Biographies & Memoirs

The Austrian Woman


The abyss opening at their feet.

The winter of 1788 was one of the harshest that anyone could remember and as it followed on from the drought and terrible hailstorm of that summer which had decimated much of the country’s crops, the poor of France were brought to their knees, crippled by rising bread prices. Meanwhile at Versailles, Louis and Marie Antoinette prepared themselves for the worst as the Dauphin’s condition deteriorated by the day. The Queen now spent much of her time at Meudon, watching over her child’s sick bed and making stilted small talk with his governess, Madame de Polignac.

The two women, once so close that rumours had spread that they were lovers, were now barely on speaking terms. Having finally woken up to the harm that the grasping, gossiping Polignac set was doing to her reputation Marie Antoinette had taken a step back and disassociated herself from them and their antics. She also found herself at odds with the Duchesse over the disgrace of Calonne, who was very much a creature of the Polignacs, and the financial cut backs which had resulted in the loss of some pecuniary favours to Madame de Polignac’s relatives including her husband and her lover the Comte de Vaudreuil.

The Dauphin, suffering from the final stages of his illness but still as sweet natured as ever, was quick to pick up on the silent hostility between the two women and now declared that he didn’t like the Duchesse’s heady floral scent as it gave him headaches and asked for her to be banned from his bedside, which meant that his mother was alone as she sat beside him during the long cold early months of 1789. The little boy tried to cheer her up by ordering that she be served all of her most favourite meals when she stayed to dine with him but still the silent tears trickled down her cheeks as she looked at her sick child and wondered what the future held.

There had been a great deal of argument about where the much anticipated meeting of the Estates General, the first for 175 years, should take place before the King, who hoped to get plenty of hunting in between the various debates that he would be forced to attend, got his way and the meeting was scheduled to open at Versailles on 4 May 1789. Wracked with worries about her son’s health, Marie Antoinette could hardly bear to contemplate what was bound to be a miserable experience and so when she wasn’t at Meudon, spent all of her time shut up alone in her private rooms at Versailles where she whiled away the long hours worrying about the Dauphin’s health, the forthcoming meeting of the three estates and the reports of serious unrest on the streets of Paris, where the Réveillon wallpaper factory had been involved in an immense riot in which three hundred people were killed before the royal troops could impose order.

‘Come, dress my hair, Léonard, I must go like an actress and exhibit myself to people who may hiss me,’ Marie Antoinette said to her hairdresser on the morning of 4 May as she readied herself for the procession through the streets of the town of Versailles that was due to start the meeting of the Estates General. Although her words sound flippant, it was clear that her mood was very far from light hearted as dressed in glittering cloth of silver and with the Sancy diamond in her hair, she walked at the side of the King (who also looked splendid in cloth of gold, with the Regent diamond pinned to his plumed hat) at the head of the enormous procession that made its way past huge crowds from the Church of Notre-Dame in Versailles to the Church of Saint Louis, where a celebratory Mass would be heard. Behind the royal couple there was the rest of the royal family and their attendants, followed by the deputies of the Estates General, with the clergy in their religious dress, the nobility in black silk and white breeches, flourishing plumed hats and with their swords jangling at their hips and the Third Estate in plain black.

To Marie Antoinette’s great annoyance, Louis’ mutinous cousin the Duc d’Orléans was a deputy for the nobility but in typical showman style had opted to walk with the Third Estate instead, towering over the other deputies and making sure that all of the loudest cheers were for him while Louis received only a few muted shouts of approval and the Queen, who stared straight ahead in haughty silence, got nothing at all. It must have been an alarming experience, to find herself on foot and surrounded by hostile crowds but as the true horror of the revolutionary mob had not yet been exposed, it’s unlikely that Marie Antoinette felt particularly frightened for her life as she walked by, her face completely impassive until she drew level with the royal stables where the little Dauphin, who had been brought from Meudon for the occasion, was lying on a sofa on one of the balconies. Both the King and Queen looked up and smiled at their son as they went past but it was noticed that they had tears in their eyes as they did so.

The meeting officially began a day later when the royal family, court and over a thousand deputies crammed into the huge Salon of the Menus Plaisirs at Versailles to hear the opening speeches, one of which was to be delivered by Necker, who was still being hailed as the man of the moment and the potential saviour of France. Marie Antoinette, this time wearing purple satin spangled with diamonds and with a towering white ostrich feather and delicate aigrette of diamonds in her powdered but sadly thinning hair, sat on an armchair placed slightly below her husband (who fell asleep and audibly snored during Necker’s admittedly extremely long winded speech) and fanned herself with a diamond studded fan as she bleakly surveyed the rows of faces in front of her, who all stared back curiously at the Queen of whom they had heard so much and seen so little in recent years.

Versailles was expected to play host to the deputies for quite a few months and with typical generosity Marie Antoinette insisted that the gardens of Versailles and her own Trianon should be open to the delegates, who were then able to assuage their natural curiosity about the extravagance that they had heard so much about. It had been reported that the Trianon was incredibly opulent with columns inlaid with huge diamonds and cloth of gold hanging at all the windows and all manner of shocking self indulgent luxuries but the deputies, seeing instead a charming little pavilion decorated with elegant simplicity, were disappointed to find that this was not at all the case. What else, they might have wondered, had been exaggerated about the Queen and her reportedly depraved lifestyle, which allegedly involved orgies with both sexes.

However, Marie Antoinette’s thoughts were not with the deputies but with her son the seven year old Dauphin who was quietly dying at Meudon. Both of the boy’s parents spent many long hours at his bedside, doing their best to remain cheerful and trying to distract the ailing child from his sufferings. Like his father he was extremely fond of history so the King read to him from his favourite history books, while the Queen did her best to hide her tears before collapsing and sobbing her heart out on her husband when they had left the room. It was said that the little boy was so good natured that he even endured the ministrations of a particularly clumsy valet rather than have the man sent away and one wonders what sort of King he would have made if he had survived. Possibly he was too gentle for the fledgling France that was emerging even as he lay on his deathbed.

The Dauphin died in the arms of his mother in the early hours of 4 June. Both Louis and Marie Antoinette were devastated by their son’s death and spent the next day in total seclusion at Versailles while the embalmed body of the dead prince lay in state at Meudon. On 7 June, the entire court turned out to offer their condolences to Marie Antoinette who was going out of her mind with grief and exhaustion as the result of severe insomnia, while the deputies of the Third Estate gave offence by asking if the King would receive them in the palace to discuss business pertaining to the Estates General. ‘Are there no fathers amongst them?’ the distraught King asked. Both of the royal couple were stung by the general lack of interest in their son’s passing. It seemed inconceivable to them that they had lost the love of their people to such an extent that the death of the Dauphin, whose birth had occasioned such extraordinary joy amongst the populace, gave rise to little more than a polite apathy.

Marie Antoinette’s eldest son was laid to rest beside that of his sister Sophie at the royal necropolis at Saint-Denis on 12 June. It was normally decreed that the funeral of a Dauphin, with all the fuss and ceremony that court etiquette demanded, should cost in the region of 350,000 livres but the royal coffers were completely empty and so a rather more modest funeral took place funded by some cash that Louis had managed to get together by cutting corners elsewhere. According to custom, the King and Queen did not attend their son’s funeral but instead spent the day in prayer at Versailles before going to Marly with their most trusted attendants for what they hoped would be a week of solitude and mourning away from the pressures of the court.

However, their troubles only pursued them from Versailles when on 17 June, after weeks of squabbling between the orders, the Third Estate, who saw themselves as the saviours of France, declared themselves a National Assembly, invited the other orders to join them and announced that they, not the King, would be responsible for drafting a new constitution for the nation. Louis and Marie Antoinette were appalled by what they saw, quite rightly as it happened, as a direct attack on the authority of the monarch. Necker tried in vain to persuade them to seek terms with the fledgling Assembly, which he reminded them was intended to be the mouthpiece of the nation, and even proposed that they modify the current constitution so that it was along the same lines as that in England. However, Marie Antoinette, backed by her two brothers-in-law and most of the aristocracy, urged the King to hold firm and repudiate their insolence, even appearing before him with her remaining two children and falling, weeping prettily, to her knees in order to beg him not to give in to the demands of the Third Estate.

Indecisive as always, Louis wavered between the two sides. On one hand, he had no wish to annoy the Queen, whom he feared as much as he loved, but on the other he was terrified of causing offence to Necker and the dour faced men of the Third Estate, whom he knew had ever increasing support throughout the country. Once again he bemoaned the absence of the dead Vergennes, who would have known just what to do and in the end agreed to give a speech, prepared by Necker, to the deputies of all three orders on 23 June. Although Louis promised to introduce reforms and overhaul the current taxation system, Necker was furious to hear the King whom he had counselled to be conciliatory towards the members of the Third Estate, alter the wording of his carefully prepared speech and go on to denounce the merging of the three orders as a National Assembly as illegal and against the constitution of France. Clearly Louis had hoped to please everyone with his speech but while Marie Antoinette was relieved to see him stand firm against the Third Estate, Necker was furious and immediately handed in his resignation.

