The "Affair of the Diamond Necklace" was the scandal which raised French hatred of Marie Antoinette to a fever pitch. As Napoleon once commented-
"The Queen's death must be dated from the Diamond Necklace Trial".
The trial, and the subsequent Memoirs of its chief feminine player, the Comtesse de la Motte, are also credited by many historians with being the gust of foul wind which finally fanned the long-smouldering fire of popular discontent into the uncontrollable conflagration of the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette's court...
The tale is long, complex and not just a little sordid; it has several different versions (depending on whose memoirs you read), and has been told many times, most recently in a beautifully costumed Hollywood version starring Hilary Swank. The movie, which includes a stirring performance by Miss Swank as the Countess, takes some (but not all) of the Countess's claims at face value, which is another way of saying that it takes extreme liberties with what most historians regard as the actual truth.
Although she claimed to be descended from royalty, it is now generally agreed that Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, Comtesse de la Motte, came of what might be termed "humble origins" and basically talked, schemed and slept herself almost all the way to the Royal Chambers at Versailles.
|Jeanne carried on an affair with the Cardinal Louis Rene Edouard, Prince
de Rohan, a man more attuned to matters earthly than spiritual. Jeanne also borrowed
money from the Cardinal, and was soon deep in his debt. For his part the Cardinal was out
of favor with Marie Antoinette, and was anxious to get into the Queen's good graces, if
not her bed. Jeanne, who was undertaking her own campaign to gain access to the
Queen and have her "family estates" "returned" to her, persuaded
the Cardinal that she had the Queen's ear and could arrange reconciliation.
The gullible and perhaps somewhat oversexed Cardinal agreed and the Countess arranged a correspondence between him and the Queen. His letters to Marie Antoinette were real enough, but never delivered; the Queen's return letters were forgeries produced by Jeanne herself, or possibly her husband, or perhaps her "secretary" and lover, the gallant former-cavalier Retaux de Vilette.
Retaux de Vilette
The famous and scandalous Count Cagliostro, alchemist, healer and all-round man-of mystery, had been befriended by the Cardinal, and the Cardinal relied on Cagliostro's direction and ability to see into the future to direct his dealings with the "Queen". Cagliostro, apparently also taken in by Jeanne, went into trances and told the Cardinal that he saw the Cardinal being favored by the Queen and rising to a very high post in the government. The diabolical farce seemed to reach its climax with a midnight rendezvous in the Grove of Venus at the Palais-Royal Gardens, between the Cardinal and "Marie Antoinette" -actually an actress (or prostitute, or perhaps both, who could keep track at this point?) named Mademoiselle Leguay d'Olivia, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the Queen... and then the extravagant and fabulously costly diamond necklace entered the scene.
|Ah, the necklace...
The Diamond Necklace came into being courtesy of a firm of Parisian jewelers who had, several years earlier, made it (so they had unwisely speculated) to sell to Madame du Barry. They had tried to interest Marie Antoinette in the necklace several times, and although she had been tempted, she considered it too extravagant and had refused to purchase it. Now the jewelers, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of the interest payments on the money they had borrowed to buy the stones, approached the Countess, who openly boasted about how close she was to the Queen, and asked her to persuade Antoinette to buy the overwrought bauble which was worth as much as a full-rigged warship.
Jeanne shrewdly took the matter to the Cardinal, who was very much inclined to negotiate a purchase he thought would endear him further to Marie. Once more the Cardinal consulted the Count Cagliostro, and once more Cagliostro went into a trance and foresaw the Cardinal enriched and rewarded by the Queen with a post at the highest rank of the government. More outrageous lies, forgeries and deception ensued, and in the end the Queen agreed to purchase the necklace, or so the lovesick Cardinal and desperate jewellers thought. The jewelers delivered the necklace to the Cardinal, and the Cardinal delivered it to a trusted servant of the Queen (or so it appeared) and then the necklace simply vanished!
The first Marie Antoinette knew of all this was when the jewelers (most humbly and very, very anxiously) sent her a dunning letter for the gigantic unpaid bill. Then, as they say, all Hell broke loose. The scandal became public; the Cardinal was denounced, and Jeanne was arrested along with just about everybody else who had ever as much as shaken hands with the Cardinal. Acting against some very good advice, Marie Antoinette insisted on a trial for the Cardinal on the charge that he was guilty simply because he had believed that she was capable of having the sort of "relationship" with him he had thought she had. This, of course, played right into the hands of the Queen's numerous enemies who were only too happy to have publicly broadcast the exact nature of what the Cardinal had thought were the Queen's morals, or lack thereof.
