The Characters #2: Prince Louis de Rohan (1734-1803)
Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan was a prince of the blood. This was a rank in ancien régime France just below the royal family. Those lucky enough to be born princes or princesses of the blood had certain privileges, such as the right of entrée during official ceremonies at Court involving the person of the monarch (like the lever and coucher, the official rising and going-to-bed ceremonies).
The Rohan family was one of the most influential in France. They were based largely in the eastern lands bordering Germany, specifically Saverne and Strasbourg. The family was descended from the kings of Brittany.
Prince Louis was destined for the Church from an early age. His uncle was a Cardinal and bishop, and Louis was the designated successor of these offices. As a talented scion of one of the most important families in France, he had a bright future to look forward to. As a child, he was probably conditioned to think of himself as a possible prime minister of France. In 1760, he took orders, becoming part of the Catholic Church. The Church still held strong influence on France, so Prince Louis was now supported by powerful relatives and the powerful Catholic church.
Ten years later, in 1770, the young Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette crossed from Austria to France at Strasbourg, where she was greeted by Prince Louis’s uncle, the Cardinal-Bishop. She was on her way to wed Louis Auguste, the future Louis XVI (whose grandfather, Louis XV, was currently king). Prince Louis celebrated mass the next day for the young Dauphine. Probably, Marie Antoinette took as much notice of him as all of the other important people around her. With the inundation of names and faces, it’s possible she forgot him nearly as soon as she saw him.
Then again, he was probably a very striking figure. He was urbane, well-educated, sophisticated, and witty, as well as rich and important. He was also handsome and fond of the ladies. “Princes of the church”–cardinals and bishops and so forth–played a large role in politics, far greater than religious figures do in modern politics (there was no “separation of church and state”). These religious figures often were much more lax in their morals than a modern person would expect. Priests, bishops, and cardinals were known to have mistresses and illegitimate children. Madame du Barry was the daughter of a wayward priest. Positions in the church were often hereditary and were granted based on social status rather than piety; as such, it isn’t surprising that these men of the cloth were not all devoted men of God. The bad behavior of the clerics led to rampant anticlericism during the Revolution.
Prince Louis de Rohan was no exception. He was very worldly: he lived in luxury and was known for his sexual exploits. This was frowned upon but not unexpected. It did not stop Rohan from being the shining star of the Rohan family. However, whatever hopes Rohan had of political ascendancy were sabotaged–by himself.
In 1771, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Austria, which was of course Marie-Antoinette’s homeland. After warfare and massacres (more on this here), Austria, Prussia, and Russia were set to divvy up Poland between themselves. Cardinal Rohan made quite a spectacle in Vienna on this official business. He incurred the displeasure of the formidable Empress Maria Theresa (Marie Antoinette’s mother) not only by thwarting her policy regarding Poland but by living a little too lavishly and being a little too free with the Austrian women. Madame Campan noted that more silk stockings were sold in Vienna than Paris during Rohan’s first year there; these were contraband in Austria and smuggled in with the official diplomatic pouch. The Cardinal also had the temerity to suggest doing away with the traditional enormous table (which seated 150 people) and replacing it with small tables for 4 to 6 people. Naturally, the relationship between Rohan and Maria Theresa was cool, and no doubt Marie Antoinette, the Dauphine in France, heard about it from her mother and her advisers.
Then Rohan did something truly unforgivable. He wrote a letter to Madame du Barry, the king’s (Louis XV’s) flamboyant mistress, who was one of Marie-Antoinette’s staunchest enemies at Versailles. This was bad enough, but then du Barry read the letter out loud to a group of people at her table. It was a “top-secret report on the imminent partition of Poland at the hands of Russia, Prussia, and Austria” (as Frances Mossiker puts it in The Queen’s Necklace). Said the letter, “I have just come from an audience with the Empress of Austria, and I found her weeping for the woes of the persecuted Poland. In one hand she clutched a handkerchief to stanch her tears, in the other a sword to hack out Austria’s slice of poor butchered Poland.” Right or wrong, it was a horrible faux pax.
From that point on, Marie Antoinette refused to have anything to do with Rohan. So, despite his family connections, he could not achieve everything he wanted. All favors flowed from the queen (she became queen in 1774) since the new king was easily led by her. Because of his family connections, he became Grand Almoner, Bishop, and then Cardinal, but his dreams of being Prime Minister were shattered.
