1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Diamond Necklace, The Affair of the
DIAMOND NECKLACE, THE AFFAIR OF THE, a mysterious incident at the court of Louis XVI. of France, which involved the queen Marie Antoinette. The Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge had spent some years collecting stones for a necklace which they hoped to sell to Madame Du Barry, the favourite of Louis XV., and after his death to Marie Antoinette. In 1778 Louis XVI. proposed to the queen to make her a present of the necklace, which cost 1,600,000 livres. But the queen is said to have refused it, saying that the money would be better spent equipping a man-of-war. According to others, Louis XVI. himself changed his mind. After having vainly tried to place the necklace outside of France, the jewellers attempted again in 1781 to sell it to Marie Antoinette after the birth of the dauphin. It was again refused, but it was evident that the queen regretted not being able to acquire it.
At that time there was a personage at the court whom Marie Antoinette particularly detested. It was the cardinal Louis de Rohan, formerly ambassador at Vienna, whence he had been recalled in 1774, having incurred the queen’s displeasure by revealing to the empress Maria Theresa the frivolous actions of her daughter, a disclosure which brought a maternal reprimand, and for having spoken lightly of Maria Theresa in a letter of which Marie Antoinette learned the contents. After his return to France the cardinal was anxious to regain the favour of the queen in order to obtain the position of prime minister. In March 1784 he entered into relations with a certain Jeanne de St Remy de Valois, a descendant of a bastard of Henry II., who after many adventures had married a soi-disant comte de Lamotte, and lived on a small pension which the king granted her. This adventuress soon gained the greatest ascendancy over the cardinal, with whom she had intimate relations. She persuaded him that she had been received by the queen and enjoyed her favour; and Rohan resolved to use her to regain the queen’s good will. The comtesse de Lamotte assured the cardinal that she was making efforts on his behalf, and soon announced to him that he might send his justification to Marie Antoinette. This was the beginning of a pretended correspondence between Rohan and the queen, the adventuress duly returning replies to Rohan’s notes, which she affirmed to come from the queen. The tone of the letters became very warm, and the cardinal, convinced that Marie Antoinette was in love with him, became ardently enamoured of her. He begged the countess to obtain a secret interview for him with the queen, and a meeting took place in August 1784 in a grove in the garden at Versailles between him and a lady whom the cardinal believed to be the queen herself. Rohan offered her a rose, and she promised him that she would forget the past. Later a certain Marie Lejay (renamed by the comtesse “Baronne Gay d’Oliva,” the last word being apparently an anagram of Valoi), who resembled Marie Antoinette, stated that she had been engaged to play the role of queen in this comedy. In any case the countess profited by the cardinal’s conviction to borrow from him sums of money destined ostensibly for the queen’s works of charity. Enriched by these, the countess was able to take an honourable place in society, and many persons believed her relations with Marie Antoinette, of which she boasted openly and unreservedly, to be genuine. It is still an unsettled question whether she simply mystified people, or whether she was really employed by the queen for some unknown purpose, perhaps to ruin the cardinal. In any case the jewellers believed in the relations of the countess with the queen, and they resolved to use her to sell their necklace. She at first refused their commission, then accepted it. On the 21st of January 1785 she announced that the queen would buy the necklace, but that not wishing to treat directly, she left the affair to a high personage. A little while later Rohan came to negotiate the purchase of the famous necklace for the 1,600,000 livres, payable in instalments. He said that he was authorized by the queen, and showed the jewellers the conditions of the bargain approved in the handwriting of Marie Antoinette. The necklace was given up. Rohan took it to the countess’s house, where a man, in whom Rohan believed he recognized a valet of the queen, came to fetch it. Madame de Lamotte had told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette would make him a sign to indicate her thanks, and Rohan believed that she did make him a sign. Whether it was so, or merely chance or illusion, no one knows. But it is certain that the cardinal, convinced that he was acting for the queen, had engaged the jewellers to thank her; that Boehmer and Bassenge, before the sale, in order to be doubly sure, had sent word to the queen of the negotiations in her name; that Marie Antoinette had allowed the bargain to be concluded, and that after she had received a letter of thanks from Boehmer, she had burned it. Meanwhile the “comte de Lamotte” appears to have started at once for London, it is said with the necklace, which he broke up in order to sell the stones.
When the time came to pay, the comtesse de Lamotte presented the cardinal’s notes; but these were insufficient, and Boehmer complained to the queen, who told him that she had received no necklace and had never ordered it. She had the story of the negotiations repeated for her. Then followed a coup de théâtre. On the 15th of August 1785, Assumption day, when the whole court was awaiting the king and queen in order to go to the chapel, the cardinal de Rohan, who was preparing to officiate, was arrested and taken to the Bastille. He was able, however, to destroy the correspondence exchanged, as he thought, with the queen, and it is not known whether there was any connivance of the officials, who did not prevent this, or not. The comtesse de Lamotte was not arrested until the 18th of August, after having destroyed her papers. The police set to work to find all her accomplices, and arrested the girl Oliva and a certain Reteaux de Villette, a friend of the countess, who confessed that he had written the letters given to Rohan in the queen’s name, and had imitated her signature on the conditions of the bargain. The famous charlatan Cagliostro was also arrested, but it was recognized that he had taken no part in the affair. The cardinal de Rohan accepted the parlement of Paris as judges. A sensational trial resulted (May 31, 1786) in the acquittal of the cardinal, of the girl Oliva and of Cagliostro. The comtesse de Lamotte was condemned to be whipped, branded and shut up in the Salpetrière. Her husband was condemned, in his absence, to the galleys for life. Villette was banished.
Public opinion was much excited by this trial. It is generally believed that Marie Antoinette was stainless in the matter, that Rohan was an innocent dupe, and that the Lamottes deceived both for their own ends. People, however, persisted in the belief that the queen had used the countess as an instrument to satisfy her hatred of the cardinal de Rohan. Various circumstances fortified this belief, which contributed to render Marie Antoinette very unpopular—her disappointment at Rohan’s acquittal, the fact that he was deprived of his charges and exiled to the abbey of la Chaise-Dieu, and finally the escape of the comtesse de Lamotte from the Salpetrière, with the connivance, as people believed, of the court. The adventuress, having taken refuge abroad, published Mémoires in which she accused the queen. Her husband also wrote Mémoires, and lived until 1831, after having, it is said, received subsidies from Louis XVIII.
See M. Tourneux, Marie Antoinette devant l’histoire: Essai bibliographique (2nd ed., Paris, 1901); Émile Campardon, Marie Antoinette et le procès du collier (Paris, 1863); P. Audebert, L’Affaire du collier de la reine, d’après la correspondance inédite du chevalier de Pujol (Rouen, 1901); F. d’Albini, Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace from another Point of View (London, 1900); Funck-Brentano, L’Affaire du collier (1903); A. Lang, Historical Mysteries (1904). Carlyle’s essay on The Diamond Necklace (first published in 1837 in Fraser’s Magazine) is of historical literary interest.