A Real Fake Countess–Jeanne de La Motte-Valois’s Lineage

The woman who I usually refer to on this blog as Jeanne de La Motte may have been a liar and a cheat, but like many lies there was a grain of truth in the fabrications.

By the time of the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Jeanne referred to herself as Comtesse. She and her husband had, shortly after they married, assumed the titles of Comte and Comtesse de La Motte-Valois (or just de La Motte for brevity). Neither Jeanne nor her husband, Nicolas Marc-Antoine de La Motte, were entitled to be called comte or comtesse.

Clearly, this didn’t stop them from assuming the titles anyway. It wasn’t just delusions of grandeur. Having a title at that time didn’t just mean you spoke with a posh accent or had a lot of money. In the late 18th century in France, to have a noble title was to have power, or at the very least the possibility of power. It carried its own weight. It especially came in handy when, as Jeanne did, one wanted to pretend to be the Queen’s fiend. Why would Jeanne pretend to be the Queen’s friend? That’s perfectly simple: Jeanne wanted to convince people to give her, Jeanne, money in exchange for peddling her “influence”. Say you were a young noblewoman looking for a place in the Queen’s household. Jeanne, a comtesse, tells you that she has the Queen’s ear and that she can get you the job. This kind of scam was hardly new.

The two biggest victims of Jeanne’s plot were the Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan and the royal jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge. You could add Marie Antoinette (the queen in question, of course) to that list, as well. Jeanne convinced Cardinal Rohan not only that she was a comtesse, but that she could reconcile him with the queen after decades of disfavor. All he had to do as help “the Queen” with some financial difficulties she was having. Later, Jeanne parlayed this trust into the theft of an extraordinarily expensive diamond necklace. The short version of the story is available if you look above and click “the short story”.

But Jeanne, at the least, would have probably felt herself thoroughly justified in calling herself a comtesse, even if it was a false title. Why? Because, adventuress though she was, Jeanne had royal blood in her veins and was one of the last living descendants of the royal Valois.

Jeanne, born in Fontette in 1756, was the daughter of an impoverished scion of the royal house of Valois and one of his family’s housemaids. She was not illegitimate; but her ancestor, the first Baron de Fontette, was illegitimate. He was the son of Henri II and Nicole de Savigny, his mistress. His name was also Henri, and he lived 1557-1621. The first Baron would have been powerful and wealthy, having been given a good apportionment of land by his father, the king. The men of the family tended to render military service to the crown, but over the two centuries between the first Baron’s birth and the birth of Jeanne de Valois de Saint-Remy (Saint-Remy was another appellation of the first Baron), the family sunk deeper and deeper into poverty.

Jeanne’s father was a nobleman without money or land. The family had sold off most of its holdings. They were left with the old, leaky castle, which Jeanne describes as having leaky roofs. Some accounts have Jeanne and her siblings (she had an older brother and two younger sisters) living like animals in a shed. When Jeanne was still quite young, her father took the entire family to Paris to see if their fortunes could be repaired. He died shortly thereafter. Jeanne’s mother, the former housemaid, abandoned her children, who were left to beg. One of Jeanne’s ways of begging was to tell people she had a royal ancestor and was one of the last of the Valois line. This eventually got her the attention of the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, who would provide the young Jeanne with some protection.

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint-Remy

Jeanne was particularly keen on her royal ancestry as her siblings weren’t. Her brother Jacques went into the navy and her sister went into a nunnery. With some help from noble friends, starting with the Marquise, Jeanne’s family were recognized to a point by the crown. The king ranted Jacques the title Baron de Fontette, Jeanne was entitled to call herself Mademoiselle de Valois, and her sister Marianne was to be called Mademoiselle de Saint-Remy. They received a small annuity, which Jeanne viewed as an insult. From the point of view of the crown, it was fair enough; Jeanne was related to the king, but it was a distant relation and she came from the illegitimate branch of the family.

No one, of course, can say for sure, but it seems likely that it was delusions of grandeur instilled in Jeanne by her father that made her long for a lifestyle that was out of her means in ancien regime France. Every bit of money she had went through her fingers like water. When she got hold of some 120,000 francs from Cardinal Rohan, she was suddenly seen living in ostentatious grandeur with lovely new carriages and gold-encrusted everything. This kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon of nobles of the time, who were almost invariably in debt. Jeanne, however, was living so far beyond her means that she was stealing enormous amounts of money to acquire the lifestyle she felt she deserved. She and her husband were known to defraud jewelers by purchasing jewelry on credit (a comtesse could pay for such jewelry, surely?) and then sell it for ready cash.

