The Verdict


If you don’t want to know what happened to whom, then please don’t read on! If, however, you’re curious about what happened to all these characters who I have bringing to you one by one, then please read on.

Early on the morning of Mary 31, 1786, the courtyard of the Palais de Justice and all of the surrounding streets and byways were filled with people waiting to hear the verdict in the trial of the century, a trial that had captured the imagination on the entire French kingdom. A Cardinal of the Church was accused of theft, forgery, and lèse-majesté(criminal disrespect for the person of the monarch, in this case Marie-Antoinette); a young, pretty adventuress was accused of masterminding a plot to steal a necklace worth a large fortune and tricking the Cardinal; a mystic, Rosicrucian, and fraud was accused of–sort of, somehow–being involved in the theft; and a young prostitute was accused of impersonating the queen in the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles.

Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan had a very large, very powerful family. As court was opened very early on May 31st, 19 powerful members of his family (from the Soubise, Guéménée, and Lorraine) arrived in mourning. It was a show of support for their relative and respect for the Parlement de Paris, the court hearing the case.

Before this trial began, many witnesses had been examined. It was something of a parade, including everyone from a clockmaker to the Du Barry herself. The Prosecutor General, Monsieur Joly de Fleury, wrote down his recommendations to the court before the accused were brought before it. The recommendations were sealed, to be opened after the accused persons were questioned by the lords of the Parlement. Once this was done, the seal would be broken and the recommendations read and the voted on.

This is what happened on May 31st. The defendants, who were not present, were Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, Retaux de Villette (Madame de La Motte’s “personal secretary”), Count Cagliostro (the mystic), Cardinal Rohan, Nicolas de La Motte (Madame de La Motte’s husband, currently in England, where he fled the moment his wife was arrested), and Nicole d’Oliva (the prostitute).

The recommendations were opened and read, as follows.

1. The contract that had been presented to the court, supposedly giving the Queen’s consent to purchase a massively expensive diamond necklace, was declared a forgery. The signature “Marie Antoinette de France” was declared false.

2. Retaux de Villette, the man accused of forging said document, was sentenced to banishment from France, his belongings forfeit to the king.

3. Nicole d’Oliva, the prostitute tricked into impersonating the Queen, was acquitted but given a reprimand by the Court for presuming the impersonate the Queen.

4. Count Cagliostro was acquitted without even a reprimand.

5. Nicolas de La Motte was sentenced in absentia to be flogged, naked, with rods, branded with a hot iron, sent to the galleys for life, and to have all his goods forfeit to the King.

6. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was condemned to be flogged and beaten, naked, with rods, to be branded upon both shoulders with a V (for voleuse or thief), to be imprisoned for life, and to have all her goods forfeit to the King. This was the harshest penalty short of death, which couldn’t be given in this case.

Before recommendation 7 was read, 13 of the judges absented themselves. As Frances Mossiker relates, they withdrew “upon the proposition by the pro-Rohan judges Saint-Vincent and Du Sejour that the Countess de La Motte-Valois be sentenced to pain of death. The death penalty being legally inapplicable in this instance, the recommendation thereto was merely a technical maneuver to effect the retirement of the clerical party (the majority of whom were know to be unfavorable to the Cardinal), who were under ecclesiastical charges prohibiting their participation in cases involving capital punishment.” (pg 460)

7. The recommendation was for Cardinal Rohan to be forced to give a public apology for his criminal temerity in presuming the Queen would entrust him as an intermediary in the sale of the diamond necklace and for his temerity in believing the Queen would meet him at midnight in the palace gardens. He was also to loose all of his many offices, to give special alms to the poor, and to be exiled from royal residences for life.

Up until now, the judges of the Parlement had voted unanimously to adopt the recommendations of Prosecutor General Fleury. This final recommendation caused a massive amount of dissent. There was even a shouting match, according to Maitre Target, one of the counselors in the legal battle. Seguier said that Fleury was dishonoring himself by making such a recommendation to the court. Fleury responded by saying Seguier was a libertine; Seguier admitted to frequenting brothels.

The President of the Parlement suggested that the sentence for Cardinal Rohan be lightened. Partway through the ensuing arguments, they broke for lunch. The discussions became rather heated. One judge noted that it was sad that the youthful king’s advisers had not steered him away from such a public airing of this matter.

Finally, the vote was taken, twenty six to twenty three. Cardinal Rohan was acquitted at 9 o’clock that night.

This was fantastic news for the Cardinal. Madame de La Motte and Retaux de Villette must have not been quite as pleased with the results. Nicole d’Oliva and Count Cagliostro were free to go. The enormous crowds threw up wild cheers to learn that the Cardinal was acquitted. They were very much on his side, believing the trial and the necklace theft was an elaborate scheme by the Queen to ruin her enemy the Cardinal.

The Queen was distraught and upset, as well she might be. The illusion of respect for the Queen was more or less shattered. By not convicting Rohan, they were in essence impugning the Queen’s honor. The Cardinal had not been out of his mind when he thought he was meeting with her in the gardens of Versailles; therefore she was morally loose, given to midnight rendezvous, and possibly even involved in the theft of the diamond necklace. It was a terrible blow to her reputation, a blow which she never really did recover from. It was a very bad sign that the public was so quick to believe the worst of her and to support Cardinal Rohan. It was only a few years later that the same public would execute that same Queen whose honor had been outraged by the Parlement’s decision.

One thought on “The Verdict

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Marie Antoinette's Diamonds

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