Axel von Fersen the Younger (1755-1810)
If Count Axel von Fersen hadn’t existed, the Swedish diplomat and war hero might have been invented by the authors of Gothic romance novels.
The richest man in Sweden and son of a general, Fersen was also “dazzlingly good-looking, tall and slim with a melancholy air,” according to Marie Antoinette’s biographer, Antonia Fraser.
A French aristocrat and contemporary agreed that Fersen looked like the hero of a novel except for his serious disposition exacerbated by what was at the time called “melancholia.” Forensic psychiatrists today would probably agree that the Count suffered from clinical depression.
As the story of his life and death will show, Fersen had a lot to be depressed about.
Two Teenagers at Versailles
When he arrived at Versailles in 1774 as a representative of the king of Sweden, Fersen the future Queen Marie Antoinette, at the time the crown princess or Dauphine, were both 18.
The two teenagers met at a masked ball at the Paris opera. It wasn’t love at first sight – at least not for Fersen, who wrote in his daily diary, “The Dauphine talked to me for a long time without me knowing who she was.”
Fersen may have had other quarry on his mind when he spoke to the masked Dauphine. Despite his wealth, the Count was in pursuit of an English heiress. Marie Antoinette did not share Fersen’s initial lack of interest.
Married to the future Louis XVI, an obese dolt whose interests revolved around compulsive hunting and working as an amateur locksmith, Marie invited Fersen to accompany her to several more balls. But diplomatic duties took the Count to England shortly after the princess and Swedish aristocrat first met at the opera.
When Fersen returned to France four years later, Marie Antoinette, now the Queen of France, was still smitten with the handsome foreigner. At a royal reception, she picked Fersen’s face out of a crowd of courtiers. He wrote in his journal that the Queen “singles me out more and more. She almost always walks with me at opera balls.”
Besides Fersen’s good looks and gallant behavior, the Queen had a practical reason for favoring the Swede.
Another Reason Marie Antoinette Favored Fersen
As a foreigner, he didn’t belong to the various factions at the French court jockeying for power and patronage. As the king of Sweden’s advisor, the wealthy Fersen didn’t need to engage in intrigues that obsessed French courtiers. Marie Antoinette could be certain that the Count’s affection for her had no ulterior motives.
But his feelings for the Queen didn’t keep him from joining a French regiment to fight on the side of the colonists during the American Revolution. “I am in a state of joy that cannot be expressed,” the Swedish Lafayette wrote in his diary after receiving a military commission in the French army.
His commission cost 100,000 livres, which the wealthy Fersen could easily afford since his annual income was half again the price he paid to serve in the military.
The Queen Weeps When Fersen Leaves for America
As the wife and daughter of autocratic rulers, Marie Antoinette didn’t share Fersen’s revolutionary zeal and reportedly wept when he left for America. Before his departure, the Queen invited him to several private supper parties.
In America the young aristocrat met George Washington and described his impressions of the great general:
"I had the opportunity of seeing this man, the most illustrious, not to say unique, in our country. His face handsome and full of majesty, but at the same time kind and honest. He looks like a hero; he seems to be very distant, speaks little but is polite and gentlemanly. His countenance is overcast with sadness, but this becomes him perfectly."
Fersen must have been star-struck to describe Washington's face as "handsome" since the general had disfiguring facial scars due to a youthful bout with smallpox that killed Washington's older half-brother, Lawrence.
The dashing Swedish aristocrat's relationship with the Queen didn’t interfere with his love life. He found the young women of Newport, Rhode Island, “pretty, friendly, and coquettes [flirts],” while finding both sexes in general “cheerful and straightforward.”
Although historians can’t agree on whether or not Fersen and the Queen had a physical relationship, a French aristocrat at Versailles, the Comtesse de Boigne, wrote in her memoirs, “Intimates scarcely doubted that she yielded to his passion.”
It probably didn’t take much to yield to a gorgeous Swedish aristocrat whom the society hairdresser Léonard compared to the god Apollo. The courtier Comte de Tilly said Fersen “was one of the best-looking men I ever saw.”
De Tilly didn’t think much of Marie Antoinette’s looks, especially her drooping Habsburg lip and hooked nose, although he conceded that the Queen was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen – from the neck down.
