Ever heard of the French Revolution? The Affair of the Diamond Necklace? Well guess who was behind it all: Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, self-proclaimed Comtesse de la Motte. Make sure you’ve got enough space in your brain to put all this information in.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy was born on July 22nd, 1756. Her parents were super-poor peasants but guess what: they claimed to be descended from Henri de Saint-Rémy, an illegitimate son of King Henri II of France, who had been given the title Comte de Saint-Rémy, which means “Count” in French. Even though Jeanne’s family thought they were important, they weren’t really, because remember: super-poor peasants.
Jeanne was the third child of Jacques de Valois-Saint-Rémy and his wife, Marie Jossel. They had two children before marrying. Jeanne was born after their marriage. Jacques was known to be a drunkard who received some money because he was descended from royalty. Three out of Jeanne’s five siblings didn’t survive to adulthood. And, if I haven’t emphasized it enough, Jeanne’s family was really poor. Jeanne and her siblings had to do farm work barefoot. Once her father moved the family to Paris, the situation only worsened.
When Jeanne was six, her drunken father, Jacques, died. Her mother was probably just as bad as her husband, and Jeanne would later say that in her memoir, and once her husband was dead, Marie Jossel, Jeanne’s mother because apparently a lot of names in this story start with “J”, pretty much neglected her children and they were cared for by the Marquise de Boulainvilliers.
The Marquise was kind to Jeanne and her two siblings, and she proved that Jeanne and her siblings were actually descendants of King Henri II. That meant that they could get a yearly stipend from the government. That money was what allowed Jeanne, her brother Jacques, and her sister, Marie-Anne, to get educated, even if it wasn’t the best education. Jeanne and Marie-Anne went to boarding school, and after that, they were sent to a convent. The plan was for Jeanne and Marie-Anne to become nuns, but Jeanne was like “I don’t think so”, and the girls actually ran away. Jeanne wasn’t a nun-type of person, as we’ll see.
So, after this whole “let’s not become nuns” thing, Jeanne lived with the Surmont family. After four years, she married a Surmont named Nicolas de la Motte. He gave himself the title “Comte de la Motte”, even though it wasn’t a real title, and he wasn’t rich at all. Jeanne became the Comtesse de la Motte, which basically means “Countess”. So, why did Jeanne see a need to marry so early in her life? After all, she married in 1780, when she was in her late teens. People, especially poor people, didn’t marry this early. Apparently, Jeanne was pregnant at the time of her marriage, and to save her reputation, she needed to get married. So, Jeanne got married, and not so long after getting married, she gave birth to twins. They died only a few days after their births.
So, Nicolas was boring AF, and Jeanne was very unfaithful. She had an affair with Nicolas’s boss, the Marquis d’Autichamps, and she was so not secretive about it that Nicolas had to resign. And, guess what: Jeanne and Nicolas weren’t so poor, but they were poor. So, Jeanne decided to go ask Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, for more money. She was already getting money from the French government because she was a descendant of royalty, so she had no doubt she would be able to convince Marie Antoinette.
Anyone who didn’t look like a peasant could enter Versailles, so all Jeanne had to do was buy some nice new clothes, which she had no problem doing. And so, Jeanne came to Versailles as often as she could. But remember how Jeanne was taking lovers? Well, she wasn’t being too secretive about it, so Marie Antoinette had heard of Jeanne as pretty much “that one lady you shouldn’t talk to no matter what.” Marie had heard all sorts of bad things about Jeanne, so there was absolutely no way Marie would talk to Jeanne, much less give Jeanne more money.
So, Jeanne was already taking lovers, and there was this guy Marie Antoinette hated: the Cardinal de Rohan. He was that annoying guy who wouldn’t leave Marie alone, so she hated him quite a bit. He had also spread rumors about Marie and her mother, which, of course, didn’t help. One more thing he did: he had tried to make sure that the marriage between Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, wouldn’t go ahead. The Cardinal de Rohan was very rich and powerful, the exact opposite of Jeanne’s poor and insignificant husband, so of course, Jeanne became his mistress.
Jeanne knew an opportunity when she saw one, and when she learned that the Cardinal de Rohan wanted Marie Antoinette to like him again, she did what any other woman would: she told him that she and Marie Antoinette were best friends, so she could definitely help him get Marie to love him, but only if he paid her. So, Jeanne was now getting lots of money from her lover, the Cardinal de Rohan, but the thing is, she wanted to be even richer.
Way, way back in 1772, when Marie Antoinette’s grandfather-in-law, Louis XV, was king, he had wanted a necklace made for his mistress, Madame du Barry. This necklace wasn’t supposed to be a normal necklace or anything, it was supposed to be the grandest necklace ever made. It took the jewelers quite a while to get all the diamonds needed, but by the time the necklace was completed, Louis XV had died and his grandson had succeeded him. Madame du Barry was still alive, but Marie Antoinette’s husband, the new king, wasn’t too fond of his grandfather’s mistress, so Madame du Barry was banished from court.
So, the jewelers had nobody to give the necklace to, and the necklace literally cost $15 million in today’s money. The plan was for Queen Marie Antoinette to buy the necklace, but she refused, saying:
We have more need of Seventy-Fours than of necklaces.Marie Antoinette
Seventy-Fours were pretty much warships (I can’t think of a better word to describe them), so Marie Antoinette actually did care about her people. After the birth of her first son, the jewelers were like, “please buy the necklace because you have a good excuse”, and Marie was like “go away”. To be honest, I think Marie wasn’t buying it because it just wasn’t a good-looking necklace.
So, the jewelers were desperate to get rid of the necklace, because it had literally cost them too much, and if they kept it, nothing would go well for them. But something that cost $15 million in today’s money wasn’t easy to sell, and if the Queen wouldn’t buy the necklace, what were they supposed to do? Jeanne knew that she had to help them, which means that she knew this was a fine opportunity to get rich, so this is where stuff starts to get interesting.
Jeanne starting spreading rumors. “You know,” she said, “my BFF the Queen told me she wants the necklace, but she’s afraid she’ll look bad if she buys it. Poor woman.” Jeanne was the Cardinal de Rohan’s lover, but at the same time, she was also having an affair with this guy named Rétaux de Villette. This guy was a master at forging letters and could easily forge “letters from the Queen”. Good for Jeanne.
So, basically, what Jeanne had Rétaux de Villette do was forge letters from Marie Antoinette to the Cardinal de Rohan. The letters basically said, “hey, Rohan, I kinda want to buy that ugly necklace. But the King doesn’t want to get it for me because the people are starving. Can you give me some money so I can get it? Please? I love you, by the way.” The Cardinal de Rohan, who had been trying to get the Queen to like him again so he could be more powerful, easily convinced himself that the Queen wanted the necklace and that she was in love with him because Rétaux’s letters were super flirty. Not even joking here.
So, the Cardinal de Rohan, who believes Rétaux’s “letter from the Queen”, and who also believes the Queen loves him, sorta falls in love with Marie. He asked Jeanne, whom he thought was Marie’s best friend, to set up a meeting between them. Jeanne agreed because Marie had no freakin’ idea what was going on, so nothing bad could possibly happen for Jeanne.
But that’s also the problem. Jeanne doesn’t know Marie, and Marie hates the Cardinal de Rohan, so who’s going to play Marie? And this is where Jeanne’s husband (remember him?), Nicolas, comes back into the story. Nicolas wanted to join his wife’s little plot to get the necklace because of money, and he happened to know a prostitute named Marie-Nicole. Marie-Nicole later said that nobody told her that they were trying to trick the Cardinal de Rohan and that she had no idea what was going on. She might not have even known that she was supposed to be playing the part of Marie Antoinette. Marie-Nicole and the Cardinal de Rohan met in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles at night. Marie-Nicole gave Rohan a white rose and said that they could put their differences behind them and be friends.
And the Cardinal de Rohan was officially fooled. Jeanne was able to further trick the Cardinal by asking him to give her money which would definitely end up in the Queen’s hands, mhm. The Cardinal started negotiating a price for the necklace with the jewelers who had made it. They were nearly bankrupt because they’d been keeping the necklace for over a decade, so they were happy to sell it to the “Queen”.
Side-note: Rétaux’s letters were signed “Marie Antoinette de France”. If it had been the real Marie Antoinette, she would’ve signed with just “Marie”, or something, because royals never signed things with their full title. Just keep this in mind. The Cardinal must have been really dumb to not notice this.
The Cardinal bought the necklace for 2 million livres ($15 million in today’s money), and that amazingly huge amount was going to be paid in installments. Jeanne sent a man who was pretending to be the Queen’s valet to go and grab the necklace. Of course, everyone thought the Queen was about to get the necklace, but the “Queen’s valet” brought it to Jeanne’s house instead. Jeanne’s husband, Nicolas, took the necklace apart and sold the many expensive diamonds.
The necklace was supposed to be paid for in installments, but of course, this whole thing was punching a considerably wide hole in the Cardinal de Rohan’s wallet, so he didn’t pay. Rohan was also starting to come back to his senses and realized that Marie Antoinette had never worn the necklace in public. The jewelers gave the bill to the Queen herself, and poor Marie Antoinette was like “I’m sorry, what the hell is going on here?” And the jewelers were like “Your Majesty, you bought a necklace that costs TWO MILLION LIVRES, and you have to pay us.” Marie ignored the letter because she had no idea what was happening. The jewelers complained about this to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and she told the Queen “hey, looks like you bought a necklace”, and Marie was like “I’m sorry, what??”
So, the Cardinal de Rohan had given the jewelers the forged letters from Jeanne’s lover (and he was still receiving them, actually), and the jewelers showed them to Marie and told her that yes indeed, she had instructed the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace, so why didn’t she remember. And poor Marie, who’d just been masterfully conned, just sat there banging her head. But the thing is, it was obvious that the Cardinal de Rohan had somehow been involved, so they knew exactly who they had to sort of interrogate first.
