Before the Law
France, 31 May 1786
Before Paris awoke, before carriages troubled the streets, before clerks unbolted their offices and barbers stropped their blades, before hawkers tuned their voices and labourers sloped into town with their kit upon their backs, as the cafes stood shuttered and stray drunks bumped through the city, as the fishmongers and florists and grocers laid out their wares, glossy with dew on the dew-damp stalls, the kinsmen of the house of Rohan rose. In the Hôtel de Soubise in the Marais, in the Pavillon de Marsan in the Tuileries, in the Hôtel de Brionne nearby, they dressed in solemn black and rode in silence to the Ile de la Cité, the larger of the two islands on the Seine, to the Palais de Justice, where the highest court in the land was to sit in judgement. At half past five in the morning, while the light still shone cold, nineteen members of the Rohan family drew themselves up in two lines near the entrance of the palace to reverence the magistrates as they arrived. We have humbled ourselves before you, spoke the bowed heads silently. We, the Rohan, who stand above all the nobility of France, have humbled ourselves before you. Let not your verdict be the wrong one.
This extraordinary performance was delivered in solidarity with the family’s golden boy, Cardinal Louis de Rohan, prince-bishop of Strasbourg, provisor of the Sorbonne and grand almoner of France. He stood accused not only of stealing one of the most valuable items of jewellery in Europe – a 2,800-carat diamond necklace worth 1.6 million livres – but of invoking the name of the queen to lubricate his criminal enterprise. This left him vulnerable to the charge of lèse-majesté – offending royal dignity – an exponentially more serious offence than theft. That Rohan should have claimed to represent the queen was one of the most prominent improbabilities in a story tattooed with them, for Marie Antoinette – as everyone knew – despised him. His gilded, feckless youth had slumped into a gilded, feckless middle age of pursuing stags and society ladies, before, thanks to political manoeuvrings by his family, he was appointed ambassador to Vienna. While in his post, he managed to offend the Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother, so gracelessly that the French queen treated him from then on with silent contempt.
Rohan believed that Marie Antoinette’s hatred prevented his
appointment, like the great cardinal-politicians before him, to chief minister of the realm. His frustrated ambition turned sour, vinegaring his spendthrift days. He was overjoyed, therefore, to make the acquaintance in 1782 of the impoverished, alluring Jeanne, comtesse de La Motte-Valois. She had been born in Champagne to a family that claimed descent from an illegitimate line of the Valois kings. After her father had squandered her inheritance, she and her husband had decamped to Paris in an attempt to regain her ancestral domains. Rohan – intrigued, charmed, lusty – took the comtesse under his wing, but shortly afterwards found himself seeking her patronage. Jeanne told the cardinal that the queen had taken pity on her condition, had invited her into her private chambers, and had adopted her as a companion. She used the opportunity to tell the queen of the chagrin Rohan felt at his disgrace and of his wish to atone. Marie Antoinette proved open to a reconciliation, and they embarked on a correspondence, with Jeanne as go-between, of welling intimacy.
There were endless factional rivalries that needed assuaging and numerous political obstructions to be overcome before the rapprochement could be acknowledged openly, but Rohan was granted a brief interview with the queen late one night in the gardens of Versailles. True, the moon was obscured and Marie Antoinette’s face could only be dimly made out; true, too, there was time only to exchange a single sentence before the assignation was abruptly terminated by the sound of nearby footsteps. But Rohan was convinced the press of Her Majesty’s hand had absolved him of his misdemeanours, promised him, indeed, that the high office he deserved would soon be his. Soon enough an instruction arrived from the queen for a delicate mission – he was the only man she could trust to oversee it. She wished to buy the gargantuan necklace assembled by Boehmer
and Bassenge, jewellers to the crown. They were delighted and
relieved – having failed a number of times to sell their masterwork to Marie Antoinette, they were hanging on the verge of bankruptcy. An agreement was reached – the first instalment was to be paid six months later – and a copy of the terms returned from the queen signed ‘Marie Antoinette de France’.
No money was forthcoming, however, at the beginning of August 1785 when the initial tranche fell due. Rohan explained to the jewellers that the queen was temporarily out of funds but would pay off a greater proportion in October. They tried to question Marie Antoinette in person; she, angered by their persistent importuning, refused to see them. Eventually, word reached the Court that Boehmer and Bassenge were seeking payment from the queen for the necklace. This was preposterous, she declared to the king and his ministers, she had never agreed to buy any necklace, certainly not a grotesque one she had rejected numerous times before. When Rohan was summoned to explain himself, he could barely stammer out a sentence, let alone construct a convincing explanation of the necklace’s disappearance. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille, while a police investigation was opened.
Paris was het up with speculation. Had the cardinal devised a lunatic scheme to pay off his debts? Or had he been the victim of another’s deceit? Was the queen, whose extravagant behaviour had provoked envy and contempt, entirely uninvolved, despite her aggrieved denials? And what was the role of Jeanne? Was she pawn or player?