Marie Antoinette - Alice Birkhead

The Diamond Necklace

A self-invited guest, haunting the Queen's fetes of late, had been the Cardinal de Rohan, Grand-Almoner of France and formerly ambassador at the court of Vienna. Now a man of middle-age, he looked back upon a youth spent without restraint, and still squandered gold recklessly and treated both equals and inferiors with arrogance. Yet he would humble himself to get a glimpse of Marie Antoinette, either because he was infatuated by her or because he hoped that she would further his ambitions.

Maria Theresa had distrusted this worldly Cardinal when she heard stories of his wild courses at Vienna. She did not speak well of him in her letters to Marie Antoinette, and it seemed as if her daughter inherited this dislike, for she would never include de Rohan among her intimate circle at the fetes of Trianon.

Her favourite, the Princesse de Guémenée, was his sister, but even so privileged an individual had never presumed on the relationship to beg favour for that member of the family. The friendship of the princess in any case was fatal to the impulsive Queen. The nation was roused to furious protest by the news that the Prince de Guémenée had "thrown himself upon his creditors" and would not pay one penny of the vast sums he owed, for the privilege of delay was granted him by the suggestion of the Queen herself, and peasants and shopkeepers, and even Farmers-general, knew that during the King's royal pleasure they must not sue for money.

The removal of the princess from court might have restored somewhat the reputation of Marie Antoinette, had not the scandalous preferment of the Polignac family followed it. Soon there was a new party to attack the "Austrian," for she had offended the mighty family of de Rohan.

The Cardinal was slow to believe that the Queen intended to slight him though he received snubs from her constantly. He was vain and thought to cross her path and win admiration for his fine person and fine clothes. A private fete was given in honour of the Grand-Duke Paul of Russia, who was visiting the court of France incognito. The Queen gave invitations only to her privileged friends, and was annoyed to recognize the Grand-Almoner among the guests who flitted in the dusky grounds of Versailles. She made inquiries and discovered that the lodge-keeper had been bribed to admit him.

[Illustration] from Marie Antoinette by Alice Birkhead


Punishment fell on the servant and some ignominy on the Cardinal, which he felt keenly. Yet he was still bent on gaining an audience with Marie Antoinette, and not scrupulous as to the means that might be used. Chance seemed to favour him, bringing to his doors Madame de la Motte who claimed an addition to her income from the purse of France on the ground that she was descended from the old Valois kings.

De Rohan was interested in the romantic story of this petitioner's life. It had begun in abject poverty in a village of old Burgundy, through which a noble lady, the Marquise de Boulainvilliers chanced to drive. Jeanne de Valois was gathering sticks by the wayside when she made her first appeal to wealth. She ran barefooted and in rags to plead for her father, who was cutting wood. The piteous condition of the child drew much patronage as soon as the tale was spread. The Due de Penthievre procured a place in the navy for Jeanne's brother, and Jeanne herself married a young officer in the Gendarmerie de France, by name La Motte. A small pension did not satisfy her, for she had all the tastes of wealth and a boundless arrogance besides. Very soon her household was in difficulties and she sought to make a further bid for the compassion of the great. The Comtesse de Provence gave her some help, but she was still poor when she tripped about Versailles waiting upon this patroness and ever looking for a means of advancement. Her fortunes were wellnigh desperate when she was introduced to the Grand-Almoner, and made a tool of him to gain her own ends.

De Rohan had long been the dupe of alchemists and charlatans of various kinds, and had been interested in the strange science of Mesmer and the divinations of Cagliostro, who prophesied great things for him. He always wore a ring set with a fine diamond, created from no visible substance by this last-named impostor, and had much to tell of secrets communicated to him by a medium from the spirit-world. He began to talk to Madame de la Motte of the change in Marie Antoinette that time would bring about.

The adventuress eagerly seized the opportunity of making money through a man so credulous and vain. She declared that she had the Queen's favour and often went to court. She would push the Cardinal's suit if he made it worth her while. On a certain visit to the Grand Almoner's chateau in the Vosges, she promised that she would obtain his heart's desire. She would bring about a meeting with the Queen.

The priest consulted Cagliostro and was confirmed in his hopes by visions in which the crafty rogue pretended to sec de Rohan raised on high again Cagliostro was making a sensation in Paris at that time, for he had very fine salons there and a charming wife. Indeed his personality was unique, and his power over the minds of all who came in contact with him was so great that the Cardinal was by no means his only dupe. He had regular features, a fine complexion and extraordinarily beautiful eyes that changed in expression continually. Children fled from him in terror in the streets, where he wore a peculiar garment of blue fox that covered his head and partially concealed the blue silk coat beneath, an embroidered shirt, gold-clocked stockings and shoes with diamond buckles. Jewels sparkled from every finger and adorned his costly clothes. He said that they had been obtained by transmutation as had been the stone in de Rohan's ring.

Madame de la Motte became the close friend of Cagliostro and his wife, living under the same roof and attending the brilliant receptions which they gave. She probably unfolded to him her new plan for capturing wealth. She had the Cardinal securely in her toils after her promise to bring him to a private audience with the Queen.

In the summer of 1784 letters were written by Retaux, a soldier of fortune, on notepaper similar to that which was always used by Marie Antoinette. These were delivered, according to agreement, to Madame de la Motte, who sent them to the Cardinal as a proof that she had not boasted too rashly of her intimacy with the Queen. The signature was the clumsiest of forgeries, being "Marie Antoinette de France," but the paper bore the royal fleur-de-lis, and de Rohan was too overjoyed to be anything but credulous. He read them all and believed that his adoration was returned.