Angry crowds gathered at the palace when news of Necker’s resignation began to spread and Marie Antoinette was forced to go to him and personally beg him to reconsider, even though she had every intention of foiling his attempts to get Louis to accept the National Assembly. In the event, it took just four days for Necker to have his way and Louis to agree that the estates could meet and vote together, by which time most of the clergy and a large chunk of the nobility, including the Duc d’Orléans and the extremely popular Marquis de Lafayette, had already joined with the Third Estate. The news was greeted with acclamation in Paris, but although people were celebrating on the streets about ‘their’ victory over the old régime, the uneasy atmosphere simmered on and there were increased bouts of violence and rioting amidst the celebrations.

At Versailles, Marie Antoinette appeared with her son in her arms on the balcony above the marble courtyard to receive the cheers of the huge crowd that had gathered there when news of the National Assembly’s triumph broke. However, although she was all smiles for the populace, inside she raged against Necker and the King, whose weakness, she believed, looked set to leave them entirely at the mercy of the Third Estate. She urged the King to use his troops to make a show of power and at the same time control the unrest in the capital but as might be expected, the sudden arrival of several thousand soldiers around Paris just made matters much worse as the populace, whipped into terror by the speeches of the rabble rousers of the Palais Royal, believed that the King, hitherto regarded as the apathetic but ultimately benevolent tool of his wicked wife, was planning to massacre them all.

The National Assembly demanded that the troops be withdrawn only to be informed that they were there to control unrest not cause trouble. Urged on by talk of an ‘aristocratic plot’ masterminded by the Queen and designed to overthrow the Assembly, the deputies, fearing for their lives, proclaimed themselves to be a Constituent Assembly with the power to make their own laws. Urged by Marie Antoinette, Louis reacted by dismissing Necker and most of his ministers on 11 July, replacing them with conservative nobles who could be relied on to follow the King’s line.

The news of Necker’s dismissal was greeted with disbelief and then fury in Paris, where the Queen and her cronies were blamed for the former minister’s disgrace. There were riots in the capital’s streets, which were exacerbated when a regiment led by the Prince de Lambesc, a distant cousin of the Queen, charged into a crowd at the Tuileries in an attempt to disperse protestors who had been pelting them with stones, giving rise to more fears that the King was planning the massacre of his own people. On 12 July, a young lawyer called Camille Desmoulins clambered on to a table outside the Café du Foy at the Palais Royal to give a rabble rousing speech that likened the current situation to the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572 and ended by entreating the already panic stricken populace to arm themselves and don cockades so that they would know each other in the violence that was sure to ensue. Whipped into a frenzy by this the people first adopted a green cockade, green being the colour of liberty, but then when word spread that green was the colour of the Comte d’Artois’ livery, red and blue, the traditional colours of the city of Paris were worn instead.

Two days later a huge crowd seized control of the Hôtel des Invalides, where the royal weaponry was stored, and took several thousand guns and a number of cannons which they used to arm themselves against the royal troops. They had no ammunition though and believing that this could be found at the royal fortress of the Bastille, which had been a symbol of royal oppression for over a century thanks to the practice of sending prisoners there by order of a royal lettre de cachet which involved no trial and could not be appealed against, they duly marched in their thousands across town to the Faubourg St Antoine where the dark fortress towered over the neighbouring streets. Although more strongly defended than the Invalides, the Bastille fell in a matter of hours and its governor the Marquis de Launay was taken prisoner and crudely decapitated with a flick knife before his head was paraded in grisly triumph through the streets.

At Versailles, the royal family remained in blissful ignorance of events in Paris until nightfall when the Duc de Liancourt woke Louis up at dawn to inform him that the Parisians had rioted and seized control of the Bastille, releasing the seven political prisoners held there. ‘Is it a revolt?’ Louis asked wearily. ‘No, sire,’ Liancourt replied. ‘It is a revolution.’

The next morning, Louis paid a visit to the deputies in the Menus Plaisirs, interrupting a rather offensive speech about his wife and Madame de Polignac fraternising with the troops that had recently been stationed at Versailles. For once he had not relied on one of his ministers to prepare his speech but instead improvised his own, in which he informed the deputies that it was never his intention to attack the people of Paris but rather to protect them and that the royal troops stationed there would be immediately ordered to withdraw. In return, the deputies demanded that Necker be reinstated to his former position as this would do much to calm the agitated populace, which the clearly beleaguered King reluctantly agreed to do. Louis was then escorted back to the palace by a great crowd of cheering deputies, relieved that the crisis looked set to end.

However, back at the palace all was in turmoil as Marie Antoinette ordered her trunks to be packed with clothes and her jewels and discussions took place about where the royal family and their associates should flee to. Word had got back to Versailles that the leaders of the mob that had overwhelmed the Bastille and then murdered its governor, had threatened to kill the Queen, Comte d’Artois and Madame de Polignac as well and so it was decided that the latter two at least should leave France with their families until the situation had calmed down. However, there was still some doubt about what Louis, Marie Antoinette and their own family should do. Louis, hesitant as always, called a meeting of his council and family and suggested that they should withdraw either to Compiègne or to Metz, the fortified town close to the Austrian border where Marie Antoinette had spent her first night on French soil nineteen years earlier. The Queen was in total agreement with the Metz plan, which had the additional bonus of meaning that she would be close to her own country of Austria as well as far away from the dangers of Paris.

However, some members of the council as well as the Comte de Provence argued that the King and his family should remain at Versailles and that it would be ill advised for the royal family to be seen deserting the palace at such a time. They also thought that Metz’s proximity to Austria, the very thing that recommended it to Marie Antoinette, would give rise to even more panic if the Parisian rabble rousers got it into their heads that the forces of the Emperor would soon be massing against them in defence of the foreign Queen while the royal family nipped across the border and abandoned the country altogether. There was also the fact that unlike his wife, Louis had not yet been directly threatened by the Parisian mobs and so his safety was not felt to be at immediate risk. Marie Antoinette, however, was a different matter but when it was suggested that she should take the royal children and leave for a place of greater safety, she haughtily refused and reminded everyone present that as both his Queen and his wife it was her duty to remain at Louis’ side during this time of crisis even he himself was urging her to leave.

However, everyone was in agreement that the Comte d’Artois and Madame de Polignac, both of whom were almost as unpopular as Marie Antoinette and held equally to blame for the financial ruin that threatened the stability of the nation, should leave France as soon as possible along with the Abbé de Vermond and some of the conservative members of the court such as the Prince de Condé. The Comte d’Artois, who remained sanguine that this was just a temporary hiccup and everything would be restored back to its normal state before long, was keen to leave but Madame de Polignac proved harder to persuade and initially refused to go, claiming that her place was beside the Queen and with her charges, the royal children. In the end, Marie Antoinette and Louis, both of them in tears, had to persuade her to leave, with the Queen telling her that: ‘I am terrified of everything; in the name of our friendship go, now is the time for you to escape from the fury of my enemies. Don’t be a victim of your attachment to me, and my friendship for you.’

The Artois and Polignac families, as well as several others of the Queen’s formerly close little cotérie of friends left Versailles at midnight on 16 July. The emotionally shattered Queen, unable to believe the surreal situation that they had found themselves in, could not bring herself to say goodbye in person to her dearest friend (who was disguised as a maid for her escape) but instead sent a purse containing five hundred louis, the last of the royal gifts that had brought ruin to them both, and a tear stained note that said only: ‘Adieu, the most tender of friends. The word is terrible to pronounce but it must be said. Here is the order for the horses. I have no more strength left except to embrace you.’ Although Marie Antoinette had been somewhat estranged in recent years from both Madame de Polignac and her brother-in-law Artois, who had once been the most sympathetic member of her French family, all of this was forgotten in the horrors of the present situation and the terrible sorrow of hearing their carriages rumble out of the palace courtyard at the start of their long journey. It was the end of an era.

The next morning, Louis went off to Paris to show himself to his disordered populace and try his best to restore calm to the situation. Marie Antoinette offered to go with him but, aware of her unpopularity, Louis sadly refused to allow this and instead insisted upon going alone, having taken the precaution of writing his will and receiving what he hoped would not be his final communion before departure. Left behind at Versailles, Marie Antoinette spent the day alone in her apartments with her children, trying her best to distract them while at the same time attempting to hide her apprehension. She had already decided to throw herself on the mercy of the National Assembly should Louis fail to return from Paris and as the day wore on she confided tearfully in the faithful Madame Campan that she believed that he would not be coming back, her faith in the basic humanity of the Parisian mob having been shattered by the hideous and vicious death of the Marquis de Launay.

