Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman and member of the British House of Commons who initially supported the French Revolution and its underlying philosophy. When the French Revolution began, Burke viewed it as a struggle for liberty and wrote that
England [was] gazing with astonishment at a French Struggle for Liberty, and not knowing whether to Blame or Applaud.
However, Burke became increasingly critical of the reign of terror, noting that the French public had overthrown not only “their political servitude” but also “the yoke of laws and morals.” As the revolution progressed, the French masses desired for vengeance on the aristocracy, even though many aristocrats were either innocent of wrong doing or had little power themselves to ameliorate the status and conditions of the French lower-income masses. When France’s queen Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine, this event galvanized Burke’s growing anti-revolutionary feelings. The execution of Marie Antoinette was the epitome of uncontrolled violence, in his view, and marked the passing of an era for him.
In this speech cited in the question, Burke compares Marie Antoinette upon her ascendance to the French throne amid the admiration and support of the public, to her demise just a few short years later, as she was killed with no protests over her possible innocence. She was executed without any men to defend her. Burke laments the decline of the age of chivalry, which he viewed as being destroyed with her execution. He writes that when she first became queen:
I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.
He compares this to when, during the Revolution as the mob went after her and no chivalrous man stood up to protest and defend her,
Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers!
He laments that there are no “gallant men,” “men of honor” or “cavaliers” to defend Marie Antoinette when the mob attacks her and the age of chivalry, or courtly love, is dead. Courtly love promotes an extravagant relationship between the monarch’s courtiers that was generally extra-marital and characterized by the giving of gifts to show the knight’s chivalrous and ardent love of the lady. This placed women supposedly on a pedestal from which they could approve or ignore the admiration from potential admirers who would defend and protect them. It also underscores how virtually powerless women were in the age of chivalry and how much they needed the protection of the knight and other male members of the nobility.
Marie Antoinette was a French monarch pretty much in name only; she was virtually powerless. France had agreed to the marriage with the Austrian Marie Antoinette to cement the country’s relationship with Austria but she was nothing more than a figurehead, with no real power to influence her husband or exact change.
Burke felt that by the end of the French revolution, France—and Europe—were no longer chivalrous. If that were not the case, he felt, the queen would not have been sent to the guillotine. The “men of honor” he admired had been replaced by dishonorable cowards as, in his view.
The pendulum had swung too far in the opposite direction from where it began before the revolution. He felt that the revolutionaries had gone too far and therefore had completely abandoned the age of chivalry. He wrote that the French Revolution was tending towards anarchy rather than towards the reformation that characterized the 1688 revolution in England. He laments that:
The age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
Other contemporaries who wrote at the same time as Burke disagreed with his view. Thomas Paine, for instance, wrote that Burke did not fully understand the plight of the masses in pre-Revolutionary France when the nobility and aristocracy could do as they pleased, regardless of the impact on the poor. Paine wrote that Burke “pities the plumage [Marie Antoinette], but forgets the dying bird [the public].”