The Scandalous Life of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles Apartments
Open again after a three-year restoration, the goings-on in these posh suites are as steeped in mystery and scandal as the doomed queen herself.
If these (gilded) walls could talk!
Of the 700 rooms at the Palace of Versailles, among the most famous are the Queen’s Apartments, which include Marie Antoinette’s private chambers. Open again after a three-year restoration project to return the series of rooms to their former damask-covered glory, the apartments are now back open and attracting visitors in droves who come to gawk at the lavish silk tapestries and over-the-top rococo flourishes.
However, the centuries-old fascination with the frivolous French queen’s former stomping grounds goes beyond the ornate canopy bed and the large jewelry case with mother-of-pearl inlay that sits in an alcove beside it. The goings-on in these the posh suites are as steeped in mystery and scandal as the doomed queen herself.
These apartments were where Marie Antoinette, with the help of myriad staff, got dressed each day in stockings, garters, a tight corset, and layers of silk, topped off with clouds of powder and perfume. And, says the Revolutionary-era gossip mill, got undressed. Often. Love letters were written in these rooms (although not to the king), and there are also rumors of same-sex trysts with ladies in waiting, passionate romps with a young duchess, as well as numerous orgies. Not-so-affectionately known as “Madame Deficit,” the queen's excesses, legend has it, went beyond her flamboyant fashion sense and extended to the bedroom.
“…debauchery and agitation of passions were observed in Marie Antoinette's life,” an anonymous, circa-1783 pamphlet titled “The Historical Essays on the Life of Marie Antoinette of Austria,” reads. “Men, women, everything was as she liked. She was satisfied with everything. Marie Antoinette also was unfaithful to Louis XVI and fooled him too.”
Indeed, among the many scandalous rumors that dogged the queen during her reign was an alleged affair with her husband’s younger, better-looking brother, the Comte d'Artois, also known as Charles X. King Louis XVI was known to suffer from sexual dysfunction, and the intimate life between the king and queen was lackluster at best. Apparently, the two royals didn’t even consummate their marriage until seven years after their wedding, leaving the young queen famished for sexual attention. She is alleged to have quenched her desires in the arms of Louis’s brother, a rumored philanderer who enjoyed a close friendship with his sister-in-law. Just how close, has never been proven, however.
The king’s kid brother wasn’t the only one believed to have indulged in lusty interludes with the queen. Two of her closest female friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchesse de Polignac, were rumored to have been more than friends. The queen met Marie-Thérèse-Louise de Savoie-Carignan, who would become the Princesse de Lamballe, shortly after her arrival in France. Widowed young after her husband’s death from venereal disease (you can’t make this stuff up), Lamballe became close with Marie Antoinette, who appointed her as superintendent of her household—a move that provoked jealousy among older, more experienced courtiers. Marie Antoinette referred to Lamballe as “mon cher cœur,” my dear heart, and the Austrian ambassador to the court of Versailles wrote in a letter, that “Her Majesty continually sees the Princesse de Lamballe in her rooms,” adding that he had “taken the precaution to point out to the Queen that her favor and goodness to the Princesse de Lamballe are somewhat excessive in order to prevent abuse of them from that quarter.”
So were they or weren't they? It’s important to remember that effusive demonstrations of affection weren’t unusual in friendships between young women in the 18th century, and there is no historical evidence that the queen and Lamballe were indeed anything other than close friends. The princess even had a reputation of being socially withdrawn and even prudish— not exactly the character of someone indulging in steamy Sapphic capers with her best friend. Nevertheless, she was regularly portrayed as Marie Antoinette’s lover in anti-monarchist propaganda of the time.
Whether friend or lover, Lamballe was soon cast aside for a new object of the queen’s affection: Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, also known as the Duchesse de Polignac. De Polignac was presented to the queen at Versailles in 1775, and the queen, who was reportedly instantly smitten with her, invited her to move to the palace. The alleged romantic relationship between Marie Antoinette and Polignac was dramatized on the big screen in Benoît Jacquot's 2012 film, Farewell, My Queen, based on the novel by French author and historian, Chantal Thomas.
“Have you ever been attracted to a woman?” Diane Kruger's Marie Antoinette asks her servant, played by Léa Seydoux, in heated whisper. “To the point that you suffer in her absence?”
The film deviates from the book, which is more ambiguous in its depiction of their relationship, conveying an intense friendship between the two rather than a full-blown love affair. Chantal Thomas pointed out that even in the film the sexual relationship is ambiguous.
“Yes, they embrace,” Thomas, who describes their relationship in the film as a “passionate friendship,” told The Daily Beast. “But nowhere in the film are we shown the queen and de Polignac making love.”
Marie Antoinette was depicted as having sex with both the Duchess de Polignac and the Comte d'Artois in other mediums, however. Books, plays, and tawdry pamphlets that can best be described as political porn were clandestinely distributed among in the French public prior to the Revolution. A scene in one circa-1789 play, The Royal Orgy, describes l'Autrichienne having a threesome with the Comte d’Artois and Madame de Polignac, as the corpulent Louis XVI sleeps, oblivious to the debauchery around him.
Such libelles were common during pre-Revolutionary France as public anger towards the monarchy was reaching a boiling point. Stanford University keeps an online archive that includes the smutty cartoons depicting the queen in the arms of the Princesse de Lamballe, as well as in other compromising positions. Many contemporary historians agree that the pamphlets helped shape the image of the queen as a morally bankrupt sex fiend.
