Few figures in history have suffered as much as Marie Antoinette from the distorting influence of myths and lies. The very first thing that most people will say if you mention her name is ‘Let them eat cake!’, a cold-hearted and idiotic comment that almost certainly never passed her lips. But at least the last great lie in her story has never taken hold, and the myth of Marie Antoinette as child abuser was seen for just what it was. Revolutionary karma had an ironic sense of humour, and the old adage ‘what goes around comes around’ has never been truer than in this case. Less than half a year after Marie Antoinette’s execution, Hébert fell foul of Robespierre and was himself tried at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Legend has it he responded with far less dignity than Marie Antoinette, throwing his hat at his judges and trembling on the scaffold before a crowd clearly relishing every drop of irony. Fouquier-Tinville too fell from grace in 1795. He protested that “It is not I who ought to be facing the tribunal, but the chiefs whose orders I have executed. I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers.” His trial lasted 41 days, but ended in in the same journey to the guillotine endured by so many of those he had judged.
It is too easy to dismiss Marie Antoinette’s trial as an empty sham, too tempting to gloss over its details in the rush towards the tragic finale of her story. But to do so is too miss out on a rich insight both into Marie Antoinette’s character at this final stage in her life, and into the mentality and operation of a revolution spiralling rapidly out of control. Marie Antoinette remains a polarising figure, but whichever side you take, the squalid details of her trial and final days, and the unnecessary attempts to blacken the character of a woman already certain to die, serve as a chilling example of human cruelty.
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