Mention the name of Marie Antoinette and many people will credit her with the haughty citation, “Let them eat cake!” The frivolous queen allegedly uttered these words upon learning that French peasants had no bread to eat. Yet, Marie Antoinette never made this pronouncement nor was she indifferent to the plight of the poor. In the years surrounding the French revolution, false accusations flourished. None were as damaging to the queen’s reputation, however, as the allegation that she was behind a sordid affair involving the Cardinal of Rohan and the world’s costliest diamond necklace. In fact, Marie Antoinette wanted nothing to do with the necklace or the cardinal. However, the actual story linking her to the clergyman and the lavish collar was perhaps so twisted and unbelievable, that it was much easier to blame the entire mess on the completely innocent sovereign.
An Audacious Gamble
The story begins in 1772, when King Louis XV called upon two of Europe’s most renowned jewelers, Charles Boehmer and Paul Bassenge, to fashion a diamond necklace for his mistress, Madame du Barry. Assuming they could count on eventual payment from the French monarch, the jewelers assumed huge debts while gathering the finest diamonds and pearls that money could buy.
Gems in hand, Boehmer and Bassenge went about assembling their vision of a sparkling masterpiece, composed of 674 diamonds (2,842 carats) and one hundred pearls. The estimated value in today’s dollars is 15.1 million. Sadly, King Louis XV died before they could deliver the necklace, leaving the jewelers with a small horde of angry creditors and an ostentatious choker that none of Europe’s other sovereigns wanted to buy.
The new king, Louis XVI, however, was married to a young woman known for her lavish expenditures. Boehmer and Bassenge approached Marie Antoinette, offering her a steep discount. Much to their disappointment, the new queen showed no interest. According to her personal assistant, she compared the necklace to a horse’s harness and said the money would be better spent constructing another ship for the king’s navy.
A Hustler from the Cradle
While Boehmer and Bassenge were scouring Europe for anyone willing to acquire their magnificent chef-d’œuvre, a young hustler named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy was trying to worm her way into the Royal Court. Jeanne was an illegitimate descendent of King Henri II. Despite her royal blood, which her alcoholic father regularly extolled, she was born into poverty. When she was still a child, her abusive mother forced her to beg in the streets of Paris, crying “Pity a poor orphan of the blood of the Valois!”
Despite the miserable conditions of her childhood, Jeanne somehow caught the attention of the marquise de Boulainvilliers. The kindly older woman helped her obtain a basic education and managed to procure a meager royal pension for her. The marquise encouraged Jeanne to become a seamstress but Jeanne was horrified by the thought. She was a Valois and such a fate was beneath her.
Jeanne was also a charmer who could potentially seduce her way into wealth and power. In 1780, Jeanne married Nicolas de La Motte, a young army officer. Although they had no right to the title, the newlyweds immediately adopted the honorific of Count and Countess de La Motte. Jeanne avidly wanted to be recognized by the royal court and the self-appointed title of countess had the desired effect of elevating her social standing.
A Power-Hungry Cardinal
In September of 1781, Jeanne learned that her benefactress, Madame de Boulainvilliers was staying with a rich and influential cardinal, Louis Rene Edouard de Rohan. Cardinal Rohan lived on a massive estate with elaborate gardens and a stable of more than 50 horses. So, the count and countess arranged a trip to visit the kindhearted marquise. Despite appearances, however, Rohan was broke. What’s more, like Jeanne, he desperately wanted to capture the favor of Marie Antoinette.
Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Jeanne immediately sensed the cardinal’s vulnerability. She began visiting him regularly, always wearing the fanciest outfits she could come up with and pretending to have plenty of money. At the same time, she began spreading a rumor that she and Marie Antoinette were close personal friends. She struck up an alliance with the gatekeeper at Marie Antoinette’s personal estate, le Petit Trianon, located on the grounds of Versailles. Then, late in the evenings, she made sure that other social climbers, who were hanging around the palace, saw her walking through that gate—as if she had just come from a private tête-à-tête with the queen.
