In 1785, Paris was buzzing with rumours of a daring theft involving a diamond necklace worth 1.6 million livres, which way back when was equivalent to a wealthy aristocrat’s annual income. In today’s standards, that’s about 54 million Aussie dollars. On a single necklace.
Now, on any given year, this might have been enough to have common French citizens shaking their heads, but we’re coming to the point in history where rising taxes and two years of bad wheat harvest lead to the citizens of France living in hunger. They were spending most of their wages on bread as there was barely any other food to be had. And the monarchy was doing nothing to help because, well, the monarchy really wasn’t doing much to help.
The Start Of The Revolt
What we need to remember here is that the public was hungry. Starving, really. Now, I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak for the public, but if my government was putting 54 million dollars into a piece of jewellery and I was watching my children waste to skin and bone, I wouldn’t have any loyalty left.
While the Affair of the Diamond Necklace was not the event that triggered a revolution, it was one of the biggest scandals that cemented into the public’s mind that this was a monarchy that did not prioritise the lives of its people.
Originally, the necklace in question was commissioned by King Louis XV for his mistress Madame du Barry, but the king died before he could give it to her (and before he could pay for it). The jewellers who made the necklace had been left with a costly white elephant that they desperately wanted to sell. But there were not too many who could afford the luxury.
Enter Jeanne de la Motte, a beautiful and ambitious woman with a chequered past. She was the wife of a disgraced nobleman who had been exiled from court, and she had a personal vendetta against Cardinal de Rohan, a high-ranking cleric who had insulted her. De la Motte saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: seduce de Rohan, make him believe she had connections to the queen, and convince him to buy the necklace from the jewelers on the queen’s behalf. She would then disappear with the necklace, leaving de Rohan to take the fall.
The plan worked better than de la Motte could have hoped for. She managed to convince de Rohan that she was close to Marie Antoinette, who did not care for the cardinal. De Rohan, eager to ingratiate himself with the queen, agreed to purchase the necklace on her behalf. He met with de la Motte and gave her the money, but the necklace was never delivered to the queen. De la Motte disappeared with the money, leaving de Rohan to face the consequences.
The scandal that followed the Diamond Necklace Affair was enormous. The French public was, understandably, outraged by the apparent involvement of the queen in such a scandalous scheme, and rumours even began to circulate that she had been having an affair with de Rohan! But while the royal family denied any involvement in the affair, the damage had already been done.
The trouble was, it was believable. Marie Antoinette’s reputation had already been tarnished by her extravagant spending, partying, and apparent indifference to the struggles of common people (in truth, she did care about individual common people who came across her path. I think she simply couldn’t conceive of the suffering of the commoners en masse). The Diamond Necklace Affair only reinforced these perceptions. The affair was a public relations disaster for the queen, and it gave her enemies ammunition to use against her.
The trial of de Rohan and de la Motte only added fuel to the fire. The trial revealed sordid details about the lives of the aristocracy and further undermined the public’s faith in the monarchy. De Rohan was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but de la Motte and her accomplices were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
While the royal family denied any involvement in the Diamond Necklace Affair, their credibility was already severely damaged. The public had grown increasingly sceptical of the monarchy, and the scandal only confirmed their suspicions.
The Scapegoat Queen
Despite her denials, Marie Antoinette was unable to shake off the perception that she was involved in the Diamond Necklace Affair. Her enemies used the scandal to further demonise her, and the public came to see her as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the French monarchy. She was depicted in the press as a spendthrift and a corrupt influence on the king. Her public image was irreparably damaged, and it eventually lead to the downfall of the monarchy.
The Diamond Necklace Affair was a pivotal moment in French history, and it had a profound impact on the French monarchy’s public perception.