There was another reason, or rather, many reasons, that Marie was attracted to Fersen and may have welcomed, possibly pushed, him into her bed. The reasons all involved her husband.
Louis XVI didn't consummate his marriage with Marie Antoinette for seven years due to a medical condition that was cured by surgery.
Besides his unprepossessing appearance and lack of social graces and wit at a court obsessed with them, Louis XVI had dynastic problems caused by his impotence. Court physicians diagnosed the cause of Louis’ sexual dysfunction.
Why Louis XVI Couldn't Consummate His Marriage
The King suffered from phimosis, a fusing of the foreskin which makes an erection excruciating and made it impossible for Louis to consummate the marriage, which Antonia Fraser described as a “lugubrious experience” for the Queen.
Her husband’s impotence may have thrown Marie into the arms of Fersen and many others, anti-monarchist pamphlets claimed, despite lack of convincing evidence that she had any lovers in the form of correspondence between the Queen and her alleged paramours.
Louis had resisted a simple but painful operation to cure his sexual dysfunction until Marie’s brother, the Austrian Emperor Joseph, paid a visit to Versailles and persuaded his brother-in-law to go under the surgeon’s knife.
After the operation, Louis made up for lost time, fathering four children, including the longed-for male heir, the Dauphin, whose death would be more horrible than his parents’ end on the guillotine.
Louis never resented Fersen’s rumored relationship with the Queen which made the King a cuckold and the butt of jokes throughout Europe. For his part, Fersen admired the man he may have cuckolded, praising the monarch’s “goodness, honesty, frankness and loyalty” to the Swedish diplomat.
If Fersen and the Queen did have an affair, the relationship had the potential to cause more than a scandal but a dynastic crisis as well.
Pornographic pamphlets called “libelles” (libels) claimed that Fersen had fathered the Queen’s second son, Louis-Charles, who became the crown prince after his elder brother, Louis-Joseph, died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of seven.
Only one of the royal children would survive to adulthood, the Princess Marie Thérèse, who grew into an embittered, unattractive woman whose husband refused to consummate their marriage.
The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter
Because of her youth, Marie Thérèse escaped the fate of her parents and paternal aunt. After the Reign of Terror ended, she was exchanged for a French prisoner of war in 1795.
When Marie Antoinette's daughter returned to France after the fall of Napoleon in 1814, cheering crowds saw “an unappealing, red-faced woman with teeth, rather masculine-looking, who regarded [the crowd] with ill-concealed loathing,” according to her mother’s biographer, Antonia Fraser.
Did Fersen Father Marie Antoinette's Second Son?
Although historians point out that Louis-Charles resembled relatives of the King, Louis himself seemed to have guessed his son’s paternity – and didn’t object. In his daily diary, Louis wrote that his wife’s delivery went as well as the birth of his “own son.” Some historians believe Louis meant to write his “first son,” Louis-Joseph.
Fersen continued his role of the dashing hero as the French Revolution began in 1789. Two years later, the aristocrat served as coachmen for the royal family’s unsuccessful flight to the Austrian Netherlands, present-day Belgium. The King hoped to return with an army and save the monarchy.
The dangerous journey provided a glimpse into how out of touch with reality Louis was, unaware of the danger he and his family faced.
Despite the King’s fondness for Fersen, he only allowed him to drive the coach during the first leg of the trip. The reason: Fersen wasn’t royal. To Louis’ reactionary mind, only a royal coachman would do to complete the royal family’s journey to the Austrian Netherlands.
When their luxurious and suspicious-looking coach stopped at the border town of Varennes, the mayor recognized the King from his profile on coins. A mob forced the royals to return to Paris, where they were kept under palace arrest at first, followed by a series of successively harsh prisons.
At the same time, Fersen maintained his relationship with the love of his life, Eleanore Sullivan, an adventuress and courtesan. After Varennes, Fersen became a wanted man. He hid out in the attic of the home occupied by his mistress, Sullivan, and her wealthy Scottish protector.
Sullivan didn’t resent her royal rival, the Queen, and with the help of her Scottish lover loaned Fersen funds for the flight from France.
