Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, faced trial and execution during the early stages of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution (1789-1799). Accused of high treason and alleged collaboration with foreign powers against France, she was guillotined on October 16, 1793.
The Downfall of Marie Antoinette
For years, Marie Antoinette's reputation had been declining due to rumours and public criticism. She was accused of being an Austrian spy, spending excessively, and being morally corrupt. In addition, her association with the monarchy was seen as a reason for the French monarchy's loss of popularity at the start of the Revolution.
The outbreak of the War of the First Coalition in 1792 brought further complications for Marie Antoinette. She was accused of sharing military intelligence with Austria, a move that led to her imprisonment after the Storming of the Tuileries Palace in August 1792. Following the execution of her husband, King Louis XVI, in January 1793, Marie Antoinette and her children languished in the Tower of the Temple, the Parisian prison fortress. Her isolation was stark; she rarely spoke, barely ate, and refrained from venturing into the garden. Her title, once "Her Majesty," transformed into "the Widow Capet".
As the French Revolution was on the ascent, the political landscape shifted. France faced a growing list of adversaries, including Britain, Spain, and the Dutch Republic, and suffered a significant defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, which resulted in Austria reclaiming Belgium. This conflict recognized Marie Antoinette's son, the eight-year-old Louis-Charles, as King Louis XVII of France. Amid this turmoil, revolutionary leaders turned their attention to Marie Antoinette. Maximilien Robespierre insisted that she be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, citing her alleged transmission of military secrets to France's enemies.
On the night of July 3, commissioners arrived at the Temple and took Louis-Charles away, who would never see his mother again. A month later, Jacobin officials escorted Marie Antoinette to the Conciergerie, a gloomy and damp prison that often served as the final destination for individuals en route to the guillotine. Around this time, the Committee of Public Safety agreed that Marie Antoinette’s death would appease the people. Her fate was thus sealed even before her trial.
Trial and Execution
On the night of October 12, Marie Antoinette was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal for indictment. She denied the charges against her and was granted the right to a defence counsel before returning to her cell. In contrast to Louis XVI, who had weeks to prepare his defence, Marie Antoinette had only hours.
The trial started on October 14, 1793, with a cross-examination of 40 witnesses. Unlike her husband’s trial, which had solid evidence, Marie Antoinette faced more abstract charges based on rumours. She responded to the allegations with brief, non-committal replies, often claiming no recollection. Although some accusations had merit, such as the claim of sharing military secrets with France's enemies, most of the evidence was weak. At 4 a.m. on October 16, she was found guilty of conspiring with foreign powers, depleting the state treasury, and committing high treason. Marie Antoinette believed she would, at worst, receive a life sentence. However, the prosecution was granted the death penalty and she was condemned to execution. When asked if she had any final words, Marie Antoinette simply shook her head.
In her final hours, she wrote letters to her loved ones, expressing her deep regret at leaving her children and sister. She dressed in a plain white gown, and her hair was cut, her hands bound. At 11 a.m., she was taken to the guillotine in an open cart, a stark contrast to the closed carriage granted to her husband. Upon reaching the scaffold at the Place de la Revolution, Marie Antoinette displayed what little pride remained as she climbed the steps. She was guillotined at 12:15 in the afternoon, to the cheers of the crowd.
Marie Antoinette's execution, following that of her husband, King Louis XVI, symbolized the collapse of the French monarchy and the triumph of revolutionary ideals. The aftermath of her death witnessed a surge in the Reign of Terror, as the radical Jacobins, led by figures like Maximilien Robespierre, tightened their grip on power. The monarchy was formally abolished, and France was declared a republic.
The event also reverberated internationally, sparking outrage and condemnation from various European monarchies, which saw the execution as a violation of royal privilege and the rights of a sovereign. Marie Antoinette's tragic end became a symbol of the deep divisions and relentless pursuit of social and political change during the French Revolution. Her legacy continued to captivate historical discourse, making her a figure of both fascination and controversy, representing an era defined by upheaval, uncertainty, and transformation.
- marie antoinette
- louis xvi
- french revolution
- french monarchy
- reign of terror