You might be surprised that the setting for the Affair of the Necklace was not just Versailles, nor even just Paris. In fact, the setting wasn’t even restricted to France. To understand what occurred in 1784-6, we have to look at what happened before and afterwards. This means going from the town of Fontette to Brussels to London.
Fontette and Bar-sur-Aube: It was in the small town of Fontette, France, in the Aube department in the Champagne-Ardenne region, that Jeanne de Valois was born in 1756 to the last scion of a bastard line of the royal Valois family–and his wife, a former servant girl. About 15 miles away is the town of Bar-sur-Aube, which was a much larger town and the home of Jacques Claude Beugnot, who knew Jeanne longer than almost anyone else. It was in the dilapidated château de Fontette that Jeanne grew up in poverty. When she was still young, she was, according to her own tale, taken to Paris with her siblings by her parents. She returned to the region on occasion, to Bar-sur-Aube. It was here that she truly met Beugnot, when both were young adults. It’s possible he had been aware of Jeanne and her family as a child. Later, Jeanne would go to Paris and Versailles in an attempt to make good on the famous Valois name. She returned in triumph to Bar-sur-Aube after defrauding Cardinal Rohan out of a significant amount of money. It was here that she was later arrested for the theft of the Diamond Necklace (actually, she was told she was being “escorted” to Paris, but of course she was escorted right to the Bastille). This sleepy little town was the birthplace of one of the most famous ladies of her day.
Strasbourg and Saverne: Located in the long-disputed Alsace region in France, Saverne was the familial home of the Rohans. Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan lived in the Château de Rohan there, but the nearby and larger town of Strasbourg was a common stomping ground. It was here in 1770 in Strasbourg that Marie Antoinette was first welcomed into France as the young bride of the dauphin Louis Auguste. She was greeted at the cathedral by none other than Cardinal (then bishop) Prince Rohan himself. He conducted mass for her benefit. Many years later, another lady, the Marquise de Boullainvilliers, arrived in Saverne to visit the Cardinal (and stopped along the way in nearby Strasbourg to visit the mystic/confidence man Count Cagliostro, who became a confidante of Rohan and later moved into Rohan’s palace in Saverne). In the Marquise’s wake came a young Jeanne de La Motte-Valois and her husband. Jeanne was the Marquise’s ward; her husband had just been discharged from his garrison at Luneville, and the couple were apparently looking to get some help from the Marquise. It was here that Jeanne first met the Cardinal who she would, later, use as part of her plot to steal the Diamond Necklace. This is where the most important meetings of the Affair took place. This is where the paths of the major players crossed. It was only a few years later, in 1784-6 that these connections would be used as part of a massive theft.
Versailles: The town of Versailles is not the same as the palace of Versailles–though usually “Versailles” refers to the palace. In the late 18th century, before the Revolution, the palace was the center of power. Most courtiers were housed in the vast palace complex, but some people lived outside the palace gates in the town. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois (self-styled “Comtesse” de La Motte) had a house outside the palace, according to Nicole d’Oliva, the prostitute hired by the Comtesse to play the part of the Queen as part of a hoax. This house was apparently on the Place Dauphine, a small square off of the southeast corner of the Palace. For some time, this is where the Comtesse lived as she weaseled her way into the confidence of credulous courtiers…….
Château de Versailles: The Palace of Versailles is one of the most famous palaces in the world, renowned for its art, beauty, baroque extravagance, and being the home of kings and queens. It was built by Louis XIV, the Sun King, who made it the base for governing as an absolute monarch. Several generations later, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were on the throne, living at Versailles for much of the year, and following the Sun King’s many, many rules of etiquette. It was here in the public halls that Jeanne de La Motte Valois staged her play. She fainted several times in front of Madame Elisabeth, the king’s sister in an attempt to get the princess’s attention. She tried repeatedly to get more money from the crown, since she was very distantly related to the king. It was here that she began to scheme; she pretended to be coming and going from the Queen’s private chamber and her private mini-palace, the Petit Trianon. It was at Versailles, in the Oeil de Boeuf, that she fooled her victims into believing that the Queen was nodding at her when in fact the queen was simply nodding in her general direction. It was here the Cardinal Rohan was very publicly arrested when the plot to steal the diamond necklace was revealed. Only a few years after the Cardinal’s arrest, Versailles was ransacked by an angry mob as a symbol of the hated monarchy, especially Marie Antoinette, whom many still blamed for the theft of the necklace.