Or so he thought. In 1783, he came into contact with a woman who went by the name Comtesse de La Motte and who apparently was a close friend of the queen’s. They met along the road from Saverne to Strasbourg; she was in the company of her benefactress, the Marquise de Boulainvilliers. Rohan was interested in a reconciliation with the queen and naturally began to strike up a relationship with the Comtesse de La Motte. Chances are he slept with her, but of course we can’t be certain (reading between the lines, I think it’s likely). Rohan met with her in the “Salon des Singes”–the Room of Monkeys. It had cavorting monkeys painted on the walls that hid a secret entrance to the bedroom. There was also a discreet back staircase that led from the bedroom out the back door, saving his female visitors from the “walk of shame”.
Cardinal Rohan was tricked into believing in the Comtesse’s friendship with the queen. The Comtesse could be seen to leave the Petite Trianon as though she had just been in conference with the queen at the queen’s favorite little get away. Making use of a habitual movement the queen made in the Oiel-de-Boeuf Room (“bull’s-eyes room”, an important antechamber at Versailles), she convinced the Cardinal that the queen was nodding at him. He was sent letters on gilt-edged stationary that assured him a reconciliation was in the works and, incidentally but not accidentally, that the queen was in need of some “small” loans of sixty-thousand francs. As a sign of her regard for him, the “queen” agreed to meet the Cardinal in the gardens of Versailles in the summer of 1784. In the nighttime gardens of Versailles, a woman he supposed to be the queen handed him a rose and said, “You know what this means.” It was a sign of the long-awaited reconciliation, surely.
Cardinal Rohan was thoroughly convinced. In the fall of 1784, he was given a letter from the” queen” that asked him to act as go-between in the purchase of a massively expensive diamond necklace from the royal jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge. Rohan was taken in hook, line, and sinker. He signed on as guarantor and believed the necklace was handed over to the queen on February 1, 1785.
Of course, it was all a ruse. The Comtesse was not even a comtesse and was certainly not a friend of the queen’s. She had pocketed all the loans Rohan had given the “queen”, she had orchestrated the scene in the garden (a whore played the part of the queen), and she took the diamond necklace, too. Rohan was left holding the bag; as guarantor, it was technically his responsibility to pay for the missing necklace.
Perhaps everything would have been kept under wraps if the jewelers hadn’t squealed. Rohan would have paid the debt and tried to save his reputation. But when the jewelers got nervous and began to wonder why the queen had not worn the necklace yet, the whole thing blew up. Rohan was soon summoned to account for everything that had happened. He explained what had transpired, clearly understanding by now that he’d been duped. The queen did not believe him; she thought he was the thief and the mastermind behind the entire sordid affair. In full sartorial splendor as Cardinal, Rohan was arrested on August 15. His explanations availed him little, and even his family connections couldn’t help him. The king and queen insisted on a full trial in Parlement to clear the queen’s name. This was a terrible mistake. The king had the power to declare a judgment on the matter, which would have kept it all quiet and avoided the scandal and the damage to the queen’s image that followed.
It was the trial of the century. It was thoroughly scandalous: diamonds, whores, and a Cardinal taken in by an adventuress from the provinces. The sensation spread and irreparably damaged the queen’s reputation. In the end, Rohan was acquitted. This was very bad news for the Queen. Parlement declared in essence that Cardinal Rohan had not been wrong to believe that he had met the queen in a midnight rendezvous in the gardens of Versailles, that the queen was promiscuous and libertine enough to meet a man alone in the dark. It also implicated the queen in the theft of the necklace: many people believed that the queen had really commissioned the necklace but hadn’t wanted to pay for it, so she had made the Comtesse act as a go-between and the Cardinal as guarantor. It was all very shocking. The Cardinal spent some time in the Bastille prior to his acquittal, but then was, technically, free.
Rohan’s acquittal, however, did not stop the king from banishing him to Chaise-Dieu. During the French Revolution, Rohan left France for Germany. His character improved and he spent the remains of his wealth providing for the poor clergy around him. The Rohan family spent decades paying off the debt of the diamond necklace–they were honor-bound to pay the 1.6 million francs owed for the necklace since Cardinal Rohan had been guarantor.
The scandal over the necklace weakened an already-shaky monarchy. When the French Revolution hit, not only the monarchy but the nobility were brought down. Many nobles were hunted down and killed simply for being of noble blood. Oddly enough, Prince Louis de Rohan’s actions played a significant role in the downfall of his own class: the haute noblesse.
Cardinal Rohan died in 1803 at the age of 68.
Mossiker, Frances. The Queen’s Necklace. London: Phoenix, 2004.