In a recent study employing a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, scientists discovered formerly redacted phrases on eight letters between Marie Antoinette and the Swedish count Axel Fersen, who was rumored to have been her lover. Further analysis revealed that the correspondence had been censored by Count Fersen himself. The altered words, which included “beloved,” “adore,” and “madly,” have now sparked something of a controversy: Are these recovered phrases additional evidence of an affair, or are they not?
The answer to this is a resounding yes. Just to set the record straight, no queen, Marie Antoinette included, used a word like “beloved” lightly to a man other than her husband. She could be punished for adultery, and even possibly executed, for doing so. That’s a pretty big risk to take if you don’t mean it, and it is why Fersen, who kept copies of these letters and feared they might fall into the wrong hands, edited those particular words.
It has long been suspected that Marie Antoinette was in love with the Swedish count. In 1779, her attraction to Fersen was so obvious that the Swedish ambassador noted that the queen could not disguise her feelings in public. The diplomat was thrilled when his countryman left to fight in the American Revolution and a scandal was avoided. But after Fersen returned in 1783, there is substantive evidence of intimacy. The documentation includes the exchange of secret letters, as well as Fersen’s diary, which is filled with entries detailing how much he loved someone named “Elle” (his code name for the queen), but how he couldn’t wed her because she was already married. But the most significant disclosures came from the head of the royal guard at Versailles, the Comte de Saint-Priest, who reported that, when Fersen was in town, he stayed over, often for days at a time, at Marie Antoinette’s private sanctuary, the Petit Trianon, and that the king was aware of the affair but the queen had somehow gotten around him.
Then there are Marie Antoinette’s pregnancies. Before the arrival of Fersen, it took her seven years to conceive her first child, a daughter. Nearly three years elapsed between the birth of this first girl and her next child, a son. This latter period corresponds to the years that Fersen was away fighting in America.
But within a month of his return, she went from having two pregnancies in ten years to having three pregnancies in three years. The first of these ended in miscarriage, but the other two yielded first a son and then another daughter, who died in infancy. The surviving boy bore a strong resemblance, not to Louis XVI, but to Fersen. This is the child who would die in the tower during the Revolution, who is today known as Louis XVII. (Those who deny the affair point to a 2019 study by a French geneticist, who claimed to have established a genetic connection between Louis XVI and this second son by testing a hair purported to have been preserved since 1792. This same scientist, obviously a busy guy, is also the author of a paper in which he asserted that he had isolated the DNA of Jesus from a tunic and reconstructed his appearance.)
There is additional evidence that the king and the queen did not spend a whole lot of time together and that Louis frequently ate and drank so much that he became almost comatose and his servants had to carry him to bed. It’s difficult to get someone pregnant when you are passed out all night alone in your bedroom.
As strong as this documentation is, until now it has always been rejected on the grounds that if all of this was true, Marie Antoinette would certainly have been caught and punished. But X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy is not the only technique to yield new evidence. Advancements in neurology have made it possible to determine that Louis XVI was born with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although highly intelligent, he was unable to look anyone in the eye, had great difficulty conversing, needed to keep to a rigorous schedule, and cried when upset. He also did not understand the mechanics of conception until his wife’s brother came for a visit and explained it to him. Louis did not seem to need sex. Marie Antoinette’s enemies threw women at him, but he ignored them.
Autism also explains how the king could know about the queen’s affair and not put a stop to it. Marie Antoinette was Louis’ emotional support. He needed her.
Marie Antoinette recognized this. She cared about Louis and did all she could to protect him during the Revolution. She would sacrifice her life in this effort. But it was Fersen she loved. The count had a series of mistresses, it’s true, but that was only because he couldn’t have her. He said as much in his diary. Fersen worked frantically until the day of her death to save her. When these two wrote “beloved” and “adored” to each other, they meant it.
The redacted letters were written between 1791 and 1792, near the end, when Marie Antoinette was a prisoner in Paris. They are simply more proof of an affair that should have been written into the history books long ago.
Nancy Goldstone is the author of In the Shadow of the Empress: The Defiant Lives of Maria Theresa, Mother of Marie Antoinette, and Her Daughters, as well as six previous books including Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots; The Rival Queens: Catherine de Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom; The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc; Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe; and The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. She has also co-authored six books with her husband, Lawrence Goldstone. She lives in Del Mar, California.