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Affair of the Diamond Necklace and Marie Antoinette's Pearls
Queen Marie Antoinette of France
Queen Marie Antoinette of France was a mere child of fourteen when she was married to the then Dauphin of France, the future King Louis XVI.
The youthful pair became King and Queen of France in 1774 on the death of Louis XV and went on to become the proud parents of four children.
The French people were at first very taken with their new Queen, as this daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was both beautiful and personable. But as time went on she started to be accused of extravagance and profligacy, of being promiscuous and even her Austrian origins were held against her.
Marie Antoinette was a fashion leader who spent an inordinate amount of money on fabulous clothes and she was also a big gambler, on one occasion playing cards for three whole days in a row.
Her private life was also the subject of much rumour and scandal. The royal couple did not produce their first child until they had been married for seven years. There were many satirical pamphlets produced that accused the King of impotence and the Queen of infidelity, and even of having intimate relationships with her close female attendants.
But the Queen was also talented at attracting political scandals, and one of the most damaging scandals of her career became known as ‘The Affair of the Diamond Necklace’.
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace
As Marie Antoinette already had a reputation that was tarnished by gossip when the diamond necklace affair occurred in the 1780’s it was incredibly damaging to her and the prestige of the French crown, even though there is no real evidence that the French Queen had ever been personally involved in the incident.
In a plot that could have been written by a Hollywood screenwriter, an amoral adventuress set out to extort large amounts of money from a French Cardinal and steal a fabulous diamond necklace, by inferring that she had a close friendship with the Queen and forging Marie Antoinette’s signature on documents. The diamond necklace that was to cause all the trouble had originally been commissioned by Louis XV from the Parisian jewellers Boehmer & Bassenge for his famous mistress Madame Du Barry.
It was to be a diamond necklace to outshine any other necklace of its kind in the world, and so it took the jewellers several years to collect enough large, fine diamonds to begin making their creation. Unfortunately for the jewellers, Louis XV died during this time and Madame du Barry fell out of favour at Court.
Trying to Sell the Diamond Necklace
The jewellers then thought to offer the elaborate diamond necklace to the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, and her husband the King did offer to purchase her the necklace as a gift, but she declined this offer. There were many theories as to why she turned the necklace down, including that she was disinclined to wear a bauble that had been intended for a royal mistress, or that the 2,000,000 livres that it was to cost would be better off spent outfitting a French man-of-war and or that Louis XVI had simply changed his mind about the costly gift.
After this rebuff, the jewellers attempted to sell the diamond necklace abroad, and when they failed in this venture they sent the necklace again to Marie Antoinette after the birth of her son Louis in 1781, but once more the French queen refused to buy the necklace. Unsurprisingly Boehmer & Bassenge were beginning to believe that their extravagant diamond necklace was destined to become a very expensive white elephant.
Jeanne de la Motte
It is at this point that a woman called Jeanne de la Motte enters the picture. Jeanne was a con artist who also called herself Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, as she was a descendant of an illegitimate son of King Henri II of France. She was a married to the Comte de la Motte and existed on a small pension from the King, and so was desperate to move into the highest circles in the land and eventually managed to insinuate herself into polite society with the help of one of her lover’s Rétaux de Villette.
As part of her strategy to make it to the top, she boasted of having a friendship with Marie Antoinette, which was totally untrue, and on the strength of her assertions she was approached by Boehmer & Bassenge to become an intermediary between them and the Queen in a further attempt to sell the necklace.
Early in 1784 Jeanne had become the mistress of one Cardinal de Rohan, a Court official who had fallen out of favour with Marie Antoinette, as when he was ambassador to the court of her mother Empress Maria Theresa of Austria he had spread damaging rumours denouncing her behaviour to her mother and had also written a letter that criticised Maria Theresa in a way that Marie Antoinette did not like. Cardinal de Rohan desperately wanted to become one of Louis XVI’s ministers, so Jeanne made him believe that she had the Queen’s ear and was one of her close intimates.
Cardinal de Rohan is Duped
Jeanne persuaded the Cardinal to write to Marie Antoinette to plead his case and assured him that the letters were being delivered directly into the Queen’s hands. However, unbeknown to the hapless Cardinal, any replies that he received had actually been written by Jeanne. Indeed the tone of these replies became so suggestive, that Cardinal de Rohan persuaded himself that Marie Antoinette was falling in love with him.
