Couples Literally Fought to Get Out of a Bad Marriage in the Middle Ages
Just about any marriage starts off with high hopes of eternal love, or at least until death doth part the couple. However, not all marriages are destined for everlasting bliss – which is why we have divorce lawyers. In the olden days, divorce was difficult. It was frowned upon to such an extent that it was just about impossible to secure one. King Henry VIII for example, tried for years to get the Pope to annul his marriage. When that failed, he took England out of the Catholic fold, started his own Church of England with himself at its head, and got out of his marriage that way. For those who were not kings, things could be even trickier. They were especially tricky for women. In France, for example, just about the only legal grounds to get out of a marriage was if a husband couldn’t get it up.
To defend themselves from charges of impotence, defendant hubbies had to demonstrate that they could get an erection. In a courtroom. In front of witnesses and legal experts. To the satisfaction of “honest women” appointed by the authorities to check. No pressure at all. However, if a husband did not wish to prove his virility in public by “expel[ing] reproductive fluids on demand“, there was an alternative. The couple could instead fight a divorce duel. Such bouts were common enough to warrant an entire chapter in a popular Middle Ages dueling manual.
Hans Talhofer, a German combat instructor and court adviser in regards to judicial duels, wrote Fechtbuch (“Fencing Book”) in 1467. The illustrated tome included techniques for couples who wanted out of a marriage, and wanted to settle things with a divorce duel. Since men have obvious physical advantages, things had to get evened out. Hubbies, armed with three clubs, had to fight from inside a waist-high hole about three feet wide, with one hand tied to their body. Wives were armed with three rocks that weighed up to fight pounds, tied in a cloth like a battery in a sock, and could move around the hole freely. Both sides’ weapons had to be of equal length.
A husband who touched the hole’s edge forfeited a club. If he did so three times, he had to continue unarmed. If that happened, he would presumably have to try and wrestle her into the hole before she bashed his head in. Talhofer’s manual offered advice about appropriate clothes, best techniques for each gender, and step-by-step instructions to exploit the opponent’s vulnerabilities. The duels were surprisingly fair, and numerous women emerged victorious. Although divorce duels were not to the death, death was the ultimate result. If the wife won, her husband was executed, and if the husband won, the wife was buried alive.
Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837), Russia’s greatest poet, was also an outstanding novelist, short story writer, playwright, and dramatist. He pretty much founded modern Russian literature. He addressed conflicts between personal happiness and duty, and loners’ rebellion against the system. His writings teemed with vigorous life-affirming themes such as the triumph of human decency over oppression, and of reason over narrow minded prejudice. A born aristocrat, Pushkin descended from Abram Gannibal, an African kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child, who ended up in Istanbul. From there, he was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great. He adopted Gannibal and raised him as his godson. He rose to prominence as a general and courtier in the reign of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth. Gannibal led an extraordinary life, which was described in Pushkin’s biographical novel The Negro of Peter the Great.
Precocious, Pushkin published his first poem at age fifteen while a student at the elite Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. While still at the Lyceum, he began his first major work, the romantic poem Ruslan and Ludmilla. It used folkloric Russian themes of an epic hero overcoming numerous obstacles to rescue his bride. Pushkin flouted accepted genre rules, rejected the traditional Russian style of classic poetry, and broke barriers against the use of colloquial speech in verse. It was violently attacked, but it brought Pushkin fame and cemented his place as an innovator. Sadly, he didn’t enjoy success for long: his marriage to a flirt got him killed. Pushkin’s life was cut tragically short, as seen below, at the hand of his slimy brother in law, Georges d’Anthes, a French officer in Russian service.
Alexander Pushkin became a committed social reformer by the time he graduated. That upset the Tsarist authorities and secret police, who placed him under surveillance for the remainder of his life. At age twenty one, he was exiled from St. Petersburg to southern Russia. In exile, he travelled through Crimea and the Caucasus. The impressions gained furnished material for his “southern cycle” of romantic poems, such as The Robber Brothers and Prisoner of the Caucasus. Pushkin’s literary outflow often alarmed the authorities, who frequently censored his work and prohibited or otherwise impeded its publication.
