The Affair of the Diamond Necklace (part IV): the scandal and the trial

Jeanne de La Motte came in possession of the most expensive necklace in history thanks to the forged signature “Marie-Antoinette of France” and to the Cardinal de Rohan, who thought he had secretly negotiated the acquisition of the jewel on behalf of the Queen.

(Read about how the Cardinal was entrapped in The Affair of the Diamond Necklace: The Queen’s Doppelganger“)

Affair du collier 2
Queen Marie-Antoinette (over), Cardinal de Rohan (down-left) and countess Jeanne Valois de La Motte (low.right)

With this service, the Cardinal was sure to gain back the sovereign’s sympathy, who still refused to grant him a meeting. According to Jeanne, though, she was reconsidering her harsh position towards His Eminence.

For the sake of accuracy, I have to mention the fact that Marie-Antoinette didn’t easily reconsider her positions. To be fair, she never reconsidered them, especially when she was personally insulted.

(Read about how the Cardinal made Marie-Antoinette angry years before, and how he met Jeanne de La Motte, the woman who would ruin them both, in the article: How a blue-blooded thief can rip-off a Cardinal)

So, the Cardinal brought the precious treasure closed in a coffer, to the apartment of Jeanne de La Motte in Versailles, a February night of 1785.

The Countess held out her hands with a smile, but the Cardinal hesitated. Suddenly, steps were heard. Someone knocked at the door, and whispered a soft «From Her Majesty». Jeanne opened the door, and came back with a note, signed by the Queen, who ordered that the jewel was to be given to her guard. The Cardinal obeyed.

A reconstruction of the Great Necklace of the Slave from the temporary exposition “MARIE-ANTOINETTE, MÉTAMORPHOSES D’UNE IMAGE” at Conciergerie palace.

And so long to the “great necklace of the slave” that Marie-Antoinette, to be fair, had refused to buy two times already!

(To know the origins of the scandalous necklace, and how Marie-Antoinette refused it, read the article: How Marie-Antoinette refused the necklace that would have ruined her.)

The waterfall of diamonds went back to Paris, where it was dismembered, stone after stone, between the walls of Jeanne’s apartment.

Casa de La Motte
Jeanne de La Motte’s apartment was at  10 rue Saint-Gilles in the III arrondissement.

For six, wonderful months, the Counts de La Motte lived the dream. The only distress was selling the stones without raising suspicion. Meanwhile, Jeanne still pleaded poverty with the Cardinal, lest he suspected something, and the jewelers were waiting and hoping for the payment of the first tranche for the month of July. How could the countess sleep soundly on the crime scene and not run away with the loot, I just can’t understand. What’s sure is that, in those happy days, Jeanne could finally taste the life she had always dreamed of, worthy of a princess, and of her name.

In July, Marie-Antoinette burned, without understanding it, a note from the jewelers, who commended her purchase and made references to “the most beautiful diamonds known in Europe.” Ah, the levity! If the Queen had immediately called for the jewelers and demanded an explanation, she would have saved herself so much grief! The longest the scandal waited to start, the more the Queen’s position got compromised, and that dastardly silence didn’t help her at all.

Marie-Antoinette, her children, and a lesson she learned too late.

In the meantime, Jeanne had planned her moves for when the scandal would blow up: deny, deny and deny some more. The heat was to be taken by the most dangerous and controversial friend of the Cardinal who, in this case, was right on the spot. Giuseppe Balsamo, count of Cagliostro, famous Italian adventurer, and mage, was actually one of the most intimate friends of His Eminence and made a living out selling miraculous potions and operating incredible healings. The textbook scapegoat.

Jean-AntoineHoudon_RitrattoDiGiuseppeBalsamoDettoConteCagliostro_1786_gesso
Giuseppe Balsamo, so-called count of Cagliostro, in a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1786, LACMA, Los Angeles).

Cagliostro was an Italian mage and an adventurer who had seduced Paris thanks to his magical remedies. The Cardinal of Rohan often invited him to work in his personal alchemy laboratory, in the marvelous hôtel de Rohan, not far from the apartment where the magician lived.

Casa di Cagliostro
The house where Cagliostro lived when the Necklace Incident happened, in rue Saint-Claude, III arrondissement. Cagliostro lived just within walking distance from the apartment of Countess de La Motte and from the palace of Cardinal of Rohan.

To make a long story short, the Queen flipped out and the Cardinal was arrested before the whole court on August 15th, 1785, an unprecedented scandal that earned Marie-Antoinette the eternal hatred of the de Rohan Family – as if she didn’t already have enough enemies!

His Eminence was jailed in the Bastille and was rapidly followed by his quite puzzled friend: the Count of Cagliostro.

Jeanne was found by the guards in her country estate. Her husband, when they were arrested, embraced her, in a great show of emotion and caution, taking away from her all the jewels containing certain dangerous diamonds… and then he ran away to England with the remaining loot, that was never recovered.

It would have been incredibly more wise, for the King, to keep the following trial behind closed doors, considering the precarious position of the Queen who, albeit innocent, would have been exposed to a scandal.

On the contrary, sure they’d win with flying colors, the royal couple let the Cardinal’s family appeal to the Parliament’s justice, instead of pleading the King’s mercy and solve everything quietly. The decision to authorize a public trial royally backfired. Marie-Antoinette’s enemies, surrounding her both at court and in Paris, were just waiting for an occasion like this to utterly destroy her reputation.

While the closing statements and memorials of the lawyers were published and sold like hotcakes, Marie-Antoinette cried bitter tears on the sensationalist pamphlets that were flooding France, depicting her being cozy with a Cardinal she hated or insinuating her guilt in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

Her subjects believed the lies of Jeanne de La Motte – who even made up a secret intimate relationship between the Queen and the Cardinal – rather than her.

Hotel de Soubise
The hôtel de Soubise, today a part of the National Archives, is built right beside the hôtel of Cardinal de Rohan. Here, during the trials, copies of the closing argument of the Cardinal’s lawyer (the Soubises were close relations of the de Rohan) were given away for free. Some mounted guards had to intervene to disperse the curious readers’ mob.

All this morbid curiosity was easily explained: some moments of the trial were very close to a farce. Here’s a recap of the main characters’ positions:

1) Jeanne Valois de La Motte; 2) The jewelers Bohemer e Bassanges; 3) Marie-Antoinette Queen of France, who never appeared at the trial, but, in the end, she was constantly mentioned; 4) Cardinal de Rohan; 5) Giuseppe Balsamo count of Cagliostro.

The Queen was, obviously, cleared of any involvement, but the public opinion condemned her nonetheless, suspecting her involvement even after the reading of Jeanne’s guilty sentence. The heaviest blow for Marie-Antoinette, the thing that hurt her more than any sensationalist pamphlet, was the absolution of the Cardinal.

Jeanne was flogged and branded with the V of voleuse (thief), and then thrown in prison, from where she jailbroke under mysterious circumstances. She died throwing herself out of a London window to escape a second arrest, leaving behind a queen with a reputation way past redemption, two destitute jewelers, an absolved but destroyed Cardinal and a mage, free but exiled from the Kingdom of France.
Clearly not the ending the Countess was aiming for, but then, I ask myself: what was her plan? To yet again triumph thanks to her lies? That’s likely after all, lies and charme had let her live, even if for a short time, like a queen.