When Marie Antoinette Pretended To Be A Milkmaid

“I am terrified of being bored.” —Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, at 21 years old

In A Nutshell

Marie Antoinette was little more than a girl when she found herself a queen; it wasn’t long before the boredom and the social pressures became too much. She spent an exorbitant amount of money building what she believed was the ideal, picturesque French farm, where she and a select few of her companions would spend entire days dressing as milkmaids and shepherdesses, pretending they were simple peasant girls. (Marie is pictured above in a contemporary portrait showing the attire she wore at the little farm.)

The Whole Bushel

We all know girls who liked to play at being a princess when they were little. Disney’s cashing in on it big time, after all, and there’s a reason their princesses are so popular. There’s something attractive about being a princess, even just for a little while . . . but it turns out that sometimes, when you’re a princess, the only thing you want to be is anything but a princess.

Now, when you actually are royalty, you can create some pretty elaborate cosplay settings to take care of that desire.

Marie Antoinette, only 14 years old when she first went to the French court, was by all accounts a literal whirlwind of social activity. She found much of court life boring, and once she was married to the king, she took it upon herself to make sure she was never bored.

The first add-on to her private domain within the already opulent Versailles was the Petit Trianon, a three-story chateau that had originally been built for Madame de Pompadour, the most notorious of history’s royal mistresses. It became Marie Antoinette’s private quarters in 1774, reserved for only her and her closest friends; it was also one of the first steps in alienating much of the rest of the court.

Perhaps most bizarre, though, was her construction of La Hameau de la Reine—or The Little Hamlet. Marie Antoinette recruited designers and architects to create a modest village for her, sitting in the already beautifully landscaped gardens of her Petit Trianon. Built in 1783, the village was designed to look like an everyday, run-of-the-mill peasant village.

Sort of.

Inside the newly designed buildings, created to mimic the picturesque, quaint French countryside (though the dirt, starvation, and disease were conspicuously absent), were billiards tables, silk wall hangings, and all the comforts befitting a queen. Five farm houses were, on the inside, decorated and reserved for the queen and her immediate attendants; other homes were actually homes for those who lived in the hamlet and maintained the small farm that was there.

According to the story, Marie Antoinette was finding herself not only bored by the tedium of the court but frustrated by restrictions placed on her and suffocated by everything that was required of her. When it got too much, she would retreat to her farm and play milkmaid. She and some of her closest friends would dress in plain muslin dresses, milk the cows, tend the gardens, and play with some of the more domestic and calm of the animals.

The Hamlet was supposed to be the home and the embodiment of the virtuous life lived by her poor subjects.

There were a couple of problems with her play-acting, though. It got to the point where she spent so much time there, dressed as a milkmaid and in the company of her friends, that rumors started to circulate among the already discontent masses and among the members of her own court. Clearly, there was something going on here that shouldn’t be. When the masses are starving, play-acting their idealized life is probably not the wisest thing to do.

Early accounts of the young queen paint her as well-liked and a favorite of the people. She was known for reaching out to the common man, tending one man who had been gravely injured while hunting, and adopting orphan children into the court to oversee their education. It didn’t take long for grumblings from the discontent to turn malicious, and by this time, her actions—in part, her exclusive days spent play-acting in the company of only a select few—had turned much of the court against her, as well.

Although she never said the famous words, “Let them eat cake,” it does capture the perhaps-undeserved essence of the ill-fated monarch.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Marie Antoinette
PBS: Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution
Chateau de Versailles: Le Hameau