The Necklace Affair the royal scandal that wasn't

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The Necklace Affair - the royal scandal that wasn't

The 'affair of the diamond necklace' was a scandalous event of the mid-1780s that further darkened Marie-Antoinette's reputation -- even though she was guilty of nothing and was only indirectly involved. The incident involved a grand necklace made by Paris jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, containing dozens of multi-carat gems and a significant amount of gold (a recreation is shown in this picture, right). The jewellers had collected gemstones for years to produce this necklace, with a view to selling it to one of Louis XV's mistresses; on his death they hoped that Marie-Antoinette, already gaining a reputation for extravagance, might be the buyer. The queen was indeed shown the ornament, tried it on and was reported to be very impressed. However the asking price of 1.6 million livres (in today's currency, more than $100 million Australian) led her to decline the purchase. Legend has it that she suggested the money would be better spent on a battleship, or perhaps Louis XVI himself vetoed the sale -- but whatever the case, the Bourbons did not buy it. The jewellers then tried to sell the pendant outside France, to the various royal families and wealthy nobles of Europe, with no luck.

In March 1784 Jeanne de Valois, the young wife of a conman, began communicating with Cardinal de Rohan, a former Austrian ambassador and high-ranking clergyman based in Paris. Somewhat unpopular with Marie-Antoinette, de Rohan wished to obtain high office in government and he believed that winning the queen's favour was an important step in achieving this. He was convinced by de Valois that she was in frequent contact with Antoinette, and the cardinal began writing the queen long-winded letters of adulation that were promptly replied to by 'Antoinette' (in reality they were forgeries written by either de Valois or her husband). Believing the queen to be in love with him, de Rohan pushed for a meeting; de Valois organised a shadowy rendezvous between the pair in a garden at Versailles -- though Antoinette was 'played' by a Paris prostitute who looked somewhat like the queen. Cardinal de Rohan seemed convinced by the whole charade and entrusted even more confidence in de Valois, passing large sums of money to her, ostensibly for the queen's various charities; de Valois kept the money and lived as an aristocrat for several months.

In late 1784 the aforementioned jewellers approached de Valois, also believing her to be in close contact with the queen and wishing to make another attempt to sell their necklace. Using some forged papers, de Valois convinced the cardinal to acquire the necklace on Antoinette's behalf, with the 1.6 million livres payable in instalments. The necklace was given to de Rohan, who gave it to de Valois, who in turn gave it to her husband -- he immediately fled to England, broke up the necklace and sold its gold and jewels individually; it was never seen of again. When the jewellers failed to receive their payment there was an investigation and both de Valois, de Rohan and various other parties were arrested; after a trial that attracted strong public interest, the cardinal was acquitted and de Valois was sentenced to be whipped, branded and imprisoned for life. She escaped after a short time though (some say with the support of anti-royalist nobles) and fled to London, where she wrote sordid but fictitious accounts of her sexual relationship with Marie-Antoinette.

Most historians agree that Antoinette played little part in this imbroglio: there is no evidence of her communicating with either de Valois or de Rohan, and certainly not of any sexual affair. Despite this the Paris crowd was eager to learn of royal scandals, and the trial created even more salacious gossip. The fact that de Rohan was acquitted suggested to many that he was knowingly set up by the queen, who evidently hated him. In the anti-royal climate of the mid-1780s the whole business created a sensation with so much mud being thrown that plenty stuck on Antoinette, despite her apparent innocence.  

All text © Steve Thompson 2006
To reference this page: Thompson, S. vcehistory info (Internet) at Today's date (last access)

Key points:

  • The Diamond Necklace Affair was a scandal that was played out in Paris during 1784-5 involving a conman, his wife and an ambitious cardinal

  • It involved the theft of a fabulously valuable necklace that had allegedly been offered to Marie-Antoinette, who refused the purchase

  • Though the queen played little or no part in this incident, her public reputation was unfairly tarnished by gossip, propaganda and innuendo

Taxation - the people's burden

Taxation is generally the burning issue in any revolution -- and things were no different in France. National debt and personal taxation were the economic crises that plagued French leaders, who pondered how to lessen the former without increasing the latter. There was little elbow-room to do either, thanks to decades of fight-now-pay-later foreign policy. In the meantime France's people, especially the farmers and workers in the Third Estate, suffered under one of the highest-taxing regimes in Europe. The level of taxation in France was significantly higher than in Britain because French trade interests were significantly smaller, so income from tariffs and customs duties was lower. Now, the ancien regime had reached a point where temporary measures and patch-up responses could no longer be used; a serious overhaul of the taxation system was essential.

It is ironic that France decided to involve itself in the revolution in America that was sparked by unfair taxation, because the French leadership had themselves imposed an inequitable tax regime on her people, particularly those in the Third Estate who seemed to carry most of the burden (see picture, right). Personal taxes like the taille (a direct tax levied on each family, based on the amount of land owned) the gabelle (a state duty payable on salt, a valuable commodity) the capitation (a poll tax) and the vingtieme (a one-time tax to ease the state deficit) were compulsory for all members of the Third Estate -- but members of the clergy and the nobility were either exempt from these or were able to subsequently claim exemption using the parlements. In addition to state taxes the peasants were also liable for a one-tenth contribution to the church (the tithe) as well as seigneurial dues. Meanwhile the two privileged classes managed to avoid most if not all personal taxation. The church had a particularly light taxation burden: it paid a voluntary contribution to the state every five years called the don gratuit ('free gift') though this was neither regulated or compulsory. The nobility paid no personal taxation because it was said that, as representatives of a military elite, they paid their taxes in service and in blood. 

It wasn't only that the nation's system of taxation was unfair: it was also irrational and highly inefficient. There were many indirect taxes that had to be paid by everybody: various excises, customs duties and levies, each of which had been tacked on to revenue policy haphazardly, one after the other as the need for greater revenue dictated ... there was no single fiscal plan. And the taxes themselves were collected not by government officials but contracted 'tax-farmers', many of whom were either notoriously corrupt or hilariously incompetent. There were several attempts in the 1700s to reform the taxation system, both to make it more efficient and to allow the nobility to share some of the burden; however the parlements, which had a reputation for protecting and preserving aristocratic interests, generally proved impassable. Louis XVI turned to successive financial ministers to solve his debt crisis but this had little impact, finally resulting in the Assembly of Notables.

All text © Steve Thompson 2006

To reference this page: Thompson, S. vcehistory info (Internet) at Today's date (last access)

Key points:

  • The national debt was at critical levels but increasing taxation in the current system was not an option -- economic reform was needed

  • The French taxation burden was shouldered by the Third Estate, with the clergy and nobility basically exempt from state taxes

  • The methods of collecting tax revenue were also inefficient and often corrupt, with the state paying 'tax farmers' to complete the task

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