Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

Published: 12/1/2016

This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the “waiting room for the guillotine” because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.

Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.

Thoroughly documents Marie Antoinette’s imprisonment, trial, and execution. Bashor . . . tells the story of Marie Antoinette’s last 10 weeks by drawing on contemporary sources as well as modern scholarship. The king was executed in January 1793; on Aug. 2, 1793, when this book begins, Marie Antoinette was taken to the Conciergerie prison in Paris. Her trial began on Oct. 14, and two days later she was found guilty and sent to the guillotine. Bashor describes the damp, filthy prison’s privations; attempts to help or rescue the queen; the revolutionary tribunal and the monarch’s trial with its prosecutor, indictment, jury, witnesses, testimony, and sentencing; and Marie Antoinette’s final moments. In all this, the author provides novelistic and empathetic attention to detail and personalities, as when he notes that Marie Antoinette recorded the heights of her children on the prison wall or how she kept busy by converting toothpicks into tapestry needles. He marshals a wide array of evidence, carefully distinguishing likely and trustworthy accounts from less believable ones and sorting out confusing episodes such as the Carnation Plot. In his readable book, Bashor shows that the Vienna-born Marie Antoinette, as a foreigner (and, probably, as a woman), became a scapegoat for the mob’s rage and that her trial was a sham. . . . Impressive, well-researched, useful, and accessible.
— Kirkus

A page-turner . . . The level of detail is in many ways admirable.
— Early Modern Women

A fascinating book that brings eighteenth-century France to vivid life. Mixing memory and archives with great skill and rich writing, Will Bashor pulls the reader into the dark cell where the queen of France, Marie Antoinette, spent her last days. Nothing escapes the acute vision of this historian-novelist: the prices of meals, the barking of the dogs, the tiny notes written by the queen a year before, the weather on the fatal day—October 16, 1793—and, of course, the scaffold in front of the Tuileries. No better proof that ‘Grande Histoire’ can be understood with ‘Petite Histoire.’ Un régal!
— Jean-Clément Martin, l’Université Paris, Panthéon-Sorbonne

A brilliant and ambitious tour de force. Will Bashor is the first historian to focus on this most dramatic period of the queen’s life. Impressively documented and researched, his intriguing book will be a must-read for all who are passionate about the most pivotal epoch in French history.
— Professor Yolande Aline Helm, Ohio University

A fascinating portrayal of Marie Antoinette’s last days. Anyone who is in thrall to her story, as I am, will find this a compelling account of her tragic fate. Will Bashor’s meticulous research creates a vivid and memorable image of the people with whom she interacted, the prisons where she was confined, her journey to the guillotine, and her final resting place.
— Dana Ivey, Obie-award-winning actress

In meticulous detail and with a seemly sense of empathy, Will Bashor recounts the last tragic days of Marie Antoinette. Her confinement, trial, and execution are recorded with supreme precision. The fear and insecurity of the fallen queen in her stinking dungeon and on her way to the guillotine are almost palpable. Written in a lucid style that reads like a novel, this impressive book on the fate of France’s last queen reminds us ruthlessly of the cruel side of the French Revolution. Will Bashor at his best.
— Cor Speksnijder, De Volkskrant, the Netherlands