Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Affair of the Necklace

The diamond necklace was commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry, from the crown jewellers, Boehmer and Bassenge. With the death of the King, the necklace was not paid for, almost bankrupting the jewellers and leading to various unsuccessful schemes to secure a sale to Queen Marie-Antoinette.

On August 15, 1785, the "Affair of the Necklace" broke upon France, just as Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were about to assist at the Mass of the Assumption, the patronal solemnity of the realm. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, who was supposed to offer the Mass, was publicly arrested in his pontifical robes for his part in the debacle. The Diamond Necklace scandal was one of the events which precipitated the French Revolution of 1789 and the fall of the monarchy. After perusing the internet I think it becomes necessary to affirm once again that Marie-Antoinette, according to several major biographers, was an innocent victim in one of the most sordid intrigues in history. She never sought to possess the necklace. For one thing, the necklace was not to her liking; she preferred light, aerial creations. A few scholars even doubt that Madame du Barry, whom the jewelers had in mind when they originally designed the huge, garish necklace, would have cared for it, her taste being not quite so grotesque as is generally assumed. Also, by 1785 Marie-Antoinette had cultivated simpler tastes; she was very much under the influence of Madame de Polignac, who never wore diamonds. It is known that when Boehmer tried to sell her the necklace, she remarked that France needed ships, not diamonds.

The fault of the King and Queen was in attempting to be too above board in the handling of the proceedings. Instead of trying to settle the disaster quietly, there was a public trial of the Cardinal, for whom Marie-Antoinette harbored resentments. Not only had Cardinal de Rohan rudely infiltrated one of her garden parties, but he had told ribald jokes about Marie-Antoinette's mother. He had many mistresses (including Bonnie Prince Charlie's daughter). He symbolized the worst decadence of the French nobility and the corrupt higher clergy. He was grand almoner of Versailles due to his ancestral prerogatives, but neither the king nor the queen had any use for him. The scandal rid them of him, but at a very high price. They could never have known at the onset the cast of bizarre characters with whom the Cardinal was involved, who were brought into the light of day. The Queen's name was dragged through the mud by being associated with such people in the gazettes, people who were complete strangers to her. Biographer Maxime de la Rocheterie believed that even if the king and queen had tried to suppress the scandal, the results would have been disastrous nevertheless.

How did it all come about? Through a woman who lied. Each lie told by Madame de la Motte was more outrageous than the last, yet individuals motivated by lust or ambition or greed believed her tales. She told people that she was an intimate friend of the Queen, who had never even heard of her. The swindle was tragic for all involved, especially for the innocent Marie-Antoinette, for it confirmed in the popular imagination all the salacious gossip which portrayed her as a loose, extravagant woman.

For details of the Diamond Necklace Scandal, read my book Marie-Antoinette, Daughter of the Caesars.