Let them eat cake: Why Marie-Antoinette got mixed up with another Queen of France
Marie Antoinette Portrait¹

Let them eat cake: Why Marie-Antoinette got mixed up with another Queen of France

She has been called the saddest “Queen of France”. But I suppose that is a lot better than what she was called during her lifetime. Marie Antoinette, the heartless foreign Austrian, who is purported to have said “Let them eat cake” when the French people complained about not having enough bread to eat.

It became an infamous phrase that lives on to this day, just like her memory. She has been the subject of a number of books, films, and other media. But what if “let them eat cake” had actually been said by another Queen 100 years earlier, and not Marie Antoinette at all?

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Who was Marie Antoinette?

She was a young Queen, known for being lithe and beautiful. She was the 15th child of the Empress of Austria and was married off to the heir to the throne of France at merely 14 years old. She would become Queen at 19.

Let them eat cake Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette at the age of 12 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

☞ Interesting fact : She was reputed to have a large bosom, which was enhanced by the corset fashion at the time. Her Father-in-law supposedly chose her for his son based on the portrait above at the age of 12.

You might have thought that she had the world at the feet, being a beautiful young Queen living in a Palace. But she was enormously unhappy. She hated being far away from her native Austria and in a foreign Royal Court where her every single action was scrutinized and commented over. (Just imagine the Twitter of its time!)

Adding to her misery, her husband King Louis XVI took 7 years to consummate the marriage and give her a child. It took an official visit and a man-to-man pep talk from Marie Antoinette’s older brother, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, to deblock the situation.

Marie Antoinette and kids
Marie Antoinette and kids

☞ Interesting fact : Once Louis XVI got his groove on, the couple went on to have 4 children. By all accounts they adored their children, and having children brought them closer together.

To escape from this endless scrutiny and the rules of the court, she took over a small building in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, that had been built for the mistress of an earlier King. She also threw lavish parties and had a serious gambling problem, for which she earned the nickname “Madame Déficit“.

Because she wasn’t allowed to participate in the affairs of state, she indulged her boredom by designing dresses and spending extravagantly. She even created a miniature village and farm at Versailles, known as the Hamlet, where she pretended to be an ordinary villager. (The animals were cleaned before she was allowed to play with them.)

All of this cost a lot of money however, and the French state coffers were in dire straits.

Hall of Mirrors Chateau de Versailles
Hall of Mirrors at Palace of Versailles which was used as a ballroom at the time

☞ Interesting fact : She was also purpoted to have several affairs including one with a Swedish count named Axel de Fersen who she met when they were both 18. The affair was said to have been tolerated by the King.

How did the “Let them eat cake” rumor got started?

It was 1789 and France was almost bankrupt. The country had contributed thousands of soldiers and millions of francs to support the Americans in their War of Independence, against their arch-enemy the British.

More than that, the harvest that year was poor. The French People were starving. A 100 years earlier, Sun King Louis XIV, had built the Palace of Versailles because he did not trust Parisians and wanted to be far away from them.

That distance though would prove to be a downfall. Since people couldn’t see the Royal Family, they imagined a life of excess and frivolousness, while they themselves were desperately poor. As you can imagine, the situation was ripe for rumors and gossip.

Marie Antoinette and family on a boat in the Gardens of Versailles
Marie Antoinette and family on a boat in the Gardens of Versailles

What does “Let them eat cake” mean exactly?

During one of the bread shortages, the rumor started that Marie Antoinette had uttered those famous words when confronted with the fact that the people were starving. Rightly or wrongly, the winds of the French Revolution were blowing strong.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

English Translation: Let them eat cake

This phrase, however, occurs in a passage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s book called Confessions, written in 1766, when Marie Antoinette was 11 years old and four years before her marriage to Louis XVI. Rousseau said that the phrase came from a “Great Princess”, but did not name her.

Did Marie Antoinette really say “Let them eat cake”?

It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth.

Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa

If we look closely at Marie-Antoinette’s life, it would seem she was not as much of a spendthrift as she was thought to be. She established a home for unwed mothers, contributed to a Charity for the aged, and made frequent visits to poor families.

It is reputed that during an earlier food shortage, she sold the royal flatware to raise funds for the poor, and the royal family ate cheaper grain so there would be more food to go around.

☞ Marie Antoinette loved kids so much she also adopted several children, including poor children that she crossed paths with. They included the daughter of a maid who died, and the three orphaned daughters of an usher.  The youngest girl was only 3, and Marie-Antoinette raised her along side her own son who was the same age.

An anonymous unflattering portrait of Marie Antoinette - Musée Carnavalet
An anonymous unflattering portrait of Marie Antoinette – Musée Carnavalet

☞ She had also adopted a 5-year-old Senegalese boy, named Jean Amilcar, who was given to her as “gift”. Instead of putting him to work, she put him in school and took care of all his needs. He was left without her protection after the Revolution, and died at 14.

Today there is no officially acknowledged basis for attributing “Let them eat cake” to Marie Antoinette. Based on her other correspondence and her other charity work, it would seem that she got blamed for the financial crisis, where there were plenty of other culprits to go around.

Louis Charles, Marie Antoinette's son who was taken from her and would die mysteriously during the revolution
Louis Charles, Marie Antoinette’s son who was taken from her and would die mysteriously during the revolution – Courtesy of Wikipedia

☞ Only Marie Antoinette’s eldest daughter would survive to adulthood. Her youngest, Sophie died before her first birthday, Louis Joseph died at age 7, and the future King Louis Charles would die at the hands of the revolutionaries at the age of 10.

Who else could have said “Let them eat cake”?

There are several other possibilities for who could have said that infamous phrase. Considering when Rousseau’s book was released, the most likely possibility is an earlier Queen, Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Sun King Louis XIV, who lived 100 years earlier.

Marie-Thérèse was Spanish in origin, and Rousseau did say that it from an old legend of a Spanish Princess. Given the similarity of the names of the Kings and the date of the book’s publication, it would be easy for the Queens to get mixed up.

The phrase could also have come from one of the ladies in the court of Marie Antoinette, but again, since the book was published 23 years before the French Revolution, that seems unlikely.

Marie Antoinette in prison
Marie Antoinette in Prison – by Alexandre Kucharski (1741-1819), Musée Carnavalet.

It could also just have been said in a different context, or just been an author indulging in “creative writing”.

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So there you have it, do you believe in Marie Antoinette’s innocence? Or could she have read the book and said it to someone as a joke? We will never know.

A bientôt !

¹ Featured Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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Let them eat cake: Why Marie-Antoinette got mixed up with another Queen of France

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