At six, word came that the King was returning from Paris and several hours later, Louis himself arrived back at Versailles - exhausted, bedraggled but otherwise unharmed and with a tricolour cockade, the new symbol of the French nation, attached to his hat. His wife and children ran down the stairs to greet him and Marie Antoinette, overcome with relief, threw herself into her husband’s arms and hugged him as he murmured: ‘Thank God there was no more violence.’

The departure of the Polignacs was just the first in what was to be a steady exodus over the next few months as several aristocratic families, fearing the violence and, like the Comte d’Artois, believing that they would soon be able to return to France, fled Versailles and travelled abroad. The once bustling palace now fell ominously quiet as the cramped apartments, once so prized and hotly sought after, began to empty while their noble inhabitants scurried away like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Marie Antoinette, desperately lonely and fearful of what the future would bring for her family, did her best to keep up appearances but it was obvious to everyone that she was on the verge of a breakdown. The news coming in from the rest of France of rioting in the provincial cities and destruction of dozens of châteaux did nothing to allay her fears but rather underlined that this revolution, apparently no longer contained just to Paris, was not a problem that would easily go away.

The beleaguered Queen spent the rest of July isolated in her apartments, seeing hardly anyone other than her family, Count Mercy, who came to deliver bulletins about the latest events in Paris elsewhere and Axel von Fersen, who had discreetly rented rooms in Versailles and spent as much time with her as he dared to. She spent much of her time writing frantic letters to her sisters and brothers and Madame de Polignac, who had settled in Switzerland with her family. Absence did much to make the heart grow fonder in the case of these two friends and the Queen now poured all of her anxieties and fears out on to the paper, expressing thoughts that she barely dared to speak out loud in this newly silent and sinister Versailles. ‘We are surrounded only by distress, misfortune and unhappy people. Everyone is fleeing and at this point I take comfort in thinking that all the people whom I care most about are far away from me. Also I see no one and I spend the whole day alone in my quarters. My children are my sole resource.’ For Marie Antoinette, always so desperate for approval and admiration, the thought that she brought only misfortune to those whom she cared about was a deeply distressing one and the Queen became increasingly withdrawn as the year progressed, while all the while the lampoons and pamphlets denouncing her depravity and cruelty continued to multiply and become ever more vicious.

Outwardly, it seemed as though things had not really changed at Versailles, where the remaining ladies and gentlemen still attended the King and Queen’s levée and courtiers could still watch as they ate their dinner or played cards in public. But the signs of strain were visible everywhere. It was whispered that the King, like his sister-in-law, the Comtesse de Provence, had taken to drink to ease his worries while the Queen was frequently seen to blink away tears or fiddle nervously with her bracelets and rings, which she compulsively twirled around her thin fingers. She seemed utterly bewildered by the new state of affairs and fatally unable to grasp that times had changed and she needed to change with them if she was to survive. On the King’s name day in August the state representatives came to Versailles to pay their respects to their monarchs who looked as glittering and remote as ever on their thrones. The new Mayor of Paris, the astronomer Bailly decided to bow to the Queen rather than fall to his knees in abject reverence as etiquette usually decreed and was rewarded with a look of frigid hauteur and an unfriendly nod that broadcast her annoyance at this impudence to everyone present.

It was at this time that an English visitor, Dr Edward Rigby, who was visiting Versailles wrote home that he could not ‘behold the face of Marie Antoinette, and not see symptoms of no common anxiety marked on it. The dignity of countenance which, according to various descriptions, formed at an earlier period of her life a most interesting addition to those claims of natural beauty so profusely bestowed on her, might be said, indeed, to remain, but it had assumed more of the character of severity. The forehead was corrugated, the eyebrows thrown forward, and the eyes but little open, and, turning with seeming caution from side to side, discovered, instead of gaiety or even serenity an expression of suspicion and care which necessarily abated much of that beauty for which she had once with truth been celebrated.’

The one bright ray of hope at this time was the appointment of the Madame de Tourzel as Governess to the Royal Children, replacing Yolande de Polignac who could obviously no longer continue in this role. Sensible, kind hearted, pragmatic and extremely loyal, Louise-Élisabeth de Tourzel was the perfect choice for such an important role in the royal household and gave the Dauphin and Madame Royale some much needed stability at this difficult time. Marie Antoinette wrote her some lengthy instructions when she took up the post, describing her children’s characters and advising Tourzel about the best way to deal with them, naturally with a particular emphasis on the Dauphin who was, after all, the heir to the throne. ‘My children have always been accustomed to have complete trust in me and when they do something wrong, to tell me so themselves. Which means that when I scold them, I look more hurt and sad about what they did than angry. I have accustomed them to the idea that a yes or no from me is irrevocable; but I always give them a reason befitting their age, so that they do not think it is moodiness on my part. My son does not know how to read and has difficulty learning; but he is too distracted to concentrate. He has no idea of rank in his head and I would like that to continue: our children always find out soon enough who they are. He is very fond of his sister and has a good heart. Every time something makes him happy, a trip somewhere or a gift, his first impulse is to request the same thing for his sister. He was born cheerful; for his health he needs to be outside a great deal, and I think it is best to let him play and work on the terraces rather than have him go any farther.

Life at Versailles may have carried on much as it had always done with the inhabitants doing their best to ignore what was happening outside their privileged bubble but events were moving quickly elsewhere. At the end of September, the wife of a labourer who had been assisted by Madame Élisabeth requested a private interview and told her that the people of Paris suspected the King of plotting to escape with his family to Metz and were planning to prevent this. Alarmed, Élisabeth immediately went to tell Marie Antoinette who naturally began to worry about what measures the people might possibly be planning to take. Her thoughts took a more hopeful turn a few weeks later though when the loyal Flanders Regiment arrived at Versailles to act as reinforcements in case there was indeed an incident at the palace. Their arrival at the start of October did much to lighten the mood at court and encouraged the Queen to make the imprudent gesture of taking her family along to visit the banquet being held in the regiment’s honour in the palace theatre, on the very same stage where her own wedding banquet had been held over nineteen years earlier.

The cheers and shouts of ‘Long live the Queen!’ that greeted her as, dressed in white and blue silk with a beautiful turquoise necklace around her neck, she stepped into the royal balcony went straight to Marie Antoinette’s head and smiling radiantly she led her family down to the stage to meet the dashing and no doubt rather drunk officers who now cheered all the more loudly. She carried the Dauphin, who looked most winsome in his sailor suit, in her arms and encouraged by the men, she allowed the boy to walk from one end of the dining table to the other, surrounded on all sides by smiling happy faces as his doting mother, who had not been so acclaimed for a very long time, stood to the side and proudly watched with tears of joy in her eyes.

However, as always, this innocent diversion that had given Versailles’ sadly deflated morale such an immense boost, was completely twisted by the Parisian gutter press who described it as an appalling orgy of drunken sedition. They claimed that the Queen and her ladies had distributed white cockades designed to show support of the Bourbons to replace the tricolour cockades that the soldiers had torn from their hats and trampled on the ground in a fit of royalist fervour. They also claimed that the Queen had deliberately intoxicated the soldiers before ordering them to march on the National Assembly and close it down and once they had accomplished this, who was going to stop them marching on the capital as well?

This hysterical reporting of the Versailles banquet unfortunately coincided with a total lack of bread in Paris, where the bakers shops were ominously closed and not a single loaf was to be had in the entire city. Enraged, the market women stormed the Hôtel de Ville on the morning of 4 Octoberand finding no satisfaction there, armed themselves and, no doubt inflamed by the speeches of the Duc d’Orléans’ paid rabble rousers who had probably engineered the whole sorry situation, announced their intention of marching on Versailles to demand that the King, who was still regarded as being intrinsically benevolent, provide them with flour. However, amidst the shouts demanding bread for their starving families, there were more sinister cries threatening violence towards the Queen, who had for a long time been the focus of all their most bitter hatred and resentment.

It was a beautiful day and, completely unaware of the turmoil in Paris, Marie Antoinette decided to spend it at the Petit Trianon, which was still her most favourite refuge. Axel von Fersen was back in the vicinity again and it’s likely that he spent at least some of the morning there with her before returning to the palace. Certainly she was alone in her grotto, enjoying the tranquility of a perfect autumn day, when one of her pages raced across the lawn to tell her that an immense mob of women was marching on foot towards Versailles. Alarmed, the Queen scrambled up into the waiting carriage and, perhaps with one last wistful look at the pleasure pavilion where she had spent so many happy hours over the years, hurried back to Versailles where she was reunited with her children and awaited the arrival of the King, who was hunting at Meudon when the news reached him. She was also joined by her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth who had been at Montreuil but immediately hurried over to Versailles to support her brother and his family.

