Marie Antoinette’s secret love letters deciphered by revolutionary technology

Washington: Locked up under house arrest at the Palais des Tuileries on the right bank of the Seine, with the French Revolution raging around her, Marie Antoinette wrote in a secret letter that “I love you madly and I can never be a moment without you”.

However, the tender words, which for 230 years were unintelligible because they had been blotted out, were not for her husband, Louis XVI, but a Swedish count who was rumoured to be her lover. Now, new technology has allowed researchers to reveal the exact content of the communications, and also show that it was the recipient, Axel von Fersen, who censored the text.

The new x-ray technique has revealed hidden messages in Marie-Antoinette’s letters to her lover.Credit:Musée de Versailles

“Whether state secrets, escape plans, or evidence of a royal love affair, this presumably sensitive content has been puzzling historians for almost 150 years,” a report on the project in the US-based journal Science Advances said.

“He decided to keep his letters instead of destroying them but redacting some sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the honour of the queen (or maybe also his own interests),” the study said.

Researchers from the Sorbonne, in Paris, used a novel method of X-ray imaging that was able to differentiate between the compositions of ink used in the original text and the redactions.

In all they were able to reveal obscured passages from eight of the 15 letters studied, coming to the surprising conclusion that the censor of the letters was Von Fersen himself.

A letter dated January 4, 1792 by Marie-Antoinette, queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, to Swedish count Axel von Fersen, with a phrase (outlined in red) redacted by an unknown censor. The bottom half shows results from an X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy scan on the redacted words. The copper (Cu) section reveals the French words, “non pas sans vous” (“not without you”). Credit:AP

Not all of the passages have been revealed, but one, from November 2 1791, finished: “Farewell, I am getting tired of ciphering; this is not my usual occupation and I am always afraid of making mistakes.” Another said: “I will finish not without telling you my dear and loving friend that I love you madly and that I can never be a moment without adoring you.”

The French queen’s missives were composed during the revolutionary upheaval of the early 1790s, the last just over a year before her execution by guillotine in the French capital.

The letters received by Von Fersen, who never married, were kept by his family until 1982, when they were purchased by the French national archives.

The project was first brought to public attention last year, when the Archives said the hidden portions showed the pair expressing themselves “using the terminology of love”.

“The choice of vocabulary (beloved, tender friend, adore, madly) attests a particular relationship between Marie Antoinette and Fersen even if there is an influence of the revolutionary torment, which favours a certain emotional intensity,” the study said.

“In this time, people used a lot of flowery language – but here, it’s really strong, really intimate language,” added Anne Michelin, a material analyst at the Sorbonne’s Centre of Conservation Research and co-author of the research.

“We know with this text, there is a love relationship.”

The development of methodological tools to address this type of unredaction challenge is of great importance for historical and forensic sciences, the report says.

The Telegraph, London

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