Despite officialdom’s ham-handedness, Pushkin continued to write. His poetic novel Eugene Onegin revolutionized Russian literature as the first to take contemporary society as its subject matter, and led a wave of realistic Russian novels. His use of the Russian language was both simple and profound. It became the foundation of the style adopted by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Pushkin’s tragic end began in 1836, when he received an anonymous “Certificate of a Cuckold”, that alluded to the infidelity of his wife, Natalia Pushkina, nee Goncharova.
Marriage to Pushkin’s Sister in Law Did Stop This Slimy Officer From Pursuing the Poet’s Wife
George d’Anthes, a French officer in Russian service, had publicly pursued Pushkin’s wife, Natalia. A beautiful if flirtatious and frivolous woman, Natalia might have encouraged the pursuit. Rumors soon swirled of an affair between the Frenchman and the poet’s wife. The era’s code of honor demanded that Pushkin challenge the offender to a duel, which the poet did in November, 1836. However, d’Anthes married Natalia’s sister soon thereafter, which made him Pushkin’s brother in law. So that challenge was dropped. However, despite his marriage to her sister, d’Anthes continued to publicly pursue Natalia Pushkina.
He went about it so openly, that rumors once again circulated. This time to the effect that the Frenchman had married Natalia’s sister only to save her honor – and to have an excuse to get closer to Pushkin’s wife. So another challenge was issued, and this time it was accepted. On February 7th, 1837, Pushkin and d’Anthes met in a duel. In movies and fiction, the good and romantic guy wins. This was real life, however, and the trained soldier d’Anthes fatally wounded Pushkin, who in return only managed to slightly wound the Frenchman’s arm. Russia’s greatest poet died of his injuries two days later.
In his teens, Count Hans Axel von Fersen (1755 – 1810) went on a grand tour of Europe, and in 1774 he arrived in France. The count, two months older than Marie Antoinette, met the future queen at a ball when they were both nineteen-years-old and she was the Dauphine, or French Crown Princess. Both liked what they saw. For the Dauphine, the contrast was stark between the handsome youth and her schlub of a husband whom she had tied the knot with in a marriage of state, the future Louis XVI. A few years later in 1778, von Fersen was back in France, and Marie Antoinette, who by then was queen, had not forgotten the handsome Swede. She often inquired about him, and pouted when he missed some of her parties, informal affairs held in her private chateau on the grounds of Versailles, the Petit Trianon.
He wrote in his diary entry for November 19th, 1778: “The queen treats me with great kindness; I often pay her my court at her card-games, and each time she makes to me little speeches that are full of good-will. As someone had told her of my Swedish uniform, she expressed a wish to see me in it; I am to go Thursday thus dressed, not to Court, but to the queen’s apartments. She is the most amiable princess that I know“. Von Fersen kept much of his correspondence with Marie Antoinette. It contained no proof of a love affair. However, we now know that is because he had censored and altered a lot of it before he died. Scientists recently subjected some of the letters exchanged between the count and queen to X-ray fluorescence, which revealed what had been originally written.
Words like “adore”, “madly”, and “beloved” jumped out of the pages. They indicate that, despite her marriage to the French Crown Prince and later king, the relationship Marie Antoinette and von Fersen was not platonic. Even in worldly France and the decadent world of the eighteenth century French court, women did not lightly use words like “beloved” to men who were not their husbands. Stuff like that triggered duels, and in the case of a queen, was treason that could lead to a trial for adultery and execution. Indeed, French history had examples in which extramarital affairs with royal women ended in the torture and execution of their lovers, and the imprisonment of the royal ladies. For Marie Antoinette to refer to von Fersen as her “beloved” on paper, in her own handwriting, was not like a modern innocent “Dear X”.
People noticed that the Queen of France was attracted to Count Axel von Fersen. Sweden’s envoy to the court of King Louis XVI noted in 1779 that despite her marriage, Marie Antoinette couldn’t hide her love for the Swedish count in public. The Swedish envoy was worried that a scandal might erupt at any moment. He was relieved when Fersen left for the American Colonies in 1780. There, he served as an aide de camp to the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French army that fought on the Patriots’ side. Von Fersen was persent when the allied French and American armies besieged and forced the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781. He returned to France in 1783, and resumed his affair with Marie Antoinette.
Marriage to a King Did Not Stop This Queen from Public Displays of Affection for Another Man
Secret letters were exchanged, and von Fersen’s diary contains entries about a woman named “Elle” – his codename for the queen – whom he madly loved but could not wed because she was already married. In the meantime, it was an open secret that whenever von Fersen was in Paris, he spent days on end at Marie Antoinette’s private chateau, the Petit Trianon. When he left for Sweden a year later, he got the queen a dog, which she cherished and named Odin. King Louis XVI knew of his wife’s love for Axel von Fersen, but did little about it. For a French monarch, this Louis was not much of a womanizer – or any type of womanizer, at all. French kings had long been known for their insatiable lust, and marriage had never prevented their infidelity. Louis XVI was different.
He wed Marie Antoinette in 1770 when he was fifteen and she was fourteen. He showed little interest in her, and the marriage was not consummated until seven years later, in 1777. In a letter to his brother, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II wrote that Louis had confided to him what he did with his queen. Louis: “Introduces the member … stays there without moving for about two minutes“, then pulls out without ejaculation and “bids goodnight“. In addition to inexperience and shyness, Louis might have suffered from phimosis, a foreskin condition that causes pain when the penis is erect. Reportedly, it was only after he underwent surgery that he was finally able to consummate his marriage. Louis and his queen seldom spent much time together. He often ate and drank so much that he became nearly senseless, and had to be carried to bed.
Were Marie Antoinette’s Children Fathered by King Louis XVI, or by Her Swedish Lover?
Unsurprisingly, Marie Antoinette sought love outside the marriage, and looked for somebody who had a clue what to do in bed. There was plenty of fodder for gossip about whatever Marie Antoinette and her hubby did – or more precisely didn’t do – in their marriage bed. What is known is that before von Fersen showed up, Marie Antoinette had not conceived her first child until seven years after she had been married to Louis. There was then a three year gap – which coincided perfectly with von Fersen’s absence in America – before she got pregnant again. Within a month of the count’s return to France in 1783, Marie Antoinette went from two pregnancies in ten years, to three pregnancies in three years. The first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, the second one produced a son, and the third a daughter, who did not live long.
The boy who survived – the future Louis XVII who died in captivity during the French Revolution – did not look like Louis XVI, but strongly resembled von Fersen. We now know that the French king was autistic. Although quite intelligent, he couldn’t look people in the eye, was obsessive compulsive and needed to do things in accordance with a rigid schedule, and cried easily. He also did not seem to need sex. He liked his wife, but not for physical reasons: she was his emotional support. She realized that, supported Louis emotionally, and did all she could to protect him. But as to love, her heart belonged to von Fersen. He was back in France as the king of Sweden’s personal envoy to the French court when the French Revolution erupted.
The Count Who Cuckolded a King – and Tried to Save His Life
The French Revolutionary Wars, and later the Napoleonic Wars into which they seamlessly segued, roiled Europe and much of the world from the 1790s until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The years after the French Revolution broke out in Paris were tough on the French king and queen. After a revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille in 1789, Louis XVI decided to go to Paris as a good will gesture towards the revolutionaries. Marie Antoinette went into hysterics when her husband left. It took plenty of work by Axel von Fersen and other close intimates to calm the queen down.
