Marie Antoinette, Queen of France from 1770 to 1797 was despised by the people of France. Their hatred of her and the monarchy in general led to the French Revolution. Many issues led to the unpopularity of Queen Maria Antoinette, her vanity, her disregard for the people, but perhaps the most significant was the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
In 1785, the court jewelers, Bohmer and Basange, constructed a necklace with five hundred and forty diamonds of varying sizes in an ugly arrangement that resembled the collars worn by circus animals. They hoped that King Louis XV would purchase it for his favorite, Madame du Barry. Unfortunately, the king died before the necklace was completed. So, naturally the jewelers tried to sell the piece to the newly crowned Queen, Marie Antoinette, because she was known for her extravagant spending and taste. They priced the jewelry at and equivalent of two million dollars in modern money. The Queen declined the offer. She did not like the necklace and the price was even too high for her. Knowing that they would be ruined if the Queen didnt buy their product the jewelers continued to plead with her for ten years. Each time she turned them down. Then, one day the Queen received a note signed by Bassange which said, We have real satisfaction in thinking that the most beautiful set of diamonds in existence will belong to the greatest and best of Queens. Puzzled by the message, the Queen, put the note to flame by a candle sitting on a nearby table (Komroff 85).
Weeks later, when the jewelers received no answer to their letter Bohmer paid a visit to Madame Campan, one of the Queens ladies-in waiting. He told her that he had received word that the Queen commissioned the Cardinal de Rohan to buy their necklace for her. This came as much of a shock to Campan seeing how she had know the Queen ever since she first arrived in France, and she knew of the Queens hatred for the Cardinal. It was, after all, the Queen that tried to prevent him from being appointed Grand Almoner of France.Campan replied that the gentleman must be mistaken. Bohmer answered that Campan was the one being deceived.
His eminence, he said, sees the Queen in private and he has brought me thirty thousand francs from the Queen as a down payment. Madame Campan immediately notified the Queen of his visit. When Marie Antoinette called the jeweler back for questioning the diabolical plot was discovered (Komroff 86).
The plot began in 1777 when, against Marie Antoinettes wishes, Rohan was named Grand Almoner. Trying desperately to soften the Queens anger, realizing that if she wouldnt acknowledge him, his power in court would diminish greatly, he wrote many letters to her but to no avail. She still refused to honor him with the slightest sign of recognition (86).
His desire for recognition led to his involvement with an adventuress and swindler by the name of Countess de la Motte-Valois (Affair). Countess Jeanne la Motte-Valois came from a very strange background. She was a direct descendant of King Henry II of France but generations of bad marriages had reduced the family to poverty. She married an officer of the gendarmes and the couple assumed the titles of Count and Countess (Komroff 87).
When a chance meeting brought the Countess and the Cardinal together, he was captivated by her. In the following months the Countess and her husband received many generous gifts of money from the Cardinal. On becoming aware of the Cardinals wishes to get into the good graces of the Queen, the Countess evolved a daring scheme (87). She led Rohan to believe that she had a very intimate friendship with Her Majesty and she would win the Queens forgiveness for him. As time went on she, very secretly reported to him that the Queens opinion of him was becoming higher and higher (87).
The conniving Jeanne, one day, brought great news to the Cardinal. He was to write a letter pleading for forgiveness and vowing to be a faithful servant of the French court and the Countess would deliver it to her good friend the Queen. Rohan did as he was told and a few days later he received a reply which was supposable written by Maria Antoinette, but really it was forged by a man named Villette. The letter said, I have read your letter; I am charmed to find you no longer culpable. I cannot yet grant you the audience you desire. When circumstances permit, I shall let you know. Be discreet (88)! His eminence, overjoyed with the letter was only satisfied with its content for a few weeks. It was time he decided, that the Queen give him a verbal pardon (88).
The Countess tried avoiding the issue, but soon she was forced to tell Rohan that the Queen would meet with him late at night in a secluded part of the gardens at Versailles (Komroff 88). On the chosen evening, the excited Cardinal followed the Countess into an isolated corner of the gardens, where they met a woman dressed completely in white. The mysterious woman trembled as she handed him a rose and whispered, you know what this means (88).
