16th of October 1793: execution of Marie-Antoinette

Marie Antoinette by Prieur

marie antoinette at the temple by prieur

After the fall of the monarchy on the 10th of August 1792, the dethroned Queen was imprisoned in the Tower of the Temple, along with her husband, Louis XVI, their children and Madame Elisabeth, the King’s younger sister.

The following December, Louis XVI stands trial before the National Convention, the elected body that now governs France. Louis is executed on the 21st of January 1793. Then, the following August, Marie-Antoinette is transferred, alone, without her children or sister-in-law Madame Elisabeth, to the jail of La Conciergerie. It is located within the premises of the main Courthouse of Paris, next to the Revolutionary Tribunal. For an ordinary prisoner that would mean that trial is imminent.

But Marie-Antoinette is no ordinary prisoner. She may have some value as a hostage in war negotiations with the Austrians, and the National Convention sends emissaries to that effect to the enemy. But Marie-Antoinette’s brothers, Joseph II and Leopold II, no longer reign over Austria. The new Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, her nephew, has never met her. He is not ready to compromise the hopes of a victory against the French armies for the sake of an aunt he does not know.

This is the context of her transfer to La Conciergerie: the National Convention hopes to step up the pressure and show Francis II that a trial is a real possibility. To no avail: the Emperor is content to express his indignation. For the National Convention, there is political advantage in executing a hated public figure, and none in keeping her alive.

Furthermore, several escape plans, including one that took her only yards from freedom, have been hatched while Marie-Antoinette was jailed at La Conciergerie. The National Convention does not want to lose face if she managed to flee. The case is therefore set for trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and a preliminary hearing is held at the beginning of October.

The trial itself begins on the 14th. The accused states her name: “Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine d’Autriche.” In itself this is a very bold move: she reminds the jurors of her French paternal ancestry (Lorraine) but also, less diplomatically, of the phrase The Austrian Woman. And France is at war with Austria… For a full transcript (in French) of the trial, I direct you to the irreplaceable Royet site. I will not enter into the details of the trial, which would require its separate – and very long – post. The Tribunal remained in session 15 hours on October 14, and almost 24 hours on October 15 and 16. The transcript notes that “Antoinette almost always kept a calm and assured demeanor; during the first hours of her questioning, she was seen running her fingers on the arm of her chair, as though she were playing the pianoforte.”

In my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution, one of the main characters is Pierre-André Coffinhal, a judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal. I have him relate the trial (it was eerie to write, because I had always thought of it from Marie-Antoinette’s standpoint.)

Her main line of defense was that she was not responsible for any of her actions! She claimed she had obeyed her husband’s orders when she prepared the flight to Varennes, or when she sent the French war plans to her brother, the tyrant of Austria. Her argument might have succeeded had she been any other woman. In her case, it was common knowledge that Capet [Louis XVI] had fallen entirely under her influence, that he was a hapless imbecile without any will of his own... Of course, that jackass Hébert [representative of the Municipality of Paris] had to disgrace himself by testifying that she had taught her son to pleasure himself. You may trust that scoundrel to bring up something lewd at every opportunity. [The presiding judge] Herman, who is no fool, let it pass without questioning Antoinette on it. The rest of us judges also ignored it, but one of the jurors insisted that she respond. That gave her an opportunity to feign outrage and appeal to the public.

Marie Antoinette Revolutionary Tribunal

Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal

This is of course her famous response to the incest accusation: “I appeal to all mothers!” Throughout the trial, Marie-Antoinette, very pale, physically exhausted, but as imposing as ever in her patched-up black widow’s dress, defends herself with energy and dignity.

She is assisted by two famous attorneys: Chauveau-Lagarde and Tronçon-Ducoudray. When the case goes to the jury in the early hours of the 16th, the outrageous incest accusation has been dropped. Only remain the counts of treason, conspiracy and collusion with domestic and foreign enemies.

The jury retires for over one hour. This is a very long by Revolutionary Tribunal standards. Then the verdict is read: guilty on all four counts. The sentencing is immediate, and there is no appeal from the jugements of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Had Marie-Antoinette harbored any hope of a different outcome? One of her attorneys, Chauveau-Lagarde, notes that “she was like annihilated by surprise.” She silently shakes her head when the presiding judge asks her whether she has anything to add. She leaves the courtroom without a word, her head held high.

From then on, we will simply follow a timeline.

