Was he or wasn’t he? Only Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette know the truth. However, historians accept the fact that Count von Fersen was madly in love with Marie Antoinette (1755–1793). He was at the center of several key events during the French Revolution involving the king and queen. Eventually, like Marie Antoinette, von Fersen met a violent death.
THE SWEDISH NOBLE
Hans Axel, Count von Fersen (1755–1810), was a Swedish noble, diplomat, and soldier. As a young officer in the French army, von Fersen met the French Dauphine in 1771—they were both sixteen at the time. She soon invited him to Versailles and von Fersen quickly became one of Marie Antoinette’s favored guests. By 1781, von Fersen was serving with other French officers in the American War of Independence. Marie Antoinette became queen during his years away from France and the two of them frequently exchanged letters.
AXEL MEETS MARIE (aka Tyrone and Norma)
From the time they first met until their last meeting (a period of twenty years), Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were prolific in their written correspondence to one another. It would have been a calamity for the Royal Family if those letters became public. So von Fersen began to write to her using invisible ink. In my book, Where Did They Put the Guillotine? Marie Antoinette’s Last Ride, I take you on a walk down Rue Saint-Honoré where you will stop outside the pharmacy that provided von Fersen with his invisible ink.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Count von Fersen was eventually recalled to Sweden to serve under King Gustav III but von Fersen’s loyalties remained with Versailles and the monarchy. By 1790, King Gustav sent him back to the French court as a Swedish diplomat. At that point, things began to heat up between von Fersen and the queen. Speaking of heating up, the French Revolution had begun the prior year with the convening of the Estates-General, establishment of the National Assembly, and the destruction of the Bastille.
In October 1789, the women who marched on Versailles had brought the Royal Family back to Paris where they were “imprisoned” in the Tuileries Palace. Upon his return to Paris, von Fersen was given unlimited access to the palace and the Royal Family. As events began to turn against the monarchy, von Fersen came up with a plan for the royal family to escape.
CAPTURED AT VARENNES
King Louis XVI had a serious problem—he had a very hard time making decisions. This flaw was, most likely, a major contributor to his death (the queen had her own unique set of problems). The king continued to refuse to flee Paris until June 1791 when he finally admitted he and his family were in eminent danger. He waited too long and it cost him.
Axel von Fersen and others devised an escape plan for mid-June. It called for the Royal Family and selected servants to leave the city in the middle of the night and travel to Montmedy, a town with strong royalist sympathies. Unfortunately, nothing went according to plan. Despite von Fersen driving the royal coach during the first leg, the entourage was delayed by several hours (the queen was late). This set off the domino effect leading to the collapse of important escorts and deadlines.
The Royal Family was captured in Varennes and quickly escorted back to Paris where they finally realized they were actual prisoners of the National Assembly. Von Fersen, fearing for his life, left France and joined the émigré nobles including the king’s brother, the Comte d’Artois.
“I CAN TELL YOU THAT I LOVE YOU”
After the debacle of the failed escape, Marie Antoinette continued her letter writing to von Fersen. The quote above is from one of her letters after he left France and is evidence of her feelings toward him.
While abroad, von Fersen drafted what became known as the Brunswick Manifesto. It was a document that declared a coalition of European nations would invade France if the Royal Family were harmed. This coalesced the Revolutionaries and actually strengthened their position. Its consequences included the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, the passage of laws that suppressed the rights of French citizens, and the unintended result that the king and queen were now seen as enemies of the country. It hastened the start of the period known as The Terror and within a year, the king had his date with Madame Guillotine.
Marie Antoinette would follow her husband to the guillotine on 16 October 1793. Seventeen years after her death, Axel von Fersen would be murdered.
Von Fersen ultimately returned to Sweden. King Gustave III had been assassinated and after coming of age, his son became Gustave IV in 1796. By 1809, Gustave IV was overthrown and Sweden was split between two political groups: Von Fersen’s group which supported Gustave IV’s son and a group supporting the Crown Prince, Charles August.
The Crown Prince fell from his horse in 1810 and died. Rumors quickly spread that supporters of Gustave IV’s son had poisoned the crown prince. During the Crown Prince’s public funeral, von Fersen was seized by the crowd and torn to pieces. At the time of his death, von Fersen was the highest-ranking Swedish official next to the king. He was posthumously cleared of any implications in the death of the Crown Prince.
ROYAL CONJUGAL DEBT
It took King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette more than seven years to consummate their marriage. The conjugal debt was finally fulfilled after the king had an operation. Was Axel von Fersen active with the queen during these seven years?
UPDATES TO PREVIOUS BLOGS
Remember Cornelia Fort (1919-1943)? She was a Nashville native who became the first women to die in World War II. Cornelia and more than a thousand other women flew newly manufactured planes to their assigned destinations. While delivering her plane to Dallas Love Field, she died in a mid-air collision.
I mentioned in the blog that the women who served as part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were denied the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery and legislation was pending to correct this slight.
Congress passed the bill allowing these brave women (there are 104 living veterans of WASP) to be buried in Arlington. Way to go United States Congress!!!
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