A few months after they stormed the Bastille, the unwashed masses burst into the Palace of Versailles in October, 1789, and forcibly transferred the royal family to Paris. Eventually, both were executed. However, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, helped by Count Axel von Fersen, had nearly avoided that fate. Von Fersen did not abandon his lover after revolution swept her country. The love of the French queen’s life tried to help her – as well as her royal hubby whom he had cuckolded – escape from revolutionary Paris to a monarchist stronghold. They almost made it.
A Royal Marriage That Was Simultaneously Strained and Strengthened by a Shared Sense of Humiliation
Since the moment they were taken to Paris by a revolutionary mob, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived as virtual prisoners of their subjects. Their marriage was further strained – but in some aspects also strengthened – by the shared sense of humiliation they felt as they were forced to adjust to the role of constitutional monarchs. Eventually, the royal couple decided to slip out of Paris. Count Axel von Fersen began to arrange plans for the king and queen’s flight in the spring of 1791, and that June, he secured a type of light carriage known as a Berline to whisk them away to safety.
The plan was to take the king and the royal family to the citadel of Montmedy, about 200 miles from Paris. There, 10,000 men under a royalist general awaited Louis. After he regained his freedom of action, the king planned to launch a royalist counterrevolution. He mistakenly believed that only radicals in Paris supported the revolution, and that the peasants and the broad French masses were on his side. With their support, he planned to restore his kingdom to the way it had been.
Count Axel von Fersen had carriages placed near the Tuileries Palace, where the royal family were kept under guard. At 11:15 PM on the night of June 20th, 1791, the royal children were brought out. Half an hour later, the king and his sister, Madame Elizabeth, followed. It took Marie Antoinette a bit longer to join them. Just as she was about to leave, the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in charge of the palace guard, showed up in a torch-lit carriage. The queen had to hide in the darkness until Lafayette went on his way, before she was able to join the rest of her family.
Louis XVI left a document in the Tuilereis Palace, addressed to the National Assembly. In it, he declared his intention to roll the clock back to the royal concessions granted in 1789, before the French Revolution began. In private correspondence, Marie Antoinette took an even more reactionary line. She declared an intention to return to the old order, without any concessions at all. Von Fersen personally drove the carriage that contained his love and her family to a spot a few miles from Paris. There, Marie Antoinette’s maids waited, along with fresh horses to whisk the royals to safety.
The escape party split up once the royal fugitives made it out of Paris. The king, queen, and their children took a post route, while von Fersen continued on via a different route. They planned to meet again at Montmedy, but thanks to a change of plans, the reunion never took place. To spirit away the French royal family and their close intimates, von Fersen had arranged for two fast light carriages, that could have made it to Montmedy relatively quickly. However, the royal family would have had to split up and travel in two separate carriages. Louis and Marie Antoinette adamantly refused to accept that.
Instead, the royal couple decided on a different ride at the last minute: a bigger and more conspicuous carriage drawn by six horses, that could accommodate everybody. It turned out to be a bad choice. Louis entered the contraption disguised as the valet of a Russian noblewoman – the governess of the royal children, who pretended to be their mother. Marie Antoinette pretended to be a governess, while her sister acted like a nurse. They made it out of Paris unchallenged, but they soon regretted their last minute carriage change.
Unfortunately for the French king and queen, the heavy carriage that carried them was slow. Worse, it had to stop for repairs when its traces broke. The royal couple’s disguises were also flimsy, and they were recognized by many along the route. The royal flight ended at the small town of Varennes, just thirty miles shy of safety. The local postmaster recognized Louis XVI from currency that bore his likeness, and the royal family were arrested and returned to Paris. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Before his flight, the revolutionaries had accepted Louis as a constitutional monarch. They took his assurances that he agreed with them at face value. His flight, coupled with the documents that he and Marie Antoinette had left behind that told them what they really though, changed their minds. Until then, abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of a republic was a fringe position, advocated only by radicals. Now, it quickly gained in popularity. On September 21st, 1792, the monarchy was abolished, and the French Republic was declared.
