I know. The Scandal of the Diamond Necklace is quite well know and it’s been mentioned in several history books, novels, movies.. Are you sure you know all the history though? In reality, this affair is more complicated that it seems and it destroyed Marie-Antoinette’s reputation forever. If you are up for a story full of twists and plots just make yourself comfortable, grab a cup of tea and follow me back in the 1780s, when Louis XVI was the king of France and Marie-Antoinette his talked-about wife.
Let’s meet the Cardinal the Rohan
We are in 1785. It is August 15 and Louis-René-Édouard de Rohan-Guéménée, the Cardinal de Rohan, is ready to officiate the Feast of the Assumption in the Royal Chapel of Versailles. After struggling for quite a long time to get on the queen good side after the bad start they had when he was the French ambassador in Vienna, he is happy and proud to be now one of the her majesty most trusted confidents. You can understand his surprise when instead of celebrating the ceremony he is arrested in front of the court and taken to the King, the Queen, the Minister of the Court and the Keeper of the Seals to explain himself. For what, he doesn’t really know. He’s just helped the queen to get her new necklace so she should be thanking him. Unfortunately, he cannot image how wrong he is.
The Diamond Necklace
Let’s talk about the fabulous diamond necklace that costed more or less 2 000 000 livres (approximately US$ 15 million in 2021 according to Wikipedia). It was a stunning jewel created by the Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassange after years of hard work and crazy expenses to find, collect and “pave” the right diamonds. In 1778 and then again 1781, they offered it to Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette who refused it. Twice. The queen did like jewels but she was not that fond of diamond necklaces, especially when they were commissioned for Madame du Barry, the former king mistress, a notorious diamond lover and a woman Marie-Antoinette despised from the bottom of her heart. She was obliged to talk to her – the history is quite famous – but she was not wearing jewels made with her in mind! Yeah, the Diamond Necklace was not made for the queen Marie-Antoinette but for king Louis XV, who passed away before it was ready, leaving the jewelers with an unsaleable, crazy expensive necklace which became famous in all Europe because of its mesmerizing stones and unaffordable price.
Now let me introduce to you a young, ambitious woman: Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, later known as Jeanne de la Motte. Even if her father Jacques de Valois was a descendant of a bastard son of King Henry II, he was a known drunkard, his family lived in poverty and the children were neglected, sometimes forced to beg for food. The situation changed when their ancestry was ascertained and, as children from poor nobility, they were granted a stipend and Jeanne was sent to a boarding school in Passy. Non too attracted by the religious life, instead of becoming a nun as planned, in 1780 a heavily pregnant Jeanne married Nicholas de la Motte, a simple officer self-proclaimed “Comte”. The couple started to live an extravagant life, way too expensive for Nicholas’ income so Jeanne tried to approach the queen to ask for a more generous pension. Marie-Antoinette, aware of her lifestyle, refused. The marriage with her husband did not work out and around 1783 Jeanne became the mistress of the Cardinal de Rohan. When she discovered that the Cardinal desperately wanted to win the queen’s favor and two jewelers form Paris were trying to sell a necklace to avoid bankruptcy, the plan naturally came to he mind.
With the help of letters addressed to her by the queen Marie Antoinette herself, Jeanne de la Motte convinced the Cardinal de Rohan that she was one of her majesty closest friends and confidents so she could help him out. The cardinal was overjoyed: not only the queen was finally getting back to him after years of silence, but her letters were warm and friendly. So friendly that Rohan started to think that Marie-Antoinette was in love with him. He could not believe his own eyes! In fact, he shouldn’t have because the missives were forged by Rétaux de Villette, one of Jeanne’s lovers, in order to extort as much money as possible from the prelate. The letters were actually signed “Marie Antoinette de France” but French royals signed only with their given names. Maybe the cardinal did not notice the mistake, maybe he did not want to notice it, he fell into the trap. At the beginning, the request from “Marie Antoinette” were kind of reasonable – if you truly believe that the queen of France would, with the help of a morally questionable woman, ask small and large sums of money as a pledge of love and devotion to the man who failed to prevent her marriage with the future Louis XVI and insulted her mother.
