"If they have no bread, let them eat cake"

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France from 1774 to 1792, was not an angel and did not exactly have a nice personality. Ultimately however it was barefaced lies which led to her tragic end, and in her deepest distress, at her darkest hour, even Marie Antoinette's enemies were impressed by her dignity and composure.

Marie Antoinette assumed the title of Queen of France when her husband, Louis XVI of France, ascended the throne in May 1774. Initially charmed by her personality and beauty, the French people generally came to dislike her, accusing "L'Autrichienne" (meaning the Austrian (woman)) of being spendthrift, immoral, and of harboring sympathies for France's enemies, particularly Austria, her country of origin. The Diamond Necklace incident damaged her reputation further, although she was completely innocent in this affair. She later became known as Madame Déficit because of her lavish spendings during famine times.

In the mean time the country and the state had been in decline finally sinking to rock bottom. Louis XVI, an honest man, and not by nature bad, nevertheless lacked the determination and skill to push through the necessary reforms. Well-meant actions such as the restoration of parliament resulted in the opposite of what he had hoped for. The establishment which controlled parliament stubbornly opposed the curtailment of their influence.

Marie Antoinette, portrait of the queen in a "muslin" dress. This controversial portrait was viewed by her critics to be improper for a queen.

Embodying the epitome of her perceived arrogance, the following anecdote spread like wildfire throughout France: riding around in her coach, Marie Antoinette was said to have asked why the people looked so unhappy. "Your majesty, they have no bread," she was allegedly told. It was indeed the case that the failed harvest of 1789 had made bread prices shoot through the roof; starvation loomed. But Marie Antoinette was said to have replied simply: "If they have no bread, let them eat cake." She probably never uttered these words. It is more likely that someone took them from the Confessions of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, France's most acclaimed writer at the time of the revolution. In this book, written between 1766 and 1770, an unnamed princess is heard to say the sentence, talking generally about the hungry. Nevertheless in France in 1789 everyone believed that such a cynical suggestion could only have come from Marie Antoinette. Pamphlets and plays defamed her throughout the land. It was even said that she indulged in incest with her son.

On 13 August 1792, the royal family was imprisoned in the tower of the Temple. At first their conditions were not extremely harsh but they were prisoners and were re-styled as "Capets" by the new-born Republic. The king was separated from his family and he was executed on 21 January 1793, at the age of thirty-eight.

This State Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately attire.

The result was that the "Widow Capet", as the former queen was called after the death of her husband, plunged into deep mourning and she refused to eat. Marie-Antoinette's health rapidly deteriorated in the following months. By this time, she suffered from tuberculosis and possibly uterine cancer, which caused her to hemorrhage frequently.

Despite her condition, the debate as to her fate was the central question of the National Convention after Louis's death. On 1 August, she herself was taken out of the Tower and entered into the Conciergerie as Prisoner No. 280. Despite various attempts to get her out, Marie Antoinette refused when the plots for her escape were brought to her attention. She was finally tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October. Unlike the king, who had been given time to prepare a defence, the queen was given less than one day. Most of the accusations were untrue and probably lifted from rumours.

The most infamous charge was that she sexually abused her son. After being reminded that she had not answered the charge of incest, Marie Antoinette protested emotionally to the accusation, and the women present in the courtroom — the market women who had stormed the palace for her entrails in 1789 — even began to support her. She had been composed throughout the trial until this accusation was made, to which she finally answered, "If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother."

Marie Antoinette's execution on 16 October 1793

In reality, the outcome of the trial had already been decided by the Committee of Public Safety and she was declared guilty of treason in the early morning of 16 October, after two days of proceedings. Back in her cell, she composed a letter to her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, affirming her clear conscience, her Catholic faith and her feelings for her children. The letter did not reach Élisabeth.

On the same day, her hair was cut off and she was driven through Paris in an open cart, wearing a plain white dress. At 12:15 p.m. October 16, 1793, two and a half weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday, Marie Antoinette was beheaded at the Place de la Révolution (nowadays, Place de la Concorde). Her last words were "Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it", to Henri Sanson the executioner, whose foot she had accidentally stepped on after climbing the scaffold. Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery. Her sister-in-law Élisabeth was executed in 1794 and her son died in prison in 1795. Her daughter returned to Austria in a prisoner exchange, married and died childless in 1851.

Discrimination among the different classes of people led to French Revolution

Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) and the Second Estate (nobility) on its back.