4:30 AM: Marie-Antoinette is taken back to her cell, within the Courthouse building. She feels very faint now. One of the gendarmes, Lieutenant de Busne, offers her a glass of water and his arm to go down the steep corkscrew stairs. He holds his hat in his hand as a sign of respect. Once in her cell, she is given a candle, ink and paper. She writes her famous last letter to her sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth, a translation of which is provided by Elena at Tea at Trianon.

She also writes a few words in her prayer book:

This 16th of Oct. at 4:30 in the morning
My God, have mercy on me!
My eyes have no more tears
to weep for you my poor
children; farewell, farewell!

Marie Antoinette

7:00 AM: Rosalie Lamorlière, a young servant who has been attending to the former Queen, offers to bring her some food. “I do not need anything anymore,” responds Marie-Antoinette. “All is over for me.” Upon Rosalie’s insistence, Marie-Antoinette accepts a bowl of bouillon, but she can only swallow a few spoonfulls.

She is informed that she is not to wear her black dress to her execution. She puts on her only other remaining garment: a white cotton dress, with a black petticoat, and a white cap adorned with black ribbon. She has been bleeding profusely (she is apparently suffering from a uterine fibroma, or possibly some more serious condition) and wishes to change her shirt. She must do so, only shielded by Rosalie, in the presence of the gendarme officer who has replaced Lieutenant de Busne (the latter has been briefly arrested for showing her too much respect.) Rosalie also cuts Marie-Antoinette’s hair short on the neck. In this fashion the executioner does not have to do it himself to facilitate the operation of the guillotine.

MARIE ANTOINETTE EXECUTION

marie antoinette led to the guillotine

10:00 AM: The prison concierge and the turnkey find Marie-Antoinette kneeling by her bed, in prayers. She rises. Soon arrive the Court clerk and the judges, who read her the sentence, as required by law. She replies that she knows it all to well, but is told that she must listen to it again.

Then enters Henri Sanson, the executioner, who ties her hands behind her back. Again she protests. Louis XVI’s hands were not tied until he reached the foot of the guillotine, but the deposed Queen will receive far less consideration than her late husband. She is taken to the clerk’s office for the last formalities.

11:00 AM: She leaves La Conciergerie and reaches the Cour du Mai, in front of the Courthouse. There an open cart, drawn by two large white horses, is waiting for her. Louis XVI had been taken to the guillotine in the enclosed carriage of the Mayor of Paris, but again she will be treated like any other convict. However, the security is out of the ordinary: 30,000 men have been called to prevent any escape.

Marie Antoinette to the scaffold David

Marie Antoinette on the cart to the guillotine David

A sworn priest (meaning a cleric who had pledged allegiance to the Constitution) accompanies her the cart, but she politely declines his services. Again this is a stark contrast with the execution of Louis XVI, who had been granted the assistance of an unsworn priest of his own choosing.

The executioner and his helper, their hats in hand in sign of respect, also climb onto the cart. It slowly makes its way through the streets of Paris, in the midst of a jeering crowd assembled to see one last time the Queen in her capital. Marie-Antoinette sits very straight in the cart, proud and calm in the face of this display of hate, contempt and anger.

12:00 PM: At last the cart reaches Place de la Révolution, where she can see both her former Palace of Les Tuileries and the guillotine. She shows a strong emotion, but soon regains her composure. She steps off the cart promptly, lightly. Without requiring any help, she climbs the steps to the scaffold. She does not oppose any resistance and even apologizes for stepping on the executioner’s foot.

12:15 PM: The blade of the guillotine falls. So dies Marie-Antoinette, two weeks before her 38th birthday.

Marie Antoinette guillotine

Marie Antoinette guillotine

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32 Comments to “16th of October 1793: execution of Marie-Antoinette”

  1. Beautifully written, Catherine. RIP Marie Antoinette.

  2. Andrew says:

    Marie Antoinette had so much courage in the end.

  3. Maurício says:

    Hi Catherine!

    First of all, forgive me for not speaking french (I’m brazilian), it’s a language I love but still have to learn it properly. Second, let me congratulate you on this great website you have, it’s truly good! The 18th century is a passion of mine, especially France.

    I know you have law graduation, so do I, and I’ve always found the french legal system quite interesting, especially in the 18th century. May I suggest you a post about how the ”parlaments” used to work back then and how the kings had to registrate their edicts? Or about the ”lit de justice” ceremony (a quite fascinating one I think)?

    Anyway, congratulations again on the blog, keep up the good work!

