It’s one of the most famous quotes in history. At some point around 1789, when being told that her French subjects had no bread, Marie-Antoinette (bride of France’s King Louis XVI) supposedly sniffed, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—“Let them eat cake.” With that callous remark, the queen became a hated symbol of the decadent monarchy and fueled the revolution that would cause her to (literally) lose her head several years later.
But did Marie-Antoinette really say those infuriating words? Not according to historians. Lady Antonia Fraser, author of a biography of the French queen, believes the quote would have been highly uncharacteristic of Marie-Antoinette, an intelligent woman who donated generously to charitable causes and, despite her own undeniably lavish lifestyle, displayed sensitivity towards the poor population of France.
That aside, what’s even more convincing is the fact that the “Let them eat cake” story had been floating around for years before 1789. It was first told in a slightly different form about Marie-Thérèse, the Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660. She allegedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté” (or the crust of the pâté).
Over the next century, several other 18th-century royals were also blamed for the remark, including two aunts of Louis XVI. Most famously, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau included the pâté story in his Confessions in 1766, attributing the words to “a great princess” (probably Marie-Thérèse).
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Whoever uttered those unforgettable words, it was almost certainly not Marie-Antoinette, who at the time Rousseau was writing was only 10 years old—three years away from marrying the French prince and eight years from becoming queen.