Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 2

In the first part of this guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial (the account of which you can read in full here) we looked at the course of events that took the royal family from being an essential, if awkward, part of a constitutional monarchy to being at first an obstacle to further change, then a magnet for popular hatred, then an irrelevance, and finally an enemy of the Revolution. Once you had entered the latter category, it was really only a matter of time before you were called for your appointment with Madame Guillotine.

By the time Marie Antoinette found herself in the prison of the Conciergerie in August 1793, she was without a doubt deep in the blackest period of her life. The king’s death had been a great blow to her – she seems to have entertained some hope that he might be reprieved, hopes that were only finally dashed when she heard the sound of drums and great cheer echoing round the streets, and she knew he was dead. From this point on she would be known as the Widow Capet, and she dressed accordingly in widow’s weeds. Her daughter was later to write

She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death; sometimes she looked at us with a kind of compassion which was quite frightening.

Her physical health began to decline rapidly. By this time she was almost certainly suffering from tuberculosis, and the heavy bleeding that afflicted her may have been an early indicator of uterine cancer (as Antonia Fraser speculates). By this time most of the more legendary aspects of her personality had been stripped away – the airheaded gaiety, the extravagance, that often remarked upon glowing quality – leaving behind a cold, hard core of proud tenacity, a fierceness that had something in common with the popular depictions of her as a harpie, or a tigress. She never seems to have entirely abandoned hope, and her behaviour in the trial reveals some inward refusal to give even an inch of ground to her persecutors. Fraser argues that there were some grounds for hope. No queen in history had ever before been put on trial or executed, and there were precedents for royal women to be sent back to their native countries following the end of their marriages.

In Marie Antoinette’s case though, this seems highly unlikely to have ever been a real possibility, given her potency as a symbol of everything that the Revolution sought to expunge from the world, the strong belief in her active involvement in plots to destroy the Revolution (which would be a recurring theme in the trial) and her massive unpopularity with the increasingly vital sans-culottes. To his shame, even her nephew the Austrian Emperor showed little interest in the furtive negotiations which did take place over the possibility of exchanging the former queen for political prisoners. And it is known for certain that Marie Antoinette’s fate had been decided at a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety weeks before the trial began.

It’s crucial though to resist the tempatation to throw up your hands and bewail the trial as a travesty of justice, because it wasn’t. At least, no more than the other trials undertaken at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Indeed, the very ordinariness of Marie Antoinette’s trail was an important part of its symbolism. During the debate over the king’s death, Robespierre had said that she must be sent “before the courts, like all other persons charged with similar crimes”. Unlike her husband, her fate would not be debated before a full assembly of the nation’s elected representatives, and she would be given no opportunity to explain herself or reason with them. In short, there should be no indication that she mattered in any special way. This, for a former queen and daughter of Emperors, was punishment in itself.

In fact, my main tip before reading the trial is to turn your 21st century brain off, because it won’t help you here. I’m no expect on the vagaries of the French legal system, but there are a few things it’s important to remember about Marie Antoinette’s trial in the legal context of the time (these courtesy of an obscure book called The Trials of Five Queens by R. Storry Deans).

  • French trials at the time (and to a lesser extent even now) were not litigious but inquisitional, meaning they didn’t consist of a prosecution formulating a charge against the accused which it was then required to prove. The trial was instead a more open-ended and general inquisition into the guilt and character of the accused.
  • Almost nothing in Marie Antoinette’s trial would be admissible as evidence in an English court today, and much of it not even at that time. However, procedures like the secret interrogation before the trial (when the court was not in session and no jury present) were standard procedure in eighteenth century France.
  • The distinction between thought and deed had not yet been firmly enshrined in law, so establishing that the accused had contemplated doing something, or even that they were the type of person who might contemplate it, was enough. Likewise, opinion, inference and hearsay were acceptable forms of evidence (and formed the bulk of Marie Antoinette’s trial, as concrete evidence is rarely provided).

One of the most difficult things about Marie Antoinette’s existence at this stage must have been the constant uncertainty. She was never given any forewarning of what was to happen to her, but was instead suddenly confronted with dramatic upheavals and forced to deal with them. In less than a year she had been imprisoned in the Tower, been separated from her husband and then her son, and finally moved to the Conciergerie – all suddenly, and completely against her will. Once at the Conciergerie she faced days of waiting, never knowing when her trial was to begin – or even, for certain, if she was to have a trial. Being reduced to a spectator in her own story, Marie Antoinette had started to default to an attitude of numb resignation. Then one night, two hours after she had gone to bed, she was woken roughly and summoned to another part of the prison. With no fanfare and without a second to prepare herself, Marie Antoinette’s trial, and the final fight of her life, had begun.

In the next part: The secret interrogation and the beginning of the trial.

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