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When studying the history of legal systems throughout the world, one of the most prominent and alluring trials is that of Marie Antoinette. As an eminent historical figure, Antoinette is well known through both celebration and criticism in the modern teachings of history and historical law. The following will describe Antoinette’s time as the queen of France leading to her execution, along with the impact of her trial and on the future legal system in France.
Brief Biography of Marie Antoinette
Maria Antonia Josepha Joana (1755-1793), famously known as Marie Antoinette, is most prominently known as being the last queen of France, leading the country into the French Revolution and the dismantling of the French monarchy. Antoinette was born an archduchess of Austria before being arranged for marriage at age 14 to the dauphin Louis (later to be known as King Louis XVI), the grandson of King Louis XV. Along with Louis XV’s death in 1774 and her husband, Louis XVI's ascendance to the throne, Antoinette became the queen of France at age 19.
Marie Antoinette can be seen as a historical symbol of extravagance and royal inheritance, which was noticed in her mannerisms throughout her reign. One of the underlying causes of the French Revolution, as analyzed by historians, can be traced to Antoinette’s provocation of the working class of France, specifically those who were prominently affected by the economy, which was heavily influenced by mercantilism, or the lack of balance between the imports and exports in the country’s commerce. During Antoinette’s reign, the French government had begun to enter a state of economic turmoil, including the inflation of grain prices due to poor harvesting conditions.
The extravagant and lavish lifestyle of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI was not well perceived by the general public since it was recognized as a form of mockery to the working class. As the French Revolution continued its course, the trial of Louis XVI took place as one of the most influential trials in France’s history.
The Trial of King Louis XVI
King Louis XVI stood before the National Convention in December of 1792 facing a total of 33 charges. The charges, as presented directly to Louis XVI by Jean-Baptiste Mailhe, the secretary of the National Convention, included the commitment of “a multitude of crimes to establish your tyranny, in destroying her freedom.” The French Revolution had progressed into a protest against the French monarchy, with the ultimate objective of overthrowing the king and queen through liability for their established tyranny, specifically due to their negligence towards the working class, leading to the struggling economy in France.
Louis XVI’s trial and punishment set an important precedent for Marie Antoinette’s trial. Though his impact on the French Revolution was arguably more important than hers, it would have been easy to assume that the result of his trial would have a great impact on the direction of her own sentence in court.
The trial of King Louis XVI resulted in a verdict of ‘guilty’, where 693 deputies voted to convict. Following multiple series of votes to determine the fate of Louis XVI resulted in a vote of 380-286 deputies for immediate execution. On January 21st of 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded on the Place de la Révolution. The commander of the execution ordered a drumroll to mask his final words to the crowd.
The Trial of Marie Antoinette
Following the execution of Louis XVI, Antoinette’s fate was preparing for a similar verdict. She was accused by the Revolutionary Tribunal of several crimes including high treason and the depletion of the national treasury. She maintained her defense by denying all accusations made against her, claiming that she followed her husband’s orders and was not responsible for any of the crimes that she was being accused of.
Though her lawyers expected life imprisonment as the worst possible punishment, Antoinette was sentenced to immediate death by guillotine two days following the initiation of her trial. On October 16 of 1793, Marie Antoinette was beheaded on the Place de la Révolution, as was her husband. It is famously noted that she wished to wear a black dress to her execution, though was forced to wear a white dress to symbolize the widowed queens of France. Additionally, it is noted that her final words were an apology to the executioner for stepping on his foot, stating, "Apologies, sir, I did not do it on purpose". She was executed two weeks prior to her 38th birthday.
Antoinette’s execution held a great amount of symbolism for the people of France at the time, representing the change to come in France’s legal and political systems. Though this trial lasted for only two days, it continues to be one of the most influential trials in France’s history, and it greatly affected France’s legal system in the following years.
The Effects of the Trials on the French Legal System
By the end of the French Revolution in 1799, the laws and overall legal system of France had begun to shift dramatically, including the birth of what was called the ‘revolutionary law’. During this revolutionary period, the phrase, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) was created, which is still the motto of France to this day.
With the fall of monarchy in France and the birth of the French Second Republic of the Government of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte beginning in 1848 came a series of laws which changed the way France’s legal system worked. These laws included the dismantling of forced marriage, divorce becoming legal, and abolishing slavery in France.
Though the executions of the king and queen happened so quickly, the effects of the trial were much more long lasting. The trials of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette set a precedent for the future of France’s development and overall altered the way in which the country functioned from legal perspectives.