As the army of women marched inexorably on the palace, the King, Queen and their ministers met to discuss the best response to this new and sudden threat. Saint-Priest the Minister of the Royal Household suggested that troops be sent to guard various points along the route in order to either slow the march down or prevent it from passing, while at the same time the Queen and royal children should be taken to Rambouillet where there was a garrison of royal troops to protect them. The King could then lead the rest of the troops out to meet the mob and either pacify them with promises of assistance or, if they should prove intractable, use force to disperse them. Several of the ministers thoroughly approved of this plan which, it must be said, showed just the right sort of decisiveness and vigour that had hitherto been sadly missing from the royal response to current affairs. However, there was opposition from Necker and also, much more surprisingly, the Queen, who declared that she had no wish to desert her husband, whom she guessed could not be counted upon to act with the necessary firmness, in his hour of need. ’I know that they have come from Paris to demand my head,’ she said. ‘But I learned from my mother not to fear death and I will wait beside my husband for whatever comes.’

Once again an opportunity to escape passed the royal family by thanks to Louis’ indecisiveness and Marie Antoinette’s determination to do her duty and remain at her husband’s side. Although it was not entirely unheard of for royal families to flee their palaces and live as exiles, it had not happened in France for quite some time (the last time was when the young Louis XIV had been forced to leave Paris in 1648 in the wake of the Fronde uprising) and seemed very much like a last resort option to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were both of the opinion that leaving Versailles would be a weak gesture that left the nation prey to further anarchy.

The beautiful sunshine had given way to torrential rain by the time the first straggling groups of women arrived at Versailles at around four in the afternoon with still more arriving over the next few hours until the courtyard before the palace was a great seething mass of people by early evening. The more observant courtiers noticed that several of the new arrivals were either extraordinarily muscular and mannish in appearance or were actually men disguised as women, which further increased suspicions that the whole thing had been carefully orchestrated by the Duc d’Orléans and his cronies, who would have known that Louis would never allow his troops to fire on women, no matter how much they were provoked.

A delegation of women bearing a petition was received by the King who listened to their lists of grievances and gave his assurances that they would be given all possible assistance. His kindly demeanour reduced all of them to tears and one of them even reportedly fainted before they all departed, chanting ‘Long live the King’, back to their comrades in the courtyard, who were deeply unimpressed by this show of loyalty and had by now apparently conceived a plan to take the King and his family back to Paris with them. When this news arrived in the King’s council chamber, Saint-Priest ordered that the gates of Versailles, stiff and rusty from lack of use, should be closed and again urged both the King and Queen to leave for Rambouillet with their children. This time, terrified of the bedraggled mob that she had glimpsed from the palace windows, Marie Antoinette immediately assented and ordered for their luggage to be packed and the carriages prepared. However, as soon as the carriages were brought from the royal stables across the way from the palace, the angry mob, guessing that the royal family were planning to leave, surrounded them and cut the traces so that they could not move. The royal family were now trapped in the palace.

The mood was desperately tense as the King and Queen, determined as always to behave as normal, sat down for supper in the presence of their attendants. Louis, ravenous as always, ate heartily but Marie Antoinette could barely manage a single bite of food as she sat dazed and shocked at the table. The courtiers gathered at the windows overlooking the main courtyard and peered through the gathering darkness at the dozens of campfires that had been lit in front of the palace. While the King remained with his ministers, Marie Antoinette stayed in her apartments with her sisters-in-law Madame Élisabeth and the Comtesse de Provence, all three of them not knowing quite what to do with themselves as they waited for news. At midnight, General Lafayette, a war hero, liberal aristocrat (his wife was the niece of Madame de Noailles) and toasted darling of all Paris, arrived with thirty thousand men to boost the defence of Versailles and offer his support to the King, telling him that ‘If my blood must flow, let it be in the service of my King.’ Reassured, Louis immediately sent a note to his wife, telling her not to worry and to go to bed for all was well.

Believing that Lafayette had managed to restore calm, Marie Antoinette sent away the noblemen who had offered to protect her and told her ladies Madame Thibault and Madame Auguié, the sister of Madame Campan who was known as the Queen’s ‘tigress’ thanks to her great height and fierce loyalty to her mistress, to go to bed and get some much needed sleep. However, clearly not at all reassured by Lafayette’s show of bravado, the two ladies decided instead to barricade the doors and spend the night keeping watch over their mistress.

In the early hours of the morning, a large group of no doubt inebriated and thoroughly fed up women prowling around the palace had discovered that one of the small side gates had not been locked overnight. In no time at all, the mob had been roused to action again and had teemed through the gate and into the courtyard before racing up to the palace itself, shouting curses and threats at the Queen, who was fast asleep in her apartments. The invaders overwhelmed the guards, decapitating at least one of them, before they rushed into the palace and up the marble staircase that led straight to Marie Antoinette’s apartments where they slaughtered another guardsman, brutally beheading him with an axe before starting to hack their way through the locked door.

Hearing the terrible shouts and screams and the ominous sound of several dozen pairs of feet, clad in the wooden clogs commonly worn by the lower classes, rushing up the marble staircase, Madame Auguié ran to the guard room to investigate only to be confronted by the sight of a young guardsman, covered in blood and leaning against the outer door that led to the staircase with all his might to keep the invaders out. ‘Save the Queen!’ he shouted over his shoulder to the appalled Madame Auguié. ‘They have come to murder her!’

Terrified, Auguié and her companion Madame Thibault immediately barred the door and ran to alert their mistress, who was already awake, having been disturbed a noise on the terrace below her windows. Hastily pulling a petticoat and yellow redingote jacket on over her nightgown and still holding her stockings in her hand, Marie Antoinette pushed open the concealed door beside her bed and ran down the secret corridor that led to the Oeil de Boeuf chamber which acted as an antechamber of the King’s apartments. However, the door turned out to be locked against her and, with the terrible shouts of the mob as they broke into her bedchamber behind her, she had to hammer frantically against the door, screaming for help  until one of her husband’s valets came to open it with the terrifying news that her husband had gone to her apartments to look for her.

Luckily for Louis, who had taken yet another one of the secret passages that lay behind the splendid walls of the royal apartments, the mob had already been thrown out of Marie Antoinette’s now completely trashed and destroyed bedchamber by the time he arrived and reassured that she had come to no harm from the guards now posted there, returned to his rooms where he was reunited with his wife, with their children appearing soon after in the care of Madame de Tourzel who had been given strict instructions to take them both straight to the King if anything untoward happened. Everyone worried now about Madame Élisabeth and the Provences, whose apartments lay in a different wing of the palace but there was nothing that could be done to help them now that the awful shouts and screams of the invading mob could be heard in the Oeil de Boeuf chamber, where they were trying to force the doors open to get to the Queen.

However, just as Louis and Marie Antoinette must have been bracing themselves for disaster and almost certain death, Lafayette arrived on the scene with his troops and dispersed the crowd, forcing them out of the palace and into the courtyard below where they massed in seething fury, shouting threats and insults up at the windows and demanding that the royal family show themselves on the balcony. Marie Antoinette stood beside the window with her daughter and Madame Élisabeth, mercifully unscathed, on either side of her, while the Dauphin stood on a chair in front of her, plaiting his sister’s long blonde hair and complaining about being kept waiting for his breakfast. Naturally, no one wanted to step out on to the balcony but somehow Lafayette managed to persuade them to do so and so the windows swung open and after a moment’s hesitation, Louis and Marie Antoinette, who carried her son in her arms and held her daughter by the hand, stepped out to confront the hostile gaze of the mob.

Louis tried in vain to speak to the people but his voice was drowned out by the shouts of the mob. There were a few heartening cries of ‘Long live the King!’ but they were outnumbered by the calls of ‘To Paris! To Paris!’ that thundered from every side. Lafayette, who had followed the royal family out on to the balcony, spoke a few words to remind the mob that the King had promised to provide bread, before they all went back inside. However, no sooner had they escaped than the mob began to chant ‘We want the Queen’. Even Lafayette, who had been at some pains to stress that the mob would never actually hurt Marie Antoinette, tried to persuade her to stay indoors but it turned out that the daughter of Maria Theresa was made of far sterner stuff than anyone had hitherto realised and she insisted upon facing the crowd.

Taking her children by the hand, perhaps at the suggestion of Lafayette who hoped that the crowd would be moved to compassion by the sight of the Dauphin and Madame Royale weeping in terror as they clung to their mother, she stepped once more on to the balcony. ‘No children! No children!’ the crowd bayed and reluctantly she sent them back into the room and turned to stand alone in front of the people. There was a moment of tense silence as they stared up at her and then to the surprise of everyone, including possibly themselves, they began to shout ‘Long live the Queen!’ Stunned, Marie Antoinette responded with a deep curtsey which just made them cheer all the more wildly. Lafayette, relieved that the Queen had not been assassinated on the spot, stepped out and kissed her hand as the crowd roared their approval and redoubled their shouts of ’To Paris! To Paris!’

‘What are your intentions, Madame? Lafayette asked her as they stepped back into the blessed safety of the palace.

‘Whatever may be my fate, it is my duty to die at the King’s feet with my children in my arms,’ Marie Antoinette replied before turning to the wife of Necker and saying: ‘They are going to force us to go to Paris, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes.’ To Saint-Priest, who had tried his very best to persuade her to leave the previous day, she could only lament: ‘Oh, why did we not leave last night?’

