The Short Story

la reine en gaulle

"La Reine en Gaulle" by Vigee le Brun--the inspiration for the Grove of Venus scene, in which a prostitute wearing a white gown handed a flower to Cardinal Rohan, who believed he was being given a rose by Marie Antoinette.

This is a quick overview of the crazy but true events of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

Jeane de Valois de St-Remy was born to a noble but impoverished family. One of her ancestors was the illegitimate son of Henri II, king of France. Her family had been slowly declining in wealth and was basically penniless. Her mother was a servant in the household, her father a rather weak man. Jeanne’s childhood was troubled; she was orphaned and begged on the streets, was put to work in couturier shops, and eventually wed a young man from her hometown named Nicolas de La Motte.

The La Mottes were in a bad financial state as well. Even so, they began to refer to themselves as Comte and Comtesse de La Motte, despite having no right to the title. Jeanne spent many fruitless years attempting to get the attention of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, or their ministers. She failed to get more than a small pension, which she and her husband quickly spent.

Her next step was lying through her teeth. She found that even suggesting she was a friend of the Queen’s could be lucrative. She pretended to have influence with the Queen, even going so far as to make it look as though she came from the private gatherings at the Petite Trianon. People were willing to make friends with someone who was a friend with the Queen. She was able to get some money out of them as well as hospitality.

One of the biggest fish she hooked was Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. He was from an extremely wealthy and powerful family, the Rohan family, and was of course a Cardinal. He was in his early fifties but handsome and a womanizer. He was also in disfavor with the Queen. Many years earlier, he had insulted the Queen’s mother, Maria Theresa, and Marie Antoinette had never forgiven him. Jeanne had met the Cardinal through a noble friend, the Marquise de Boulainvillers. She told the Cardinal that, as a good friend of Her Majesty, she could repair the broken relationship. She and her “personal secretary” Reatux de Villette composed forged letters to convince the Cardinal to send “the Queen” money. She needed just a little loan to tide her over. The Cardinal, thinking he was making friends with the Queen, sent the money, which of course went to putting clocks on the mantel and find hangings on the beds in the La Motte household.

At some point (there are different versions of exactly how and when), Jeanne learned about a diamond necklace created by Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge, the royal jewelers. They had begun assembling a huge pile of diamonds to make the most extravagant necklace ever produced. They intended for Louis XV (grandfather of Louis XVI) to buy the necklace for his mistress, Madame du Barry (or perhaps for her to buy it herself using the King’s money, but it amounts to the same thing). The problem is that they had not been commissioned to make the necklace, and there was no guarantee that the king would buy it. Unfortunately for them, the king died before the necklace was finished. The new king had no flashy mistress, so the jewelers tried to interest Marie Antoinette, the new queen, in the massively expensive necklace. It wasn’t really to her taste, though, and besides the country was going through economic troubles. She couldn’t buy the necklace and didn’t want to anyway. The jewelers had mortgaged everything they owned to buy the stones. Now they had everything invested in a necklace that they couldn’t sell.

So, there were two very desperate people (counting the two jewelers as one entity). Jeanne fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, seeing where she could play them off one another. Forged letters were sent to the Cardinal: the queen really would like to buy the necklace, but she didn’t dare do it publically. However, “the queen” could get an intermediary to buy it for her. She had chosen the Cardinal to do it. All he had to do was sign his name as guarantor.

The necklace, worth 1.6 million livres, was worth a large fortune, not just a small fortune. Cardinal Rohan showed some signs of uneasiness. To convince him, Jeanne arranged for him to “meet the queen in person”–a hoax. He was told to go to the gardens at the Chateau de Versailles at midnight, where the queen would personally give her blessing. Jeanne hired a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva to play the part of the queen. Oliva wore a loose white gown (the queen’s favorite fashion) and told him, “You know what this means.” The Cardinal was convinced.

