LOUIS XVI was the third son of the Dauphin Louis de France, who was the only legitimate son of Louis XV. The Dauphin was called Louis the Fat, for he liked to eat. He tried to overcome his obesity by hunting, swimming, felling trees, sawing wood, and busying himself with manual arts.1 He retained through life his reverence for the Church; his dearest friends were priests, and he was deeply ashamed of his father’s adulteries. He read much, including Montesquieu and Rousseau; he adopted the view that “the monarch is nothing but the steward of the state’s revenues”;2 he denied himself a trip through France because “my whole person is not worth what it would cost the poor people.”3 It is remarkable how much of his character, habits, and ideas passed down to Louis XVI.
His wife, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, virtuous and strong, bore him eight children, including Louis-Joseph, Duc de Bourgogne, who was killed by an accident in 1761; Louis-Auguste, Duc de Berry, born on August 23, 1754, who was to be Louis XVI; Louis-Stanislas, Comte de Provence, born in 1755, who was to be Louis XVIII; and Charles-Philippe, Comte d’Artois, born in 1757, who was to be Charles X. When their father died, in 1765, Louis-Auguste, aged eleven, became heir to the throne.
He was a sickly child, timid and shy, but years of country life and simple food gave him health and strength. Like his father he was good rather than bright. He envied the superior cleverness of his brothers, who quite ignored his seniority. Too modest to fight back, he absorbed himself in sports and crafts. He learned to shoot with perfect accuracy, and to rival workingmen in using his hands and tools. He admired the skills of the artisans who served the court; he liked to talk and work with them, and he took on something of their manners and speech. But also he loved books. He developed a special fondness for Fénelon; at the age of twelve he installed a printing press in the palace at Versailles, and, with the help of his brothers (then nine and eleven), he set the type for a little volume which he published in 1766 as Maximes morales et politiques tirées de Télémaque. His grandfather did not like the maxims. “Look at that big boy,” said Louis XV. “He will be the ruin of France and of himself, but at any rate I shall not live to see it.”4
How could this princely workingman be transformed into a king? Could a stimulating mate be found to give him courage and pride, and to bear him future Bourbons? The present ruler was too busy with Mme. du Barry to attend to this matter; but Choiseul, minister for foreign affairs, remembered his days at the court of Vienna, and a lively archduchess, Maria Antonia Josepha, then (1758) three years old; perhaps her marriage with Louis-Auguste would give new life to that Austrian alliance which had been weakened by France’s separate peace with England (1762). Prince von Kaunitz had confided similar ideas to Count Florimund Mercy d’Argentau, a Liège aristocrat of great wealth and good heart, who was Austrian ambassador at Versailles. Louis XV took their concerted advice, and sent (1769) a formal request to Maria Theresa asking the hand of Maria Antonia for Louis-Auguste. The Empress was happy to sanction a union which she too had long ago designed. The Dauphin, who had not been consulted in the matter, obediently accepted the choice made for him. When he was told that his fiancée was a beautiful princess, he said quietly, “If only she has good qualities.”5
She was born in Vienna November 2, 1755. She was not a pretty child; her forehead was too high, her nose was too long and sharp, her teeth were irregular, her lower lip was too full. But she soon knew that her blood was royal; she learned to walk like a destined queen, and nature, with the mysterious fluids of puberty, refashioned her winsomely until, with silken blond hair, and complexion “of lilies and roses,”6 and sparkling, playful blue eyes, and a “Grecian neck,” she became, if not a morsel for a king, at least a dainty for a dauphin. Three of her five older sisters had been maneuvered by the Empress into cozy berths: Maria Christina had married Prince Albert of Saxony, who became duke of Saxe-Teschen; Maria Amalia had married Ferdinand, duke of Parma; Maria Carolina had become queen of Naples. Brother Joseph was co-emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and brother Leopold was grand duke of Tuscany. There was nothing left for Maria Antonia but to become queen of France.
As the youngest of Maria Theresa’s surviving children, she had been somewhat neglected. At thirteen she had learned some Italian, but she could write neither German nor French correctly, she knew almost nothing of history, and, though Gluck was her teacher, she had made only modest progress in music. When Louis XV decided to accept her as a granddaughter he insisted that she be inoculated against smallpox, and he sent the Abbé Vermond to accelerate her education. Vermond reported that “her character, her heart are excellent,” and “she is more intelligent than has been generally supposed,” but “she is rather lazy and extremely frivolous, and hard to teach. … She would learn only so long as she was being amused.”7 But she loved to dance, and to romp in the woods with her dogs.
