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HistoryCourt characters

Axel de Fersen

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The intimate friend of queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1810)

The Swedish count Axel de Fersen is celebrated for the special friendship he cultivated with queen Marie-Antoinette. He also played an eminent political role by distinguishing himself on the battlefield during the American War of Independence and, above all, as an ardent defender of the royal family during the Revolution.

Count Axel de Fersen met Marie-Antoinette for the first time at a masked ball at the Opera in 1774. He made a strong impression on the queen at the time and she exclaimed “He’s an old acquaintance” when she met him again at the French court four years later. After moving to Versailles, in 1779 he joined the circle of intimate friends of the queen and gained her backing. He thus obtained the post of colonel of a German infantry troop sent to fight with the rebels in the American War of Independence in 1780. After his return from America and thanks to the intercession of the queen and of Gustavus III, king of Sweden, he was appointed colonel of the Royal Swedish regiment in 1783. He divided his time between the court and his regiment.

The nature of the relationship between the Swedish count and the queen has been much commented on. Historically, their liaison is not certified and this mystery nourishes the legend. Nevertheless, their secret correspondence clearly shows their feelings for each other, as does that between Fersen and his own circle. Fersen wrote to his sister, Sophie Piper: “I’ve taken the decision never to marry. It would be against nature… I cannot belong to the one person whom I would truly wish to be mine… So I do not wish to belong to anybody.”

When the Revolutionary upheaval began, the queen’s friends disappeared and only Fersen, her faithful adviser, stayed on. He organised the flight of the royal family to Varenne in 1791 and tried in every way to save them by making diplomatic overtures to foreign rulers. The death of Marie-Antoinette, guillotined in 1793, deeply affected him: “I have now lost everything that I had in the world. (…) She whom I loved so much, for whom I would have given my life a thousand times, no longer exists.” He died in Sweden in 1810.