Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The affair of the diamond necklace: Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, Comtesse de la Motte (1756-1791), St Mary-at-Lambeth

Jeanne de la Motte's entry in the St Mary-at-Lambeth burial register
A casual passerby would have seen some odd goings-on at Mount Row in Lambeth on the night of 6 June 1791 when a pair of heavily built men forced their way into one of the lodging houses. A few minutes later a distraught young woman leaves the same house in something of a rush and, despite apparently not being able to speak English, manages to persuade the occupants of a neighbouring house to let her in. She is observed by one of the men from an upstairs window and eventually both of the men follow her into the street and into next door. Noise and confusion follow their entry and then a third storey window of the house opens and the young woman flies out and falls to the pavement, striking a tree on the way down.  It is impossible to say if she fell, jumped, was pushed or even thrown out of the window but it is clear she is badly injured; she seems to have broken more than one limb and she has lost an eye.

In the days that follow the newspapers explain what happened;
A female foreigner, who lodged in the neighbourhood of Mount-row, Lambeth, being on Monday night arrested upon an action for a trifling sum of money, was so much affected, that she leaped out of a two pair of stairs window, by which act the broke both her legs, and was otherwise so much bruised, that her life is despaired of. She proves to be the famous Comtesse de !a Mott.  As soon as the Bailiffs arrested her, she asked them to drink a glass of wine,  and, on pretence of getting it, left the room, and immediately locked the door. From the window they saw her go into an adjoining house, and pursued her. She lies terribly mangled; her left eye cut out — one of her arms and both her legs are broken.  Caledonian Mercury 9 June 1791

Jeanne de la Motte
The trifling sum of money was £30 and the young woman was the 35 year old Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, Comtesse de la Motte. She and her husband, the shadowy Count de la Motte, were fugitives who had earned the undying rancour of the French Royal family and who were terrified of Royalist retribution even though the Revolution was in full throe and Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette had far more pressing matters to deal with.  Jeanne took two and a half months to die of her injuries, finally expiring on the 21 August, reportedly after over indulging in mulberries for which she had a particular weakness. She was buried five days later at St Mary-at- Lambeth by William Vyse who as well as  being the rector of St Mary’s was also Chaplain to Archbishop Cornwallis, Lambeth Palace being next door to the church.  In the registry the rector recorded the deceased as Jean St Rymer De Valois, Countess De La Motte.  The Count was not at her funeral; he was in Belgium fighting a duel in which he killed William Grey a Bond Street jeweler, no doubt in a dispute over payment for the diamonds that his wife had stolen and that had led to her public flogging and imprisonment in Paris;

An Affair of Honour, which has been attended I with fatal Consequences, took place at Brussels a few Days ago. A Dispute between the famous Count La Motte and Mr. William Gray, of Bond-Street, London, which originated on some trivial Circumstance, had occasioned a Duel, in which the latter fell. A Brace of pistols being fired by each without Effect, they had Recourse to Swords; and Mr. Gray having a Cast in his Eye, and being less versed in the Management of that Weapon than his Antagonist, yielded an easy Victory.  Oxford Journal 27 August 1791

The churchyard at St Mary-at-Lambeth

Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy was born in July 1756 in the Chateau of Fontette near the town of Barbe-sur-Aube in Champagne. Her father Jacque was an illegitimate grandson of Henri II and a near penniless drunkard who had frittered away what was left of the family fortune by gambling. He had fallen so low as to marry a servant with whom he produced six children, supporting them by poaching off the estates he had once owned.  Poverty drove the family to Paris where a broken Jacque died in the workhouse. Jeanne’s mother promptly married a Sardinian guardsman and the family moved to Boulogne. The Guardsman raped the 8 year old Jeanne and made her earn her keep by begging in the streets of the town.  Jeanne stood on the main carriage route with her baby sister strapped to her back, holding a sign which said “Pity the poor orphan of the blood of Valois.”  The Marquise de Boulainvilliers, driving past in her Phaeton, took pity as instructed and became Jeanne’s patron for a decade. Placing the sisters in a convent didn’t stop the Marquise’s husband debauching the adolescent Jeanne. At the age of 20 she ran away from the convent back to her place of birth in Barbe-sur-Aube where she was taken in by a Madame  Surmont, the wife of the local Prefect. The good woman soon regretted her charity when her husband became smitten by the girl; she however reserved her favors for the Bishop of Langres by whom she became pregnant.  Jeanne deftly side stepped the potential scandal by ensnaring Madame Surmont’s beloved nephew, guardsman Nicolas La Motte, into a hasty marriage.  Jeanne had twins, girls, but they died soon after birth.

