Wednesday 4 September 2013

From Versailles to the Lynchmob: Hans Axel von Fersen

Hans Axel von Fersen (Stockholm, Sweden, 4th September 1755 – Stockholm, Sweden, 20th June 1810)

Hans Axel von Fersen by Noël Hallé
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.

Axel von Fersen by Noël Hallé
Hans Axel von Fersen by Noël Hallé
Fersen travelled with General Rochambeau to America, where he served as interpreter at meetings between the General and Washington. Here he proved himself to be a brave and decisive soldier,  hailed for his distinguished service at the 1781 Siege of Yorktown.

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.

Axel von Fersen by Peter Adolf Hall, 1783
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.

Hans Axel von Fersen

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
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
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.

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Geoffrey West said...

What a fascinating piece Madame, I've always been interested in him since I read a biog of Marie Antionette. How sad he died that way, thanks as always for such an interesting, fact-filled piece

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, sir! He is a particular favourite of mine yet so many people don't seem to know him at all, this is my small contribution to setting that right!

Juliet Grey said...

Do you believe that he and Marie Antoinette were lovers? In my research for my historical fiction trilogy on Marie Antoinette, I found enough motive and opportunity, in addition to analyzing other variables, including their respective personalities and emotional situations, to bring them together with no violation to the historical record. Did they or didn't they remains a controversial subject, and many people want to view MA as an unremitting saint. I see her as an all too-vulnerable human being. Would be interested to hear your opinion.

Axel said...

Madame G,

Thank you so much for calling my attention to this post. I hadn't thought about Axel von Fersen's birthday - this time of year brings to mind another tragic day in the life of Marie Antoinette - Sept. 3 - the date of the murder of her close friend, the Princesse de Lamballe in 1792.

The story you have written of Axel von Fersen is well done. The relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen is so interesting beginning with their meeting at a masked ball in Paris when she was still Dauphine, both of them just 18 years old in 1774.

One wonders of their fates 17 years later on the fateful day and night in June 1791 and the flight to Varennes. What if King Louis had not told Fersen to depart their party and thus dismissed the only experienced military man and the key planner of the journey from the party long before the real troubles began.

Could the presence of Axel von Fersen at Varennes made a difference to enable the royal family to successfully escape France?

Catherine Curzon said...

In all honesty, I think they very likely were. You're absolutely right that Marie Antoinette is sometimes elevated to a somewhat saintly position as opposed to flesh and blood and subject to the same frailties as all of us.

Fersen is a favourite of mine and I've done a fair bit of research into him, as you can imagine, and in my opinion (though I stress, it's only an opinion), I believe their friendship did become something more.

Catherine Curzon said...

Welcome to the Guide, Axel, lovely to see you and thank you for your kind words!

I don't know if his presence would have made a difference and will have to think about that one - what do you think?

Axel said...

I think Fersen could have made the difference.

He might have injected more discipline to keep to the schedule. He might have taken action to reconnoiter with Boulee's troups. Fersen not only had the energy and military experience Louis lacked, but he also had much more knowledge of the country and of the escape plans which he had worked out for the royal couple.

So it is quite amazing that Louis XVI could dismiss from his service a man with such knowledge and experience at what would become the critical time in their journey. It really leads one to question what was Louis thinking at that moment.

I like to think that Axel von Fersen would have made a difference to allow Marie Antoinette to escape to freedom just as I like to think that he and the Queen shared a fulfilled love in the time they had together.

Catherine Curzon said...

You make a *very* good point about his discipline and experience; Louis does seem to have made poor decision after poor decision regarding the escape plans.

Lohengrin said...

I think they were an insteresting characters. There was a Love Story between Antoinette and Fersen, but in my opinion it's not importat to kwow if they were human lovers. Anyway I am studying now about their relationship... thank you.

Catherine Curzon said...

A pleasure, thank you for visiting!

Anna Belfrage said...

Umm...Gustav IV Adolf was replaced by his Uncle, Karl XIII, who had no heirs, so he chose to adopt Karl August as his heir. The Danish prince was Crown Prince for a sum total of five months, and had little or no say in Swedish government, and there were more than Fersen advocating the rights of Prince Gustav. In fact, at the time Sweden was in political turmoil as the two main parties, Hattar and Mössor (Hats and Caps) went at each other - all of this culminated on that day in June when von Fersen was more or less torn apart by the mob. The Life Guards had orders already prior to the tumult not to intervene or load their guns - Karl XIII worried that one of the soldiers might by mistake kill a spectator.

Karl XIII has by some been implicated in the murder of his brother Gustav III. As a king, he was something of a disaster, allowing others to rule in his name. After Karl August died, he adopted a certain Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, French marshal from Pau...
As to Axel and Marie Antoinette, he was something of a serial seducer prior to meeting her (among his conquests Karl XIIIs wife - may that have caused the bad blood between them?) After 1791, he was markedly restrained when it came to women. Were they lovers? Not 100% sure. Were they in love? Yes, I think so.

Catherine Curzon said...

That's an edit I made a year or more ago (I think after a notification from you!) and I've been caught out by restoring the site from a backup since. Now amended again!

marianne said...

although ..whether marie Antoinette and alex fersen were lovers does not appear to be known for a fact....their relationship, whether it was consummated or not must have been exceptionally surely do not go to such extreme lengths and put your own life in such danger as he did.....if "your friendship" was of little consequence....and I have never heard his name that closely linked with the kings,,,?

Catherine Curzon said...

Close friends indeed!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Since she was pretty much a martyr, though not canonised, among other things for the opposition to the new liturgy of Constitutional Clergy, I can see some motive for seeing her as a saint.

Elena Maria Vidal has made the point she was happily married to Louis XVI.

Catherine Curzon said...

Elena's blog is a treasury of Versailles, as is Juliet's work; thank you for visiting!

Dave said...

I am of what I’ve discovered about Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen..Elena, please contact me if you’re keen to know more.. I recently had a genetic DNA and I was shocked..
My personal email is:
With much appreciation..