Marie Antoinette's censored love letters have been read using X-rays

A letter from Marie Antoinette, dated 4/01/1792, to Axel von Fersen. It has been partially redacted by the CRC
Marie Antoinette, during the French Revolution, expressed her love for Axel von Fersen in words that were finally readable 230-years later.

Modern scanning technology has made it possible to distinguish the ink of the French queens from that of von Fersen. He probably wrote over her text in an attempt to protect his friend and likely lover Anne Michelin, Sorbonne University, Paris.

At the request of the French National Archives, she and her colleagues investigated 15 letters between Antoinette und von Fersen in 1791-1792. Although the majority of the letters were readable, some words or sections were hidden beneath loops and random letters Js Ls and Ts that were intended to censor it. Michelin says that although the French National Police attempted to find the hidden words in the 1990s but failed because of the lack of technology at the time.


Michelins used X-ray fluorescence scans to identify the metallic elements in the ink. The inks used for the letters had different amounts of these elements. Researchers were able adjust their scanning techniques to decipher the original words hidden under layers of looping ink. This could sometimes take many hours.

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The mystery of who had censored these letters was also solved by their analyses. The researchers confirmed that von Fersen had redacted the letters by comparing the compositions used to scribble out words with that used for von Forsen's writing.

Michelin says there were likely political reasons to keep the letters. He also suggests that the letters might have been meant to portray a better public image of Queen Elizabeth II, who was eventually executed by guillotine on 1793. These letters could also have been attached to von Fersen, however.

Michelin says that Marie Antoinette wrote to von Fersen a lot about political concerns at the time, including how the royals were coping with the revolution. However, her censored writing featured more romantic vocabulary terms such as beloved and adore, and intimate phrases like "No, not without you" and "You, whom I love and will always love until my death."

Michelin says that extramarital relationships are common throughout the history French royalty. So it wouldn't surprise that Marie Antoinette would fall in love with von Fersen. The newly discovered words don't prove that they were lovers, however.

She says that correspondence is only one part of the story. Although we write, we don't always write what we think. Dramatic situations like revolutions can make it harder to write what you think. Because the queen couldn't move freely, it would have been difficult for her to express her emotions. It is evident in her writings.

Michelin says that the scanning techniques used by researchers to identify the hidden words in seven letters were not advanced enough for them to be able to distinguish the words.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abg4266