The woman impersonating the Queen was a prostitute from Paris named Olivia. She was hired by the Countess and was unaware that she was impersonating the Queen (Zweig 176). The proceedings were cut short when the group heard a noise. Instinctively, the lady in white disappeared behind a bush and the Cardinal was rushed away by the Countess. He was completely satisfied with his pardon from the Queen of France (88).
In the following months, the Cardinal received many letters from the Queen asking to borrow large sums of money. Rohan, wanting to keep the friendship of the Queen quickly turned over the funds to the Countess (Komroff 89). She, of course, used the money for her own benefit. Suddenly, she had enough money to buy a house and move a lot of fine, new furniture into it with the help of many servants (91).
Shortly, the court jewelers, still trying to get rid of the necklace heard a rumor, devised by the countess herself, of the great friendship with Marie Antoinette. They approached Jeanne about the matter. Being a master of deception and intrigue, she rapidly devised a way to steal the necklace by using the Cardinal as a dupe. She said that in fact the Queen did wish to purchase the necklace but not wanting to deal with them directly she had commissioned the Cardinal de Rohan to do business with them. Soon afterwards, the Cardinal presented the jewelers with a contract which stated that the purchaser should remain anonymous and the necklace would be delivered on February 1st at the price of 1,600,000 francs. The payments would be in four installments, six months apart starting on August 1st. Bohmer and Bassange signed the document, greatly relieved that the necklace was finally sold (90).
On the first day of February, the jewelers visited Rohans home to deliver the necklace. That very evening he went directly to the Countess de la Motte-Valois and handed her a black case containing the necklace, thinking that she would deliver it to her friend (Komroff 90).
In the following months, Bohmer, Bassange and Rohan waited anxiously to see the Queen wearing her new jewelry, but she never did. The Cardinal found this strange. He also had cause for concern because, despite his pardon, the Queen continued to treat him coldly. August 1st was approaching and the jewelers would be expecting payment. The Countess, wrote a letter from the Queen demanding a 200,000 franc price reduction and a postponement of the first payment. The jewelers gave in to these conditions but on the recommendation of the Cardinal, wrote Maria Antoinette the letter which she then so carelessly burned (91).
When the Queen summoned the jeweler after speaking with her lady-in waiting and heard her name so closely linked to such a crime, she demanded that the King have the Cardinal arrested. Rohan was placed in the Bastille, a most famous prison, that very night. Jeanne de la Motte-Valois was arrested the next day and also thrown into the Bastille(92). All efforts to recover the diamonds were lost because the Countess had packed her husband off to London with his pockets stuffed with loose diamonds (Zweig 181). The Cardinal, Villette and Olivia confessed to their crimes. The Countess, on the other hand, changed her story from day to day (93).
Those who were close to the royal family advised them to hush-up about the entire affair. Maria Antoinette insisted that justice be served. I want this horror and all its details to be brought into the open beforethe whole world, she said (Komroff 94).
These trials, that the Queen insisted on, only made matters worse. Her enemies circulated rumors that were printed as facts along with the court proceedings (94). They said that it had really been the Queens plan all along, to ruin the Cardinal. Some said she had written the letters and it was her in the garden, even though Villette and Olivia had confessed. Many insisted Jeanne was innocent (95).
In the end, the Cardinal was found innocent. The court said he had been a victim of Motte-Valois and his intentions were pure. The Queen realized that the court had morally condemned her by finding Rohan guilty of no crime. The Countess was condemned to the galleys for life. She was flogged and branded with a V to show that she was a thief and imprisoned for life in the Bastille, from where she later escaped (Affair).
For the first time, the French population got an inside look into the intrigue, deceit and corruption of the court and the church (98). And while the Queen was an innocent bystander to the whole plot, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace turned the people against the monarchy and especially the Queen which eventually led to the French Revolution.
“Affair of the Diamond Necklace”. Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. Microsoft corporation. 1993-1996. CD-ROM
Komroff, Manuel and Oddette Komroff. Marie Antoinette. New York: Julian Messner, 1967
Zweig, Stefan. Marie Antoinette. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. 1932