Did Queen Marie Antoinette ever say ‘Let them eat cake’?

‘Let them eat cake.’ is one of the most famous quotes in history, but did the queen ever say it and what was going on in France for such a quote to become so popular?

Love her or hate her Marie Antoinette is one of the most famous women in French history but was she blamed for things she never said or had any control over?


The Weather in 1788

Agriculture, Wheat Field, Clouds, Summer, Cloudscape

Historians and archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware of the influence of weather on the world’s significant events and as someone who has been researching life in the 18th century Britain and France I was amazed to find that the weather could be said to one of the causes of the French Revolution.

In the spring and summer of the year before the Revolution France suffered a drought. Although there was no drought in England the summer of 1788 was an unusually warm one in London. As temperatures soared in the capital, the incidence of Scarlet fever and Typhus spread through the city. In August over 1000 deaths were attributed to fever alone.

As Londoners sweltered the French baked. The French were not particularly competent farmers at the time, the aristocracy and major landowners were not interested in developing and improving their land for agriculture and food production, unlike their British counterparts. Consequently, food production was already pretty miserable when the drought struck.

The drought of 1788 ended when the skies opened and hail the size of fists fell from the sky bashing the fruit from the trees and the smashing the crops in the fields to smithereens so when the French entered the winter of 1788-9 food stocks were at an all-time low. The storms of July caused damage in parts of the country. To make matters worse, the disastrous harvest was followed by months of freezing weather. The temperature barely rose above freezing for three months through November, December and January. In London, the river Thames froze.

The bad weather was most likely caused by the eruption of the Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland which spewed out ash for eight months from 8 June 1783 to February 1784 killing much of the livestock and perhaps a quarter of the Icelandic population at the time. The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as “an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.”

The State of French Agriculture

Potatoes, Tubers, Arable, Agriculture, Garden, Harvest

Tobias Smollett wrote about Boulogne near Calais in 1763. As much as he hates France he can see that the peasants and landowners around the town have adopted some English farming improvements unlike in the rest of France.  ” I am certain that a man may keep house in Boulogne for about one half of what it will cost him in London; and this is said to be one of the dearest places in France. The adjacent country is very agreeable, diversified with hill and dale, corn-fields, woods, and meadows. There is a forest of a considerable extent, that begins about a short league from the Upper Town: it belongs to the king, and the wood is farmed to different individuals. In point of agriculture, the people in this neighbourhood seem to have profited by the example of the English. Since I was last in France, fifteen years ago, a good number of inclosures and plantations have been made in the English fashion. There is a good many tolerable country-houses, within a few miles of Boulogne; but mostly empty. I was offered a compleat house, with a garden of four acres well laid out, and two fields for grass or hay, about a mile from the town, for four hundred livres, about seventeen pounds a year: it is partly furnished, stands in an agreeable situation, with a fine prospect of the sea, and was lately occupied by a Scotch nobleman, who is in the service of France.” ( Project Gutenberg’s Travels Through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett.)


High Prices and High Taxes

Image result for tax burden france 1789 commons licence

The poorer classes, 95% of whose diet consisted of bread and cereals and which before the drought had to spend about 55% of their earnings on bread, were forced by the famine conditions of the first half of 1789 to spend now 85% and over of their income on this staple food. In France rural taxes called “privilege seigneriaux” or seigniorial privileges, severely burdened farmers.The clergy and nobility exercised a preeminent right over all land property but evaded most of the taxes and financial burdens of managing it.  By 1789, some 90% of the population were hungry by the beginning of 1789. The famine added to the woes of the French people who was also suffering  from a 10 year economic slump with its attendant unemployment.


The Riots and the Queen’s Response

Food, Chicken Pot Pie, Crust, Pie Crust, Chicken, Pie

When the riots did come, they were triggered by a chance remark by a wallpaper manufacturer named Reveillon, who said in a public meeting that the government should lower grain prices so that wages could be limited to 15 sous. Rumours of impending wage reductions swept the restless capital and set off the train of events we call The French Revolution.

Queen Marie-Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” on hearing there was no bread to be had in Paris but it was just the sort of thing the crowd thought her capable of saying.  As was expected of a woman of her class and position she was remote but she was also totally unaware and untroubled by the plight of her people. She was, as all 18th century monarchs in Europe were, living a life of secluded luxury in their palaces. Marie Antoinette was of course living at one of Europe’s most opulent homes, the Palace at Versailles.

The phrase,’Let them eat cake’  first appeared in a slightly different form about Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. Marie-Thérèse allegedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pastry or the top of the pie – this was usually discarded as pastry was designed to protect the meat while it cooked). Over the next century, several other royals had the phrase attributed to them including two aunts of Louis XVI as it was a phrase that spoke of the royal family’s callousness to their people.

Land Reform

Tomatoes, Garlic, Greens, Market, Outdoor, Vegetables

The Revolution brought the repealed feudal tenures, freed all those bound into serfdom, abolished feudal courts, and cancelled all payments not based on real property, including tithes. Once the reforms were in place; however, the peasants seized the land and refused to pay rent to the government, and in 1792, all payments were finally cancelled. Property of the clergy and political emigrants was confiscated and sold at auction, together with common land. The terms of sale, however, often favoured the wealthy, which may explain the rise of a new class of large landowners among the supporters of Napoleon I. The redistribution of land became the basis of French democracy and the small family farm has been the main feature of French agriculture ever since. Having secured their piece of land, there was little incentive or money to improve it for the peasant owners and so the economic benefits of the reforms were limited, France still struggled to feed itself and agricultural improvements that were being introduced in England were slow to be adopted.

France was a rural nation as late as 1940. After the creation of the land owning peasant class after the Revolution a next major change came in with the railways in the 1850s according to Peasants Into Frenchmen (1976), by historian Eugen Weber. Weber traced the modernisation of French villages and argued that rural France went from backward and isolated to modern and possessing a sense of French nationhood during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He emphasised the roles of railways, republican schools, and universal military conscription. He based his findings on school records, migration patterns, military service documents and economic trends. Weber argued that until 1900 or so a sense of French nationhood was weak in the provinces, a view that has been called into question by several writers. Nevertheless, he gives a good account of the development of rural France in the 19th century. Reforms brought in after World War II and France’s engagement in the European Union has transformed agricultural production again.




Great Historical Events That Were Significantly Affected by the Weather: The Year Leading to the Revolution of 1789 in France, J. Neumann, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
Drought and the French Revolution:The effects of adverse weather conditions on peasant revolts in 1789, Maria Waldinger (London School of Economics)

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle

Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.

Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

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