Marie Antoinette, the 15th child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and the powerful Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1755–an age of great instability for European monarchies. In 1766, as a way to cement the relatively new alliance between the French and Habsburg thrones, Maria Theresa promised her young daughter’s hand in marriage to the future king Louis XVI of France. Four years later, Marie Antoinette and the dauphin were married by proxy in Vienna. (They were 15 and 16 years old, and they had never met.) On May 16, 1770, a lavish second wedding ceremony took place in the royal chapel at Versailles. More than 5,000 guests watched as the two teenagers were married. It was the beginning of Marie Antoinette’s life in the public eye.
Life as a public figure was not easy for Marie Antoinette. Her marriage was difficult and, as she had very few official duties, she spent most of her time socializing and indulging her extravagant tastes. (For example, she had a model farm built on the palace grounds so that she and her ladies-in-waiting could dress in elaborate costumes and pretend to be milkmaids and shepherdesses.) Widely circulated newspapers and inexpensive pamphlets poked fun at the queen’s profligate behavior and spread outlandish, even pornographic rumors about her. Before long, it had become fashionable to blame Marie Antoinette for all of France’s problems.
The campaign against Marie Antoinette likewise grew stronger. In July 1793, she lost custody of her young son, who was forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest before a Revolutionary tribunal. In October, she was convicted of treason and sent to the guillotine. She was 37 years old.