Starting with this post, I am going to be writing about the endlessly fascinating Affair of the Diamond Necklace. In this issue: the Comtesse de La Motte, the orchestrator of a diamond theft that rocked the world.
This is all prompted by the historical novel I’m working on. I’m 40k into the story (give or take 401 words; or, rather, take 401 words because it’s at exactly 39,599). Obviously, I’ve gotten a hell of a lot done already, and I’m pretty pleased with what I have. I will have to go back and do a little bit of cleaning up, I think, just to make sure I haven’t inadvertently given the wrong impression about this, that, or the other thing. The story is being set up rather like a thriller or a mystery, though the revelation (which I just wrote) comes around halfway through the story, not at the end. The denouement (or at least the aftermath of poor Nicole’s realization) is going to be much longer. Because, after all, it’s about her, not about the story.
The Characters #1: Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de St Remy (July 1756 – August 1791)
Jeanne de Valois de St Remy was born in the provinces, near the town of Bar-Sur-Aube, France. Her family were impoverished nobility, living in the ramshackle Chateau de Fontette. One of her ancestors, Henri de Saint-Remy, was born in 1557, the illegitimate son of Henri II of France. His descendants were given the surname “Saint-Remy” and this Henri was made Baron of Fontette. Several generations later, the family was in dire financial straits. They had kept themselves alive through a tradition of military service, but Jeanne’s father did not carry on this tradition. He married one of the maids as the family fortunes sank even lower. Jeanne had an older brother, a younger sister who died as a young child, and a sister who was near her age. Her family ended up walking to Paris to try to make their way with only a paper outlining their pedigree. The father died, the mother abandoned her children, and Jeanne and her brother were forced to beg.
According to Jeanne, she carried her little sister on her back and went to the road to Passy, where she met the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, who took her in. She was sent to school (and didn’t like it), worked for increasingly lowly couturiers (and didn’t like it), and was briefly in a convent (and didn’t like it). She returned to Bar-sur-Aube, running away from the convent. There she was supported by the Beugnot family. After what appears to have been what is called a “shotgun wedding” in common parlance, she went to Paris with her husband (Nicolas Marc-Antoine de La Motte), looking to make her fortune by importuning the queen with her sad story. She expected that, as the last (though illegitimate) living Valois, she would be given some support. She was actually given a fairly generous annuity, considering how distant her relation was to the king. She was also to be known as Mademoiselle de Valois, her brother was given the title Baron de Valois, and her sister was to be called Mademoiselle de St Remy.
Her publicity stunts at Versailles grew increasingly desperate. She fainted in front of Madame Elisabeth, King Louis XVI’s sister, and even managed to get into the good graces of Madame Elisabeth and the Comtesse d’Artois, the King’s sister-in-law. Then there was some little scandal involving Jeanne and the Comte d’Artois, her patroness’s husband. She fell out of favor. She went to one minister and refused to leave until she was listened to. This produced a slight increase in her pension. Still, she was in troubled waters.
This is where her story gets interesting. Jeanne, now calling herself a countess, had begun to convince people in about 1783 to 1784 that she was a close friend to the queen. She put around the story that she and the queen were on intimate terms. The pandering of influence was big business in a time and place where all good things flowed from the king and, especially there and then, from queen Marie-Antoinette. Jeanne roped in a Cardinal and Prince of the blood, a man named Prince Louis de Rohan. He had alienated the queen when she was still Dauphine (queen in waiting), and wanted to get back into her favor. Jeanne took advantage of him, bilking him for one hundred twenty thousand francs, a vast sum. She did it by having her “personal secretary” Retaux de Villette forge letters from the queen. The “queen” requested loans because she was more than usually hard up–because, of course, the queen of France typically had such troubles (or not). In any case, Jeanne apparently pocketed the money and showed sudden signs of affluence. She returned briefly to Bar-sur-Aube, lording it over the locals.
Then this all got very interesting. Word reached Jeanne sometime in 1784 about a necklace that had been floating around for many years. Originally made for the former king’s extravagant mistress, Madame du Barry, the necklace now had no buyer (in fact, the king had never commissioned the necklace; the jewelers created the necklace on the risky assumption that the king would buy it for the Du Barry once it was made). The jewelers were desperate for a buyer, the Cardinal was desperate for the Queen’s favor, Jeanne was desperate for a necklace worth 1.6 million francs (a sum well beyond the word “fortune”). Apparently, Jeanne put these pieces together. Jeanne convinced Cardinal Rohan that the queen wished to purchase the necklace but she (the queen) could not be seen to buy it under her own name (for political reasons). Of course, she (“the queen”) had turned to him (to whom she had not addressed a single word in many many years!) to carry this out.
