Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Trial of Capet's Widow

Just two months after Marie-Jeanne Roland suffered arrest, a captive of nobler blood was taken also to the Conciergerie. On August 1st, Europe was defied by the French Republic's issue of a decree that Marie Antoinette, late Queen of France, should be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. War was distracting the new rulers and testing their capabilities as it once had tested those of the Girondins. It was a death-struggle in which the country was engaged, and on the result of that struggle the life of Louis's widow now depended.

There was civil war in the North and West, waged by the defeated members of the National Convention. Normandy had risen to defend the patriots, and Charlotte Corday, a beautiful woman of the Norman nobility, had struck a blow at the whole faction of the Jacobins by killing Marat. The People's Friend was mourned by the people, and death decreed for the fair fanatic, who declared herself to have been "a Republican before the Revolution." Charlotte Corday was led to the guillotine, active as ever in this period of danger. There was panic at home since the assassination of every other good citizen would prove as easy. This woman had "killed one man to save a hundred thousand." There were desperate men in France, likely to emulate her patriotism. It would be folly to risk an attempt to rescue Marie Antoinette on the part of some enemy of the Committee. They had enemies, as they knew to their cost; but if the army took their sons and brothers to destruction, the wife of the tyrant should pay for it. She had always been false and treasonable.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


On August 2nd, the walls of the Temple enclosed a silence that was ominous of the future. Madame Elizabeth was left there, serene in her resignation, and Madame Royale bidden to cling to the aunt she must henceforth regard as a mother. The little Dauphin had been removed from them on July 3rd, his fair head being a precious hostage to men fearing the dismemberment of the Republic by Austria, Prussia, and England in a moment of victory. This child might be of use to France still, for he was held to be Louis XVII, the descendant of the Capet line, and acknowledged by the other kings of Europe.

Marie Antoinette had fought against the separation in vain, losing, when the guards came to take him, the proud composure she had hitherto preserved in misfortune. The scene had been one of violence, in which the mother overcame the Queen and descended to entreaties. She did not show the same spirit when they came to remove her from her daughter. In her eyes the boy had been the representative of the kings, his fathers. She had cherished hopes in secret that she might yet see him ruling a submissive people. She had few hopes left when she bade farewell to her companions and passed into solitude greater than she had known throughout the dreary years of bondage. She could not now feel pain, she assured her captors, after striking her noble head against the low lintel of the door. She did not feel terror, though she must have known that the sounds which came to her in the summer darkness meant defeat in battle. France was in extremities, awaiting a terrible invasion with vengeance to follow it. She listened to the distant marching songs in silence. Perhaps she thought of Fersen, making valiant efforts for her rescue. Perhaps she was too worn by sorrow to have retained the love she had once bore him.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


The Conciergerie was darker, gloomier, more unhealthy than the Tower of the forbidding Temple. There were many other prisoners there, but they were not all noble. The Queen was to be kept alone with costly maintenance enough, but fewer attendants than were necessary for her decent comfort. A young girl named Rosalie became devoted to her service, and the porter's wife was kindly, but men sat in her room all day long, and at night her door was guarded. The room itself was small and low, and lighted only by a barred window. It was partly underground, and so damp that the inhabitant suffered cruelly. Her health, which had been failing, was worse in this seclusion. She had books to read if she asked for them, but she saw nothing beyond the walls of her cell, and the awful solitude was seldom broken.

She might not knit, since the use of needles was forbidden. Steel was dangerous, and messages could be conveyed by stitches, as the women of the people knew too well during the time of the Terror. They took their knitting with them to the public trials of the aristocrats they rejoiced to see fallen. They were said, in some cases, to have recorded the names of those to whom death should be meted out during the years preceding Revolution. It had been the safest way of keeping secret evidence against their oppressors. Terrible were the results of some apparently harmless piece of work, made by the busy hand of a peasant or merchant's wife. The Queen should not avail herself of a like method to communicate with her enemies. Austria would have her if the jailers did not look well to the royal bird they had caged at last.

Not even ink and paper must be allowed, or a pencil which would serve her purpose. Mme Roland could spend busy hours writing a life's experiences. She could gain solace from such occupation, being a woman of high mental powers. The descendant of the Hapsburgs must be idle, as she had chosen to be in former years. Let her make existence tolerable by friendship with the humblest servants. These last put flowers on her table and bought her various articles she wanted. It was soon an amusement to her to watch the guards playing a game of cards. The fearful monotony of life might break a stronger spirit. She broke down several times at the sight of the porter's little son, for mother-instincts were the strongest within her during this time of desolation. She longed to know how it fared with the frail child she loved devotedly.

He was to be brought up to an honest trade, they had said, by the advice of Chaumette, the Republican whose bread Louis XVI had once shared. He would have a rough life of it, but he would soon forget the luxury of Versailles. It had not lasted long, that childhood of excessive care and petting. He would make a brave man yet, for he had learnt already to speak a little coarsely.

The Queen wept over a glove she kept in her bosom, and a lock of hair she cherished to the end. She would never again see the son they had taken from her; the conviction grew with the dark summer of solitary brooding. Otherwise, she retained firmness and self-reliance that would dispense with the help of a maid in dressing and the performance of little household duties. She had a doctor who said the cell was not fit for a captive to inhabit, but nothing was done, and the heat of the month of August tried her unbearably. News never came from the outer world, and she longed for the success of Austria. Fersen was talking wildly of a march on Paris, but she did not know it. The English were in Toulon, and her position became more dangerous daily.

