Jun 202011
Axel von Fersen

Axel von Fersen by Carl von Breda, ca 1800. He is wearing his Swedish robes of state as well as the collar of the Royal Order of the Seraphim and of a Commander Grand Cross of the Order of the Sword.

The Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, who died on June 20, 1810, lived an extraordinary life. He took part in the American Revolutionary War – among other things he served as an interpreter between Washington and the French and he excelled at Yorktown – and he served as a diplomat as well as a leading Swedish statesman. Axel’s main claim to fame, however, is his intimate friendship with Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783.

Marie Antoinette by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783.

Whether or not this relationship was a friendly one or if the French Queen and von Fersen were indeed lovers has been hotly debated over the years, and the truth will likely never be known. Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette from 2006 takes the romantic view of the two and depicts von Fersen as the love of Marie Antoinette’s life – which he may well have been as far as anyone knows. There just isn’t anything solid to support the idea, beyond the two of them being on friendly terms and expressing a mutual admiration. He called her “the most beautiful and amiable princess” and in a letter to his sister Sophie Piper he wrote “She is an angel of goodness, heroic in all her sensitivity. I have never been so loved.” Apparently Napoleon would later refuse to speak with him, saying that he would never discuss anything with a person who had had an affair with the widow Capet.

It was von Fersen who organized the ill-fated attempt to escape which ended at Varennes and he continued to try to save the royal couple long after all hope of an escape was essentially gone. After their execution, he eventually returned to Sweden and devoted himself to Swedish politics (and I’m sure, also comforting himself for the loss of his queen – he seems to have been something of a playboy).

As you know if you’ve read the post on the murder of Gustav III, Sweden was in a bit of a turmoil at the time as well. After Gustav III was shot, his brother Charles, Duke of Södermanland, became regent during the minority of young King Gustav Adolf. The young king came of age in 1796 and soon proved to be one of the more inept monarchs to grace the throne of Sweden (but following in the fine old royal tradition of slight mental instability). There are lots of more or less unsubstantiated stories of his eccentricities, but be that as it might – he managed to lose Finland (which had been a part of Sweden since times immemorial and is a rather sizeable thing to lose, about twice the size of California) and that led to him being deposed. This plunged Sweden into something of a crisis.

You see, next in line for the throne was the former regent Charles who had no legal issue. Since neither of his siblings did either (save the former King Gustav Adolf, of course), this meant that there was no one to inherit the throne after the 61 year old king. The Swedish Parliament solved the matter by electing the Danish Prince Charles August as Crown Prince, but it was all for naught because Charles August managed to die of apoplexy less than a year after the election, leaving Sweden once again without an heir to throne.

Now – you may ask – what the heck does this have to do with Count von Fersen? Well, von Fersen and his sister Sophie Piper were both considered to be of the Gustavian faction – that is, old favorites of Gustav III who were thought to secretly plot to reinstate his heirs on the throne. It didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating that Charles August had not died of natural causes at all but had been poisoned by the Gustavians.

At the time von Fersen was Marshal of the Realm which was essentially something like Master of Ceremony of the Swedish court. As such, it fell to him to head the funeral procession as it entered Stockholm. He was warned that feelings were running high against him and that maybe he should desist, but he wouldn’t listen.

On June 20, 1810 the procession entered Stockholm from the south. The carriage with the coffin was pulled by eight black horses and was plain and dusty, having traveled from the south of Sweden. In front of it, as protocol demanded, rode the Marshal von Fersen in a gilded coach, with his long grey hair lose and dressed in a long black coat with the Royal Order of the Seraphim on his chest.

Right from the start, the crowd showed its disapproval for von Fersen. Stones were thrown at the coach and random shouts of “Murderer!” were heard. By the time the coach had reached the central parts of the city, things had detoriorated to the point where von Fersen had to take cover in a tavern. The abuse continued, however, and the officer in charge decided that they should relocate to the City Court which was situated nearby.

The place where von Fersen was killed – the yard outside what is now the Supreme Court of Sweden (photo by me). The house was built 1661-1673 and in 1810, it served as the City Court of Stockholm.

They never made it. Instead, the mob managed to get hold of von Fersen in the yard outside the courthouse and tore his clothes off, kicked him, stoned him and ended by jumping on him, crushing his chest and killing him in the most barbaric fashion. How this could happen, right in front of the Royal Life Guards who lined the square was widely debated at the time and it was suggested that von Fersen was sacrificed by the authorities to appease the people. It could also have been that it was feared that interfering might cause a full scale riot, or simply that the guards present were too afraid to intervene (though some of them tried and were told to stand down). It is a fact that the aftermath led to very few arrests being made.

A few months after the incident, von Fersen and his sister were cleared of all suspicions of murder as it was established by a court of law that the Crown Prince had died of a stroke and that there was no reason to suspect foul play.

Sophie erected a monument over her brother (which can be seen here) which read (in my clumsy translation):

For an unforgettable brother; the courage in his last moments on June 20, 1810 bears witness of his virtue and serenity.

Some people claim he haunts the place of his death, which is now the site of Sweden’s Supreme Court. I hope not. Not only because a courthouse seems such a dreary place to haunt, but because if he must insist on haunting any place at all, the soppy side of me hopes it’s Paris, or possibly Versailles – somewhere where he was happy, and where he might possibly team up with his adored queen again. It’s as close to a Happily Ever After as poor stomped-to-death Axel can reasonably be hoped to get.

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