The Ugly Necklace That Helped Bring Down Marie Antoinette

The backstory on the scandal that helped sink the French monarchy, in this excerpt from In the Shadow of the Empress

The Ugly Necklace That Helped Bring Down Marie Antoinette

In the Shadow of the Empress traces the life of Empress Maria Theresa, the only woman to rule the sprawling Hapsburg lands in her own name, and her daughters—the most famous being her youngest, born Maria Antonia but better known as Marie Antoinette. This excerpt traces one of the many damaging controversies that erupted during her reign as Queen of France—the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

“The case of the Necklace,” the comte de Mirabeau (soon to become a rising force in French politics) would later observe succinctly, “was the prelude of the revolution.”

Image:Little, Brown

It began with the arrival to Versailles in 1783 of Jeanne, comtesse de la Motte, a pretty woman almost exactly the same age as Marie Antoinette, who turned out to be one of the most adroit and enthusiastic con artists in the history of that lucrative profession. Although Jeanne’s title was fake—her husband was really Monsieur de la Motte, a man of unassuming birth and nonexistent fortune—she did have royalty in her family tree: she was a direct descendant of Henri II, one of the Valois kings who had ruled France two centuries earlier. (Two years before his death, Henri II sired an illegitimate son with a twenty-two-year-old paramour, much to the unhappiness of both his long-term mistress, fifty-eight-year-old Diane de Poitiers, and his wife, thirty-eight-year-old Catherine de’ Medici. It was this son, later recognized, whose descendants eventually produced Jeanne.) Knowledge of this princely lineage had literally been beaten into her as a child by her cruelly impoverished mother, who with each blow trained little Jeanne to beg for the family sustenance by crying out, “Pity a poor orphan of the blood of the Valois!” to the aristocratic carriages that flew past her in the street.

This harsh maternal indoctrination would be the saving of her; one day, one of those fine coaches stopped, and a tenderhearted marchioness took pity on the bruised and starving eight-year-old. She paid for Jeanne’s education, had the girl’s genealogy authenticated by the court, and even arranged for her to receive a small annual income of 800 livres from the royal treasury in recognition of her lineage. In that moment Jeanne, formerly a member of the disdained and forgotten French underclass, became Jeanne de Valois, a name that opened doors.

One of the doors it opened was to the magnificent château of the cardinal de Rohan. The Rohan family was one of the most prestigious and ancient in France. The cardinal was older, wealthy, and fatuous. Jeanne, now twenty-five, with extremely expensive tastes, recognized him instantly, in the universal language of grifters, as a mark.

At first, she just played him for small gifts of money. She would later claim that she had been his lover but he always denied it, and it didn’t seem to have been necessary, as she managed to string him along nicely without recourse to this expedient. But more than money, he gave her credibility. Soon, she had established herself and her husband, a man of similar integrity and love of high living, in a small apartment at Versailles. There, she took a lover named Rétaux de Villette, who, in addition to his other upstanding qualities, had a flair for penmanship. She then began boasting discreetly of a growing secret friendship between herself and Marie Antoinette, which she buttressed by the surprising revelation of a number of personal letters, written on high-quality paper adorned with baby blue fleur-de-lis, symbol of the throne, signed by the queen.

This caught the cardinal’s attention, as she had known it would.

Rohan was pining to gain entry to Marie Antoinette’s inner circle. The cardinal’s fortune was not what it once had been—a perplexing rash of bankruptcies had recently run through the aristocracy, even ensnaring some of Rohan’s relations—and it was becoming more and more difficult to live up to the grand standards of the past. Everyone knew that the surest way to riches was through the queen; those previously worthless Polignacs had proven that. Nobody could figure out what she saw in them and yet there they were, dripping with favors and treasure. But Marie Antoinette wouldn’t have anything to do with the cardinal de Rohan. He had once been ambassador to Vienna, and Maria Theresa had seen through him in an instant as a worthless flatterer and libertine, and had warned her daughter against him. Marie Antoinette shared her mother’s opinion of the cardinal. Up until now, he had been frozen out at court.

The cardinal was not, however, the only quarry that Jeanne caught with her stories of cozy little tête-à-têtes with the queen. A jeweler by the name of Böhmer was also deeply in need of a friendly go-between to approach Marie Antoinette. For years, Böhmer had been trying to sell an over-the-top necklace, made of approximately 650 large, flawless diamonds that the jeweler had painstakingly collected from all over Europe. (It was certainly the ugliest, clunkiest necklace ever to bring down a monarch—just a bunch of heavy tassels hanging down around the neck. In a pinch, it could have served as a means of tying back the drapes. If this was a representative sample of his work, Böhmer would have been much better off in construction.) He had originally envisioned it for Madame du Barry, but Louis XV had gone and died before Böhmer could close the sale. Given its price tag of over 1 million livres, there were very few women in the world who could afford this massive accessory, but Marie Antoinette was one of them. Problem was, she’d moved past that sort of thing and didn’t want it. No amount of groveling could convince her. The last time Böhmer had tried, she had completely lost her patience. “Get up, Böhmer!” she’d exclaimed, exasperated. “Honest people do not find it necessary to supplicate on their knees. I have refused the necklace. The King wished to give it me, and I refused it again. Don’t say anything more about it. Try to break it up and sell it, and don’t drown yourself about it.”

