Reality can be a strange thing sometimes, with genuine episodes from history reading entirely like the plot twists from the most far-fetched of novels. The life of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, for instance, was so full of improbable episodes that it’s difficult to believe it really played out the way it did. But there’s one strange chapter in particular that really stands out. Across the years of 1784 and ’85 the monarch found herself embroiled in a scandal known as the Diamond Necklace Affair. This tale, in essence, centered on a piece of fancy jewelry, but it ultimately contributed to the queen’s eventual demise.
It’s probably fair to say that Marie Antoinette occupies an odd place within history and culture more broadly. She was, after all, the final queen to rule France before the country’s deeply influential revolution kicked off in 1789. Given that, she’s largely been characterized as a symbol for the failures of monarchical power.
But in tandem with this recognition of her excesses, Marie Antoinette is also revered as something of a fashion icon. The way she dressed is a source of fascination to people, with certain historians even dedicating their work to it. All in all, the queen has proven to be a lasting obsession over the centuries since her death.
A couple of eponymous films have focused on Marie Antoinette and the events of her life. One retelling of her tale was released in 1938 with Norma Shearer portraying the character. It was almost 70 years before the story was tackled on the big screen again: this time via a 2006 Sofia Coppola-helmed flick where Kirsten Dunst took on the starring role.
These films – as well as numerous books, plays, operas and other artworks of all kinds – reflect how the figure of Marie Antoinette has continued to loom so large. But even though her story’s been told and retold in countless different ways, it can still be difficult to get a grasp of how strange and eventful her life truly was. Even the Diamond Necklace Affair alone is enough to defy plausibility.
Right from the start, Marie Antoinette’s life was destined to be extraordinary. The child of Austrian royalty, she was born into a time when the relationship between France and her homeland was tense. In order to ease hostilities between the two realms, a 14-year-old Marie Antoinette was sent to marry a French prince.
This boy was crowned King Louis XVI of France in 1774, meaning that a 19-year-old Marie Antoinette had now become the French queen. But despite this most dramatic of boosts in the young couple’s societal status, all was not well in their relationship. The two were very different, with Louis reserved by nature and the extroverted Marie Antoinette his polar opposite.
By 1780 Marie Antoinette had increasingly taken to dwelling inside her own lodgings in the grounds of Versailles, away from her husband. It was during this period, then, that gossip began to emerge regarding the queen’s extramarital relationships. Such talk was fueled by the production of pamphlets depicting Marie Antoinette engaging in acts of infidelity and excess. In some cartoons she was nicknamed “Madame Deficit.”
All of this was occurring within a wider context of peril for the French state. The government’s finances were in awful shape, a situation made all the worse by a series of disappointing years of crop yields. With the kingdom doing badly, the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Marie Antoinette rubbed people up the wrong way. And this feeling of animosity was to be exacerbated by the coming Diamond Necklace Affair.
This incredible tale can all be traced to one woman named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, otherwise known as Comtesse de la Motte. La Motte held notions of herself as a French aristocrat, though her self-proclaimed link to royal blood was questionable. Even so, she aspired to a life of affluence – yet this was something that her husband couldn’t provide.
So, La Motte began a relationship outside her marriage with a soldier named Rétaux de Villette. She also started seeing a prominent member of the clergy named Cardinal de Rohan. This was significant, as Rohan was desperate to gain favor with Marie Antoinette. Ever the schemer, La Motte sought to use this to her own advantage.
La Motte had been tipped off that a pair of jewelry-makers by the names of Paul Bassenge and Charles Auguste Boehmer had created an extraordinarily valuable necklace. This thing was valued at roughly 2 million livres, which converts to about $15 million in today’s terms. The piece’s 647 diamonds had made it possibly the most costly trinket on Earth.
This necklace had been ordered by the former French monarch Louis XV. He’d planned to present it as a gift to his mistress, but he passed away before it was finished. Having invested so much into making it, though, jewelers Bassenge and Boehmer were anxious to recoup their costs. Yet given its extortionate price, the only likely buyers would be France’s royals.
Apparently, the jewelers attempted to offload the necklace onto Louis XVI in 1778, yet in spite of her reputation for profligacy, Marie Antoinette had intervened to scupper the sale. She’s even quoted as stating at that time, “We have more need of 74s [battleships] than of necklaces.” But despite turning this most ornate of pendants down, it would still prove to be the queen’s undoing.
La Motte was a skilled trickster, so she took advantage of the situation. Aware that Cardinal de Rohan wanted to get on Marie Antoinette’s good side, La Motte pretended to him that she was in close contact with the queen. And it wasn’t long before the cardinal had taken La Motte at her word.
With that, Rohan started to pen letters intended for Marie Antoinette in which he proclaimed his allegiance to her. He gave these messages on to La Motte, who, in turn, claimed to have passed them on to the queen. Rohan would then receive replies to his notes, which in reality were forgeries created by either La Motte herself or one of her other partners.
It seems that these fake letters that Cardinal de Rohan was receiving were very convincing. Apparently, he was so persuaded by them that he actually came to believe that Marie Antoinette had become smitten with him. So, he asked La Motte to set up a clandestine rendezvous with the queen.
Many people would have buckled under the pressure of such a request, but La Motte held her nerve. Rather than panicking, she handled the situation by hiring a lady of the night to play the part of Marie Antoinette and meet Rohan. This woman was Nicole le Guay d’Oliva, and she apparently looked quite like the queen. Amazingly, this audacious scheme worked and the cardinal was convinced that Marie Antoinette had taken to him.
Over time, word began to spread that La Motte really was a close ally of Marie Antoinette. Indeed, the jewelers Bassenge and Boehmer came to believe this and sought to take advantage. They got in contact with La Motte and asked her to convince the queen to buy their expensive necklace. La Motte, of course, saw an opportunity herself.
In her correspondences to Rohan, La Motte – who was still pretending to be Marie Antoinette – asked the cardinal to loan her the cash for the necklace. Rohan agreed to do so in several payments, and so the jewelers handed over the necklace to La Motte. She, in turn, allegedly gave it to her spouse.
The necklace was then dismantled and sold in several parts through illegal markets across London and Paris. The piece was never again to reemerge in its entirety, though replicas have since been made. La Motte’s plan had worked, but everything quickly disintegrated after Cardinal de Rohan failed to make the initial payment.
Bassenge and Boehmer approached Marie Antoinette directly to protest the fact that Rohan had failed to cough up the money. The queen, naturally, informed the jewelers that she had no knowledge of any dealings related to the diamond necklace. From there, La Motte’s scheme unraveled and arrests were consequently made.
La Motte, her lover Villette, the prostitute Nicole le Guay d’Oliva, Cardinal de Rohan and one of Rohan’s accomplices were all taken into custody. And as prosecutions progressed, the intricate tale of royalty, lies and treachery was soon laid bare before the public’s gaze. As you can imagine, the story was the talk of Paris.
The king and queen made the decision to put the suspects at the heart of the scam on trial publicly. This, they thought, would clearly demonstrate their innocence. In any case, the proceedings were a mixed bag. Both Cardinal de Rohan and Nicole le Guay d’Oliva were deemed innocent, but La Motte’s lover Villette was convicted and sent into exile.
La Motte herself was also declared guilty. Condemned to spend the rest of her days in jail, she was additionally to be whipped and branded. It seemed as though her tale would end in a life behind bars – but that would be too simple. In fact, the scheming criminal managed to escape from prison and flee to London. Here, she produced her own version of events – and her account shifted all the blame onto Marie Antoinette.
These days, there’s a broad consensus that Marie Antoinette genuinely had no knowledge of the scheme. To the contrary, it seems her only act that involved the necklace was to say that she didn’t want it. But at the time, the whole affair had a profoundly damaging impact on her standing within French society.
Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI had opted to hold the trials against the suspects in public to prove their own innocence. Yet ironically this move backfired spectacularly, with the public actually siding with La Motte. It was the queen, the French people came to believe, who had taken advantage of La Motte.
The guilty verdict handed down to La Motte was instead viewed as a sham by the people of France. Gossip and propaganda added fuel to the fire, as the public increasingly began to see Marie Antoinette as the blameworthy party. Despite her innocence in this affair, her reputation was now in tatters.
The monarchy of France had taken a huge blow because of the Diamond Necklace Affair. As a result, politicians throughout the kingdom started to increasingly oppose their decisions. The queen was vilified, even though the extravagances of her younger days had apparently lessened since her kids had been born.
Historian Gregory Fremont-Barnes once wrote of the queen’s situation in the wake of the Diamond Necklace Affair. He remarked, “Once Marie Antoinette became a mother, she focused most of her energy on her children. This resulted in a noticeable decline in the lavishness that had characterized her youth. She no longer bought jewelry or wore elaborate wigs. Nevertheless, her household consisted of 500 people who jealously guarded their little empires.”
Fremont-Barnes went on, “Despite the marked decrease in her social activities, she was known as the ‘Austrian she-wolf.’ Slander about her spread, scandalous stories were freely invented, many of them believed.” The historian went on to note that by the time she became associated, however unfairly, in the Diamond Necklace Affair, her public reputation “was already at a low ebb.”
Marie Antoinette was now reviled by the people of France, and as it transpired at a crucial turning-point in history. On July 14, 1789, hundreds of French citizens broke into a fortress known as The Bastille in order to get their hands on weapons. This is generally considered to be the first day in the French Revolution.
By October the tide had really turned against the French monarchy. King Louis XVI demonstrated a complete inability to rule during this time, but Marie Antoinette stood up to act in his stead. She organized meetings and reached out to other monarchs across Europe to ask for help. Her actions, though, proved in vain.
In 1791 mobs of people descended upon Marie Antoinette and attempted to take her into custody. The queen, together with a lover named Count Axel von Fersen, tried to slip away. But her plan failed and she was seized and brought to Paris. King Louis XVI, meanwhile, retained a loose grip on power.
Yet by mid-1792 a revolutionary leader by the name of Maximilien de Robespierre was calling for the king to be overthrown. This finally occurred in September, with the declaration of the French Republic. The monarchy of France had been stamped out and both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were now imprisoned.
The royal couple’s fate was then sealed. At the beginning of 1793 Louis XVI was brought before the court and found guilty of treason. He was sentenced to execution, which occurred on January 21. Marie Antoinette, meanwhile, had longer to wait before she was to meet her own gruesome end.
The queen faced a charge of treason in October 1793, as well as another trumped-up accusation of abuse against her child. Across a couple of days of court proceedings, a jury made up entirely of men declared that Marie Antoinette was guilty. With the verdict confirmed, she was finally executed on October 16.
The violent executions of the royal couple are perhaps indicative of the course that the French Revolution ultimately took. It descended into the Reign of Terror, during which thousands of perceived enemies of the new French Republic were killed. This bloody phase of history eventually imploded, but not before the revolutionary leader Robespierre himself had been sent to the guillotine.
The French Revolution is generally considered to have ended in November 1799, when a young army general staged a coup. Napoleon Bonaparte managed to take over France, ultimately ushering a new era of French supremacy across Europe. The country’s monarchy, which ended with the rule of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had now been consigned to the history books.
As for her personal legacy, Marie Antoinette is still today largely viewed with distaste. But if things had played out differently, then perhaps history would have been kinder to her. Despite her personal excesses, there were factors beyond her control that meant the public came to particularly despise her. And at the forefront, of course, was the Diamond Necklace Affair, from which her reputation never recovered.