The Cardinal de Rohan had also been fooled by Jeanne (because she is perfect at this stuff and I love her for it), so he was pretty confused in the beginning. He told Marie, “but didn’t you tell your BFF Jeanne to tell me to buy it for you?” And Marie was like “Jeanne?? Necklace?? What??” To prove his innocence, and to prove that Marie looked sorta like she was going mad, the Cardinal de Rohan showed the forged letter from Jeanne’s lover to Marie. It was signed “Marie Antoinette de France”, which, as I mentioned, is not how royals signed their names. If it really was from Marie, it wouldn’t have been signed with anything more than “Marie”. And the Cardinal should’ve known that. So, because he was so stupid, Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, had him thrown into the Bastille, a super-trashy prison.
Jeanne was arrested and also sent to the Bastille with her letter-forging lover. Who knew your talents could get you imprisoned? Marie-Nicole, the prostitute who’d impersonated the Queen, was in Belgium, but they eventually caught her, too. Another guy, Count Cagliostro, was also thrown in prison, but eventually released. He’s a total piece of shit, but here’s how he was involved: the title was made up, just like Jeanne’s, and he liked money, just like Jeanne. He also told everyone that he was immortal. The Cardinal de Rohan and Cagliostro became BFFs. He also met Jeanne de la Motte just before everyone found out they’d been conned. So, Cagliostro was also thrown in prison with everyone else, but released because he hadn’t done anything. And after that, his wife kept trying to kill him and got him thrown in jail, which is fun. He’s super interesting, and that was super brief, and I recommend you look into it, but just remember that Cagliostro is a piece of crap.
So, the Queen already had a terrible reputation, and nobody doubted that she had wanted the necklace and that she was throwing Jeanne in prison because she needed a scapegoat. To make everyone love them again, the King and Queen decided to have a very public trial for Jeanne. Jeanne never stopped saying that yes, the Queen had told her to buy the diamond necklace, and everybody believed Jeanne, even though Marie was completely innocent. Are you starting to see why this whole thing was such a big deal, and why it literally caused the French Revolution? Jeanne kept saying what she had been saying for a while: she and Marie were BFFs, and Jeanne had only helped her friend get what she wanted.
But of course, Jeanne’s letter-forging lover, Rétaux, was the one who gave it all away (how dare he—). So, everybody who was involved was in prison, but eventually, Marie-Nicole was released, Rétaux was exiled, and the Cardinal was acquitted but exiled from Paris because money and power can do a great deal. Jeanne was the only one they didn’t release, because this amazing woman had been behind it all, and I respect her for that.
So, basically, everybody thought that Marie Antoinette had bought the necklace and that Jeanne and her squad were all innocent pawns in Marie’s plot to get the necklace. That made everyone hate Marie, and they all already hated her, so this was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to the Queen. So, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace is basically a fancy term for Jeanne starting the French revolution.
But the story is about Jeanne, so let’s talk about her. So, Jeanne was in a crappy prison cell in the Bastille, and remember: Jeanne was only about thirty at this point and lived a very short life. Jeanne was to be imprisoned for life, whipped, and branded as a thief, which she obviously didn’t want. Her branding was quite a spectacle and didn’t go as well as they’d planned.
Then, Jeanne was taken to an even trashier women’s prison, where she was supposed to live out the rest of her life. But did she? Nope. Somehow, she escaped from her prison, maybe with someone else’s help. We only know for sure that she snuck out by disguising herself as a man, and it was a women’s prison so that obviously worked. Someone else helped her flee to England. We don’t know exactly what happened, we just know that Jeanne got out of prison (possibly dressed as a man, I’m mentioning it again because I love that detail) and she made it to England.
In England, Jeanne wrote and published Memoirs of the Comtesse de Valois de la Motte. In it, she basically said, “the Queen told me to buy the necklace, she’s such a liar, how dare she do this to her best friend!” She bad-mouthed Marie Antoinette and tried to make it look like she was the victim. And everyone wanted to read it, so Jeanne made a ton of money. It was also around now that the French Revolution came along, and needless to say, they loved Jeanne. Jeanne was about thirty-five at this point, so, even though this is probably the best story I’ve told so far, it’s ending now.
So, in 1791, Jeanne was living in England. What we think happened is that Jeanne wasn’t paying her bills, and when the guy came to Jeanne’s apartment to collect his payment, Jeanne ran for it and he chased her. Jeanne didn’t want to pay her bills, so she jumped out a window to get away from this guy, but she was on the second story of the building. She might have even lost an eye from her fall, and she died a couple days later, on August 23rd, 1791. And that was the end of Jeanne de la Motte Valois.
Before we go, though, I wanted to say a little something about Jeanne’s portraits. For someone like Jeanne, a super-poor peasant, she has a lot of them. During Jeanne’s time, there was a French artist going around painting portraits of only the most famous and important royals, including Catherine the Great, but the Empress died before it could be painted. She even painted Marie Antoinette. This woman was Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and she might have painted Jeanne’s portrait. It’s probably Jeanne, but Élisabeth never recorded painting this portrait. It was sold for £109,553 a few years ago. Jeanne even made people money after she died. Here’s the portrait: