22.2.3: The New Royals and Their People
Despite the initial sympathy of the commoners, Marie Antoinette quickly lost the approval of the French as her lavish lifestyle and pro-Austrian stance combined with Louis XVI’s failed reforms turned both the elites and the masses hostile towards the royals.
Characterize the relationship between the royals and the French people at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign
- Although nearly all royal marriages in Europe were traditionally arranged around the political interests of involved families, the marriage of Louis-Auguste and Maria Antonia provoked very strong and ambiguous reactions in France. It aimed to strengthen the union between France and Austria, but the French public was highly critical of the political alliance.
- Despite the common skepticism towards the Franco-Austrian alliance, Marie Antoinette’s arrival in Paris provoked excitement. She was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris in 1773 was a resounding success. However, the popularity of the queen did not last long.
- The queen’s extravagant lifestyle soon discouraged many, particularly in light of the country’s financial crisis and mass poverty. She spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling. By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, her reputation among the general public was damaged.
- Similarly, the queen’s role in French politics contributed to the loss of initial popularity as Marie Antoinette was consistently accused of influencing her husband’s decisions to disproportionately benefit Austria.
- The wealth and lavish lifestyle that the royal couple provided for their favorites outraged most aristocratic families, who resented the influence of the selected few, and also fueled the increasing popular disapprobation toward Marie Antoinette, mostly in Paris.
- The queen’s lifestyle continued to fuel her increasingly negative public image. Her husband’s seeming approval of Marie Antoinette’s choices, combined with his failed reforms and declining mental health, only worsened the already hostile attitude of both the elites and masses.
- Seven Years’ War
- A world war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.
- War of the Bavarian Succession
- A 1778 – 1779 conflict between a Saxon-Prussian alliance and Austria to prevent the Habsburgs from acquiring the Electorate of Bavaria. Although the war consisted of only a few minor skirmishes, thousands of soldiers died from disease and starvation, earning the conflict the name Kartoffelkrieg (Potato War) in Prussia and Saxony.
- Kettle War
- A military confrontation between the troops of the Holy Roman Empire and the Republic of the Seven Netherlands on October 8, 1784. Its name relates to the fact that the only shot fired hit a soup kettle.
- the Flour War
- A wave of riots arising from April to May 1775 in France that followed an increase in grain prices and subsequently bread prices. The riots started after the police withheld grain from the royal stores but were also triggered by poor harvests in the summers of 1773 and 1774.
- The title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France from 1350 to 1791 and 1824 to 1830.
The French Public and the Political Marriage
Although nearly all royal marriages in Europe were traditionally arranged around the political interests of involved families, the marriage of fifteen-year-old Louis-Auguste and fourteen-year-old Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name Marie Antoinette) provoked very strong and ambiguous reactions in France. As a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, the head of the Habsburg Empire, Maria Antonia belonged to one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Her marriage to the heir to the French throne aimed to strengthen the ongoing if still rather recent union between two empires that were at the time seen as the weaker players in the European balance of power. Louis XV and Maria Theresa’s common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and help secure a definitive peace between the two old enemies were at the foundation of the marriage, but many among the French public were skeptical about the union. The alliance with Austria pulled France into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British both in Europe and in North America. By the time Louis-Auguste and Maria Antonia were married, the French people were generally critical of the Franco-Austrian alliance.
The Loss of Popularity
Despite the common skepticism towards the Franco-Austrian alliance, Marie Antoinette’s arrival in Paris provoked excitement. She was beautiful, personable, and well-liked by the common people. Her first official appearance in Paris in 1773 was a resounding success. However, the popularity of the queen did not last long. Her extravagant lifestyle soon discouraged many, particularly in light of the country’s financial crisis and poverty of the masses. She spent heavily on fashion, luxuries, and gambling, including custom dresses, hair styles such as poufs up to three feet high, and the panache (bundle of feathers), all made by Rose Bertin. She and her court also adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne (a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759), percale, and muslin. By the time of the Flour War of 1775, a series of riots against the high price of flour and bread, her reputation among the general public was damaged.
Similarly, the queen’s role in French politics contributed to the loss of initial popularity as Marie Antoinette was consistently accused of influencing her husband’s decisions to disproportionately benefit Austria. In 1778, her brother and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II made claims on the throne of Bavaria (the War of the Bavarian Succession). Marie Antoinette pleaded with her husband for the French to intercede on behalf of Austria. The Peace of Teschen (1779) ended the brief conflict, with the queen imposing French mediation on the demand of her mother, and Austria gaining a territory of at least 100,000 inhabitants — a strong retreat from the early French position of hostility toward Austria with the impression, partially justified, that the queen sided with Austria against France.
Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780 and Marie Antoinette feared that the death of her mother would jeopardize the Franco-Austrian alliance, but her brother assured her that he had no intention of breaking the alliance. Joseph II visited his sister in 1781 to reaffirm the Franco-Austrian alliance, but his visit was tainted with rumors that Marie Antoinette was sending money from the French treasury to Austria. In the same year, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her second child, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France. Despite the general celebration over the birth of the Dauphin, Marie Antoinette’s political influence continued to benefit Austria, which contributed to her growing unpopularity. During the Kettle War, in which her brother Joseph attempted to open the Scheldt River for naval passage, Marie Antoinette succeeded in obtaining a huge financial compensation to Austria. The queen was also able to get her brother’s support against Great Britain in the American Revolution and neutralized French hostility to his alliance with Russia.
France’s financial problems were the result of a combination of factors: expensive wars; a large royal family whose expenditures were paid for by the state; and the unwillingness of the privileged classes to help defray the costs of the government out of their own pockets by relinquishing some of their financial privileges. Yet the public perception was that Marie Antoinette had ruined the national finances. She was even given the nickname of “Madame Déficit.” While sole fault for the financial crisis did not lie with her, Marie Antoinette played a decisive role in the failure of radical reforms.
In 1782, after the governess of the royal children, the princesse de Guéméné, went bankrupt and resigned, Marie Antoinette appointed her favorite, the duchesse de Polignac, to the position. The decision met with disapproval from the court as the duchess was considered to be of too modest birth to occupy such an exalted position. On the other hand, both the king and the queen trusted de Polignac completely and gave her a thirteen-room apartment in Versailles and a generous salary. The entire Polignac family benefited greatly from the royal favor in titles and positions, but its sudden wealth and lavish lifestyle outraged most aristocratic families (who resented the Polignacs’ dominance at court) and fueled the increasing popular disapprobation toward Marie Antoinette, mostly in Paris.
The queen’s lifestyle continued to fuel her increasingly negative public image. Her husband’s seeming approval of Marie Antoinette’s choices, combined with his failed reforms and declining mental health, only worsened the already hostile attitude of both the elites and the masses. The aristocracy was angered by the king’s failed attempts to impose taxes on them while the masses, already in poverty, continued to carry the unjust burden of taxation. In 1783, the queen began to create her “hamlet,” a rustic retreat built by her favored architect Richard Mique. Its creation caused another uproar when the cost became widely known. A year later, Louis XVI bought the Château de Saint-Cloud from the duc d’Orléans in the name of his wife. The decision was unpopular, particularly with some factions of the nobility who disliked the queen but also with a growing percentage of the population who disapproved the idea of the queen owning a private residence independent of the king. The purchase of Saint-Cloud damaged the queen’s image even further. In the eyes of public opinion, the lavish spending of the royal family could not be disconnected from France’s disastrous financial condition.
The queen attempted to fight back her critics with propaganda portraying her as a caring mother, most notably in the painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun exhibited at the Royal Académie Salon de Paris in August 1787.
- The New Royals and Their People
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