It was all very well for Marie Antoinette to advise him not to panic, but the fact was that the jeweler had gone into significant debt to assemble the necklace, and he was very close to declaring bankruptcy. And then a friend mentioned that he “knew a comtesse who had access to the queen,” and Böhmer reached out to Jeanne.

After that, it was only a matter of putting all the pieces together.

Böhmer showed Jeanne the necklace for the first time on December 29, 1784. On January 23, 1785, she informed him that she had found a buyer, “a very great nobleman.” (The cardinal de Rohan had been traveling; this is what had caused the month’s delay.) The very next day, January 24, Rohan turned up at the jeweler’s to negotiate the terms of the sale—not for himself, mind you, but for the queen. Jeanne had explained to the mark—excuse me, the cardinal— that she had discussed the matter at length with Marie Antoinette, and that the queen wanted the necklace after all but was hesitating because she was short of funds at the moment. Jeanne, knowing of Rohan’s desire to be of service to the queen, had proposed that he act as her secret intermediary in this transaction. It would be his job to work out all those pesky details of financing with which Marie Antoinette couldn’t be bothered. Jeanne even provided a gracious note from the queen outlining the plan and thanking the cardinal for undertaking this tiresome task for her.

Overjoyed at this unexpected sign of royal favor, the cardinal relayed Marie Antoinette’s instructions to Böhmer, pledging the jeweler to secrecy, as Jeanne had also cautioned that the queen, fearing her husband’s displeasure at the large price tag, wished to keep the matter from the king for a little while. Between them, the two men worked out a timetable whereby Marie Antoinette would purchase the necklace for a total of 1.6 million livres, payable by quarterly installments over two years, with the first payment due on August 1, 1785. By the terms of this contract, the queen would take delivery of the necklace, through Jeanne, two days hence, on February 1, as she had need of it immediately. Böhmer, a stickler for form, insisted that Her Majesty personally approve these conditions, so the cardinal passed the contract to Jeanne, who passed it to the queen, who in turn returned it on January 29 signed “Marie Antoinette de France,” which might have been suspicious if anyone had been really paying attention, as her official signature read simply “Marie Antoinette.” As it was, however, in the two men’s mutual elation, neither noticed.

It was a perfect scheme, and it worked brilliantly. On February 1, 1785, right on schedule, the cardinal brought the necklace to Jeanne’s apartment at Versailles. No sooner had he arrived than there was a knock at the door and her co-conspirator, Villette, dressed up in stolen livery as a royal page, entered. Jeanne handed Villette the case with the necklace in it and solemnly instructed him to deliver it secretly to the queen. Rohan watched in gratitude as 1.6 million livres walked out the door.

Within a week, working so clumsily that they spoiled some of the gems, Jeanne and Villette had relieved the diamonds of their cumbersome setting. They at first tried to sell them in Paris, but the local jewelers found it odd that a man was walking around the city with his pockets bulging with loose diamonds and called the police. (As nothing had been reported stolen, however, they had to let him go.) After that, Jeanne wised up and sent the bulk of the stones to England with her husband, for sale to London jewelers. Although in his rush to get rid of the jewels he did not realize anywhere near their true value, there were so many of them that the comte de la Motte was able to return home that summer with a sizable fortune, which he and his wife immediately put to use purchasing carriages, furniture, bric-a-brac, and other necessities, including, for the amusement of visitors, “an automatic bird which flapped its wings and crowed.”

During this period, both Rohan and Böhmer were of course disappointed by the failure of Marie Antoinette either to wear the necklace or to call them into favor by thanking them personally, but Jeanne was able to explain all that away with the excuse of the queen’s continuing need to keep her purchase a secret from her husband. To appease the cardinal, she even paid a young woman who worked as a milliner in a shop in Paris, and who from a distance resembled Marie Antoinette, to meet Rohan one dark night in a public park the queen had been known to frequent. Dressed in a knockoff muslin gown similar to those in the omnipresent Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun portraits, the fake Marie Antoinette, with her face averted, just had time to hand the cardinal a rose and to murmur “You know what this means,” before a warning of approaching pedestrians forced her to duck back into the shadows. That this gimmick worked gives a strong sense of the relative abilities of the various players in this high-stakes transaction.

Excerpted from IN THE SHADOW OF THE EMPRESS by Nancy Goldstone. Copyright © 2021 by Nancy Goldstone. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Nancy Goldstone is the author of six previous books including Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots; The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom; The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc; Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe; and The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. She has also coauthored six books with her husband, Lawrence Goldstone. She lives in Del Mar, California.

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