|Hans Axel von Fersen by Noël Hallé|
Well, we're taking a slight detour across Europe today and, after yesterday's adventures in France and Italy, it's time to return to Scandinavia. We Gilflurts have always been keen on a gentleman with an eye for the ladies, especially one with a bit of scandal in his history, so Count Axel von Fersen is very welcome to join us on Gin Lane!
Fersen was born to Countess Hedvig Catharina De la Gardie and Field Marshal Axel von Fersen the Elder. Raised in genteel luxury, the young man was schooled at home in preparation for a glittering career in the military. By the age of 18 he was at the French court and the striking and cultured Fersen made a deep impact on a certain Marie Antoinette, who found him utterly beguiling. With his military career in the ascendancy he accompanied Gustav III of Sweden through Europe, kept away from his circle at Versailles by the business of war.
|Hans Axel von Fersen by Noël Hallé|
When Fersen returned to France he resumed his friendship with Marie Antoinette and, as gossips at the time murmured, there was the distinct possibility that the two were far more than friends. They pointed to the intimacy between the couple and whispered about the paternity of Louis-Charles, born in 1785. Whilst no evidence exists beyond conjecture to support the rumours that swirled around the queen and her favourite, there can be little doubt that the pair were quite devoted to one another. Indeed, Fersen was a favourite among the ladies wherever he travelled; intelligent, handsome and cultured, he seemed to live a charmed life.
|Hans Axel von Fersen by Peter Adolf Hall, 1783|
Fersen remained fiercely loyal to Marie Antoinette and her family, remaining at court as the clouds of revolution gathered. With the worsening situation he began assisting with plans to get the family to safety, playing an important role in the ill-fated flight to Varennes. It was Fersen who commissioned the carriage that would carry the Marie Antoinette, Louis and their children and he even travelled with them on part of their unsuccessful journey to the border. One can only imagine the horror with which he must have greeted news of their capture and from that moment, there would be no more hope of escape for the doomed family.
With the situation in France growing ever more dire, Fersen was dispatched to Austria to entreat Emperor Leopold to join a coalition in support of the French monarchy. When Leopold proved himself disinterested in the idea, Fersen requested that he be released from the pointless mission and returned to France. At great danger to himself, he presented himself in Paris under an assumed identity and stole into the Tuileries, where he was able to spend an evening with the king and queen discussing counterrevolutionary plans. He made further secret visits but his audacity was to prove unrewarded, the royal family utterly trapped.
All diplomatic efforts exhausted, Fersen could do nothing to intervene as his friends went to their deaths, leaving the Count utterly bereft at the loss of those so previous to him. Returning to Sweden he established a political career but found his efforts on the continental stage hampered by the notoriety of his closeness to the French court. Napoléon flatly refused to deal with him, sounding the death knell for any wider political ambitions he might have had. His efforts frustrated, Fersen took a position as envoy to the court of Baden, a long way from flitting about the grounds of the Tuileries in disguise. His star fell further when Gustav III died and was replaced by a regent, Charles Philip, Duke of Södermanland. As a great friend and supporter to the late king, Fersen was sidelined until the reign of Gustav IV Adolf, at which point he returned to the Swedish court in triumph.
When revolution came to Sweden in 1809, Gustav IV Adolf was swept unceremoniously aside in favour of Charles XIII. Fersen distanced himself from the turmoil and voiced his support for Gustav IV Adolf's son, Prince Gustav of Vasa, believing him the only legitimate heir to the throne. His beliefs were to come back to haunt him when Carl August died suddenly and once again the gossip began, this time that the vengeful Fersen had played a part in poisoning the Dane.
|The Murder of Axel von Fersen by Alfred Bexelius, 1810|
Even as he found himself tainted with the rumours that he had conspired to commit murder, Fersen's official duties found him in the unenviable position of having to accompany Carl August's funeral cortege through Stockholm. An enormous crowd gathered to mourn the popular Crown Prince and as the cortege progressed, the spectators began to heckle and throw stones at Fersen's carriage. Fleeing the unrest he attempted to seek shelter in a private house but the mob attacked him, dragging him from his refuge.
The Royal Life Guards made a token effort to escort Fersen to the court house but the mob had grown too hostile to be stopped. Fersen was beaten to death as the Life Guards stood by, their commanding officer instructing his men to hold their fire. Later some suggested that Fersen was sacrificed to the mob by the new King, desperate to distract the crowd's ire at the death of the Crown Prince. Whatever the reason for the inaction of the troops at the scene, by the time they finally intervened in the riot, Fersen was dead.
|Monument to Axel von Fersen|
Eventually, Fersen was cleared on any involvement in the death of the Crown Prince and he was buried with full honours as a Marshal of the Realm. Today his name remains forever linked with that of Marie Antoinette, the beloved friend he was unable to save.
Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.
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