One of the bravest and most dashing of heroes, the very flesh and blood of 18th century adventures, died two centuries ago today. But Axel von Fersen, a high-born and well-educated Swede, was not only noble and courageous, especially with regard to his love for the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, but he was a decent diarist too, recording his own emotions as lightly as his feats of daring-do.
Axel Fersen was born in 1755 into a rich and powerful family - his father Frederik was a leading Swedish politician - and he was well educated. At 15, he went abroad on a tour lasting four years. During this period he attended the Brunswick Military Academy and the University of Turin, and while in Paris he met Marie Antoinette, only months before her husband Louis XVI became King and she Queen. He joined the French army and went to fight with the colonists in the US during the War of Independence, distinguishing himself at the Siege of Yorktown.
On returning to Paris as a diplomat, von Fersen’s friendship with Marie Antoinette flourished - though whether they were actual lovers is still hotly debated by historians. When the Revolution broke out, he tried - but failed - to organise for the King and Queen to escape. Later, he also served in Vienna and Brussels for a European coalition against the Revolution. After Marie Antoinette’s death, he returned to Sweden.
When Sweden’s King Gustav IV was overthrown in the 1809 revolution, von Fersen supported the king’s son rather than the populist Carl August. The latter died suddenly in 1810, and it was rumoured that von Fersen had conspired in the murder, and this led to an unruly mob seeking revenge and killing him - on 20 June 1810, two hundred years ago today. A few months after his death, though, he was cleared of any suspicion connected with the death of Carl August and received a ceremonial state burial. See Wikipedia for more biographical information.
For most of his life, starting when he was still in his teens, von Fersen kept diaries - though those from 1780 to early 1791 were destroyed. A first collection was first published in English as Diary and Correspondence of Count Axel Fersen Grand-Marshal of Sweden relating to the Court of France by Hardy, Pratt & Company, Boston, in 1902. This is freely available at Internet Archive. A review of the book, dating from the same year, is also available at The New York Times website. Here is the very first diary entry found in that book.
17 October 1771
‘I find here all sorts of extraordinary customs which divert me much. For instance, the town clock is always one hour in advance of the clocks of other countries. This difference, they tell me, goes back to a remote period when the inhabitants resolved to kill their chief magistrate, who, warned of the plot, foiled the conspirators by putting on the hands of the clock. It is not permissible to dance in Basle unless the master of the house plays the violin himself; and you can drive in a carriage only up to ten o’clock at night, without servants behind, and in a plain carriage of one colour only and no gilding. It is forbidden to have silk fringes in the carriage or on the harness when you drive to church, and the ladies must wear black, not gowns but dishabilles. Diamonds, pearls, laces, and pretty things of all kinds are forbidden. It is good taste not to go out before five o’clock; at that hour visits are made to family circles.
One of my acquaintances offered to take me to the Assemblee du Printemps; he presented me first to his sister and she introduced me to this assembly, which is entirely composed of young girls. What surprised me extremely was to see these young ladies arriving alone, or with a gentleman, and no maid or man-servant. They played cards and talked with foreigners or with the young men of the town who had the honour to be admitted. They go to walk in the promenades all alone.’
More recently, in 1971, G Bell & Sons, London published Rescue the Queen: A Diary of the French Revolution 1789-1793. Here are some extracts.
From the prologue:
‘The diaries in this book describe how Fersen made the only serious attempt to save the French royal family, and of its tense tragic failure; but they make light of Fersen’s personal courage and energy. The failure seemed to break him, although he sought in vain to rally help among the emigres and from Marie Antoinette’s own brother, the Emperor Joseph in Vienna.’
From the epilogue:
‘Even these diaries have had a romantic history. For almost a hundred years they lay forgotten among the family papers in a Swedish castle. Then in 1878 they appeared in French by Fersen’s great-nephew, Baron R M Klinkowstrom; but he deliberately omitted many of the more intimate details of Fersen’s relationship with the Queen, claiming that the passages had been deleted . . . Historians waited excitedly for the chance to examine the whole correspondence; only to be cruelly deceived. Klinkowstrom was a gentleman of the old school, and a woman’s love-letters are not for public reading; so before his death he burnt the most important ones. What you read in this book is taken from the edition of 1925 by Alma Söderhjelm, who published the complete diaries and letters . . .’
