The Bastille and the Diamond Necklace

Since Bastille Day was just a few days ago, I am taking the chance to write about the role of the infamous, famous, and perhaps misunderstood Bastille, in particular as it concerns the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

The Bastille was famous in its day. In the public imagination, the Bastille was a dark hulk of a prison full of terror. Unlike other prisons, the inmates of the Bastille were largely important, or well-to-do, or liable to rouse the rabble. The fortress, built in the 14th century,

The Bastille

was deep, dark, mysterious, and secretive. Jeanne de La Motte referred to it as “that dread prison, the very name of which brings a shudder.” “There, countless victims of arbitrary power languished amidst groans, tears, and curses for the day that gave them birth,” according again to Jeanne (who had a tendency for melodrama when it came to her own suffering and who liked to play victim to the monarchy, justifiably or not).

Like the Tower of London, it was a place of legend, where people had a tendency to simply disappear. Like the Tower, its reputation probably wasn’t entirely earned: Less than a dozen people were executed inside the Tower, and a grand total of seven prisoners were being held in the Bastille when it fell.

But three years before the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, it was the holding pen for Cardinal Rohan, Jeanne de La Motte, Count Cagliostro, and Nicole d’Olva.

Jeanne’s experience gives us an idea of the terror of arriving at a prison with a reputation for being dismal. Jeanne was arrested in her hometown of Bar-sur-Aube and taken to Paris without, apparently, being aware that she had been arrested. When she saw the Bastille, she panicked and had to be calmed. They arrived at 4:00 in the morning to the first inner gate, where the postillion knocked and the guards admitted the carriage. The Comte de Launay, governor of the prison and soon to be a victim of its downfall, came to greet her himself. He treated her kindly and led her to the great hall where she signed the register to mark her entry into the Bastille. She was led up to the Comtée Tower. Jeanne makes a lot of the fact that she wasn’t scared by the moat or the drawbridge or the high tower or the guards, because she was confident in her own innocence.Being rather more skeptical than credulous, I think she is lying through her teeth here and was scared sh–less.

Jeanne encountered the poor conditions and secrecy of the Bastille right away. She was horrified by the “miserable pallet” that she was expected to sleep upon (she got a nice feather bed from her “turnkey”; one can only speculate how she repaid her obliging jailer). When she asked whether Cardinal Rohan was imprisoned nearby, the guard said he had no idea what she meant. Prisoners were told nothing about fellow prisoners, including who those prisoners might be. A prisoner might never know who was in the cell beside them, even if it was their wife or husband or brother or sister. Likewise, prisoners usually knew little about why they were in prison and what their sentence would be. Jeanne, for instance, didn’t know that she would be beaten, branded, and imprisoned for life until they dragged her out of her cell at dawn to carry out the punishment.

Once Jeanne was in her cell, her clothes were searched and a large number of her valuables were stolen (and, in her memoir, Jeanne lists every item in detail in tones of righteous indignation). There was a good deal of bribery and thievery by the guards and officials of the Bastille. Sometimes outsiders were even in bribing their way in to see prisoners.

In fact, pretty much anything and everything was available if you had the money. Wealthy prisoners could simply buy what they wanted to live comfortably within the confines of the Bastille. Cardinal Rohan’s treatment, for instance, was considerably different from Jeanne’s. He was allowed valets and had as many as thirty visitors a day. It paid to be the scion of one of France’s most powerful families.

After these initial arrests of Jeanne and Cardinal Rohan, there followed a veritable revolving door of prisoners coming and going. Nicole d’Oliva was arrested with her male companion, Toussaint de Beausire; Toussaint was set free because he clearly had nothing to do with the plot. Baron da Planta and Ramon de Carbonnieres, associates of Cardinal Rohan, were arrested, but ultimately allowed to leave. Anyone associated with Rohan or the La Mottes were at least brought in for questioning.

During this time of intense activity, there was a small miracle inside the Bastille. On May 12, 1785, Nicole d’Oliva gave birth to a son while still a prisoner. The fate of the boy, Jean Baptiste, isn’t really known, but he did rouse sympathy for his mother in the courtroom. Her predicament brought tears to the eyes of spectators and judges alike; she was acquitted.

The prisoners who were held in the Bastille were later transferred to the Conciergerie and stood trial at the attached Palais de Justice (both of which played a prominent role in the French Revolution as prison and courtroom for those accused in the Terror). Mostly, this ends the direct connection of the Bastille to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, except for one last link: one of the vainqueurs (that is, one of those who stormed the Bastille) was a certain Toussaint de Beausire, former lover of Nicole d’Oliva. He had taken an interest in politics and become a firebrand (at the same time abandoning poor Nicole and their child). One of his fellow firebrands was Camille Desmoulins, who stood on a table at the Palais Royal and pressed his listeners into action–which in this case meant storming the Bastille.

Indirectly, the fall of the Bastille and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace are inextricably linked. The Bastille was symbolic of the power of the monarchy which was corrupt, arbitrary, and at times cruel. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was symbolic of the people’s mistrust in the monarchy: many people continued to believe the Queen had been at the heart of the disappearance of the diamond necklace. More worryingly, perhaps, the people also believed that the Queen met with Cardinal Rohan in a dark garden at midnight–which clearly suggested a sexual relationship. The Affair showed that people believed her capable of this sort of behavior, in fact were willing to attribute this behavior to her even when the evidence didn’t back it up. The Affair damaged Marie-Antoinette’s reputation and reminded the people of the monarchy’s extravagance (the necklace was worth the same price as a war ship) and loss of touch with reality. When Jeanne protested that she had been wronged by the Queen and the corrupt French government, many people sympathized. The Bastille fell three years later because that sentiment grew and festered. The Affair was most certainly a step along the path that led to revolution–a very important step.

It may be apocryphal, but it’s eloquent: it’s said that when a guard brought the news of the storming of the Bastille to the King, he asked, “Well, then is it a revolt?” and was answered, “No, sire, it is a revolution.”

2 thoughts on “The Bastille and the Diamond Necklace

  1. May I ask where you got the photo of the Bastille in the right hand column? I am thinking of using it for a project, and would need to properly cite it. Much thanks!

    • Sandy, the link I have doesn’t work any more, but you can find a lot of good images of the Bastille if you do a Google image search. –Elizabeth

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