The Political Debacle



IN June, 1783, Axel von Fersen, after gallant fighting for America, and having earned distinction at Yorktown, returned to France, and found Marie Antoinette as fascinating as when he had left her three years before. Even in 1787, when she was thirty-two, Arthur Young thought her “the most beautiful woman” he had seen at the court that day.1 She readily seconded the request of Gustavus III that Louis XVI appoint the handsome Fersen colonel of the Royal Swedish Regiment in the French army—which would allow him to spend considerable time at Versailles. Axel confessed to his sister Sophie that he loved the Queen, and he believed that his love was returned. Certainly she felt a warm affection for him, and eight years later, after his brave attempt to get her and the King out of France, they exchanged tender letters; but her invitation to Sophie to come and live near him suggests a resolve to keep her feeling for him within proper bounds.2 Hardly anyone at the court except her husband believed her innocent. A song popular among the populace admitted no doubt of her guilt:

Veux-tu connaître

Un cocu, un bâtard, une catin?

Voyez le Roi, la Reine,

Et Monsieur le Dauphin.3

Would you know

A cuckold, a bastard, a whore?

See the King, the Queen,

And Monsieur the Dauphin.

Louis-Philippe de Ségur summed up the matter: “She lost her reputation but preserved her virtue.”4

On March 25, 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to a second son, who was named Louis-Charles. The King was so pleased that he gave her the Palace of St.-Cloud, which he had bought from the Duc d’Orléans for six million livres. The court condemned the extravagance of his appreciation, and Paris nicknamed the Queen “Madame Deficit.”5 She used her power over her husband to influence his appointment of ministers, ambassadors, and other dignitaries. She tried, and failed, to change his distaste for the alliance with Austria, and her efforts increased her unpopularity.

Only against the background of this public hostility to “L’Autrichienne” can we understand the credence given to the story of the diamond necklace. This collier was itself incredible: a string of 647 diamonds allegedly weighing 2,800 carats.6* Two court jewelers, Charles Bôhmer and Paul Bassenge, had bought diamonds from half the world to make a necklace for Mme. du Barry, confident that Louis XV would buy it for her. But Louis XV died, and who now would buy so expensive an adornment? The jewelers offered it to Marie Antoinette for 1,600,000 livres; she rejected it as too costly.7 Cardinal Prince Louis-René-Édouard de Rohan came to the fore.

He was a ripe product of one of France’s oldest and richest families; he had, it was said, an income of 1,200,000 livres per year. Ordained a priest in 1760, he was appointed coadjutor to his uncle, the Archbishop of Strasbourg; in that capacity he officially welcomed Marie Antoinette when she first entered France (1770). Finding Strasbourg too narrow a field for his ambitions, Rohan lived mostly in Paris, where he joined the faction hostile to Austria and the Queen. In 1771 Louis XV sent him to Vienna as special envoy to ferret out Austrian maneuvers in the partition of Poland. Maria Theresa was offended by the lavish fetes that he gave, and by his dissemination of scandalous gossip about the new Dauphine. Louis XVI recalled him to Paris, but powerful relatives induced the King to make him grand almoner—head disburser of the royal alms (1777). A year later the gay and handsome priest was raised to the cardinalate, and in 1779 he became archbishop of Strasbourg. There he met Cagliostro, and was charmed into believing the impostor’s magic claims. Having risen so high so soon, it seemed to Rohan that he might aspire to be chief minister to Louis XVI, if only he could atone for his years of opposition to the Queen.

Among his amusements in Paris was the attractive and ingenious Mme. de La Motte-Valois. Jeanne de St.-Rémy de Valois claimed descent from Henry II of France by a mistress. Her family lost its property, and Jeanne was reduced to begging in the streets. In 1775 the government confirmed her royal lineage, and gave her a pension of eight hundred francs. In 1780 she married Antoine de La Motte, an army officer with a penchant for intrigue. He had deceived her about his income; their marriage, as she put it, was a union of drought with famine.8 He appropriated the title of count, which made Jeanne the Comtesse de La Motte. As such she fluttered around Paris and Versailles, making conquests by what she called her “air of health and youth (which men call radiance), and an extraordinarily vivacious personality.”9 Having become mistress to the Cardinal (1784),10 she pretended to high intimacy at the court, and offered to win the Queen’s approval of his aims. She engaged Rêtaux de Villette to imitate her Majesty’s handwriting, and brought to the Cardinal affectionate letters allegedly from Marie Antoinette; finally she promised to arrange an interview. She trained a prostitute, the “Baroness” d’Oliva, to impersonate the Queen. In the “Grove of Venus” at Versailles, in the dark of night, the Cardinal briefly met this woman, mistook her to be Antoinette, kissed her foot, and received from her a rose as token of reconciliation (August, 1784); or so the “Countess” relates.11

Mme. de La Motte now ventured upon a bolder plan which, if successful, would put an end to her poverty. She forged a letter from the Queen authorizing Rohan to buy the necklace in her name. The Cardinal presented this letter to Bôhmer, who surrendered the gems to him (January 24, 1785) on his written promise to pay 1,600,000 francs in installments. Rohan took the brilliants to the Countess, and at her request he turned them over to an alleged representative of the Queen. Their further history is uncertain; apparently they were taken by the “Comte” de La Motte to England and sold piece by piece.12

Böhmer sent a bill for the necklace to the Queen, who replied that she had never ordered it and had never written the letter that bore her name. When the date arrived for payment of the first installment (July 30, 1785), and Rohan offered only thirty thousand of the 400,000 francs then due, Bôhmer laid the matter before the Baron de Breteuil, minister of the King’s Household. Breteuil informed the King. Louis summoned the Cardinal and invited him to explain his actions. Rohan showed him some supposed letters from the Queen. The King saw at once that they were forgeries. “This,” he said, “is not in the Queen’s handwriting, and the signature is not even in proper form.”13 He suspected that Rohan and others of the faction hostile to his wife had plotted to discredit her. He ordered the Cardinal to the Bastille (August 15), and bade the police find Mme. de La Motte. She had fled to a succession of hiding places, but she was apprehended, and she too was sent to the Bastille. Also arrested were “Baronne” d’Oliva, Rêtaux de Villette, and Cagliostro, who was wrongly suspected of having planned the intrigue; actually he had done his best to discourage it.14

Believing that an open trial was necessary to convince the public of the Queen’s innocence, Louis submitted the case to his enemies, the Paris Parlement. The trial was the cause célèbre of the century in France, as that of Warren Hastings became in England three years later. The judgment of the Parlement was pronounced on May 31, 1786. Cardinal Rohan was declared innocent, as more deceived than deceiving, but the King deprived him of his state offices and exiled him to the Abbey of La Chaise-Dieu. Two accomplices received sentences of imprisonment; Cagliostro was freed. Mme. de La Motte was publicly stripped and whipped in the Cour de Mai before the Palais de Justice; she was branded with a V (for voleuse, thief), and was condemned for life to the notorious Salpêtrière women’s prison. After a year in this maddening confinement she escaped, joined her husband in London, wrote an autobiography explaining everything, and died in 1791.

The nobility and the Paris populace rejoiced over the acquittal of the Cardinal, and blamed the Queen for bringing the matter to a public trial; the general feeling was that her known appetite for jewelry had excused the Cardinal for believing the forged letters. Gossip went so far as to accuse her of being Rohan’s mistress,15 though she had not seen him in the ten years before his arrest. Once more she had preserved her virtue and suffered damage to her reputation. “The Queen’s death,” said Napoleon, “must be dated from the Diamond Necklace Trial.”16

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