The decision to go to Paris having been made, everyone returned to their apartments to pack and prepare for departure. At one in the afternoon, Louis, Marie Antoinette, their children, Madame Élisabeth and the governess Madame de Tourzel, whose young daughter Pauline followed in another carriage, climbed into one of the King’s enormous travelling carriage and set off towards the capital. Instead of the usual flanking outriders there were the grotesquely twisted heads of their slaughtered guards carried on pikes on either side of their carriage. ‘We’re bring back the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy!’ the jubilant crowd chanted as they walked alongside this peculiar cavalcade, while behind them at Versailles the shutters were slammed shut and a heavy silence fell on the gilded rooms.

As the royal carriage drew level with the gates of Madame Élisabeth’s pretty country estate at Montreuil, the princess gazed sadly up the avenue that she already had a presentiment that she would never see again.’Are you admiring your new lime avenue?’ her brother asked her with a fond smile. ‘No,’ she replied sadly. ‘I am saying goodbye.’

It took seven long and incredibly weary hours for the royal carriage to reach Paris. Marie Antoinette, shocked and traumatised by the events of the last twenty four hours, spent much of the journey crouched on the floor of the carriage, shielding her young son from the sight of the heads being waved outside the windows and trying her best to reassure both of her terrified children. Protected, pampered and cushioned all her life long, Marie Antoinette had been, until now, effectively shielded from the unpleasant realities of life for the ordinary people of France. The journey to Paris that drizzly, miserable afternoon, surrounded by thousands of shouting, jeering people, many of whom were dressed in little more than a few rags, was to be a baptism of fire for her and she would never again have any trust in the intrinsic goodness of the Parisian people.

They reached Paris late in the evening and came to a halt at the Chaillot tollgate where Bailly the Mayor of Paris was waiting to greet them. With no apparent irony, he presented the King with the keys to the city on a velvet cushion, saying with an admirable attempt at courtly grace: ‘What a beautiful day it is, Sire, that has brought you and your august consort to take up residence in the capital.’ Louis, who was under no illusions that he and his family were effectively hostages, if not prisoners, of the National Assembly, managed to reply with equal good grace that he only trusted that his ‘coming to Paris will put an end to lawlessness and bring back peace and order to the city.’

The exhausted royal family had expected to be taken straight to the royal palace of the Tuileries but instead found themselves taken to the Hôtel de Ville where they were persuaded to appear on the balcony again as the jubilant crowds that had gathered in the Place de Grève cheered themselves hoarse and shouted ‘Long live the King!’ There were even a few shouts for Marie Antoinette as she clutched her son to her bosom and faced the mob, rigid with indignation and wondering when her humiliating ordeal would finally come to an end.

In the event, the royal family, thoroughly shattered by their ordeal, arrived at the Tuileries at just after ten that evening. The dilapidated old palace, which had not been properly inhabited by royalty since the minority of Louis XV, had become a kind of grace and favour residence since the young King moved to Versailles and was now home to a hotchpotch mix of people that included elderly courtiers, retired royal officials, artists and actors, many of whom had altered the internal fabric of the palace beyond all recognition by adding haphazard staircases, partition walls and flimsy windows to suit their own requirements. The news of the royal family’s imminent arrival had come that morning and immediately Mique, who was in charge of the palace,now  set to work evicting all of the tenants and supervising the dozens of servants who now swarmed through the draughty old rooms to prepare them for their new inhabitants.

The royal family were to inhabit the small apartment where Marie Antoinette had once or twice slept during visits to the capital in her ramshackle youth, while Madame Élisabeth was assigned rooms on the ground floor and the rest of the courtiers were expected to make shift as best they could with many sleeping on sofas and floors once all the available beds had been spoken for. The rather more fortunate Comte and Comtesse de Provence, who had followed them to Paris, were allowed to go to their own much more comfortable residence, the Palais du Luxembourg (the Comtesse lived at the nearby Le Petit Luxembourg mansion on the Rue de Vaugirard). While the adults did their best to hide their unhappiness, the Dauphin was much more forthright and looked around in horror at the shabbily furnished rooms. ‘It’s so ugly here, Maman,’ he remarked as the family sat down to supper which the King, as usual, enjoyed enormously. ‘Departure for Paris 12.30, visit to the Hôtel de Ville, dine and sleep at the Tuileries,’ he wrote, rather phlegmatically, in his Journal later on.

The next morning, Marie Antoinette woke up to the sound of the market women of Paris shouting on the terrace outside her new bedchamber.  They wanted to see the Queen and after a moment’s hesitation she asked her ladies, who looked disheveled and tired after a night camping out on sofas, to dress her in one of her prettiest dresses and find a hat covered in flowers and ribbons. Thus charmingly arrayed, she went out on to the terrace to meet the women and answer their questions, eventually winning them over to the extent that she ended up distributing the trimmings on her hat amongst them before they let her go back inside. Later on she would sit down at her desk and write a quick note to Count Mercy: ‘Things look better this morning. Don’t worry, I’m quite alright. And if one could forget where we are and how we came here we should be quite pleased with the way the people are behaving.’ And things must have seemed rather more hopeful on that first morning at the Tuileries - the people had appeared gratifyingly pleased to have them in the capital and perhaps, Marie Antoinette reasoned, having them in Paris would do much to dispel the ugly rumours that had spread about them all once the people realised that they were, at heart, just an ordinary loving family. Certainly, when she was in the right mood, there could be no one more charming and charismatic than Marie Antoinette.

Their apartments, which had seemed so ramshackle and uninviting the night before, looked much better in daylight and as the weeks progressed the Tuileries began to regain its former splendour thanks to Mique’s ongoing renovations and the appearance of several cart loads of furniture, paintings and other pieces from Versailles, which did much to improve matters. The Queen was lodged in a pretty ground floor apartment that had been recently renovated at enormous expense by the Comtesse de la Marck, while the King slept on the floor above near the rooms assigned to the royal children and their governess. The aunts, who had come with them from Versailles, were lodged in the Pavilion de Marsan and Madame Élisabeth had rooms on the ground floor but quickly moved after a gang of market women clambered in through her windows while she was at breakfast. The fact that they only wanted to praise her beauty and goodness was beside the point – after the events in October, she was now very nervous and insisted that she be moved to the far less accessible Pavilion de Flore, where she whiled away the hours with over a hundred books, most of which were religious tracts, sent from her own personal library at Versailles or sadly sketching imaginary nature scenes while sitting on a window seat that looked towards the Seine.

Gradually, life returned to some semblance of normality as the stately antechambers and reception rooms of the Tuileries which, as Marie Antoinette reminded her complaining son, had once been considered a suitable residence for Louis XIV ‘and we must not be more particular than him’, were gradually restored to their former grandeur and hummed once again with life. The Princesse de Lamballe, who had been away from court for health reasons, returned to once again supervise the Queen’s household and Axel von Fersen, who had followed the royal family from Versailles, was able to discreetly dance attendance on Marie Antoinette every day and night just as he had done before. The ladies of the court continued to attend the Queen’s levée and coucher and escorted her to Mass in the royal chapel just as they had done at Versailles, with the ones fortunate enough to have a Parisian residence being issued with passes that allowed them entry to the Tuileries. After a while the usual round of suppers and receptions resumed again in the state rooms of the palace with the Queen holding court on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and dining in public on Tuesdays and Sundays. In some ways it was as though nothing had really changed.

No one was quite sure if the King and Queen were indeed prisoners but for now they were content to stay where they were and let things happen. To the deputies and ordinary Parisian people that she encountered, Marie Antoinette was all smiles and benevolence but in private she told Madame Campan that ‘Kings who become prisoners are not far from death’ and often shut herself away to cry, exhausted by the effort of maintaining an outwardly calm and amiable exterior and also deeply fearful about what the future held for herself and her family.

The National Assembly had agreed that the King should have an extremely generous 25 million livres a year, as well as the revenue from his estates, for living expenses but with over seven hundred people at the Tuileries, economies still had to be made and although Marie Antoinette was still getting her hair done by Léonard and her dresses designed by Rose Bertin and Madame Éloffe, who came to see her as often as they always had, she was also having a lot of her older dresses adjusted and altered in order to save some money - with particular attention being paid to white, blue, red and pink dresses which were trimmed with tricolour ribbons in the hope of appealing to the Parisians. She couldn’t resist splashing some cash on a few pieces of exquisite Reisener furniture for their apartments though, clearly resigned to staying there for quite some time to come.

However, although the future seemed uncertain, there were some compensations for this abrupt change in Marie Antoinette’s circumstances - for a start, thanks to the close confinement of the family, she was now free to enjoy her children just as she had always longed to do and became more personally involved in their education. She took great pleasure in supervising Madame Royale’s lessons and enjoyed taking them out for walks in the famously beautiful public gardens of the Tuileries where the Dauphin, who turned five in March 1790, won all hearts with his innocent, light hearted cavorting and games and was encouraged to wave and chatter to the admiring crowds that gathered to see him. Inside the palace, the family enjoyed spending more time together and the royal ladies were often to be found sitting together with their books and embroidery while the King taught his children how to play billiards and draughts or look at the stars through his precious telescope. When someone asked the Dauphin if he preferred Paris or Versailles, the little boy replied: ‘Paris, because I see so much more of my Papa and Maman.’