Cardinal Rohan
Jeanne’s much vaunted Valois blood eventually led to her being granted an annual pension by the Crown but it was not enough for a penniless girl with grand ambitions. Her opportunity to further these came when Madame  Boulainvilliers introduced her to Cardinal Rohan, the Bishop of Strasbourg. The Rohans were an important, powerful and vastly wealthy aristocratic family and Cardinal Rohan was a worldly prelate with a taste for politics. He had been one of the political faction opposed to the Austrian marriage of Louis XVI and had been sent on a special mission to Vienna to try and prevent it. He only succeeded in earning the personal enmity of the Empress Maria Teresa and her daughter Marie Antoinette. Once Marie was Queen Rohan’s political career was over and he was barely tolerated at court.  The Cardinal was enchanted by Jeanne and she soon became his mistress and confidante. The only other person Rohan trusted implicitly was Count Cagliostro; placing himself in the unfortunate position of having two of the 18th century’s greatest swindlers as his personal advisers, a situation that would eventually cost him dearly.

Nicole d'Oliva
With Cardinal Rohan’s backing Jeanne took to haunting Versailles, continually calling on officials and courtiers with petitions and requests for the money, property and titles that she felt she was entitled to on account of her Valois blood. When this didn’t work she tried sleeping with court officials and telling outrageous lies about her close personal relationship with the Queen. She became such a pest that officials eventually increased her pension in an effort to get rid of her but it was not enough for the voracious Jeanne. Cardinal Rohan swallowed the story of Jeanne’s new friendship with Marie Antoinette and humbly accepted her advice that he start a campaign to restore himself into Royal favor by writing a letter to the Queen begging her forgiveness for the errors of his past.  Jeanne recruited a friend, a master forger named Rétaux de Villette, to produce a reply that came ostensibly from the Queen herself. Encouraged by the faked response Rohan wrote more letters to the Queen to which Rétaux wrote increasingly warm, even intimate replies.  Flattered by this apparent interest from the Queen Rohan was soon penning treasonous love letters to her majesty. The worldly prelate seems not to have smelled a rat, even when ‘the Queen’ began asking him for substantial donations towards charity. He seemed not to notice that the penurious Jeanne was suddenly affluent, living in better accommodation and dressing in finer clothes. Rohan’s ardor increased to the point where he was desperate to meet the Queen in private.  Jeanne put off the meeting for as long as possible but when she ran out of excuses she arranged a rendezvous on a moonless night in an overgrown arbor in the gardens at Versailles. Another friend Nicole d'Oliva, a prostitute, was recruited as stand in for Marie Antoinette. The private interview was quick, no more than a few minutes, undertaken in conditions of great secrecy – the excited Rohan was barely able to stutter a few endearments to the heavily disguised Queen and had no time to receive any in return. Instead ‘the Queen’ thrust a single red rose into his hand before rushing away to spend the night writing him a long passionate letter.

The famous necklace
It was not only the Cardinal who believed Jeanne’s story of her friendship with Marie Antoinette; the court jewelers Barsenge and Bohmer hearing false rumors of her intimacy with the Queen approached her to intercede with her majesty on their behalf. They were anxious to sell a colossally expensive diamond necklace, a piece which cost so much that only the King could afford to buy it. Unfortunately the King had declined the purchase and the jewelers were left with a necklace into which they had sunk almost all their capital. They hoped that Jeanne could help them solve their liquidity problem by approaching the Queen on their behalf. She immediately saw the potential to make a fortune from the besotted Cardinal Rohan.  On her instructions Rétaux the forger wrote a charming letter to Rohan, ostensibly from the Queen, explaining that she desperately wanted the necklace but that the King was in temporary financial difficulties and had told her she had to make sacrifices. Could her dearest Cardinal please advance her a loan to buy the trinket? The cost was an eye watering 1,600,000 livres, a sum so vast even the lovelorn prelate started to feel uneasy but the jewelers were prepared to accept payment in installments and by the time the first payment had been made the King could probably be relied on to come up with the rest.  Rohan anxiously decided he needed further help in making such a big decision so he asked Count Cagliostro to consult the spirits for him, they surely would know what to do. The Count did as he was asked and was pleased to tell Rohan that the auguries were all good and he should go ahead. Jeanne soon had the necklace, which she passed on immediately to her husband who wasted no time prising the diamonds from their settings before hot footing it off to Brussels and London to sell them.

