Top 5 Marie Antoinette Scandals

By: Contributors  | 
In this portrait, Marie Antoinette is with her children and her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, facing the mob that broke into the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Key Takeaways

  • Marie Antoinette never actually said, "Let them eat cake!" but the phrase became associated with her due to its depiction in Rousseau's "Confessions."
  • The Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a fraudulent scheme involving a costly necklace, severely damaged her reputation and contributed to the revolutionary fervor.
  • Her intimate relationship with Swedish soldier Axel von Fersen and the couple's delayed consummation of marriage were also sources of scandal.

When Marie Antoinette died under the heavy blade of the guillotine Oct. 16, 1793, it was a decidedly unglamorous affair. That's not to say it wasn't a celebration: Many French revolutionaries were ecstatic to bid the extravagant queen adieu forever. After the blade came down, the executioner brandished Marie Antoinette's head in a triumphant wave so that the entire crowd could see it.

Yet for the thousands of people gathered to watch the scene, it was a disappointment. They wanted to see the 38-year-old queen of France quake in fear and cower penitently. A well-known 18th-century journalist and revolutionary, Jacques Hébert, wrote in the newspaper Le Père Duchesne that she was "bold and impudent to the very end." Despite the fact that the executioner had cut off all her hair and ordered her to don a threadbare white shift (likely soiled by the time she made it up the steps to the guillotine), Marie Antoinette maintained her composure.


Marie Antoinette's death was one of the biggest scandals of her life. Was it good riddance or not? To this day, there are wavering opinions about the young queen. Sympathizers point to the fact that young Antoine, as she was called in her native Austria, was nothing more than a bargaining chip for her mother. When Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old, her mother arranged for her to wed Louis Auguste, a carefully orchestrated union that would join the Austrian Hapsburgs and the French Bourbons. But detractors argue that while she had very little say in the conditions of her life, she certainly could have lived her days at court in a fashion more befitting the queen of a nation on the cusp of revolution.

While there's no point in deliberating her virtue or vices, we can delight in being voyeurs into the opulent court at Versailles, the scene of many Marie Antoinette scandals. We begin with the oft-quoted dismissal of her hungry subjects.

A crowd cheered just after Marie Antoinette was beheaded by an executioner.
Public Domain


1. 'Let Them Eat Cake!'

As famous as she is for having proclaimed, "Let them eat cake," when she heard that the peasants were starving, Marie Antoinette actually never said it. The young queen was known to be quite tenderhearted, in contrast to her less flattering attributes as a spendthrift and wild reveler. There are accounts of her administering aid to a peasant who'd been gored by a wild animal, as well as taking in an orphaned boy.

There also are facts that prove she never uttered this scandalous remark. The expression likely comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions," a treatise penned in the late 18th century. There's a possibility that Rousseau turned the phrase himself; other historians think it may have been uttered by Maria Theresa, the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV 100 years before Marie Antoinette ever went to France.


And the expression isn't as callous as it may sound. From an economical standpoint, it was a perfectly logical thing to say.

The phrase is "qu'ils mangent de la brioche" and actually means "let them eat an egg-based bread," which was a richer type of bread than the typical bread made of flour and water the Parisian pauper was eating. A French law mandated that bakers sell their brioche at the same price as their inexpensive bread if supply ran out. Later, the law would be the downfall of the hungry lower classes when bakers responded by baking very short supplies of bread to save themselves from economic ruin.


2. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace

Marie Antoinette's fate might have been sealed after what became known as the affair of the diamond necklace. Public Domain

Like most good scandals, this one involves a smattering of diamonds, a prostitute and forged correspondence. We'll begin with the diamonds.

Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge nearly went broke creating a necklace that they presumed King Louis XV would buy for his mistress Madame du Barry in 1772. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, the necklace was worth roughly 1.6 million livres — about US$100 million today. Unfortunately for Boehmer and Bassenge (and Madame du Barry), King Louis died of smallpox before he could purchase it. Boehmer and Bassenge hoped that the new king, Louis XVI, would buy the necklace for the new queen, Marie Antoinette. But Marie Antoinette made a patriotic, sentient decision to discourage Louis from purchasing the necklace.