This new delight in family life can be glimpsed in the charmingly carefree painting by François Dumont of Marie Antoinette and her two children sitting beneath a tree in the Tuileries gardens. This lovely portrait looks at first glance as if it should belong to the family’s pre-1789 existence at Versailles but was in fact painted in the summer of 1790 and shows just how content the happily smiling Queen had become in the new even more close maternal role that she had adopted after the departure from Versailles, even if she was wracked with anxiety behind the scenes. The family are also dressed extremely elegantly in the pale muslins and silks that they had enjoyed at Versailles, while the Queen’s blue silk covered hat, bedecked in pale pink and white plumes, is a masterpiece of millinery.  Certainly no greater contrast can be imagined to the stiff and rather unattractive Wertmuller portrait of the unhappy looking Queen and her two eldest children walking in the gardens of the Petit Trianon back in 1785.

In February 1790 there came the terrible news of Emperor Joseph’s death, which was a terrible blow to Marie Antoinette who had idolised her eldest brother and had, at heart, always assumed that one day he would come and rescue her from a situation that she was finding increasingly intolerable. His successor was their brother Leopold, whom she hadn’t seen since he paid a brief visit to Vienna just before her marriage. Although she and the rather starchy Leopold had never really got on, the letter that he wrote to her after Joseph’s death must have allayed some of her fears, even if in time she was to be sorely disappointed by her brother’s lack of assistance: ‘I can picture your grief, all the greater as his late majesty was particularly attached to you and had your interests so very much at heart. Though I know such a loss is irreparable, I hope you will find in me a friendship and attachment and a real and sincere interest in everything that concerns you, which will be in no way less than that of our late brother. Please give me the same friendship, the same confidence in return, and I flatter myself that I will in every way deserve it.’ Tactfully, he made no mention of the deceased Emperor’s ominous final deathbed advice for his sister: ‘I commiserate with them, but from this distance I cannot think of any means to extricate them from so bad a situation other than to show both prudence and firmness. If they have both, then everything will perhaps arrange itself. If they lack them, then I have nothing more to say.’

Keenly aware that they urgently needed to win back the love and respect of the people, Louis and Marie Antoinette began to go on occasional official visits around Paris, much like the sort of engagements that the British royal family perform today, to see hospitals, factories and poor areas like the streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine which had once been dominated by the now demolished Bastille prison, the fragments of which were being sported as earrings by the fashionable ladies of Paris and used as paperweights by their lovers. The royal family would turn up looking elegant but demure, wreathed in smiles and asking lots of questions so as to appear interested and engaged. The overall effect was very successful, with both Louis and Marie Antoinette hearing nothing but cheers but there was still a long way to go before the scars of October 1789 were entirely healed. ‘Behold the joy of these good people,’ Bailly told the Queen when one of her appearances was greeted with particularly enthusiastic acclaim. ‘Yes, the people are good when their masters visit them,’ she replied icily. ‘But they are savage when they visit their masters.’

To Marie Antoinette’s delight, they were allowed to spend the summer of 1790 at their château of Saint Cloud where the family could indulge in such bucolic and innocent delights as picnics in woodland glades, flower picking, small concerts at which the Queen sang once again, carriage rides to Meudon and, for the King, his beloved hunting. Deprived of his daily sport, Louis had started to put on even more weight and had become even more lethargic and sluggish than before, which Marie Antoinette, unsurprisingly, found utterly annoying. She was bound to the King by ties of loyalty and affection but had never been romantically in love with him - this emotion was, it seemed, entirely reserved for the handsome Swede, Axel von Fersen who followed the court to Saint Cloud and there resumed his daily visits to the Queen, often staying until the early hours of the morning, which provoked a great deal of gossip in certain circles. Marie Antoinette, always a bit of a flirt, seemed more infatuated with him than ever while Axel’s obvious devotion had apparently been inflamed by his lady love’s new situation as a damsel in distress. Whereas their romance had almost certainly been intrinsically chaste when she was the Queen of Versailles it would be fair, perhaps, to wonder if matters had not taken a rather more intimate turn now that she was the beleaguered not quite a prisoner of the Tuileries and in need of whatever comfort and attention he was able to provide.

However, Axel von Fersen was also besotted, and in a very obviously carnal way, with his lusciously beautiful mistress Eléanore Sullivan, who had once upon a time been the mistress of Marie Antoinette’s brother Joseph before ending up with an incredibly wealthy Indian Nabob Quentin Craufurd, who set her up in considerable style in Paris. Madame Sullivan was the total opposite of Marie Antoinette - sophisticated, sensual and witty and was, furthermore, just the sort of woman that Fersen had always conducted his affairs with in the past. The sort who knew the rules of the game and how to play it which Marie Antoinette, so sentimental and desperate for affection, did not. However, besides being a bit of a rake who was well aware of his own devastating effect on women, Fersen was also a massive snob and the royal mystique as well as the terrible tribulations with which Marie Antoinette was surrounded was enough to make him her devoted slave even if their relationship was entirely platonic.

It is clear though that Marie Antoinette loved Axel von Fersen or was at the very least completely infatuated with his handsome face, his dashing air and, most compelling of all, his way of treating her with dewy eyed reverence which she needed more than ever at a time when everything little thing she did seemed to attract nothing but censure. Fresen’s apparently uncritical approval of her must have seemed like a balm to her soul. However, although she loved to flirt and be admired by handsome young men, Marie Antoinette was not a particularly sensual woman (remember, it was not just Louis’ clumsiness and lack of ardour in the bedchamber that had been criticised by her brother) and even though Fersen was almost certainly a much more attractive prospect than poor Louis, she took her duty to her husband and his crown far too seriously to ever seriously risk hurting either. The fact that she was so hurt and appalled by the broadsheets denouncing her promiscuity and alleged affairs also speaks volumes.

There were other visitors to the Château of Saint Cloud where courtiers and commoners alike were encouraged to visit the gardens and see their rulers at play and Marie Antoinette, who was beginning to feel quite her old self again in such congenial surroundings, received friends from the past such as the Duchess of Devonshire and entertained them to elegant supper parties on the terrace. However, one visitor, the Comte de Mirabeau, one of the leaders of the National Assembly and, in the past, one of the King’s most vicious opponents, came at dead of night and in utmost secrecy for an audience with the Queen. They met in the gardens, which may have held an echo of the infamous meeting that had caused such a stir during the Diamond Necklace scandal, and talked at length about Mirabeau’s plans for the King and royal family. Having been so opposed to them in the past, Mirabeau had concluded that the revolution had run its course and discreetly offered his services to the King to act as a medium between them and the National Assembly - that this deal involved the settling of his enormous debts and a royal salary of 72,000 livres a year was just the icing on the cake.

Marie Antoinette did not like the Comte de Mirabeau, whom she regarded as venal, corrupt, immoral and violent but, encouraged by Mercy who saw in him their best chance of resolving the situation, even she could not deny that he was a formidable weapon to have in their arsenal. He was a brilliant and passionate orator (as they had learned to their cost thanks to his diatribes against the royal family) and was still regarded with great respect by both the Assembly and, most crucially, the Parisians. For his part, Mirabeau had no illusions about Louis, whom he regarded as completely pathetic, but he admired the spark of defiant courage that the Queen, whom he had once dismissed as frivolous and stupid, now displayed, declaring her to be the only one of the royal family worth talking to and the ‘only man’ that the King had about him. Although Marie Antoinette would never quite conquer her revulsion of Mirabeau, she willingly gave him her hand to kiss at the end of their meeting and had to blink away tears when he fell to his knees before her, declaring, ‘Madame, I swear the monarchy will be saved.’ However, he had not always been so sanguine about their chances of survival and had previously commented to the Comte de la Marck that: ‘Can’t they see the abyss opening at their feet? All is lost, the King and Queen are going to perish, and you yourself will see it. The mob will trample their bodies underfoot.’

On 14 July, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the royal family temporarily left the comforts of Saint Cloud to attend the great Fête de la Fédération, which took place on the Champs de Mars in Paris. Naturally, Marie Antoinette had been dreading this occasion which for her marked a miserable year of upheaval and despair, but she pinned on a smile and appeared dressed to impress in white with tricolour ribbons and feathers in her hair and a pretty red, white and blue trimming on her shoes. There were enormous cheers from the three hundred thousand strong crowd when the royal family arrived that morning, sheltered from the pouring rain in their covered carriage. Annoyed to have been dragged away from a day’s hunting at Saint Cloud for what he considered to be an insulting and undignified charade, Louis glowered from his throne as they watched Talleyrand, the rakish Bishop of Autun, celebrate Mass in the torrential rain before the time came for Louis to take an oath to the constitution. Pleased by his show of acquiescence, the crowd erupted into cheers again and buoyed up by this enthusiasm, Marie Antoinette lifted her son up into her arms and showed him off to the people, who shouted ‘Long live the Dauphin!’ in his honour.