A Swedish Count’s Continued Efforts to Save the French Royal Couple
Axel von Fersen’s role in the royal family’s flight came to light soon enough, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He fled France, and got in touch with aristocratic French exiles. Led by Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, they sought to roll back the French Revolution and restore the Ancien Regime. Von Fersen assisted in their efforts to try and get other European powers to declare war on revolutionary France. In August, 1791, he traveled to Vienna, where he met Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother, then snuck back into Paris.
Disguised with a big wig and fake mustache, von Fersen claimed to be an envoy from Portugal’s queen. In December, 1791, that got him into the Tuileries Palace, where Louis and Marie Antoinette were now held under tight guard. He pitched them another escape plan. Since the roads were now closely watched, the king should flee through the woods, and then by sea. In the meantime, Marie Antoinette’s love would spirit her and the children away via another route. Louis rejected the plan, because he did not believe it would work. That night, von Fersen saw Marie Antoinette for the last time.
The Marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI Lasted Until Death Did Them Part
Axel von Fersen left France after Louis XVI shot down his escape plan. His and the French emigres’ efforts to instigate war between Europe’s monarchies and revolutionary France finally bore fruit in the summer of 1792, when war broke out between France and Austria. Rather than help von Fersen’s love and her family, however, it doomed them. That September, the French National Assembly abolished the monarchy and declared a French Republic. Despite all ups and downs, the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lasted until they were literally parted by death. He was tried for treason in December of 1792, convicted, and guillotined a month later. Von Fersen tried to arrange a cavalry raid to snatch his love from Paris, but the generals he pitched the plan to rejected it as hopeless.
Marie Antoinette met the same fate as her husband, and was guillotined in October, 1793. Von Fersen wrote about his reaction: “Though I was prepared for it and expected it since the transfer to the Conciergerie, I was devastated by the reality. I did not have the strength to feel anything … I thought about her constantly, about all the horrible circumstances of her sufferings, of the doubt she might have had about me, my attachment, my interest. That thought tortured me“. Devastated, he returned to Sweden, where he fell into disfavor at court and lost much of his political clout. From his home country, he was forced to stand by helplessly and watch as Revolutionary France, which had killed his love, expanded its reach across Europe.
Marie Antoinette’s Lover Was Lynched by a Street Mob
Marie Antoinette’s lover eventually regained favor at the Swedish court, and was sent as an envoy to France, where he met Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. Napoleon recalled the count’s efforts against the Revolution and on behalf of the executed French king and queen. As von Fersen recounted, Napoleon: “remarked that the Court of Sweden seemed to take a pleasure in sending agents and ambassadors who were personally disagreeable to every French citizen“. When he returned to Sweden, the count was alarmed by a rise in popular sympathy for revolutionary France. In 1801, he became Marshal of the Realm, Sweden’s highest court official. From that position, he did all he could to halt the spread of revolution to his country. In 1809, a coup deposed Sweden’s King Gustav IV Adolf, and replaced him with his uncle, Charles XIII. A dispute then erupted over who should succeed Charles.
Von Fersen backed a faction that supported the deposed king’s son, Gustav, Prince of Vasa. They opposed the popular Charles August, who was adopted by Charles XIII and became Crown Prince, or heir to the throne. However, Charles fell off his horse in 1810, had a stroke, and died. Rumors spread that he was poisoned, and von Fersen became a prime suspect. On June 10th, as Marshal of the Realm, he rode in a carriage at the head of the Crown Prince’s funeral procession. He was attacked by a mob as soon as he reached Stockholm. The crowd dragged von Fersen out of the carriage, and the funeral’s armed military escort did not intervene. He broke free and ran into a nearby house, but the mob followed and dragged him back out into the street, where it beat him to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading