The Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon
In the mid-18th century – at the height of the power struggle between France and England and the political ferment of both nations – a French spy with a peculiar personal agenda came to prominence in London. Jonathan Conlin tells his story.
On July 14th, 1775, a 43-year-old adventurer and playwright, Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, wrote a letter to the Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister to Louis XVI of France. The future author of The Marriage of Figaro (1784) was in London, sent there by the French king on a secret mission to negotiate the return of a rogue spy: the Chevalier d’Eon. Beaumarchais may have been chosen to deal with the Chevalier because he was considered disposable: someone who could write plays in which humble valets run rings round noblemen could easily be dismissed as a fantasist if things went public. However, he clearly relished his new role. Another kind of acting, spying gave Beaumarchais the chance to lift the curtain on the hidden motives behind events. As he discovered, diplomacy was actually quite straightforward compared to writing plays. Reading the intentions of entire states was, he informed Vergennes, far easier than reading the hearts of real-life individuals:
I have always found the secrets of governments far easier to penetrate than those of individuals.Whatever lies in a nation’s best interest, that it will do – if it has the means, and as long as its ministers are not imbeciles, or bribed. It is not the same with individuals, whose interests lie hidden, compromised and restrained in a thousand ways, and which can only be guessed at rather than truly perceived.
Beaumarchais’s words would certainly apply to the Chevalier d’Eon. Spy, diplomat, writer and (it was rumoured) a woman, by the mid-1770s d’Eon was also a liability for his French employers. Disillusioned after being passed over for promotion, he had gone decidedly off-message, an errant agent who held secrets that could lead to war. The obvious solution was to recall him to France but d’Eon’s mischievous manipulation of the media and his own celebrity in England made his opponents wary.
Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728 in Tonnerre, a small town in Burgundy. His family was noble but relatively poor. Charles knew he would have to secure patronage if he was to make his way in the world and thereby set about improving his family’s fortunes. After completing his studies at the Collège Mazarin in Paris he stayed on in the city, publishing in 1753 and 1760 two well-regarded books on royal finances, as well as shorter pieces on contemporary politics. Thanks to family connections he got his first post, working in the office of the Intendant of Paris, before being appointed Royal Censor, charged with vetting works due to be printed. He then entered the diplomatic service and was sent to Russia as secretary to the Chevalier Douglas, a Scottish Jacobite in French service.
Though d’Eon’s diminutive and somewhat androgynous physique was noted, there is no evidence that ‘little d’Eon’, as his superiors called him, indulged in cross-dressing in his youth, or later in Russia, as some historians have suggested.
The Seven Years War (1756-63), an expensive global conflict revolving around colonial rivalry between France and Britain, ended disastrously for France, robbed of many of her imperial possessions and loaded with debts. Hungry for revenge but without the means to achieve it she rebuilt her navy and attempted to reform her finances. French official policy towards Britain implemented by Louis XV’s foreign minister, the Comte de Praslin, was therefore conciliatory. Unbeknown to Praslin, however, Louis had in place a second foreign policy. The Secret du Roi or the ‘King’s Secret’: a web of agents, many of whom also held jobs in the foreign ministry, who were engaged in a more aggressive pursuit of French interests.
The Secret had been set up by the French king in the 1740s with the initial aim of placing his cousin, the Prince de Conti, on the Polish throne. A notoriously weak state riddled with factions funded by its more powerful neighbours, Poland would eventually disappear in 1772, when Russia, Prussia and Austria carved it up between them. When d’Eon arrived in St Petersburg with Douglas in 1756, however, it was with the aim of improving relations between Louis XV and Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Aided by d’Eon, his secretary, Douglas’s mission for the Secret was to secure Russian support for the Conti faction in Poland.
This mission failed, yet the Secret was not shut down. Instead its operations were shifted to plotting an invasion of Britain. In the aftermath of war, therefore, the Secret took a much harder line than that of Praslin. In 1763 the British coast was reconnoitred for possible landing places for an invasion. The agent entrusted with overseeing this mission was d’Eon.
Whether out of patriotic fervour or a desire to compensate for his physique, d’Eon had readily served in the armed forces of his country in an uncovert capacity during the Seven Years War. Granted a commission in a cavalry regiment, he saw action on the German front at the Battle of Villinghausen in 1761 and in a number of less memorable skirmishes. In August 1762 Praslin appointed d’Eon secretary to the French ambassador, the Duc de Nivernais, sent to London to negotiate the peace. Though d’Eon’s role in the negotiations had been minor, George III accorded him the great honour of carrying the ratified treaty from London back to Versailles. Soon afterwards d’Eon was admitted to the royal and military Order of Saint Louis, which allowed him to style himself Chevalier. The following April found him at the pinnacle of the French corps diplomatique – he was made minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St James, France’s most important diplomatic mission – and he was entrusted with his English mission for the Secret du Roi.
All might have gone according to plan, had an unfortunate development not occurred back in Versailles. On June 10th, 1763 a panicked Louis XV discovered that his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, had secretly taken his keys and rifled through the files of the Secret, which he kept in a hidden recess in his private quarters. Worried that she was losing the king’s confidence, Pompadour’s ministerial allies set about trying to flush out the secret of the Secret. Unhappily for d’Eon, they focused on the mission to London as the main target of their machinations.
D’Eon may have been given the status of ambassador in the spring of 1763, but in fact his appointment as minister plenipotentiary was something of a stopgap until the newly appointed ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, arrived. D’Eon had seen Guerchy in action, or rather cowardly inaction in Germany, and held him in low esteem. He resented the prospect of being demoted to mere secretary when Guerchy arrived. To expect to keep his rank as minister was unreasonable of d’Eon and led many to conclude that promotion had gone to his head. But he would also have known that Guerchy owed his appointment to the Pompadour faction at Versailles, which counted foreign minister Praslin among its number. Given Pompadour’s determination to unravel the Secret, the stage was set for a showdown. Indeed, d’Eon and Guerchy were arguing over expenses even before the latter’s arrival in London: d’Eon was aggrieved by the failure of the cash-strapped French court to grant him backpay owed for his services in Russia.
Once Guerchy appeared, the dispute escalated with d’Eon refusing to hand over diplomatic papers, ignoring letters of recall and threatening to reveal the truth about his double mission in London. In March 1764 the Chevalier took the shocking step of publishing a book reproducing the contents of his diplomatic correspondence. In doing so, d’Eon was boldly announcing to his king and his superiors that he was dangerous. Though embarrassing enough for Praslin and Guerchy, the book stopped short of revealing d’Eon’s signed secret order from Louis XV.
D’Eon’s publication enjoyed a succès de scandale on both sides of the Channel. Those at Versailles fortunate enough to get their hands on a copy were lending it out by the hour. In London that trenchant and witty observer Horace Walpole wrote to a friend in Italy in April 1764:
We are full of a wonderful book just published here by the Chevalier Deon [sic] ... You are to understand, that beside a thousand curious circumstances, Deon’s book is full of wit and parts – and what makes it more provoking, our ministers know not what to do, nor how to procure any satisfaction to Guerchy.
Guerchy employed various hack writers to fight back, starting a pamphlet war which caused both courts acute embarrassment and which threatened at any point to thrust the Secret into the open where it would probably have led to renewed conflict between Britain and France. By this point Guerchy was feeling personally as well as professionally affronted and Praslin struggled to keep him from provoking d’Eon to telling all.
It was a time of political ferment when the power of monarchs was fragile: the Treaty of Paris following the Seven Years War had left the working classes of both countries feeling that they had been cheated. In London such discontent had been fomented by the journalist and politician John Wilkes. His periodical The North Briton had championed the age-old freedoms of England against George III’s ministers, who, Wilkes claimed, were bribed by the French to sell out those liberties as well as hand back the territories hard won in the recent war.
Wilkes, who became a friend of d’Eon in the mid- 1760s, eventually pushed his criticism of the government too far. He had to flee to France in December 1763 to avoid being charged with seditious libel. As a former Royal Censor, d’Eon well knew what happened to those who published works deemed offensive by the monarch or his ministers. Taking advantage of the greater freedom of the press enjoyed in London and, learning by Wilkes’ example, d’Eon himself used Wilkite tactics of media manipulation to defend himself from his superiors in the French ministry whom he believed were plotting to kidnap him.
Considering his nationality, d’Eon found the British public surprisingly ready to take his side against his masters – from the jurors who indicted Guerchy for a supposed attempt on d’Eon’s life, to the mob who jeered the French ambassador wherever he went. As the St James’s Chronicle observed in September 1764, ‘ever since Wilkes and Liberty have left this Kingdom, we have been alarmed for the Chevalier d’Eon’. Not content with harrassing the former, it went on, George III’s ministry had resolved ‘to extirpate ... even the Dregs of Liberty, and not suffer the least Appearance of it, not even in a Frenchman’. In Paris the philosopher David Hume, then working as secretary to the British ambassador, was among those who repeatedly warned the French ministry that if they seized d’Eon the French legation building would be stormed and ‘nobody would be able to stop the British people having their revenge on the French ambassador and his retinue’.
D’Eon’s antics placed both George III and Louis XV in a difficult position. George III found d’Eon’s behaviour shocking but knew that any hint of cooperating with the French to extradite him to France or punish him in Britain would render his own position and that of his government even more unpopular than they already were. For his part, Louis was caught between a desire to protect the Secret and pressure from ministers curious to know what lay behind d’Eon’s astonishing conduct. Louis signed orders sending police officers across the Channel to enforce the Chevalier’s extradition to France – only to send d’Eon secret warnings of this by another route, instructing him to protect his papers and make his escape.
The French king’s official and covert foreign policies were on a collision course – a measure of Louis’s precarious power. Both monarchs had means at their disposal to bring the affair to a quick resolution – socalled ‘general warrants’ in Britain and lettres de cachet in France allowed troublemakers like d’Eon to be swept into custody without the usual legal niceties. However, faced with the need to secure parliamentary approval of new taxes to pay for war debts, both realised that to use such powers would be counterproductive. The same went for tightening restrictions on the press. Indeed, the 1760s saw both monarchs experiment with their own government-sponsored periodicals such as The Briton (edited by Tobias Smollett) and the Gazette Littéraire de l’Europe, seeking to shape a nascent public opinion where previously they had either ignored or banned printed appeals to the public. Finally, both kings were faced with the painful reality that, whatever executive or absolute power they were in a position to claim, that power could turn out to be more apparent than real. Faced with factional infighting at Versailles, Louis XV could not, it seems, protect d’Eon, a man who continued to protest his undying loyalty to the king.
D’Eon’s standoff with the French regime continued into the 1770s. He remained in London on the fringes of an expatriate community that included other thorns in Versailles’s side: libellers publishing (or threatening to publish) licentious and fictitious ‘memoirs’ purportedly penned by French royal mistresses. Despite the best efforts of Louis XV and his agents to negotiate (for a price) the safe return of d’Eon’s secret papers, he was still holding highly compromising documents when the French king died in May 1774. His heir, Louis XVI, was resolved to wind up the affairs of the Secret. It was at this point that Beaumarchais bounced onto the scene, promising the new foreign minister, Vergennes, a quick resolution to all the problems concerning d’Eon. Beaumarchais kept to his word. On November 4th, 1775, d’Eon signed a set of agreements (dubbed The Transaction) under which he could, on certain terms, return to France.
One of the conditions laid down was that d’Eon henceforth dress as a woman, or rather that he ‘readopt’ women’s clothing. While imprisonment or exile to one’s estates were commonly used to punish errant nobles, this sanction was strange and unprecedented. The wording of The Transaction suggested that d’Eon had been born a woman but had taken on male dress. In signing it d’Eon underwent a curious form of gender reassignment, in so far as all parties to The Transaction (except possibly the new king) must have known with some certainty that d’Eon was a man. How could they impose such an unusual condition on d’Eon?
Rumours that d’Eon was female had first begun circulating in late 1770. Thanks to his public quarrel with Guerchy the previous decade, d’Eon was already well known and in 1771 his sex became the subject of intense financial speculation on the London Stock Exchange where bets took the form of life insurance policies that paid out (or not) depending on whether d’Eon was found to be of one or other gender. A skilled swordsman, d’Eon initially sought to quash the rumours by challenging speculators hanging around London’s coffee houses to duels. Using his skill as a playwright, Beaumarchais played on these rumours, writing to Vergennes that ‘this crazy woman is insanely in love with me’ and claiming that he and d’Eon were to be wed. It is likely that Beaumarchais was speculating himself, cashing in on the fact that he had ‘evidence’ (the Transaction) that d’Eon was a woman. D’Eon seems to have considered joining in himself before the whole betting racket collapsed as a result of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s ruling that such questions could not be brought before a court of law.
