The Affair Of The Diamond Necklace, Or How A Queen Lost Her Head

Historical Facts | July 11, 2021

Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace reads more like a farce than a factual account, but then again, a lot about 18th-century Versailles leaned toward the ridiculous. French society during the 1700s was deeply divided between the super wealthy and the struggling peasant class, with next to no social mobility available to those at the bottom. No one knew this better, perhaps, than the young Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, who—despite being descended from royalty—was forced to beg on the street for food when her alcoholic father failed to provide even the barest of necessities for his children.

How could a noble descend to such woe? Well, despite being the biological descendant of King Henry II, her lineage traced back to an "illegitimate" affair. That meant poor Jeanne was not afforded all the wonders of royal life, but she did gain something of an education and married Nicholas de la Motte, a French adventurer, though it was noted that she appeared quite pregnant at their wedding. As a child of the street but with such close proximity to one of the most powerful and richest families on the planet, Jeanne was determined to use whatever leverage she had to make her and her family's life more comfortable than the difficult upbringing she'd had to endure.

Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite its grandeur, some parts of the Palace of Versailles were actually opened to the public, so long as they were "appropriately dressed." Jeanne used this to her advantage, often donning her finest attire and strolling through the gardens and corridors as if she owned the place. It was here, in 1785, that she met Cardinal de Rohan. Despite being a former ambassador, he had fallen out of Queen Marie Antoinette's favor due to his contentious relationship with her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Seeing an opportunity, Jeanne convinced the extremely wealthy cardinal that the queen was her very best friend, but it was a secret due to her lower station, and she could arrange for him to correspond with her in an attempt to regain her favor.

What commenced was a form of catfishing so impressive that even the most savvy of modern con artists would have to tip their hats to it. Instead of delivering the cardinal's letters to the queen, with whom Jeanne had no personal relationship whatsoever, she answered them back and built such a rapport with the gullible Rohan that she swindled him out of enough money to live on and even buy herself a house. At one point, he did get suspicious, as Marie Antoinette never seemed to pay attention to him in public, but that was no matter for the cunning Jeanne. Her husband's young mistress just so happened to look enough like Marie to pass for her in soft lighting, so to convince the cardinal that everything was on the level, the "queen" briefly met with him at night in the garden. She gave him only a moment of time, but it was all the proof Rohan needed to keep shelling out his precious dough.

Jeanne's piece de resistance, however, was stealing the most expensive diamond necklace ever known to mankind. Years before, Louis VX had commissioned a necklace from jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange, but the king unfortunately died before the design could be completed. The jewelers were left with a massive diamond necklace and no buyer, as only literal royalty could ever hope to afford such a collection of diamonds. They'd ardently begged Marie Antoinette to buy the jewels, but even she thought the necklace was too gaudy and declined.

"The Queen's necklace," reconstruction, Château de Breteuil, France. (Jebulon/Wikipedia Commons)

Jeanne's scheme culminated in sending the desperate-to be-favored Rohan to the desperate-to-make ends-meet jewelers under the queen's name to purchase the necklace for a whopping two million livres (or $15 million of today's money). Astoundingly, Rohan paid the price with hopes of being repaid and handed them off to Jeanne, who then turned around and attempted to sell pieces of the necklace for a fraction of their real worth.

But rocks that big don't go unnoticed, even in Versailles. Soon, the queen caught wind of the sale and alas paid Rohan attention, if only to tell him he'd been massively conned. In horror, Rohan was arrested, and both he and Jeanne were put on trial for fraud. Rohan was deemed an innocent dupe in the matter, but Jeanne was sentenced to a whipping and life imprisonment in the infamous Bastille. Of course, our captivating con woman wasn't going to go down that easy. She escaped after only a year by dressing like a boy and maneuvering her way out, likely with the help of several guards.

While Marie Antoinette was completely innocent of the whole affair, the public was captivated by the trial, and many historians mark this event as the real turning point in public opinion regarding the young queen, as many suspected she was part of the conspiracy and chastised her for her greed. Jeanne died in 1791 after an accidental fall from a window as she attempted to escape debt collectors, and Marie died only two years later on the guillotine in front of a massive, cheering crowd.

Tags: 1700s | crime | france

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