For a time the dupe was satisfied, but he began to grow impatient, as the letters hinted at new favours which might soon be granted him. He pressed for the interview with Marie Antoinette, the promise of which had lured him to part so readily with gold. The accomplices saw that the time for a bold stroke had arrived. La Motte went out to find a girl in the Palais Royal whose face and figure bore some resemblance to the face and figure of the Queen. He found a courtesan, d'Oliva, and brought her to his wife.

A handsome sum of money was promised to this girl if she would perform a service for her sovereign and keep the secret all her life. She was dressed in beautiful white robes, and taught to say, "You know my meaning" in a purer accent than she was wont to use. When she seemed to know her part she was taken to Versailles and placed in the shadow of a hornbeam hedge, with a letter and a rose to be given to the great lord who would come for them.

The Cardinal, trembling with excitement, saw the tall, mysterious figure on the night of July 24th. He seized the hem of d'Oliva's dress and kissed it after she had given him the rose, for he believed her to be Marie Antoinette and paid homage as a lover. He was intoxicated by the vision of the dim figure as it glided to the shelter of a grove, and if a warning had not come from the confederates he would have followed.

Madame de la Motte found her victim generous after the signal honour he had experienced from the pretended Queen. She resolved to plot again, this time remembering that Marie Antoinette loved jewels. There was a certain diamond necklace which Louis XV had ordered for Madame Dubarry, but had not lived to bestow on her. The jewelers had spent much time in finding diamonds that matched well in their flawless excellence, and these perfect stones had fetched enormous sums and were too costly for anyone of less than royal degree. The alarmed tradesmen waited several times on Louis XVI, beseeching him to save them from the ruin that would surely fall on them if they could not sell the necklace. It is also possible that the King offered the diamonds to his wife, but she refused the gift. Now, according to La Motte, Marie Antoinette was eager to purchase what she had not been willing to accept from her husband. She would transact the business through an agent, the Cardinal, who had already given her large sums to spend on charities. The La Mottes had spent this money freely in entertaining great people.

In January, 1785, the jewelers were told to deliver up the necklace to the Cardinal, on the understanding that the total sum of 1,600,000 francs (£64,000) should be paid in four installments. They were satisfied, because they saw a paper bearing the Queen's signature—a forgery—and sent the jewels to de Rohan, who passed them on to Retaux.

[Illustration] from Marie Antoinette by Alice Birkhead


The Comte de la Motte fled across the Channel to dispose of the diamonds in London where their history was not known. He broke up the necklace into single stones and obtained a goodly fortune through this means. Then he returned to Paris where the jewelers were watching for the appearance of gems on the Queen's white neck. She did not wear it at the great ceremony in the church of Notre Dame, which celebrated the birth of her second son, the Due de Normandic. A premonition of evil came upon de Rohan when Marie Antoinette passed him with her usual cold disdain, and the Queen herself felt a strange dread that evening as she sat at supper in the Temple with the Comte d'Artois and saw the Temple Tower loom darkly over the scene of the brilliant festival. "Oh, Artois, pull it down," she cried. He laughed and made some jesting answer to her cry of terror.

The jewelers became suspicious when the payments were not made. They insisted on seeing the Comtesse de la Motte, who coolly told them that the letter she had shown them had not been written by the Queen. Distracted by the fear of loss, they claimed an interview with Marie Antoinette, and put the case to her. She was implacable in the rage she felt against the hapless Cardinal.

In private council at Trianon the King and Queen decided that de Rohan must be brought to public trial, that the Queen's name might be cleared at any cost. A bitter knowledge of the insults flung at it had come to Marie Antoinette, and she would not, therefore, heed warnings that the Cardinal was a dangerous man of whom to make an enemy. He was connected with the proudest families of France, and his office should have protected him, at least, from the humiliation of arrest in the glory of his lace and purple robes. He was summoned to the King's presence as he stood waiting to enter the Royal Chapel on the Day of Assumption, and came out with the Baron de Breteuil, Head of the King's Household, who put him in the charge of a Lieutenant of the Guard. The Queen's first deed of vengeance had been done.

De Rohan was a prince of the Church and a man of aristocratic birth. His family felt the disgrace of his trial, and whispered darkly of the Austrian's pride, which had brought such shame on them. The scandal spread far beyond the court, and the Queen's name was openly bandied in the Paris streets. It was believed by many that the Queen had actually received the diamond necklace, but chose to make the Cardinal her scapegoat. She had so often wandered alone in the park of Versailles at night that it seemed to many people quite possible she had granted stolen interviews and amused herself with an intrigue such as was charged against her.

The trial did not take place till the 30th May following the Cardinal's arrest. Madame de la Motte had been taken in the act of burning papers connected with the plot, but her accomplices were more difficult to capture, and there were many delays before the evidence could be procured.

Madame de la Motte, after struggling fiercely to clear herself, was sent to prison and branded with the letter V, as Voleuse  (thief); d'Oliva was set free as she was proved to be the victim of the conspirators and had not even received the money they had promised for her services. Cagliostro spent some time in the Bastille but was liberated, to the joy of the Paris rabble and the satisfaction of the enemies of the Queen. Rétaux was transported, and the Comte de la Motto escaped. De Rohan was stripped of every office by the King, and was allowed to leave the capital, where his name resounded on all sides. Marie Antoinette heard the cheers that greeted his acquittal, and knew that they were meant as insults to her. She had been foolish to expose her past frivolity in this trial, when each act was cleverly twisted by the critics into a fault deplorable in the Queen of France and compromising to any woman of fair fame.

Madame de la Motte managed to escape from prison and went to London to tell her story, proving herself a victim of the Queen's duplicity and greed. She told it well and gained sympathy, for "Tartuffe" had poisoned the minds of the English with his malicious tales of court life. That was as brilliant as ever in the year 1786, but Marie Antoinette was broken by an intolerable load of shame, and she could never more find pleasure in the idle festivities of Versailles.