Project Description

Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen

Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, in 1755 – the daughter of the Emperor Francis and of warrior-queen, Maria Theresa. At fourteen she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne, at fifteen married and joined the Dauphin in French territory where King Louis XV. was nearing his end. The young heir – Louis XVI, was little more fitted to be a king than was his wife to be a queen. Dull of perception and indifferent to affairs of state, he had only two interests that absorbed him. One was the love of hunting, and the other was his desire to shut himself up in a sort of blacksmith shop, where he could hammer away at the anvil, blow the bellows, and manufacture small trifles of mechanical inventions. The moment came when Louis XV, the Well Beloved died. This was a critical moment in the history of France. Marie Antoinette was now queen. She had it in her power to restore to the French court its old-time grandeur, and, so far as the queen was concerned, its purity. The indifference of the king undoubtedly played a strange part in Marie’s life. Had the king borne himself as her lord and master she might have respected him. Had he shown her the affection of a husband she might have loved him. But he was neither imposing, nor, on the other hand, was he alluring. It was at about this time when there came to the French court a young Swede count named Axel von Fersen. Romantic in spirit, he threw himself at once into a silent inner worship of Marie Antoinette, who had for him a singular attraction. Their first acquaintance had occurred in such a way as to give to it a touch of intimacy. He had gone to a masked ball, and there had chosen for his partner a lady whose face was quite concealed. Something drew the two together. The gaiety of the woman and the chivalry of the man blended most harmoniously. It was only afterward that he discovered that his chance partner was the first lady in France. She kept his memory in her mind; for some time later, when he was at a royal drawing room and she heard his voice, she exclaimed: “Ah, an old acquaintance!” From this time, Fersen was among those who were most intimately favored by the queen. Wherever he could meet her, they met. Though less than twenty years of age, he maintained the reserve of a great gentleman. He had the privilege of attending her private receptions at the palace of the Trianon – the revolution had not yet arrived and the great and noble still danced upon the brink of a volcano. Those about the court immediately began to look at Fersen with significant smiles. The queen would gladly have kept him near her; but Fersen cared even more for her good name than for his love of her. He took great pains to shield the reputation of the queen – he left France to serve in America and returned after three whole years. The dangers threatening Louis XVI. and his court were now gigantic and appalling. By Marie’s side, Fersen did what he could to check the revolution; and, even organized an unsuccessful escape of the royal family to Verennes. Against the savage fury which soon animated the French a foreigner like Fersen could do very little; but he endeavored, night and day, to serve the woman whom he loved. One finds a curious resemblance between the fate of Marie Antoinette and that of her gallant lover, who outlived her for nearly twenty years. She died amid the shrieks and execrations of a maddened populace in Paris; he was practically torn in pieces by a mob in the streets of Stockholm. The day of his death was the anniversary of the flight to Varennes. To the last moment of his existence he remained faithful to the memory of the royal woman who had given herself so utterly to him.