Anyone who knows anything about Marie Antoinette knows about her favorite, Axel 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 relationship that can at least be classified as a very deep and lasting friendship that began in their late teens and endured until Marie Antoinette’s death in 1793. The first recorded evidence of their association pertains to an opera ball, a masked event on January 30, 1774, when Marie Antoinette was only eighteen years old and not yet Queen of France. Fersen, who was only a few months older, notated the event in his journal as follows:
“The Dauphine talked to me for a long time without me knowing who she was; at last when she was recognized, everybody pressed round her and she retired into a box at three o’clock: I left the ball.”
Marie Antoinette’s 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 Fersen. A couple of weeks later the Swedish count was invited to a few of the famous bals à la Dauphine, little informal dances given by Marie Antoinette in her personal apartments. Although this may seem like coquetry associated with the beginnings of a love affair, there was actually little opportunity for misbehavior, nor was Marie Antoinette inclined to it. Despite the salacious rumors that were commonly attached to her later in her husband’s reign, Marie Antoinette was by all accounts chaste and a bit of a prude. Although known to be flirtatious, she had a reputation among those who knew her for putting a swift end to men’s advances if they crossed the line of propriety.
Fersen left Versailles to continue his Grand Tour of Europe. He would not return to France for over four years. Marie Antoinette, by then Queen of France, immediately recognized Fersen when he stopped in to pay court, even if the rest of the royals did not. His journal entry from August 26, 1778 states:
“Last Tuesday I went to Versailles to be presented to the royal family. The queen, who is charming, said when she saw me, ‘Ah! Here is an old acquaintance.’ The rest of the family did not say a word to me.”
Fersen became part of Marie Antoinette’s intimate circle, in fact, one of her favorites. Whenever he was in France, 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.
For the rest of their association Marie Antoinette’s contact with Fersen was sporadic, a series of absences and reunions depending on his schedule of ambassadorial duties, which kept him perpetually traveling. But there was one event fully documented by historians during which Fersen risked his physical well-being, indeed his life, to aid her. This was the royal family’s ill-fated flight from Paris and subsequent capture in Varennes.
In October of 1789, Versailles was stormed by a volatile mob. The royal family was taken and held at the Tuileries Palace under strict guard. Until then, Louis XVI had regarded himself as a benevolent father to the people of France, and the reality—which contrasted starkly with this delusion—caused him to fall into a deep depression, rendering him incapable of any action toward self preservation. It was at this point that Marie Antoinette took charge, understanding that the longer they hesitated, the more they risked losing their lives. She had chosen to stand by her husband and share his fate, but she was not about to simply give up. In addition, she still believed in preserving the monarchy for their son, Dauphin Louis-Charles. She began writing copious letters in a secret cipher to her most steadfast friend, Axel Fersen, and they began planning an escape. By June of 1791, the groundwork was laid.
With his military background and firsthand experience of covert operations, Fersen was ultimately qualified to plot the escape. He 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. A letter dated a few months before, gives us an insight into his personal investment:
“I am attached to the King and the Queen and I owe it to them for the kindness they showed me when they were able, and I should be vile and ungrateful if I deserted them now that they can do nothing for me …”
Fersen showed up at the indicated hour, but due to a series of errors the venture was delayed. Finally, getting off to a late start, they set off on the road to freedom. After the first leg of the journey, Fersen unwillingly ceded control of the coach at Louis XVI’s insistence. Even after his maltreatment, the king did not want his people to believe he was attempting to leave France, especially aided by a foreign personage. With its new driver the coach continued on in lumbering fashion. The king was recognized when the party sought to change horses in Varennes, a mere forty miles from their destination, the royalist stronghold at Montmédy. The royal family was taken back to Paris, the escapade accomplishing nothing beyond adding to the case for treason against the king and queen, the one thing Louis had fervently hoped to avoid. In February 1792, Fersen made his final visit to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at the Tuileries palace. He again urged them to escape, which Louis absolutely refused to do.
Fersen was haunted by the bungled escape for the rest of his life. Some speculate that this was because of his love for Marie Antoinette, others that he missed out on the acclaim of his success. Regardless, his actions went far beyond the call of duty, especially since he was not French but Swedish and was beholden to the king and queen for no other reason than his personal obligation. It is apparent that there was some extraordinary force at work behind the scenes that any way one looks at it can be accurately termed love. Risking 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 novel Insatiable: A Macabre History of France~L’Amour: Marie Antoinette, I exploit the premise that Marie Antoinette and Axel 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—who eventually became Dauphin of France—to Fersen. As my book is a work of alternate history, the love affair between Marie Antoinette and 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.
*Originally run at Unusual Historicals February 2014