There is, of course, an element of simple human greed in Jeanne’s story. But it’s also a story of desperation, pride, and a deep feeling of injustice. Jeanne certainly suffered during her childhood. Combined with the stories she was told by her father and his final words to her–to never forget that she was a Valois–this meant that she must have developed a deep, insatiable need to match her outer trappings with what she felt she deserved. She might have gone about it in unethical ways (bribery, probably sexual favors, and out-and-out conning) but to the end, she probably felt she deserved what she took. That is, of course, presuming that she didn’t believe her own stories, most of which are almost certainly at least half lies.

Click HERE for a very nice run-down of Jeanne’s lineage, from the first Baron de Fontette (son of Henri II) down to Jeanne and her family. With Jeanne, this royal line died completely.

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17 thoughts on “A Real Fake Countess–Jeanne de La Motte-Valois’s Lineage

  1. I am trying to establish whether there is any grain of truth in the claim made by Anglo-Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren (1884-1936) that he was (on his mother’s side) the great-great-grandson of Jeanne de la Motte Valois. My limited understanding is that the latter had only two children, both dying in infancy.

    Any thoughts you have on this would be welcome.

    Many thanks,

    John Mitchell

    • That’s my understanding as well. As far as I can tell, Jeanne had twins, who died after only a few days, but never gave birth to any other children.

      I don’t believe she had any secret children. First of all, she wasn’t all that shy about the fact that she slept with several different men, though she was coy. I don’t think she would have been shy about admitting she had given birth to a child that did not belong to her husband. Even if she didn’t want to admit that, she could have easily said the child was his. In fact, it’s possible that the twins were not her husband’s children at all. So, she had no reason to keep a child secret.

      Aside from that, Jeanne was distraught over the death of the infants. The ordeal of childbirth (and possibly the hormones) got to her, and she came close to committing suicide but backed down at the last moment. That suggests that if she’d had any other children, she wouldn’t have given them away or ignored them. She would have welcomed and cherished them.

      And if somehow she’d neglected to mention this child, there ought to be records of baptism at least. There are records, for instance, of Beugnot’s marriage. However, as far as I know, no such records exist.

      In other words, I am fairly certain that if she’d had living children, Jeanne would have informed the world of it.

      There is always the possibility that van Dieren is related to Jeanne through her brother or sister, though again as far I know there are no records of either having children. It was part of the mystique of Jeanne’s death that when she died, so did that particular branch of the Valois family tree.

      • Many thanks for this – most useful to have, especially your thoughts on Jeanne’s attitude to children following the devastation of losing two in infancy.
        The reason I posed the question about van Dieren is that there has been a recent article about him in a journal where this claim about his ancestry has been alluded to. There are many who believe that the man had a large element of the charlatan about him, and what you say on the subject tends to confirm we should view this aspect with suspicion.

  2. How sad, my family told me I was a descendant of that blood line. That the twins you mentioned lived and went to america, and that my some great (not exactly sure how many greats) grandfather went to america and the other to Canada. My name is Christina Marie La Motte, of Oregon:) although it is sad that this may be true, I cant believe my family tales of this might be false. Ill need to do some more digging, thank you for this interesting article

    • Yes, unfortunately, it seems that the Valois line died out with Jeanne because her twin boys did not survive. In her memoirs, Jeanne says that she miscarried of twins: “Some time subsequent to my marriage, I miscarried of twins, which both died.” The twins, I believe, actually lived for a short time but weren’t strong enough to thrive. Jeanne never had any other children.

  3. Well in this article it os said that she had two younger sisters nothing is said about them after the fact!

    • One sister died young, and the other entered a convent if memory serves me correctly. I don’t believe either had children, hence Jeanne being the last of the (illegitimate) Valois line.

    • Robyn, yes she did. She escaped to England, where she wrote several sensational memoirs. She died there after falling from a window (no one really knows whether she was pushed, jumped, or fell by accident).

      • Could she have changed her name there and maybe had a family. Reason I say this is old family story of a De La Motte going to England and changing name to Motte or Monte and having one child (not sure if sex tho).

      • Hi, Robyn! I am afraid that is pretty unlikely. There seem to be several family stories of people being descended from Jeanne, but it seems her only children were twin boys who died in infancy back in France well before the Affair of the Diamond Necklace [and honestly, my impression is that after a difficult childbirth, she wasn’t able to have more children, though I want to stress that it’s impossible to know]. Jeanne’s time in England is pretty well-documented, so I don’t think she changed her name or secretly had children. She stayed in the public eye up until her death. If she’d had another child, it would have been known.

        However, it would make a great story to think she had another child (or children) on the down-low!

      • We traced our family in England, and know originally we came from France but that side of it has been hard to trace, just old family stories and such.