This did not strike the Cardinal as strange at all. He agreed to be guarantor of the purchase from the jewelers, Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge. The necklace was handed over by Boehmer and Bassenger on February 1, 1785 to a person they thought was the queen’s messenger. In reality it was, almost certainly, Jeanne’s “personal secretary” Villette. And the necklace disappeared, never to be seen again. We can only assume that Jeanne had the necklace broken up. It appears that shortly thereafter, her husband, M. de La Motte, was in London selling diamonds. There was certainly a marked improvement in their finances.
It took some time for this all to come to light. The jewelers were the first to become antsy. At first, they sent a letter of thanks to the queen, who was perplexed by the letter because she had nothing to do with the purchase. Unfortunately, she chose to ignore the strange letter. The jewelers waited to see the queen wearing their necklace in public, but of course no such thing happened. Eventually, they went to the queen. If they hadn’t, the plan would have probably worked brilliantly. Jeanne would have gotten away with 1.6 million francs worth of diamonds, and the Cardinal would have been stuck with the bill since he was guarantor for the purchase. He would have never risked his reputation by going public with it and would have simply paid the debt quietly.
Instead, the entire thing blew up. Jeanne, the Cardinal, Villette, and a few other characters (more on them in later posts) were arrested. Her husband was abroad still in England and was never arrested. Her trial became the scandal of the century. Think OJ Simpson, but with acute political implications. There were several very important factors: first of all, the necklace was worth a great deal of money; secondly, a Cardinal of the church was implicated in a grand theft; thirdly, and the most importantly of all, amongst all this mess, Jeanne had committed the crime of lèse-majesté. This essentially means criminal disrespect for the person of the king or the queen. In the case of Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, she had orchestrated a charade for Cardinal Rohan in which she hired a prostitute to play the part of the queen. This was considered an unpardonable insult to the queen. To add to the crime, Jeanne averred that she truly had been the go between for the queen and the Cardinal, and that she was a sacrificial lamb. She never gave up that version of the story. Jeanne conducted herself with her usual confidence and aplomb, but her conviction was more or less a foregone conclusion. She was pronounced guilty.
Perhaps the most destructive part of the trial was the sentence of Cardinal Rohan. He was found not guilty. In essence, this meant that the Parlement (court) had not thought he was wrong to think the Queen would have a secret nighttime rendezvous (assignation?) with him in the gardens of Versailles. They were saying she had a reputation for promiscuity and deserved it. It also meant that, though she could not be tried, the court thought the queen was criminally involved in the heist of the necklace. Taken all together, it was a horrible blow for the queen’s already tarnished reputation.
Jeanne was sentenced to be whipped and branded with a “V” (for the French word for “thief”) on each shoulder. She wasn’t told of her sentence until she was woken, taken out of her cell, and branded in the Cour du Mai in the Palais de Justice in Paris. Not long after this, Jeanne managed to escape from prison. She was able to flee across France and make her way to London. There she became something of a sensation. She published several memoirs and accounts of her story. Her differing versions are, of course, heavily biased, and even self-contradictory at times, but they give an utterly fascinating look into her version of the story.
In 1791, Jeanne fell from a window in London and died. No one is certain whether it was suicide or an accident. Some even claim it was murder. Personally, I think it was either a drunken accident or a fit of depression. She had contemplated suicide earlier in her life, and it’s absolutely possible that she had bouts of depression and was indeed suicidal at points.
She didn’t live long enough to see the culmination of the damage done by the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. She was alive only for the first rumblings of the French Revolution and did not live to see the King and Queen executed in 1793.
I am highly indebted to and highly recommend reading The Queen’s Necklace by Frances Mossiker. It’s an astounding collection of first-hand accounts from almost all of the participants, both major and minor, in this debacle. Mossiker also adds commentary and historical notes to make sense of everything these people said. I don’t think I’ve read anything as fascinating as this book, mostly because of the astonishing fact that it’s all TRUE.
Mossiker, Frances. The Queen’s Necklace. London: Phoenix, 2004.
“Branche des barons de Fontette”. http://pagesperso-orange.fr/stephane.thomas/capetien/valois_saintremy.htm.