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The affair of the Queen's Necklace is one of the most significant, and one of the most mysterious events in the run-up to the French revolution.

Court jewellers, Böhmer and Bassenge had been commissioned by Louis XV of France to make a wildly extravagant diamond necklace for his mistress, Madame Du Barry. Unfortunately for them, the king died, and was succeeded by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, before the piece was complete, leaving the jewellers with an elaborate piece containing more than 600 diamonds, worth in excess of 1,500,000 livres on their hands.

Monsieur Böhmer offered the necklace to Marie Antoinette after the birth of her daughter, and her famous reply was "At that price we have more need of a ship of the line than a necklace."

The queen's penchant for diamonds, however, led the jeweller to believe that, even if she refused the necklace for form's sake, Marie Antoinette must covet this, the finest necklace in Europe, if not the world. Therefore, he again offered it to her on the birth of her son, the Dauphin, and was again refused.

After trying fruitlessly to dispose of the piece in the other courts of Europe, taking to the road with a paste copy as a model, Böhmer again visited the queen, desperate now, and begged her to buy it, or else, he said, he must kill himself, as he would be bankrupt. It was almost an obsession with him by this time. The Queen, determined, advised him to break up the necklace and sell the stones to overcome his embarrassments.

Up until this point, the story is simple. Then, however, new players entered the story, and things became – complex.

The jewellers received an approach from Cardinal Louis Rohan-Guémene, a prince of the church and a member of one of France's most powerful noble families, to buy the necklace, paying by instalments, ostensibly on behalf of the Queen. The Cardinal was an unlikely go-between as he was known to be out of Marie Antoinette's favour, however, he produced documents marked "approved" and signed "Marie Antoinette de France" to substantiate his claim. Marie Antoinette's extravagance was unpopular with the people of France --she was known, among other things, as "Madame Deficit"-- and this was the reason cited for the purchase being made in secret, rather than openly.

The deal was struck, the first payment made, and the necklace given over to Rohan. When the second payment fell due, neither the money, nor the necklace, were to be found. The jewellers became more and more anxious, finally speaking to the Queen. She denied all knowledge of the necklace and the agreement, and everything exploded.

Although the stories of all the participants in the drama contradict each other, what apparently happened was this:

Cardinal de Rohan was duped by Comtesse Jeanne de la Motte-Valois. Jeanne was an impoverished descendent of King Henri II, (her genealogy confirmed by the King's own staff) and she was anxious to get her "rights" as royalty. Having been allocated a small pension by Elisabeth, the king's sister, Jeanne was living in Paris, and married to a gendarme, who she "ennobled" with the title of Comte. She besieged anyone who would listen with petitions to improve her situation.

When this failed to work, she set about making her own fortune. She became Rohan's mistress, and managed, by some sleight of hand, to convince him that she was on intimate terms with the Queen. She told the Cardinal that the Queen did, indeed, desire the necklace, and would be happy for him to act as an agent. Rohan who was ambitious, and some claim, smitten with Marie Antoinette, was anxious to get back into her good graces, agreed to play this role, and to advance the Queen the first payment for the necklace.

Jeanne then acted as an intermediary between Rohan and Marie Antoinette, providing him with notes that purported to come from Her Majesty. In fact, they were the work of Rétaux de Villette, a friend of the La Mottes', who not only made no attempt to simulate the Queen's handwriting, but also signed with a form never used by the Queen, who, like all royalty, appended only her name to documents.

To allay any suspicions, Jeanne arranged a meeting between Rohan and the Queen at midnight in the Grove of Venus – part of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. However, the woman who met the cardinal was not the Queen, but Marie Lejay – who Jeanne renamed Baronne Guay d'Oliva -- a milliner, and very probably a prostitute, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Marie Antoinette. Oliva posed as the queen and gave the Cardinal a rose (though scurrilous rumour indicated she gave him rather more than that) as a token of good faith.

Once Rohan had obtained the necklace, he passed it to Jeanne, who was supposed to send it by courier to the Queen – in fact, she gave it to Rétaux de Villette, who passed it to the Comte de la Motte. It was then broken up – some of the stones being set in jewellery for Jeanne, and most being carried to England for sale.

The jeweller's direct approach to the Queen blew the whole affair open earlier than Jeanne expected, and therefore she was unable to make good her escape to England, to join her husband there.

This could have been just a sordid story of larceny, had Louis XVI decided to judge and act on the affair himself, as was his right as absolute monarch, but in a monumental misjudgement, he passed it to parliament to deal with, anxious to convict Cardinal de Rohan, in an open forum.

Those accused in the affair were:

  • Comtesse Jeanne de la Motte-Valois
  • Comte de la Motte
  • Rétaux de Villette
  • Cardinal Louis Rohan-Guémene
  • Baronne Guay d'Oliva; and --apparently purely by association with the principals --
  • Count Cagliostro: an 18th-century "wonder-worker", an alchemist, fortune teller and healer, reputed to be thousands of years old.
All the accused, apart from the Comte de la Motte who was safe in England were imprisoned in the Bastille to await trial.

French justice in the 18th Century was a free for all. The defendants' lawyers published their clients' stories for public sale and these were as much literary as legal efforts. Of course, everyone protested their innocence, and accused the other parties. It was a national circus. The pamphlets were lapped up eagerly, each new accusation and scandal fuelling gossip and leading to satires, verses and bawdy songs.

After a trial which lasted for months, Count Cagliostro was acquitted of all charges and freed.

Guay d'Oliva was also acquitted of criminal activity though censured for her impersonation of the Queen. Rétaux de Villette, as he had made no attempt to actually impersonate Marie Antoinette's handwriting, was banished from France. In his absence, the Comte de la Motte was sentenced to flogging, branding, and lifetime imprisonment on the galleys.

Jeanne, the author and mastermind behind the con, was sentenced to be flogged "naked" (in underclothes) in public, branded on both shoulders with the letter "V" for voleuse (thief) and imprisoned for life. She wasn't aware of this sentence until it was to be carried out, another feature of the French legal system of the time – only criminals condemned to hanging were told their sentence in advance.

After flogging and branding she was imprisoned in la Salpêtrière, from where she escaped to England a few months later. Jeanne continued to protest her innocence in memoirs, and claimed she had been a scapegoat for the Queen, who had not wanted to pay for the diamonds, as well as claiming to have been her lesbian lover. While both claims are patently untrue, as no sign of these diamonds were found amongst Marie Antoinette's effects, and here are no recorded meetings between Jeanne and the queen outside Jeanne's own account. Even so, the memoirs were damaging, following on from the most controversial decision in the affair -- that regarding Cardinal de Rohan.

Though known to be an intelligent man, Rohan was cleared of all charges, judged to be an innocent dupe, and, most telling and damaging of all for the monarchy, he was not even censured for culpable familiarity in his dealings with the woman he thought to be the Queen – a clear indication that parliament (made up of the nobles of France) felt that Marie Antoinette's reputation was such that Rohan could reasonably have expected her to a) deal for the necklace in secret, using an intermediary, b) make an assignation with him in a garden at midnight and c) exchange sexual favours for his services in the matter, sooner or later.

Where Louis and his Queen had wanted a public trial to ensure an example was made of the Cardinal, the Queen was damaged by it as much as he – although the affair did destroy his career. The public spectacle had dragged the name of an already unpopular monarch through the mud, and left it still dirty at the end – it was the first step toward full scale revolution.

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