  4. ellen moody says:

    This is a particularly fine blog, Catherine. Ellen

  5. Many thanks, Leslie, Andrew and Ellen, for your kind words!
    Mauricio, the topics you suggest are indeed most interesting. The role of the “parlements” in the Ancien Regime is too immense a topic for a blog, but the ceremonial of the “lit de justice” could be treated in one post. Stay tuned.

  6. Carlo says:

    Many thanks, Catherine. I have just read your blog. Very very fine.
    It’s a sad tale. The Revolutionary Tribunal was not fair to her, nor were the Parisian crowds. But it was a political case and the sentence was written before she was questioned.
    Do we know why his nephew (and his ministers) was so uninterested in saving her? He didn’t know her, sure, but she was a member of his family. What the French revolutionary government could have demanded for her life? Was the matter ever discussed?
    Cheers,

    Carlo

  7. Thank you, Carlo!
    What Francis II and his ministers were prepared to do to save his aunt was to pay money. And it does seem that Hebert, the author of the famous Pere Duchesne, received substantial sums to tone down his anti-Antoinette rhetoric. And he pretty much did, until it was clear that she would die and restraint would only cast suspicion on Hebert and his paper. But while Hebert was immensely popular with a certain part of the Parisian population, and his friends controlled -up to a certain point, as the following months would demonstrate- the Municipality of Paris, he wielded little influence with the government, i.e. the National Convention and its Committees.
    Another prime candidate for taking Austrian bribes would have been Danton. But during the fall of 93, he appeared semi-retired from politics and absorbed by personal issues. At his trial, he was not accused of this, though corruption allegations abounded. So it seems that Danton kept out of Marie-Antoinette’s case.
    What the Convention would have welcomed on the part of the Austrians was a peace deal, and that was off the table. Furthermore, after the Jacobins seized power and eliminated the Girondins in May-June of 1793, the military situation showed considerable improvement from the French side. A peace ushered by French victories no longer seemed a fantastic notion… though it would not be realized until four years later, with the Treaty of Campo Formio.
    You raise a very good question, one I have always considered from the French side. There is obviously more to the story from the Austrian side. Would it have been that the Austrians believed, in a cynical manner, that her death would reinforce the Coalition against France?

  8. Carlo says:

    Thanks again, Catherine, for your suggestions.
    Well, maybe Francis II was subdued by his counsellors and ministers. From what you say I suppose there never were official talks about the queen’s fate, but only secret bargainings, attempted plots and some bribery. It may really be that Austrian ministers thought that Marie Antoinette was “expendable”, and that a guillotined queen would be very good propaganda against France’s republican regime. If it was so, I doubt that any document, other than some private journal or correspondence, may have survived to tell this dark side of the story.
    What is striking is the will of humiliating the queen. Is it correct to say that she was worse treated than any other noblewoman sentenced to death?

  9. Maurício says:

    While it’s sad, I don’t think Austria would have gained anything politically important by saving Marie Antoinnete. Of course, she was the emperor’s aunt but the Emperor had to do what was best for his country and for his people, not necessarily what was best for his family. It was quite obvious, especially after the early victories against the revolutionary forces, that war against France could be a great opportunity to Austria enlarge its influence in Europe. So it’s not like a peace deal would be very desirable at that point.
    At the same time, I don’t think Antoinette’s death would be useful to the austrians either. If they wanted propaganda against the revolution, the king’s death wouldn’t be enough for that purpose? At the end of the day, I think the Emperor thought that saving his aunt could do more harm than good for his country, so he did nothing.

    While we’re on this subject, I do wonder how Antoinette’s life would have been back in Austria as a queen with no crown. She probably would have her daughter with her at some point, but definitely not the dauphin which would cause her a great pain I’m sure.

  10. Carlo, I would say Marie-Antoinette got the “standard treatment” with two caveats: security was tremendous on her way to the scaffold, as one would expect, and she suffered more taunting than anyone else because of the level of public hostility against her. Louis XVI was the one who was treated unusually (priest of his own choosing, closed carriage, hands not bound until reaching the scaffold…) Also, in his case the crowd was silent and somber, almost respectful.
    Mauricio, I find your conjectures quite likely as to the motives of Francis II and the Austrians. Yes, one can imagine a widowed Marie-Antoinette back in Austria. Reunited with her daughter, but not with her son, and probably treated, like most exiles, in a subtly shabby way. Stay tuned, I will review shortly Elena Maria Vidal’s Madame Royale.

  11. Maurício says:

    I’m not sure we’re allowed to post links, but here’s a great portrait of Marie Antoinette in the Temple prison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marie_Antoinette_at_the_Temple_Tower.jpg It’s so good that it looks like a real photograph, kind of weird actually. Anyway, I’ve never seen it before, maybe someone else hasn’t either.