A Dubious Correspondance
Cardinal Rohan was thrilled to find out that his charming new friend was an intimate confidant of the queen. Shockingly, he wasn’t the only gullible status-seeker who wanted Jeanne to intercede on his behalf. Soon, Jeanne was earning a pretty penny, graciously accepting the task of conveying a variety of messages to Marie Antoinette. It wasn’t long until the cardinal asked Jeanne if she would deliver a letter to his royal highness. Thus began a lurid correspondence.
Naturally, the queen needed to reply to the cardinal if the ruse were to continue. Enter Louis Marc Antoine Rétaus de Villette, Jeanne’s lover and her husband’s former comrade in arms. Villette had already tried his hand at forgery and was apparently happy to give a shot at imitating the queen’s writing. He faithfully answered all of the cardinal’s missives with Jeanne dictating.
In reality, Marie Antoinette disliked the cardinal intensely. Years earlier, the queen had learned that he’d trashed her reputation in a letter and spread unseemly rumors about her. Aware of Marie Antoinette’s animosity, Jeanne found the words to convince Rohan that the queen might have a change of heart. If Cardinal Rohan was willing to make two payments of 60,000 livres (which the queen would forward to charitable organizations) the queen would forgive all. This he faithfully executed and Jeanne quietly pocketed. Not surprisingly, however, the increasingly indebted pontiff began pressing for a rendezvous.
Blinded by Love (or Possibly Greed)
At this point, a more timid soul might have found a way to dampen the fake queen’s budding enthusiasm. Au contraire, Jeanne boldly forged ahead. She enlisted Villette to search the streets of Paris and find a prostitute that resembled Marie Antoinette. This he achieved in the person of Nicole Leguay who, for a sum of 15,000 livres, was more than willing to take on the role.
Thus it was that late one August evening in 1784, Nicole Leguay, wearing a dress copied from a portrait of Marie Antoinette, emerged from bushes in the gardens of Versailles and greeted the eagerly awaiting Cardinal Rohan. Leguay’s face was further shadowed by a veil of black gauze. As instructed, the clever courtesan handed her devoted dupe a rose and purportedly whispered, “You know what this means. You can be sure that the past is forgiven.”
Before Rohan had time to reply, Jeanne and Villette (dressed as the queen’s servant) rushed to the faux queen’s side, warning her that her sister-in-laws were approaching. The startled sovereign hurried off before she could be discovered. The next day she sent a letter to Rohan, apologizing for her hasty departure and expressing regret over the brevity of their encounter.
A Swindle (or Sucker) is Born
Rumors of Jeanne’s friendship with the queen eventually reached the ears of Boehmer and Bassenge, whose flamboyant collar had become more of a ball and chain. The jewelers hoped that Jeanne would succeed where they had failed. They asked her if she would intercede on their behalf. Jeanne agreed, provided that she be allowed to set up a dummy company to enact the transaction.
Soon the cardinal received a letter from Marie Antoinette, telling him of a delicate situation that required his utmost discretion. She was eager to purchase Boehmer and Bassenge’s masterpiece but needed to do so clandestinely since the country was strapped with debt. The queen asked if the cardinal would buy it for her. She promised to reimburse him over time with 4 equal installments. In return, she vowed to grant him many lucrative favors that would make his sacrifice more than worthwhile.
For once, the self-absorbed cardinal hesitated. The sums involved were enormous and if the queen failed to pay him back, he’d surely be ruined. He summoned his spiritual advisor, another charlatan named Cagliostro, to ask his advice. Predictably, Jeanne was two steps ahead. She’d already paid Cagliostro off. With the cardinal watching, the mage pretended to receive a divine announcement. If Rohan financed the queen’s plan, her favors would rain down upon him. Marie Antoinette’s generosity would know no bounds and she would ensure that he became prime minister.
The Strands Unravel
In January of 1785, Cardinal Rohan visited the famous jewelers. After signing the 4 documents binding him to the agreed-upon installment plan, he received the necklace which he promptly delivered to Jeanne’s apartment at Versailles. In front of the cardinal, Jeanne handed the necklace to the queen’s valet who was none other than Villette, again in disguise. In exchange for having brokered the deal, Rohan also presented her with a special thank you gift, from Boehmer and Bassenge.
