When, during my research for In the Shadow of the Empress, it became clear to me that Marie Antoinette had had an affair with Count Fersen, and that he was the father of her two youngest children, I had no idea that so obvious an observation could provoke such outrage. In my introduction to the book, I warned that the doomed queen of France was in danger of becoming mythologized—never have I been proven correct so quickly! While I understand how difficult it can be to accept new information about historical figures, particularly one as famous as Marie Antoinette, the arguments of those who continue to insist that the queen of France did not consummate her relationship with the Swedish count Axel Fersen are simply outweighed by the data. This will become obvious by detailing their objections to recognition of the existence of the affair.
Objection #1—The evidence in favor of adultery consists entirely of rumor, salacious gossip, and first-hand accounts by sources who can be easily dismissed as somehow biased or malicious. Consequently, the affair cannot be considered real history.
This is the deniers’ number one argument, and it is false. Evidence of consummation of the affair between Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen can be demonstrated by employing the scientific disciplines of biology and geography.
First, biology: Because we know that the birthday of Marie Antoinette’s second son (today known as Louis XVII) was March 27, 1785, we can work backwards to identify the period in June 1784 during which conception took place.
Next, geography: Primary source records demonstrate that Marie Antoinette spent the entire week during which conception took place at her private sanctuary, the Petit Trianon, preparing for and hosting a magnificent after-hours fête in honor of the King of Sweden, who was visiting France for the first time. The king’s entourage, also invited to the party, included Count Fersen, who was returning to Versailles after an absence of 10 months (during which time Marie Antoinette had no pregnancies), and who was known to be a frequent visitor at the Petit Trianon whenever he was in town.
More geography: Louis XVI, on the other hand, did not attend the party, nor did he visit the Petit Trianon during the week that conception took place. As Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, attested more than once in her memoir of the queen, Louis XVI maintained a strict routine. He went to sleep every night “precisely”—Madame Campan’s word—at 11 p.m., alone in his own bed in his quarters at the palace of Versailles. He arose at 6 a.m., had breakfast, went hunting or riding as the weather and the season permitted, returned for Mass and the midday meal, and then retired to his rooms for the rest of the afternoon to read government papers or work on clocks or carpentry. Dinner was served in his apartments at the palace at exactly 9 p.m. When he wished to have intimate relations with his wife, he visited her just before his official bedtime, engaged in sex, said good night, and then returned to his own rooms in time to be in his own bed, alone, at 11 p.m. This visit, too, would have been scheduled in advance, as the king “was very methodical, and nothing was allowed to interfere with his rules,” Madame Campan observed.
But Marie Antoinette was not at the palace of Versailles so that Louis could visit her; in fact, they were apart—she at the Petit Trianon, he at the palace of Versailles—for the entire week during which conception clearly took place. Count Fersen was, however, a guest at the Petit Trianon during this period.
Given this set of circumstances, it is difficult to see how any rational person can possibly believe that Louis XVI was the father of that child, or to continue to deny consummation of the affair.
Objection #2—Redacted letters exchanged by Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen that have recently been de-censored by French scientists using sophisticated X-ray technology and found to contain phrases such as “beloved,” and “adored,” and “madly,” are not evidence of an affair. Rather, this is just the way people addressed each other in the 18th century, the equivalent of “a kissy-face emoji.”
This is not only false, it is nonsense. Queens did not regularly use the language of love to single men who were not their husbands. That’s because they knew if they did so that they took the great risk of being charged with adultery and punished.
A highly relevant example of what could happen to a princess who did love a man so much that she was willing to take a risk of this sort is the case of Sophie Dorothea, wife of George I. George I was king of Great Britain in the early 18th century. The current U.K. royal family—Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince Harry—are all descended in an unbroken line from George I and Sophie Dorothea.
George I was born and raised in Germany; he was already a married man with two children when he inherited the crown after the death of Queen Anne. But when he came to London to claim his throne he brought his mistress and not his wife. This was because some years earlier, when she was only 26 years old (the same age Marie Antoinette was when she fell in love with Fersen), Sophie Dorothea had exchanged letters very similar in tone to those written by Marie Antoinette and Fersen with a dashing young count by the name of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Like Fersen, Königsmarck was also observed visiting Sophie Dorothea in her private quarters when he was in town. Except in his case, a group of armed guardsmen lay in wait for him, and when he emerged late one evening from Sophie Dorothea’s rooms, the dragoons killed Königsmarck and secretly disposed of the body. George I’s father then pretended that the count had left town. Königsmarck’s disappearance remained an unsolved mystery for years; it took historians over two centuries to piece together the crime.
But there was nothing mysterious about what happened to Sophie Dorothea. The guard searched her rooms and found the letters. George I then used these love notes to convict his wife of adultery. Sophie Dorothea was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a small château in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by guards. She was allowed no visitors; she never saw her children (who were aged 11 and 7 when she was arrested and would later grow up to become George II and the queen of Prussia respectively) again. She lived this way, confined and isolated, for the next thirty years until she finally died. As a result, Sophie Dorothea was written out of the history books so effectively that it is doubtful that any member of the current British royal family even knows this story.
But they knew it in Germany as well as in France in the 18th century because Liselotte, duchess of Orléans, was George’s I first cousin, and very close to the family. So the idea that a queen would take the risk of arrest, international censure, and permanent exile, all so that she could express casual affection to a friend or acquaintance, is absurd.
Objection #3—No academic historian has confirmed the existence of the affair. Therefore, it did not take place.
The fact that other historians and biographers have not recognized the affair does not mean it did not occur. Historians disagree with each other all the time. That’s just part of the academic process. Moreover, interpretations of history change as new information emerges. Already, attitudes are shifting as a result of the recently de-censored letters. “In this time [the 18th century] people used a lot of flowery language—but here, it’s really strong, really intimate language. We know with this text, there is a love relationship,” said Anne Michelin, a material analyst at the Sorbonne’s Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the new research on the letters published in the journal Science Advances. Additionally, it is not true that no other historian or biographer has acknowledged the existence of the affair. In fact, Evelyn Farr, the only historian to date to conduct a rigorous, in-depth examination of the primary sources detailing the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, concluded that consummation did take place.
Every historian brings his or her own perspective to the material. In my case, having examined every French court from Louis IX on (and most of the English, Imperial, and Italian courts as well) in my previous books, I have over three decades’ worth of experience in deciphering material and sifting through evidence. Just because I do not choose to write like an academic does not mean I don’t research like one. My scholarship is rooted in authoritative knowledge of numerous previous historical scandals that were far more difficult to penetrate, including but not limited to the mystery surrounding the 14th century assassination of Andrew, consort of Joanna I, queen of Sicily; the madness of Charles VI of France and the emergence of Joan of Arc at the court of his son, Charles VII; the conspiracy surrounding the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; the death in June 1670 of Henrietta, duchess of Orléans, under extremely suspicious circumstances—the list goes on and on. More to the point, I have encountered secret affairs in every book I have written. Fersen’s poignant letters to his sister, where he spills out first his heart and later his grief, his coded diary entries recording his movements, his recently uncovered censorship of their correspondence, the dangers he faced for Marie Antoinette’s sake, his increasingly frantic attempts to save her and the children, his refusal to marry—if this was not love, the emotion does not exist. The timing of Marie Antoinette’s later pregnancies, coincident with both the return of Fersen to court and the enrichment of the Polignacs and their set (“They know all her secrets,” observed the British ambassador); Louis XVI’s inability to confront his wife, so different from the behavior of any French monarch who came before—all of this is far too much and far too persuasive to be dismissed as mere hearsay.