“Let them eat cake” – the most famous line that Marie Antoinette never said. It was first written about someone else, before Marie Antoinette ever set foot in France.
She’s often portrayed as a selfish Queen spending the country’s money on her lavish lifestyle, unconcerned about the suffering all around her. But this queen had a compassionate side and a special place in her heart for children – especially orphans. In fact, she just couldn’t resist “adopting” them. Sometimes that meant paying for their education and welfare, and sometimes it meant actually taking them to the palace to live.
When Marie Antoinette arrived in France to marry the King’s grandson, at 14 years old, she was still a child herself, and her husband was just one year older. The bride and groom were both shy and inexperienced which led to trouble in the bedroom. Although, over the years, they made several attempts (nothing at Versailles was private), their marriage wasn’t consummated until seven years after their wedding night. Some say that Louis had a physical problem that required a little surgery, but most evidence suggests that the couple was just inept.
You might think it was the bedroom problem that prompted Marie Antoinette, after years of unconsummated marriage, to adopt the first child. But even after the King and Queen had figured out what to do in the royal bed and had 4 children of their own, she kept adopting children.
During the Revolution, the Royals were forced to leave Versailles and put under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Marie Antoinette still took care of her adopted children and apparently adopted more during this time. Even when she was in prison and knew her days were numbered, she is said to have asked the guards to try to find news about the welfare of her extended family.
Below are the stories of four of the children who lived with the Queen:
In 1776, when Marie Antoinette was out for a carriage ride, a little boy of four or five years old dashed out in front of the horses and was almost killed. Though unharmed he screamed in fear and his grandmother came running and told the Queen that the boy’s mother had just died and left four children in her care. The Queen immediately said “I adopt them.” She took the little boy to the palace and paid for the support of the others.
The boy, François Michel Gagné, was called Jacques by his family. When he was taken to Versailles, the Queen renamed him Armand. He was always a difficult child and the grandmother even tried to warn the Queen, telling her that “Jacques was a very naughty boy.” It turns out that Grandma was right. When the Revolution erupted, the teenaged Armand turned against his adoptive family and joined the revolutionaries. He died in 1792.
In 1778, the first royal baby was born. A girl, named Marie Thérèse Charlotte was titled Madame Royale. The Queen brought in a companion of the same age for her: Marie Philippine Lambriquet, daughter of one of the maids. The little girl spent her days at the palace where she was called Ernestine, and went home each evening.
When Ernestine’s mother died, the Queen adopted the little girl and moved her into apartments adjoining those of her royal playmate giving orders that the two girls were to be treated exactly the same. Ernestine went with the family when they were removed from Versailles and installed in the Tuileries. She left their household only when the Royals (including children) were imprisoned a year later.
In 1787, the Chevalier de Boufflers returned from a trip to Senegal bearing gifts for the Queen. Marie Antoinette was presented with a parrot and a young Senegalese boy, five or six years of age. This practice, which seems barbaric to us now, was not uncommon at the time. Normally a boy like this would have been made a servant, but Marie Antoinette had him baptized as Jean Amilcar and he was looked after at the palace.
He would have been about ten years old when the family was forced to leave Versailles. The Queen continued to pay for food and lodgings but when she could no longer do so Jean Amilcar was kicked out of the hotel and died on the streets of Paris.
In 1790, Marie Antoinette heard that one of her husband’s ushers and his wife had died within a few months of each other, leaving three orphaned girls. She declared she would adopt them. The two older girls were placed in a convent where all expenses were paid by the Queen. The youngest, Jeanne Louise Victoire, who was three years old, almost the same age as the Dauphin Louis-Charles, was brought into the palace as his companion. Her name was changed to Zoe.
There were many other children that Marie Antoinette supported financially. Though she may have had many faults, she loved children and went out of her way to help them. It seems that a Queen like that couldn’t be all bad.
In case you are wondering about the Royal couple’s natural children:
- Marie Thérèse Charlotte (1778-1851) – She was the only one of the Royal Family to survive the Revolution.
- Louis Joseph (1781-1789) – Died at age seven from tuberculosis at the beginning of the Revolution, before the family was imprisoned.
- Louis Charles (1785-1795) – Died in prison at age ten.
- Sophie (1786-1787) – Died at age one, before the beginning of the Revolution.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and write. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”. Margo blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions.