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Decrypting The Secret Letters of Marie Antoinette & Axel von Fersen


Many people have heard about the reputed love affair between Marie Antoinette and the Swedish Count, Axel von Fersen, but few realize that the pair maintained regular correspondence throughout the royal family's captivity in the Tuileries Palace. 

After the disastrous Flight to Varennes (an attempt by the royal family to escape their revolutionary captors and flee to the border of France), Marie Antoinette and her devoted friend continued to write to each other, working earnestly to concealing the subject of their correspondence.

Marie Antoinette wrote several letters to Fersen using invisible (white) ink.  Starting in June of 1791, the pair began to employ an elaborate, encrypted code.

Desperate to escape her oppressors and restore the Monarchy in France, Antoinette wrote to Fersen in hopes of learning which foreign leaders might aid her cause.  Cognizant of the danger Antoinette would be in if her secret political machinations and desires were discovered by revolutionary leaders, the pair used a polyalphabetic system that, at times, proved taxing for Marie Antoinette.   In a letter to Fersen dated November 2, 1791 (her birthday), she writes, "Farewell, I am getting tired of ciphering: this is not my usual occupation and I am always afraid of making mistakes."

AK AMAPVAF AZAPAX means "I Love You"

But not all of the letters exchanged between Marie Antoinette and Count Axel von Fersen were of a treasonous, political nature.  Some of the messages were more personal. 

In one of Antoinette's letters, dated June 28, 1791, we are offered a glimpse at the imprisoned queen's strength, as well as her touching concern for the safety of her dear friend.  For years, this letter remained only partially decrypted. Here is what the letter was believed to have said before experts were able to finish decrypting the letter:  "I am alive...Oh, how I anxious I have been for you, and how sorry I am about all you must have suffered in having no news from us.  May heaven grant that this letter reaches you.  Do not write to me, this would compromise all of us and above all do not return under any circumstances.  It is know that it was you who helped us to get away from here and all would be lost if you should show yourself.  We are guarded day and night.  I do not care...Do not be troubled on my account, nothing will happen to me.  The National Assembly will show leniency.  Farewell...I cannot write any more."

(Sadly, this letter also illustrates the royal family's denial about the gravity of their situtation.  At the time she put pen to paper, Antoinette genuinely believed they would be set free.  Within two years, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette would bare their necks to the National Razor.)

When cryptologists finished decrypting the above letter using a key found in Axel von Fersen's private papers, they found it said this:

"I am alive here my beloved, for the reason to adore you.  Oh, how I anxious I have been for you, and how sorry I am about all you must have suffered in having no news from us. May heaven grant that this letter reaches you. Do not write to me, this would compromise all of us and above all do not return under any circumstances. It is know that it was you who helped us to get away from here and all would be lost if you should show yourself. We are guarded day and night. I do not care.  You are not here.  Do not be troubled on my account, nothing will happen to me. The National Assembly will show leniency. Farewell the most loved of men.  Be quiet if you can.  Take care of yourself for myself.  I cannot write any more but nothing in the world could stop me from adoring you until death."


For more information about the encoded letters of Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, please reference the work of Jacques Patarin and Valerie Nachef. 

12 comments:

  1. I am always sad about this....thank you for sharing....otherwise it's lost to history. I adore you posts !
    xo,
    Paulette

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    1. Dear Paulette ~

      Thank you for your kind comment. I am so glad you enjoy my blog and this little known tidbit about Antoinette and Axel.

      Wish you all the best always!
      Moi

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    2. Thank you, this was wonderful. So many things to learn and so much is still lost.. but this is a heart felt letter and shows she was real and had feelings.

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    3. Thank you this it is a wonderful part of history that was lost and now found. She was a real person with feelings. Thank you.

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    4. I always hoped that this relationship had been there - Marie A. and Axel' letters confirm it in such heartwrenching words.
      Thank you for your part in this.

