Marie Antoinette's Secret Letters, Illegitimate Children, and DNA Testing

Vigee-Lebrun, Elisabeth-Louise. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and her children. 1787 Oil on canvas. Versailles.

Widely discussed, researched, and studied over a 200 year period, Marie Antoinette's story is fascinating and sad: victims of a violent revolution, all the family but her daughter died as a result. Now, author Evelyn Farr is bringing to light evidence that two of the queen's children were actually fathered by Count Axel von Fersen and not King Louis XVI.

Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette and Tyrone Power as Count Axel von Fersen in Marie Antoinette

"Based on her research, Farr says she has compelling evidence that Marie-Antoinette's son Louis Charles and daughter Princess Sophie – both of whom were thought to be the children of Louis XVI – were in fact fathered by Fersen. "¹

Having recently finished watching Making a Murderer on Netflix my first reaction to this story was - "What about the DNA testing!?"

Hans Axel von Fersen, portrait by an unknown artist; in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Fersen was known to be a royalist and close friend of the queen. Farr's book provides a fresh look at how close they were by "decoding secret messages and blacked out passages" in their letters.  As a result of the language used in the letters, she believes Louis Charles was born of this love affair.²  Her book, I Love You Madly, will be published in August 2016.

Alexander Kucharsky. Portrait of Dauphin Louis Charles of France (1785-1795). 1792, oil on canvas.  Palace of Versailles.
So this is shocking! I know what you are thinking - but didn't we just have have DNA samples tested from Louis Charles' heart to find that he was, indeed, the son of the royal couple?

What is intriguing is that through all these years, the heart of Louis Charles survived. The story of this little boy's heart is so fantastic, DNA testing would surely settle many questions.  Let's take a look at the history of this royal organ!

"Chevalier Philippe Jean Pelletan." Library of the National Academy of Medicine. Accessed January 08, 2016.

Louis Charles died when he was just ten years old and the physician who performed his autopsy, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, removed his heart as was tradition with royalty. He kept it in a jar of distilled wine alcohol, until one of his students swiped it for himself.³

As you can imagine, it was a rather interesting object.  This student admitted his theft when he died and his wife kindly returned it to Pelletan's family.  The family then sent it on to the Archbishop of Paris.  From here the heart was kept in a crystal urn at the Archbishop's palace.

John Scarlett Davis, Paris: Remains of the Archbishop’s Palace, Notre Dame. Verso: Sketches 1831

The heart remained in the crystal urn until the revolution of 1830.  In just seven hours the palace was sacked, and it was said that "it was entirely spoiled and gutted; nothing remained but the walls."  Pelletan's son stepped in at this time, and going through the rubble, retrieved the heart (!). He sent it off to the Bourbon family in Spain, who was later to return it to Paris again, where it was finally left in the royal crypt at Saint Denis.

The heart was tested as several people claimed to have been Louis Charles after his death at 10 years old.  Even John James Audubon was thought to have possibly been Louis Charles, as he grew up in France and was adopted at the age of 10.  Several other persons claimed the same.  A piece of the aorta and heart muscle were taken from the heart and sent to two labs for testing.

"The study focused on DNA from the mitochondria, the organelle responsible for Mitochondrial DNA originates from the egg, so the study could only determine the maternal relationships."⁴  

Well there we have it.  Even though the mtDNA was tested, the test could not look for DNA from the paternal side.

"The results of the mtDNA analysis of the heart show that the heart mtDNA D-loop sequence and the sequence of maternal relatives of Louis XVII are identical. The mtDNA evidence provides strong evidence to support the proposition that the heart was that of Louis XVII."³

More on the testing...

"Mitochondrial DNA data from Marie-Antionette's family had already been collected from the Naundorff study in the Netherlands. These sequences were from hair from Marie-Antoinette and her two sisters, Johanna Gabriela and Mada-Josepha, and two living relatives, the Queen of Romania and her brother, Andre. The Center for Human Genetics found that the mitochondrial DNA from the heart of the putative Louis Charles varied from a standard in five nucleotide locations and these variations are identical to the variations found in the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Marie-Antoinette and all of her relatives. The laboratory in Germany found the same variations at four of the locations, but could not retrieve data from the fifth location because the DNA was degraded. The conclusion of both laboratories was that the boy who died in prison in 1795 was related to Marie-Antoinette and most likely was Louis Charles."
 A gourd emblazoned with heroes of the French Revolution said to contain the blood of Louis XVI. Credit: Davide Pettenervia LiveScience

Could the DNA which is most likely from Louis Charles be compared to that from Louis XVI? Maybe.

In 2012 forensic scientists tested genetic material (blood) that had been kept in a gourd. The blood was said to be that of Louis XVI. A conclusion was drawn up that the DNA tested most likely is that of Louis XVI.  Two years later this was questioned and doubts were raised about the possibility of that blood being of the last French King. So perhaps in the future further tests will be able to show parentage of Louis Charles?

Or maybe not!

¹Perry, Simon. "Royal Scandal! Marie Antoinette's Secret Love Children Revealed in Newly Discovered Letters." January 07, 2016. Accessed January 08, 2016.

²Friedman, Megan. "A New Book Unveils Marie Antoinette's Scandalous Love Letters." Harper's BAZAAR. January 08, 2016. Accessed January 12, 2016.

