Her inheritance was lost by her weak, drunkard father, and her controlling mother pushed her out to beg in the streets, exhorting passersby to pity a poor Valois: “Gentlemen or ladies, take compassion on a poor orphan, descended in a direct line from Henry the Second, of Valois, King of France.”1
She became obsessed with her father’s death-bed exhortation to “…remember that you are Valois.”2 Her life would be consumed by her attempts to regain the family fortune.
While still a child, she and her brother and sister were rescued from begging by Madame de Boulainvilliers. She was given an education, and trained as a manteau maker (dressmaker of the time). But Jeanne couldn’t bring herself to be a servant–more than anything, she wanted the Valois lands back, and she wanted to be recognized and accepted as a Royal.
She yearned to recover her family’s place among the upper level of society, but like Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, she was, in truth, too low-born to ever become one of them.
Ambition and vanity drove her relentlessly forward; her pride was adaptable. She became a regular fixture in government offices petitioning for money which she was granted from time to time in recognition of her claim, but she spent it quickly maintaining appearances, purportedly saying there were two ways to beg for alms–at the church door, and from a carriage.
While still a young woman, she thought an appeal to Marie Antoinette, a sympathetic woman and fellow-Royal might help her regain lost lands, so she went to Versailles.
Although Jeanne de la Motte didn’t know Marie Antoinette, a respectable and well-dressed person could get close to royalty–with an appropriate introduction. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette didn’t want to meet her. Jeanne de la Motte was not sufficiently respectable.
Still, Jeanne didn’t give up. She remained to petition her case, and to do that, she needed to cultivate useful connections which she attempted by pretending to be a secret friend of Marie Antoinette.
De la Motte encouraged the impression that she was close to the Queen by visiting soldiers at the gatehouse of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s private estate, and after a period of time, managing to be seen “discretely” leaving.
Because of court politics and intrigue it was not always possible to know who was connected or allied to whom, and there was also the provocative and slanderous rumour that Marie Antoinette was a lesbian, so perhaps some people weren’t surprised to see a young woman sneaking out of Marie Antoinette’s private estate.
De la Motte’s ruse had surprising effect–she was approached by Paris jewellers Charles Bohmer and Paul Bassenge, Jewellers to the Queen, who invited her to persuade Marie Antoinette to purchase an enormously expensive and fabulous diamond necklace they had assembled from gems gathered throughout Europe. It had originally been commissioned as a gift from her father-in-law King Louis XV to his infamous mistress, Madame du Barry.
But the King died between the time of the commission and the delivery of the fabulous necklace, and the jewellers were left holding the most expensive necklace ever made, with no buyer.3
They had sunk their life-savings into the necklace, and had purchased diamonds from all over Europe on credit. If they couldn’t sell the necklace, they would be ruined. They had seen that Jeanne de la Motte, a disenfranchised descendant of a royal blood line now in ruins, trying to restore her family fortune, had appeared in court not long ago, and now appeared to be close to the Queen.
Bohmer and Bassenge had been pushing Marie Antoinette to accept the jewel for over a decade, and she had ordered them to never mention it again. For one thing, she was offended that the jewellers would think to offer her the second-hand jewelry of her father-in-law’s “whore.” Additionally, there was the ridiculous cost of the item in difficult times. It really hadn’t helped that Bohmer, in a fit of despair, had threatened the Queen that he would kill himself if she didn’t buy his necklace.4
Among the people Madame de la Motte met circling around royal society was the sorcerer Cagliostro’s friend, the Cardinal Rohan, bishop of Strasbourg and Grand Almoner of France. Perhaps she became his mistress–she says she did, and it wasn’t out of his character.
Cardinal Rohan was certainly elevated enough to mix with royal society, but the Queen hated him, and his ambitions were blocked.
When de la Motte implied to Cardinal Rohan that she knew Marie Antoinette, she discovered that he was eager to make amends for having (on separate occasions), managed to insult both Marie Antoinette, and her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.
