What Happened to Marie Antoinette's Children?
The tragic tale of Marie Antoinette's death during the French Revolution is the stuff of legend. But while the story of Marie Antoinette ends with her beheading in 1793, the tragedy of her family continued to unfold long after her death.
Marie Antoinette and her husband, the Dauphin, were married for seven years before consummating their marriage -- much to the chagrin of Marie's family, particularly her critical mother, the Empress Maria Teresa of the Holy Roman Empire. Marie's place in the royal household of France and Franco-Austrian relations absolutely depended on her producing a male heir, even before her husband became the King of France in 1774. Despite the rocky start, Marie and Louis XVI would have four children -- only one of whom lived to adulthood.
Marie Antoinette's first child was a girl, named Marie Thérèse after Marie's mother. When she was born on December 9, 1778, Marie Antoinette suffered a convulsive fit and collapsed, not surprising after 12 hours of labor in her stuffy room and the possibly dangerous incompetence of her doctor. The Queen wasn't informed the sex of the child until hours later. But when she woke, she reportedly said, "Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been property of the state. You shall be mine." There certainly would have been witnesses to the episode: Court custom at the time dictated that queens gave birth in full view of their courtiers.
Louis Joseph, the King's male heir and the next Dauphin of France, was born three years later, followed by Louis Charles in March of 1785 and Sophie in July of 1786. But Sophie, who was born premature, died just a month shy of her first birthday, and Louis Joseph, who'd been a delicate child most of his life, died two years later, at the age of 7, likely from tuberculosis.
While Marie was fulfilling her wifely duties and setting fashion trends in the court at Versailles, France was starving. While Louis XVI continued to send money abroad to support the Americans in the American Revolution, France's national debt exploded; taxes grew, settling most unfairly on the poor; and rampant unemployment combined with poor crops meant that by the late 1780s, France was a powder keg of dissension, anger and resentment. And Marie, with her courtly ways, detached Austrian air, and unfortunate proclivity for spending masses of money, became the scapegoat.
On July 14, 1789, the fuse was lit with the storming of the Bastille; by October, Marie, her husband and her two surviving children were removed from Versailles and moved to the Tuileries in Paris, placed under house arrest. In 1792, the King was deposed and the family was imprisoned in the Temple in Marais.
Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793; Marie followed 10 months later, on October 16. On June 8, 1795, their son, the Dauphin and the boy royalists had named Louis XVII, died at the age of 10, most likely of tuberculosis exacerbated by his brutal prison conditions.
Marie Thérèse: The Survivor
Now Marie Thérèse, the oldest of Marie Antoinette's children, was a true orphan. Her parents killed, her brothers and sisters all dead, she was left for a time alone in the Temple prison, before being released at the age of 17 in December of 1795. Soon after, she was married to the Duc d'Angoulême, nephew to the new King, the self-styled Louis XVIII, and now heir to the throne of France. As the Duchesse d'Angoulême, however, her life did not improve: Her marriage was an unhappy one and never consummated, the tragic circumstances of her early life had left her bitter and angry, and she was to spend most of her life exiled from France. She had not inherited her mother's famed beauty -- she suffered from bad teeth, a red face, and a rather masculine build -- or her grace, though for a time, as her husband's claim on the throne became even more assured, she bore her mother's title: Madame la Dauphine.
In 1830, Marie Thérèse technically did achieve the title of Queen of France — for about 20 minutes, long enough for her husband the Duc to sign the abdication papers.
She died in October 1851, at the age 72, still in exile. In her last testament, she forgave those who'd made her life so miserable, following, she said, the example of her parents.