In my book, “Marie Antoinette’s Confidante,” one of the things I talk about is Marie Antoinette and donkey riding. It all began after Marie Antoinette arrived in France, became bored, and developed a strong desire to ride horses. Her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, was an excellent horsewoman, and as Marie Antoinette’s new husband, the Dauphin and future Louis XVI, loved to hunt, Marie Antoinette thought that riding horses might be way to spend more time with him.
When Marie Antoinette voiced her desire to ride horses, she was immediately met with opposition. Among those opposing her riding horses was the Austrian diplomat named the Count of Mercy-Argenteau, but better known simply as Mercy. Mercy was the person who had cemented Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the Dauphin, and when he arrived in France with Marie Antoinette, Mercy found himself in a position of power. He could impress the Empress by revealing everything that Marie Antoinette was doing, thinking, or feeling, and then influence Marie Antoinette in the ways that her mother wanted.
Under the guise of being helpful, Mercy sometimes carried his supervision of Marie Antoinette too far. When the subject of horse riding was mentioned, he immediately applied to King Louis XV. He stated that Marie Antoinette was too young and fearing that she would be hurt, he noted “the probable want of moderation that she would show in the practice of ‘such violent exercise.'” He also wrote to her mother who agreed “thinking it ruinous to the complexion, injurious to the shape, and not to be safely indulged in under thirty years of age.”
Because of all the opposition and fear that horse backing riding was too dangerous, Louis XV told Marie Antoinette that she could not ride horses. However, he did manage to reach a compromise with her. It was agreed she could ride donkeys. Mercy had no objections and even characterized donkeys as “not at all dangerous.” Thus, a search for sweet-tempered donkeys was undertaken throughout the French countryside.
When amiable and sweet donkeys were found, it was not just Marie Antoinette who rode them. All of her ladies did too. This included Anne d’Arpajon who was a French aristocrat and dame d’honneur to Marie Antoinette. However, because Anne was a stickler about court etiquette and insistent that no minutia of court etiquette be overlooked, altered, or disregarded, Marie Antoinette nicknamed her “Madame Etiquette.” From her nickname, you can tell that she and Marie Antoinette had a contentious relationship and the donkeys did not make their relationship any better.
One incident that happened was when Marie Antoinette fell off her donkey while riding in the Bois de Boulogne. The story goes that Marie Antoinette’s donkey suddenly decided to roll in the grass and after both she and her donkey found themselves upon the ground, Marie Antoinette refused to get up and ordered someone to fetch Madame Etiquette. When Madame Etiquette arrived, Marie Antoinette assumed a mock gravity, did not rise, and summoned the dignified Madame Etiquette to stand next to her. She then asked:
“Madame, I have sent for you that you may inform me as to the etiquette to be observed when a Queen of France and her donkey have both fallen — which of them is to get up first?”
Marie Antoinette liked riding her donkey so much she began taking regular trips to the forest. Among those who rode with her were Louis XV’s daughters, and they were none too happy to be forced to bounce along on donkeys. However, that did not stop Marie Antoinette from ordering a donkey procession through the forest. On the appointed day, crowds of onlookers came to witness the procession. Along the way, Marie Antoinette greeted anyone who was distinguished with great kindness. Afterwards, she “considered the procession such a success that her donkey riding became more frequent, thereafter occurring at least three times a week.”
Eventually, Marie Antoinette’s donkey riding days ended and her ladies took a sigh of relief. It happened because Madame Adelaide, who was one of the King’s daughters, supposedly tempted Marie Antoinette to ride horses. Apparently, several times she encouraged Marie Antoinette to have an equerry waiting with a horse in the forest so that she could switch from her donkey to the horse. Marie Antoinette resisted for a time. She was worried about her mother’s reaction, but she finally relented and rode the horse to her heart’s content. Of course, word soon got back to Mercy, who was none too happy.
Two days later when Mercy appeared, Marie Antoinette asked him if he knew she had ridden a horse. He solemnly replied in the affirmative, and she told him how everyone had congratulated her on a successful ride. He replied that he was not about to congratulate her and that if the Empress heard, she would be greatly displeased. Marie Antoinette replied:
“You would throw me into despair if you said that I could grieve the Empress; I assure you that I am in great anxiety.”
Marie Antoinette then told Mercy she had acquired the King’s consent to ride horses. She said that more than anything she wished to please her husband and noted that horseback riding was one of his favorite activities.
“Mercy made no reply … leaving poor Marie Antoinette more frightened than ever. … The next day … [Marie Antoinette] sent for Mercy, and entreated him to take her part to justify her in the sight of her mother … which he consented to do, provided she would promise not to follow hunts on horseback or to gallop.”
Eventually, Marie Antoinette attended horse races. She was introduced to the sport by her brother-in-law, the Count of Artois, and by his cousin, the Duke of Chartres. However, her days at the track did not last long because her husband soon banned her from an activity he claimed was unseemly. After she was banned, she responded in the following fashion:
“She inaugurated donkey races and parodied them on the Duke of Chartres’s horse races, which made her highly unpopular with the horse racing set. Her rambunctious donkey races were often conducted against … the Count of Artois. During one heated race, she ‘tumbled from her donkey’s back, heels uppermost, and screaming with laughter, the shock of the fall made the whole of Versailles tremble, and nearly killed [Madame Etiquette.]'”
- Bicknell, Anna L., The Story of Marie Antoinette, 1897
- Haggard, Andrew, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, 1909
- Harper’s Magazine, Volume 45, 1872
- Young, Charles Duke, The Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, Volume 1, 1876
- Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, 2016