Rohan latched on to de la Motte as the means to reverse his bad fortune. She took advantage of his interest to become the intermediary in a pretended exchange of letters between Rohan and the Queen, in which Rohan was encouraged to confess and explain his past behaviour, and was gradually forgiven by the “Queen,” who strongly impressed upon Rohan his great debt to de la Motte. Of course, de la Motte conveyed the “Queen’s” messages, which were her own inventions.
Since she didn’t actually know Marie Antoinette, her hope, perhaps, was to gain enough money to allow her to advance her claim and regain the remaining Valois estates, and to gain the respect and admiration of the Queen5, and then, perhaps to be in an actual position to help Rohan.
Lest it be thought that de la Motte may have contrived the whole relationship with the necklace in mind, according to Henry Vizetelly in The Story of the Diamond Necklace (1867), Rohan gave de la Motte 150,000 francs, or £6000 sterling in the second half of that year toward loans and charitable donations to “Marie Antoinette’s” causes.6 De la Motte was doing well enough without the necklace!
But with the appearance of the jewellers, de la Motte hatched a scheme: Rohan could help pay for the necklace so that Marie Antoinette would like him, and de la Motte could collect the “commission”.
De la Motte told Rohan that Marie Antoinette secretly wanted the necklace, but couldn’t buy it. This was just before the revolution, and she already had a somewhat undeserved reputation of driving the country to the brink of economic collapse by spending extravagantly while ordinary French starved.
Consequently, de la Motte told the wealthy Rohan that he could do Marie Antoinette a large favour by buying the necklace on her behalf, with payments to be made by the Queen at a latter date.
Rohan leapt at the opportunity, and was further drawn into the fraud by more forged letters that led him to believe Marie Antoinette was developing a romantic interest in him. This was an absurd miscalculation–Marie Antoinette thoroughly detested Rohan.
The Story of the Diamond NecklaceP. 172. Henry Vizetelly, 1881
Marie Antoinette was a daughter of the Empress of Austria, with whom France was regularly at war. During a rare period of political accord Marie Antoinette had been betrothed to the French dauphin. Marie Antoinette had not been warmly welcomed by all the French.
Many assumed, and not unreasonably, that Marie Antoinette was essentially an Austrian spy, and was manipulating French politics. They wanted to get rid of both “the Austrian woman,” and the Austrian alliance together. Rohan had been part of a political party opposed to alliance with Austria, and Rohan himself had spread rumours about Marie Antoinette that had reached the ears of her mother. The Empress was angry at Rohan, and her daughter, Marie Antoinette was especially so.
But now de la Motte had him convinced Marie Antoinette might be open to an affair.
After a hurried meeting with a prostitute dressed like Marie Antoinette on the grounds of Versailles, Rohan, thinking he had met the Queen, guaranteed the credit required, and the necklace was delivered to him by the jewellers. The same evening he carried it in a small cask to Madame de la Motte to bring to Marie Antoinette.
When the necklace was handed to de la Motte she handed it to a henchman dressed as the Queen’s valet, and it disappeared into infamy never to be seen again. By morning it had been broken up into hands-full of individual diamonds to be sold in Paris and London.
Months passed by without any alarms or concerns since no payments were yet due. The theft of the necklace was unnoticed.
De la Motte and her few co-conspirators might have gotten away with the theft had Cardinal Rohan been given an opportunity to hush up the scandal, but the jewellers, curious that the Queen hadn’t worn the necklace, decided to write Marie Antoinette directly, and brought a letter to her. Marie Antoinette already annoyed at the re-appearance of the jeweller, Bohmer, examined him, and the plot was quickly uncovered by the Queen. She took it immediately to the King.
The Story of the Diamond Necklace
P. 172. Henry Vizetelly, 1881
Marie Antoinette was furious, and particularly upset and offended that anybody–Rohan particularly–would offend the dignity of the Queen. She demanded her name be cleared. She and her retinue determined to expose and destroy him.
And so, instead of dealing with the matter themselves, as they had the ability to do, the King and Queen decided to turn the matter over to the Parlement for an open airing and a trial which Marie Antoinette expected would excoriate Rohan, and redeem her virtue.
