|Axel von Fersen the Younger|
Count Axel von Fersen, dressed in the robes of a Swedish Privy Councilor, with the Knight chain of the Order of the Seraphim and the Commander Grand Cross chain of the Order of the Sword around his neck.
4 September 1755|
20 June 1810 (aged 54)|
Count Axel von Fersen the Elder|
Hedvig Catharina De la Gardie
Hans Axel von Fersen ([hɑːns ˈaksɛl fɔn ˈfæʂɛn]; 4 September 1755 – 20 June 1810) was a Swedish Count, a Lieutenant General in the Royal Swedish Army, one of the Lords of the Realm, diplomat and statesman. He is famous in history as the alleged lover of Queen Marie Antoinette of France.
He was the son of the statesman Field Marshal Axel von Fersen the Elder and the countess Hedvig Catharina De la Gardie (through her relatives to the Royal House of Vasa), nephew of Eva Ekeblad and grandson of General Hans Reinhold Fersen. He was carefully educated at home, at the Carolinum at Brunswick, in Turin, and in Strasbourg. In 1779 he entered the French military service with the Royal-Bavière Regiment. He accompanied the French commander in chief General Rochambeau's expedition to America and also acted as an interpreter between Rochambeau and Washington. He distinguished himself militarily, notably at the siege of Yorktown, 1781, and in 1785 was made proprietary colonel of the regiment Royal Suédois. At the close of the American Revolution, he became an original member of The Society of the Cincinnati. He is famous as a lover and had affairs with various women, especially the Italian-born adventuress Eleanore Sullivan, and the Royal Duchess Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp, married to the future King Charles XIII of Sweden. It is not known when her affair with Axel von Fersen occurred, it is only known that she wished to resume it when Fersen returned to Sweden after the death of Marie Antoinette and that Fersen refused to do so. King Charles was in his turn the lover of the cousin of Axel, Augusta von Fersen.
Fersen's relationship with Marie Antoinette
The young nobleman was, from the first, a prime favourite at the French court, owing partly to the recollection of his father's devotion to France, but principally because of his own amiable and brilliant qualities. Queen Marie Antoinette, who had first met Fersen when they both were age 18 (January 1774), was especially attracted by the grace and wit of "le beau" Fersen, who had inherited his full share of the striking handsomeness which was hereditary in the family. It is possible that Fersen would have remained at Versailles, following the American war, but he was commanded by his own sovereign, then at Pisa, that he desired him to join his suite. Fersen accompanied Gustav III of Sweden in his tour of Italy and France, and returned home with him in 1784.
In 1785 Marie Antoinette would give birth to Louis-Charles, the first titular Duke of Normandy in centuries. Afterwards Louis XVI wrote in his journal that it had happened just as when "his own son" had been born. Some have claimed that Louis-Charles, later Dauphin of France, was the biological child of Marie Antoinette and Fersen. However, this is unlikely. Some have claimed that Louis XVI actually meant when "his first son" was born. Secondly, little Louis XVII was noted to resemble two members of the Bourbon family: his paternal uncle Charles X (Louis XVI's youngest brother) and his late grandmother, Princess Maria-Josefa (Louis XVI's mother). The claim that Fersen was the biological father of Louis XVII has been discounted by the child's recent biographer, Deborah Cadbury, and by Marie-Antoinette's biographer Antonia Fraser.
It is believed that she also had a brief but hidden affair with Fersen. This is, though, impossible to verify. It is simply impossible to state how far the love affair went. It was difficult for the Queen of France to remain alone for long; she was always accompanied by others. Unless some original documents are uncovered between Marie Antoinette and Fersen, it is an open question whether their relationship was platonic or not. The color of Fersen's eyes and hair is reason for controversy, as Marie Antoinette's son was fair-colored (as was Marie Antoinette herself, who was blonde), while Fersen's eyes were supposedly hazel, because they are said to be green, blue and even dark brown in different descriptions. The color of Fersen's hair is disputed. It is believed it was naturally light brown or a kind of dark blond; however, it is said he used to dye it black.
When Gustav III's war with Russia broke out, in 1788, Fersen accompanied his monarch as an adjutant to Finland, but in the autumn of the same year was sent to France, where the political horizon was already darkening. It was necessary for Gustav III to have an agent thoroughly in the confidence of the French royal family, and, at the same time, sufficiently able and audacious to help them in their desperate straits, especially as he had lost all confidence in his accredited minister, the Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein. With his usual acumen, he fixed upon Fersen, who was at his post early in 1790. Before the end of the year he was forced to admit that the cause of the French monarchy was hopeless so long as the king and queen of France were nothing but captives in their own capital, at the mercy of an irresponsible mob.
