3.10.07

The affair of the necklace

A con artist called Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois conceived of a plan to use necklace to gain wealth and possibly power and royal patronage. A descendant of a bastard of Henry II of France, Jeanne de Valois had after many affairs married a soi-disant (so-called) comte de Lamotte, and lived on a small pension which the king granted her.

In March 1784 she entered into relations with Louis René Édouard, cardinal de Rohan the former ambassador to Vienna. The Cardinal was regarded with displeasure by Marie Antoinette, having revealed some of her secrets to Maria Theresa of Austria, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and Marie Antoinette's mother, bringing a maternal reprimand. The Queen also learned of a letter in which the Cardinal spoke lightly of Maria Theresa in a way that offended Marie Antoinette.

At the time the Cardinal was attempting to regain the favour of the queen in his quest for the position of Prime Minister of France. Valois persuaded him that she had been received by the Queen and enjoyed her favour, and Rohan resolved to use her to regain the Queen's goodwill. The comtesse de Lamotte assured the cardinal that she was making efforts on his behalf.

This was the beginning of an alleged correspondence between Rohan and the queen, the adventuress duly returning replies to Rohan's notes, which she affirmed had come from the queen. The tone of the letters became very warm, and the cardinal, convinced that Marie-Antoinette was in love with him, became ardently enamoured of her. He begged the countess to obtain a secret interview for him with the queen, and a meeting took place in August 1784 in a grove in the garden at Versailles between him and a lady whom the cardinal believed to be the queen herself. This lady was a prostitute called Nicole Leguay who bore some resemblance to the Queen. Rohan offered her a rose, and she promised him that she would forget their past disagreements.

The Jeanne Valois de Lamotte took advantage of the Cardinal's conviction, by borrowing from him sums of money destined ostensibly for the queen’s works of charity. Enriched by these, the countess was able to take an honourable place in society, and many persons believed her relations with Marie Antoinette, of which she boasted openly and unreservedly, to be genuine.

In any case the jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge believed in the relations of the countess with the queen, and they resolved to use her to sell their necklace. She at first refused their commission, then accepted it.

On January 21, 1785 the Countess de Lamotte announced that the queen would buy the necklace, but that not wishing to openly buy such an expensive thing, she would use a high person as an intermediary. A little while later Rohan came to negotiate the purchase of the famous necklace for the 1,600,000 livres, payable in installments. He claimed to have the queen's authorization, and showed the jewellers the conditions of the bargain approved in the handwriting of Marie Antoinette. Rohan took the necklace to the countess' house, where a man, in whom Rohan believed he recognized a valet of the queen, came to fetch it.

Shortly afterwards, the comtesse de Lamotte appears to have started at once for London, it is said with the necklace, which she broke up in order to sell the stones.
When the time came to pay, the Comtesse de Lamotte presented the cardinal's notes; but these were insufficient, and Boehmer complained to the queen, who told him that she had received no necklace and had never ordered it. She had the story of the negotiations repeated for her. Then followed a coup de théâtre. On August 15, 1785, Assumption Day, when the whole court was awaiting the king and queen in order to go to the chapel, the Cardinal de Rohan, who was preparing to officiate, was taken before, among others, the king, the queen, the Minister of the Court Breteuil and the Keeper of the Seal Miromesnil to explain himself. Rohan produced a (forged) letter signed by "Marie-Antoinette de France" that the King read. The King became furious and couldn't understand how Rohan, a prince, could have let himself been fooled by such a forgery; no royal would sign "de France". Rohan was arrested and taken to the Bastille. He was able, however, to destroy the correspondence exchanged, as he thought, with the queen, and it is not known whether there was any connivance of the officials, who did not prevent this, or not. The comtesse de Lamotte was not arrested until August 18, 1785, after having destroyed her papers.
The police set to work to find all her accomplices, and arrested the prostitute Nicole Leguay and a certain Rétaux de Villette, a friend of the comtesse, who confessed that he had written the letters given to Rohan in the queen's name, and had imitated her signature on the conditions of the bargain. The famous charlatan Cagliostro was also arrested, but it was recognised that he had taken no part in the affair.

The cardinal de Rohan accepted the parlement of Paris as judges. A sensational trial resulted (May 31, 1786) in the acquittal of the cardinal, of the girl Oliva and of Cagliostro. The Comtesse de Lamotte was condemned to be whipped, branded and shut up in the prostitutes' prison, the Salpêtrière, but the whipping and branding were not executed, and she escaped from prison in June of the following year. Her husband was condemned, in his absence, to the galleys for life. Villette was banished.

Public opinion was much excited by this trial. Most historians come to the conclusion that Marie Antoinette was relatively blameless in the matter, that Rohan was an innocent dupe, and that the Lamottes deceived both for their own ends. This was also broadly the finding of the Paris Parlement, although they did not comment on the actions of the Queen.

Many people in France persisted in the belief that the queen had used the countess as an instrument to satisfy her hatred of the cardinal de Rohan. Various circumstances fortified this belief, which contributed to render Marie Antoinette very unpopular -- her disappointment at Rohan's acquittal and the fact that he was deprived of his charges and exiled to the abbey of la Chaise-Dieu. The Parliament's acquittal of Rohan also pointed to an assumption that Marie Antoinette was somehow in the wrong.

The Countess de Lamotte took refuge in London and published her Mémoires in which she accused the queen and recounted additinal calumnies which include made up stories of sexual affairs with the Queen.

The affair of the necklace was important propaganda against the French monarchy in the years before the Revolution. Marie Antoinette was an unpopular figure, and salacious gossip about her made her even more of a liability to her husband. She was never able to shake off the idea in the public imagination that she had perpetrated a multi-million livre fraud for her own political ends.

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