When you visit Versailles, you find all the things you would expect at a royal residence. A massive royal palace, a couple of out outbuildings for the mistresses, stables. However, Versailles has a few little surprises. There is the Orangerie, built by Louis XIV to satiate his desire for exotic citrus fruits, and the Apollo Fountain, which depicts Apollo rising from the water in his chariot (or, a bunch of soggy horses). Lastly, there is Le Hameau de la Reine. This a small farm created for Marie Antoinette to live out her fantasy of living as a peasant girl.
Let’s take a step back. To understand why Marie Antoinette wanted an escape from the supposed glitz and glamour of royal life, you need to know a little bit about her. One of 11 daughters of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, Maria Antonia (as she was named at birth) was shipped to France at the age of 15. She was to wed the future Louis XVI, an awkward and bumbling teenage boy of 16, who was the dauphin – heir – to the French throne.
Things didn’t start well
The former archduchess of Austria had a quiet and pleasant childhood at Schonbrunn Palace. Her main aim in life would be to marry and produce children. Her education was therefore pretty limited, and focused more around presenting a pleasant image than supporting a partner to rule a country. Given her new French name of Marie Antoinette, she was overwhelmed with both the intricacies of the French court, and the hostile attitude of its members towards her.
To make matters worse, the atmosphere at Versailles was stifling. Her husband showed little interest (or a lack of understanding in the mechanics!) in having children, a fact that everyone was made aware of through a daily ceremony called the Levée. Introduced by the Sun King, Louis XIV, this ceremony was supposed to place royalty at the centre of the courtiers universe. It made pomp and ceremony an integral part of life. Every day, Marie Antoinette would wake to a gaggle of courtiers and other members of the royal family crowding her bedroom. She would strip naked while they would assist in her dressing. Various protocols dictated who was responsible for each part of the ceremony. To put it lightly, this was a pretty distressing development for a 15 year old girl with few friends at court.
THE QUEEN OF DEBT
Several childless years passed, and Louis was made King of France in 1774. This was before Marie Antoinette finally gave birth to a child in 1778. When Marie Antoinette was told she gave birth to a daughter, she famously exclaimed “Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been property of the state. You shall be mine.” Unfortunately, this was a little too late for the French people. The Queen had not produced the male heir needed. In the intervening years between becoming Queen and getting pregnant, Marie Antoinettes’ boredom and isolation developed into a rather lavish spending habit, as well as a love of gambling. Her 21st birthday party was a particularly famous blowout, culminating in a 32 hour gambling streak. Rumours circulated widely that she was an Austrian spy, and court gossipers continuously ripped her to shreds.
Marie Antoinette eventually produced four children, but her first son – Louis Joseph,the new dauphin – was sickly and died of tuberculosis at the age of seven. Her younger son, Louise Charles, become heir to the throne. As well as her first child, Marie Thérèse (Madame Royale), she had another daughter – Sophie Hélène Béatrix. She, sadly, died in infancy. The baby was famously painted out of the portrait of the Queen and her children, resulting in a sad image of Louis Joseph pointing towards an empty cot.
Marie Antoinette had been gifted a small but lavish called the Petit Trianon when she was 19, shortly after ascending the throne. This palace was already originally built for Madame de Pompadour, the beloved mistress of Louis XV. When Marie Antoinette wanted to escape the protocols of the palace, she visited the Petit Trianon. Away from prying eyes, it is also where she supposedly carried on affairs with various noblemen, the most famous being Count Ferson of Sweden.
A RETURN TO SIMPLICITY
Around this time, French society ladies were beginning to embrace the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marie Antoinette and her friends followed his teachings, promoting a return to nature and a ‘natural’ lifestyle. At the time, model farms were popular, espoused by Physiocrats (a group of enlightened economists who believed France’s wealth derived from the land). She built herself the Hameau de la Reine – a small hamlet – where she could ‘escape to nature’ and the atmosphere of the court.