18 June 1791
‘Very nice weather. With her from 2:30 to 6pm. Opera Comique. Good letter form the Emperor. The British fleet is said to have left port.’
20 June 1791
‘Both said to me that they must leave at all costs. We arranged the hour of day etc. In the event of their arrest I was to go to Brussels and try to do something for them. On taking leave of me the King said: ‘M de Fersen, whatever may happen, I shall never forget all you have done for me.’ The Queen wept a great deal. At six I left her and then she went for her customary walk with the children without any special safety precautions. I went home to get ready . . .’
21 June 1791
‘Fine, everything went well. Some delay between Maretz and Le Cateau. The Commander of the militia asked for my name; I was afraid. Drove through Le Quesnoy and crossed the frontier near Saint-Vast.’
22 June 1791
‘Fine, very cold at night. Reached Mons at six o’clock. . . In the street I was asked by a monk whether the King was safe. Left there at eleven o’clock; flat country as far as Namur, then hilly. All are happy about the King’s rescue.’
23 June 1791
‘Fine but cold. Reached Arlon at eleven pm. There found Bouillé; learnt that the King had been caught. No details were known; the troops were unreliable. The King was lacking in firmness and presence of mind. Stayed there overnight.’
24 June 1791
‘Departed at 4:30 in the morning. Everybody greatly upset about the King’s arrest. Desperately depressed. The whole of Luxembourg in despair about the King’s capture. How everything has changed!’
3 February 1792
‘Letter from her, saying that my visit is impossible because of the new regulations which make personal passports compulsory; it would mean abandoning the idea. Things look bad for me and for politics . . . The matter concerning passports is designed to prevent any possible escape by the King; quite clever of them.’
6 February 1792
‘A letter from the Queen telling me that the King would not agree to the new passport regulations; Frenchmen also write to say that they have crossed the frontier without trouble. I therefore decided to go to Paris. Wrote to inform her.’
10 February 1792
‘Prepared everything for my journey.’
11 February 1792
‘Left at 9:30 without my servant and with Reutersvard in the courier’s coach. We carried couriers’ passports for Portugal issued in fictitious names as well as letters addressed to the Queen of Portugal and the Memorandum from the King (of Sweden) to the King of France. I had put everything together with a false code key into an envelope of the Swedish Embassy in Paris and had also forged the King’s signature; a further envelope was addressed to our chargé d’affairs Bergstedt and everything was sealed with the Swedish great seal manufactured here. For the sake of safety I also carried credentials appointing me Ambassador to the Queen of Portugal. At eight o’clock we reached Tournay where we stayed overnight.’
12 February 1792
‘Fine and mild. Left at 3:30 in the morning. Reutersvard visited the Commander M d’Aponcourt in the evening to obtain post horses; d’Aponcourt took him to be a Swedish courier and thought it would take fourteen days to reach Paris and that he would be stopped everywhere. . . Arrived in Gournay at 1:30 in the morning. I concealed myself as far as possible; wore a wig. Everywhere, especially in Péronne, people were very courteous, even the National Guardsmen.’
13 February 1792
‘. . . Reached Paris without any further incident at 5:30 in the evening . . . went to see her by the usual route, for fear of the National Guardsmen; she lives in magnificent surroundings; did not see the King. Stayed there.’
14 February 1792
‘Very fine and mild. Saw the King at six o’clock in the evening. He does not want to leave and because of the extremely strict guard he would be unable to do so; but the real reason is that he has scruples since he has promised so often to stay, because he is a man of honour. He has, however, agreed to go through the woods with the smugglers after the arrival of the Allied Armies, accompanied by a detachment of light troops.’
18 November 1793
‘The Queen always slept fully dressed in black because she expected to be killed or guillotined at any moment and she wanted to go to the scaffold dressed in mourning. . . I shall love the proud, unhappy princess as long as I live . . . Oh, how my life is changed - how small are the prospects for happiness - to think that once upon a time my life was among the most beautiful and enviable in the world.’