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Decoding Marie Antoinette’s Mystery Love Letters To A Swedish Baron

French scientists have developed a new technology to read the long hidden portions of the French queen's correspondence with Swedish royal Axel von Fersen, long rumored to be her lover.

Marie Antoinette With A Rose
Marie Antoinette With A Rose
Vahe Ter Minassian

PARIS — It's June 29, 1791, and revolutionary winds are blowing across France. Once the Ancien Régime falls, it will be just one year until the French Republic is born. At the Tuileries, Louis XVI and his family are anxiously awaiting news of their fate after the tragi-comic episode of their escape to Varennes, a village in the Lorraine region where the king, disguised as a bourgeois, was stopped and forcefully returned to the capital.

A chilly reception in Paris, on the evening of June 24, did not bode well: The king returned to a crowd of silent, gloomy eyes, between two rows of soldiers whose rifles were upturned, as is customary at funerals.

As violence mounts in the city, Marie Antoinette sends a message to her most trusted friend: Count Axel von Fersen, a Swedish nobleman whose head was put up for reward after he helped the royal family flee under the nose of La Fayette's watchful national guards.

"I may say to you that I love you," she would soon write to him.

Discovered in 1907 in a coded letter, these few furtively scrawled words have been the subject of much discussion over the years. Do they confirm that the iconic queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was involved in a romantic relationship with a foreigner, and what's more, an open opponent of the Revolution? And if so, what sort of romance? A platonic love, or one physically consummated, as emperor Napoleon Bonaparte affirmed years later in vulgar terms?

A full 220 years after Marie Antoinette was killed via the guillotine, forever hushing up her secrets, technology may be providing historians a way to uncover the royal mystery.

New techniques

A team from the Center of Research for the Conservation of Collections (or CRCC) and the University of Cergy-Pontoise have used innovative image processing techniques to analyze the censored sections of correspondence between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen as part of a project financed by France's Foundation for Cultural Heritage Sciences, with the support of the National Archives. Post-doctoral student Florian Kergoulay and his colleagues say they've succeeded where many others had failed, managing to read the text hidden beneath the dark marks of an anonymous censor, who at an unknown time blackened sections of text, probably hoping to preserve the queen's honor after her death.

The Fersen affair remains one of the Revolution's great mysteries. Up until 1877, few suspected this Swedish nobleman of playing a role in the history of France. But that year, his grand-nephew, Baron Rudolf Maurits von Klinckowström, made some of Fersen's correspondence with Marie Antoinette public for the first time. In all, there were about 60 letters, and upon reading them historians began to re-assess Fersen's importance.

In addition to organizing the royals' escape to Varennes, Fersen was among the queen's official representatives in European courts between June 1791 and August 1792, when, with the royal family held under surveillance at the Tuileries, the French legislature declared war on Austria.

Mixed up in the queen's diplomatic maneuvering, this bold man, a fervent monarchist but mediocre politician, pulled off quite a stunt on Feb. 13, 1792, when he managed to meet secretly with the king and queen, who were well-guarded at the Tuileries. He also spent the night at the palace, which subsequently fueled the imaginations of countless historians. The following year, after Louis XVI's execution, Fersen was among those who tried to help Marie Antoinette and her family escape from the temple where they were held.

Despite these indications of a close relationship, it seemed impossible for a long time to understand the extent of the ties between Marie Antoinette and Fersen. Some of the surviving correspondence between them wasn't included in the selection published in 1877, and the missives of a compromising political nature were written in invisible ink or in code.

Early historians were obliged to rely exclusively on those letters not written in code that were discovered among Fersen's papers. Only in 1931 did a certain Yves Gylden, in an obscure criminology journal, reveal the table needed to decode the other letters. And only in 2008 did two mathematicians from the University of Cergy-Pontoise and the University of Versailles, Valérie Nachef and Jacques Pattarin, apply the code-cracking method to the documents and begin making comparisons.

