Sunday, January 10, 2016

Marie-Antoinette's Secret Letters

NOTE: In light of the ridiculous assertions in major periodicals about a "hidden stash" of Marie-Antoinette's letters being discovered, I am republishing this post about the nature of Marie-Antoinette's letters during the Revolution and the codes she used. There is no hidden stash, just the same old letters in the hands of people with lively imaginations.

A reader from Ireland sent me an article by S.Tomokiyo entitled "Ciphers of Marie-Antoinette and Fersen" which sheds light upon the royal family's desperate years of virtual imprisonment at the Tuileries palace between October 6, 1789 and August 19, 1792. Author Jean Chalon in his biography Chère Marie-Antoinette dubs the Queen la Sévigné des Tuileries after the famous Madame de Sévigné, known for her prodigious letter writing. In her determination to save the lives of her family, restore the royal authority, and preserve the throne for her son, Marie-Antoinette wrote hundreds of letters, not only to Count Fersen, the representative of the King of Sweden, but to her relatives and friends, to Comte Mercy the Austrian ambassador, to fellow monarchs such as the Queens of Spain and Portugal, and to moderate revolutionaries such as Barnave. (Chalon, p. 352) One must remember that from any careful study of her correspondence it appears that the Queen was balancing precipitously between opposing parties as she attempted to manipulate Fersen, Barnave, and Mercy into doing what she needed them to do.

Many of the letters were written in cipher, that is, in a secret code, which could be broken only by using certain key words. The complexity of the ciphers should destroy forever the myth that Marie-Antoinette was not intelligent; indeed, she must have had a very high I.Q. in order to adroitly master so many puzzles. Writing in code could be challenging. As Marie Antoinette wrote to the Comte de Provence: "At length I have succeeded in deciphering your letter, my dear Brother, but it was not without difficulty. There were so many mistakes [in the use of the cipher]. Still, it is not surprising, seeing that you are a beginner and that your letter was a long one...." (O. G. Heidenstam, ed. The Letters of Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Barnave, 1926, p.51, reprint at Google) Sometimes white or invisible ink was also used, about which the Queen complained, saying: "Little accustomed to writing in this manner, my writing will be indecipherable." (Marie-Antoinette to Mercy, 14 May 1791, Feuillet de Conches1, Vol.2, p.54)

The Queen burned most of the letters she received but many of those she sent to others have been preserved. The relatives of Axel von Fersen  saved some original manuscripts of the letters from the Queen to Fersen, although not always in her hand-writing but in Fersen's after he had decoded it. S. Tomokiyo quotes extensively from a 2009 paper by Jacques Patarin and Valérie Nachef based upon a study of the cipher used by Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen for French television. According to Tomokiyo:
Patarin and Nachef found in the French National Archives some encrypted letters with the keyword written on it. The manuscript letters were edited and published in 1877 by Baron von Klinckowström, a grandson of an elder sister of Fersen. The manuscript letters, long believed to have been destroyed, were auctioned by descendants of Baron von Klinckowström in 1982 and purchased by the French National Archives. Two exemplary manuscript sheets are reproduced in the paper of Patarin and Nachef.

The first one is from a letter dated 8 July 1791 from Marie-Antoinette to Fersen. The keyword courage is written below the ciphertext and deciphered plaintext is written above the ciphertext. This letter is printed in, e.g., Klinckowstrom p.147, according to which the deciphering is in the hand of Fersen. (In this manuscript, Fersen writes keyword letters below the ciphertext, contrary to the above example, in which we wrote keyword letters above the ciphertext.)

The second one is from a letter dated 10 October 1791 from Fersen to Marie-Antoinette. This shows the plaintext and keyword letters below it. Probably, this sheet was used by Fersen for enciphering. This letter is printed in, e.g., Klinckowstrom p.193, according to which this is a minute in the hand of Fersen. (The actual letter received by Marie-Antoinette was probably lost during the French Revolution.)
 The paper by Patarin and Nachef is focused totally on the correspondence of the Queen and Count Fersen. While some of their interpretations are questionable, they include pictures of the original manuscripts which make one realize the complexity of discerning the hidden meaning of the letters. In the words of the authors:
Most of the time, these letters show that Marie-Antoinette is trying to find alliances with foreign countries in order to restore the Monarchy in France. But some parts of her letters are devoted to expressing her love for the count. A French TV channel asked us to explain Marie-Antoinette's encryption algorithm. This led us to the study of some letters. There are very few letters written by the queen which are still available. Most of them were destroyed. Fersen kept the letters he received and deciphered, and also the letters he wrote himself to Marie-Antoinette. These archives were kept by his nephews and great-nephews. In 1877, Baron von Klinckowstrom published all the letters, but some parts were missing or crossed out. In 1982, some descendants of Baron von Klinckowstrom auctioned letters that were supposedly destroyed, and the French Historical Archives bought them. It is surprising to notice that on one hand, historians who published Marie-Antoinette's letters always chose the deciphered version published by Baron von Klinckowstrom....
 When the letters of the queen and Count Fersen were published by his great nephew Baron de Klinckostrom in the late nineteenth century, they proved the nature of the queen and Fersen’s relationship to be principally a diplomatic one. In certain of the letters, mainly those from the queen to Fersen, passages have been erased and are indicated by rows of dots in the printed text. The Coursacs, Webster, and Delorme believe that Fersen erased certain passages himself. The erasures of Fersen were most likely sensitive diplomatic issues, not declarations of love, as authors such as Evelyn Lever have claimed. They concealed allusions to the queen’s disagreements with her brothers-in-law Artois and Provence, or references to the Duc d’Orleans and other revolutionaries, or even mentions of spies or persons whose families would have been compromised had the letters fallen into the wrong hands.

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. 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.
The Tomokiyo article provides a great service by discussing the ciphers used by Marie-Antoinette when writing coded letters to other persons such as Comte de Mercy. To quote:
Marie-Antoinette's use of cipher was not limited to her correspondence with Fersen. Marie-Antoinette is also known to have written in cipher to her brother Leopold II (Arneth1).
Feuillet de Conches1 mentions a particular cipher arranged between Marie-Antoinette and Mercy (Vol.2, p.95). (When in Paris as Austrian minister, the Comte de Mercy had worked to strengthen the alliance between France and Austria, which materialized as the marriage of Marie-Antoinette into the France in 1770. He was instructed by Maria-Theresa to act as a mentor of the young princess. In 1792, he became governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands.)

On the other hand, Marie-Antoinette appears to have used the cipher with Fersen also in her correspondence with the Comte de Mercy....
Marie-Antoinette had relatives in many courts in Italy, including her elder sisters Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, and Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma.
Marie-Antoinette's cipher with them is recorded in Secret memoirs of the royal family of France, during the revolution, Vol. 2. The author is an English lady-in-waiting to Princess of Lamballe, a confidante of Marie-Antoinette.
The author says Marie-Antoinette carried on a very extensive correspondence with Edmund Burke through the medium of Princess of Lamballe and she frequently "deciphered" letters (presumably from Burke) (p.140).
Princess of Lamballe was sent to England by the Queen in 1791 to seek help to the French royal family. Twice during her residence in England, the author was sent by Marie-Antoinette with papers communicating the result of the secret mission to the Queen of Naples. On the second of these trips, after reaching the destination after travelling night and day, she was immediately compelled to decipher the papers with the Queen of Naples in the office of the secretary of state (p.140).
On 2 August 1792, when the situation was becoming critical, she left Paris with Marie-Antoinette's letters to the Queen of Naples, the Duchess of Parma, and other relatives in Italy. She was entrusted with the cipher and the key for the letters (p.304-326).
 Madame Elisabeth of France, the sister of Louis XVI, also used a cipher when communicating with her friend the Marquise de Raigecourt. It appears, however, that the princess did not make use of ciphers as often as Marie-Antoinette did, since some of Elisabeth's letters were later used against her at her trial.

While I may question some of the interpretations of the articles I have been quoting, I applaud the marvelous efforts of Tomokiyo and of Patarin and Nachef in giving us a glimpse into the extraordinary way in which people communicated sensitive information in the days before telephones and telegraphs (not to mention computers and cell phones). 

Please do consult Tomokiyo's impressive list of sources for further reading, most of which are online.

There is a lively, mostly French discussion about the encrypted letters of Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen at Le Boudoir de Marie-Antoinette, HERE. Share


Anna Gibson said...

Thank you for linking the paper in English, it will definitely be an interesting read! I question the more romantic interpretations as well, though I do hope in the future that more study is done on the coded letters from a more neutral standpoint, not from a POV that (to me, it seems) is wanting to prove/disprove the possibility of romantic affection between the queen and Fersen.

elena maria vidal said...

I could not agree more, Anna. Apparently there are huge portions of the Queen's correspondence missing and so people tend to fill in the gaps with romance. They forget that the first person on her mind was not Axel but Louis-Charles and regaining the throne for him. The interpretations given in the study are by no means authoritative or proven to be genuine beyond a shadow of a doubt.

May said...

Like you, Elena, I don't think MA and Fersen were lovers (at least not in the physical sense). I'm not sure, though, if it is quite fair to compare the Queen's affectionate phrases to relatives or female friends with her supposed tender words to Fersen. Writing in a loving way to other women or to family members, especially in that sentimental age, is nothing to raise eyebrows, of course. But, if the words are really hers, writing in the same style to an unrelated male courtier does seem a bit more, well, remarkable.

elena maria vidal said...

True, M., except that in M.A.'s case she has been (falsely) accused of lesbianism, especially with the ladies in question. My point is that she had an overall gushing and affectionate way of expressing herself to those of whom she was fond. There is no question that Patarin and Nachef's "I will love you to the death" is like something right out of a romance novel. I do think that the passages written to Fersen have suffered from extrapolation while undergoing decryption.

May said...

It's horrible that even her innocent friendships with other women were twisted by her enemies into something perverse and wicked. But at least, those stories don't seem to live on tenaciously in the popular mind the way the Fersen rumors do.

elena maria vidal said...

Every aspect of her life, every relationship, her friendships, her marriage, her motherhood, were smeared by those you wished to destroy her reputation and her influence. Marie-Antoinette stood in the way of the triumph of the Revolution and so she had to be destroyed.

Soph Laugh said...

Very well-written, researched, and informative.