The story goes that when U.S. President Richard Nixon asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 what he thought of the French Revolution, the latter replied, ‘it’s too early to tell.’ While Premier Zhou was likely referring to the Paris riots of 1968, not the revolution of 1789, it is nevertheless the case that we are still in many ways living in the shadow of the French Revolution–not least in the political language of ‘left’ and ‘right’, which originated in the respective seating positions of republicans and monarchists in the National Assembly. Other remnants of the revolution linger with us, including the mid-November auction of a pearl belonging to Marie Antoinette for $36 million dollars. The wife of King Louis XVI managed to smuggle her jewellery, including a pearl necklace, earrings, and a ring containing a lock of her hair, to her family in Austria amidst the turmoil of the revolution. Over two centuries later, these items have been auctioned off by the royal Bourbon-Parma house in Italy. These valuables made it to safety, but the queen did not.
What events led up to the execution of the queen? In 1789, the year in which the mutiny on the HMS Bounty took place and King’s College (Nova Scotia) was founded, the king summoned the Estates-General to Versailles to deal with the crippling financial crisis and unrest precipitated by poor crop yields in France and ensuing riots (indirectly caused by the Icelandic volcano of 1783 which spewed sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere over northern Europe–I have romped on the mossy, spongy dried lava-field from that volcano in Iceland). The Estates-General was constituted by the three Estates of clergy, nobility, and commons; but the Third Estate turned itself into the National Assembly and devised a new constitution which dismantled the Ancien Régime, thus undermining the power of the monarchy, clergy, and aristocracy in France. Indeed, a pivotal moment in the creation of the National Assembly was the ‘Oath of the Tennis Court’ sworn by the opponents of the Ancien Régime and immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s unfinished but stirring 1791 drawing of the event (featuring a Time-Lordish Maximilien Robespierre, who places his hands on both of his hearts). This should not be confused with Jacques-Louis Paume-joueur’s angry curses at losing the championship of the 1789 French Open, that other ‘oath of the tennis court’.
The National Assembly initially sought a constitutional monarchy in France, in which power would be shared between the monarchy and the assembly. But with the storming of the Bastille, widespread riots, and the capture of the king by the National Guard, the royal family decided to bolt. Caught up in this maelstrom was the French queen Marie Antoinette, a princess from the House of Austria–and given how things turned out, she might be characterised as a mis-Hapsburg. Daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa, she was arranged to be married to the Dauphin of France when she was 14. She became queen when the Dauphin acceded to the throne in 1774, and was initially a popular figure. But her extravagance and frivolity–including lavish parties and playing shepherdess–amidst the dire social and economic situation in France soon made her a figure of popular hatred.
Genevan hippie-philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau related the following anecdote in 1764 when concerned about his overly-fancy outfit while entering a modest bakery: ‘At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: “Then let them eat brioches.”‘ The similar remark ‘let them eat cake’ was attributed to the queen during the bread shortages in pre-revolutionary France. There is, however, no evidence that the ‘great princess’ was Marie Antoinette (as she was only nine when Rousseau wrote these words); and given that the anecdote comes from Rousseau’s notoriously untruthful Confessions (early modern Europe’s ultimate ‘TMI’ work of self-delusion/disclosure), it may well be a figment of his overly-fertile imagination. Perhaps the infamous quip ‘let them eat cake’ was instead a misheard comment from the queen who, upon hearing about the misery of her subjects, recommended that members of the public be received by empathetic members of the royal family like today’s Duchess of Cambridge: ‘let them meet Kate [Middleton]’.
Marie Antoinette and the royal family unsuccessfully attempted to flee to Varennes, where royalist exiles were waiting. Furthermore, the rival powers of Prussia and her birth-country of Austria threatened France with military intervention. In response, the radical wing of the revolutionaries (the Jacobins) abolished the monarchy and established a republic in 1792. The king was executed in January 1793, followed by the queen six months later. At the trial of Marie Antoinette, the queen’s plea of ‘not guillotine’ would be shouted down by the Jacobins’ ‘cutting’ remarks: her supposed unconcern for the French people as well as Austrian ties were imputed against her. On October 16, she was led to execution (as depicted above in this 1794 British painting by William Hamilton). Here is one account in the British Annual Register:
‘She seldom cast her eyes upon the populace, and regarded with indifference, if she at all regarded, the great armed force of thirty thousand men which lined the streets in double ranks. They who had seen her in the former part of her life could not but observe the altered state of her countenance, and what a sad change sorrow had made in that seat of animation and beauty. Her spirits appeared to be calm and she conversed with the priest who was seated by her with an air of decent submission but without the least appearance of anguish or dejection. She ascended the scaffold with much haste and seeming impatience, and then turned her eyes with apparent emotion towards the garden of the Tuileries, one of the scenes of her former greatness.
‘At half past twelve, the guillotine severed her head from her body, and the executioner exhibited it, all streaming with blood, from the four corners of the scaffold to an inveterate and insatiable multitude.’
If she had tried to pay off her executioner with her super-expensive jewellery, the cruel and bloodthirsty revolutionaries might well have told her that all her trinkets and baubles were worth ‘necks’ to nothing. From the perspective of British parliamentarian and author Edmund Burke, a fervent admirer of Marie Antoinette and critic of the revolution in France, such jewels might well be regarded as pearls before swine–or in Burke’s caustic words, ‘the swinish multitude.’ The bloodletting of the revolution would hardly end there: another legacy of the French Revolution, given the unprecedented body-counts of the extreme leftist and rightist revolutions and world wars in late modern times.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Swinish Studies Program