The necklace languished in the jewelers' possession until a desperate, enterprising woman named Jeanne de la Motte Valois devised a plot to pull herself out of debt by acquiring the necklace and selling it for parts. The Comtesse de la Motte appealed to Cardinal de Rohan, who was rather unpopular at court. From 1772 to '74, he'd served as the French ambassador to Vienna, where he became a quick enemy of Marie Antoinette's mother — and of Marie Antoinette herself. The comtesse told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette desperately wanted the diamond necklace but that she didn't want to ask Louis for it. La Motte slyly suggested that if Cardinal de Rohan could find a way to procure it for Marie Antoinette, his good reputation would be restored at court.

La Motte had her lover, Rétaux de Villette, write letters in Marie Antoinette's hand and send them to the cardinal, asking him to buy the necklace. The comtesse even paid a prostitute who looked like the queen to have a secret tête-à-tête with the cardinal in the Versailles gardens one night. At last, the cardinal wrangled the diamonds from Boehmer and Bassenge on credit. The jewelers presented the necklace to the queen's footman for delivery — only the footman was Rétaux in disguise. He seized the necklace and headed to London.

When his first payment was due, Cardinal de Rohan couldn't cough up the amount. The jewelers demanded money from Marie Antoinette, who had no knowledge of the necklace. By then, the necklace had been sold. A furious Louis had the cardinal arrested who was later acquitted of all charges and exiled. The scheming mastermind la Motte was imprisoned but broke free and took up residence in England. There, she spread propaganda about the queen.

Marie Antoinette's reputation (already hanging tenuously in the balance) was ruined. The scandal confirmed that she was, indeed, "Madame Déficit." The diamond necklace affair would be one of the final straws before the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette's death sentence.


3. The Deed With the Swede

Axel von Fersen was Marie Antoinette's most trusted confidante, and perhaps most trusted lover. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Marie Antoinette met the Swedish soldier Axel von Fersen in January 1774 at a ball in Paris. At the time, she was still the dauphine (not yet the queen), and Fersen's military career had just begun. Marie Antoinette was instantly attracted to Fersen who was handsome, solemn and chivalrous. She invited him to Versailles, and he became known as one of her favorite guests. Fersen returned Marie Antoinette's affections, but couldn't offer constancy: His military career blossomed into a diplomatic post and took him to England for several years and then to the American colonies, where he fought with the colonists on behalf of France.

When Louis officially became king, he gave Marie Antoinette Petit Trianon Palace, a three-story "pleasure house" tucked away in the vast grounds of Versailles. The house had been under construction from 1762-68 — it had been intended for Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV. Marie Antoinette was delighted with her acquisition and expanded its domain to include a rustic farm and town that she called Le Hameau ("the hamlet").


She passed her time in these shrouded quarters, and members of the court considered it a great honor to be invited there. In fact, those who weren't invited to Trianon Palace circulated rumors about the queen's debauchery and reputed love affair with her close friend the Duchesse de Polignac.

Fersen was a much more frequent visitor. He had his own apartment directly above Marie Antoinette's, and judging from the correspondence between the two, they had a very intimate relationship. While they were involved, Marie Antoinette still pursued her wifely duty of creating an heir to the throne; there's really no way to tell if her children were Louis' or Fersen's. But Louis accepted the children as his own, and Marie Antoinette and her lover were careful to avoid any unwanted pregnancies.

When Marie Antoinette and her family were imprisoned at the Tuileries during the first thrust of the French Revolution, Fersen was instrumental in plotting their escape. He borrowed large sums of money and even mortgaged his house to help them flee, and he never did pay it back in full — nor did the escape work. The party was apprehended in the town of Varennes, miles from the Austrian border.

Fersen outlived Marie Antoinette by nearly 20 years. He died June 20, 1810, when he was beaten to death by a Stockholm mob for his suspected involvement in the crown prince's death.


4. The Brick Wall in the Bedroom

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI hold court in their apartments at Versailles in the last years of the reign of Louis XV. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For seven years, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's marriage was not consummated — and it was all anyone could talk about. Well that, and the brewing French revolution.

The couple wed in May 1770, and the ceremony and ensuing celebration had all the trappings of a lavish royal fête. At Versailles, custom permitted the king's courtiers to accompany the newlyweds to their bedroom, where they reposed on display. It did little to stoke the fires of passion.


