Madame du Barry and the Diamond Necklace

The Characters #7: Madame du Barry

Every good story starts somewhere, and the origins of the Diamond Necklace Affair–in fact, the origins of the necklace itself–lie with Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, grandfather of Louis XVI and grandfather-in-law to Marie Antoinette.

Women like Madame du Barry weren’t uncommon in royal courts. Generally, they were expected to exist, a la Louis XV’s earlier maîtresse-en-titre Madame de Pompadour or Louis XIV’s mistresses (Madame de Montespan, La Vallière, and many others). There was a delineation of duties between the queen/wife and the mistress. The queen bore children, acted royal, and cemented an alliance with the kingdom from whence she came. The mistress pleased the king, was often the leader of fashion, and was generally there because the kings never got to choose their wives.

Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV and intended purchaser of the Diamond Necklace. (Painted by Vigee Le Brun)

The du Barry was one of the more flamboyant personalities of her time. She entered the king’s life after Madame de Pompadour’s death. She was a courtesan, a beautiful blonde girl who caught the eye of the king. She was married off to a comte du Barry to make her eligible for the vaunted position of royal mistress–yes, apparently even the mistress had to be noble. The king was very fond of du Barry and lavished gifts on her. This is where her personal tastes made an impact on history.

Knowing that she loved diamonds and that her tastes verged on the vulgar, the royal jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge began to assemble diamonds for an enormous necklace named the Slave Collar, meant to grace the neck of Madame du Barry. It was, relatively speaking, reasonable to expect the King to purchase this necklace for his favorite, or for him to give her the means to purchase it for herself. The jewelers, however, didn’t receive a commission for this necklace. They had taken upon themselves the risk of purchasing the diamonds and assembling it in a gaudy setting.

Before the diamonds had been placed in their setting, the King died of smallpox in May 1774. This put his grandson Louis XVI on the throne alongside his wife, Marie Antoinette. The nation rejoiced, but this king was a very different king from his grandfather. Not for him the procession of mistresses. He was, alas, not able in the first years of the marriage to consummate it. This was bad news for the jewelers, who needed someone with flashy tastes who the king was willing to lavish their necklace on. They’d gone deeply into debt to purchase the necklace, and only royalty on the caliber of the French monarchs could afford their necklace.

Luckily, the queen was Marie Antoinette, who as a young woman had expensive tastes and flashy ways. The jewelers obviously weren’t going to be able to sell the necklace to du Barry anymore, since she’d been exiled to a convent. But if the new, pretty, extravagant queen would buy the necklace, they would be saved from ruin. Unfortunately for them, Marie Antoinette didn’t want to buy their necklace. She and du Barry hadn’t gotten along while Marie Antoinette was the dauphine, so aside from the necklace being gaudy and too expensive for even Marie Antoinette to buy on a whim, it also had negative connotations because it had first been offered to the du Barry.

Without Madame du Barry for whom to create this diamond necklace extraordinaire, the entire Affair of the Diamond Necklace probably would have never unfolded. The implications for what might have happened to the monarchy and French history are potentially huge.

Madame du Barry must have been shocked when she learned about the plots surrounding the necklace that had been intended for her. In fact, in the parade of witnesses brought into the Palais de Justice when the conspirators in the theft of the necklace that was initially meant for Madame du Barry, the dead king’s mistress was questioned. As Frances Mossiker, her sudden reappearance on the scene started the rumors flying. What did Madame du Barry know? What part had she played in the theft of the necklace by the Comtesse de la Motte, or Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan?

Madame du Barry arrived at the Palais de Justice on December 7, 1785 to answer the questions of the Parlement (the court). Du Barry told the court that Madame de La Motte had introduced herself with the proposition of being taken on as the royal mistress’s dame de compagnie. She painted herself as graciously turning down the idea because she didn’t need a companion and besides Madame de La Motte made a lot out of having royal blood, which made her overqualified for the position. Madame de La Motte came back again to get Du Barry’s help in putting forward a petition to the king for more money.

The story according to Madame de La Motte is almost unrecognizable. She objected to accusations made by du Barry–that Madame de La Motte had long ago signed her name with “de France”, an incriminating detail. The accusations, she said, came from a twisted memory of genealogical tables Madame had shown du Barry. According to Madame de La Motte’s version, du Barry was unpleasant to the interrogators, refusing to give her name and age.

In either case, Madame du Barry’s evidence didn’t provide the “smoking gun”. In fact, the du Barry knew very little about the necklace. The piece of evidence she gave was intriguing, but didn’t necessarily prove anything. Her recollection of a document on which Madame de La Motte signed herself “de France” was significant because there was a contract to purchase the diamond necklace signed “Marie Anoinette de France.” A real queen of France would never add “de France”; she would let her name stand alone, since she was powerful and regal enough to do without a last name. This suggests that the contract was forged, but then again this was a pretty fair assumption to make anyway.

So in the end, Madame du Barry’s evidence didn’t really add much, but her presence at the trial created a stir and she was, all things considered, the catalyst for the Affair of the Necklace.

Unfortunately, Madame du Barry was a victim of the French Revolution. She was executed in 1793, during the Reign of Terror.