How did the French Revolution begin? With the fall of the Bastille. Similarly – How did the American Revolution begin? – With shots fired at Lexington and Concord.
Those are the stock answers, but neither marked the first act of open defiance against the crown. Americans would say the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre or Stamp Act riots marked that.
Frenchman may say the erosion of royal authority that overthrew France’s social order began with the Estates General in 1789, but before that the first event to both rock the foundation of monarchy and also display open defiance of royal authority was the “Diamond Necklace Affair” or the “Affair of the Queen’s Necklace”.
This article retells the story of the diamond necklace affair. This story that launched the French Revolution was one of the most notorious public scandals of history. It involved great fortunes made and lost, of avarice, mystery and intrigue, it pits great forces in French society against each other, but in the end severely damaged the monarchy to the great detriment of both, and destroyed for all time the reputation of the second highest public figure in the French monarchy. The story starts with three players; the first is that famous public figure – the Queen of France: Marie Antoinette. This story had its root cause, its currency and appeal from this most star-crossed figure of French history.
Marie Antoinette was an Austrian Princess when she came to France, at age 15, in 1770, to marry the Crown Prince. She and husband Louis XVI were still teenagers when they ascended the throne in 1774. Unlike her shy awkward husband, Marie Antoinette was admired for her legendary beauty, grace and elegance and her tastes which set fashion trends for Europe. She took pride in her appearance and in her ancestry as a princess of Hapsburg, the oldest royal house of Europe. Her arrogance brought resentment from old nobility of France, a country which had been at war with Austria for much of the 18th century. Marie Antoinette also attracted gossip for her inability (due to Louis’s impotence) to become pregnant and produce an heir to the throne, for her youthful disregard of court etiquette, and for her frivolous and costly lifestyle. This lifestyle included gambling, masked balls, late night rendezvous and rumours of her having had numerous love affairs with both men and women. Even by 1785, an underground literature existed that reviled the Queen in pornographic songs, pictures and pamphlets.
Much of Marie’s fast and loose behaviour in her first decade in France was a reaction to her marital frustration; but in 1778, Louis had an operation and the couple at last had children. By 1785, Marie Antoinette had given birth to three children. She was maturing and her lifestyle had grown far more sedentary and less extravagant. But that change was hardly noticeable to the uninformed public and did little to assuage those who had already developed their dislike for her.
Against this backdrop in 1784, enter the two key players in the story – one, a great nobleman, the other, a woman swindler who dupes him. The nobleman Louis René Édouard de Rohan was Cardinal of France and son of one of its oldest and most famous noble houses. However, Rohan had a problem. He was in disfavour at the French court. The Queen’s mother Marie Thérèse did not like Rohan, frivolous dandy, when he served as a diplomat to Austria. After her mother scorned him, Marie Antoinette refused to receive Rohan and had not even spoken to him for a number of years. For 10 years, Rohan had longed to become a member of the Queen’s close circle, with the new favours and patronage that could bring. Rohan, the dandy, was also attracted by the Queen’s beauty and fancied that if she would only admit him to her circle, he too might partake in her amorous favours, of the type frequently rumoured in court.
The woman swindler is the Countess de Lamotte. She was the daughter of the old and famous Valois family, but the family has long-lost its resources. She was quite impoverished when she arrived in Paris. But Lamotte was also quite attractive and brazen in her desire to escape poverty and obtain an aristocratic life of comfort and leisure. She sought to enlist the sympathy of the royal court in the fate of a woman from one of France’s old houses. She was given to fainting spells at court and in doing this has at last receives notice from Madame Elizabeth, the King’s sister who provided her with some funding. She was also noticed by Cardinal Rohan. By 1784, she had become his mistress. Even though she had not succeeded in obtaining the interest or support of the Queen or even met the Queen, Lamotte succeeded in convincing Cardinal Rohan that she has the favour of Marie Antoinette. Rohan fully subscribed to the tales in court circles of Marie Antoinette’s sexual dissipation. Using her full figure and attractive looks to great effect, Lamotte spun stories that convinced Rohan that she, Lamotte, was becoming one of the Queen’s new lesbian love interests, just as Rohan hoped to become her lover as well.
Now enters the object all seek – the necklace. The necklace was 2800 carats. First was a choker of seventeen diamonds, five to eight carats each; from that hung a three-wreathed festoon and pendants; then came the necklace proper, a double row of diamonds cumulating in an eleven-carat stone. And finally, hanging from the necklace, four knotted tassels. It cost 1,600,000 lives. Perhaps in today’s currency, this is the equivalent of $100 million. The jeweller Charles Bohmer had the beautiful necklace made for Madame du Barry. But Louis XV died, du Barry was banished from court, and Bohmer placed his hopes on the new Queen to purchase the necklace. She modelled it before her ladies, but would not purchase it or permit Louis to buy it as a gift for her. “Better to buy a new ship of the line (battleship or aircraft carrier equivalent) than to spend such a sum on a necklace, regardless of how beautiful …” she said.