The French Revolution was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that had a fundamental impact on French history and on modern history worldwide. One of the main reasons of the French revolution is social cause. The inequalities prevailing in the society created much discontentment among the masses and forced them to oppose the prevalent social structure. Years of deficit spending created a government that was deeply in debt. The money from the government had been spent on: The Seven Years’ War, The American Revolution, Bad harvests in the 1780s made it harder to recoup this money. To solve financial crisis the government had to increase taxes, reduce expenses, or do both.

During 1789, at the time of the revolution, the French people were widely diverse and the people were separated between three classes. The First Estate comprised 10,000 Catholic clergy and owned 5–10% of the lands in France—the highest per capita of any estate. All property of the First Estate was tax exempt. The Second Estate comprised the nobility, which consisted of 400,000 persons at the time, including women and children. Since the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the nobles had enjoyed resurgence in power. They had almost a monopoly over distinguished government service, higher church offices, army parliaments, and most other public and semipublic honors by the time of the revolution. Like the First Estate, they were not taxed by the principle of feudal precedent. The Third Estate comprised about 25 million people: the bourgeoisie, the peasants, and everyone else in France. Unlike the First and Second Estates, the Third Estate were compelled to pay taxes, but the bourgeoisie found one way or another to be exempt from them. The heavy burden of the French government therefore fell upon the poorest in French society—the peasantry, the working poor, and the farmers. There was much resentment from the Third Estate towards its superiors.

Three Women behind the Diamond Necklace Affair

The Diamond Necklace reconstruction

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was an incident in the 1780s at the court of Louis XVI of France involving his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. The reputation of the Queen, which was already tarnished by gossip, was ruined by the implication that she had participated in a crime to defraud the crown jewellers of the cost of a very expensive diamond necklace. The Affair was historically significant as one of the events that led to the French populace's disillusionment with the monarchy, which, among other causes, eventually culminated in the French Revolution.

Background of Diamond Necklace

In 1772, Louis XV ( King of France from 1-9-1715 until his death) decided to make Madame du Barry (the chief mistress of the king of France), with whom he was infatuated, a special gift at a very huge cost of 2,000,000livres. He requested that Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge create a diamond necklace which would surpass all others in magnificence and majesty. It would take the jewelers several years and a great deal of money to amass an appropriate set of diamonds. In the meantime, Louis XV died of smallpox, and du Barry was banished from court by his successor.

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France
Madame du Barry, the chief mistress of earlier King Louis XV

The necklace consisted of many large diamonds arranged in an elaborate design of festoons, pendants andtassels. The jewelers hoped it could be a product that the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, could buy and indeed in 1778 the new king, Louis XVI, offered it to his wife as a present, but she refused. According to Madame Campan, the Queen refused it with the statement that the money would be better spent for war equipment. Some said that Marie Antoinette refused the necklace because she did not want to wear any jewel that had been designed for another woman, especially if that woman was a courtesan she disliked. After having vainly tried to place the necklace outside of France, the jewelers again attempted to sell it to Marie Antoinette in 1781. The Queen again refused.

The Affair

There was notorious lady named Jeanne de la Motte, who was a descendant of an illegitimate son of Henry II of France. Jeanne had married an army officer and was living on a small pension which the King had granted her.Jeanne was described as having been slender with small breasts; she had white skin, chestnut-brown hair, limpid blue eyes, and a "winning smile". Jeanne de la Motte conceived a plan to use the necklace to gain wealth and possibly power and royal patronage. In March 1785 Jeanne became the mistress of the Cardinal de Rohan, a former French ambassador to the court of Vienna. The Cardinal was regarded with displeasure by Queen Marie Antoinette (the Queen of France and the wife of King of France Louis XVI).

At this time, the Cardinal was attempting to regain the Queen's favour in order to become one of the King's ministers. Jeanne de la Motte, having entered court by means of her lover named Rétaux de Villette, persuaded Cardinal Rohan that she had been received by the Queen and enjoyed her favour. On hearing of this, Rohan resolved to use Jeanne to regain the Queen's goodwill. Jeanne assured the Cardinal that she was making efforts on his behalf.

This began an alleged correspondence between Rohan and the Queen, the returning replies to Rohan's notes, which she affirmed came from the Queen. The tone of the letters became very warm, and the Cardinal, convinced that Marie Antoinette was in love with him, became charmed of her. He begged Jeanne to arrange a secret night-time interview for him with the Queen, and the supposed meeting took place in August 1784. In the garden of the Palace of Versailles, the Cardinal met with a woman whom he believed to be the Queen. This woman was in fact a prostitute, Nicole d'Oliva, who had been hired by Jeanne because of her resemblance to the Queen. Rohan offered d'Oliva a rose, and, in her role as the Queen, she promised him that she would forget their past disagreements.