Of all the Versailles-related scandals, the queen’s affair with Axel von Fersen is among the most enduring, some even accepting it as fact. A dashing Swedish count, von Fersen is believed to have been Marie Antoinette’s lover throughout most of her reign. The two first met as teenagers at a masked ball at Versailles in 1774. Five years later he moved into the palace, and later divided his time between the court and his military duties.
“I have decided never to marry,” von Fersen wrote in a cryptic letter to his sister. “I cannot belong to the one person I truly want… So I prefer to belong to nobody.”
Even the Palace of Versailles has weighed in on their relationship, acknowledging on its official website that the friendship between the queen and von Fersen, “was the subject of much speculation,” adding that, while there is no solid proof of an affair between the two, “enough mystery persists to maintain the myth.”
Some historians would say otherwise, including Evelyn Farr, whose 2016 book, I Love You Madly, is centered on a trove of secret letters exchanged between the two, many of which had been written in code or invisible ink, or with sections blacked out.
“My dear and very tender friend—my God, how cruel it is to be so close and not be able to see each other!" Fersen wrote to Marie Antoinette in 1791. “I live and exist only to love you; adoring you is my only consolation.”
The queen responded in kind in January of 1792: “I am going to close, but not without telling you, my dear and very tender friend, that I love you madly and never, ever could I exist a moment without adoring you.”
Perhaps even more telling is the final message she sent to von Fersen shortly before she met her fate at the guillotine. Delivered to von Fersen by a friend 18 months after the queen’s demise, the single line read: “Farewell. My heart is all yours.”
Despite these lovelorn lettres d'amour, there is nonetheless ongoing dissent among historians as to the true nature of their relationship. Some insist it was platonic, others argue that while the two may have had strong feelings for one another, the love was never actually consummated. Others point out the logistical issues such a clandestine liaison would have posed, including French historian Fanny Cosandey, who told The Daily Beast in a prior interview that she “didn't think it was possible for Marie Antoinette to have had an actual physical relationship with Fersen,” given how closely the young queen’s every move was monitored.
Farr’s book nonetheless suggests that two of the queen’s four children, Sophie and Louis-Charles were fathered by the count, not the king. And thanks to a secret room located just about Marie Antoinette’s private apartments, his amorous visits weren't as tricky to pull off as one might imagine. Farr even offers proof by way of a letter Quintin Craufurd, a friend of von Fersen’s, wrote to British Prime Minister William Pitt and Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville asking them for assistance in the royal family’s escape.
“I know him [Fersen] intimately, and think him a man of unquestionable honor and veracity,” Craufurd writes in a letter dated August 3, 1791. “This gentleman was Colonel of the Royal Suédois; was Her Most Christian Majesty’s prime favorite; and is generally supposed to be the father of the present Dauphin.”
What is perhaps most intriguing about the late queen is the dichotomy regarding her image. Depending on the book, blog post, message board, or Versailles-related film you encounter, she is either presented as ruthless profligate libertine, or a chaste, tragic, and deeply misunderstood figure—the country’s favorite royal scapegoat who didn’t warrant the cruel gossip or anti-royalist “political porn” that often made her a punchline. So which is it?
Even some historians admit that the scandalous rumors that continue to follow the queen are impossible to verify.
“There is no hard recorded proof that there were these affairs,” Lauren Puzier, a New York-based librarian and historian who publishes a blog specializing in the 18th century told The Daily Beast. “She was very attached to the two women [Lamballe and Polignac], but there is just so much room for interpretation.”
“It was known that she wasn't haven't sexual intercourse with her husband until later in the marriage, so who knows? Maybe she was seeking gratification with her friends. It could be, but we just don't really know.”
Thomas said that the duality in Marie Antoinette’s own personality over the course of her lifetime also fueled the duality regarding her image.
“Up until 1789 before the death of her son, she was a rather superficial woman in search of pleasure and diversions,” she explained. “After 1789, she became someone with a serious, tragic, and courageous side.”
A campaign against the young monarch was launched shortly after her arrival at Versailles, Thomas said, which contributed to the destruction of her reputation. She was surprised, she said, by how much hatred was directed at the queen.
“Since her death a certain amount of justice has been done against this abominable image [of the queen,]” she said.
Puzier explained that the century that followed the French Revolution brought renewed interest in the queen, and portrayals of Marie Antoinette in books and essays took on a softer tone. The bloodshed was over, a new government had been installed, and public hatred of the royals had become passé. This renewed, less lurid curiosity about the queen, said Puzier, has continued to the present day.
"People hear the name ‘Marie Antoinette’ and associate her with a type of celebrity that has endured," she said.
Along with the ornate furnishings in the queen’s bedroom, there is also a secret door that came in handy on the evening of October 5, 1789. A thousands-strong angry mob had marched from Paris to Versailles and broached the entrance to the palace. A group headed straight for Marie Antoinette’s apartments. The queen escaped via the hidden door and made a run for it. Less than two years later, the royal family fled only to be arrested in Varennes. A couple of years after that Marie Antoinette met the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde today).
Apart from a few minor adjustments, her private apartments are much as she left them. No other queen occupied Marie Antoinette’s room following her hasty departure, and as she fled what many historians believe is a gilded cage, France’s last reine left ostentatious grandeur, scandal, and seemingly endless intrigue in her wake.