The queen declares her love

This work uncovered a heretofore unseen letter in which the queen declared her love for Fersen. It also emerged that the queen relied on a very effective coding technique for the time. Inspired by the Porta and Vigenère encryption methods developed 200 years before and commonly employed throughout European courts, it was a so-called "polyalphabetic" code, combing a fixed coding table with a varying keyword. It was only "broken" at the end of the 19th century.

In the letters published in 1877, ellipses filled in numerous missing passages. Often positioned at the beginning and end of missives, these "gaps' — which correspond to sections of the censored text, crossed out with scribble marks — have long frustrated historians. They appear, after all, to deal with the private segments of the correspondence: those of an amorous nature, as proven by other sources, particularly Fersen's notebook and what remains of his diary. Who was behind all the crossing out? Was it Fersen himself? Or one of his descendants, revealing a grotesque prudishness?

Facing pressure from all sides, old Baron Klinckowström refused to comment, saying he would take the secret to his grave. And, to discourage the curious once and for all, the baron claimed to have asked one of his friends to collect the censored letters from the drawer where he kept them locked, and burn them in front of him, in a stove across from his bed.

In this day and age, such a fuss over a mundane sex story seems ridiculous. But in French history, Marie Antoinette isn't just anyone. She was known to revolutionaries as the Petit Trianon's tart, an adulteress with Sapphic or even incestuous tendencies, who was also spendthrift, scheming and treacherous to boot. But to royalists, Marie Antoinette was a kind of iconic martyr, faithful to the king and the monarchy, and so plainly virtuous. Over the centuries, the ardent feelings of two opposing factions, various dubious testimonies, and the enormously powerful movie business have distorted the queen's image.

"To discover the hidden text beneath the scribbles would allow us to confirm and clarify in greater detail the very strong feelings of the queen for this Swedish nobleman, even if it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to know, upon reading these declarations of love, whether the relationship was or was not platonic," says 18th-century historian Evelyne Lever, the author of numerous works, including Marie Antoinette: Correspondance (1770-1793).

Historians are astonished

Contrary to Baron Klinckowström's assertions, the letters with censored sections were never destroyed. Ultimately auctioned by Fersen's descendants, some of them — 13 of which were still in Stockholm — were purchased in 1982 by France's National Archives, where they remain.

Over the course of a century, historians who were only allowed intermittent access to the private documents held by the Fersen family, and who otherwise relied entirely on the 1877 volume and a selection of photographs for reference, were understandably astonished to discover 51 censored letters and 13 censored cards that were believed to be long gone. All told, these papers contain 88 hidden lines of text on 18 pages. What do they say?

Many have tried to figure it out, relying on the most varied methods, from photographic techniques used by the Forensic Information Services, to computerized systems. It appears that the most recent attempt — which conservation expert Isabelle Aristide notes was prompted by requests from the National Archives — was finally successful.

"At the end of this operation, the Archives wanted to give historians access to a new publication of these original documents," Aristide says.

The CRCC researchers tested various methods before proceeding.

"The greatest difficulty lay in the fact that both the original text and the scribbles on top of it were done by quill pen with black ink," explains Christine Andraud, who worked with Anne Michelin to supervise Florian Kergoulay's work.

To distinguish between the two superimposed types of writing, the team bet on the artisanal nature of the metallic-gallic inks used until the end of the 19th century. Made of a watery mix of iron sulfate or copper, and vegetable tannins extracted from oak apple and gum arabic, these pigments had variable compositions depending on the time and place where they were made. If, the scientists reasoned, the ink from the scribbles was of a different origin than that of the text they covered, then it should be possible to distinguish between them, focusing on the areas where they overlap to unlock the secrets of the correspondence. That's exactly what Kergoulay was able to do, after analyzing one of Marie Antoinette's cards in which the variation between the copper levels in the inks was significant.

The card in question was signed and dated Jan. 4, 1792, addressed to Count von Fersen, and the research team has already been able to read the crossed-out section of the message.

"I will finish but not without saying to you, my most dear and tender friend, that I love you madly and that never can I spend a moment without adoring you," it reads.

Over the next several months, the team expects to decipher other letters.

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