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 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.