Affair of the Diamond Necklace

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© Bob Denton 2014

Affair of the Diamond Necklace, 1785

One scandal that did most to dent the French people’s support for Marie Antoinette and the monarchy, this was the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’.

It had all started back in 1772 when Louis XV decided to purchase a gold and (2,800 carat) diamond necklace for his mistress Mme du Barry. The Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge were commissioned to design and create this necklace at a cost approaching 1.6 million livres and they advised it would take some two years to complete the order.

While it was still in the process of being fabricated, Louis XV died and du Barry was pushed away from the court by Louis XVI. The jewellers approached the new king and suggested it would be a wonderful gift for Marie Antoinette. She was unimpressed by this ‘second-hand’ gift. She also suggested that the price was outrageous, her husband could build a new man-o-war for this sum.

The jewellers were stuck with the necklace and for a number of years hawked it around the European royal families without finding a successful sale.

Someone on the edges of the court conceived a plan to both steal the necklace and to discredit the queen. The individual was Jeanne de la Motte, she was descended from an illegitimate son of King Henry II and lived on a pension from the King.

In 1785 she became the mistress of Cardinal de Rohan, who had been an ambassador to the Austrian court where he had managed to offend Marie Antoinette. Jeanne de la Motte convinced him she was in touch with the Queen and would help him rehabilitate his reputation with her.

In fact Jeanne was borrowing money from Rohan that allowed her to launch herself into court society. She was so successful in this that the jewellers resolved to approach her to try to sell the notion of the necklace to the Queen. She forged letters from the Queen to the Cardinal saying that she wanted the necklace but she couldn’t ask Louis to buy it.

La Motte even arranged a meeting for him in the gardens at Versailles with the Queen, but arranged for a prostitute with a resemblance to the Queen to pose as Marie Antoinette. ‘The queen’ requested that the Cardinal arrange the purchase, desperate to advance his place in court he duly did so. In Jeanne’s home the Cardinal handed it to someone he believed represented the Queen, but this was her gendarme husband who took the necklace to London and had it broken up and the jewels sold separately.

When the Cardinal was required to meet the purchase of the necklace he was not able to do so. The jewellers went to the Queen to learn that she knew nothing of the transaction. The plot was uncovered and the various players arrested – the Cardinal, Jeanne de la Motte, her husband and the prostitute who had forged the letters.

The general populace believed that Marie Antoinette had been complicit, that she was sneaky, vain, frivolous and profligate. They preferred to believe that she had been at the heart of the fraudulent conspiracy. Despite the parlement of Paris finding she and the Cardinal were the dupes of de la Motte, she never managed to shake the popular belief of her involvement. As a result she became a positive embarrassment to the king.

Let them eat cake – there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever actually said this. The actual quote comes from the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘Confessions’. It may even have been a fabrication of his, because other parts of this work have been shown to be vague.

In ite explains that a great princess when advised during a famine that the peasants had no bread, replied ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, ‘Then let them eat brioche’. Brioche is a more de luxe version of bread that uses butter and eggs rather than the more common flour and water version.

The implication was that she was therefore unworldly proposing a more extravagant item as being an appropriate alternative. However a law had been passed in France during this period that ordered bakers to sell this more expensive bread at the same price as ordinary bread.

There were no famines during her husband’s reign which casts even more doubt over the quote.

Forward to 7 – The French Revolution – Back to Marie Antoinette
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014