He pleaded with Jeanne to set up a secret meeting between himself and the Queen during the hours of darkness in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, but, unfortunately for the Cardinal, he did not know that the lady that he actually met that night was a prostitute called Nicole Leguay d’Oliva, who Jeanne had hired because of her resemblance to the French queen. Jeanne also took advantage of the Cardinal’s desperate need to regain the Queen’s favour by borrowing large sums of money from him, which she said were donations to the Queen’s favourite charities.
Fate of the Diamond Necklace
In January 1785 Jeanne started working on the Cardinal regarding the diamond necklace, telling him that the Queen would really love to purchase the necklace, but was worried about spending so much money and incurring further opprobrium from the general public regarding her extravagance. Jeanne persuaded the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted him to work as a secret broker on her behalf for the fabulous diamonds and so he negotiated with the jewellers to purchase it on the Queen’s behalf for around 2,000,000 livres.
This huge sum of money was to be paid to the jewellers in instalments. He showed Boehmer & Bassenge documents that were supposedly in the Queen’s own handwriting that authorised the purchase and when he took receipt of the necklace he took it to Jeanne’s house, where he handed it over to a man that he believed was one of the Queen’s trusted servants. This man was, however, really Jeanne’s husband and he promptly took the necklace over to London where it was broken up so that the large, fine diamonds could be sold separately.
Scandal of the Diamond Necklace Affair Breaks
When payment for the necklace was due, Jeanne presented Boehmer & Bassenge with the forged documents, but the jewellers wanted their money, and so they when directly to the Queen herself asking for payment. Marie Antoinette was taken aback to hear that she had agreed to buy the diamond necklace and swiftly informed the jewellers that she had never authorised the purchase. Cardinal de Rohan found himself hauled in front of the Court to try to explain himself.
He produced one of the letters that had supposedly been written by the Queen and was royally lambasted by the King for having been taken in by a letter signed ‘Marie Antoinette de France’ as a courtier of his standing should have known the Queen would never have signed a letter in this way. The Cardinal was imprisoned in the Bastille, where he destroyed all the forged letters still in his possession and Jeanne was arrested several days later, and she had also destroyed any further incriminating evidence.
Her lover de Villette was arrested and admitted to writing the forged letters, her absent husband was condemned to the galleys for life, and the prostitute Nicole Leguay d’Oliva was also rounded up. Sensationally, the trial acquitted the Cardinal de Rohan and d’Oliva, while sentencing Jeanne to imprisonment and also to being whipped and branded. Jeanne never suffered the whipping and branding and she escaped from prison the following year dressed as a boy. She fled to London, where she wrote her memoirs in which she incriminated Marie Antoinette in the affair even further.
Impact of the Diamond Necklace Affair
The general opinion of the court who tried the suspects was that both the French queen and de Rohan had been totally taken in by Jeanne de la Motte and her husband, who had both profited handsomely from the affair. However, the French people took the line that Marie Antoinette must have somehow been implicated in the affair, and that she had willingly conspired with Jeanne in order to bring down the Cardinal de Rohan and fraudulently obtain the costly diamond necklace.
The French queen did not help her case by being so openly disappointed that the Cardinal had escaped any punishment and by his subsequent dismissal from the King’s service and then being exiled. The ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ was to haunt the royal couple until they were deposed and executed during the French Revolution, and added to the French people’s belief that their Queen was extravagant, frivolous, and uninterested in the welfare of France and her subjects.
Marie Antoinette's Pearls
Marie Antoinette has also been connected with another jewelry story in more recent times, as the story of her pearls hit the headlines. A year before she was executed, Marie Antoinette gave two bags of pearls and diamonds to Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, the wife of the English Ambassador, to take to London with her when she fled from the French Revolution in 1792. The future Countess of Sutherland had aided the royal family by bringing them clean linen and clothes to their prison in the Temple in Paris.
As the Queen was executed in 1793, she never reclaimed her jewels and they were set in a necklace alongside rubies and diamonds as a gift for the Countess’s grandson’s bride in 1849. The 21 tear-shaped pearls stayed in the Sutherland family until in 2007 they were put up for auction at Christies in London, where they were expected to fetch up to £400,000. However this rare and unique pearl necklace sensationally failed to attract a buyer at the auction, which otherwise had raised £9.3 million pounds in jewelry sales.
So Marie Antoinette is still famous for her jewels and frivolity, but despite the poor reputation she had among her own subjects, she died a brave woman on the guillotine in front of a howling mob.
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