Fersen, Hans Axel
FERSEN, HANS AXEL, Count von (1755-1810), Swedish statesman, was carefully educated at home, at the Carolinum at Brunswick and at Turin. In 1779 he entered the French military service (Royal-Bavière), accompanied General Rochambeau to America as his adjutant, distinguished himself during the war with England, notably at the siege of Yorktown, 1781, and in 1785 was promoted to be colonel propriétaire of the regiment Royal-Suédois. The young nobleman was, from the first, a prime favourite at the French court, owing, partly to the recollection of his father's devotion to France, but principally because of his own amiable and brilliant qualities. The queen, Marie Antoinette, was especially attracted by the grace and wit of le beau Fersen, who had inherited his full share of the striking handsomeness which was hereditary in the family.
It is possible that Fersen would have spent most of his life at Versailles, but for a hint from his own sovereign, then at Pisa, that he desired him to join his suite. He accompanied Gustavus III. in his Italian tour and returned home with him in 1784. When the war with Russia broke out, in 1788, Fersen accompanied his regiment to Finland, but in the autumn of the same year was sent to France, where the political horizon was already darkening. It was necessary for Gustavus to have an agent thoroughly in the confidence of the French royal family, and, at the same time, sufficiently able and audacious to help them in their desperate straits, especially as he had lost all confidence in his accredited minister, the baron de Stael. With his usual acumen, he fixed upon Fersen, who was at his post early in 1790. Before the end of the year he was forced to admit that the cause of the French monarchy was hopeless so long as the king and queen of France were nothing but captives in their own capital, at the mercy of an irresponsible mob. He took a leading part in the flight to Varennes. He found most of the requisite funds at the last moment. He ordered the construction of the famous carriage for six, in the name of the baroness von Korff, and kept it in his hotel grounds, rue Matignon, that all Paris might get accustomed to the sight of it. He was the coachman of the fiacre which drove the royal family from the Carrousel to the Porte Saint-Martin. He accompanied them to Bondy, the first stage of their journey.
In August 1791, Fersen was sent to Vienna to induce the emperor Leopold to accede to a new coalition against revolutionary France, but he soon came to the conclusion that the Austrian court meant to do nothing at all. At his own request, therefore, he was transferred to Brussels, where he could be of more service to the queen of France. In February 1792, at his own mortal peril, he once more succeeded in reaching Paris with counterfeit credentials as minister plenipotentiary to Portugal. On the 13th he arrived, and the same evening contrived to steal an interview with the queen unobserved. On the following day he was with the royal family from six o'clock in the evening till six o'clock the next morning, and convinced himself that a second flight was physically impossible. On the afternoon of the 21st he succeeded in paying a third visit to the Tuileries, stayed there till midnight and succeeded, with great difficulty, in regaining Brussels on the 27th. This perilous expedition, a monumental instance of courage and loyalty, had no substantial result. In 1797 Fersen was sent to the congress of Rastatt as the Swedish delegate, but in consequence of a protest from the French government, was not permitted to take part in it.
During the regency of the duke of Sudermania (1792-1796) Fersen, like all the other Gustavians, was in disgrace; but, on Gustavus IV. attaining his majority in 1796, he was welcomed back to court with open arms, and reinstated in all his offices and dignities. In 1801 he was appointed Riksmarskalk (= earl-marshal). On the outbreak of the war with Napoleon, Fersen accompanied Gustavus IV. to Germany to assist him in gaining fresh allies. He prevented Gustavus from invading Prussia in revenge for the refusal of the king of Prussia to declare war against France, and during the rest of the reign was in semi-disgrace, though generally a member of the government when the king was abroad.
Fersen stood quite aloof from the revolution of 1809. (See Sweden: History.) His sympathies were entirely with Prince Gustavus, son of the unfortunate Gustavus IV., and he was generally credited with the desire to see him king. When the newly elected successor to the throne, the highly popular prince Christian Augustus of Augustenburg, died suddenly in Skåne in May 1810, the report spread that he had been poisoned, and that Fersen and his sister, the countess Piper, were accessories. The source of this equally absurd and infamous libel has never been discovered. But it was eagerly taken up by the anti-Gustavian press, and popular suspicion was especially aroused by a fable called "The Foxes" directed against the Fersens, which appeared in Nya Posten. When, then, on the 20th of June 1810, the prince's body was conveyed to Stockholm, and Fersen, in his official capacity as Riksmarskalk, received it at the barrier and led the funeral cortège into the city, his fine carriage and his splendid robes seemed to the people an open derision of the general grief. The crowd began to murmur and presently to fling stones and cry "murderer!" He sought refuge in a house in the Riddarhus Square, but the mob rushed after him, brutally maltreated him and tore his robes to pieces. To quiet the people and save the unhappy victim, two officers volunteered to conduct him to the senate house and there place him in arrest. But he had no sooner mounted the steps leading to the entrance than the crowd, which had followed him all the way beating him with sticks and umbrellas, made a rush at him, knocked him down, and kicked and trampled him to death. This horrible outrage, which lasted more than an hour, happened, too, in the presence of numerous troops, drawn up in the Riddarhus Square, who made not the slightest effort to rescue the Riksmarskalk from his tormentors. In the circumstances, one must needs adopt the opinion of Fersen's contemporary, Baron Gustavus Armfelt, "One is almost tempted to say that the government wanted to give the people a victim to play with, just as when one throws something to an irritated wild beast to distract its attention. The more I consider it all, the more I am certain that the mob had the least to do with it.... But in God's name what were the troops about? How could such a thing happen in broad daylight during a procession, when troops and a military escort were actually present?" The responsibility certainly rests with the government of Charles XIII., which apparently intended to intimidate the Gustavians by the removal of one of their principal leaders. Armfelt escaped in time, so Fersen fell the victim.
See R.M. Klinckowström, Le Comte de Fersen et la cour de France (Paris, 1877; Eng. ed., London, 1902); Historia om Axel von Fersens mord (Stockholm, 1844); R.N. Bain, Gustavus III., vol. ii. (London, 1895); P. Gaulot, Un Ami de la reine (Paris, 1892); F.F. Flach, Grefve Hans Axel von Fersen (Stockholm, 1896); E. Tegner, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, vol. iii. (Stockholm, 1883-1887).
(R. N. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)