There followed a sensational trial, which was ostensibly about the Cardinal's actions but was really about the Queen's reputation. Jeanne's lawyer was Maitre Doillot, a respected advocate who was in somewhat over his head in dealing with Jeanne. He was the family lawyer of the Paris Police Lieutenant General, and had been recommended to Jeanne by that worthy as a favor -for what we will not speculate, though many others did at the time. The Count Beugnot, himself a lawyer (and another one of Jeanne's former lovers) had turned down her plea that he defend her, and had this to say about Maitre Doillot-
|"Doillot had been in practice before the Paris bar for many, many years, and not without renown. Deep in his sixties or beyond, he had retired to his study, where he was still consulted as an eminent jurist. Even a sage old gentleman such as this could not with impunity survive close contact with the Countess de la Motte. She completely turned his head. He believed implicitly all the tales she spun him, became emotionally involved with his client and put up an impassioned defense of her innocence, making his debut in the case with the publication of a trial brief, the most extravagant defense plea ever to flow from the pen of an attorney in all the years since attorneys first began composing defense pleas. Fantastic as a tale out of 'The Arabian Nights', it enjoyed, nonetheless, a sensational success. And to think that it was the composition of a venerable white-wig of seventy summers!".||
The Abbe Georgel called Doillot's first plea "a tissue of lies, of striking improbabilities, contradictions and anachronisms". According to Mossiker, Doillot's own brother agreed-
"The man has either gone stark raving mad or Madame de la Motte has bewitched him as she did the Cardinal".
||After much scandal mongering in both the courtroom and the streets the Queen's enemies won and the Cardinal was acquitted. Others were not so lucky- the Count Cagliostro was exiled from France, and eventually returned to Italy where he was arrested and convicted on charges of practicing Freemasonry; he died in prison in 1795. Jeanne was convicted and whipped, branded, and thrown into the Bastille at which point she may (or may not) have had a fling with its Governor, the poor Launay, who would lose his head at the hands of the mob when they stormed the ancient fortress a few months later.|
Jeanne was now a favorite of the anti-Antoinette faction, which was growing quickly in France, and she was able to intrigue to escape the country and made her way, with her husband, to London.
Jeanne, disguised, escapes with her maid from the Bastille
Once there she immediately set out on a plan of revenge against the Queen which took the form of her famous "Memoires Justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de la Motte". These contained her own highly slanted version of her life and the Diamond Necklace Affair, as well as some thirty pieces of correspondence she claimed had passed between the Cardinal and the Queen.
"From the moment of my arrival in London," she wrote, "my first and only thought had been publication of my justification for the eyes of all the world... I too would have preferred to spare the honour of the Queen, and I tried to warn her Majesty that I was in Possession of certain letters...incriminating her and exculpating me... All I asked in return was restitution of property rightfully mine which had been seized, after an iniquitous verdict, to enrich the coffers of the King. But I really never considered it likely that the French court would capitulate to those terms, and besides, my main goal was public vindication. To this purpose, then, I eagerly took up my pen, denying my feeble, tortured body even the minimal physical requirements of nourishment and sleep until my memoirs should be ready for publication. Although we were obliged to borrow money to defray the costs of printing, five thousand copies in French have now come off the press, and three thousand more in English; the latter went on sale at a guinea each in New Bond Street shops."
|The readers of England and France could not get enough of the Countess's memoirs, although what you thought of them depended on which side of the Royal table you sat on- "a cesspool of calumny" was the verdict of the Abbe Georgel, friend and secretary of Cardinal Rohan. In October of 1789 a "Second Memoirs justicatif", much more barbed and venomous than the first, was rushed to the printers, another direct attack on the Queen by Jeanne, published in French and English and distributed in Paris where it stirred the mobs to a new frenzy. Mirabeau said of the Countess- "Madame de La Motte's voice alone brought on the horrors of July 14 and of October 5" (the storming of Versailles and the slaughter of the troops there by the 'Women's Army').||
The storming of Versaille by the "Women's Army on October 5th
Her works spawned a storm of other pamphlets, each one trying to outdo the other in decrying the licentiousness and debauchery of the Queen. Frances Mossiker, in "The Queen's Necklace", notes, however, that's Jeanne's works were the most influential-
"There were other attacks perhaps more obscene, but they were published under noms de plume and therefore were never as pungent and convincing as those signed by a real-life name, a name famous, moreover, throughout Europe ever since the Necklace Trial".
In 1791 the Countess's two volume "Story of My Life" came off the presses, but Jeanne would not live to enjoy its fruits. In early June the London newspapers reported that a London bailiff had appeared at her lodgings to serve an order for her mounting debts. Others said that the men were actually secret agents sent by the Duke of Orleans; that was what Jeanne believed, and to get away from them she barricaded herself in and then climbed out a third floor window, falling to the street below. Badly injured, she lingered in extreme pain through the hot weeks of July and into August, when, on August 23rd, 1791, she died. She was buried a few days later in the churchyard of St. Mary's, in Lambeth. The Queen against whom Jeanne had intrigued for so long survived her by just two years, one month, and 23 days, before mounting the steps to the guillotine in Paris to the howling delight of the mob.
© Forrest Proper
Jacques Louis David's sketch of
Marie Antoinette awaiting
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