Paris: Paris is one and was one of the grandest cities in the world. It was a smaller city and less linear in the late 18th century. The Bastille still stood, there was no Arc d’Triumph, and the Louvre was still a palace. This beacon of opportunty attracted the young Valois family from Fontette. In Paris, young Jeanne de Valois (later La Motte-Valois), her brother, and her sister begged on the streets until a kind noblewoman (the Marquise de Boulainvilliers) took them on as wards. Jeanne lived a nomadic life for some time, following her benefactress or following the Court between palaces. She did however end up living in the Rue Neuve St-Gilles. Paris was also the home of Nicole d’Oliva, who lived there all her life. It was in Paris that Nicole met Nicolas de La Motte, Jeanne’s husband. Later, Nicole, Jeanne, and several others were arrested and imprisoned in Paris, first at the Bastille and then at the Conciergerie. Outside the Conciergerie and Palais de Justice (part of the same complex) Jeanne was publicly beaten and branded. She was then moved to the Salpetriere to carry out a life sentence, but she escaped shortly afterwards. Paris was the center of the storm when the scandal of the Affair od the Necklace broke; it was also the center of the storm that became the French Revolution when all the elements that had created the furor over a necklace created an even larger furor over the rights of man.
Brussels: Brussels plays a part in this story in one specific way: this is where Nicole d’Oliva was arrested in connection to the theft of a very expensive diamond necklace. Nicole had played a part in convincing Cardinal Rohan that the Queen had, in fact, authorized him to purchase that diamond necklace. She had pretended to be the Queen and to give him her blessing. She almost certainly had no idea what she was doing. It so happened that, the summer after she acted the part of the Queen, Nicole was in Brussels with a main name Toussaint de Beausire. He was her paramour and she would give birth to his child while incarcerated in the Bastille. Unluckily for the couple, Belgium was under France’s control, so one morning the police knocked on her door and escorted them to the Bastille. Toussaint was quickly released since he had nothing to do with the plot, but Nicole wa sin jail for several months, endured the trial of the century (to that point, at least), and was finally acquitted. I personally believe that Nicole, though a prostitute, may have known that the plot was beginning to unravel. She might have learned that she had unwittingly played a part in a spectacular con job, and if so she might have recognized signs of danger when the La Mottes began clearing out of Paris. It is possible, therefore, that Nicole had fled to Brussels to try to escape the storm. The only problem, of course, is that Belgium wasn’t, at that time, a very good place to escape from French authorities. Still, it might have seemed to be a good place to flee, since they spoke French and it was not so far away as, say, England . . .
London: . . . because England was, for many a Frenchman or Frenchwoman trying to escape the authorities, a natural place to go. England and France were perennial enemies, and the English often took that attitude that anything which might annoy the French was a very good idea. That meant harboring people who had irritated the French government. Nicolas de La Motte very cleverly made a beeline for the Channel after his wife was arrested. It is said that, well before anyone was arrested, Monsieur de La Motte could be found in London jewelry shops selling diamonds. He went back to London when it appeared the government had finally caught on to the disappearance of a diamond necklace worth a fortune. He lived out his life quite comfortably there, apparently being paid to not write his memoirs and protected by the British government that didn’t really feel like turning him over. His wife Jeanne joined him after escaping from prison. She lived in London for a while, writing her own salacious memoirs that stirred up a lot of unrest back home in France. Jeanne died in London in 1791, having either fallen or been pushed out of a window.