Boehmer too had seen Lamotte at court. Like Rohan, the jeweller too believed the Marie Antoinette rumours at court. The jeweller appreciated Lamotte’s looks, believed she had the Queen’s favour and sought her out as an intermediary. Knowing Rohan’s keen desire to obtain the Queen’s favour, Lamotte saw her opportunity to trade on the belief of both men in her intimacy with the Queen to satisfy the desires of both men and enrich herself. She told the cardinal that the Queen wanted him to secretly purchase the necklace on her behalf. The cardinal obtained the necklace from Bohmer and gave it to Mme Lamotte, expecting the Queen to pay for it. Of course, Marie Antoinette never saw the necklace. Lamotte gave the diamonds to her husband, who took them to London and sold them. Lamotte forged letters from the Queen to Rohan attesting to her interest in the necklace, approving the plan and Lamotte’s role, and indicating Rohan could expect return to the Queen’s favour
The letters satisfied Rohan for a time, but at Versailles, Marie Antoinette ignored Rohan as always. He wanted a real sign of her interest in him. Rohan needed more and it was at this moment in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris the final piece to her puzzle fell in place. It came in the form of a 25-year old street-walker, Madame d’Olivia. Buxom and blonde, with an arrogant strut, such that people called her “Queen”. Lamotte was at once captivated by the young d’Olivia’s striking resemblance to 29-year old Marie Antoinette. And so, Cardinal Rohan did get the sign of favour he wanted from the Queen… or so he thought. On a summer night in 1784, Lamotte outfitted the woman in a lawn dress, the same as the famous Marie Antoinette “en gaulle” painting then on exhibit. The veiled woman briefly met the Cardinal in the gardens of Versailles, late at night as Antoinette was rumoured to meet her lovers. The false Queen gave the Cardinal a rose. She said, “All may be forgiven …” and hurried away, leaving the Cardinal under the illusion that he had met Marie Antoinette.
Unaware of the real drama unfolding, Marie Antoinette was busy preparing herself for the part of the saucy barmaid Rosina in the controversial play Marriage of Figaro. On the day of one her rehearsals Boehmer’s invoice for the necklace arrived and was discarded by the Queen. Later, Bohmer came to Versailles and spoke to the Queen’s servant Madame Campan, seeking payment. He displayed forged letters signed by her, and told how Rohan was involved in acquiring the necklace. At last, Marie Antoinette realized the serious of the case, and summoned Bohmer to Versailles. She was furious with Rohan, so was Louis XVI. The royal couple demanded a trial. They arranged for the arrest of the Cardinal, the highest clergyman in France, in the most public way, handing him the arrest warrant in the great hall of Versailles with hundreds present. He was brought before the King and Queen, who confronted him with the swindle and would hear none of his professions of innocence and that he too had been made the fool.
The public arrest of the Cardinal of France had already caused a national sensation, and the acts of King and Queen that followed added new fuel to the fire of public interest and imagination. That this nobleman with whom she had not spoken a word in 15 years would dare to presume that she, Marie Antoinette, would meet him at a secret rendezvous, was a serious insult to her name and reputation. The proud Queen demanded public vindication of her good name. The matter could have been handled quietly at the court or by the Vatican. Louis’s advisors suggested caution, but the wavering King agreed to a public trial before the Parlement of Paris. France of 1785 was not used to such public events. While rumours of Marie’s errant behaviour were prevalent in the capital, they now became sensation for all of France. The charge against the Cardinal was lese-majeste, insult to the dignity of the Queen. For months, the nation was gripped by the mystery of the diamond necklace and the recounting of the Queen’s reputation that led Rohan to believe she had participated. The public was riveted by the accounts and characters, the swindler Lamotte, the prostitute who impersonated the Queen, the $100 million necklace at stake at a hard time when the country faced bankruptcy. Through it all, Lamotte held to her story that the Queen was behind it all and had the necklace.