With all the niceties arranged, the necklace was handed off on February 1, 1785. Cardinal Rohan was given the necklace by the jewelers. He took it to Jeanne’s rooms in Versailles, where it was given to a man in livery whom the Cardinal believed was a messenger from the queen. Instead, it was Jeanne’s secretary Villette. Soon, Monsieur de La Motte was in London selling off diamonds and there was evidence of a sudden economic upturn in the La Motte household.

By that summer, the plot was beginning to come to light. It took some time for the queen to pay attention to the strange messages being sent by her jewelers. She continued to think that they were pestering her to buy the necklace. Finally, it came to light that the Cardinal had bought the necklace in her name but that the necklace was nowhere to be found. On August 15, the Cardinal was arrested. Within a few days, so was Jeanne de La Motte. Following not long after were Nicole d’Oliva, Villette, and the mystic/fraud Count Cagliostro (who had been flitting around the La Motte’s social set). Monsieur de La Motte stayed safely in England.

The matter could have been handled quietly. Louis XVI could have pronounced summary judgment. It was his prerogative as king to do so. Marie Antoinette, however, wanted to be publically vindicated. This backfired massively. It was an enormous mistake. The trial was sensational. During the entire thing, the queen’s name was dragged through the mud. The queen couldn’t be tried, but she was essentially deemed guilty of being loose and immoral. The court acquitted Rohan. The charge was criminal disrespect for the queen for presuming to think she would meet with him at midnight in the gardens of Versailles. When he was acquitted, the Court was saying that it had been reasonable for Rohan to expect such a thing. It was an insult to the queen. It was an enormous blow to her public image that she never recovered form. May people also believed that she had orchestrated the entire thing just so that she could force the Cardinal into an embarrassing position.

Jeanne de La Motte was convicted. She was branded on both soldiers with “v” for voleuse or thief. She was condemned to imprisonment for life, but managed to escape from prison. She made it to England, where she wrote salacious memoirs about her life. She died shortly before Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793.

16 thoughts on “The Short Story

  1. Muy interesante. la historia una y otra vez muestra como las mujeres son usadas por los hombres del poder. Nosotras somos siempre las culpables y los hombres los “Inteligentes ” , nosotras cambiamos la historia y los hombres se llevan la gloria , hay que recordar la terrible vida de la otra Jeanne de valois , la santa 1400-. es algo que se repite hasta nuestros dias y doy fe porque soy argentina y tuve una gran mujer en mi historia EVA Duarte (PERON).-

    • It’s the whole story–shortened. If you want the short-short version, it’s this: Jeanne de La Motte-Valois stole a diamond necklace and Marie-Antoinette was blamed. That work for you?

      In any case, the English is perfectly understandable. Names and places might be unfamiliar (and French), but otherwise it’s completely comprehensible. If you have any quibbles, please be specific.

  2. I love this, thank you for the story… It’s hilarious how the other two people complained about the length of it. I wonder, was there ever, or have you ever, seen a photo of the necklace?

    • Hi, Niki! Thanks. There was never any photo of the necklace. Whoever stole the necklace took the stones from the setting and sold them off, most likely one at a time. This all happened in the 1780’s, about a half a century before photography came about. The necklace and its stones are lost to history.

  3. Long? This is the most concise, easily follow-able account I’ve heard 🙂 Thanks a lot! I’d heard bits and pieces, but was only getting more confuzzled. Now I think I understand… 🙂 Thanks again!

  4. I know this was written a couple years ago-but i want to say I have read a ton online about this event and this is by far the best SUMMARY that I have read, You did an excellent job! I am answering a question on a college level movie review ” analyze the entire movie (The affair of the necklace-starring Hilary Swank) in the light of what actually happened historically.
    Can you help with this? I over think things and spend far too much time focusing on the wrong pieces of the puzzle!
    But thanks again for your summary length is perfect btw. haha, people are so petty!

    • I don’t think I can really offer any help, but there ARE quite a lot of inaccuracies in the film (particularly in how they portray Jeanne’s childhood). The question for you to answer, I think, is why they might have made those changes. Best of luck!

  5. Thanks for this! It was really helpful and by far the most understandable account of this. I don’t know why other people complained that it’s long; I thought the length was good. I know this was written many years ago, but I just hope you know how helpful you’ve been for my homework on this event.

