The Comtesse’s Song

Having recently (and briefly) dug back into Jeanne de La Motte-Valois‘s memoirs (The Story of My Life, or Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois), I came again across a charming passage which, I think, illustrates Jeanne’s brazenness not so much while she was in jail as after she escaped to England.

To set the scene: Jeanne was arrested in 1785 for her alleged part in the theft of a necklace consisting of 2700 carats of diamonds–and worth a literal fortune. The jewelers were under the impression they had sold the necklace to the Queen discreetly in order to avoid the political backlash that was sure to follow if the Queen squandered her money so frivolously. The Queen claimed she hadn’t bought the necklace, had never intended to buy the necklace, and had no knowledge of where the necklace had gone. Jeanne, a woman who claimed to be the Queen’s friend and a countess, was in the middle of the mystery; the evidence shows that she duped the jewelers and a Cardinal into believing that she was working on the Queen’s behalf, when really she was just trying to spirit away the necklace. Though it’s shrouded in mystery, it appears she succeeded in stealing the necklace. But the web of lies began to fall apart, and Jeanne was clapped in the Bastille. (For a more thorough description of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, see The Short Story tab above.)

Jeanne is writing about her time in the Bastille, after her arrest but before her trial. The Governor of the Bastille, Launay, was later brutally murdered by the men who stormed the fortress only four years later. Shortly following the events of 1785 that she describes, Jeanne was transferred to the Conciergerie, which is adjacent to the Palais de Justice where the trial took place. She was convicted, publicly beaten and branded, and sent to

The Marquis de Launay, Governor of the Bastille, is arrested during the storming of the Bastille; he was brutally murdered by the revolutionaries. Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789 by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand. Source: WikiMedia Commons

the Salpêtrière.

Jeanne writes this, however, from a safe distance. She escaped prison and went to England, where she was welcomed. The English were quite happy to take her in, because her presence was an embarrassment to their perennial enemy, France. In any case, it’s important to remember that Jeanne not only had an agenda, she was creating her own myth. Jeanne made herself heroine of her own tale, the victim of a cruel monarchy,  particularly of Marie-Antoinette. The description of a brave, defiant, downtrodden young woman is part of her own myth. She claims to have charmed pretty much everyone. Can it all be taken seriously? There might be a kernel of truth in it. To me, however, it seems to be mostly fabricated. I think that, while safe in London, she was  brave and defiant, and pretended that she had been the same while locked in the Bastille. This little story about her defiant song is more an indication of how she felt and thought while writing her memoirs than it is an accurate account of her mindset while in prison.

In any case, here is Jeanne’s account of her song:

At some moments, I had such a flow of spirits that I frequently amused myself with singing a number of songs as they succeeded in my mind, blending them all together, without any attention to regularity. Many of the invalids, who heard me, reported to the Governor that a lady in the third Comptée sang at least sixty different songs and airs every day, and that she got up to the window, where they saw her very plainly.

The Governor, upon this intelligence, ordered them to come and listen to what I sang; he also stationed another person to listen attentively to the words of my songs. I was aware of my spy, though he spoke very low. I redoubled my efforts, and sung this passage from Richard, Couer de Lion: “Oh, Richard! oh, mon roi!” (Instead of the name Richard, substituting Valois.) “–by all the world forsook!” I took occasion, in the course of my song, to introduce the name of the Governor, and finished with a loud laugh. The poor Marquis de Pelport, who saw our spy, dared not utter a word, but I, not at all alarmed at the spy, nor having the least fear of the Governor, continued my song.

At eight the same evening, the Governor came to see me. “Oh, oh!” said I to him gaily, “you are very obliging to make me a visit. You wish, then, to gain the goodwill of the prisoners, by coming to see them?” He smiled. “But you are a singer,” said he. “I am very sorry to have interrupted you!”

And this Governor, so very rigid and austere, who had prohibited singing in the Bastille, entreated me to do him the favor to sing a song. I at first hesitated, but after some little consideration, began to sing. And, that I might be heard throughout the Bastille, I sang a brisk tune. As soon as I had finished, “Very well, Governor!” said I rallyingly, “you have not behaved with the greatest consistency in sending my turnkey, St Jean, to desire me not to sing, for that is contrary to the rules of the Bastille, when I can absolutely say that I have authority to sing even from the Governor himself!”

Jeanne de La Motte, “The Story of My Life”

For further reading:

The Story of My Life (or “The Life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Comtesse de La Motte“) as published in English in 1791, and source of the above quote)

Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois, etc., as published in French in 1792

Governor de Launay’s Wikipedia page

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Location, Location, Location

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.

The Rohan family Palace in Saverne.

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…….

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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.