On 2 November 1755, at half past eight in the evening, the future Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was born. She was the 15th child of Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor. It was announced that “Her Majesty has been happily delivered of a small but completely healthy Archduchess.”1 As her date of birth was considered to be rather inauspicious, she usually celebrated her birthday on its eve.
She was handed over to a wet nurse by the name of Constance Weber. Her baptism took place the day following her birth at the Church of the Augustine Friars, and she received the names Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna. She was usually called Antoine in the family and through her father, she was a great-great-granddaughter of King Louis XIII of France and his wife, Anne of Austria. When she was just six months old, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which would have an enormous effect on the rest of Marie Antoinette’s life. She was already a piece on her mother’s chessboard.
All the children began their day at 7.30 and always started with prayer. After prayer, they received instruction in grammar and handwriting before attending Mass. Afterwards, they saw their mother for an hour or so and in the afternoon, more lessons followed. Around 5, they were back in church, and they also exercised. Only the evenings were free.
Music was a central part of the children’s lives. At the age of 4, she sang a “French Vaudeville song” at the celebrations for her father’s name day while her brothers and sisters sang arias.2 The siblings performed again for the name day of their mother. Marie Antoinette was present in October 1762 when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited the court. The girls’ education focussed heavily on their ability to perform and appear at court events. Marie Antoinette’s favourite instrument was the harp, and she was known to excel at dancing.3 Her formal education remained rather lacking and her writing was “inconceivably” slow as was her reading.4
Marie Antoinette was particularly close to Maria Carolina, who was only three years older than she was, and the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives. The year 1767 was Maria Theresa’s annus horribilis. Smallpox struck the family hard, and even Maria Theresa herself became ill. Marie Antoinette had had a mild form of smallpox at the age of 2 and was immune, but her sister Maria Josepha, destined to marry the King of Naples, died, and another sister Maria Elisabeth was scarred for life and promptly taken off the marriage market.
Maria Carolina was to take Maria Josepha’s place as a bride for the King of Naples, and while she had once been considered for a French match, that was now definitely not happening. During her journey to Naples, Maria Carolina wrote to their governess, “Write to me the smallest details of my sister Antoinette, what she says, what she does, and almost what she thinks. I beg and entreat you to love her very much, for I am terribly interested for her.”5
For the first time, Maria Antonia was the centre of her mother’s attention. Marie Antoinette was to take Maria Carolina’s place for the French match. Marie Antoinette’s teeth were crooked, and she was to suffer a three-month painful treatment with a system called “the Pelican” to set her teeth straight. Her one shoulder was higher than the other, and so she had to use a shoulder filling or a corset. At the time, she was rather skinny and had no bosom to speak of, but as she had not even entered puberty, it was hoped she would fill in a bit.6 Even the first day of her menstruation is recorded; 7 February 1770.7
Marie Antoinette was sequestered at Schönbrunn in an attempt to make up for her lack of education 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.”8
The bride was ready, and the intended groom was 15-year-old Louis Auguste, Dauphin of France.
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.3
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.22
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.24
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.39
- A sister of Marie Antoinette by Catherine Mary Charlton Bearne p.68
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.36-37
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.54
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.238