Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair. Prelude to the French Revolution
The Diamond Necklace, the gullible cardinal, and the fraud.
It is one of the sadness’s of history that sometimes a person's reputation can be tarnished, and countries brought to ruin on the back of slanderous allegations. These lies, when they become believed by the population at large ,can galvanise whole nations to rise up, with but one desire; and that desire is to tear down and punish the object of their wrath, even if that person is not guilty of the crime imputed to them. Such a situation arose in France in the 1780's, and so damaged was the reputation of the innocent party in that scandal, that it never recovered, and indeed the false ire that was aroused in the French people fuelled the flames that led on to that disastrous conflagration, later to be known as The French Revolution.
The object of all that calumny was Marie Antoinette Queen of France, and the scandal that caused all of that damage was The Affair of The Diamond Necklace.
I know that this story has been endlessly retold, since those far off days, but I feel that it ought to be related again, if for no other reason than to warn people today to be ever wary of the power of public opinion, especially when it is been driven by the impetus of a runaway lie.
The diamond necklace at the centre of our story first came to notice in history when it was prepared by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge. It was intended as a gift to Madame Du Barry, mistress to Louis XV, from her besotted royal lover, but that king died, and the necklace was returned to the safe unbought.
When Louis XVI became King of France, the jewellers tried to sell the jewels again. The new king offered to buy it for his wife, Marie Antoinette, but the Queen refused to accept such an expensive present, saying that the money would be better spent on a new ship for the navy. How those jewellers must have howled.
Our story now moves on a bit, A female con artist, and partime whore, who called herself Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, conceived of an idea to use the necklace to gain herself some profit, and possibly some influence at court. She was married to an impoverished army officer called Le Comte de le Motte, and she sometimes used her surname "Valois” to get entrance to some of the best houses in Paris, as "Valois" was the name of French royalty in the sixteenth century. Anyway she became the mistress of the Cardinal De Rohan. This might seem odd that a cardinal would have a mistress, but De Rohan was a very louche sort of cardinal, nothing unusual in eighteenth century France.
The cardinal was disliked very much by The Queen, because she had once read a letter he had written which was disrespectful to her mother Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. But he wanted to get back in favour. The clever Jeanne, who did have access to the palace persuaded the gullible prelate that she was a great friend of the Queen, and that she could use her influence to get him back in Her Majesty's good graces. He started to write letters and give then to De La Motte Valois, to pass them on to her "royal friend", and she would compose the replies herself.
As time went by the replies started to get a lot warmer, and the foolish cardinal became convinced that Marie Antoinette was in love with him. He begged his mistress to arrange a secret nighttime meeting with the imagined besotted royal lady. A meeting was arranged in the aptly named Grove of Venus at Versailles. A prostitute friend of Jeanne, who resembled The Queen, impersonated her. The cardinal gave her a rose. The false Queen told him that all was forgiven, and then Jeanne ran in to say that someone was coming, in order to cut short the meeting before the cardinal realised that he was being had.
On the strength of her supposed friendship with The Queen Jeanne then got loans of money from De Rohan. She set herself up in a nice house, and started to live the high life. She openly boasted that she was great friends with The Queen, and many believed her. The two jewelers decided to approach her to see if she could persuade "her great friend" to once again buy the necklace. Jeanne saw her chance, and told the cardinal that The Queen wanted him to purchase the jewels on her behalf. She even forged another letter from Marie Antoinette authorising him to do the transaction as her proxy. The payments were to be made in instalments, the first in a few months’ time. The jewellers then delivered the necklace to Jeanne's house. She received it in the presence of the cardinal, and then her husband disguised as a royal messenger collected it "To bring it to The Queen". He really brought it to London to be broken up, and the diamonds sold separately.
Queen Marie Antoinette. Beauty versus The Beasts.
How the lies surrounding the affair of The Diamond Necklace destroyed Marie Antoinette.
A few months passed. When the date for the first payment went by, and they got no money, Boehmer and Bassenge started to get worried. They went to Versailles to see The Queen. They asked politely about their bill. This was the first that Marie Antoinette heard about her getting a necklace. She assured the distressed jewellers that she had never ordered anything like that from them. The King was involved. The jewellers revealed the letter that the Queen was supposed to have signed. The royal couple straightaway realised it was a forgery. The whole story was uncovered, including the involvement of The Cardinal De Rohan. Marie Antoinette was outraged that someone whom she loathed could be so presumptuous as to suppose that she was in love with him. The King was very angry at the insult to his wife. It was decided to arrest the cardinal, and the fellow conspirators.
This is where the big mistake was made. The sensible thing to do would be to quietly collar "His Eminence", and then discreetly try to find out what had happened. But so irate was The King that the arrest was made in public. Accordingly on The Feast of The Assumption, when The Cardinal De Rohan, The Grand Almoner of France was preparing to lead a procession through the gilded halls of The Palace of Versailles, and in front of the entire court; the loud voice of King Louis XVI was heard shouting "Arrest the cardinal".
The sensation was immediate and enormous. Can you imagine the outcry there would be if Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II marched into Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday and ordered the arrest of The Archbishop as he was just about to start his sermon. It was even worse in France that day in 1785. Because De Rohan was from a very prominent family the aristocracy were outraged. Many of them had never liked Marie Antoinette anyway because she was Austrian, and Austria was a traditional enemy of France. Because of that old dictum that "There is no smoke without fire" most people refused to believe that The Queen was innocent. They tended to the notion that she had bought the necklace anyway, and that it was just because things were starting to go wrong that she was making a scapegoat out of the cardinal.
The cardinal was tried before The Parlement of Paris, along with the other felons. The trial caused a sensation. Mainly because The Parlement wanted to avenge the "disrespect" caused to their fellow nobleman, by his public arrest and humiliation. The cardinal was acquitted. Jeanne De La Motte Valois was convicted and sentenced to be branded as a thief. She later died in mysterious circumstances in London.
As for the real victim of the affair, Marie Antoinette. The lies followed her to the scaffold. So difficult is it to dislodge the insidious worm of slander, once it has got embedded in the human perception, that her reputation never recovered. The abomination that was "The French Revolution" followed in a few years, and most of us know what happened then.
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