X-Ray Technology Reveals Marie Antoinette’s Censored Secret Correspondence

My dear friend, I won't let you go without telling you that I love and adore you.
Marie Antoinette was the queen of France during the turbulent days of the French Revolution. She closed a letter in January 1792 with these sweet words. However, the letter was not intended for Louis XVI. The letter was instead sent to her friend and rumored lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen.

It was necessary to maintain discretion in the relationship between the pairs. The political aspects of their correspondence also required discretion. While the revolutionaries in France were holding the royal family under house arrest, the letters were exchanged. Marie Antoinette was pulling strings to save the Bourbon dynasty or at the very least, the lives of the royals. One or both of the passages found in the letters between them have been erased by an unknown censor. They succeeded in hiding them for two centuries by blacking out entire lines and words with dark ink.

Some of the censors' attempts have been foiled by modern technology. Anne Michelin, a French National Museum of Natural History physical chemist, and her colleagues used both old-fashioned hard work to find many redacted parts of the famed correspondence. They believe that they have also revealed the identity of the man who used the heavy-handed pen. Fersen appears to be the mystery censor. Michelins study, which was published in Science Advances today, also shows a method that can recover many historical correspondences, official documents, drawings, and it may even be able to help analyze fossils.

The French royal family was under house arrest in Paris' Tuileries Palace from June 1791 to August 1792, while Fersen was away. Fersen was responsible for their confinement after a failed escape attempt from Paris. The royals wanted to gather support in rural France and take power from the revolutionaries. The family's escape and arrest at Varennes turned public opinion against them, and they were charged with treason. Marie-Antoinette, who was under heavy guard, conducted a complex correspondence with Fersen during this time. The letters were sent by intermediaries, but they were also concealed by elaborate precautionary methods such as invisible ink or codes that required complex deciphering.

Marie-Antoinette complained even about Fersen's process on November 2, 1791. She wrote Farewell to me, complaining that I was getting tired of ciphering. This is not my normal occupation and I am afraid of making mistakes.

Secretarianism was crucial for many reasons. Historical researchers have long wondered about who edited different parts of the text. After his part in the failure to escape, Fersen fled France. He tried to lobby foreign powers in Brussels, Vienna, and other places to help their cause. The revolutionaries would have considered such political intrigue, as mentioned in the letters to be a serious offense.

Others sections were hidden for a different reason. These are the results of an intimate correspondence between the queen and a man not her husband.

Many of Marie Antoinette's letters during this time were destroyed. Fersen, however, kept letters he received from the queen and copies of letters he wrote to her. These letters were kept by his extended family for many generations before being finally purchased by the French Historical Archives (in 1982). The redactions were a puzzle to all who had read the letters.

They look identical to the eye but inks from late 18th century were not uniform. To determine their chemical composition, the Michelins team used nondestructive analysis using X-ray fluorescence spectrumroscopy. The elements that are excited by Xrays produce unique fluorescent fingerprints. This technique allows researchers to map the distribution and ratios between different elements in inks from the original letter writers as well as the unknown censor.

Scientists discovered consistent differences in the inks used to create the original text and redactions for 8 of 15 letters. The most striking were the copper-to iron and zinc-to–iron ratios. Researchers were able to map these elements and make the redacted words easier to read by separating the inks.

However, this wasn't enough to decode words. The team used data processing software to sort out difficult sections. After identifying the slight differences in the elemental compositions of different inks, the team trained algorithms to create images that magnified those differences, making the text easier to read.

Fersen's letters also had very similar ink elements. This means that they were all written in the same ink. This showed that Marie-Antoinette's letters were copies of Fersen's originals. Fersen used the same ink to write them. This ink was also used as a censor by the mysterious figure, strongly suggesting that Fersen was the one who decided to erase certain sections of the correspondence forever. Michelin explains that the coincidence was too large. Fersen also added words to one letter above the redacted section (his handwriting was confirmed and verified by a specialist), but using the same ink composition as the redaction ink on the letter.

Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said that it was a remarkable piece of work. He wasn't involved in the research but is an expert in X-ray imaging of old materials. "I believe they were determined, and I think it'll have an impact on people using all types of imaging techniques. They can learn from these approaches to achieve exceptional results.

Bergmann was part a team that used X-ray technology in order to discover the lost and unreadable works by Archimedes, the famous mathematician.

The question of Marie-Antionette's and Fersens relationship has been a subject of debate for over two centuries. It was also a topic of discussion at the court. Evelyn Farrs biography, I Love You Madly (historian Evelyn Farrs) reveals that Fersen friend Quintin Craufurd wrote a letter to William Pitt. This gentleman was Colonel in the Royal Sudois and was Her Most Christian Majesty’s favourite. He is also generally believed to be the father, Craufurd wrote.

Some people interpret such comments as evidence of a physical relationship between the two, while others dismiss them as gossip or political slander. The redacted comments do not contain any smoking guns, but there is more evidence that shows just how close these star-crossed aristocrats were. Fersen felt it prudent to remove some of their more intimate terms of affection, including beloved, tender friend and adore.

Michelin explains that the redacted portions are the most private parts of the correspondence. This correspondence was important to Fersen, perhaps for sentimental or political reasons, and to protect the queen's honour and maybe his own.

Ferson may have removed the most dangerous passages, but the team suspects he didn't complete the entire letter folio.

It is possible that the process of recovering redacted or lost texts will be highly sought after. Archive all over the globe are filled with diplomatic and political documents as well as letters and other historical pieces. Some of these items may be redacted. Michelin points out that Michelin has seen studies that have used this technique to dig beneath paintings and reveal the drawings or original versions that might otherwise be lost. Bergmanns team even collaborated with Peter Lars Larson, paleontologist, to study the feather and bone chemistry of the Archaeopteryx fossil. This is a crucial fossil in the lineage for birds and dinosaurs.

We may never know how their relationship ended, as Marie-Antoinette Fersen.

In the end, it doesn't really matter if they love each other, according to Ronald Schechter, College of William & Mary historian. He is currently studying Marie Antoinettes library, reading habits, and books. They lived with frustration at not being able see each other and anxiety about their safety. This is not a love story that ends in a happy way.