Maria Theresa of Austria was born on 13 May 1717 as the eldest of two surviving daughters of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Her father attempted to secure her succession to the Habsburg lands with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. She eventually succeeded him, although it triggered the War of the Austrian Succession. Her husband, Francis of Lorraine, was elected as Holy Roman Emperor, making Maria Theresa Holy Roman Empress as well.
The couple had 16 children together, of which the future Queen of France – Marie Antoinette – was the youngest daughter. Like her siblings before her, Marie Antoinette’s early youth was spent with a wet nurse. Her birth date was rather auspicious as it fell on All Souls’ Day, and so it was usually celebrated a day early.1 Marie Antoinette was her father’s favourite, and he indulged her. On the other hand, Marie Antoinette was intimidated by her mother.2 She later said, “I love the Empress, but I’m frightened of her, even at a distance, when I’m writing to her, I never feel completely at ease.”3 Maria Theresa had a clear favourite in her elder sister Maria Christina.
Marie Antoinette would later remember her childhood as idyllic, and as her parents’ 15th child, and as a daughter, the focus was not on her. The children were encouraged to make friends with “ordinary” children.4 The paintings made of the family portray a cosy home life that she would not find at Versailles. Music became the central part of her early childhood, but her father’s death in 1765 left such a mark on her mother that she remained dissatisfied with everything her children did.
Marie Antoinette was not a good student as she disliked reading and could not focus. However, her mother demanded to see all her schoolwork, after which her governess composed the papers for her and Marie Antoinette traced over the pencil. By 1768, the 12-year-old Marie Antoinette was one of just three unmarried Archduchesses. The eldest was her scarred-by-smallpox 25-year-old sister Maria Elisabeth and the second was her 22-year-old sister Maria Amalia. Maria Theresa was intent on making two more matching – with Parma and with France. After vetoing a match between himself and Maria Elisabeth when told of her scarred face, King Louis XV of France finally agreed on a match between his grandson, the Dauphin, and Marie Antoinette. This also sealed Maria Amalia’s fate as the next Duchess of Parma. Maria Elisabeth was destined to remain unwed.
With the match in place, it became increasingly clear how unprepared and uneducated Marie Antoinette was. She could not communicate well in French, and she struggled to read and write. Thus, the 13-year-old was sequestered at Schönbrunn in an attempt to make up for this as quickly as possible. She was taught posture, curtseying, French history, language and literature. After six weeks, the abbé de Vermond wrote, “She is cleverer than she was long thought to be. Unfortunately, that ability was subjected to no direction up to the age of twelve.”5 Two weeks before her 14th birthday, he happily reported that she “talks French with ease, and fairly well.”6 Marie Antoinette also underwent three months of treatment for her crooked teeth.
On 19 April 1770, Maria Theresa led her daughter down the aisle for the proxy wedding ceremony. Two days later, she would leave Austria forever, but Maria Theresa had no intention of letting her daughter go. Although they would never see each other again, letters would pass between them until Maria Theresa’s death. Maria Theresa had even placed the Count of Mercy at the French court as her surrogate. He was to report everything her daughter did back to her. To King Louis XV, Maria Theresa wrote, “Her age craves indulgence.” She also asked him to act like a father to the young Dauphine.7
The lack of consummation was, of course, immediately reported back to Maria Theresa, as was the fact that Marie Antoinette ignored the King’s mistress, Madame du Barry. This earned her berating letters from her mother, who feared that she would be repudiated and sent home.8 Marie Antoinette dutifully reported the arrival of her period every month to her mother.9
Even becoming Queen of France did not stop Maria Theresa from berating her daughter. In March 1775, she wrote, “I must mention a subject upon which all of the Gazettes enlarge, and that is your dress.[…] You know my opinion, to follow fashion in moderation, never to excess. A young and pretty queen has no need of follies.”10 However, after five years of scathing letters, Marie Antoinette was not so impressed by her mother anymore.
After a visit by her brother, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI finally managed to consummate their marriage, much to everyone’s relief. Just one year later, she was able to confirm her first pregnancy. On 19 December 1778, she gave birth to a daughter – Marie Thérèse, known as Madame Royale. But Maria Theresa would not live to see the birth of the Dauphin.
Even in her last letters to Marie Antoinette, she worriedly asked if it was true that she and King were sleeping separately. Marie Antoinette confirmed it but assured her mother that it was considered the custom in France. Maria Theresa replied, “I confess that I did not know for certain that you did not sleep together; I only guess. I must accept that what you tell me is right. But I should have liked it better if you could have lived in the German way and enjoyed that certain intimacy which comes of being together.”11
One month later, the formidable Empress was dead. King Louis XVI decreed grand mourning for his mother-in-law but felt unable to break the news to Marie Antoinette. He instead sent the abbé de Vermond to tell her. Marie Antoinette wrote to her brother Joseph, “Devastated by this most frightful misfortunate. I cannot stop crying as I start to write to you. Oh, my brother, oh, my friend! You alone are left to me in a country, which is, and always will be, so dear to… Remember, we are your friends, your allies. I embrace you.”12
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.5
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.233
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.26
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.17
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.238
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.238
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.47
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.262
- Maria Theresa by Edward Crankshaw p.329
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.329
- Maria Theresa by Edward Crankshaw p.336
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.219