Let’s say it: if Jeanne de la Motte was a sort of Circe, as she was described by one of the cardinal’s servant, the Cardinal himself was probably not the smartest guy in Versailles. Even if he knew that the queen never met Jeanne de la Motte in public, he was nonetheless sure that the young woman was a trusted agent working for Marie Antoinette on secret missions. Didn’t Jeanne helped him meeting the queen in Versailles gardens during a night in 1784? To him, it wasn’t important that the night was very dark, that the woman he barely saw never spoke and disappeared in few seconds because apparently “some guards” were coming in their direction, he never doubted that she was Marie Antoinette. Of course she was not. She was Nicole d’Oliva, a Parisian prostitute famous for her resemblance with the queen, hired by Nicholas de la Motte to trick the cardinal and pave the way to the final part of the plan.
On 21 January 1785 Jeanne told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted to buy the diamond necklace in secret, to avoid to upset the king and create rumors in such a time of need for the country. The cardinal accepted to be her intermediary so he negotiated the purchase claiming to have the queen’s authorization and showing to the jewelers the conditions written in Marie Antoinette’s (forged) handwriting. After buying the necklace, Rohan took it to an apartment in Versailles, where a men whom he believed to be a valet, came to fetch it. The necklace disappeared into the night while Rohan probably felt proud of his actions.
When finally it was time to pay and no-one showed up with the 2000000 livres, Boehmer complained directly to the queen who clearly was not aware of what he was talking about. After listening to the history of the negotiations Marie Antoinette, furious with the cardinal, went to the King and demanded an immediate investigation. Louis XVI hesitated at first, to avoid the public scandal, but the queen was adamantine: she wanted her reputation cleaned from all allegations.
Here we are, back in August 1785. The Cardinal de Rohan is trying to defend his position, producing the fake letters and explaining to the King what happened. The court is speechless and appalled as the scam is evident. How could the powerful Cardinal de Rohan, a man who – using Louis XVI words -breathed “royal etiquette since birth” made such a mistake? Marie Antoinette, feeling insulted, is seething with anger and want a proper public trial. Is not a brilliant idea but no one can dissuade her majesty who, for once, is completely innocent and want everybody to know it. Just picture the scene in your mind: the King is trying to finds a discrete way out; Rohan is crying around his innocence; Marie Antoinette is threatening all the people involved with trial, prison, punishments; everybody else, from aristocrats to stable boys, is gossiping. In few hours the history reaches Paris; the scandal explodes; the public opinion is involved and there is no turning back. There must be a trial.
On his way to the Bastille prison, the cardinal de Rohan manages to send home the order to destroy his correspondence. If you are wondering how can he can do it, just consider that aristocrats were always given special privileges, even under arrest, and when these privileges were not granted, they were obtained with bribes.
Three days later the police arrest Jeanne de la Motte, who had all the time to destroyed the evidences; Rétaux de Villette, who confess the forgery of Marie Antoinette’s letters and signatures and Nicole d’Oliva, who admits to be hired to perform the role of an aristocratic woman but swears to be unaware of the complete plot. Even the famous occultist Cagliostro, linked to the cardinal de Rohan, is involved in the investigation even if it is very unlikely that he really took part in this crime.
Rohan, to buy himself time and take the matters into the political arena, accepts the Parliament de Paris – a sort of Supreme Court – as judge and the public opinion is extremely, extremely excited: the Royal family washing the dirty laundry in public is something quite unexpected. Journalists and scribblers, happy as kids during Christmas time, sharpen their pencils and waits for the juicy details. On 31 May 1786, a sensational trial results in the acquittal of the cardinal, the prostitute and the occultist. On the contrary, Jeanne de la Motte is condemned to whipping, branding with a V for voleuse (thief) and sent to life imprisonment. Her husband Nicholas is tried in absentia – he is in London, probably selling the diamonds on the black market – and condemn to be a galley slave. Villette is banished. The necklace is gone forever.
The queen is utterly disappointed: the cardinal escapes justice and she, even if she is blameless in the specific matter, as the Parliament of Paris confirmed, is still consider kind of guilty. Guilty of having such a bad reputation that a powerful man, like the cardinal de Rohan, is ready to believe she would acted in such a despicable way. Her disappointment and the consequent exile of the cardinal to the Abbey of La Chaise-Dieu by the king actually convinced many French people that she is a manipulative spendthrift who used Jeanne de la Motte to get rid of Rohan once for all.
The image of the beautiful queen cheered by the people is gone forever and the time of Madame Bankruptcy begins. The monarchy is discredited and malicious gossips about Marie Antoinette spread around with scandalous pamphlets and direct attack to the regime. Among the other, it is impossible not to mention the Mémoires Justificatifs published in 1789 by Jeanne de la Motte herself, after her escape to London.
The French Revolution is moving its first steps.