Her husband, Louis XVI, who lost his title when the monarchy was abolished, had been guillotined nine months earlier, though he was spared the indignity of riding in a tumbrel with bound hands. The Jacobin extremists then seized her son. The eight-year-old Louis Charles—Louis XVII to royalists—had clung to her skirts and was pulled off. As part of his reëducation, his captors plied him with alcohol between beatings and taught him the “Marseillaise,” which he sang with a heartbreaking swagger, wearing the red bonnet of a sansculotte. He testified that she had molested him, and his evidence was presented at her brief show trial for treason and moral turpitude. He died two years later, alone in a dungeon.
No other queen, except perhaps Cleopatra, was more intent than Marie Antoinette on dressing for history. While her instincts for self-display had worked more toward her undoing than her glory, they served her a last time. The mourning outfit she had worn day and night since her husband’s death, in defiance of a Jacobin edict against black (a color symbolic of monarchist sympathies), had grown increasingly shabby. But, knowing that she would need to make a final and unforgettable impression—at her execution—she had managed to acquire a pristine chemise, petticoat, morning dress, and bonnet, all in white.
Early on the day of her death, Marie Antoinette arose from a few sleepless hours on her straw pallet and began her toilette. At dawn, the Jacobins’ chief executioner, Citizen Sanson, arrived to cut off her hair. It had turned white in the course of a few days in June of 1791, during the captive royal family’s ill-conceived flight to Varennes, which had ended with their recapture. The artist Jacques-Louis David, a radical member of the National Convention, watched the death march from a window, and what he perceived as the “arrogance” of the traitor’s mien particularly incensed him. He sketched a hasty portrait of a wasted crone with a scornful grimace and a ramrod spine. Her dress looks like a shroud.
The former Queen had been denied a priest of her choice (one of the dissidents who had refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the Revolution), so she mounted the scaffold alone and apologized to Sanson for stepping on his toe. After he released the blade, he exhibited the head, as was customary, and the crowd, shaken from its trance, roared, “Vive la République! ” The remains were then taken to a cemetery off the Rue d’Anjou, where the bodies of the King and of his Swiss Guard—who were butchered orgiastically at the Tuileries, with other royal retainers—had been buried, the latter in a trench. The gravediggers, as Antonia Fraser writes in her biography “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” (2001), were taking a lunch break, so they left the Queen’s head and body lying on the grass, giving a young sculptor—Marie Grosholtz, who later became Madame Tussaud—an opportunity to take a wax imprint for a death mask. In 1815, a year after the Bourbon monarchy was restored, Louis XVIII, the King’s perfidious younger brother (who had married his son to Marie Antoinette’s only surviving child, Marie Thérèse), exhumed the relics and had them reburied in state, at the Cathedral of St. Denis. Chateaubriand was present at the ceremony, and he claimed to have recognized the head immediately, Fraser writes, “by the special shape of the Queen’s mouth, recalling that dazzling smile she had given him at Versailles.” But all that was left, besides a skull, some hair, and the nostalgia of a Romantic, were two garters, in perfect condition....