Once alone, the three thieves—Jeanne, her husband de La Motte, and Villette—pried the gemstones from their settings. The men divided the bounty. De La Motte headed to London to look for buyers and Villette stayed behind in France to sell off what he could. Meanwhile, Jeanne was keeping Rohan and the increasingly anxious jewelers at an arm’s length. She needed to bide time while Villette and de La Motte worked to come up with the first installment which wasn’t due until August.
However, her victims were beginning to wonder why the queen, who had appeared several times in public, had still never worn the vaunted necklace. In July, Jeanne realized that she wouldn’t be able to make the first payment. She returned to Cardinal Rohan, saying that the queen was having difficulties coming up with the money and asking if he’d be able to obtain a loan to help her. Around the same time, Boehmer suspected that something was wrong. He went directly to the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Henrietta Campan, and spilled all he knew of the secret arrangement.
A Rounding Up of Thieves
Campan knew immediately that a massive fraud had been committed. She went straight to the queen who went straight to the Baron of Breteuil, one of the king’s ministers and a notorious enemy of Rohan. The gig was up.
After a heated grilling by Louis XVI, Rohan was the first to be arrested just outside the king’s Versailles apartments, in the famous Gallery of Mirrors. Surrounded by the awestruck members of the nobility, Rohan’s humiliation was complete as he was hauled off to the Bastille. He managed, however, to send a note to his vicar-general, asking him to burn all of the letters.
Jeanne was at a dinner party when she learned of her patsy’s imprisonment. She hurriedly returned to her apartment and began destroying all evidence that would link her to the mounting scandal. The next morning, she joined Cardinal Rohan in the Bastille. Not long after, Leguay and Villette (the prostitute and the forger) were thrown into the notorious prison. Jeanne made a last-ditch effort to save her skin by implicating Cagliostro as the mastermind of the entire plot. He too was locked up. The only one to escape unscathed was de La Motte, who was still in London, working to unload the diamonds.
Justice is Severed
The king allowed Cardinal Rohan to select the jurisdiction in which he would be judged. He could come before the king himself, in a closed hearing, or be heard by the Parliament of Paris. He chose the latter, knowing that the parliament often went against the king. The trial was held the following May and the public delighted in every detail of the scandalous liaison between the queen and the cardinal. Rohan was acquitted for the crime of theft. However, a question remained as to whether his conduct constituted treason against the queen.
Marie Antoinette certainly thought that it did. She didn’t believe that the cardinal had been stupid enough to fall for the faked correspondence. It turned out that Villette was a terrible forger. The handwriting he employed looked nothing like her own and he even signed her name improperly. The queen detested the cardinal and hadn’t spoken to him for more than 10 years. She found the idea of a clandestine nighttime rendezvous, where she proffered a rose of forgiveness, to be preposterous and offensive. Such images, if they were believed, scarred her reputation, even though she’d been ignorant of the entire scheme.
Much to Marie Antoinette’s horror, Rohan was also acquitted of treason. However, he didn’t get off scot-free. The rapacious ecclesiastic was saddled with having to reimburse Boehmer and Bassenge for the price of the necklace. He started by selling off his prized estate and many of his belongings but the obligation wouldn’t be fully paid for another one hundred years when his descendants made the final installment in 1881.
As for Jeanne de Valois, she was whipped, branded with a V for voleuse on each shoulder, and sentenced to life in prison. De La Motte was also condemned to life imprisonment but he remained in England until the revolution was over, then returned to France and was granted amnesty by the new regime. Villette was exiled from France. He moved to Venice and published a memoir in 1790 that laid bare his recollections of the juicy intrigues at the French royal court. Cagliostro was also banished. The tribunal forgave Nicole Leguay, who appeared in court with a babe in her arms.
