“Let Them Eat Cake” One of History’s Greatest Misquotes

“Let Them Eat Cake” One of History’s Greatest Misquotes

For decades the words “Let them eat cake” have been attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette in the 18th-century. But, history is written by the victors, and Marie lost her head to the French Revolutionaries. It suited their purpose to exaggerate Marie’s frivolities and extravagance and present a Queen so far removed from the masses that she would utter such an insensitive phrase.

If we delve a little deeper into the past, we find a quite different Marie Antoinette than her executioners created.

What does “Let them eat cake” Actually Mean?

Its 1789 and France is on the brink of Revolution. The masses are starving. Upon hearing that the peasants had no bread to eat, Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have flippantly responded: “Let them Eat Cake!”

Cake was much more expensive than bread and the Queen’s remark was a demonstration of her ignorance of the situation in France. Bread was a staple food of many French peasants amounting to 50% of their diet. Yet cake requires more ingredients, such as eggs and butter, luxury items which the peasants could not afford.

Coming from an aristocratic background, Marie knew little of material suffering. She was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor. The phrase was said to reflect her lack of understanding of the people of France, the people over whom she ruled.

A Young Marie Antoinette

“Let them eat cake” represents the constructed perception of the monarchy in the revolutionary years. They cared little for those lower down the social ladder and understood little of the sufferings of ordinary people. This resentment towards the monarchy and the nobility led to the execution of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and as many as 40,000 others. And significantly, the abolition of the French monarchy.

However, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake”.

So Where Does the Phrase Come From?

First of all, Marie would never have said “Let them Eat Cake”. Why would she have referred to an English dish when she was in France?

The phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” or, ‘”Let them eat broiche” (the literal translation which does nothing to change the meaning) appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions which was written in 1765. Marie was then only 9 years of age. The work was not published until 1782. Since the phrase refers to events during or prior to the French Revolution (1789-1799), Rousseau cannot have been making reference to Marie Antoinette. Rousseau was writing his autobiography and recalled he once sought some bread to accompany wine he had stolen. However, he was too finely dressed to enter a bakery. He wrote:


At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: “Then let them eat brioches.”

So Rousseau only makes reference to a ‘great Princess’ and not the 9-year-old Marie Antoinette who was yet to come to France.  

Marie Antoinette as a child

In fact, the first time the phrase was attributed to Marie Antoinette was in 1843, around 50 years after her death. Alphonse Karr used the phrase in his monthly journal in reference to the Queen. The anecdote then entered into folklore and became synonymous with Marie Antoinette.

Significantly, the phrase had been used in reference to a number of other French Queens, such as the 17th-century Maria Theresa of Spain, wife of Louis XIV.

Maria Theresa of Spain

It’s just unfortunate for Marie Antoinette that the phrase is most strongly associated with her.

So why is the phrase so synonymous with Marie Antoinette?

Marie Antoinette was her ‘French name’ and how history remembers her, but she was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in 1755. Marie Antoinette came to France at the age of 14 in 1770 to marry the then heir apparent to the French throne, Louis.

She was beautiful and youthful and attracted a lot of criticism from the people of France. She was born in Austria and had been raised there thus she was perceived as a foreigner, an outsider and cast under suspicion.

Marie Antoinette at the time of her marriage to Louis

Marie’s arrival in France marked her freedom from the shackles of her strict mother, Maria Theresa. She was often seen socialising and dancing into the evening whereas her husband would go to bed early and shied away from such pursuits.

Marie was seen as decadent and spent vast sums of money on the latest fashions. As the poor became poorer and revolution brewed, Marie was a symbol of extravagance and self-indulgence. To incite the masses into revolution, some claimed that Marie was responsible for leading France into financial ruin!

Marie is remembered as a trendsetter! She set the fashion amongst the French court and indeed throughout France. Some of her wigs were 3 feet tall!

Marie Antoinette, in one of her famously large dresses

When Marie Antoinette’s husband became King Louis XVI in 1774, Marie was perceived by the French nobility as rather haughty. In her new role as Queen, Marie was expected to produce an heir, but the couple did not have any children until the birth of their eldest daughter in 1778. Given that the couple took so long to conceive, the legitimacy of her daughter and their subsequent children were called into question. Pamphlets were produced which defamed the Queen and her character.

However, this image of Marie projected by the Revolutionaries is not entirely fair.

The Real Marie Antoinette

Yes, Marie Antoinette was decadent and understood little of the cares of the poor. But did that necessarily make her a villain?

Consider this – her parents were an Empress and a King. Her siblings were royalty. She was married to the King of France. Her children were born to be Kings and Queens. For all of her life (until her imprisonment in her latter days) Marie was surrounded by aristocrats and nobility. Marie was simply a product of her time, and of her class. She was no more villainous than her aristocratic counterparts.

Queen Marie Antoinette

Yet despite her privileged surroundings, Marie showed a compassion to the poor that was somewhat unusual for her time.

When she became Queen in 1774, she requested that a tax known as the ‘Queen’s Belt’ (collected from the people at the beginning of each new reign) be abolished. She is reported to have said, “Queens no longer wear belts”.

During a royal celebration in 1774, many poor people were killed in a stampede. Marie and Louis gave their annual private spending for that year to the victims and their families.

Louis founded a charity ‘Maison Philanthropique’ to assist widows and the blind. Both Louis and Marie were patrons on the charity. Marie taught her daughter to serve the peasants as her equals. She also had her children relinquish their Christmas gifts in exchange for food and blankets for the poor.

Marie Antoinette and her children

Amongst Marie’s other charitable works was her construction of houses upon her own private farm to house poor families. She also opened a home for unmarried mothers. Marie also adopted and raised 3 poor children. Another child was a slave boy who was given to Marie as a gift. Marie freed and baptised him and paid for his expenses. She also paid for the living expenses of many more impoverished children.

Has Marie Antoinette been Misrepresented?

She certainly has. In the years leading up to her death, Marie showed courage and resilience which has to be admired. From the imprisonment of her family in 1792 until her death the following year, Marie fought tirelessly for the rights of her husband and children.

Her husband was executed in January 1793 and her children removed from her in July. She had to stand trial in October and was sentenced to death by guillotine.

Marie Antoinette’s walk to the guillotine

Yet throughout her ordeals, and despite attempts to make the Queen despair, Marie remained composed. Even in her walk to the guillotine, she remained every inch a Queen.

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21 Comments

  1. May 14, 2019 / 10:46 am

    What an interesting post! Thanks for sharing 😊

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 14, 2019 / 1:22 pm

      Thank you lovely xxx

  2. May 14, 2019 / 5:23 pm

    I love coming to your blog and learning about history. I forgot a lot of history and you actually taught me a lot more than I originally learned in the past.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 14, 2019 / 9:00 pm

      Ah thank you so much Deb – you just made my day! xxx

  3. May 14, 2019 / 7:20 pm

    This is really interesting! I never knew all those positive things she did – we definitely didn’t learn about those in History. Lovely to hear about a different side of her for a change.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 14, 2019 / 9:02 pm

      Thank you Hannah! xxxx

  4. May 14, 2019 / 7:23 pm

    This is so interesting! I never knew she did all those positive things – lovely to hear about that side of her for a change.

  5. May 14, 2019 / 8:41 pm

    This was quite interesting to read. It’s so strange how so many things and people history are changed or misleading. Thank you for sharing your post xx

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 14, 2019 / 9:08 pm

      Thank you so much for reading lovely xxx

  6. May 14, 2019 / 9:35 pm

    A great post as always! You make history come to life so effectively. I like how you provide an in depth background of Marie Antoinette’s misrepresentation and the motivations behind it; before finally presenting us with a more nuanced view of her reality. Also, you are such a fine writer. So clear and coherent, which is not easy to do at all. Well done!

    Roger

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 14, 2019 / 9:38 pm

      Thank you so much for reading Roger and for your kind words – it’s greatly appreciated! xxx

  7. May 14, 2019 / 9:52 pm

    This was such an interesting read! I had no idea about any of this. Such a commonly used phrase too considering it isn’t accurate x

    Sophie

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 16, 2019 / 1:11 pm

      Thank you Sophie xxx

  8. splitthenightj
    May 14, 2019 / 9:55 pm

    That’s really interesting. I have never heard about Marie Antoinette in a favorable light.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 16, 2019 / 1:03 pm

      Thank you for reading xxx

  9. May 14, 2019 / 10:27 pm

    That was an interesting read. Loved the way you pointed out that Queen Marie was more of a product of that time rather than a villain. Thanks for sharing,

    Love,
    Anjali
    http://www.laughingmirror.com

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 16, 2019 / 12:48 pm

      Thank you lovely xxxx

  10. May 15, 2019 / 8:48 pm

    Very interesting! I didn’t realize all of these things about her. 🙂

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 16, 2019 / 1:23 pm

      Thank you Michelle xxx

  11. May 16, 2019 / 5:41 pm

    It was such a pleasure to find your blog! Such a fascinating read, I honestly had no idea.

    I’ve followed your blog & I’m looking forward to reading more.

    xo

    • Lellalee
      Author
      May 21, 2019 / 8:39 pm

      How very kind! Thank you so much xxx

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