon. Marie Antoinette, always keen to be distracted by novelties, was delighted by them but rather less keen on their curries, although she still gamely managed to try one before deciding that spicy food was not for her.

However, although apparently it was business as usual at Versailles, behind the scenes the crisis had reached a head and the nation was finally bankrupted while the royal shares plummeted at the Stock Exchange. The desperate Loménie de Brienne announced that the much anticipated Estates General meeting would take place the following May, hoping that this would cause an upswing in confidence and share prices but it was too little, too late. On 16 August, a few days after the glorious reception of the Mysore ambassadors, word spread that he was considering compulsory taxation in order to give the economy a much needed boost. This unpopular measure turned out to be his downfall and after a last ditch attempt to secure the support of Necker, who disdainfully repudiated him, he was forced to hand Marie Antoinette his resignation just over a week later. She summoned Necker, still commonly believed to be the only hope of turning the situation around, to see her early the next morning and asked him to accept the position of Director General of Finance as well as a position on the Council of State. ‘As I am responsible for bringing back Necker and my fate is to bring bad luck, I feel that, should some infernal combinations be once more at work to make him fail, then the King’s authority will suffer and I will be even more detested than before,’ the dejected Queen later told Mercy, sadly accepting that as far as the French people were concerned, nothing she ever did would ever be right and she would be damned by them whatever she did. She may never have actually said the words ‘Let them eat cake’ but as far as the French were concerned, she might as well have done.

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