Thursday, 2 June 2005

Marie Antoinette and The Diamond Necklace Affair

The notorious necklace

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in Vienna, Austria, on November 2nd 1755. Daughter of the austere empress Maria Theresa, she was married off to the young Dauphin, the future king Louis XVI of France, at the age of 14. She was thrown into the lavish lifestyle, where the pursuit of pleasure was dominant. She was unhappy in her marriage and sought refuge in an extravagant lifestyle, spending enormous sums of money when she was Queen, thus making herself extremely unpopular with the French people.

One incident, which damaged her reputation to the highest degree, was the so called Diamond Necklace Affair. Chief player in this story was a woman called Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, comtesse de la Motte, who was a notorious con-woman, sleeping her way to the top while simultaneously claiming to be an aristocrat. At the time Jeanne was having an affir with the Cardinal de Rohan, a gullible man off whom she borrowed large amounts of money and quickly got herself into debt. Jeanne came up with a plan: She knew the cardinal was anxious to get in with the Queen (in more ways than one) so she convinced him that she had access to the Queen and could arrange for a meeting. She told him to write letters to the Queen, which she would deliver personally. Of course, these were not really delivered and Jeanne forged replies to the cardinal, supposedly written by Marie Antoinette. She told de Rohan that the Queen wanted him to buy her a necklace made of 647 diamonds. He believed it and after Jeanne had staged a meeting with a look-alike, he was determined to get it. This particular necklace was so costly it was worth as much as a battle-ship. As soon as the cardinal had purchased it on behalf of the Queen, Jeanne convinced him that she would hand it over to the Queen but instead had her husband smuggle it to England to be sold.

When the jewellers saw that payment was not forthcoming they went straight to the Queen demanding their money. She of course had no idea what they were talking about and once she realised was horrified. She demanded that the cardinal stand trial. De Rohan was acquitted but Jeanne de la Motte was convicted. However, the French people were not convinced that Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with this and her reputation was seriously blemished from that point onwards.


Peter said...

No post on Marie Antoinette should be allowed to go by without someone noting that she never said "Let them eat cake".

Alterior said...

This is absolutely true, Marie Antoinette never said that. From this site
I found the following:

the quotation was first written by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Confessions. Actually, Rousseau wrote "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," which essentially means "let them eat a type of egg-based bread" (not quite cake, but still a bit extravagant). Rousseau claimed that "a great princess" told the peasants to eat cake/brioche when she heard they had no bread.

But Rousseau wrote this in early 1766, when Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old, still living in her native Austria and not yet married to King Louis XVI. So it's highly unlikely that Marie uttered the pompous phrase. Perhaps Rousseau invented them to illustrate the divide between royalty and the poor -- which is certainly how the phrase has been used ever since.

However, "Let them eat brioche" isn't quite as cold a sentiment as you might imagine. At the time, French law required bakers to sell fancy breads at the same low price as the plain breads if they ran out of the latter. The goal was to prevent bakers from making very little cheap bread and then profiting off the fancy, expensive bread. Whoever really said "Let them eat brioche" may have meant that the bakery laws should be enforced so the poor could eat the fancy bread if there wasn't enough plain bread to go around.

A recent biographer claims that "Let them eat cake" was actually spoken by Marie-Therese, wife of France's Louis XIV, 100 years before Marie Antoinette, but we couldn't find anything online to corroborate this. Ultimately, we will probably never know who uttered this infamous phrase.

jaorth said...

Note: Thomas Carlyle wrote an excellent essay on this historical event. It can be found in his volumes of collected essays. His history of the French Revolution is also well worth reading. Regards to all, J.O.

Alterior said...

Many thanks jaorth, I will look that up.

By the way, tried clicking on your name but there is an error when trying to reach your homepage.


Anonymous said...

Do you know who has the necklace now? Do you know where i can find a better picture for my history project? Thank you for your help!!