Being decidedly out of favour, Cardinal Rohan was allowed to officiate at only one Mass in Paris in the year, and as it was imminent, it was arranged to very publicly arrest him at Mass to humiliate him as much as could be done. Shortly after, Madame de la Motte was arrested at her new and opulent chateau outside of Paris. After that, Cagliostro and Seraphina, his wife, were arrested.7
Investigation by Rohan’s defense (the Abbé Georgel) then turned up de la Motte’s accomplices–Rétaux de Villette and the prostitute “Madame D’Olivia” (an near anagram of “Valois”) who played the part of the Queen in the garden at Versailles. Attention shifted from Rohan to de la Motte as the culprit in this affair.
Having provided the guarantee for the purchase of the Necklace, Rohan reimbursed the jewellers, an act that caused his other creditors to come rushing forth, so that in the end, the whole affair forced him to give up more than 3,000,000 Livres.89
The scandal and the trial were huge events – a circus of hookers and thieves and cardinals and queens–and the magician was the greatest showman of them all!
Crowds filled the galleries, and spilled out onto the street. In the style of the day, the accused each published “memoirs” (“autobiographies,” ghost-written by their lawyers), and police had to be called to control the crowds clamouring for copies as they were released.
“Who are you—whence do you come?” was asked of him. “I am a noble traveller,” he replied. At these words the countenances of the judges brightened up, and observing that they seemed well disposed towards him, Cagliostro entered boldly upon his defence, intermingling his bad French with Greek, Arabic, Latin, and Italian. His expression, his gestures, and his vivacity were as amusing as the subject-matter of his discourse, and he quitted the hall perfectly satisfied with having made his judges smile.”
The Story of the Diamond Necklace
P. 261. Henry Vizetelly, 1881. Cagliostro under examination by the court.
Cagliostro was involved largely by reputation alone. He had been out of town for the sale of the necklace, but he was already infamous, and his mere association with the players brought eyes upon him, and his celebrity soared, though his role was more of the clown.
Madame de la Motte hoped to pin the whole thing on Rohan with Cagliostro as his master, perhaps depending upon Cagliostro’s reputation to make the lie seem credible, but her lies were no match for his bombasticity, pomposity, and (disputed) eloquence, and he handily demolished her weak arguments.
“As for Cagliostro, on whom and on whose wife the countess had tried her utmost to shift a portion of her own guilt—out of revenge, we suppose, for the count having been the first to suggest to the cardinal that she had tricked him in the Necklace business—he is “this oracle who bewitched the cardinal’s understanding,” a low alchemist, a false prophet and profaner of the true religion, a mountebank and a vagabond. To which Cagliostro pertinently replied, “Not always a false prophet, for had the Prince de Rohan taken my advice he would have seen through the artifices of the countess, and neither of us been where we are. To her numerous calumnies I will content myself with making a laconic reply, the same that was made by Pascal under parallel circumstances—a reply which politeness forbids me to make in the vulgar tongue, but which madame’s counsel will translate for her, Mentiris impudentissime (impudent liar).” The countess, not knowing the meaning of the phrase, imagined, correctly enough, that it was something exceedingly offensive, and to use her own language, “put an end to the scene by throwing a candlestick at the quack’s head! Cagliostro, enraged and foaming at the mouth, said to me, ‘He will come, thy Villette! he will come! it is he that will speak!’ ”
The Story of the Diamond Necklace
P. 238. Henry Vizetelly, 1881
She was convicted on the evidence.
Cagliostro was cleared. The crowd cheered. Cardinal Rohan was acquitted. The crowd cheered again. Because the Cardinal had been publicly and deliberately humiliated by being arrested at Mass–a humiliation calculated by the King–the crowd was especially sympathetic toward Rohan and resentful toward the Royals.
Madame de la Motte was branded and imprisoned. The brand was a “V” for voleuse (robber). She was restrained by the neck, stripped naked, and perfunctorily whipped and beaten. She fought tooth and nail, and screamed and writhed, so that as the branding iron approached her shoulder, she twisted, and the burning iron slipped down her back.