Jeanne de la Motte took advantage of the Cardinal's belief in her by borrowing large sums of money from him, telling him that they were for the Queen’s charity work. With this money, Jeanne was able to make her way into respectable society. Because she openly boasted about her relationship with the Queen, many assumed the relationship was genuine.

The jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge resolved to use her to sell their necklace. She at first refused a commission, but then changed her mind and accepted it.

Jeanne de la Motte, notorious lady & master mind behind Diamond Necklace affair
The Cardinal de Rohan

The "Queen" sent several letters to the cardinal, including an order to buy the necklace; they were signed Marie Antoinette de France, but the Cardinal either didn't know or didn't remember that French queens signed with their given names only.

On 21 January 1785, Jeanne told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted to buy the necklace; but, not wishing to purchase such an expensive item publicly during a time of need, the Queen wanted the Cardinal to act as a secret intermediary. A little while later, Rohan negotiated the purchase of the necklace for 2,000,000livres, to be paid in installments. He claimed to have the Queen's authorization for the purchase, and showed the jewellers the conditions of the bargain in the Queen's handwriting. Rohan took the necklace to Jeanne's house, where a man, whom Rohan believed to be a valet of the Queen, came to fetch it. Jeanne de la Motte's husband secretly took the necklace to London, where it was broken up in order to sell the large individual diamonds separately.

When time came to pay the amount, Jeanne de la Motte presented the Cardinal's notes, but these were insufficient. Boehmer complained to the Queen, who told him that she had neither ordered nor received the necklace. She had the story of the negotiations repeated for her. On 15 August 1785, the Feast of the Assumption, while the court was awaiting the King and Queen to go to the chapel, the Cardinal de Rohan, who was to officiate, was taken before the King, the Queen, the Minister of the Court to explain himself. Rohan produced a letter signed "Marie Antoinette de France". On reading this, the King became furious that Rohan, could have let himself be fooled, since royalty do not use surnames. Rohan was arrested and taken to the Bastille; on the way he sent home a note ordering the destruction of his correspondence. Jeanne was not arrested until three days later, giving her a chance to destroy her papers.

The police arrested the prostitute Nicole d'Oliva and Rétaux de Villette, who confessed that he had written the letters given to Rohan in the queen's name, and had imitated her signature.

A sensational trial resulted in the acquittal of the Cardinal and the prostitute d'Oliva on 31 May 1786. Jeanne de la Motte was condemned to be whipped, branded with a V (for voleuse, "thief") on each shoulder, and sent to life imprisonment in the prostitutes' prison at the Salpêtrière. In June of the following year she escaped from prison disguised as a boy. Meanwhile, her husband was condemned to the galleys for life. The forger Villette was banished.

The Queen, a manipulative spendthrift?

Public opinion was much excited by this trial. Most historians come to the conclusion that Marie Antoinette was relatively blameless in the matter, that Rohan was an innocent dupe, and that the Jeanne La Mottes deceived both for their own ends. This was also broadly the finding of the Paris Parlement, although they did not comment on the actions of the Queen.

Despite the findings to the contrary, many people in France persisted in the belief that the Queen had used the Jeanne La Mottes as an instrument to satisfy her hatred of the Cardinal de Rohan. Various circumstances fortified this belief. There was the Queen's disappointment at Rohan's acquittal, and the fact that the Cardinal was afterwards deprived by the King of his charges and exiled to the monastery in south-central France. In addition, the people assumed that the Parlement de Paris's acquittal of Rohan implied that Marie Antoinette was somehow in the wrong. All of these factors led to a huge decline in the Queen's popularity and encouraged an image of her among the masses as a manipulative spendthrift, interested more in vanity than in the welfare of France and the French. Jeanne de la Motte took refuge in London and in 1789 she published her memories, in which she once again accused the Queen.


The affair of the diamond necklace was important in discrediting the Kingdom, Bourbon monarchy in the eyes of the French people, four years before the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette became even more unpopular, and malicious gossip about her made her even more of a liability to her husband. She was never able to shake off the idea in the public imagination that she had perpetrated an extravagant fraud for her own frivolous ends. Nonetheless, the affair prompted Louis XVI to become closer to his wife, and may have inclined him to be more defensive of and more responsive to her leading up to the revolution.