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On This Day: Louis XVI Marries Marie Antoinette

Last updated: February 15, 2023

May 16, 2011 06:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On May 16, 1770, Marie Antoinette married the future king of France. Their marriage lacked affection and ended with their 1793 beheadings by French revolutionaries.

Marie Antoinette Weds the Future Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia, Archduchess of Austria. Her parents arranged for her to marry Louis, Dauphin of France, to strengthen the Austro-Franco alliance. At 14 years old, she was renamed Marie Antoinette and sent to France on May 7, 1770.

Marie Antoinette a carefree 14-year-old with a year of tutoring in French language and culture; Louis was an awkward, introverted 15-year-old who preferred hunting to accepting the duties of a monarch. They were not a well-matched couple and they showed little affection for each other.

The couple was married in a lavish ceremony at the Palace of Versailles on May 16. In a 19th century biography of Antoinette, Maxime de la Rocheterie describes, “An immense crowd filled the royal city. Paris was deserted: the shops were closed; the entire population had betaken itself to Versailles to assist at the celebrations.” Though an afternoon rainstorm put a damper on the celebration, the ceremony “ended brilliantly” and the “court had never seemed so brilliant.”

After the wedding ceremony, the two were sent to their wedding chamber, expected to consummate their marriage. “In the evening the king conducted the newly married couple to their room,” wrote Rocheterie. “The archbishop of Rheims blessed the bed. … But despite the splendour of the celebrations and the promising aspect of the future at that moment, certain obstinate pessimists could not help regarding the rumbling of the storm as a menace from Heaven.”

Louis and Marie did nothing together that night and failed to consummate their marriage for seven years. Their relationship was a much-discussed subject in the French and Austrian Court; Louis gained a reputation for being weak and impotent, both sexually and as a leader, and Marie Antoinette drew criticism for failing to produce an heir.

Louis was rumored to have had a sexual dysfunction, possibly phimosis, but historians have debunked this notion. Most historians believe the young couple were not attracted to each other and were sexually inexperienced.

In 1777, Marie Antoinette’s brother, Joseph II, traveled to France and gave Louis sexual advice. Within months, the marriage was consummated and Louis had professed, “I delight in the pleasure, and I regret that I wasn’t aware of it for so long!”

The Turbulent Reign of Louis XVI

Sources in this Story

  • Smithsonian Magazine: Marie Antoinette
  • History of Circumcision: The truth about Louis XVI’s marital difficulties
  • PBS: His Royal Hesitancy: Louis XVI
  • History Guide: The Trial and Execution of Louis XVI
  • PBS: The Teen Queen: Marie Antoinette
  • Tea at Trianon: Marie Antoinette: A Reputation in Shreds

Following his father’s death in 1774, Louis ascended to the throne as Louis XVI. The 20-year-old was a reluctant king and a self-doubting and indecisive leader who inherited a government in debt and an increasingly rebellious society that resented the monarchy.

Louis’ ineffective economic reforms further enraged the people and his attempt to appease the revolutionaries further weakened his standing and jeopardized the future of the monarchy. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette became an unpopular figure, with a reputation for being ignorant and living extravagantly with no regard for the country’s poor.

In 1789, revolutionaries stormed the Palace of Versailles and took the royal family to Paris. The family was restricted to the Tuileries palace, and was officially placed under house arrest after an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1791.

In 1792, France has declared a republic and the monarchy was stripped of its power.
On Dec. 11, Louis was put on trial for a “multitude of crimes in order to establish your tyranny by destroying its liberty.” He was found guilty on Jan. 15 and executed by guillotine on Jan. 21.

Marie Antoinette would be executed nine months later. In her final letter, she expresses sadness for leaving her children, but says that she is “calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.”

Biography: Marie Antoinette

Historian E.M. Vidal argues that Marie Antoinette has been unfairly portrayed as “the queen who danced while the people starved.” This reputation is derived from street pamphlets, the “libelles,” created to satirize the monarchy and French society. Furthermore, writes Vidal, the famous “let them eat cake” remark attributed to her was actually said by the wife of Louis XIV.

In reality, after the birth of her daughter in December 1778, the first of four children, she became less extravagant, eschewing the late-night gambling and parties that marked her youth, according to PBS. She lived very modestly for a queen and gave generous amounts of money to the needy.

Learn more about the life of Marie Antoinette and her findingDulcinea profile.

Historical Context: French Revolution

The French Revolution overthrew France’s absolute monarchy and declared the country a republic during the period of 1789-1799. George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media explains the causes, beliefs, events and results of the French Revolution.

Reference: Marie’s Palace, Portraits and Art Collection

The Chateau de Versailles hosts an exhibit dedicated to Marie Antoinette and her estate. The Web site features a collection of paintings, with audio and video explaining their meaning.

Marie Antoinette Online has a collection of portraits, paintings, sculptures and cartoons.

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