Thursday, September 25, 2014

The bizarre tale of Marie Antoinette and the ostentatious diamond necklace

A bizarre tale of an outrageous theft, immense self-indulgence, insatiable greed, lustful seduction, and incredible swindling!

Actual Replica of Necklace

Madame du Barry
The intended recipient of the necklace

Madame du Barry, mistress to King Louis XV, never imagined she would be the recipient of one the grandest, infamous diamond necklaces in the history of the world. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, the jewelers thought they'd fetch 1.6 million livres for the stunner, roughly equivalent to 100 million U.S. dollars in today's market.

King Louis XV

The king spent a fortune to commission the ostentatious jewel, but before he could present it to her, he died of smallpox. His death sent the royal court into a tailspin and Madame du Barry found herself evicted from the palace with barely the clothes on her back. What was the heir to the throne, Louis XVI to do with such a flamboyant bauble when the jewelers held out their hand for payment? 

King Louis XVI

He offered it to his wife, Marie Antoinette, of course. Can you imagine his surprise when his fashionista wife refused to accept his gift? Her excuse was that the money would be better spent buying a war ship, but in reality, it was rumored she did not want to wear a necklace created for a woman she had detested!

Marie Antoinette

So the jewelers tried to peddle the necklace to other royals outside of France, but no one seemed interested in purchasing the expensive trinket. They made one last attempt to sell it to the king or Marie Antoinette after she gave birth to an heir, but she refused it again.
Enter Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois! A con artist, an opportunist, a descendant of a previous king’s bastard. She would find a way to use the necklace as a means to get out of debt and rise in  influence and status. 

Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois

This shouldn’t be too hard to do since she was the mistress of Cardinal de Rohan, a man of great power who aspired to even greater heights than his illustrious robes would provide.

Cardinal de Rohan

Unfortunately, the good cardinal was not in Queen Marie Antoinette’s good graces. In fact, she detested the man because he had spread rumors about Marie Antoinette and had made offensive comments about her mother, Austrian empress Maria Theresa. Cardinal Rohan was desperate to regain the Queen's favour because he wanted to become one of the king’s ministers.
Jeanne decided to help him. So she took on a new lover, Retaux de Villette, who was a regular at the royal court. She soon convinced the Cardinal that she and the queen had met and were on good terms. Rohan was keen to use Jeanne to regain the Queen's support, and Jeanne assured him she was doing all she could to laud him to the queen.

Retaux de Villette

Rohan began corresponding to the queen, and Jeanne delivered the warmhearted replies she swore were written by the queen, but were really written by her new lover, Retaux, an excellent forger. Soon, the letters became very, very warm, enough to convince the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette was falling in love with him. Thus, he became smitten. Jeanne arranged a secret tryst for the Queen and the Cardinal under the darkness of night in the gardens behind the Palace of Versailles.
The Cardinal may have believed he was meeting with the queen, but in fact, he was meeting with a prostitute who resembled Marie Antoinette hired by Jeanne. The faux queen, Nicole Lequay d'Oliva, accepted the Cardinal’s rose and promised to forgive his transgressions against her.
Nicole Lequay d'Oliva
To maintain the illusion, Jeanne asked for large sums of money from the Cardinal, convincing him it was for the queen’s charities. Eager to impress the Queen, the cardinal eagerly handed over the money to Jeanne. Of course there were no charities. Rather, Jeanne used the cash to climb the social, made easier because she openly bragged about being the Queen’s friend. And everyone believed her.
Meanwhile, the jewelers were still trying to sell Marie Antoinette the necklace. Apparently, the "Queen" sent several letters to the cardinal ordering him to purchase the jewel on her behalf. The letter was signed Marie Antoinette de France. Poor Cardinal Rohan, he had no idea that French queens did not sign their letters that way. Jeanne convinced the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace, and wanted him to buy it for her, but was afraid to buy it herself when the people of France were so disenchanted with the nobility. Cardinal Rohan met with the jewelers, presented them with the queen’s letter detailing the conditions of the purchase, and bought the jewel for 2,000,000 livres, to be paid in installments. He brought the necklace to Jeanne's house, where a man, whom Rohan believed to be the queen’s valet, came to fetch it. The valet was no valet. He was Retaux and he quickly hurried to London, had it broken up in pieces, and sold the diamonds individually.
The jewelers were waiting for payment, but the Cardinal didn't have the funds to make the first payment. The jeweler went straight to the king and queen to collect his money. Marie Antoinette told him she never ordered nor received the necklace. The jeweler explained all the details to her. The king was furious.
The King and Queen ordered the Cardinal brought before them. He produced the Queen’s letter. When the King read it, he became furious at the Cardinal for having been fooled by the fake signature. He had the cardinal arrested and thrown into the Bastille. On the way to the infamous jail, the cardinal sent home a note ordering the destruction of all his correspondence. It took the King three days to identify Jeanne as a partner in crime. That gave her plenty of time to destroy all the evidence she had in her possession.
The police arrested the prostitute and Rétaux de Villette, who confessed he had written the letters in the queen's name, and had falsified her signature.
The Cardinal de Rohan was tried, the case sensational. He was aquitted, along with the prostitute, but Jeanne was convicted, receiving hefty sentence. After being whipped, and then branded on each shoulder with the letter V (the first letter of the word voleuse, which means thief in French), she was imprisoned for life in a prostitute’s prison. Her husband was convicted in absentia to the galleys for life. The forger was banished.

And poor Marie Antoinette! Even though she was a victim of the fraudulent machinations, her popularity with the people of France was already in a decline. The French Revolution was gaining momentum. She could not stop the landslide of hatred! And we all know what happened to her!

Of course there is much more to this story than can be presented here. To read a much more intense and detailed version of the story, I highly recommend How to Ruin a Queen" Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair by Jonathan Beckman. 

A tale of greed, lust, deceit, theft on an extraordinary scale, charlatanry, 
kidnapping, assassination and escape from prison.
This non-fiction book is an investigation into the people and events that led up to what has been dubbed the diamond necklace affair that helped ignite the French Revolution. This historical scam began to unravel when the jewelers began to demand payment from an unsuspecting Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI. 

The fraud unravelled when the jewellers began pestering the Queen for payment, and one by one, the culprits were exposed. Cardinal Rohan, a man desperate to rise in power and eager to gain entry into the inner circle of the king and queen. Jeanne, an poor descendant of a king's bastard, Retaux de Villette a fraudster, a prostitute, and an unsuspecting jeweler.

The gullibility of the cardinal, the shrewdness of Jeanne, and the mischief of a prostitute and a brazen lover make this an incredibly interesting read, to say the least. This book is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about this horrendous scandal, the tumultuous era of the French Revolution, and the sad fate of a king and queen who lost the respect of the public they served. 


Sally Johnson said...

WOW ... the scamsters of their day! Thanks for summarizing the story so colorfully.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

So glad you enjoyed it, Sally. I had great fun researching this post!

Liza Perrat said...

Loved this post, Mirella, I too, was fascinated by this story. Not sure if you remember, as it was quite a while ago now, your lovely review of my novel that featured this scam and Jeanne De Valois (Spirit of Lost Angels)?:

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

Hi Liza! Yes, I do remember your book and I loved it very much. It was you who ignited my love for this wild story! Truth is definitely stranger than fiction, isn't it? That must be why you and I love writing so much.

Liza Perrat said...

Wow, yes truth certainly is stranger than fiction. Our (difficult) job is trying to convince readers! Best of luck with The Novice, Mirella...I'll be entering the various giveaways!