The Palace at Versailles

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What is there to say about the grandest of all the palaces in the world that has not already been said? The art that adorns the walls is magnificent. The Hall of Mirrors is gorgeous–one can only imagine how utterly amazing that room must have looked when the light of hundreds of candles refracted and reflected the light through the plethora of jewels that adorned the women present. The gardens simply astounding. I walked and walked and walked some more! I was utterly exhausted by the end of my seven hour stint exploring the palace, the gardens and Trianon, most famous for Marie Antoinette’s lavish parties and for being her refuge from court life.

Marie Antoinette, most famous for her ‘Let them eat cake’ remarks when she was informed of bread shortages in France. I find Marie Antoinette’s story tragic and not just a little sad. Perhaps I identify with her, in a way, as she was disliked by the French–though not initially–and nicknamed L’Autrichienne, That Austrian Woman.

Her critics judge her harshly and severely and go so far as to credit her with the start of the French Revolution. I take a more sympathetic view of a teenage bride married off for political reasons. Marie Antoinette was scarcely prepared for royal life, while she excelled at music and dance she had difficulty reading and writing at the age of ten. This was in stark contrast to the education given to her future husband, Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France.

Austrian court was far different from French court at the time and was considered one of the most progressive having dispensed with, what were then viewed as, archaic rituals. Marie Antoinette’s parents encouraged their children to associate and play with ‘common’ children and court protocols could be flouted. Again, in stark contrast with French court life.

While Louis XVI was being groomed to ascend the throne of France, Marie Antoinette was vastly ignored by her mother. She was one of 16 and there were many other children who could be married off. Smallpox changed this however and she became the most eligible to marry France’s Dauphin and marry him she did–without even meeting him.

The older and stuffier members at court disapproved of her, her methods and how she changed some of the customs of the French court and this made life difficult for her. She chose to spend more time at Trianon, a gift from her husband, to get away from court life. As her popularity declined, in no small way directly related to her spending and lavish parties, more and more rumours circulated about her. The vast majority of them were untrue, for example she never decorated the walls of Trianon with gold and diamonds.

Yes, the French were experiencing worsening financial conditions. Yes, she flouted traditional protocol and was far more involved in the lives of her children than was accepted and appreciated. No, she was not responsible in large part for the decline of the French economy; she had nothing to do with the Seven Years’ War and the debt incurred there, for instance.

She was an indulged child, married off as a teenager, who was told she could have anything she liked and who was expected to outshine any other woman at court. She was after all the Dauphine. Even after French reforms in spending and cuts to the royal retinue, the parliament settled into a pattern of defying the king. Marie Antoinette could do no right at this point and she was not present at the first meeting of the Assembly of Notables–in large part due to her lack of political influence–and she was accused of trying to undermine proceedings.

After riots besieged Paris, culminating in the storming of the Bastille, the palace was invaded just after the September bread shortages, the royal family forced to leave Versailles for Paris where they were installed in the Tuileries palace under surveillance by the Garde Nationale. The royal family attempted to leave for Verennes but the plan was delayed, times, dates and logistics changed and changed again. Ultimately the plan failed. The family were returned to Paris. Soon after their return to Paris, with the French economy falling further into despair and Austria’s victories in the war with France, a mob besieged the Tuileries and the royal family were arrested.

Marie Antoinette was given one day to prepare for her trial, at which, she was accused of sexual perversion and this was used as evidentiary support for her execution. The accusations were baseless and she was nothing more than an easy target. I think that’s why I sympathise with her–being an easy target, not being Dauphine. A young girl, ill prepared for French royal life, spoiled, a woman who in the eyes of the public could do nothing right, and even when she did, she was accused of having ulterior motives. Marie Antoinette was guillotined on 16 October, 1793, roughly nine months after her husband, and was simultaneously catapulted into history and so her legend was born.

Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France
Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France
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