On October 16th, 1793, Marie-Antoinette, the widow of the recently-executed King of France, was taken from her prison cell in Paris and publicly beheaded. She was thirty-seven years-old and the new French republic had declared her a traitor. At the time, many of the republic's enemies considered Marie-Antoinette to have been a martyr and her killers to be little better than sadistic monsters. Within a decade, Catholic postcards in France were showing Marie-Antoinette's soul being received into Heaven by the Virgin Mary herself. But that view of Marie-Antoinette was slowly lost to history and the image most people have of her today is of the ultimate blonde bimbo. In popular culture, Marie-Antoinette is seen as the perfect symbol for upper-class excess and the poster girl for self-indulgent materialism. Even if many people don't think she deserved to die such a terrible and lonely death, most people still see her as a stupid, selfish airhead who partied her life away whilst the vast majority of her husband's subjects lived in poverty.
One story in particular is often quoted to prove how out-of-touch with reality Marie-Antoinette really was. Bread was the main meal of France's poor, in much the same way as the potato was for Ireland's. When there was a bread shortage, the people therefore began to starve and to riot against the government. Hearing of the trouble, the young queen asked why the people were rioting; one of her servants answered that it was because the people had no bread. Marie-Antoinette shrugged and replied, "Then let them eat cake!" Living in a fifteen hundred room palace with over four hundred servants devoted to her every whim, Marie-Antoinette had absolutely no idea what life was like for ordinary people and she was so used to luxury that she just assumed that if poor people couldn't get bread, then they could snack on cake, like she did.
People still debate whether Marie-Antoinette said her cake comment because she was an idiot and thought peasants could afford the treats she could, or because she had a cruel sense of humour that found it funny that she had everything and the poor had nothing. Either way, "let them eat cake" is probably one of the most famous quotes in history and it's repeated hundreds of time every year in the world's media to highlight someone who's perceived as being too rich to function or too selfish to care about people less fortunate than themselves. But did Marie-Antoinette ever actually say it?
Well, it seems very unlikely given what we know of her actual personality. Years of propaganda have painted the Queen as a diamond-loving twit who didn't care about anything but her own amusement. It's true that she was extravagant and that her wardrobe was the stuff of legend (Vogue recently credited Marie-Antoinette's chief dressmaker with inventing the entire concept of haute couture.) But in fact, Marie-Antoinette was a generous patron of charity and other members of the royal family were often embarrassed or irritated by her habit of bursting into tears when she heard of the plight of the suffering poor. There's also a problem with dates. During Louis the Sixteenth's time as king, there was only one case of bread shortages in Paris and that was shortly after his coronation. Marie-Antoinette was eighteen at the time and when she heard about the people's unhappiness at the food situation, she wrote a letter about it back to her mother in Austria, in which she said, "We are more obliged than ever to work for the people's happiness. The King seems to understand this truth; as for myself, I know that in my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget". Marie-Antoinette's personality therefore seems to have been the exact opposite of someone who would joke about the starving poor. It's also true that there were only severe food shortages once in Louis's reign and they were confined more or less to Paris.
There is even firmer evidence, however, that not only was Marie-Antoinette not the kind of girl to make a comment like "Let them eat cake," but she actually couldn't have. Not only was there no opportunity for her to do so, there are also some very interesting pieces of evidence from the time that prove she couldn't have said it. The story of a princess joking "let them eat cake" had actually been told many years before Marie-Antoinette ever arrived in France, as a young princess of fourteen in 1770. Her brother-in-law, the Count of Provence, who hated her, later said that he heard the story as a child, long before his brother ever married Marie-Antoinette. The count claimed that the version he heard was that the woman who made the comment had been his great-great-great grandmother, Maria-Teresa of Spain, who advised peasants to eat pie crust (or brioche) during bread shortages. A French socialite, the Countess of Boigne, said she'd heard that it had been Louis the Sixteenth's bitter aunt, Princess Victoria, and the great philosopher, Rousseau, wrote that he had heard the "let them eat cake" story about an anonymous great princess. Rousseau wrote this story in 1737 - eighteen years before Marie-Antoinette was even born!
If Marie-Antoinette didn't make the "joke," then how did it end up being associated with her for 200 years? Some historians think it's because the story had been going around for years, getting attributed to different royal women, but because Marie-Antoinette was the last Queen of France, it stuck with her. After her, there was nobody else to pin the story to. Others think that because the French Revolution was able to dress itself up as the force that brought freedom and equality to Europe, it had to justify its many acts of violence and terror. Executing Marie-Antoinette at the age of thirty-seven and leaving her two children as shivering, heart-broken orphans in the terrifying Temple prison, suggested that the Revolution was a lot more complicated than its supporters like to claim. However, if Marie-Antoinette is painted as stupid, deluded, out-of-touch, spoiled and selfish, then we're likely to feel a lot less pity when it comes to studying her death. If that was the republicans' intention, then they did a very good job. Two hundred years later and the poor woman is still stuck with a terrible reputation, and a catchphrase, that she certainly doesn't deserve.