Marie Antoinette was innocent but her reputation was destroyed when she was implicated in a scandal leading to France’s disillusionment with the monarchy.
Court jewellers, Charles Böhmer and Paul Bassange, were commissioned by Louis XV in 1772 to create the most opulent diamond necklace as a special gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry. It consisted of 647 diamonds and gemstones, costing 2 million livres as it took several years to complete.
Louis XV died of smallpox two years later and his successor, Louis XVI, disliked du Barry and banished her from court. The jewellers hoped the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, would buy the necklace but she politely refused several times as it did not personally appeal to her taste. She preferred light, refined objects, not heavy, flashy and appallingly ugly ones.
The jewellers were becoming desperate so they toured other European courts to sell the necklace, but they were unsuccessful. They drastically reduced the price to 1,600,000 livres offering various easy methods of payment.
Böhmer appealed to the Queen and told he would be ruined if she did not buy the necklace. Marie Antoinette spoke severely as she had not ordered the item, urging he break up the necklace and sell the stones separately. The Queen received a puzzling letter from Böhmer, did not understand its contents so she burnt it.
The Queen’s Confidante
The Grand Almoner of France, Cardinal Louis de Rohan, harboured ambitions of becoming a royal minister but his plans were thwarted because the Queen disliked him. Rohan was appointed as ambassador to Vienna during the 1770s. He offended the Queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa, by conducting his duties in a slapdash manner and preferred to hunt, shoot and cavorting with women, rather than prayers and preaching. Maria Theresa sent requests to have Rohan recalled. Marie Antoinette wanted nothing to do with him, and avoided speaking to him for eight years.
He had an affair with a scheming con artist, Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, who took advantage of his desire to ingratiate himself and to become part of the Queen’s elite circle. Jeanne connived a plot to rob Rohan of large sums of money, so she claimed she was a confidante of the Queen. (In fact, Jeanne de la Motte never had any personal access to Marie Antoinette.)
Jeanne gave the impression that by advancing the large sum of money, he would gain his hearts desire. Marie Antoinette had not spoken to him publicly—let alone privately—for eight years. A letter from the Queen commissioned Rohan to buy the necklace and make gradual payments.
A prostitute, Nicole d’Oliva, was hired to masquerade as the Queen for the secret meeting with Rohan in the palace grounds one night. She pressed a rose into Rohan’s hand, giving him the impression he had at last gained the Queen’s favour.
Jeanne’s husband took the necklace to London to be broken up and sold. She went on a huge spending spree in Paris’ most expensive shops.
The Scandal Breaks
Böhmer became suspicious as he did not receive a response from the Queen or any payments. He visited Versailles on 5 August where he spoke to the Queen’s maid, Madame Campan, informing her Cardinal de Rohan purchased the necklace for 1.6 million livres on the Queen’s behalf.
He was advised to speak to Baron Louis Auguste de Breteuil, the Minister of the Royal Household, as this matter was in his department. Instead Böhmer went to Rohan, who could not understand why the Queen did not wear the necklace in public—an indication of her gratitude—and no marks of royal favour or even the slightest acknowledgement of his new status.
Louis XVI read the forged letter and questioned Rohan. The letter was signed “Marie Antoinette de France,” so why did Rohan not spot this glaring error? Queens only signed their baptismal names—something Rohan, a courtier in a prominent ecclesiastical position, should have known. Marie Antoinette was indignant at his arrogance.
Miscarriage of Justice?
The Cardinal was arrested and sent to the Bastille, only to be acquitted of theft before a sympathetic Parlement who was swayed by strong public opinion against the Queen.
Marie Antoinette’s love of beautiful jewels and extravagance was widely reported—even in the slanderous libelles—so many were prepared to believe the worst: she had accepted the necklace, refused to pay and passed the blame onto others.
Jeanne de La Motte was arrested, sent to the prostitutes’ prison, La Salpêtriere, where she was publicly flogged and branded with a V for voleuse (thief). She escaped to London two years later and wrote her memoirs, successfully portraying herself as a victim.
Böhmer and Bassenger eventually went bankrupt. Their legal heirs sued Rohan’s heir, Princesse Charlotte de Rohan-Rochefort. The court case dragged on until 1867 when the Rohan family paid off this “debt of honour”.
Cadbury, Deborah, The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette’s Favourite Son, Fourth Estate, London, 2002, [Australian edition 2003]
Cronin, Vincent, Louis and Antoinette, The Harvill Press, London, 1996
Erickson, Carolly, To The Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, Robson Books, London, 1992
Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Phoenix Press, London, 2002
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 4 December 2010.