After eight years of marriage, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child. Hundreds of courtiers were present at the birth. At the time at Versailles, Queens and princesses of the blood were required to give birth in public to prevent the baby being swapped and thus compromising the succession should he (French laws only allowed males to succeed to the throne) survive infancy and become king. This was an embarassing ritual and Marie Antoinette’s first laying in such a harrowing experience that the Queen refused to give birth in public ever again. Let’s see how things went.
Marie Antoinette began to feel the first contractions just after midnight on December 19, 1778. As soon as the news of the impending birth spread, crowds began to arrive.The King had the tapestry screens that surrounded the bed secured with cords to avoid them being thrown down upon the Queen. In the end, the room was so crowded it was impossible to move and, to get a better site of Her Majesty, two Savoyards even got upon the furniture! The Queen, however, was still able to walk around the room till 8am, when she finally took to her bed.
The baby was born at about 11:30 am, but it wasn’t the eagerly, long-awaited hair. Marie Antoinette had given birth to a fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Marie Therese. The Queen still ignored the sex of the baby. The Princess De Lamballe was supposed to shout “Il figlio è nato” for a boy, or “La figlia è nata” for a girl to let the Queen know the sex of her newborn baby, but overwhelmed by emotion, she only managed to say “La regina è andato” (the Queen went) before fainting.
Marie Antoinette wasn’t well either. The crowd of people in the room, the lack of air, the pain, were all too much for her. She had a convulsive fit and fainted. The King* sprung forward and opened the windows (they had been nailed to keep the cold winter air outside the drafty Palace). The Court’s chief surgeon used his lancet and sliced into her foot, causing it to bleed. The Queen opened her eyes and slowly, for some people didn’t want to leave and had to be dragged out, the room started to empty.
Marie Antoinette learned the sex of her baby only an hour and a quarter after Marie Therese’s birth, and said: “Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine; you shall have my undivided care; you will share all my happinesses and you will alleviate my sufferings . . .”
*Madame Campan recalls in her memoirs that it was the King himself who opened the windows, while Antonia Fraser in her biography of the Queen, Marie Antoinette: The Journey states that few sources mention the King had already left the room with Madame Royale, as the baby would be called, for her baptism and that it was some unknown person who opened the windows.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Marie-Therese: The fate of Marie Antoinette’s daughter
Memoirs of the court of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan