On the morning of October 16, 1793, more than ten thousand people gathered in the Place de la Revolution in Paris – now Place de la Concorde. It was a “gigantic” space, as defined by Stefan Zweig in his famous
biography of Marie Antoinette. More than 350 meters long and 210 meters wide in which, however, there was no room for a pin. It was as if the whole city had run there to take a place in the sinister show that was about to be performed and that the Austrian writer recounted like this:
“Everyone is standing there, very early, not to miss that unique spectacle of seeing a queen being ‘shaved by the national razor’. The curious crowd has been waiting for hours. In order not to get bored, he chatters a bit with a pretty little neighbor, laughs, jokes and flips through the latest newspaper with headlines like this: ‘Marie Antoinette’s farewell to her little ones.’ It is a question of guessing, in a low voice, which heads will fall here, in the basket, in the following days. Meanwhile, they buy lemonade, rolls, and nuts from street vendors. The great scene is well worth a bit of patience.
The one who had been Queen of France until recently was about to be beheaded in the center of Paris. A crowd eagerly awaited one of the most famous executions in history, second only to that of her husband, King Louis XVI, nine months earlier. It was the culmination of the process that had begun in 1789 with the French Revolution.
The Revolutionary Court He handed down a sentence two days before. Maria Antonieta was found guilty and sentenced to death for treason at the guillotine. She was held responsible for promoting all kinds of conspiracies, indulging her inordinate whims, ruining the country’s finances, and having had an incestuous relationship with her son. Luis Carlos, the dolphin of France. She was secluded in the Torre del Temple at the Conciergerie, an old fortress converted into a prison of the Republic, since August of that same year.
Farewell to their children
“Now nothing can harm me,” he lamented repeatedly, according to the story of Cristina Morató in
‘Cursed queens’ (Plaza & Janés, 2014). She knows that the time has come and she says goodbye with aplomb to her 14-year-old daughter María Teresa, and to her sister-in-law Princess Isabel, to whom she entrusts the care of her children. On the other hand, they did not allow him to say goodbye to his son Luis.
Upon arriving at her new jail with a bundle in hand as the only baggage, the guard registered her as prisoner number 280. He then led her to her cell without giving any explanation. That was her last resting place before being guillotined three months later. It was a dirty and moldy dungeon where he had to endure very low temperatures. All this without allowing him to see anyone from his family. The die was cast. She spent hours lying down, covered with a blanket and staring blankly.
“At 37 he looks 60 and his health is severely deteriorated as a result of the bleeding he suffers,” says Morato. In those last days she was convinced that her life was marked by doom and events seemed to agree with her. He was born on All Souls’ Day in 1755, in Vienna, as if it were a sign. The delivery had been difficult and exhausting. This occurred on the eve of a strong earthquake in Lisbon that left the city in ruins. The Kings of Portugal, in fact, were going to be his godparents, but could not attend the christening due to the tragedy.
The author says that that girl aroused more hatred and fears than any other sovereign of the time: «From being one of the most beautiful and fortunate princesses on the continent, she would go on to be found guilty of treason and die on the guillotine before reaching the age of forty years”.
Squalid and cadaverous
When the Revolutionary Court read the sentence to her two days before her execution, Marie Antoinette only managed to say: “I was a queen and you took my crown from me. You killed my husband and deprived me of my children. I only have my blood left: take it, but don’t make me suffer any longer ». At the time she was dressed in a simple, worn black dress. She was scrawny, pale, and ghastly. It is difficult for the crowded audience to recognize her.
In his last letter before going up to the scaffold he wrote to his sister-in-law, Princess Isabel: «I have just been sentenced, not to an honorable death, which is only such for criminals, but to reunite with your brother, the King. Like him, I am innocent, and I hope I can show the same firmness as him in the last moments. I feel calm as when the conscience can not reproach you. I feel a deep regret for having to abandon my poor creatures.
When he finished the letter, he kissed each page several times. Then he folded it and gave it to the director of the prison, Warden Bault. The gendarme standing guard outside the cell had observed this and confiscated it from the warden. Elizabeth, therefore, would never receive the Queen’s last testament.
It seems that the Queen is gathering strength to face her last minutes of life. His image is far from the frivolity that he had shown throughout his 37 years of life. Shortly before there was
delivered a bag with a good handful of gray, shiny and ruby pearls to his best friend, Lady Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland. She knew that no one would search her because of her diplomatic immunity. Marie Antoinette must have had little hope of recovering that little treasure one day, when she could escape from her jailers.
At 11 a.m. on October 16, 1793, the executioner appeared, called Henri sanson. He was the son of Charles-Henri Sanson, who had executed her husband. The prison warden’s wife then carefully cut off his hair. The man who operated the guillotine blade hid the strands in his pocket. Later they put her in a car with Father Girard, parish priest of Saint-Landry and constitutional priest appointed by the Revolutionary Court. Although Marie Antoinette refused to confess, because she had not been allowed to choose her own priest, he accompanied her throughout the journey.
The executioner stood behind the Queen in the wagon. Leaving the courtyard of the Conciergerie, the vehicle slowly made its way through a crowd on both sides of the street. More than 30,000 soldiers formed a barrier along the way. Marie Antoinette had her hands tied behind her back, as if she were any other prisoner. As she passed, everyone booed and insulted her. She was silent. Neighbors filled the balconies and positioned themselves on the rooftops in order to witness some of the ghoulish details of the scene.
The condemned woman entered the Plaza de la Revolución at noon. Zweig described the scene with some literary license:
«On this hotbed of curious, black and undulating, two silhouettes rise rigidly, the only things without life in that space loaded with human animation. On the one hand, the slender line of the guillotine, with its wooden bridge that leads from here to there. On the other, high on his yoke, in the murky October sun, the bright marker of the road, the newly sharpened blade, gleams. Light and slender, her figure stands out against the gray sky like a forgotten toy of a hideous god. The birds, who do not suspect the dark meaning of that cruel instrument, play carelessly over it in their fluttering».
“Lord, I beg your forgiveness”
Once he reached the place where the guillotine structure was located, he descended from the cart and climbed the ladder that led to the platform. The dethroned Queen, described as a “leech” by the French, appeared pale and defeated by exhaustion before the 10,000 morbid spectators. The sun blinded his eyes that had been used to darkness for two months and one of them lost his shoes. This is preserved today in the Museum of Fine Arts of Caen. With the other he accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot. “Sir, I beg your pardon, I didn’t do it on purpose,” he commented.
Marie Antoinette, unlike Louis XVI, did not address her former subjects. Sanson’s assistants placed her on the wooden plank of the guillotine and held her head in a half-moon-shaped stocks. A few seconds later, he dropped the blade, cutting the head off with a single blow. He then picked it up to show the crowd. It was 12:15 p.m. The whole square shouted: “Long live the Republic!” The crowd was silent as they left the square.