The Hameau itself was an elaborate affair, but was made to not look so. The Hameau exhibited a range of architectural influences, and appeared to be located deep in the countryside. As described by Apartment Therapy:
The buildings were mostly half-timbered, and many had thatched roofs and false windows so as to look like they had been built and repaired over centuries. Flowers were planted to grow out of the roofs, suggesting picturesque decay. The Hameau was composed of several structures: the Queen’s House, the Mill, the Boudoir, the Tower, two Dairies, the Guard’s House, the Grange, the Kitchen, the Dovecote, and the Farmhouses. About half the structures were for the Queen’s use or comfort, like the Tower, the Boudoir and the Kitchen, with its twenty-two burner stove.
In her private village, Marie Antoinette would dress as a shepherdess and stroll with her children and closest friends. As it was a working farm, it also had “sheep that baaed, pigeons that cooed, and hens that cackled.” Rosseau equated simplicity with virtue, an irony lost on Marie Antoinette and friends. While the people of France generally struggled to find enough food to eat, they collected eggs, ate French patisserie and drank milk from porcelain created at the Sèvres factory, in their vision of what a virtuous, simple life was.
This slightly misguided attempt to “get back to nature” nearly caused an industrial crisis in France, and helped to start the beginning of the slave trade for cotton. Marie Antoinette made a decision to dress in flowing muslin dresses, very different than the heavy silks favoured for many years earlier. As a result, French society women followed suit, and the silk merchants of the country accused Marie Antoinette of plotting their demise. She was famously painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in one of her muslin creations. The image of the queen in her ‘underwear ‘ caused such an uproar that it was repainted. This, coupled with the Queen’s apparent disconnect from the lives of ordinary French people, did nothing to help her image throughout the country.
THE ROAD TO REVOLUTION
Most of you probably have a reasonable idea what happened next. The Bastille fell in July 1789, the precursor to the beginning of the French Revolution. The King and Queen, along with their two living children, were ousted from the Palace of Versailles in 1789, and forced to move to the Tuileries palace in Paris. This allowed the French people to ‘hold their royalty to account’, and offered little chance of peace from the accusatory Parisian crowds. This palace, which was eventually destroyed by fire in the 1800s, was their home until they were imprisoned in the Temple Tower, after a failed attempt at secretly escaping Paris.
The time the family spent in the Temple was stressful and upsetting for Marie Antoinette, who aged considerably during her time there. The King was removed from the family when he faced trial for treason. On January 21, 1793, he walked steadfastly to the guillotine and was executed. One thousand years after the first king had accepted the French throne, the reign was no more. From her room in the tower, Marie Antoinette could hear the cheers of the French people when the gullotine fell. Her son was eventually seperated from her, and died in 1795 in a terribly neglected state.
In October 1793, Marie Antoinette was also charged with treason against the Republic and conspiring with Austria. Her trial took only two days, and her son was forced to testify against his mother and accuse her of molesting him. Marie Antoinette was quickly convicted by the revolutionary tribunal. She was sent to the Conciergerie, well known as the waiting room for the gullotine. You can see a reconstruction of her small cell there today. On 16 October 1793, she too went to the gullotine. Her last words were “Pardon me, monsieur, I did not mean to do it.” after she stepped on the executioners foot. She was 37.
Marie Thérèse was the only one of the original family of six to survive the revolution, and lived to the age of 72. She was not made aware of what had happened to her mother until 1795, when she was 17. She never produced children. The following words were scratched into her room in the Temple:
Marie-Thérèse Charlotte is the most unhappy person in the world. She can obtain no news of her mother; nor be reunited to her, though she has asked it a thousand times. Live, my good mother! whom I love well, but of whom I can hear no tidings. O my father! watch over me from Heaven above. O my God! forgive those who have made my parents suffer.
THE HAMEAU TODAY
You can visit Le Hameau de the Reine today, along with the Petit Trianon, and both are worthwhile seeing. The Hameau gives off a distinctively theme park like vibe – a whimsical interpretation of the real world intended to make you feel safe and comfortable. While you can’t go into many of the buildings, the area has been restored to the state it was in Marie Antoinettes’ time. If you try hard enough, you can imagine the Queen and her ladies taking tea in the gardens.