The careworn Empress knew that she was entrusting the fate of the alliance to hands too frail for such a responsibility. For two months before the contemplated marriage she had Maria Antonia sleep in the same room with her, so that in the intimacy of their nights she might instill into her daughter something of the wisdom of life and the art of royalty. She drew up for her a list of regulations to guide her conduct in morals and politics. She wrote to Louis XV asking his indulgence for the shortcomings of the immature bride she was sending to his grandson. To the Dauphin she addressed a letter warm with a mother’s solicitude and fears:
As she has been my delight, so I hope she will be your happiness. I have brought her up for this, because for a long time I have foreseen that she would share your destiny. I have inspired in her a love for her duties to you, a tender attachment, and the ability to know and practice the means of pleasing you. … My daughter will love you, I am sure of it, because I know her. … Adieu, my dear Dauphin; be happy, make her happy.... I am all bathed in tears. … Your tender mother.8
On April 19, 1770, in the Church of the Augustines at Vienna, the radiant, thoughtless girl, aged fourteen, was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste of France; her brother Ferdinand took the Dauphin’s place. Two days later a long cavalcade of fifty-seven carriages and 366 horses led the Dauphine past the Palace of Schönbrunn, and the Empress bade her a last goodbye. “Be so good to the French,” she whispered, “that they can say that I have sent them an angel.”9 The cortege included 132 persons—ladies in waiting, hairdressers, dressmakers, pages, chaplains, surgeons, apothecaries, cooks, servants, and thirty-five men to take care of the horses, which were changed four or five times a day on the long journey to Paris. In sixteen days the procession reached Kehl, on the Rhine opposite Strasbourg. On an island in the river Maria changed her Austrian attire for French garments; her Austrian attendants left her to return to Vienna, and were replaced by an entourage of French ladies and servants; henceforth Maria Antonia was Marie Antoinette. After much ceremony she was brought into Strasbourg while cannon pealed and church bells rang and all the people cheered. She wept and smiled and went through the long ritual patiently. When the burgomaster began a speech in German she interrupted him: “Do not speak German, gentlemen; from today I understand no language but French.” Having allowed her a day of rest, the pageant began its transit of France.
It had been arranged that the King and the Dauphin, with much of the court, should go to Compiègne, fifty-two miles northeast of Paris, to meet the Dauphine’s cortege. This arrived on May 14. The bride leaped from her coach, ran to Louis XV, bowed to the ground, and remained so till the King raised her and put her at her ease with a gracious remark: “You are already a member of the family, madame, for your mother has the soul of Louis XIV.”10 After kissing her on both cheeks he introduced the Dauphin, who did likewise but with perhaps less relish. On May 15 the combined processions started for Versailles. There, on May 16, 1770, an official marriage confirmed the proxy wedding of a month before. That night there was a great feast in the new opera house. The King warned Louis-Auguste that he was eating too much. The Dauphin replied, “I always sleep better after a good supper.”11 He did, falling asleep soon after entering the marriage bed.
He slept with the same readiness on successive nights, and on successive mornings he rose early to go hunting. Mercy d’Argentau suggested that the recent rapid growth of Louis-Auguste had retarded his sexual development, and that there was nothing to do but wait. Maria Theresa, informed of the situation, wrote to her daughter: “You are both so young! As far as your health is concerned it is all for the best. You will both gain strength.”12 Some of the Dauphin’s physicians made matters worse by telling him that exerciseand good meals would stimulate amorous development; on the contrary, they made him stouter and sleepier. Finally, late in 1770, the Dauphin tried to consummate the marriage, but failed; the only result was a disenchanting pain. The Count of Aranda, the Spanish ambassador, reported to his King: “They say that an impediment under the foreskin makes the attempt at coitus too painful,” or “that the foreskin is so thick that it cannot expand with the elasticity necessary to an erection.”13 Surgeons offered to remove the difficulty by an operation akin to circumcision, but the Dauphin refused.14 He made repeated attempts, with no effect but to agitate and humiliate himself and his wife. This situation continued till 1777. The sense of his marital deficiency deepened the Dauphin’s feeling of inferiority, and may have shared in making him so hesitating and diffident a king.
Probably those seven years of marital frustration affected the character and conduct of Marie Antoinette. She knew that the men and women of the court made merciless fun of her misfortune, and that most of France, not knowing the cause, charged her with barrenness. She consoled herself with trips to the opera or the theater in Paris, and indulged herself in costly extravagance of dress. She rebelled against frequent mingling with the court, with all its ceremony and protocol; she preferred intimate friendships with sympathetic souls like the Princesse de Lamballe. For a long time she refused to speak to Mme. du Barry, whether through distaste for her morals or through envy that another woman should be so competently loved and so influential with the King.
On May 10, 1774, Louis XV died. The courtiers rushed to the apartments of the Dauphin. They found him and the Dauphine on their knees weeping and praying. “O God,” the nineteen-year-old youth cried, “protect us! We are too young to rule!” And to a friend he said, “What a burden! I have learned nothing. It seems that the universe will fall upon me.”15 All day long, through Versailles and Paris, and then as far in France as the news was carried, men, women, and children cried joyfully, “Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!”Some hopeful Parisian inscribed upon a statue of Henry IV the word Resurrexit;16 the great King had risen from the dead to rescue France again from chaos, corruption, bankruptcy, and defeat.