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Paris in July 2023 - Axel von Fersen and Queen Marie Antoinette by Margareta Beckman

In 1982 a collection of letters was sold in an auction in London. It turned out to be a collection of letters between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, a collection which supposedly was burnt many years ago. Luckily, this was not the case. Archives Nationales à Paris bought the collection. Rarely available to outsiders, author and researcher Margareta Beckman got the permission to see, and read, the letters. That is, to read as much as is visible. Part of the letters have, through history, been censured, crossed over with black ink. Since 1982 big efforts have been done to try to decipher these areas, but in vain.

The letters stayed in Count von Fersen's family until 1877, when they were published by his great-nephew, Baron R.M. de Klinckowström. Many suspects him of being the censor, but it could also have been von Fersen himself. He was living in dangerous times, and circumstances. Even without the censorship the couple wrote the letters in code. This code was broken some years ago and it is therefore possible to read the letters as they are.

I did watch a documentary recently about the letters, and the efforts of the National Archives to decipher the cross overs. Experts, from different sciences, have worked on different schemes in order to try to find a way to peak behind the ink. They were partly successful in 2021, and if you are interested in the technical details, you can read more about it in this article from The New York Times.

Count Axel von Fersen

The von Fersen family has roots back to the 12th century in Germany. In the 16th century, one branch of the family moved to Estonia and then in the 17th century established themselves in Sweden. A very noble, and very rich family. In Stockholm they said that humanity consisted of the French, the Fersen family, and the mob. Axel was born on 4 September 1755 as the eldest son. He had two sisters and a brother. Another 'truth' was that the Fersens were beautiful people. Accounts on Axel states that he was unusually handsome. He was intelligent, successful in his work, and seemed to make an impact on people he met. "He was a symbol for a class of people doomed to disappear, the last nobles from 'l'Ancien régime'"

In 1770 he makes his Grand Tour in Europe. He travelled with his tutor who was there to teach him languages, mathematics, science and everything a young man needed to know. In 1778 he comes to Paris and is presented at the court. On 26 August he writes to his father:

"C'est mardi passé que je me suis rendu à Versailles pour être present la famille royale. La reine qui est charmante dit en me voyant: Ah, c'est une ancienne connaissance. Le reste de la famille ne me dit pas un mot."

On 31 July 1783 Axel writes to his beloved sister Sophie, and the person that was closest to him: "I have made my decisions, I will not get married, it is against nature. When the unhappy time comes when I will loose my father and my mother, it is you, my dear friend, who will be in charge of my house (...) I cannot belong to the only person I would like, the only one who really loves me; then I don't want to belong to anyone else either."


Beckman has done a lot of research on the Queen's relationship with von Fersen. The letters now accessible, von Fersen's diary, diaries from people surrounding the Queen, and official documents. It makes for exciting reading, reads almost like a thriller. von Fersen was the one planning the failed escape, keeping close, although in the background, during the years of imprisonment. We seem to come very close to Marie Antoinette during the fatal years. I have read other biographies, but Beckman's account brings us so close to the actual events, and persons, that it almost feels like you are there. The constant pressure they were living under, threats to their personal lives from people who seemed to have access to them directly from the streets. How their lives go from a relative luxury 'prison' to worse and worse conditions, in the end separating the family. And, we all know how it ended.


In 1794 von Fersen leaves the Continent to go back to Sweden. His father has died and he is now head of the family, and are drawn into the politics in Sweden. He wrote in his diary after being at home for six weeks:

"The Swedes who travel should not stay long away from their country; that will be their misfortune." He suffered from seeing how small everything was, Stockholm was like a small country town. And the Swedes! They had no manners, could not converse and were too fat. They didn't understand beautiful things, the theatres were lousy. Axel would probably have been inclined to agree with the opera director Jonne Hamilton, who divided humanity into three classes: "Frenchmen, Fersars and Pack".

von Fersen's destiny is not so much different from his beloved Marie Antoinette. On 28 May 1810, the recently chosen Crown Prince of Sweden, Carl August, died of apoplexy while on an inauguration tour in the country. Rumours had it that he had been murdered by the von Fersen family. When Axel von Fersen, On 20 June 1810, entered the streets to meet the coffin, he was attacked by a mob and lynched.

So ends the greatest love story of the 18th century. “I shall love you up to the death” (Marie-Antoinette to Axel von Fersen)

... and then?

No-one who reads the letters between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen can doubt their love. We also see that their love affected the rest of von Fersens life. He decided not to marry, which was more or less a must in those days, when it was important to get heirs to continue the family line, and he was the eldest son. The big question that is not solved by the letters is: did they have a physical relationship.

As Beckman accounts for in the story of their acquaintance, it would have been very difficult for Marie Antoinette to welcome a man, except her husband, into her chamber. However, there are opportunities. von Fersen visits her often as long as they are in the Tuileries, and of course before the Revolution. He returns to Paris in the beginning of 1792, having been abroad since the failed escape. He arrives in the evening of 13 Feburary and goes directly to the palace.

"Went to HER, came in my usual way, was afraid of the National Guardsmen. She lives very well. Didn't meet the King. RESTÉ-LÀ." "Stayed there" was the phrase that Axel usually recorded in his diary when he spent the night with a mistress - we must not forget that over the years he had many such. But this very "resté-là" has filled many book pages with speculation. They are crossed out in the diary - but still legible - which shows that at least whoever censored Axel's letters and notes, whether it is Baron Klinckowström or someone else, considered them compromising."

When the Queen had been executed von Fersen was devastated. However, he turned his attention to the Dauphine. When he heard of his death on 27 June he wrote in his diary:

"This event touched me deeply, it was the only and last interest I had left in France. Now I have nothing left there, and everything to which I was attached is gone, for I do not care so much for Madame ..."

As happens through history when a Royal dies in uncertain circumstances, false pretenders turn up. It also happened with the Dauphine Louis-Charles. Even up to our days some families claim they are descendants from him. In 2000 a DNA test was performed to settle the case. The doctor attending Louis-Charles when he died took ut his heart and preserved it. It is buried in the Church of Saint-Denis. Together with a lock of hair from descendants to Marie Antoinette, the experts performing the test acknowledged that it was most likely the heart of Louis-Charles.

Why was von Fersen attached to this child? The author asked scientists if it would be possible today to do a test to see who the father is. They said it should be possible.

""It happened in the same way as when my son was born," Louis XVI wrote in his diary on the day Louis-Charles was born.

But you might not want to know..."

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