Marie Antoinette: The Harold Hill connection

Sculptures of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot. They are

Sculptures of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot. They are in the Basilica of Saint Denis, Paris. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Professor Ged Martin looks at some unexpected local links with the tragic Queen of France

It didn’t really matter that the steps up to the guillotine were steep and narrow.

The French Revolution used the efficient neck-slicing machine to eliminate its enemies. Far more people struggled up those steps than ever walked down.

Marie Antoinette, the ex-Queen of France, was understandably nervous on October 16, 1793 as she was hustled to her death, in front of a vast crowd who hated her.

In the confined space of the scaffold, she accidentally trod on the executioner’s foot.

“Forgive me, monsieur,” she said, “I did not do that on purpose.”

They were her last words on Earth.

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Imported as a fourteen year-old princess from Vienna to marry the future Louis XVI (who was beheaded nine months before she was), it was hardly surprising that Marie Antoinette was frivolous and extravagant, a symbol of the rottenness that the Revolution swept away.

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When starving Parisians rioted demanding bread, her enemies claimed she joked, “Let them eat cake!” It was probably an invented tale but, unfortunately, Marie Antoinette’s unpopularity made it all too easy to believe she was heartless and sarcastic.

Fast forward 105 years: in 1898, a party of tourists, from – of all places – Upper Norwood, were welcomed to Havering’s next-door village, South Weald, by the vicar, Canon Duncan Fraser.

Fraser was keen on history, and liked a good story.

He conducted the visitors around Weald Hall, home of the local landowners, the Tower family. (It was demolished in 1950, and its site is now a car park in Weald Country Park.)

The Upper Norwoodites enjoyed the stately home: “of peculiar interest was the guillotine said to have been used at the execution of Marie Antoinette”.

This report raises many questions.

Why would anybody want such a grisly item in their home?

Had it really chopped off the ex-Queen’s head? (Madame Tussauds waxworks also displayed the blade claimed to have done the deed.)

How did it get there?

Captain Tower, younger brother of a previous squire, had escorted Napoleon to his exile on Elba in 1814. In gratitude for the captain’s courtesy, the fallen emperor’s sister, Queen Caroline of Naples, gave him a portrait of her brother, which was also on display at Weald Hall. However, Napoleon only burst on to the French scene (literally, turning his artillery on a royalist mob) two years after Marie Antoinette’s execution, so there seems no connection there.

Sad to say, the ex-Queen was never a major figure in Havering life.

There was a rare exception at Romford’s carnival in 1913, when second prize in the under-15 fancy dress competition went to a girl in Marie Antoinette costume.

Did she wear a long dress and carry a basket of cakes?

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The marriage of Miss Dorina Neave in 1936 provided one last local echo of the tragic Queen.

Miss Neave was the daughter of Colonel Sir Thomas Neave, Baronet, of Dagnam Park, the Harold Hill mansion whose park is still a local amenity.

Dorina’s wedding, to an Army officer, was a major society event. Because the tiny church of St Thomas at Noak Hill was too small for all the fashionable invitees, the nuptials were shifted to St Peter’s at South Weald.

The bride wore a massive outfit – “white satin, cut on classical lines, with the train falling from the waist, and a tulle veil with orange blossom headdress outlined with pearls.”

There were pearl earrings too, but the most eye-catching jewellery item was a diamond-star brooch.

The diamond, it was said, once belonged to Marie Antoinette. It seems likely. The Queen of France had been greedily fond of diamonds.

Balancing a massive bouquet of white lilies, and so heavily loaded with satin and stones, it must have been a challenge for Dorina to walk up the aisle and pledge her troth at the altar.

I hope she didn’t tread on anybody’s toes.