The 1982 film, La Nuit de Varennes, dramatized in semi-documentary style the adventures of courtiers who traveled in separate coaches behind the royal conveyance.
In 1791, having failed to save the Queen and her family by transporting them across the border, Fersen tried diplomacy. He followed Marie’s brother, the Austrian Emperor Leopold, to Prague to beg him to invade France and rescue the royal family.
Despite the urgency of his mission, Fersen found time to make sexual conquests. During a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni attended by the Emperor, Fersen created a scandal by openly arranging romantic rendezvous after the opera with women in the audience.
His compulsive pursuit of women throughout his life might be diagnosed today as sex addiction. Fersen’s pleas for armed intervention were ignored by the Queen’s brother, Leopold.
Fersen Inadvertently Harms the Queen
In 1792, the Queen’s champion unknowingly contributed to the murder of the King and Queen. At Fersen’s urging, the Duke of Brunswick, commander of the army that invaded France after Louis’ abdication, issued the Brunswick Manifesto.
The wrong-headed proclamation threatened to burn Paris to the ground if any member of the royal family was harmed. Instead of a deterrent effect, the Manifesto enraged Parisians, who stormed the Tuileries where the ex-royals were under palace arrest and slaughtered their Swiss Guards. The royal family fled to the dubious safety of the Legislative Assembly, which imprisoned them under increasingly harsh conditions.
In 1793, after learning of the Queen’s execution, Fersen wrote his sister that Eleanore Sullivan would never replace Marie Antoinette in his heart, remembering her as “the model of queens and of women.”
The Fate of Count Fersen
Marie’s end on the scaffold would seem relatively merciful compared to Fersen’s end 17 years later. After the suspicious death of Sweden’s Crown Prince in 1810, Fersen and his sister Sophie were falsely accused of poisoning him. Despite the accusations, Fersen as Marshal of the Realm accompanied the Crown Prince’s body to its burial in Stockholm.
The wily diplomat demonstrated an atypical lack of public sensibilities and wore extravagant clothes while riding in a magnificent carriage. The grief-stricken crowd felt Fersen’s ostentatious entry into Stockholm insulted the memory of the heir to the Swedish throne.
The mourners turned into a mob that threw stones at Fersen’s carriage, shouting “Murderer!” As he fled to presumed safety in a house in the center of the capital, the mob pursued him, ripping off his clothes.
Sweden’s Royal Life Guards obeyed the orders of their commander not to fire on the mob, whose resentment of Fersen was shared by the Guards. Loyal members of the army volunteered to conduct the Count to a courthouse, where he would be placed in protective custody.
The move failed to protect Fersen. The mob broke into the court house and beat the victim with sticks and umbrellas. They then dragged Fersen outside, where he was kicked and stomped to death. All the while no troops intervened. A post-mortem examination revealed that a sailor had delivered the coup de grâce by jumping on Fersen’s ribcage.
A member of the court believed that the unpopular king of Sweden had thrown Fersen to the lions to placate public outrage over the alleged murder of the Crown Prince by Fersen.
“The more I considerate it, the more I am certain that the mob had the least to do with it,” Baron Gustaf Armfelt said. “But in God’s name what were the troops doing? How could such a thing happen in broad daylight during procession, when troops and a military escort were actually present.”
Fersen’s shabby treatment continued after his death. He had nearly exhausted his fortune in helping the French royal family. When his relatives presented receipts for the money he had spent on the flight to Varennes among other expenses, Marie Antoinette’s relatives passed the request for repayment on to one family member after another, with no one paying up.
The late Queen’s Austrian relatives acted true to form since they had failed to pay for troops to rescue the former Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria.
Following Fersen’s horrific end, he and his family were exonerated of any collusion in the death of the Crown Prince. The warrior-diplomat was buried with all the honors due to a Marshal of the Realm, the highest position in Sweden after the King himself.
Fersen’s vindication came too late and was too little.
Chinard, Gilbert. Washington As the French Knew Him. Greenwood, 1940.
Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. Bantam Books, 2007.
Erickson, Carolly. The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Doubleday, 2011.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Alfred K. Knopf, 1989.
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