  12. Of course, Mauricio, readers are allowed, and even encouraged to post links! As long as it’s not to a site that sells cheap (yeah, right) car insurance or generic [insert drug of your choice here] or worse…

    To go back to your link, I too am fascinated by this portrait of the widowed Marie-Antoinette. She looks so alive. I very much doubt it is by Kucharski. Let me try to find more about it.

  13. George Hruby says:

    I am from Southern California and after months of preliminary research, I spent November retracing much of the life of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. And I continue to research more on them both this month as I plan to return in March and revisit their haunts but again. What a French tragedy at such a grand scale. What a beautiful and yet, so tragic a love story between Louis and Marie. What a tragedy for their children, her ladies of the court (ie. Madame de Lamballe, etc.) and so many others. While France may have been caught in such a powerful political struggle at that time, the Royal family in no way deserved anything close to what was done to them both emotionally and physically. There story has touched me profoundly in so many ways. How can I not stand at her bedroom in Trianon and not be emotionally moved, or to stand below at her little hamlet and hear her children laughing and playing while the queen and her women talked nearby. To walk through her apartments at Versailles and imagine what occurred there that faithful night when the royal family was seized and taken away. Or to now walk the gardens at the Louvre and know the site of the Tuleries where nearly 800 Swiss Guards were massacred by the mob while trying to protect the royal family. I can but imagine what ghosts walk there at night. Your blog here, as well as your writings, show your passion for this couple and their children, and their story for all of France and the world to know. Thank you for sharing all that you do on this tragic story with the entire world.

  14. Meggi-Lovett says:

    beautifully written. the death of Marie Antoinette has always fascinated me. Excellent work.

  15. Sunshine says:

    I’m currently writing a short story set around Marie Antoinette’s execution. Thanks for some extra info! :)

  16. George says:

    Thanks Catherine!

  17. De rien! I decided to dedicate my home page to Marie-Antoinette on the anniversary of her death.

  18. yarit says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! really helped me on my french revolution project!!!

  19. Glad to have helped, and best wishes for your project!

  20. Raj says:

    That was humane compared to what happened to the Romanov’s They didn’t even get a trial. 

  21. Riley L says:

    I’m a fifteen year old that was required to go to this site for research..and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. This is beautifully written, and wonderful. When I read the translated version of Marie’s letter, I was deeply moved. Her composure throughout the excecution process was amazing. I’m thinking about picking up your book- you’re an amazing author!

  22. Jason says:

    As a 15 year old freshmen in a Humanities World Studies class, this website has proved to be extremely helpful and poignant for a project about the French Revolution my class was assigned. I was not able to find most of the information provided here in my textbook, for which I thank you for. However, I need to know the artist and title of the final picture in this article where she is on the scaffold. I’ll be sure to pick up your book!

  23. anthony says:

    don’t know why exactly, but i am fascinated by this historic event. guess cuase i love history and royalty so much.

  24. wina says:

    they had punished the king and queen. it had to be enough for them, without being so cruel to her children. her son died because the prison guards’ cruael abuse. he’s still a little boy, and knew nothing. that’s what i read

  25. Olivia says:

    Thank you so much! I have always been fascinated with the 1700’s and especially with Marie Antoinette. This was beautifully written and has so much detail and facts. Thank you again.

  26. Patrick says:

    The treatment of the Royal family was shocking and barbaric. I get the impression the King and Queen never fully understood the forces at work that contributed to their destruction. It is not a saga that would imbue me with a sense of National pride.

  27. Yes, the treatment of the royal family was barbaric. I disagree with the fact that Louis XVI didn’t understand the situation. I think he very much did. He was very bright, very popular too well into the Revolution (until Varennes, precisely.) But even before the Revolution, he seemed to be suffering from something resembling clinical depression, especially after the death of the first Dauphin. And of course he was physically sick with TB. What I see lacking in him is not awareness or understanding of the issues, but energy.

  28. [...] Delors, C. (2010). 16th of October 1793: execution of Marie-Antoinette. Retrieved from blog. Catherine Delors website:http://blog.catherinedelors.com/16th-of-october-1793-execution-of-marie-antoinette-2/ [...]

  29. Sofia age 10 says:

    RIP, Marie Antoinette, she had a lot of courage in the end. it was not her fault she did not about state craft

  30. Olivia says:

    What date was this published? I need to cite it for a report and this is one of my sources. Please respond soon :) thanks

  31. 16th of October 2010. Best wishes!