  4. Pingback: Jeanne de La Motte-Valois | First Night History

  5. The La Motte families do not descend from the Valois royal line of France. The mistake comes from Jeanne Saint Remy de Valois self styled “countess de la Motte Valois”.
    Jeanne married Marc Antoine Nicolas de la Motte and had twin sons who died a few days after their birth, and Jeanne did not have any other issue. Jeanne was arrested in 1785 for her alleged part in the theft of a necklace consisting of 2700 carats of diamonds created by Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge, the royal jewelers, who made it for Madame du Barry, Louis the XV’s mistress. The problem was that they had not been commissioned to make it, so there was no guarantee that the king would buy it and unfortunately for them, the king died before the necklace was finished. For the part that she played in what became known as the Affair of the Necklace, Jeanne de La Motte was convicted, branded on both shoulders with “V” for voleuse or thief and was condemned to imprisonment for life at Salpêtriêre, but managed to escape from prison one year later disguised as a boy. She made it to England, where her husband had fled with what remained of the necklace. There she wrote the Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de La Motte: Containing a Compleat Justification of Her Conduct, and an Explanation of the Intrigues and Artifices Used Against Her by Her Enemies, Relative to the Diamond Necklace, a very salacious book about her life, portraying herself as the heroine of her own fabricated tale, a victim of a cruel monarchy and particularly of Marie-Antoinette. Jeanne died in London as a result of injuries sustained after falling from her hotel room window trying to escape the bailiffs sent by her creditors, two years before Marie Antoinette’s execution. There are two accounts on English newspapers on her death. First in the London Chronicle (from Saturday, August 27, to Tuesday, August 30, 1791): ‘The unfortunate Countess de la Motte, who died on Tuesday last in consequence of a hurt from jumping out of a window, was the wife of Count de la Motte, who killed young Grey, the jeweller, in a duel a few days ago at Brussels.’ (This duel is recorded in the London Chronicle, August 20-23.) The other in the Public Advertiser remarks (Friday, August 26, 1791): ‘The noted Countess de la Motte, of Necklace memory, and who lately jumped out of a two-pair of stairs window to avoid the bailiffs, died on Tuesday night last, at eleven o’clock, at her lodgings near Astley’s Riding School.’
    She and her husband defrauded Louis Cardinal de Rohan of close to 3 million livres, one million six hundred thousand livres alone was the reduced price of the necklace, a veritable fortune in those days. The necklace was not recovered and was never seen again, it probably was broken up in England and the diamonds sold for a pittance to English jewellers. Nicolas de la Motte returned to Paris after the Revolution.
    There are many other Saint Remy families in France not related to this line. Be aware that there is a Charles Valois, a musician in Strasbourg, who is a direct descendant of the family Boyval dit Valois of Chambly and who are not related to the Saint Remy de Valois family. If interested in seeing this family descent access this link http://www.audcent.com/audcent4/StRemy.htm

    • There is some great info in your comment! Thanks.

      However, Jeanne and her siblings were descended from an illegitimate branch of the royal family, and were acknowledged by the king as such. They were also given annuities. If I am remembering correctly, Jeanne sold her annuity for cash at one point, which later left her financially strapped. She tried repeatedly to get more money from the king but was turned down.

      • That is correct, their lineage, illegitimate as it was from Henri II affair with his mistress Nicole the Savigny, baroness of Saint Rémy, along with a recognized coat of arms was given by Louis XVI. Her father was acknowledged to have been baron de Saint Rémy, which allowed her the use of mademoiselle de Valois and that of mademoiselle de Saint Rémy for her sister who became a nun. The brother was also given an annuity and a post in the military academy, she and her sister were each granted 900 livres a year. Her annuity was later increased to 1500 livres, which was insufficient to cover the expenditures she made to live in the extravagant style she thought she deserved. She did not die from her fall in London but was severely injured and lingered two and a half months under extreme pain before dying and was buried in a cemetery in London. Her husband lived on for many years, did return to France eventually, and spent the rest of his life extorting money from the Orleans family and government officials. He did remarry in Bar-sur-Aube, Marie Clotilde Boudon and had a son by her, who joined the military and was sent with his batallion to Guadaloupe island where he died of yellow fever without any issue. Nicolas continued using his dubious title of count de Lamotte-Valois, went on with his dirty schemes to the end and even wrote two memoirs of this sordid incident, possibly worse than the one Jeanne published. The first one was never published and the manuscript is in the French National Archives, the second was published in 1858, both versions had ghost writers and what I remember reading about these works is that it was mostly a reworking of libelous pamphlets printed during the revolution and newspapers reports about the Affair of the Necklace. The published memoir was a highly censored version but I do not think that it was translated into any other language. Nicolas tried at least once to commit suicide and finally died in Paris in 1831. All this information is in the book Cagliostro and Company by Frantz Funck-Brentano published in 1902 in New York.

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