He had the leading role in the royal family's flight to Varennes. He found most of the requisite funds at the last moment. He ordered the construction of the famous carriage for six, in the name of the Baroness von Korff, and kept it at his own home on the Rue Matignon, so that all Paris might get accustomed to the sight of it. He was the coachman of the fiacre which drove the royal family from the Place du Carrousel to the Porte Saint-Martin, where the carriage awaited them. He accompanied them as far as Bondy, the first stage of their journey.
In August 1791, Fersen was sent to Vienna to induce the emperor Leopold to accede to a new coalition against revolutionary France, but he soon came to the conclusion that the Austrian court meant to do nothing at all. At his own request, therefore, he was transferred to Brussels, where he could be of more service to the queen of France. Before he left, he followed the imperial court to Prague for Leopold's coronation as king of Bohemia on 6 September. According to an account of the coronation published in Alexander von Kleist's Fantasien auf einer Reise nach Prag (1792), Fersen was present at a performance of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni given at the Estates Theatre on September 2. Kleist recorded that Fersen made a spectacle of himself trying to arrange romantic liaisons among the female audience members and noted how ostentatiously he displayed the French royalist white cockade.
In February 1792, at his own mortal peril, Fersen once more succeeded in reaching Paris in disguise and with counterfeit credentials as minister plenipotentiary to Portugal. On the 13th he arrived, and the same evening contrived to steal an interview with the queen in the Tuilleries Palace itself, unobserved. On the following day he was with the royal family from six o'clock in the evening till six o'clock the next morning, and convinced himself that a second flight was physically impossible. On the afternoon of the 21st he succeeded in paying a third visit to the Tuileries, stayed there until midnight and succeeded, with great difficulty, in reaching Brussels on the 27th. This perilous expedition, a monumental instance of courage and loyalty, had no substantial result. There followed some years of relative inactivity after Gustav III's assassination in 1792 and the execution of the French King and Queen in 1793. In 1797 Fersen was sent to the Second Congress of Rastatt as the Swedish delegate, but in consequence of a protest from the French government, was not permitted to take part in it.
During this congress it is told that Napoléon simply called him Monsieur, neglecting the fact that he was an appointed ambassador, a count, and one of the Lords of the Realm of Sweden (en av Rikets Herrar). Napoléon declared that he would never discuss anything with a person who had had an affair with the widow Capet (Marie Antoinette). Fersen thereupon served the following two years as Sweden's envoy to the court of Baden.
During the regency of the Duke Charles of Södermanland (1792–1796) Fersen, like other prominent Gustavians, or loyal supporters of the late Gustav III, was in disgrace. When Gustav IV Adolf attained his majority in 1796, Fersen was welcomed back to court. In 1799 he was made chancellor of Uppsala University to suppress radical student unrest and in 1801 was appointed Riksmarskalk, or Marshal of the Realm. On the outbreak of the war of the Third Coalition with Napoleon in 1805, Fersen accompanied Gustav IV Adolf to Germany as his political advisor. He prevented Gustav Adolf from attacking Prussia when it declined to join the war against France. During the rest of Gustav IV Adolf's reign Fersen was therefore in semi-disgrace, though he continued to serve in Sweden's interim governments when the king was abroad.
Death of Prince Carl August
Fersen stood aloof from the revolution of 1809 that deposed Gustav IV Adolf. His sympathies lay with Prince Gustav of Vasa, son of the deposed monarch, and he was believed to desire the prince's legitimate succession to the throne. The Riksdag, or parliament, however elected as successor the highly popular Danish prince Carl August of Augustenburg. When the new crown prince suddenly died in Skåne in May 1810, the rumor spread that he had been poisoned, and that Fersen and his sister, the countess Sophie Piper, were accessories. The source of these accusations has never been discovered. But it was eagerly taken up by the anti-Gustavian press, and popular suspicion was especially aroused by a fable called 'The Foxes' directed against the Fersens, which appeared in the radical newspaper Nya Posten.