Marie Antoinette points the finger at Cardinal Rohan

The plot unraveled when the first installment of the money fell due to Barsenge and Bohmer;  Rohan found himself unable to come up with the cash by the appointed date. The two jewellers panicked and approached the Queen directly to politely remind her that the money was due. She of course claimed to know nothing and so the jewelers produced the contract of sale to which Rétaux the forger had obligingly appended her name on behalf of Jeanne. Soon Cardinal Rohan, Jeanne, the unfortunate Cagliostro, Rétaux the forger and Nicole the prostitute all found themselves under arrest. The King decreed that there should be a public trial, a serious misjudgment given the general unpopularity of the Royal family. Both Jeanne and Cagliostro published spirited (and meretricious) defenses which became best sellers in France and newspapers all over Europe took a keen interest in the progress of the trial itself. Public opinion in France believed Rohan to be an innocent victim of Marie Antoinette, the Queen merely using Jeanne and her disreputable friends to discredit and humiliate the Cardinal. The verdict of the Paris Parlement, where the trial was held, reinforced the popular view; Rohan was acquitted of all charges against him, as was Cagliostro, and the full brunt of blame for the affair fell on Jeanne and her two accomplices. Jeanne was ordered to be whipped and branded and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jeanne is publicly branded in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice

Early in the morning of 21 June 1786 Jeanne was dragged out of her cell in the Palais de Justice wearing only a petticoat and shawl by 8 men who bodily carried her to the main courtyard. She put up a ferocious struggle as her captors tied a halter rope around her neck and attached her to a cart to be whipped. The courtyard had been set up with benches for the public to see the spectacle and despite the earliness of the hour a crowd of several hundred people quickly gathered. The guards seemed almost sorry for her and the lashing across her shoulders and neck was half hearted according to most accounts. One of the guards then stripped her half naked to allow the executioner to brand a V on her shoulder and breast with a red hot iron. As he scorched her breast the swooning Jeanne rallied momentarily and sank her teeth into his hand, biting off a sizeable chunk of flesh before passing out. Whilst she was unconscious her hair was shorn to the scalp. Later she was given the coarse grey uniform of the Salpêtrière before being taken away to that notorious prison for prostitutes. 

Jeanne's flight from the Salpêtrière 
Her sentence was life imprisonment but in the event she served less than six years, somehow escaping and fleeing to London. We only have her own, highly improbable account of how she managed to escape her Parisian jail. She claims well wishers smuggled writing materials to her with which she produced a sketch of the key to her cell (which she merely managed to snatch glimpses of in the hands of the nuns who served as jailers), the sketch was then smuggled out of the prison and used to make a duplicate key which was smuggled back in along with a suit of men’s clothes. When the opportunity arose Jean donned the suit and wig and let herself out of her cell and a further three locked doors and escaped from the prison by mingling amongst a crowd of sightseers on a visit to see the locked up prostitutes. Once free she made her way to Luxembourg and then to London where she was joined by her husband. In London she wrote her bestselling “Memoires Justificatifs de La Comtesse de Valois de La Motte,” but seemed to make very little money from them if she was forced to live in a common lodging house in Lambeth and died being dunned for a mere £30.

Illa Meery as Jeanne de la Motte, in the silent film "Cagliostro" (1929) By Richard Oswald.

Perhaps we have not heard the last of Jeanne; on ‘Find A Grave’s web page about her, an anonymous poster left the following message in January 2012: another lifetime on earth I was Jeanne De Saint-Remy de Valois. To those kind and beautiful souls who have left flowers THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart, it's been very healing. To those few who have left negative comments, believe me, I have paid for my actions in this lifetime by carrying huge amounts of guilt and shame and suffered, which has impacted on every aspect of my life. Her actions were not 'nice' to say the very least, but unless you walk in another's shoes, I would ask you not to judge, think of the poverty and the abuse. I have met Marie-Antoinette again in this life-time and I felt so guilty and ashamed that I could not bear to be in her company and I sobbed for about an hour aterwards. I'm still trying to work through the energy of that life, but I'm grateful for this opportunity to share with whoever comes across this.
Added: Jan. 7, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment