A strategic political move brought the young Antoinette and Louis XVI together in matrimony at the age of 14 years. The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, Antoinette’s mother, was desperate to secure her beleaguered county’s borders at any cost and married her children off to any of the royal families of Europe who would be able to aid Austria in its war with Prussia. Antoinette and Louis still in their teens became rulers of France after the passing of Louis XV in 1774. They were no way ready and knew it.
Obstruction, provincial jurisdictions and international intrigue were to plague them as France descended into a morass of financial mismanagement. France never thought of Antoinette as one of their own but always a foreigner and used her as an escape goat, slandering her as vain, extravagant, frivolous and promiscuous with her legion of lovers. But the truth was, Marie Antoinette only had one extramarital affair and he was the love of her life, Count Axel Ferson.
Ferson first met Antoinette, still a newlywed to Louis, at a costume ball. He was touring the continent to complete his education and wrote in his diary, ‘The dauphine is the most charming princess I have ever seen.’ This expression of sentiment would set the scene and change their life paths forever. Three years had passed before he saw her again due to his travels but on his return to France he devoted all his attention on the now young queen and thus talk began.
Louis turned a blind eye to the affair due to his own short comings as a husband, however, the scandal spread by wagging tongues threatening to engulf Antoinette. Person became aware of this and removed himself from the scene for 5 years, relinquishing his beloved in order to protect her. He left a broken man and wrote to his sister…
‘I cannot belong to the woman to whom I should belong,
so I will not belong to anyone.’
Caught up in the French Revolution Antoinette was to pay with her heart and her life. Ferson returned from his exile to be by her side and protect her once more but all was too late as she and her family were virtual prisoners to the ancient royal palace, the Tuileries, in Paris. He refused to give up his beloved and intervened and masterminded their escape to Montmedy, in France’s east, where troops were still loyal to the crown but they never got there for Louis was recognised, even in disguise, and they were hustled back to the Tuileries. Ferson was banished to Brussels. Antoinette urged him to forget about her as it would only endanger his own life as they were constantly under surveillance day and night and bid him adieu.
Ferson never gave into her request, bombarding her with love letters written in invisible ink. He even persuaded foreign military authorities to issue a proclamation threatening Paris with fire and sword if Antoinette or her family were harmed. Revolutionaries were enraged by this action and stormed the Tuileries, massacring the Swiss guards and some royal entourage, and Antoinette, Louis and the children were taken to a dismal, ancient fortress called the Temple. They were separated from each other and Antoinette was confined in a damp narrow cell, yet somehow she managed to smuggle letters to Ferson, begging him to forget her for his own safety. Again, he refused, treasuring a curious ring she had given him as a token of her love which he wore on the third finger of his left hand for the rest of his life.
Ferson’s efforts however made matters worse for Antoinette. Louis, deposed from his throne, now known as ‘Citizen Capet’, an old family name, was sent to the guillotine 21st January, 1793 for treason. Antoinette followed him in October the same year, only 38 years old, no longer the fresh faced Austrian girl. Her hair now grey and she was pale and drawn but she faced the guillotine with an extraordinary grace and died like a queen.
Ferson was devastated when he received word of Antoinette’s death. His pain and agony was expressed in his letter to his sister.
‘She for who I lived, since I have never ceased to love her; she for whom I would have sacrificed everything; she whom I loved so dearly and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more. I do not know how to go on living. My dear, how I long to have died at her side, and for her … ‘
Ferson survived Antoinette 17 years and died like her, at the hands of a revolutionary mob in Stockholm. The ring was returned to his family as a reminder of the forbidden love but for Antoinette and Ferson, it was a devotion of their undying love for each other.