Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was an Austrian princess who married the future King Louis XVI of France when she was 14 and he, 15. She was tall and pretty, with a lovely complexion and was destined to be one of history's most vilified and tragic queens.

Louis XVI was shy, awkward and unable to consummate the marriage for several years. Frustrated, Marie Antoinette amused herself with lavish balls, gambling and mixing with courtiers with dubious reputations. She was frivolous, spendthrift, politically naive and ignorant of life outside the French court. She paid no heed to good advice and court protocol. The French treasury had been in the red long before her time but she soon became an easy scapegoat, lampooned as Madame Deficit. The French also suspected her loyalties still lay with Austria and her domineering mother, the Empress. But in reality, she had little political influence.

The watershed to the French Revolution was the Diamond Necklace Affair in 1785. Ironically, this particular necklace did not belong to Marie Antoinette. The beautiful Madame de La Motte, an adventuress and mistress to the powerful Cardinal Rohan, hatched a scam of glittering proportions. She tricked her lover into believing he was helping the Queen purchase an incredibly expensive diamond necklace valued at 1,600,000 livres (or $100 million today) . He was so easily duped because he was desperate to return to the good graces of the King and Queen. The scandal broke when the two jewelers involved approached the Queen for non-payment. The trial eventually acquited the Cardinal of wrongdoing. But Marie Antoinette was the real loser. Vicious rumors circulated accusing her of scheming to punish the Cardinal.

After that scandal, everything went rapidly down hill for the royal couple. Unable and unwilling to implement crucial changes to save the French monarchy, they dithered until all was lost. Their indecision cost them their freedom during their failed escape attempt. Whilst under house arrest at Tuileries, Marie Antoinette gave her grey drop pearls (see picture above) to Lady Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, for safekeeping. As wife of the British Ambassador to France, Lady Elizabeth was able to smuggle them back to England under diplomatic immunity. Later on she also sent the French Royal family desperately needed clothes and linen when they were imprisoned under much harsher conditions. It was the last act of kindness anyone showed them.

The family's last few years in imprisonment were heartrendingly sad, hoping against all hope that some other European nation would step in to rescue them. Both were tried and found guilty of treason -Louis XVI was beheaded nine months before Marie Antoinette. Ill, she spent her last days peering out the window for glimpses of her son, Louis XVII, who was forcibly taken from her. Worse still, at her "trial", the little boy was coached to accuse his mother of sexual abuse. He later died of tuberculosis in prison. Only his older sister survived the French Revolution.

Picture Sources
Wikipedia : Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Franz Xaver Wagenschön in 1770, shortly after her marriage.

Christie Press Release : The Sutherland pearl necklace consisting of diamonds and rubies as well, was fashioned in 1849 with the original pearls (circa 1780) given to Lady Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland who ultimately could not return them to Marie Antoinette. The necklace is to be auctioned this coming Wednesday, December 12. The expected sale price is between 350K-400K British pounds ( US$700-800K).

Evelyne Lever (2000). Marie Antoinette : The Last Queen of France. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.