When on 20 June 1810, the prince's body was conveyed to Stockholm, Fersen, as Marshal of the Realm, received it at the barrier and led the funeral cortege into the city. His fine carriage and splendid dress seemed to spectators an open derision of the general grief. The crowd began to murmur and presently to throw stones and cry "murderer!" He was forced to seek refuge in a house near the Riddarhus Square, but the mob rushed after him, brutally maltreated him, tearing his clothes to pieces. At this time the Royal Life Guards standing in formation on the square attempted to protect Fersen, but the commanding officer gave the order "För fot gevär!" (English: Attention! Rifles by the foot).
To quiet the people and save the unhappy victim, two officers volunteered to conduct him to the court house and there place him under arrest. But he had no sooner been taken there than the crowd, which had followed him all the way beating him with sticks and umbrellas, broke in, dragged him out, and kicked and trampled him to death. The riot, which lasted more than an hour, happened in the presence of numerous troops, who were forbidden to rescue the Marshal of the Realm from his tormentors. Later that evening the troops fired on the rioters, killing and wounding several of them.
Fersen's contemporary, Baron Gustaf Armfelt, stated "One is almost tempted to say that the government wanted to give the people a victim to play with, just as when one throws something to an irritated wild beast to distract its attention. The more I consider it all, the more I am certain that the mob had the least to do with it. . . . But in God's name what were the troops about? How could such a thing happen in broad daylight during a procession, when troops and a military escort were actually present?"
Axel von Fersen died that day in Stockholm as formally Sweden’s highest-ranking official next to the King. His death sent shockwaves throughout the country. The cause of death was determined to be "crushing of the ribcage" when the sailor Otto Johan Tandefelt jumped with both feet on Fersen's chest.
A few months after the murder Axel von Fersen and his family were cleared of any suspicion connected with the death of Carl August of Augustenburg, and he finally received a state burial with all pomp and ceremony. His sister Sophie Piper thereafter withdrew from Stockholm to her Löfstad manor, near Norrköping. Here she raised a memorial to her brother, with the inscription:
Åt en oförgätlig broder, mannamodet uti hans sista stunder den 20 juni 1810 vittna om hans dygder och sinnes lugn (English: To an unforgettable brother, the courage in his last moments on the 20th of June 1810, bears testimony to his virtues and clean conscience)
Portrayal in popular culture
- In 1938, von Fersen was portrayed by Tyrone Power in the film Marie Antoinette, opposite Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette.
- von Fersen is a major but at the same time a minor character in the 1973 shoujo manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda, as well as in the anime of the same name. Here, his affair with Marie Antoinette is a source of much of the drama of the period, and a driving cause behind the Queen's aloof behavior.
- In 2006, von Fersen was portrayed by Jamie Dornan in the film Marie Antoinette.
References & Further Reading
- Barton, H. A. Count Hans Axel von Fersen: Aristocrat in an Age of Revolution, ISBN 0-8057-5363-X
- Farr, Evelyn (1995). Marie-Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen : the untold love story. Allison & Busby. ISBN 0-7490-0370-7.
- von Fersen, Hans Axel (2005) . Diary and Correspondence of Count Axel Fersen, Grand-Marshal of Sweden Relating to the Court of France. Elibron Classics series. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1-4021-1239-4. http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/1402176309/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-link. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
- Loomis, Stanley. The Fatal Friendship ISBN 0-931933-33-1
- Hofberg, Herman; Frithiof Heurlin, Viktor Millqvist, Olof Rubenson (1906) (in Swedish). Svenskt biografiskt handlexikon (Swedish biographical hand dictionary) (2nd edn ed.). Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag. pp. I:334–335. http://runeberg.org/sbh/a0334.html. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
- David Grubin Productions, Inc. (2006-09-13). "Swede on the Side: Axel von Fersen". Famous Faces: Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. PBS. Archived from the original on 12 March 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080312040259/http://www.pbs.org/marieantoinette/faces/ferson.html. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
- Alma Söderhjelm (1945). Gustav III:s syskon (The siblings of Gustav III) Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag. p. 28-29. 23033 (Swedish)
- Kimball, Gertrude Selwyn (1900). Pictures of Rhode Island in the Past, 1642–1833. Providence, R.I.: Preston & Rounds. pp. 85–87. OCLC 11222151. http://books.google.com/books?id=y-BCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA85&lpg=PA85&dq=axel+von+fersen#PPA85,M1. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
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- "Fersen, Hans Axel, Count von". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.
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