Let them eat cake! This famous phrase is infamously attributed to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France during the French Revolution. The story goes that the people of France were starving. A poor crop harvest, rodents and a whole number of other factors led to an enormous bread shortage. Upon hearing this news, Marie Antoinette is said to have replied; “let them eat cake”. As a cake is obviously a luxury item, and way more expensive than bread, the anecdote just went to show how out of touch she was with her subjects.
Who Was Marie Antoinette?
Born and raised in Austria, Marie Antoinette was an archduchess and the fifteenth child born to wealthy parents. She was betrothed to Louis Auguste (XVI) (Dauphin of France- next in heir to the throne) as early as the age of thirteen. The marriage was an attempt at reconciliation between the Austrian and French empire. Both nations were growing increasingly concerned by the rising power of Prussia and Great Britain and so formed an alliance.
Although there were a few protestors at a marriage between Austrian and French royalty, Marie Antoinette was generally liked by everyone. She began her life in the French court as a popular princess, known for her generosity and great beauty. By 1774, when Antoinette was just 19 years old, Louis XV died and Louis XVI ascended the throne. Before the age of twenty, she was already queen of France.
Marie Antoinette’s Life as Queen of France
After she became Queen, Marie Antoinette held greater and greater power within the French court. Her position was such that Austria profited greatly and many began to resent her for it. In terms of fashion, make-up and French etiquette, Antoinette said goodbye to many older ways of thinking (heavy makeup, dress style), further angering many conservatives within the court.
Her popularity among the general population waned too. The birth of her second child occurred nine months after the return of a close male friend of hers. People grew suspicious that she had conducted an affair and was taking her position of Queen of France for granted. It did not help that while the people of France were starving, she was living an opulent lifestyle.
Following her marriage to Louis XVI, she spent the majority of her days living in the opulent palace of Versailles. She even created a miniature farm in Versailles where stories say that the animals were washed before she was allowed to ‘play with them’. Many people in France were starving and yet the queen was reported to be ‘playing dress-up’ far from the crowds of Paris.
By 1789, revolution among the general population of France that wealthy barons and lords held an emergency meeting in Versailles. This was held in the Jeu de Paume and was known as the Tennis Court Oath. In 1791, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in the Conciergerie on Île de la Cité. There she remained until her execution in 1793.
So, did Marie Antoinette really say “Let them eat cake”?
So now we know a little about the growing dissent among the French population and the reason for the resentment for the once popular Marie Antoinette, the question still remains: did she really say “let them eat cake”?
Well for starters, the English translation of what was originally in French is confused! Marie Antoinette is said to have actually said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. This translates into English as “Let them eat brioche” (a sweet French breakfast bread).
Furthermore, there is no anecdotal, nor historical evidence from the time that Marie Antoinette ever uttered those words. In fact, it was probably a rumour started as a way of further decreasing her popularity among the general population. The first recording of Marie Antoinette in relation to the phrase did not occur until 50 years after her death.
Prior to Marie Antoinette’s lifetime, the philosopher Rousseau cited that a 16th-century princess had uttered “Let them Eat Cake” upon hearing that her people were starving. In reality, the phrase was likely later attributed to Marie Antoinette in order to account for her decreased popularity.
Cover photo: A portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1783. Oil on Canvas, Petit Trianon by Vigee leBrun. (Source)