From almost the first moment that the royal family arrived at the Tuileries there had been talk of their escape. Even Mirabeau had encouraged them to consider either retreating to Compiègne or Fontainebleau or travelling even further afield to Normandy, which still remained overwhelmingly royalist. His plan was that the royal family should leave openly but remain in France but other voices counselled a far more bold manoeuvre whereby the King and his family would join forces with the the émigrés who were massing beyond the borders of France, champing at the bit to kick start a counter revolution.

At first Louis was unwilling to leave, preferring instead to put his faith in the National Assembly and the French people, but this trust was beginning to wane rapidly and hit a steep nose dive at the end of 1790 when the National Assembly decreed that from now on all church affairs were to come under their jurisdiction rather than that of Rome and that all priests had until 1 January 1791 to make an oath of loyalty to the Assembly, with those who refused being summarily defrocked and banned from office. Louis, who had been raised to be extremely devout, was appalled by this but had no option but to give his assent to this measure even if he privately detested it. His aunts, however, were more forceful in their condemnation and in February 1791 left Paris with the intention of travelling to Rome where they would be free to follow their faith in peace. The old ladies, who had done so much to damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation in France, were briefly apprehended at Arnay-le-Duc in Burgundy but then, thanks to the intervention of Mirabeau, were allowed to leave the country unmolested and make their way to Italy via a visit to their nephew the Comte d’Artois, who had settled at Turin with his family. How Marie Antoinette must have envied them all.

However, the departure of the aunts gave fresh impetus to Marie Antoinette’s own secret escape plans. At some point after the events of October 1789, the royal couple had vowed to each other that from now on they were not going to be separated and so all suggestions that either Louis or Marie Antoinette should leave without the other were immediately dismissed. More plausible, however, was the suggestion that Marie Antoinette should escape with her son, who would be dressed as a girl for the enterprise while the Queen herself went in disguise as a servant. However, yet again she rejected this plan, reiterating her decision to remain at the King’s side no matter what happened and in secret she continued to plot with Axel von Fersen, whom she trusted implicitly, and the General de Bouillé, who was based at Metz near the Austrian border. It was Bouillé’s plan that the royal family separate into two groups, leave Paris in two swift separate carriages and make their way to Montmédy, where a loyal royalist regiment was based and where Louis could rally more to his cause, safe in the knowledge that the border with Austria was not too far away if his plans to regain control of his own throne went sadly awry.

Excited and nervous about their plan, Marie Antoinette ordered Axel von Fersen to make the necessary arrangements. She refused to consider Bouillé’s suggestion that the family split into two, arguing that she had no wish to be separated from either her husband or her children, and instead of buying two small carriages she commissioned a large and much more slow travelling carriage, known as a berline, in which the family would make their escape. Claiming that the commission was for a former mistress, the Baronne de Korff who would also be providing the fugitives’ identity papers, Fersen spared no expense and overlooked no detail when it came to the planning of this huge and cumbersome vehicle which would have to be both commodious and comfortable for their long journey. The outside was a discreet green and black while the interior was upholstered in sumptuous white velvet and equipped with such conveniences as a small cooker, leather chamber pots and a concealed table that could be raised at mealtimes.

Marie Antoinette’s all important toilette was not to be neglected either and the Queen decided to treat herself to a lavish nécessaire, a travelling dressing case of beautiful walnut wood, inside which reposed a silver teapot and candlesticks as well as everything that Marie Antoinette could possibly require in order to beautify herself during the trip, all of which was fashioned out of the most exquisite crystal, silver and tortoiseshell. She also ordered new clothes for herself and her children and entrusted her hairdresser, the delightfully catty Léonard, who was to follow her to Montmédy to ensure that she looked her very best at all times, with her jewels. Madame Campan was bewildered by this attention to sartorial matters and tried to remonstrate with the Queen, pointing out that ‘a Queen of France should be able to procure whatever she needed wherever she went’ but Marie Antoinette, completely carried away and elated by her clandestine plans which served as such a delightful distraction from the mundanity of life at the Tuileries, would not listen.

In April 1791 the furtive escape plans received further impetus from the sudden death of the Comte de Mirabeau who passed away wasted by years of dissolute excess. His final words, whispered to Talleyrand were: ‘I am taking with me the last vestiges of the monarchy’. Marie Antoinette, who had grown to rely on his support even if she never warmed to him personally, wept when she was informed of his death, believing that in him they had lost one of their most powerful supporters. He was accorded the signal honour of the first state burial in the Panthéon, which from then on was intended to be the final resting place of the great men of France. Shortly after this, the royal family were prevented from leaving for their planned Easter holiday at Saint Cloud by a large and ferocious mob who suspected them of trying to escape as the aunts had done not too long before and caused a riot that Lafayette had to disperse with his troops. The fact that they had been allowed to move relatively freely around Paris and had been able to spend the previous summer at Saint Cloud had done much to reconcile Louis and Marie Antoinette to their situation and even allowed them to pretend to themselves that they were not really at the beck and call of the National Assembly. However this unfortunate incident served to emphasise their effective powerlessness and increased their resentment of their situation as they returned in great disappointment to their apartments in the Tuileries.

The event which has just occurred confirms us more than ever in our plans,’ Marie Antoinette wrote to Mercy, who had left for Brussels in October 1790. ‘Our position is dreadful. We absolutely must flee from here next month. The King wishes this even more vehemently than myself.’ Plans continued to be made for the escape despite the reservations of Bouillé about both the mode of transport, which he considered too slow and cumbersome for a journey whose success relied on its speed and efficiency, and the passengers. It had been decided that the King, Queen and royal children should be accompanied by Madame de Tourzel and Madame Élisabeth, who remained in total ignorance of the plan, but Bouillé would have preferred Tourzel and Madame Élisabeth (who would then travel with the waiting women Madame de Neuville and Madame Brunier, who would be following the berline in their own carriage) to be replaced by two capable officers with the resolution and quick intelligence to be able to cope with any emergencies that might arise along the way. However, Marie Antoinette insisted that her children could not manage without their governess and that there was no way that a Princess of the Royal Blood could be expected to travel with her servants and that was apparently the end of the matter.

The departure is now finally decided for June 20, midnight,’ Axel von Fersen wrote to his fellow conspirator Bouillé. ‘A treacherous nurse of the Dauphin who could not be dismissed and who will not be leaving before Monday night, makes it necessary to postpone the journey until then; but you can be assured that it will take place.’ All was ready for the great escape which, incidentally, had been mostly financed by Fersen himself who had got much of the money from his mistress Eléanore and her lover, both of whom were loyal royalists.

To the courtiers and servants milling around the Tuileries, Monday 20 June must have seemed like an ordinary day just like any other. Marie Antoinette spent the morning listening to her children having their lessons then went down to the chapel with them at midday for Mass, where they met the King, who had spent the morning reading in his study. They then took luncheon together, after which the family gathered in the salon and Louis quietly told Madame Élisabeth that they were planning to leave Paris that night. ‘What should I bring with me?’ the princess asked Marie Antoinette. ‘Bring nothing,’ was the reply. ‘I can lend you anything that you need from my own trunks.’

Louis and Marie Antoinette then played billiards against each other before going off to the King’s rooms on the ground floor where a short while later Fersen joined them to give the final briefing about their plan. He was to act as coachman for the first leg of the journey before leaving them to ride to Brussels. He would have preferred to stay with them for the entire journey but Louis, although he was grateful for Fersen’s help, was adamant that he had to leave, which could be taken to suggest that he suspected that the dashing Swede was having an affair with his wife and had no desire to arrive at Montmédy in the undignified position of having him acting as their coachman. An alternative theory is that the King was put off by the fact that Fersen was not French and having made the decision to remain in France, had no wish to look as though he was accepting any foreign assistance against his people.

Later on the Queen, feeling weepy and emotional after her interview with Fersen, took her children for their customary walk in the Tuileries gardens where the Dauphin, who was in total ignorance of the secret plans, waved and smiled at the crowds that had gathered as usual to see him. After the royal children had gone to bed, the Provences came over from the Palais du Luxembourg for their usual supper with Louis, Marie Antoinette and Madame Élisabeth. They would be leaving that night as well but being blessed with more common sense than the Queen and Fersen had followed Bouillé’s instructions to the letter and purchased two light carriages in which they would travel separately, taking different routes and leaving most of their belongings behind. Louis and his brother had had many clashes over the years but they were seen to be visibly moved when the time came to say goodbye.