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  2. Oh my goodness, can this be any more romantic??? If they didn't have a physical relationship, they at least had an emotional one...They sure knew how to write letters back the, didn't they? Great, fascinating tidbits about MA and Axel! Thank you for posting :)

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  3. It is a fascinating study although many questions remain, as I wrote in a post on this same topic. http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2011/08/marie-antoinettes-secret-letters.html For instance, in 1907 a certain Monsieur Lucien Maury published in Revue Bleue what he claimed to be a fragment of a love letter of the queen to Fersen. Lever quotes it in Marie-Antoinette Correspondance (1770-1793), (Taillandier, 2005): “Tell me to whom I should send my letters to you, for I cannot live without that. Farewell most loved and most loving of men. I embrace you with all my heart." The letter had no signature, was not in the queen’s handwriting, only in the cipher she used, jotted down by Fersen in cipher, as Maury himself admitted. There is no proof it was from the queen but could have been from one of the many ladies with whom Fersen dallied over the years. And yet Lever includes this fragment among verified letters of the queen, giving the impression that it is evidence of a great love. Webster, however, dismissed it. What disturbs me is that Patarin and Nachef also include the same dubious letter in their study although they admit that Maury did not give any details about the decryption and that there is no corresponding cybertext in existence.

    I question the reliability of the claims of Patarin and Nachef that the hidden phrases they have discovered are sweet words from the Queen to the Count. For instance, the letter of June 18, 1791 is supposed to be a letter to Fersen with a request to send a letter to...Fersen? Its decryption reads thus:

    "Do not worry about us. It seems that the chiefs of the Assembly want to behave more softly. Talk to my parents about foreign approaches(6 encrypted letters). If they are afraid it is necessary to come to compromise with them. Burn all that is (10 encrypted letters) and send the remainder of the letter to M. von Fersen. He is with the king of Sweden."

    Therefore I take the "love letter" from Marie-Antoinette which Patarin and Nachef have "discovered" with a grain of salt. Even if the romantic words were absolutely proved to be genuinely penned by the Queen, it must be remembered that she also wrote loving words to both of her friends Madame de Lamballe (Chalon, p. 349) and Madame de Polignac, calling each of them "mon cher coeur" that is "my dear heart" and saying such things as "je vous embrasse très fort" which means "I kiss you hard." Such was her manner of expression with those of whom she was fond. It must also be kept in mind that Marie-Antoinette absolutely needed the help for the royal cause that only Fersen could give in the outside world; it should not be surprising if her words to him were especially tender, as we are given to believe from Patarin and Nachef's interpretation.

    Although Tomokiyo says that the work of Patarin and Nachef have proved that the hidden passages were romantic and not diplomatic, here is one of their decryptions from a letter of Marie-Antoinette to Fersen, dated July 8, 1791, which indeed appears to be about diplomacy:

    "There is no doubt that a foreign power could get into France, but the armed people would flee the borders and the troops from outside. Then they would make use of their weapons against their fellow citizens that they have been considering as enemies for two years. In our trip and especially since our return we have made every day the sad experiment to be considered as enemies. The king thinks that a full unlimited power as it composed even by dating it on June 20th, would be dangerous in its current state."

    I wish we could read and compare the many letters Marie-Antoinette wrote to Mercy and Count Esterhazy during the same period. So much has been lost. Thank you for creating the climate for discussion, Leah! Love your blog as always!! xxoo

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    1. And I love your blog! Thank you for this comment.

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  4. THank you for a wonderful blog post. I've always believed that while they may not have consummated the relationship, there was a true love affair between Marie Antoinette & Axel Fersen.

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    1. Thank you Elizabeth! I love your tweets and am so glad to hear from you.

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  5. The historians are divided on this matter but personally i think they did not share the bedchamber. Antoinette was basically as prudish as her mother . Her frivolous behaviour was restricted to her early marriage years when she was still a child and her friends and Artois saw to it nothing serious ever happened..

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