[1793] - Marie Antoinette executed

Marie Antoinette (1755–93) became Queen of France in May 1774 when her husband, Louis XVI, ascended to the throne. Born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, she married Louis on 16 May 1770. When the French monarchy was abolished on 10 August 1792, the royal family was imprisoned and, after her husband’s execution on 21 January 1793, she went into deep mourning, refusing to exercise or eat. In addition, she suffered from tuberculosis and cancer. As her health deteriorated, the National Convention debated her fate. With the formation of the Committee of Public Safety a number of Jacobin politicians began to call for her trial. Since her marriage she had been at the centre of a number of court scandals, and her Austrian lineage led many to consider her to be an enemy to France. Despite a number of failed plots to rescue her, she was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October where she was accused of numerous depravities including incest with her son. Her fate, however, had already been decided by the Committee of Public Safety and, after a two-day trial, she was found guilty of treason. On 16 October 1793 her hair was cut off and she was transported to the Place de la Révolution where she was executed by guillotine. She died aged 37 and her body, like her husband’s, was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery.

Edmund Burke offered a famous account of the French queen in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). A fierce critic of the revolution, Burke lamented her death as the passing of ‘the age of chivalry’:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, – glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour and joy. Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream that, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. – But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, œconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness. (Burke, Reflections (1790), 112–13)

Useful Links and Further Reading