D’Eon’s behaviour was certainly strange and scholars continue to debate his motivations for agreeing to the terms of the Transaction. It is known that he was avidly collecting books about Amazons, Joan of Arc and other femmes fortes at this time and he also appears to have written letters to Beaumarchais in which he refers to himself as a woman. The stipulation that he ‘re-adopt’ women’s clothing may have been d’Eon’s own idea, although it could just as easily have sprung from Beaumarchais’s brain. And it served both sides. As a woman d’Eon would stay out of the Bastille, his erratic behaviour explained as the action of a ‘hysterical’ female. This would also make it easy for the French government to dismiss any embarrassing revelations as lies, something that would have pleased Vergennes. Though The Transaction settled the most important matters, Beaumarchais’s antics meant that d’Eon did not leave London for Paris until August 1777. But the furore also ensured that the world was watching: if people weren’t able to catch sight of d’Eon himself there were soon plenty of prints of him to gawp at.
On November 21st, 1777, the 49-year-old d’Eon was formally presented to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles, having previously undergone a four-hour toilette at the hands of the queen’s dressmaker, Rose Bertin. Becoming a woman was a kind of rebirth for d’Eon. In his memoirs he later wrote of how he sloughed off his rough skin and learned to walk again although, unlike courtiers of both sexes, he never mastered the art of walking in high heels. Despite these preparations, few at court were impressed: ‘She had nothing of our sex but the petticoats and the curls,’ recalled the Vicomtesse de Fars, ‘which suited her horribly.’ After a fortnight at Versailles, d’Eon returned to Tonnerre, apparently exiled. He was refused permission to return to London until 1785 (where his precious library was about to be seized against unpaid debts).
Eventually back in his rooms in Brewer Street, London, Horace Walpole, John Wilkes and others found their friend d’Eon transformed into what one dubbed a ‘lusty dame’. The last 15 years of the Chevalier’s life in London were marked by financial hardship. The French monarchy fell in the Revolution of 1789 and with it went the royal pension paid to him under the terms of the Transaction. D’Eon travelled Britain as a human freak show, giving fencing displays in his signature white cap and full-length black gown. He sold parts of his library, his swords and pistols, his lace and jewellery and even (when imprisoned for debt) his beloved Order of Saint Louis. D’Eon’s fencing displays drew paying crowds, at least until he injured himself in a display at Southampton in 1796. Sharing his small rooms with a widow, Mrs Mary Cole, to save money, d’Eon died on May 21st, 1810 aged 82. Mrs Cole had the shock of her life when she laid out her friend’s body for burial and discovered that the ‘Chevalière’ was a man. He was buried in the graveyard of St Pancras church.
Why did the Chevalier d’Eon accept Louis XVI’s demand that he dress as a woman? D’Eon frequently trumpeted his loyalty to ‘my master the king’. He genuinely believed that he was serving the French monarch’s true interests more faithfully than the newly minted aristocrats associated with Pompadour: the financiers who owed their titles not to military service, but to their ability to help the king handle the massive debts that saddled the country. Yet to obey the king in the matter of his sex must have been humiliating to a man of action like d’Eon, especially when even well-born women were largely denied a role in public life at the time. D’Eon may have complied out of fear of sharing the fate of other agents (including his own valet) who had been caught between the Secret and the official foreign policy and found themselves in the Bastille.
This does not explain, however, why d’Eon continued to dress as a woman after the French Revolution and Louis XVI’s execution in 1793. By then, d’Eon had carefully rewritten his own story, even doctoring letters in his personal archive to suggest that he had been a woman all along. He framed his memoirs on literary conventions observed in narratives of religious conversion. Perhaps he had written himself into a corner. Perhaps he hoped that the English cult of celebrity, even in the 18th century, could pay his way when the French monarchy would not. The Chevalier sold his memoirs to a publisher in 1805 but he never delivered the manuscript: a fact that reminds us that all attempts to explain his transformation must to some extent remain speculative. As Beaumarchais noted in 1774, concerning the Chevalier d’Eon, much remains that ‘can only be guessed at rather than truly perceived’.