Anyone who knows about Marie Antoinette will recognize the name of her favorite, Axel von Fersen. Although even experts in the field cannot definitively say whether they were physical lovers or not, there is no doubting that there was a strong bond between them. They shared a lifelong association that at the very least can be classified as a deep and lasting friendship. Their relationship began in their late teens and endured until Marie Antoinette’s death in 1793.
They met at an opera ball, a masked event on January 30, 1774, when Marie Antoinette was only eighteen years old and not yet Queen of France. Her husband Louis Auguste, then Dauphin, was in attendance along with his brothers and their wives, and the small circle of young royals seemed to approve of von Fersen. The Swedish count was invited to attend a few bals à la Dauphine, little informal dances given by Marie Antoinette in her personal apartments at Versailles. Although this may seem like the beginnings of a love affair, there was actually little opportunity for misbehavior, as the Dauphine would have been closely watched in her own rooms. A few months later, von Fersen left France to continue his Grand Tour of Europe, which included a visit to England where he would attempt to secure the hand of an heiress, Catherine Lyell.
Axel did not return to France for over four years. Marie Antoinette, by then Queen, immediately recognized von Fersen when he stopped in to pay court, even if the rest of the royals did not. A short while later, she invited him to one of her famous card parties, and despite the fact that she was pregnant at the time, von Fersen quickly became part of Marie Antoinette’s intimate circle, in fact, one of her favorites. He spent much time at Le Petit Trianon playing cards, lounging about, and engaging in meaningful discussions with the rest of the privileged few, whatever the queen’s whim demanded in the moment. This pleasant idyll lasted for nearly two years until he left in May of 1780 to aid the Americans in their fight for freedom.
Von Fersen had a long tradition of military service in his background and spent his formative years in military academies. He was a staunch idealist, and believed in the concept of freedom for all, although he came from a noble family and his father was one of the richest men in all of Sweden. His father served Louis XV of France in the Seven Years’ War, so there was a longtime connection to the French court, and it was as aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau that Axel the younger was assigned. A year after the arrival of l’Expédition Particulière, the unit marched south to join the Continental army under George Washington for their planned attack on New York.
Von Fersen’s duties encompassed many tasks for which he was well equipped. He filled the role of interpreter, secretary, and courier, and played a key role in organizing the objective at Yorktown that eventually led to the defeat of Cornwallis and ensured the American victory. Von Fersen was awarded the Order of Cincinnatus by Washington himself, although his own sovereign, King Gustavus III of Sweden, censured the wearing of an honor earned in a people’s revolt against their overlord.
From America, von Fersen returned to France in June of 1783, where he stayed until September before heading home to Sweden to serve King Gustavus. He spent nine months accompanying his king on a tour of Europe, eventually making their way back to Versailles to negotiate a treaty with Louis XVI. Axel then departed for his homeland once again on a mission of the utmost importance, to procure a puppy for Marie Antoinette. He brought this special breed, a Leonberger, back to her and maintained close contact through the next few years, being present for most of the major events leading up to the French Revolution.
He was in residence in the town of Versailles in October of 1789 when the Palace was stormed by a volatile mob. The royal family was taken and held at the Tuileries under strict guard, and von Fersen helped lay the groundwork to liberate them. With his military background and firsthand experience of covert operations, he was ultimately qualified to plot the escape and arranged the whole thing down to the smallest detail. At this point, he could have just played it safe and sent someone less recognizable to enact the plan, which might have been the wiser decision on his part. But due to his deep affection for Marie Antoinette, and in lesser part her husband, he refused to rely upon anyone else and drove the getaway carriage himself.
After the first leg of the journey, von Fersen unwillingly ceded control of the coach at Louis XVI’s insistence. The king did not want his people to believe he was attempting to leave France, especially aided by a foreign personage. After dismissing von Fersen, Louis was recognized when the party sought to change horses in Varennes, a mere forty miles from their destination, and the royal family was taken back to Paris.
In February 1792, von Fersen made his final visit to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries palace. In heavy disguise he sneaked in an unguarded side door and again urged them to escape, which Louis absolutely refused to do. He spent the night in their quarters, attempting to convince them, but left dejected the next morning unable to persuade Louis to change his mind. But the King’s refusal would not curtail his efforts. Von Fersen continued working to get Marie Antoinette out of France—one daring plan consisting of riding into the Conciergerie and taking her out on horseback—right up until she was executed in October of 1793. It is apparent that there was some extraordinary force at work behind the scenes. Spending so many years of his life to get Marie Antoinette to safety is the true testament to the devotion her bore her.
Because the verity of their relationship will never be proven, it will always hold the allure of the unsolved mystery. In my new release—Insatiable: A Macabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette—I exploit the premise that Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen were indeed lovers. I even take their relationship one step further by adopting the assertions of the gossip of the time attributing the paternity of her second son, Louis-Charles—the eventual Dauphin of France—to von Fersen. As INSATIABLE is a work of alternate history, the love affair between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen is the least of the liberties I take with the story. But in my defense, I am not the first to do so nor will I be the last.
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EXCERPT from INSATIABLE: A MACABRE HISTORY OF FRANCE ~ L’AMOUR: MARIE ANTOINETTE
After sipping a glass of punch, Marie Antoinette still felt winded by her exertions. She decided to observe for a bit before returning to the chaos. She spotted an open space above the ballroom floor with an unobstructed view of the dancers. She made her way to the landing and leaned up against the banister, snapping open her fan to circulate the air over her heated face and neck. The cool breeze on her skin felt heavenly. She relaxed but went suddenly rigid when a body bumped heavily into her from behind.
She heard a deep voice mumble, “Excuse me, Madame,” but she could not help but feel he had jostled her on purpose. Some impertinent courtier come to make sport with the Dauphine, perhaps? Well, she knew how to put paid to that. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and adopted the most imperious attitude she could muster. She turned with a haughty swish of her skirts, glowered at her harasser, and ceased to breathe.
She had raised her chin in order to look down upon the intruder, but in doing so, her initial gaze only reached to the center of his broad chest. When she lifted her eyes to his face, she encountered the most striking looking man she had ever beheld in her life. He was dressed in the same fashion as the others in the room—tricorn hat, powdered wig, frock coat, and breeches—but nothing he could ever do would make him look like the rest.
The shape of his face was a study in masculinity with its angular planes, straight nose, clearly defined jawline, and square chin. He had heavy eyebrows set above a pair of piercing dark eyes the color of the sky at midnight. He was athletically slender with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and well turned legs, and he bore himself regally. And tall, so tall. His whole person gave off an imposing air that did little to diminish her attraction to him but, in fact, increased it.
Marie Antoinette’s heart pounded in her chest, and her breath came in little hitching gasps, which she desperately hoped he would not notice. Any thought she had previously entertained about quashing his advances flew immediately out of her head, and she stood there, unspeaking, knowing that the pause was becoming more conspicuous by the second but helpless to break the spell. She racked her brain, trying regain her composure while he stood there looking down at her with his brooding eyes and an amused but decidedly insolent upturn to the corners of his prim mouth.
“I’m sorry, but you have caught me off-guard, Monsieur,” she finally got out, praying that her voice sounded normal.
“Yes,” he said, the maddeningly arrogant expression never leaving his face. “It seems so,” he added, not bothering to introduce himself—which would have been the polite thing to do—and letting her squirm.
She should have been put out by his flippant response, but being in his presence had the distinct effect of discombobulating her. She took a deep breath—hoping that he would not notice her flustered state—and took a moment to reflect.
They were at a bal masqué. The entire point of going incognito was to discard the strictures of etiquette for a time and just have fun. And although most of the partygoers knew the identities behind the masks, it was expected to act somewhat out of the norm and not be held accountable afterward. Artois and Provence were masters at it!
The Dauphine could not act too outrageously with her husband in attendance—besides, she was not inclined toward wild behavior—but her disguise did afford her a small measure of anonymity. With this comforting thought in mind, she allowed her natural charm and flirtatiousness to bubble to the surface and engaged in a bit of playful banter with the stranger.
“Well, I suppose I should beware then,” she replied saucily. “Your reluctance to reveal your identity may be an attempt to hide malicious intent or a disreputable past. Next thing I know you will have abducted me and held me for ransom … or worse. Should I be alarmed?”
He chuckled to himself at the scandalous picture she painted of him as a potential criminal. The upstanding Axel von Fersen, adherent to etiquette and slave to propriety, a kidnapper? It was laughable. She certainly had a vivid imagination and a quick wit, to boot. If he had caught her off-guard at first, she was fully recovered now.
“The thought had not crossed my mind until you mentioned it, although now that you have, it’s not a bad idea.”
“I suppose it’s only fair to warn you. I am a very high-ranking Lady, and your actions would launch a massive manhunt to the farthest corners of France.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing that I have the fastest horse in all of Europe.”
“Yes, but he would be burdened with the two of us,” she pointed out, placing a finger on her dimpled chin and looking up out of the corner of her eyes at him. Her long lashes veiled the big round orbs alluringly in a captivating expression that stunned him into momentary silence.
The better part of her face was covered by her mask, but he could still clearly distinguish her charms. Her skin was white and luminous, her face a lovely pale oval flushed pink by her excitement. She had a slightly aquiline nose, although small and feminine, and an adorable pouty mouth. The one thing the mask did to enhance her natural beauty was to set off her eyes to their best advantage, and he had never seen a more bewitching pair in his life.
Her eyes, her beautiful silvery blue eyes, held him mesmerized. Although he could listen to her chatter merrily on about nothing and never tire of the display—her porcelain skin and plump red lips exceedingly attractive and her delicate white hands in constant motion—he found himself drowning in her eyes. He tore his gaze away and tried to regain the thread of his concentration.
“You are quite petite,” he said, giving an appreciative once over of her shapely figure. “My horse would hardly notice the extra load. Even if he did, I’m sure he would gladly bear it.”
It was her turn to be struck speechless. She didn’t know whether to be incensed that he had inspected her in such a blatantly assessing manner or flattered that he had noticed. She struggled with her natural prudishness for a moment, wondering if it would do more harm than good to reveal her identity. She was rendered acutely conscious by his comment, but still, she did not want her time with him to end, not just yet. What to do?
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*This post was originally run on the website of Anna Belfrage.