    • Well, I’m glad it was helpful, though I’m not a primary or scholarly source!

      Long is relative. I (literally) write novels, so this is nothing.

  6. i am reading the biography of marie antoniette by antonia fraser. i couldn’t understand the author explanation about the necklace affair. your explanation helped a lot.
    thank you

  7. If, in a Court, a Country sided against its Queen, with a verdict of “not guilty”, why would you assume that Jeanne was guilty? She ended her days in England, murdered (I don’t believe for a minute that she plucked out her own eye, broke her own arm and both legs, before jumping from a window to her death). It is obvious, that someone tortured her to try to get to the diamonds, they still believed she had in her possession, or knew the whereabouts of. She may have been a pawn in a scheme that she obviously did not benefit from. She historically, depended on men of power to protect her and take care of her (as many women at the time did to prevent starvation), and I believe she was ill used at the end of her life. The public sentiment at the time was that the Queen, herself, was capable of arranging all the necklace scheme being someone familiar with court intrigue – why is it so hard to imagine that to be the truth? Jeanne spent her remaining days in poverty – surely not the life of someone who had diamonds. Her nobility link may have been quite thin, but she and the Count de la Motte, did get public funds in support of this nobiity; so it was certainly a recognized connection to Royalty – I think this is just a matter of wrong time, wrong place.

    • Nancy, thanks for your comment. I don’t quite know what you mean. The court found Jeanne de La Motte guilty, and she was jailed and publicly whipped and branded. I’m also not *assuming* she’s guilty, I came to that conclusion based on what we know of the events. I’m also not sure what you mean about plucking out her own eye. I’m not sure of the details of her injuries after the fall she took in London (no matter whether it was accidental or purposeful). I don’t know whether she lost an eye or not. But either way, that would have surely been the result of the fall, and not something she did to herself beforehand (if that’s what you mean). She does seem to have had streaks of what might have been depression, and keep in mind that people *were* after her, which could have made her desperate. So she might well have been pushed, but it’s also possible that she let herself fall, or that it was simply an accident. I tend to think someone did push her, though we’ll never really know.

      I don’t necessarily believe the Queen wasn’t capable of stealing something, but I don’t think she did. Ii think she got herself a bad reputation, so people *believed* she was capable of that kind of behavior (as Frances Mossiker, the kind of rumors about her would have never stuck to a Queen Victoria of Queen Elizabeth II). Conversely, I *do* believe Jeanne did it because so much evidence clearly points to her. She was the one carrying notes back and forth (or rather forging them and giving them to people), and she was the one who took the necklace from the jewelers to “give it to the queen”–after which point it was never seen again. Her husband then showed up in London with diamonds . . .

  8. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was so important in France in the 1780s that Napoleon (a pretty credible analyst, even though he was only 17 at the time of the trial) later declared it to have been the real beginning of the Revolution. It was probably the worst single scandal France saw between the “Affair of the Poisons” at the court of Louis XIV, a century earlier, and the Dreyfus Affair, a century later. Fascinating and little-known fact: the family of the Cardinal de Rohan made steady payments to the families of Boehmer and Bassange, the two jewellers who had been ruined by their investment in the creation of the necklace, for generations, until the entire cost was finally paid off — in 1905! When asked why they had done this, a spokesman for the Rohan family said: “While it is true that our kinsman (the Cardinal) was the victim of a fraud, and thus was not legally responsible, we felt that it was a stain.upon the family honor for a document bearing the signature of a Rohan, promising to guarantee the purchase, to be in existence. Also, settling this debt was one way for us to show our devotion to our dear Queen, whose tragic fate was set in motion by this terrible business.” Talk about a “beau geste”! When Guy de Maupassant wrote his classic short story “The Necklace” (which had nothing to do with the Necklace Affair), he might just as easily have chosen the honorable Rohans as his subject, and given the story the same title. Maybe a good writer can still get some mileage out of this aspect of the case.

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