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The Queen and the Count: The Story of Marie Antoinette and Count Axel Von Fersen's Affair

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JC Scull often writes about historical events and historical figures.

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The Pampered Queen Meets Her End

On October 16, 1793 thousands of people came to see the queen place her delicate and pampered neck in the guillotine’s lunette. As the vice held her tightly, they excitedly awaited the swift plunge of the blade that would silence the queen consort of France, Marie Antoinette, for ever.

She wore the tattered white smock the executioner had demanded. Her hair was cut short as one of the last humiliating acts before she was to meet her demise. She had been hemorrhaging for days due to a heavy menstrual cycle that had come upon her while in her prison cell. This too, was another of the indignities she faced, as her white threadbare dress she donned was soiled with her blood.

Many of those attending her execution cheered. Specially, the revolutionaries who were ecstatic to bid the flamboyant and spendthrift queen au revoir. However, in spite of the morbidly circus-like atmosphere, Marie Antoinette remained stoic and composed. Not for one moment did she quiver in fear. The crowd was disappointed to see her showing an impudent lack of respect for them and the executioner. After the blade came down, the executioner triumphantly raised her severed head for the crowd to see.

For Marie Antoinette, this was the final and most transcendent scandal she was to face. In previous years, the queen consort had experienced her share of spectacles, intrigues and secrets. But to set the record straight, the proclamation “let them eat cake” was not one of them. For this faux pas, historians credit either Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions,” or Maria Theresa, the Spanish noblewoman who married Louis XIV.

However, there were other juicy episodes that enthroned her as “Madame Déficit” as a result of the public perception she had single-handedly bankrupted France. Or one of her more vicious sobriquets, “la Messaline royale” or the Royal Messalina: a reference to the scandalous Roman Empress.

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The Scandals

Let us not forget the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace in which the queen was wrongly accused of having forced Louis XVI to purchase a cosmically expensive jewel; with a price estimated to be 100 million U.S. dollars today. However, the queen was not even aware of the existence of the 2,800 carat ornament. Instead, it was all a scam by the Comtesse de Lamotte to acquire the jewel and make a quick profit.

Although the fiasco finally unraveled putting Comtesse de Lamotte in jail, Marie Antoinette’s reputation was ruined. In the minds of the people the scandal confirmed that the queen was indeed “Madame Déficit.”

But perhaps the true scandal waited years to surface before becoming part of history.

The Lead-Up to the Affair

She was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in Vienna, Austria on November 2, 1755. Marie Antoinette, as she was later known in France, was the penultimate of 16 children by Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. She became dauphine of France in May 1770 at the age of 14. Louis XVI, the heir apparent to the French throne was a mere 15 years of age.

The marriage, however, remained unconsummated for seven years. This caused a great deal of anxiety to Marie Antoinette and her family in Austria. Her mother, Maria Theresa, reminded her of the dangers she faced should she not be able to conceive. She could be sent back to Austria throwing into disarray a long and arduously planned diplomatic union.

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France Awaited for an Heir to the Throne

Also, France awaited for the royal couple to produce an heir to the throne. Louis XVI’s impotence was being mocked. Pamphlets distributed by his enemies throughout the country claimed a king must be able to perform in the bedroom in order to be able to perform in the throne.

Amidst the frustration and uncertainty surrounding a marriage in peril, Marie Antoinette’s brother Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II came to France incognito, using the name Comte de Falkenstein. His mission was to advice the royal couple in the art of conjugal pleasures. He met the couple on April 18, 1777 and attempted to decipher the problem they faced in the boudoir. This as a way to set a course of action for the royal couple to follow.

Joseph II’s initiative seemed to have been fruitful, as the queen finally gave birth to her first daughter Marie-Thérèse on December 19, 1778. Nevertheless, the connubial difficulties the couple faced were much more complicated than the Holy Roman Emperor could have known: King Louis XVI was born with autism-spectrum disorder, rendering him nearly incapable of being intimate with his wife Marie Antoinette.

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Hans Axe­l Von Fersen First Enters the Queen’s Life

Almost five years prior to the birth of her first daughter, Marie Antoinette met the young and dashing Count Axel von Fersen; a scion of one of Sweden’s most illustrious noble families. This first brief encounter took place at a masked ball in the Royal Opera House at Versailles.

Some four years later, when their paths crossed again at the French court, the queen greeted him as “my old friend;” a sign that Count von Fersen had made a lasting impression on her. This second warm encounter foreshadowed a love affair that was to last until Marie Antoinette’s death.

The queen had been gifted Petit Trianon by Louis XVI; an expansive mansion built in the vast grounds of Versailles. It was originally intended for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, however the queen loved her new accommodations and settled in nicely after renovating it to her taste.

Louis never slept at Petit Trianon, though he visited to attend theatrical performances in which the queen played as well as other royal functions. Count van Fersen however, was not only a frequent visitor but eventually occupied his own apartment on the third floor, directly above Marie Antoinette’s chambers.

Judging from the correspondence between the queen and Count von Fersen, they had an intimate relationship, the nature of which has been the subject of much speculation. While there is no solid historical proof they were lovers, the language of all correspondence associated with their propinquity points to more than mere friendship.

In a letter to his sister Sophie Piper, von Fersen declared: “I have decided never to marry. It would be unnatural… I cannot belong to the one person I truly want… So I prefer to belong to nobody.” In letters penned by the queen phrases such as “Not without you.” “You that I love.” “Beloved,” “madly” and “tender friend” are scattered throughout her correspondence. Many of these expressions of love and affection where censored by someone now believed to be von Fersen himself as a way to protect the reputation of his beloved queen.

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Letters Kept Secret for Two Centuries

The letters were meant to be private and kept secret at all costs. The two presumptive lovers used invisible ink, secret stamps and code. They were successful in keeping their secret for the better part of two centuries. Today, new technology has allowed history sleuths to decipher many of the secrets Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen zealously kept from the public eye.

In spite all their efforts to keep their relationship concealed, many of their friends were suspicious of their forbidden romance. But most importantly many wondered about the true paternity of some of the queen’s children. Particularly Sophie, the queen’s last child who died as an infant and Louis Charles, who would have succeeded Louis XVI as king of France

Even her first daughter, Marie-Thérèse, was the subject of gossip and speculation by political pamphlets and other publications. In light of today’s revelations about the intensity of Marie Antoinette’s relationship with von Fersen and the timing of his return to France in the summer of 1778; a tryst culminating in her pregnancy can be easily imagined.

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Abandoned by All Except Axel Von Fersen

At the outset of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s friends abandoned her but von Fersen remained faithful to his queen. He tried all that was within his power to save her life, including soliciting foreign powers for their help. He organized he royal family’s unsuccessful flight to Varennes in 1791. Once the execution of Marie Antoinette became a reality, he was profoundly affected. “I have lost everything I had in this world. The one I loved so much, for whom I would have given my life a thousand times over, is no more.” He wrote.

Prior to her death, the queen wrote to van Fersen: “I can tell you that I love you and I have only time for that...”

Hans Axel von Fersen died in Sweden in 1810. He was murdered by a mob during a period of political unrest.

Resources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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