At ten, Marie Antoinette went upstairs and woke up the children, who were then dressed by their governess Madame de Tourzel. Madame Royale wore a brown dress patterned with white and yellow flowers while the little Dauphin, who upon being told there were to be soldiers where they were going had insisted upon wearing his sword and soldier boots, was to his great disappointment dressed as a girl. The children and Madame de Tourzel, bearing a note stating that she was taking the Children of France away on the King’s orders, were taken down to Axel von Fersen who was waiting in the Carrousel courtyard before the Queen returned to the drawing room as though nothing had happened.

The family went to bed at their normal time. Élisabeth was accompanied to her rooms in the Pavilion de Flore by a National Guard who left her at her door and later testified to hearing her push the bolts across. Meanwhile Marie Antoinette impatiently endured the traditional coucher ceremony before dismissing her maids and getting quickly dressed again in a plain grey silk dress and a black hat with a veil which could be pulled down to conceal her face. She then left her apartments and went down to the courtyard where her bodyguard, Monsieur de Malden was waiting to escort her to the carriage that was to take them out of Paris to where the berline was waiting for them. Disaster almost struck when Lafayette’s carriage went past, but he did not recognise the Queen, who quickly pulled down her veil, and all was well. Malden then escorted Marie Antoinette through the warren of streets surrounding the Tuileries, getting a bit lost along the way, until they reached the carriage rather later than they had been expected.

They drove to the Saint Martin barrier at two in the morning, thankfully unmolested, and changed from the carriage to the magnificent berline, which had been furnished with every possible comfort including a delicious picnic lunch of roasted pigeon, veal, cakes and wine. Fersen then drove them at a spanking pace to Bondy, where he was to leave them and go on alone to Brussels. Again he tried to persuade Louis to let him stay with the royal party until they reached Montmédy but he was gently turned down and was powerless to do anything other than watch as the massive coach, already three hours behind schedule, went on its way. At this point Fersen should really have taken the initiative, disobeyed the royal orders and either ridden behind the berline or, even better, gone on ahead to let the young Duc de Choiseul, who was waiting with his troops to escort the royal family on the final leg of their journey, know that they would be late. He did neither though but instead turned his horse’s head towards Brussels and rode off, leaving them to their fate.

The berline was already well on its way and was crossing the Marne river at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre at around the time that their departure was discovered by the servants at the Tuileries, who immediately rose the alarm and alerted the National Assembly, whose temporary president at the time was Alexandre de Beauharnais, the first husband of the future Empress Joséphine. At this point no one knew where the King, who had left behind a letter listing the various injustices that had led to his departure, had gone and it was feared that the royal family had either been abducted by counter-revolutionaries or had gone to join forces with the Austrians. It’s likely that many of the deputies had no great desire to see the royal family brought back again - this departure had, after all, played right into the hands of the extremists who wanted the monarchy abolished altogether, but even so the order was made to send troops in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, the happy little band were now travelling towards Metz and, believing themselves safe, had begun to relax and even enjoy their adventure. It had been decided in advance that Madame de Tourzel should play the part of the Baronne de Korff while Marie Antoinette, keen as mustard as always to indulge in a little role reversal, masqueraded as her waiting woman Madame Rochet, the King played the part of her valet Durand and Madame Élisabeth played the nurse Rosalie. The royal children were to be the Baronne’s daughters, Agläié and Amélie. Having seen very little of France beyond the Isle de France, Marie Antoinette gazed rapturously out of the carriage window at the beautiful countryside and insisted upon walking alongside the coach while her children, glad to be freed from the berline, chased butterflies and picked flowers in the fields. Meanwhile, Louis, also beaming with delight, stopped to chat about the harvest with the peasants that they passed and struck up conversations with the postillions and other patrons at the various posting stations along the way, apparently not caring when he was recognised, while in the coach he joked about wishing that he could see Lafayette’s face when he realised that the royal chickens had fled their glittering coop.

Each little chat, each stop to pick flowers and each slowing down of the berline so that Marie Antoinette and her children could take a walk beside it, cost them precious minutes. However, the King and Queen naively believed that they had put enough distance between themselves and Paris for pursuit and capture to be virtually impossible and so saw no need to make any especially haste to reach the meeting place. They were also untroubled by the fact that they were so obviously being recognised in every town and village that they passed through - after all, no one had made any effort to detain them and in fact they were being hailed with cheers and offers of accommodation and refreshments wherever they went, which they took as proof that outside Paris they were as well loved and popular as ever. This was not really the case though and even as they drove tranquilly on towards Metz, things were beginning to go wrong.

The first hint that disaster had struck came at the Somme Vesle bridge, where the Duc de Choiseul, who was the relative and heir of the Choiseul who had been chiefly responsible for brokering Louis and Marie Antoinette’s marriage, was supposed to be waiting for them with his troops. However, there was no one there and so the coach carried on towards Sainte-Menehould where they were once again recognised and when they left, the postmaster Drouet and a detachment of National Guard were in hot pursuit. Varennes was the next stop on the journey and the royal party, worn out by the excitement of the day, were fast asleep in their luxurious carriage when they arrived at about eleven o clock and shortly afterwards found themselves surrounded by soldiers while the tocsin bell on the local church was rung to alert the residents, who stumbled out of bed, armed themselves and gathered in a hostile crowd around the carriage. The procurator of the commune, a Monsieur Sauce, who also moonlighted as a grocer, was called upon to check that the now awake and anxious passengers’ papers were all in order, which he duly believed them to be.

However the postmaster Drouet’s stubborn and increasingly irate insistence that the carriage carried the King and Queen of France and their family could not be ignored. In vain did Louis and Marie Antoinette protest that they were in fact merely the maid and valet of the Baronne and insist that they should be allowed to continue their journey unmolested - not realising that their outspoken behaviour only served to create more suspicion as no genuine servants, outside the works of Monsieur Beaumarchais at least, would ever speak so out of turn while their aristocratic mistress remained so nervously silent. However, if Sauce had been left to himself he would probably have waved them on but Drouet was equally insistent and the crowd was getting ugly so he asked the royal family to get out of the berline and come into his grocery store while he sent for a local resident who had, providentially, once lived in Versailles. The royal cover story was completely blown when this gentleman, clearly overawed to be in the presence of majesty once again, fell to his knees in reverence before the King, who with typical kindness embraced him and admitted his true identity, saying: ‘Yes, I am your King’. Louis and Marie Antoinette then tried in vain to persuade Sauce to let them continue on their way but he stood firm, more scared of the National Assembly’s reaction should they find out about his actions than worried about offending his King. His wife, although sympathetic, also refused to help. ‘Well, Madame, you are in a very unfortunate position but my husband is not responsible,’ she said to Marie Antoinette, who was weeping with chagrin. ‘I don’t want him to get into any trouble.’

  At this point, the scene outside, where a crowd of curious townsfolk were still gathered, descended into chaos as the Duc de Choiseul’s hussars appeared along with some other loyal troops that had been in the area and raced to Varennes as soon as they realised what had happened. It turned out that Choiseul had waited for the berline for quite a while before concluding that the escape had been foiled at the outset, if it had even been attempted, the message that the royal escape was a few hours behind schedule having failed to reach him. Choiseul and another officer forced their way through the crowd and into the grocery shop, where they asked Louis, delighted to see them, for orders. ‘I have forty hussars with me,’ Choiseul told him before outlining an impromptu escape plan which involved them cutting their way through the crowd outside and whisking the entire family away to safety on horseback. In the meantime, Choiseul had also sent a message to Bouillé, telling him where the family were and asking him to make haste with his troops.

Indecisive as always, Louis could not make up his mind what to do and so they turned to Marie Antoinette, begging her to make a decision and put her trust in the brave hussars waiting to take them to freedom. ‘I do not want to take the responsibility for this,’ she replied. ‘It is up to the King to make the orders and my duty is to follow them.’ When Choiseul admitted that he could not absolutely promise their safety, Louis finally decided to turn the scheme down, saying that he had no wish to put any lives at risk and was content to wait until Bouillé arrived with his troops as then they would be able to proceed by carriage.

However, it was two representatives of the National Assembly who arrived next in Varennes, dusty and dishevelled after their long journey from Paris and bearing an official decree that ordered the royal family to return to the capital immediately. ‘There is no longer a King in France,’ Louis said in sad resignation after he read it and dropped the paper on to the bed where the Dauphin and Madame Royale were still fast asleep, worn out after their adventure. ‘I will not let my children be contaminated by this thing,’ Marie Antoinette shrieked, crumpling the order into a ball and petulantly throwing it on to the floor. ‘What audacity, for subjects to have the temerity to pretend to give orders to their King.’

The royal couple still had faith that Bouillé would arrive to save them but despite their best attempts to delay departure by feigning illness and the like, they were forced to give in and at half past seven in the morning sulkily clambered back into the berline to make the journey back to Paris, surrounded by a hostile mob of armed countryfolk. Bouillé and his much longed for troops would arrive in Varennes almost two hours later to find them well and truly gone and their last chance to escape at an end.

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