Cardinal Rohan intended to give Marie-Antoinette a luxurious diamond necklace to regain her favour. But an imposter posing as the queen proved cleverer than the Cardinal, causing a glittering scandal.
Following his return from Vienna as an ambassador, Cardinal Rohan, Grand Almoner of France, had fallen out of favour with the queen because of his licentious behaviour. Heeding the advice of her mother, Marie-Antoinette had excluded the cardinal from her inner circle. Ready to do anything to regain her favour, the Cardinal fell back on the graces of an acquaintaince, the self-styled Countess of La Motte. A genuine descendent of one of the legitimate sons of Henry II of Valois, the countesse was above all else a confidence trickster. Claiming to be one of the queen’s friends, she promised the Cardinal he would once again find himself looked upon kindly by the queen, and organised a nocturnal meeting on 11 August 1784 in the Queen’s Grove. During the meeting a lady, whom the Cardinal supposed to be Marie-Antoinette, reassured him from the shadows of his standing with the court. Rohan went away positively thrilled.
At the time the Crown jewellers, Böhmer and Bassenge, had been trying for several years to sell an extravagant necklace containing nearly 650 diamonds and weighing almost 2,800 carats. They had presented it to Louis XVI in 1782, but the queen had turned it down. Despite the asking price having been reduced to 1.6 million Livres, it was still considered exorbitantly costly. Mme de La Motte discussed the matter with the Cardinal, who agreed to act as an intermediary to buy the necklace on behalf of the queen, with payment to be made in four instalments over two years. The jewellers were delighted to have found a buyer at last and handed over the necklace to the Cardinal on 1 February 1785. The Cardinal promptly presented it to Mme de La Motte, who just as promptly disappeared with her accomplices.
Rohan received a convocation from the king. As he was leaving his cabinet he was arrested in the Hall of Mirrors, surrounded by the stupefied Courtiers. The scandal was about to reach the marketplace.
On 12 July Böhmer sent a letter to the Queen in which he referred to the necklace. Knowing nothing of the affair, she destroyed the letter. Waiting in vain for a reply, the jeweller broached the subject again in August in a letter to Mme Campan, Marie-Antoinette’s Lady in Waiting, expressing his surprise at not having received full payment for the necklace. Mmd Campan reported the curious news to the queen, who demanded an explanation. On 15 August, about to celebrate mass in the Royal Chapel, Rohan received a convocation from the king. As he was leaving his cabinet he was arrested in the Hall of Mirrors, surrounded by the stupefied Courtiers. The scandal was about to reach the marketplace.
The Cardinal was brought before the Parlement de Paris in May 1786 and, contrary to all expectations, was declared innocent. Mme de La Motte and her accomplices were arrested and judged, and the confidence trickster was branded with a hot iron with a “V” for Voleuse (thief). Although the Queen was innocent, her reputation was tarnished and never quite recovered: she, the Queen, was the scandal. From then on she desired earnestly to see the downfall of the now detested Cardinal.
Reign of Louis XVI
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