³Jehaes, Els, Heidi Pfeiffer, Kaan Toprak, Ronny Decorte, Bernd Brinkmann, and Jean-Jacques Cassiman. "Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Putative Heart of Louis XVII, Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette." European Journal of Human Genetics : EJHG 9, no. 3 (03, 2001): 185-90. doi:

⁴"Identification of the Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette." World of Forensic Science. 2005. (January 8, 2016).

⁵Raikes, Thomas. France, since 1830. Vol. 1. London: T. and W. Boone, 1841. 113.

Le Roux, Mariette. "Bloody Souvenir Not from Decapitated French King: DNA." April 24, 2014. Accessed January 12, 2016.


  1. Marie Antoinette was a properly brought up Austrian Grand Duchess. This is romantic drivel about the Swede. She would never have risked her position because the continental royals did get papal divorces and children of iffy parentage would be declared illegitimate. Oh, there was light flirtation, as in The Age of Chivalry. But, you better not get caught in a real affaire d'coeur.

    1. Anonymous11:21 AM

      Royals were famous for their attitudes of "rules for thee, but not for me". Catherine the Great, during the same era had at least 2 bastard children that were claimed legitimate for political reasons. I don't find it at all out of the realm of possibility, esp. since Louis was known to have some sort of sexual problem which prevented consummation of their marriage for quite some time.

  2. Marie Antoinette was a properly brought up Austrian Grand Duchess. This is romantic drivel about the Swede. She would never have risked her position because the continental royals did get papal divorces and children of iffy parentage would be declared illegitimate. Oh, there was light flirtation, as in The Age of Chivalry. But, you better not get caught in a real affaire d'coeur.

  3. I agree with Julia. This is a terrible slander of Marie-Antoinette, especially since many people said that Louis XVII strongly resembled Louis XVI's mother as well as Louis XV.

  4. Rose-Marie de Guerin5:20 PM

    Notwithstanding Marie Antoinette's upbringing and the lack of privacy at Court, in my view and when looking at the photos above, Charles does have a strong resemblance to Count Fersen ( the eyebrows, eyes, mouth...)

  5. I've studied the life of Marie Antoinette for several years. Count Fersen adored the queen and I believe she loved him also but he was away fighting in America most of the time. He never had children by another woman and stayed unmarried all of his life.

  6. Rose-Marie de Guerin9:57 PM

    Although it is true that Count Fersen did spent time away from Court, it is also true that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did not consummate their marriage for many years, and Louis XVI spent lots of time hunting and he liked making padlocks and keys. I would be keenly interested in the results of any DNA testing to confirm the parentage of Charles.

  7. Anonymous12:25 AM

    Evelyn Farr's so-called "compelling" proof that Louis Charles was fathered by Fersen is someone repeating gossip. I wish I were kidding when I write that. I have read Evelyn Farr's previous book on Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette and it is an exercise in poor scholarship and wishful thinking, and I doubt that this latest book will be any different, especially given statements already made in articles and interviews. Even readers who believed the two were lovers reviewed her first book negatively for its poor quality. I do not think Farr has any training in historiography and it shows in her wild leaps of logic and poor scholarship.

  8. Louis Charles is son Louis 16! I am sorry, but i am painter, and i see: on painting - face Louis Charles have many common with face Louis 16 in young years...
    Poor Marie Antoinette and little prince, Louis Charles - very many grand falsehood about them...

  9. How I wish I had read "Anonymous'" comment re Evelyn Farr's book "Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen: The Untold Love Story". To read someone's statement "i do not think Farr has any training in historiography/and poor scholarship". I have just ordered this bookand did not expect a romanticised notion of this "relationship".

    I reserve judgement until I read the book; but, in all honesty, I sincerely disbelieve they were anything but friends. Marie Antoinette was disliked, even hated, by cliques within the Versailles aristocratic zoo, watching her every move, listening for every word she uttered. IF Count Fersen had even placed a fingertip on her toe? It would have made the daily rag sooner than spit.

    To now suggest that, because hubby was not performing, she turned to von Fersen? That he fathered Louis Charles? Marie Thérèse was firstborn. Then Louis Josephe. Louis Charles, then little Sophie. The children have similar

    Onyhoo, I will read this book, I will attempt to keep calm at any suggestion of extra-marital hanky-panky on the part of a religious, dedicated wife, mother and Queen, but also on the part of an honourable man who, throughout all the pain and horrors she, and hrr family endured, stood by them all.

  10. Anonymous9:23 PM

    fellows please neither you nor Evelyn Farr was here at the the of french revolution, This is not true defiitely not true Louis was the father of all of the four children of Marie Antionitte. Let me tell you the truth that she hated Count Fersen, he was an aboslute rascal. They was not any love story. Marie only loved Louie and vice verse. In the coming years we will all know the truth.

    BTW, Louis Charles never died at the age of 10 this is all rubbish. He had fought in the battle of Waterloo against Nepolean and killed him. Evelyn Farr stop wrting these nonsense because Marie won't forgive you.

  11. Read Louis XVI's diary. he was not around when she would have conceived her last two children. Louis did not order TE DEUMs sung for either birth. No compliments nor fireworks for them either. Miss Farr is certainly onto something. Olivier Bernier has also reached the same conclusion in his new book Marie Antoinette's World.