To restore himself to the queen’s favour, Cardinal de Rohan decided to offer her a sumptuous necklace which she refused. But the ‘queen’ was not the queen. The scandal that rocked the state had begun.
Cardinal de Rohan, the Grand Chaplain of France, was in disgrace with the queen since his return from Vienna as ambassador. On the advice of her mother, Marie-Antoinette had evicted him from her entourage for his licentious behaviour. Anxious to win back her trust, the cardinal was ready to do anything. In his own entourage, a certain Mme de La Motte claimed to be a friend of the queen. She was an adventuress who said she was a descendent of the Valois royal house! She promised to bring the cardinal back into the queen’s favour. So on 11 August 1784, she organised a nocturnal pseudo meeting with her in the queen’s grove. The false Marie-Antoinette reassured the cardinal about his situation. Rohan was on a cloud!
For several years, the Crown jewellers Böhmer and Bassenge had been trying to sell a sumptuous necklace with 540 diamonds. They offered it to Louis XVI in 1782 but the queen refused it. Its price was indeed astronomical: 1.6 million livres! Mme de La Motte spoke about it to the cardinal. He was ready to give it to the queen if she paid him in four instalments over 2 years. The jewellers were delighted to find a buyer. They handed over the necklace to the cardinal on 1 February 1785, and he gave it to Mme de La Motte. She disappeared with her accomplices.
On 12 July, Böhmer sent the queen a letter that made allusion to the necklace. She did not take the letter seriously and destroyed it. Receiving no reply, the jeweller returned to the subject in August. He expressed his surprise to Mme Campan, her chambermaid, that he had not received the total payment for the necklace. When the queen was told this, she demanded an explanation. The hoax was discovered. On 15 August, before celebrating mass in the royal chapel, Rohan was summoned into the king’s presence. When he left his rooms he was arrested in the Hall of Mirrors before the stunned eyes of the courtiers. The scandal was out!
The cardinal was judged before the Parliament of Paris in May 1786. Completely unexpectedly, he was acquitted. Mme de La Motte and her accomplices were arrested and judged. She was sentenced to be branded with the letter V (for “voleuse”, thief) with a red-hot iron. Although innocent, the queen was seen to be a guilty party. She was the scandal! She had wanted to ruin the cardinal whom she detested. Her unpopularity plummeted to new depths.