The affair of the Diamond Necklace

Settle down, it's a long story of intrigue and scandal in the court of Marie Antoinette...

The necklace

The Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge had spent years collecting precious stones for a necklace that they initially hoped to sell to Madame Du Barry, the favourite of Louis XV. Then, after the death of Louis XV in 1774, the jewellers hoped it could be a gift to the new queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Its cost at the time was 1,600,000 livres, or approximately 500 kg of gold.

In 1778, Louis XVI offered it to the queen as a present. By one account, the queen refused it with the statement that the money would be better spent equipping a man-of-war. According to others, Louis XVI himself changed his mind.

After having tried in vain to place the necklace outside of France, the jewellers again attempted to sell it to Marie Antoinette after the birth of the dauphin Louis-Joseph in 1781. The queen again refused.

The story

A con artist called Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois conceived of a plan to use the necklace to gain wealth and possibly power and royal patronage. A descendant of a bastard of Henry II of France, Jeanne de Valois had married  the comte de Lamotte, and lived on a small pension which the King granted her.

In March 1784 she entered into relations with the Louis René Édouard, cardinal de Rohan the former ambassador to Vienna. The Cardinal was regarded with displeasure by Marie Antoinette, having revealed some of her secrets to Maria Theresa of Austria, the Empress of Vienna and Marie Antoinette's mother. The queen also learned of a letter in which the Cardinal spoke lightly of Maria Theresa in a way that offended Marie Antoinette.

At the time the Cardinal was attempting to regain the favour of the queen in his quest for the position of Prime Minister of France. Valois persuaded him that she had been received by the queen and enjoyed her favour, and Rohan resolved to use her to regain the queen's goodwill. The comtesse de Lamotte assured the cardinal that she was making efforts on his behalf.

This was the beginning of a pretended correspondence between Rohan and the queen, the adventuress duly returning replies to Rohan's notes, which she affirmed had come from the queen.

The tone of the letters became very warm, and the cardinal, convinced that Marie-Antoinette was in love with him, became ardently enamoured of her. He begged the countess to obtain a secret interview for him with the queen, and a meeting took place in August 1784 in a grove in the garden at Versailles between him and a lady whom the cardinal believed to be the queen herself. This lady was a prostitute called Nicole Leguay who bore a remarkable resemblance to the queen. Rohan offered her a rose, and she promised him that she would forget their past disagreements.

The countess profited by the cardinal's conviction to borrow sums of money from him, ostensibly for the queen’s works of charity. Enriched by these, the countess was able to take an honourable place in society, and many people believed that her relations with Marie Antoinette, of which she openly boasted, to be genuine.

It is still an unsettled question whether she simply mystified people, or whether she was really employed by the queen for some unknown purpose - perhaps to ruin the cardinal.

In any case, the jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge believed in the relations of the countess with the queen, and they resolved to use her to sell their necklace. She at first refused their commission, then accepted it.

On January 21, 1785 the Countess de Lamotte announced that the queen would buy the necklace, but that not wishing to openly buy such an expensive thing, she would use a high person as an intermediary. A little while later Rohan came to negotiate the purchase of the famous necklace for the 1,600,000 livres, payable in installments. He claimed to have the queen's authorisation, and showed the jewellers the conditions of the bargain, approved in the handwriting of Marie Antoinette. Rohan took the necklace to the countess' house, where a man, in whom Rohan believed he recognized a valet of the queen, came to fetch it.

Shortly afterwards, the "comte de Lamotte" appears to have started at once for London, it is said with the necklace, which he broke up in order to sell the stones.

When the time came to pay, the comtesse de Lamotte presented the cardinal's notes; but these were insufficient, and Boehmer complained to the queen, who told him that she had received no necklace and had never ordered it. She had the story of the negotiations repeated for her. Then followed a coup de théâtre.

On August 15, 1785, Assumption Day, when the whole court was awaiting the king and queen in order to go to the chapel, the cardinal de Rohan, who was preparing to officiate, was arrested and taken to the Bastille. He was able, however, to destroy the correspondence exchanged, as he thought, with the queen, and it is not known whether there was any connivance of the officials, who did not prevent this. The comtesse de Lamotte was not arrested until August 18, 1785, after having destroyed her papers.

The police set to work to find all her accomplices, and arrested the prostitute Nicole Leguay and a certain Réteaux de Villette, a friend of the countess, who confessed that he had written the letters given to Rohan in the queen's name, and had imitated her signature on the conditions of the bargain.

The cardinal de Rohan accepted the parlement of Paris as judges. A sensational trial resulted (May 31, 1786) in the acquittal of the cardinal, of the girl Oliva and of Cagliostro. The comtesse de Lamotte was condemned to be whipped, branded and shut up in the prostitutes' prison, the Salpêtrière. Her husband was condemned, in his absence, to the galleys for life. Villette was banished.

The scandal

Public opinion was much excited by this trial. Most historians come to the conclusion that Marie Antoinette was relatively blameless in the matter, that Rohan was an innocent dupe, and that the Lamottes deceived both for their own ends. This was also broadly the finding of the Paris Parlement, although they did not comment on the actions of the queen.

Many people in France persisted in the belief that the queen had used the countess as an instrument to satisfy her hatred of the cardinal de Rohan. Various circumstances fortified this belief, which contributed to render Marie Antoinette very unpopular

- her disappointment at Rohan's acquittal and the fact that he was deprived of his charges and exiled to the abbey of la Chaise-Dieu.

- the comtesse de Lamotte escaped from the Salpêtrière, which incited suspicion she was aided by the Court.

- the Parliament's acquittal of Rohan also pointed to an assumption that Marie Antoinette was somehow in the wrong.

The Countess de Lamotte took refuge in London and published her Mémoires in which she accused the queen.

Text copyright wikipedia