Fuel for the Gathering Fire
Outside the courtroom, the tabloids sold like hotcakes. A cottage industry of sleaze sprang up overnight. Vendors hawked pictures of the cardinal and queen having sex or the cardinal and Jeanne having sex or Jeanne and Villette having sex. The masses in the street, tired of putting up with a ruling class, were more than eager to condemn an extravagant sovereign.
Despite Marie Antoinette’s innocence, the public wanted to believe she was guilty. She had long been criticized for her excessive spending habits at the expense of the royal treasury. Now she was being buried under an avalanche of humiliating accusations. One scandal sheet even claimed that Rohan had fathered some of the queen’s children. By contrast, many believed that Jeanne de Valois had been falsely condemned. Within a year of her sentence and with the help of her supporters, Jeanne was able to escape from the Bastille, disguised as a man.
Jeanne fled to London to join de La Motte, ever-insistent that she was innocent. In 1789, she published a memoir, in which she admitted to being the cardinal’s mistress. Her salacious narrative again slandered the monarchy by spilling details of Marie Antoinette’s liaison with Rohan and concocting the image of a complicit queen who masterminded the diamond necklace affair from start to finish. In August of 1791, while Marie Antoinette was awaiting her fate under house arrest, Jeanne died from fatal injuries that she suffered after jumping out of her apartment window to evade debt collectors.
Of course, we all know what eventually happened to Marie Antoinette. She was convicted of treason in October of 1793 and sent to the guillotine. While the affair of the diamond necklace was hardly the sole impetus behind the French Revolution, historians agree that it certainly added kindling to the fire. There is little doubt that it obliterated the queen’s reputation as well as any hope that her life might be spared. The German poet and statesman Goethe later wrote:
The story of the necklace forms the immediate preface to the Revolution. Therein lies the foundation. The queen, closely tied to this fatal affair, there lost her dignity and consideration; there she lost, in the minds of the people, that moral support that made her a sacrosanct figure.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Wikipedia.fr, Affaire du collier de la reine
- Mediterranée Antique, L’Affaire du collier
- Youtube, Au cœur de l’histoire: Du nouveau sur l’affaire du collier de la reine (Franck Ferrand)
- IMDB, The Affair of the Necklace
- Goodreads, The Queen’s Necklace by Alexandre Dumas
- Goodreads, Confident Women by Tori Telfer
Glad you enjoyed it Sarah. I found it to be an interesting tale and was surprised that while I knew of the necklace that had been made for Madame du Barry, I’d never heard what happened to it or about the scandal surrounding Marie Antoinette until recently.
History so often makes much better reading than fiction.
Thanks for all the background info. I thought you were also going to talk about the recent auction of her bracelet: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59228801
I read somewhere else that it was sold by a Royal family. Intriguing
Oh wow! I was unaware of the bracelet sale. Thanks for the link.
Fascinating! Do you know of any source that actually gives a valid account of Marie Antoinette’s life?
That’s a great question Annie. I suspect there are many but I can’t give you a title offhand. I’ve read a fair amount about her over the years. She had a pretty dismal life in my opinion.
Her mother was terribly ambitious but back then, there weren’t a lot of ways in which women could channel their ambition. Making sure their kids became powerful was about the only measure of success. Marie Antoinette was married off to Louis XVI at the age of 14 and had to leave her home in Austria and go live in an isolated palace hundreds of miles away.
She did spend lavishly. (Possibly as a result of being depressed and bored.) But she also craved a simpler life. She had a rustic hamlet built on the grounds of Versailles where she would spend time with her closest friends and dress more simply. Of course her critics weren’t happy with that either, claiming that the French queen should always be dressed in silk.
There is far more about her life that sounds awful than sounds enviable. So, I tend to suspend judgement and give her the benefit of the doubt.
For what it’s worth, I just googled and learned that a book called, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser, is the number one MA biography recommended by readers on both Amazon and Goodreads.
Excellent story, and beautifully written. Liars without shame have been with us for a long time.
Thanks Karl. You’re right. Somehow most people never learn to try to verify what they’ve heard. It’s easier to just go with narratives that seem plausible, especially when those narratives reinforce what you’d like to believe. And thus, history repeats.