The relationship between Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette has been the topic of heated debate. So, who was this Swedish count?
Count Axel von Fersen was born in Stockholm on 4 September 1755 as the son of Field Marshal Count Axel von Fersen the Elder and Countess Hedvig Catharina De la Gardie.
In 1770, Axel left Sweden for his Grand Tour of the Continent, and he would first lay eyes on Marie Antoinette, then still Dauphine of France, on 19 November 1773 during his presentation to the royal family at Versailles. He attended several of the balls Marie Antoinette had organised during the month of November. He returned on New Year’s Day 1774 and, over the month, attended three more balls. On 30 January 1774, a masked Marie Antoinette spoke with Axel for a long time during the Paris Opera Ball, where he apparently failed to recognise her. He attended another one of her balls the following day before departing for England in May.
Five years later, Just as Marie Antoinette was pregnant with her first child, Axel returned to Versailles. Marie Antoinette recognised him and exclaimed, “Ah! It’s an old acquaintance!”1 From this time, Marie Antoinette sought to add him to her circle of intimate friends. In November, he wrote to his father that she was “the most amiable princess I know.”2 On 19 December 1775, she gave birth to a daughter, Madame Royale.
Over the next year, they saw each other often at Versailles and at balls. She also helped him get a commission in the French army, and he left for his regiment on 1 July. He returned to Versailles on 23 December and secured an invitation to the Christmas Eve dinner hosted by the Princess of Lamballe for Marie Antoinette. He spent a few days at Versailles before returning to Paris. By early 1780, Axel was back in Marie Antoinette’s circle, and people were now starting to notice her fascination with the handsome Swede.
He later wrote, “Her kindness has aroused the jealousy of the younger courtiers who cannot understand a foreigner being better treated than they are,”3 Marie Antoinette then helped him secure a post as aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau, who was being sent to America. He left Versailles on 23 March 1780 and was teased by the Duchess of Saint-James about him “abandoning his conquest.” He replied, “If I had made one, I would not abandon it.”4 Axel would spend the next three years with the French army during the American War of Independence. During his absence, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first son, Louis Joseph.
When Axel finally returned on 23 June 1783, Marie Antoinette was pregnant again, although she would lose the child in November. By then, he had visited Marie Antoinette in private at least once. On his father’s insistence, he left Versailles on 20 September and returned to Sweden. Was this private visit the start of their physical affair? If it wasn’t, he almost certainly was her lover by the following when she had recovered from the loss of her child. On 29 June 1781, Lady Elizabeth Foster wrote that Axel had been “considered as the lover and was certainly the intimate friend of the Queen for these last eight years.”5 In July 1783, Axel wrote that he would never marry because “I cannot belong to the only person I want to belong to, the only one who truly loves me.”6
We’ll never be able to determine if Axel was the father of Marie Antoinette’s younger children, Louis Charles (later King Louis XVII) and the short-lived Sophie. However, King Louis XVI never doubted the paternity of his children.7
Even as the French Revolution began to gain traction, Marie Antoinette and Axel continued to communicate through letters, which were addressed to “Josephine”, a variant of one of Marie Antoinette’s names. They were also often in code or written in invisible ink. Axel was known for his discretion, and even the letters never mention Marie Antoinette by name.
In 1792, he was involved in the planning of the Flight to Varennes, which failed to give the royal family their freedom. Shortly after, she wrote to Axel, “Our position is dreadful, but don’t worry too much. I am taking heart, and I have something inside me that tells me that we will soon be happy and saved.”8 He continued to try and think of a way to save her, but it was to no avail.
The day after Axel learned that Marie Antoinette had been executed, he wrote, “I could only think of my loss. It was dreadful to have no positive details. That she was alone in her last moments, without comfort, with no one to talk to, to give her last wishes to, is horrifying. The monsters from hell! No, without revenge, my heart will never be satisfied.”9
In March 1795, he received the end of an undated note Marie Antoinette had sent him that had never reached him. He taped it to his diary on 19 March, and it read, “Farewell, my heart is all yours.”10
Axel outlived his Josephine for 17 years, but he, too, met a brutal end. On 20 June 1810, he was killed by a mob during the funeral procession of Charles August, Crown Prince of Sweden.
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.196
- Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen – The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr p.16
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.214
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.215
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.242
- Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen – The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr p.17
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.287
- Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen – The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr p.313
- Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen – The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr p.361
- Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen – The Secret Letters by Evelyn Farr p.366