Marie Antoinette Becomes Officially French

Marie Antoinette hadn’t even set her dainty little foot in France yet, and already she had a taste of the minute, stringent, sometimes absurd, rules of etiquette that would govern her life at Versailles. Before the official ceremony of handover, which was to take place in the isle of Kehl, in the middle of the Rhine and on the border between Austria and France, the Count of Noailles, the husband of the Countess of Noailles, whom Marie Antoinette would nickname Madame L’Etiquette for her zeal in making sure everything was done according to its rules, insisted on changing a few words of the document of the handover at the last minute.

According to the Count, the phrase “Their Imperial Majesties having wanted [the marriage]” was offensive to the French King, and wanted it altered to “Their Imperial Majesties having been willing to accede to the King’s wish”. There had to be no doubt that it was Austria that had given in to the wish of the French, and not the other way around. In the end, there were to be two documents. In one, France signed before Austria, while in the other, the order of the signature was reversed.

Meanwhile, on the isle of Kehl, a makeshift building was to be hastily erected for the ceremony. Antonia Fraser tells us that “wealthy citizens of Strasbourg were pressed into service to lend furniture and tapestries while the Lutheran University provided a suitable dais. Some of these hastily assembled tapestries struck an odd note; no official seems to have noticed that one series depicted the story of Jason and Medea, the rejected mother who slew her own children. But a young man named Goethe, then studying law at Strasbourg, was deeply shocked: ‘What! At the moment when the young princess is about to step on the soil of her future husband’s country, there is placed before her eyes a picture of the most horrible marriage that can be imagined!'”

Madame Campan recalls that this “superb pavillion… consisted of a vast salon, connected with two apartments, one of which was assigned to the lords and ladies of the Court of Vienna, and the other to the suite of the Dauphiness, composed of the Comtesse de Noailles, her lady of honour; the Duchesse de Cosse, her dame d’atours; four ladies of the palace; the Comte de Saulx-Tavannes, chevalier d’honneur; the Comte de Tesse, first equerry; the Bishop of Chartres, first almoner; the officers of the Body Guard, and the equerries.”

Then, Marie Antoinette was stripped of all her luxurious Austrian clothes, and made to don French garments. Now that she was Dauphine of France, she could retain nothing that belonged to a foreign court, not even the one that had been her home up until her wedding. Her Austrian clothes, however, didn’t go to waste. They were seized by the Dames du Palais, Marie Antoinette’s senior attendants, as perquisites of office. Parting from her clothes, however beautiful they may have been, was easy. Saying goodbye to her Austrian attendants, including her beloved pug Mops (although the Austrian ambassador would later negotiate for the arrival of the pet in France), was much harder. The young Dauphine cried at the separation and gave her attendants messages for the family she had left behind at Vienna.

The ceremony itself went smoothly. Antonia Fraser describes it thus: “There were two entrances to the hastily erected building, and two exactly matching rooms, one for the Austrians, one for the French. Marie Antoinette was led from the Austrian room into the salon of the handover by Prince Starhemberg. Here a table covered in red velvet represented the boundary between the two countries. On the other side of it she found the Comte de Noailles, with two aides, awaiting her. A human touch was provided by his son, the eighteen-year-old Prince de Poix, who could not resist peeking through the keyhole from the French side to try to get an advance view of his future Queen. Speeches were made and the deed was done.

It was time for the Dauphine to meet her French attendants. Here there was a slight hiccup which involved, once again, etiquette and the Noailles family. The Comte de Noailles was anxious that his wife should be handed into the main salon by a gentleman-in-waiting, which he maintained was her right, as opposed to merely walking into it. In order to achieve this, it was arranged that the salon door on the French side should be left slightly ajar, so that it could be nudged open by her heavy flowing skirts at the appropriate moment. Unfortunately this resulted in the door opening too soon. . .

Once dignity was recovered, an elaborate quadrille of presentations took place. First of all, the Comte presented the Comtesse to her new mistress. In an impulsive gesture that would turn out to be characteristic of her approach to her new French ‘family,’ Marie Antoinette flung herself into the Comtesse’s arms. This, however, was not the way of Versailles. The Comtesse was quick to establish the right of her husband to a ceremonial embrace. This was based on his additional rank as a Grandee of Spain, rather than as a French count. (As Grandees of Spain, people managed to climb up higher on the ladder of etiquette than otherwise entitled, which was the aim of more or less every courtier at Versailles.) So having just been presented by her husband, the Comtesse now re-presented him back again, for his due embrace.”

Marie Antoinette was now officially French.

Further reading:
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Memoirs Of The Court Of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan

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