Affair du collier 2

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace (part II): how a blue-blooded thief can rip-off a Cardinal

The mastermind who hatched the most daring plot in the history of France belonged to an incredibly ambitious woman: Jeanne de Valois, countess de La Motte (1756-1791).

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, presumed portrait of Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy, countess de la Motte (1780, photo from Wikipedia).

This gold-digger arose from the mud and all the worst starting points in life thanks to the clever use of that pretentious name that, after all, bond her to an illegitimate branch of the ancient French ancestry, the “Valois”. That had granted her a small pension, that would have been plenty enough to lead a modest but dignified life, together with her husband, count Nicolao de La Motte. This wedding, in fact, gave her little but the title of countess.

Jeanne de Valois de La Motte
Jeanne de Valois countess de La Motte (title she got from her husband, as broke as her).

But a modest but dignified life wasn’t enough for a Valois hell-bent to redeem her name, her rank and her honor. Dodging creditors, pawning jewels, dresses, still, unpaid furniture, charming money out of anyone fool enough to feel for her sad story, Jeanne plotted, schemed, crept in the respectable Parisian families, looking for the right occasion to redeem herself, once and for all.

And there came a sitting duck, falling right into her lap. And what a duck, indeed!

The duck we’re talking about was a bishop, cardinal, royal almoner and descendant of one of the richest and most powerful families in France, one that even the King kept a very special eye on: Louis René Eduard Prince de Rohan (1734-1803), a.k.a. the Cardinal de Rohan.

Just a step away from the main royal bloodline, the de Rohan chose a motto that perfectly summed up the essence of a dynasty that could be anything but humble:

“King I can’t, duke I don’t bother, Rohan I am.”

Cardinale di Rohan
Louis René Eduard Prince de Rohan, the purplish duck sitting right in the lap of Jeanne Valois de La Motte.

The Cardinal was more a party man than a mass man and much more concentrated on his dressing table than on prayer. Ambitious, thirsty for acknowledgments, gallant (way more than what his title required) the Cardinal had kind of a weakness for luxury. That cost him the sympathy of Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Queen Marie-Antoinette, and notoriously strict woman.

During his time as an ambassador in Wien, His Eminence gave proof of an excessive levity, continuously throwing parties and bacchanalia for the severe Austrian aristocracy. The French Embassy challenged the Viennese court with the glamorous life model that was the exact opposite of the somber style the Empress promoted.

The fatal error that cost the Cardinal not only his office in Vienna but even the sympathy of Marie-Antoinette, who didn’t even want to see him again in her presence or speak to him since dates back to that period.

In a letter, the Cardinal used not very gallant terms to define Empress Maria Theresa, basically calling her a cynical phony. The letter was read during a private lunch in Versailles, in the quarters of the most powerful woman of the court: Louis XV’s favorite, Madame du Barry, someone young dauphine Marie-Antoinette profoundly despised.

François-Hubert Drouais, portrait of countess du Barry, (1770, Museo del Prado, photo from Wikipedia).

The reading was deemed exceptionally funny by the guests, and the news traveled quite fast towards the ear of the devoted daughter of Maria Theresa.
Bad, Eminence, so bad.

When Marie-Antoinette ascended to the throne, she didn’t change her cold demeanor towards the Cardinal one bit. He, on the other hand, would have done anything to gain back her favor and be able to aim for high offices. So, what did he do? He fell in the wrong lap.

Jeanne Valois, countess de La Motte, met Cardinal de Rohan almost by chance, thanks to the intercession of one of her high-society benefactors, moved by her heart-wrenching story. The Cardinal was immediately taken by her, but I’m quite convinced that more than by the heartbreaking story of the star-crossed, fierce and proud Valois, he had to be much more impressed by her astonishing beauty. The countess, with tears and flattery, was able to shake from the Cardinal quite a sweet amount of dough. But money, as I said, was never enough.

Hotel de Rohan
The beautiful Parisian palace of the de Rohan, where the Cardinal hosted Countess de La Motte, in the III arrondissement. The building, today home of the National Archives, is remarkably far from the road, and many tourists miss it, but his inner courts and gardens are free to visit.

To dig her talons even deeper in the Cardinal’s trust, the countess then started to work on His Eminence’s weak spot: queen Marie-Antoinette. Jeanne swore blind that she was her confidante, the closest of friends, having her ear and her trust, and that she had to go to Versailles very often, to stand by her and advise her.

Of course, of course, we all had the same thought: the Cardinal surely had many friends at court who could have easily confirmed or contradicted those incredible statements, but why risk and ruin the dream?

The countess had even shown the Cardinal letters from the Queen to her, signed “Marie-Antoinette de France“. Sure, the Cardinal could have compared the letters with the official documents that his family possessed, and so notice that the Queen never signed as “Marie-Antoinette de France” but just “Marie-Antoinette“, but why break the beautiful illusion? In the end, the Cardinal took the bait, like a sick-of-living carp.

Researching the Diamond Necklace Affair, I also discovered that, besides Her Majesty, all the main characters of the plot lived in the III arrondissement which, incidentally, is where I live! What a rush, realizing that not only the Cardinal’s palace, but countess de La Motte, at 10 Rue Saint-Gilles, and the nice hôtel particulier rented by the magician, diviner and healer Cagliostro too are in this ancient part of the city!

Casa de La Motte
In rue Saint-Gilles, countess de La Motte had rented an apartment. Between those walls, Jeanne plotted the Affair, and also between those walls, she took the jewel apart.
Hotel cagliostro
Cagliostro’s hôtel in rue Saint Claude, where the magician was arrested after the scandal of the necklace blew up.

Now, Jeanne de La Motte could deceive the Cardinal only temporarily, with the secret correspondence between him and the queen.

The promises of reconciliation and public pardon in the letters signed “Marie-Antoinette de France“, forged by Jeanne’s skillful secretary – and lover – Monsieur Retaux had to be soon followed up by live feedback.

The Queen, after all, despite the tenderness of her written word, still somehow ignored him altogether. And here Jeanne de La Motte plotted a staging as good as the best novels, a coup de théatre worthy of Alexandre Dumas (who inevitably made a novel out of this, ça va sans dire!). I’m talking about the legendary, outrageous night encounter in the Queen’s Thicket, in Versailles