Marie Antoinette was frustrated. She was willing and able to sexually receive her husband; as a matter of fact, she lived in a state of anxiety that he would never warm to her and that she'd be sent home to Austria as an utter failure. Her mother, Maria Theresa, reminded her of this danger at every possible juncture in their correspondence. She wrote to Marie Antoinette to "lavish more caresses" on Louis. What's more, it was clear something was wrong with the couple. It wasn't just the young couple's physical gratification at stake: France was waiting for Marie Antoinette to produce an heir to the throne.

News of the couple's problems spread from the court of Versailles to the streets of Paris, where pamphlets mocking Louis' powerlessness were distributed. The propaganda planted the seed that if Louis couldn't perform in the bedroom, he certainly couldn't perform on the throne. Louis XV watched forlornly as his grandson failed to execute his mission; the reigning king had a rapacious sexual appetite and an insatiable mistress, Madame du Barry.

Louis was doughy, impressionable and more fascinated by locks, languages and hunting than he was by his lovely young wife. Marie Antoinette explained to a friend, "My tastes are not the same as the King's, who is only interested in hunting and his metal-working." But different tastes or not, Maria Theresa sent her son Joseph to assess the couple's damage. He called them "two complete blunderers" and surmised that nothing else stood in their way of consummation.

Joseph may not have been entirely correct in his analysis. Louis had been diagnosed with a condition that made sex very painful. There was an operation available to correct the condition, but Louis was reluctant to go under the knife. Some historians think he finally acquiesced and had the procedure while some say he never did; regardless, the couple finally consummated.

Marie Antoinette and Louis later wrote to Joseph, thanking him for his help. Who knows what suggestive advice he might have whispered in their ears during a walk around the grounds of Versailles?


5. The National Wardrobe

Marie Antoinette instituted couture fashion and the towering "pouf" hairstyle we now equate to the court of Versailles. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

When she was a young girl in Austria, Marie Antoinette was rather rough-and-tumble. She liked horseback riding and hunting. But at Versailles, her tomboy tendencies were squeezed out of her with each tightening of her corset. Marie Antoinette hated being put on display and having grand ceremonies made out of everyday activities like getting dressed and eating meals.

She need only receive a letter from her mother to remind her of her place. Marie Antoinette was, after all, in a marriage of diplomacy. Maria Theresa couldn't stand for her daughter to fail Austria. Though she acquired the reputation of a spendthrift, Marie Antoinette wasn't always so fast and loose with her budget. Her mother rebuked Marie Antoinette for keeping a slovenly appearance, and the letters she wrote to her homesick daughter were full of reminders about wearing clean clothes and grooming her hair.


Marie Antoinette doffed her unfashionable togs for the latest in French couture from the house of Rose Bertin. Queen Marie Antoinette made designer Marie Jeanne Bertin Versaille's Minister of Fashion and she had significant influence over the fashion of the era.

During Louis' reign, he debt by contributing reinforcements to the American Revolution; Marie built up her debt in her closet. She had nearly 300 dresses made annually for her various social engagements at the court of Versailles, her private parties at Trianon Palace and for the stage of her jewel-box theater.

But it wasn't just dresses that Marie and her couturier fussed over. Rose Bertin created the towering "pouf" for Marie Antoinette and Jean-Louis Fargeon even made an exclusive fragrance made for that had a scent supposedly so strong, it gave her away during her family's plotted escape from the Tuileries.

Her pricy parties and extensive wardrobe earned Marie Antoinette the moniker Madame Déficit. She couldn't shake the title — not that she tried. Marie Antoinette was far removed from the revolutionary murmurs in Paris. And her ignorance ultimately culminated in her death sentence.


Frequently Asked Questions

How did Marie Antoinette's reputation affect her fate during the French Revolution?
Marie Antoinette's reputation for extravagance and the numerous scandals associated with her fueled public resentment, contributing to her eventual downfall and execution during the French Revolution.
What role did the press play in spreading rumors about Marie Antoinette?
The press played a significant role in spreading sensational rumors and defamatory pamphlets about Marie Antoinette, exacerbating her negative public image and undermining her position as queen.