The Queen herself was found to be blameless, but her satisfaction was severely blunted by Rohan’s acquittal in the face of her unjust treatment of him. Nevertheless, Rohan had embarrassed and insulted the Queen–at least verging on the crime of lèse-majesté. The King stripped Cardinal Rohan of his royal titles, and banished him to a remote abbey.
1st June, 1786.
“I need not tell you, my dear sister, how indignant I feel at the judgement which has just been pronounced by the parliament. It has no respect for royalty; it is a shameful insult, and I am bathed in tears of despair. What! a man who had the audacity to lend himself to that indecent and infamous scene in the arbour, who supposed that he bad an assignation with the Queen of France, with the wife of his king, that the queen had received a rose from him, and had suffered him to throw himself at her feet, should not, when a throne is concerned, be held guilty of high treason, but should be simply regarded as one who had been deceived! It is odious and revolting. Pity me, my good sister; I did not merit this injury, I who have endeavoured to do good to all who surround me, and who only remember that I am the daughter of Marie-Thérèse, to show myself, as she recommended me when embracing me at my departure, French to the very bottom of my heart. To be so sacrificed to a perjured priest, to a lewd intriguer, how grievous! But do not think that I shall allow myself to do anything unworthy of me. I have declared that I will never seek to revenge myself beyond doubling the good which I have already done. I need not tell you that the king is indignant like myself; he exiles the cardinal to La Chaise-Dieu, and Cagliostro is expelled from France.
Adieu! My children are well. We all embrace you, and press you to our hearts.”
The Story of the Diamond Necklace
P. 276. Henry Vizetelly, 1881. Marie Antoinette writes to her sister shortly after the acquittal of Cardinal Rohan.
Cagliostro was banished the day after his acquittal. He was given notice to leave Paris immediately, and to leave France altogether within three weeks. He fled to London, from where he launched a lawsuit against his captors, and published an appeal to the people of France (see Cagliostro’s Letter to the French People).
In this short period before the Revolution, public opinion was already roused against Marie Antoinette, and Rohan’s acquittal was her defeat. Her desire to be exonerated in full view of the public failed because it exposed her to ridicule.
All that Marie Antoinette had achieved was to provide a stage and an audience for her humiliation. In not convicting Rohan of charges of lèse-majesté (criminal disrespect for the person of the monarch, in this case Marie-Antoinette), the Parlement had suggested that her reputation was already so poor that Rohan’s could be forgiven for thinking that she would carry on an affair with him.
The consensus was that the King should never have allowed the affair to be come public.
The public was loosing respect for the monarchy, and slanderous gossip tested tolerance. This event tipped France further toward eventual revolution and Marie Antoinette’s execution on 16 October 1793 (aged 37) at the Place de la Révolution in Paris.
Madame de la Motte claimed that Cagliostro was involved, but apparently he was just a scapegoat. Still, Cagliostro (Balsamo) was a con-man and swindler, had grown up in a family of jewellers, and had even pulled a similar scam on a friend in his youth.
De la Motte soon escaped the Salpêtrière prison, and joined her husband in London where she published her memoires (after taking money from the Queen to not publish them). She died trying to escape arrest for fictitious debts by agents of the Duke D’Orleans who hoped to convince her to return to France to harass the Queen. Running from the bailiff, she sought refuge in the house of a neighbour. The bailiff forced his way in and into a room on the third floor where Madame de la Motte was hanging from a metal bar outside the window. On their forcing the door, she dropped from the window, and fell some distance, hitting the trunk of a tree. She was mortally injured, breaking her thigh in two places, breaking her arm, and even knocking out one eye, the force of the impact was so great. She died several weeks later.10 The diamonds were never recovered.
Sources and some important works:
- The Story of the Diamond Necklace. Henry Vizetelly, 1881. 3rd Ed. Revised. London.
- The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de la Motte. Volume 1. Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois la Motte (comtesse de). Printed for J. Bew, 1791. Original from the New York Public Library, digitized 29 Mar 2007.
- The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de la Motte. Volume 2. Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois la Motte (comtesse de). Printed for J. Bew, 1791. Original from the New York Public Library, digitized 29 Mar 2007.