The case to defend the Queen’s dignity would never have been easy. Though she never appeared, this case put the life of Marie Antoinette was on trial. Many jurors could believe based on her past spending and loose lifestyle that Marie Antoinette was capable of these activities and that the Cardinal was reasonable in his beliefs. The Cardinal struck a sympathetic figure as he pleaded his devotion to the Queen and that he only sought to serve her. But this was no ordinary court, it was a court of nobles in Paris, where Rohan was a great and wealthy family, where many had been at odds with the King and many more still resented the Queen. Add to that considerable sums were passed in bribery by the Duc of Orleans and other disaffected noblemen. The trial ended with the Cardinal acquitted of the charge of lese-majeste. Lamotte was found guilty as a thief and imprisoned. She was also publicly flogged, and branded. As she struggled against the branding iron, the poker slipped and impaled her breast. Lamotte hurled imprecations for all to hear: “It is the Queen who should be branded not me!”
The night of the verdict, against constable’s advice, Marie Antoinette attended a charitable benefit at the Paris Opera. When the verdict “Rohan Acquitted” was announced, the opera house erupted with applause. The crowds then whistled and hooted at the Queen, who left in dismay to weep at Versailles with her ladies in waiting. Repudiation of a French sovereign by court verdict and public rebuke had never before occurred. The Revolution had now begun. Within the year, Lamotte escaped to London. With her husband they enjoyed the money from the diamond necklace, now broken up, but she also took to the quill to spread malicious rumours about Marie Antoinette.
Pamphlets by Lamotte of new stories of Antoinette’s sexual appetites and orgies at Versailles, and her claimed love letters between Rohan and the Queen became a new sensation in France as they were smuggled in by the thousands. The court literature against Marie Antoinette in the capital, by virtue of the necklace case, had now become commonplace throughout France. The economic position of the country worsened and King Louis, who drew closer to Marie in her sorrows, increasingly turned to her for advice in economic matters. The Queen’s increasing role and national disgrace weakened the position of Louis and the monarchy. Her presence galvanised and emboldened the opponents of the regime.
Revolution could have been averted in France after the necklace case, just as it could have been averted in America after the Boston Tea Party, but a course of action had been set in motion. The monarchy was humbled by the noblemen in court and people, all done with impunity. Going forward, the opponents of the regime, first among the nobles then later among the merchants and finally in the peasantry took heed and didn’t let up until the final violent overthrow of the French monarchy and the Terror among its citizens that followed. The nobles who sought to check Louis’s power and others like Phillipe Egalite who resented the King, came to be caught up themselves in the whirlwind of Revolution. That Revolution would claim the lives of thousands of nobleman including Phillipe, and end the privileges nobles had held in France. This was not what the nobles intended when they sought to vindicate Rohan and strike a blow against the King and Queen.
When Marie Antoinette learned of the necklace affair, she instinctively insisted on a public trial to avenge the offence to her honour and dignity. No one could have imagined how her act of hubris would trigger the catastrophic upheaval of Revolution in the 7 years that followed. In 1786, Madame Lamotte was imprisoned and branded; Rohan was acquitted at trial but forced from his Cardinal post to a remote posting. Marie Antoinette sat on her throne, still the glamorous powerful Queen of France, meeting out punishment to those who dared transgress her honour. In 7 years time, the Revolution would reverse the positions of the three players in this story. In 1793, Lamotte who had escaped her prison lived in comfort in England. The fortune she and her husband shared from the necklace was enhanced by the amounts made from the sales in France of her best-selling pamphlets against the Queen. Lamotte had become a hero of the Revolution. In 1793, Rohan too was living in comfort in exile. In the early years of Revolution, he returned in triumph and was elected to the Assembly. But Rohan saw the violent turn of revolution against the nobility and clergy including his family. Rohan escaped France to live out his life in a comfortable exile.
The World Upside Down
In the ultimate role reversal, the hunter became the prey. 1793 saw the final destruction of Marie Antoinette – humbled, humiliated and finally beheaded by her own subjects. The years of Revolution took everything away from Marie – her palaces, her jewels, her servants, her fine clothes, her friends and her family. Gone was her beauty and finery in which she took such pride and all the other trappings of her once fabulous life. In the end, Marie Antoinette was alone. She was taken from her prison cell, as a poor broken widow in her rags, old before her time. Now, it was SHE who would be the prisoner in the dock. SHE would have to answer the charges of the revolutionary tribunal, including the necklace case allegations of Madame Lamotte.
The Queen Beheaded
These charges still rang in her ears in the jeers of the crowd as Marie Antoinette road to her date with Madame Guillotine. The former Queen now rode in an open cart, her hands tied behind her back, and held in tether like a chained dog. Lamotte must have relished the irony that 7 years after she was flogged, branded and humiliated, 7 years after Lamotte swore vengeance, it was the turn of her tormentor to face punishment – Marie Antoinette was beheaded at age 37, her fair head held high for the populace to cheer her death. Such was the pendulum swing of great French Revolution, first set in motion by the case of the Queen’s necklace.