The Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was most terribly wronged. Imprisoned, her trial a parody, she was sentenced to death by cruel and obsessed revolutionaries who were determined to destroy her because of who she was, and not for what she had done.
As Burke wrote: “… little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult – But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished.”
The official line about her sins was more than exaggerated – the stories were fabrications, a conclusion now confirmed by the results of new painstaking research. The revolution has given rise to all sorts of myths, even newly concocted ones.
…myths about the revolution even in Australia…
These can even begin in the Antipodes. I had to take the ultra republican who conceived the Mate for Head of State campaign, Peter FitzSimons, to task about one in this column on 18 November 2005. This was about his claim in The Sydney Morning Herald that the French anthem, La Marseillaise was written “in honour of, the troops of the town, who were heading up to Paris to take on those trying to restore the French monarchy.”
In fact, Rouget de Lisle, variously described as a royalist or a moderate republican, composed the song in Strasbourg and not Marseilles when King Louis VI was still on the throne.
Any exposure of the myths of the French revolution will be of more than historical interest in France. This is because the revolution is the living ideogical basis of the French state. But this has its disadvantages-when things are not going well, the tendency is to go into the streets, and even to use violence to turn on bring down the institutions of the state, even including whatever republican model happens to be in place. We saw this reaction in 1958, when there were calls for a new Sixth Republic, and in the rebellions of the youth, both Muslim and general.
The official French view is that the Revolution was of significant benefit to France, Europe and the world. This is not so- it was a disaster which resulted in wars that ravaged the continent for the better part of two decades. The great European political event which benefited the whole world actually occurred a century before the French Revolution. This was Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688.
…glorifying the Revolution…
Nevertheless, the official French republican line even today still glorifies the French Revolution. To justify this bloody event, it is simplistically argued that it was provoked by the extravagance of the French court, particularly the Queen’s. It is said that the mob was enraged, in part, by claims of Queen Marie Antoinette’s sexually depraved behavior, and that the final outrage was in her alleged riposte to pleas of the starving for bread: “Let them eat cake!” This is now revealed to be a fabrication.
…Marie Antoinette libelled by foreign criminals…
According to a report by Martin Wainwright in The Guardian, of 29 September , 2006 ( “ Obscene papers found by Bastille mob in cruel twist…. UK professor’s theory puts blame on London gang”) the lurid tales of bestiality, nymphomania and lesbianism – the focus of a new Hollywood movie – may have been just that.
“Myths that have no truth,” says Mr. Wainright. “ The Queen probably never uttered those notorious words, ‘Let them eat cake!’ ”
A leading expert on the period, Dr.Simon Burrows of Leeds University, has uncovered evidence to show that the stories were the work of criminals in London who blackmailed the French royal family. This will be set out in detail in a book “Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution; London’s French Libellistes 1758-92,” to be published on 30 October 2001, by Manchester University Press. (The UK recommended price is £50)
( Since this review was published the book “Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes 1758-92” can be ordered through the Book Depository at the special price of $26.39 post free. Just click here.)
Dr Burrows has found that the blackmailers included these fabricated stories in pamphlets, then threatened to publish them in France. The King was forced to pay them to destroy the papers. But it seems that a conscientious bureaucrat filed a copy in the Bastille.
…campaign against Marie Antoinette: an early example of media manipulation..
After this was stormed in 1789, the copy was discovered and the Jacobins who were planning the Reign
of Terror had the ammunition they needed. The pamphlet, containing the concocted stories, was reprinted by the hundreds of thousands and circulated through France. This should not surprise us-we have seen some of the London press being quite prepared to spread completely fabricated stories about our Royal Family.
As the report says , this challenges the perceived wisdom that a tidal wave of libels about Marie Antoinette finally drove the mob onto the streets. This myth is the basis of Sofia Coppola’s film about Marie Antoinette which is being marketed as the story of “the party which led to the Revolution”. The theme is that the Queen’s folly was the trigger for the uprising.
This research demonstrates that the mobs were unaware of the lies created by the blackmailers until the fall of the Bastille in 1789. The report says the conclusions are the result of an “unprecedented trawl of records left by French and British security agents, customs and excise” and of rumour mongering among the revolutionaries.
Dr Burrows said: “There are letters between them saying ‘Has anyone seen these pamphlets about the queen’s filthy goings on?’ They were desperate to get hold of them.…The blackmailers preferred to sell their silence to King Louis’ government than to market their works openly, which was also dangerous and financially risky. The group in London was very well organised and knew how to keep on the right side of British law. They were in the clear so long as they were not going for people in England, or people whose reputation in England might be damaged.”
“By this time, Marie Antoinette had become a hate figure for political reasons, castigated for lavish spending as France faced bankruptcy, and suspected, as an Austrian, of plotting to crush the revolution with her brother the Austrian emperor,” said Dr Burrows. “The scandalous pamphlets found a ready market and their fame has continued ever since.”
According to the report, Dr Burrows found that misspellings and reproduced printing errors proved the mass circulation pamphlets came from the Bastille copies. “The savagery of the lies about the queen culminated in the allegation at her trial that she had sexually abused her son, the heir to the throne. She refused to reply, saying: ‘Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.’
It is not too late now, in the interests of jutice and the truth, for the French government to concede that Queen Marie Antoinette was the innocent victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.