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THE REAL STORY BEHIND MARIE ANTOINTETTE’S “LET THEM EAT CAKE”

Last Updated on 10th December 2016 by Sophie Nadeau

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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)

About Author

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, Paris, pizza, and history, though not necessarily in that order. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she's not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming her weight in sweet food. Currently based in Paris after studies in London, she's spent most of her life living in the beautiful Devonian countryside in South West England!

4 Comments

  • George Fleming
    18th July 2020 at 3:39 am

    I believe she never said it. Here is another explanation. I read it many years ago but can’t remember where. I can’t find anything like it on the internet.

    The bread ovens of France in those days were probably brick. A crust of flour and other particles would build up inside the oven on the rough brick walls. The bakers had to scrape it off now and then. They called this stuff cake. They probably fed it to the pigs.

    While this cake was worthless, it still had nutritional value. It would have been free to anyone who wanted it. If this explanation is true; and Marie Antoinette actually said let them eat cake instead of brioche, she would have meant this free stuff the peasants could get when bread became too expensive.

    If she thought this was practical advice; it would have shown how naive she was. There would have been far too little of it to feed the poor people of France. And it would still have been an arrogant statement, although in a different way from the usual interpretation.

    Reply
  • Let them eat cake ! | that which i am
    2nd June 2018 at 3:57 am

    […] had no bread, Marie-Antoinette (bride of France’s King Louis XVI) supposedly sniffed, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—“Let them eat […]

    Reply
  • Dinah
    10th December 2016 at 5:51 pm

    I am originally French but been living in English speaking countries. So tired of explaining that brioche is not cake ahaha. Next time I will just copy paste this post their wall 😉 great blog, very interesting topics in many niches…

    Reply
  • Lolo
    8th December 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I find her incredibly interesting! I read the entire triple series by Juliet Grey and loved them! So sad that she is probably one of the most misunderstood royals.

    Reply

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