A certain inspector of the police came one day with a companion who left a bunch of flowers behind him. The Queen found a note in them when the two men had left her cell. She was closely watched, and could not write a letter in reply to the offer of help from without her prison. She racked her brains to think of a safe substitute for pen and ink, and decided to prick some words with a pin, promising to be ready. She had friends within the Conciergerie, and the note was conveyed to the right persons. Marie Antoinette waited, nevertheless, for rescuers who never came, since there was treachery afloat and the whole plan was discovered. Another cell was chosen for her, and she had to endure a still more rigorous captivity. There was a dreadful uncertainty as to the issue of the war when the Queen was brought to answer for her former crimes against the nation.

It was 14 October, 1793, according to the old reckoning, but the names of the months had changed, like her own title, on the documents they published. It was the 23rd day of the first month of the fourth year of freedom. The trial of the widow Capet was decreed for the second year of the Republic. It was the new era, and a new calendar had been introduced with four equal seasons and twelve months of thirty days each, the five odd days being left for special festivals in honor of Genius, Labour, Actions, Rewards, and Opinions. The Republic was dated from September 21st. Vendemiare, Brumaire, Frimaire were hence-forward to be the three autumn months; Nivose, Pluviose and Ventose the period of rain, wind, and snow; Germinal, Floreal, Prairial were to symbolize the season of seed and flowering; Messidor, Thermidor, and Fructidor, the summer of heat and fruition of all things. Weeks were to be abolished in favour of decades or periods of ten days—three to each month. The tenth day was to be the day of rest, and the Christian Sabbath was to cease under the Republic.

Of such changes Marie Antoinette was ignorant when she left her prison to be tried by a court significant of the equality of the new era. There was a hatter in the jury and a barber, as well as a famous surgeon. The judge was Herman, a man of formidable aspect; and Fouquier-Tinville, earning his salary as Public Accuser by zealous, industrious hours, was present—lean and brown-skinned and terrible to those he questioned, though he had a wife and child at home devoted to his fortunes.

Stately and imposing the widow looked, approaching the court where so many curious spectators were waiting to applaud her downfall. She had lost her beauty, and her sight was dimmed by the rigors of her imprisonment, yet she had not lost distinction. Her pale cheeks were painted red, and she wore black in startling contrast to her pallor. She was wearing robes suited to her present forsaken state—very different from those supplied by the Court modistes  of Versailles. On her grey, abundant hair a cap rested in token of her widowhood. She had forsaken the foolish head-dresses of old days, and would have felt them now too wearisome. Vanity had forsaken her with that following of frivolous companions, nearly all now dead or in banishment. She had lost youth quickly, they might have thought, who did not know the scorching fires of pain she had endured with fortitude.

She gave her name clearly in answer to the judge's question, "Marie Antoinette of Austria, some thirty-eight years old, widow of Louis Capet, the King of France." She was allowed to sit down when Fouquier-Tinville began his speech for the prosecution. There were many charges brought against her; some of them were true. She was accused of having sent millions of gold to Austria to aid them in the war with France. That was false, but she had nevertheless been guilty of treason against the country over which she reigned. She denied that charge with all the other charges, and once only was moved from her cold, disdainful attitude by the base story of sins which her little boy had been forced to attribute to his mother. The Queen would not reply to the questions pressed upon her in connection with this subject. "I have not answered," she said with a cry, "because nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother. I appeal to all the mothers that are here.

Her persecutors had lost ground by the wicked attempt to vilify; women in the galleries were roused to pity and men to indignation. The seven hours' sitting had come to an end in the midst of hubbub and commotion. Robespierre, who was not present, cursed the Republican who had brought this change, because he thought the Queen would now be freed. The trial was resumed at five, and lasted very long in the smoky hall where it was conducted. The Queen was wakened from her last sleep the next day to meet the further evidence against her.

There was a witness from the nobility who revived the ancient pride of Marie Antoinette. She was able to answer the questions relating to her extravagance and frivolity without emotion. She denied firmly her implication in the plot to obtain the Diamond Necklace. Even her friends had been doubtful of this mysterious affair. Her enemies thought it a good occasion to recall it.

She was defended, and her defenders allowed to speak after Fouquier-Tinville. The night was drawing to an end, and she was fatigued by the strain of it. Four o'clock had struck when she was summoned to hear the verdict. They had decided that she was guilty of the indictment brought against her. She had conspired against France, and had influenced the late King dangerously. She was responsible for the attitude of enemies of the Republic. She was sentenced to death and made no protest, returning to her cell with the old dignity, and demanding pen and paper that she might have the privilege of writing to her husband's sister. She assured Madame Elizabeth that her one regret was for the children she must abandon. It was a noble inspiration that ran through this letter, betraying qualities Marie Antoinette had seldom shown in the days of her first splendor.

She would not see the priest, because he had not been true to the old order, and had taken the oath required by the Civil Constitution. She changed her black dress for one of white muslin—elegant and flowing. She put on a pair of high-heeled shoes, and cut off the locks of grey hair that would impede the executioner in his duty.

It was October 16th, 1793, according to the old calendar when Marie Antoinette was led from her prison to the tumbril waiting to convey her through the streets to the guillotine. No privacy was granted to the Queen suffering the last humiliations of the guilty. Her hands were bound, and the windows of all houses were full of heads, peering out to see the woman who had caused such bitter hate and jealousy. It was raining drearily, as it rained that autumn day when Versailles was besieged by angry women. Some of these were rejoicing that the Austrian should know discomfort in her turn. Very few pitied the stately figure, still erect and displaying all the aloofness her people had resented. Her face was very pale, and she did not move nor speak.

The guillotine took her life at noon, and in that same hour a victory was won for Republican France so glorious that, had it been a day sooner, it might have saved the last indignities of a head shown to subjects who were once admirers of its royalty. The battle of Wattignies should indeed have saved Marie Antoinette from the scaffold, because it relieved her enemies from the fear that they would lose their cherished liberties.