“Let them eat cake!” This is the most famous line that Marie Antoinette never said. It was first written about someone else, before Marie Antoinette ever set foot in France, but, for some reason, it became associated with her. She’s often portrayed as a selfish Queen spending the country’s money on her lavish lifestyle, completely unconcerned about the suffering all around her.
But this queen had a compassionate side and a special place in her heart for children – especially orphans. In fact, she just couldn’t resist “adopting” them. Sometimes that meant paying for their education and welfare, and sometimes it meant actually taking them to the palace to live. Whenever she would hear of unfortunate children who had lost their parents, her immediate response was “I adopt them.”
When Marie Antoinette arrived in France to marry the King’s grandson, she was still a child herself. She was 14, and her husband was just one year older. The young bride and groom were both shy and inexperienced which led to trouble in the bedroom. It seems they just didn’t know exactly what to do and they had no desire to find out. Although, over the years, they made several attempts (nothing at Versailles was private), their marriage wasn’t consummated until 7 years after their wedding night. Some say that Louis had a physical problem that required a little surgery, but most evidence suggests that the couple was just inept.
You might think it was the bedroom problem that prompted Marie Antoinette, after years of unconsummated marriage, to adopt the first child. But even after the King and Queen had figured out what to do in the royal bed, and had 4 children of their own, she kept adopting children.
During the Revolution, the Queen’s world was thrown into turmoil. The Royals were forced to leave Versailles and put under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. But Marie Antoinette was still taking care of her adopted children and actually adopting more. Even when she was in prison and knew her days were numbered, she was asking the guards to try to find news about the welfare of her adopted children.
Below are the stories of 4 of these children that lived with the Queen:
Maybe the young Queen had given up hope of ever having a son of her own. After advice-filled letters from her mother and well-meaning suggestions from their subjects on the streets of Paris, the couple still hadn’t figured out how to make babies.
Then one afternoon in 1776, when Marie Antoinette was out for a ride in her horse-drawn carriage, a little boy of 4 or 5 years old dashed out in front of the horses and was almost run over. The driver stopped in time and the boy was unharmed but very frightened. His grandmother came running and explained to the Queen that the boy’s mother had just died and left 4 children for her to take care of. Marie Antoinette immediately said she would adopt them. She would take the little boy to the palace and pay for the support of the others.
The boy’s name was François Michel Gagné, but he was called Jacques by his family. When he was taken to Versailles, the Queen renamed him Armand.
It seems that Armand was always a difficult child and the grandmother even tried to warn the Queen, telling her that “Jacques was a very naughty boy.” And it turns out that Grandma was right. When the Revolution erupted and the Royals were forced to leave Versailles, the teenaged Armand turned against his adoptive family and joined the revolutionaries. He died in 1792 in one of the French Revolutionary Wars.
In 1778, after the King and Queen had finally figured out what to do in the royal bed, their first child was born. The baby girl, named Marie Thérèse Charlotte was titled, Madame Royale.
Little Madame Royale was a difficult child (maybe because they called her Madame Royale) and the Queen wanted her to be more sociable, so she brought in a companion for her. Marie Philippine Lambriquet was daughter of one of the maids and the same age as Marie Thérèse. At first, the little girl spent her days at the palace, where she was called Ernestine, and went home each evening.
But when Ernestine’s mother died, the Queen immediately adopted her and moved her into apartments adjoining those of her royal playmate. Marie Antoinette gave orders that the two girls were to be treated exactly the same. They were dressed alike and took the same lessons. When they dined, one was served before the other on alternate days according to the Queen’s instructions.
Ernestine went with the family when they were removed from Versailles and installed in the Tuileries. When they sensed the growing danger and were planning their escape from Paris, the Queen sent Ernestine to the safety of her father’s home at Versailles. But the escape plan failed and the runaway royals were captured and returned to Paris, and Ernestine soon rejoined them. Ernestine left their household only when the Royals (including children) were imprisoned a year later.
Marie Thérèse was the only family member to survive prison, and when she was released and allowed to leave France, she searched for her adopted sister, Ernestine, to go with her. But Ernestine was living with her grandmother in the country and couldn’t be found. Then in 1814 when the monarchy was restored, Marie Thérèse returned to Paris and again looked for Ernestine. But it was too late, she had died a few months earlier.
In 1787, the Chevalier de Boufflers returned from a trip to Senegal bearing gifts for the Queen. Marie Antoinette was presented with a parrot and a young Senegalese boy, 5 or 6 years of age. This practice, which seems barbaric to us now, was not uncommon at the time. Normally a boy like this would have been made a servant, but Marie Antoinette had him baptised as Jean Amilcar and he was looked after at the palace.
He would have been about 10 years old, when the family was forced to leave Versailles. He was placed in a pension which was paid for by the Queen until she was imprisoned and was no longer able. When the money from the Queen stopped coming, Jean Amilcar was kicked out of the pension and died on the streets of Paris.
Even though the family’s situation at the Tuileries in Paris was precarious, Marie Antoinette didn’t stop helping or adopting children. In 1790, Marie Antoinette heard that one of her husband’s ushers and his wife had died within a few months of each other, leaving 3 orphaned girls. She immediately declared she would adopt them. The two older girls were placed in a convent where all expenses were paid by the Queen. But the youngest, Jeanne Louise Victoire, who was 3 years old, and close to the same age as the Dauphin Louis-Charles, was brought into the palace as his companion. Her name was changed to Zoe.
During the family’s attempted escape, Zoe, who was about 5 years old, was sent to the convent where her sisters were and she never returned to the family.
These 4 children actually lived with the Queen, but there were many others that she supported financially. Marie Antoinette may have had many faults, but she did love children and go out of her way to help them. It seems that a Queen like that couldn’t be all bad.
In case you are wondering about the Royal couple’s natural children:
- Marie Thérèse Charlotte (1778-1851) – She was the only one of the Royal Family to survive the Revolution.
- Louis Joseph (1781-1789) – Died at age 7 from tuberculosis at the beginning of the Revolution, before the family was imprisoned.
- Louis Charles (1785-1795) – Died in prison at age 10
- Sophie (1786-1787) – Died at age 1, before the beginning of the Revolution.
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