Famous Impostors : Chevalier d’Eon
In all the range of doubtful personalities there is hardly any one whom convention has treated worse than it has the individual known in his time—and after—as The Chevalier d’Eon. For about a hundred and fifty years he has been written of—and spoken of for the first half century of that time—simply as a man who masqueraded in woman’s clothes. There seems to be just sufficient truth in this to save certain writers on the subject from the charge of deliberate lying—a record which, even if it is to be posthumous, no man of integrity aims at; but it is abundantly evident that the rumour, which in time became a charge, was originally set on foot deliberately by his political enemies, who treated him and his memory without either consideration or even the elements of honourable truth. To begin with, here are the facts of his long life.
Charles-Genevieve—Louis-Auguste-Andre—Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728 in Tonnerre in Yonne, a department of France in the old province of Burgundy. His father, Louis d’Eon, was a parliamentary barrister. As a youth he was so apt in his studies at the Collège Mazarin that he received by special privilege his degree of Doctor in Canon and Civil Law before the age appointed for the conferring of such honour, and was then enrolled in the list of parliamentary barristers in Paris. At first he had been uncertain which department of life he should undertake. He swayed on one side towards the church, on the other towards the world of letters and beaux-arts. He was by habit an athlete, and was so good a swordsman that later on he had no rival in fencing except the Chevalier de Saint-George. In his twenty-fifth year he published two remarkable books. One was on the political administration of ancient and modern people, and the other on Phases of Finance in France at different times. (The latter was afterwards published in German at Berlin in 1774, and so impressed the then King of Prussia that he gave orders that its ideas were to be carried into practical effect.)
In 1755 the Prince de Conti, to whose notice the Chevalier had been brought by the above books, asked the king (Louis XV) to send him to Russia on a secret mission with the Chevalier Douglas; and from that time till the king’s death in 1774 he was his trusted, loyal agent and correspondent. D’Eon’s special mission was to bring the courts of France and Russia closer than had been their wont, and also to obtain for the Prince de Conti, who was seeking the Dukedom of Finland and the Kingship of Poland, the favour of the Empress Elizabeth—a difficult task, which had already cost M. de Valcroissant a spell of imprisonment. In order to accomplish his mission, d’Eon disguised himself as a woman, and in this guise he was able to creep into the good graces of the Empress. He became her “reader” and was thus enabled to prepare her for the reception of the secret purposes of his king. In the following year he returned to France whence he was immediately sent again to St. Petersburg with the title of Secretary of Embassy. But this time he went in his man’s clothes and as the brother of the pretended female reader. By this time he had been made a lieutenant of dragoons. He came in spite of the Russian Chancellor Bestuchéf, who saw in the young soldier-diplomat “un subject dangereux et capable de boulverser l’empire.” This time his real mission was to destroy in the mind of the Empress faith in Bestuchéf, who was trying to hold the Russian army inactive and so deprive France of the advantages of the Treaty of Versailles. This he did so well that he was in a position to prove to the Empress that her chancellor had betrayed her interests. Bestuchéf was arrested and his post conferred on Count Woronzow, whose attitude was altogether favourable to France. The gratitude of King Louis was shewn by his making d’Eon a captain of dragoons and conferring on him a pension of 2400 livres; he was also made censor of history and literature. D’Eon threw himself with his accustomed zeal into the service of the army and distinguished himself by his courage in the battles of Hoecht; of Ultrop, where he was wounded; of Eimbech where he put the Scotch to flight; and of Osterkirk, where at the head of 80 dragoons and 20 hussars he overthrew a battalion of the enemy.
No better conventional proof of the accepted idea of d’Eon’s military worthiness can be given than the frequency and importance of the occasions on which he was honoured by the carrying of despatches. He brought news of his successful negotiations for the peace of Versailles from Vienna in 1757. He was also sent with the Ratification of the Treaty. He carried the despatches of the great victory of the troops of Maria Theresa, forestalling the Austrian courier by a day and a half, although he had a broken leg.
When next sent to Russia, d’Eon was sent as minister plenipotentiary, an office which he held up to 1762 when to the regret of the Empress he was recalled. When he was leaving, Woronzow, the successor of Bestuchéf, said to him, “I am sorry you are going, although your first journey with Chevalier Douglas cost my sovereign 250,000 men and more than 5,000,000 roubles.” D’Eon answered: “Your excellency ought to be happy that your sovereign and his minister have gained more glory and reputation than any others in the world.” On his return d’Eon was appointed to the regiment d’Autchamp and gazetted as adjutant to Marshal de Broglie. Then he was sent to Russia for the fourth time as minister plenipotentiary in place of Baron de Breuteuil. But Peter III was dethroned, so the out-going Ambassador remained in Russia, and d’Eon went to England as secretary to the Embassy of the Duke de Nivernais in 1762.
After the Peace of 1763 d’Eon was chosen by the King of England to carry the despatches. He received for this office the Star of St. Louis from the breast of the king, who on giving it said it was for the bravery which he had displayed as a soldier, and for the intelligence which he had shown in the negotiations between London and St. Petersburg.
At this time all went well with him. But his good fortune was changed by the bitter intrigues of his enemies. He was devoted to the king, but had, almost as a direct consequence, the enmity of the courtesans who surrounded him and wished for the opportunity of plucking him at their leisure. He had an astonishing knowledge on all matters of finance, and apprised the king privately of secret matters which his ministers tried to hide from him. The Court had wind of that direct correspondence with his majesty and therewith things were so managed that the diplomatist got into trouble. Madame de Pompadour surprised the direct correspondence between the king and d’Eon, with the result that the latter was persecuted by the jealous courtiers who intrigued, until in 1765 he was replaced at the Embassy of London by the Count de Guerchy and he himself became the mark for all sorts of vexations and persecutions. His deadly enemy, the Count de Guerchy, tried to have him poisoned, but the attempt failed. D’Eon took legal steps to punish the attempt; but every form of pressure was used to keep the case out of Court. An attempt was made to get the Attorney General to enter a nolle prosequi; but he refused to lend himself to the scheme, and sent the matter to the Court of King’s Bench. There, despite all the difficulties of furthering such a charge against any one so protected as an ambassador, it was declared on trial that the accused was guilty of the crime charged against him. De Guerchy accordingly had to return to France; but d’Eon remained in England, though without employment. To console him King Louis gave him in 1766 a pension of 12,000 livres, and assured him that though he was ostensibly exiled this was done to cover up the protection extended to him. D’Eon, according to the report of the time, was offered a bribe of 1,200,000 livres, to give up certain state papers then in his custody; but to his honour he refused. Be the story as it may, d’Eon up to the time of the death of Louis (1774) continued to be in London the real representative of France, though without any formal appointment.
During this time one of the means employed with success by his enemies to injure the reputation of d’Eon, was to point out that he had passed himself as a woman; the disguise he wore on his first visit to Russia. His clean shaven face, his personal niceties, the correctness of his life, all came to the aid of that supposition. In England bets were made and sporting companies formed for the purpose of verifying his sex. Designs were framed for the purpose of carrying him off in order to settle the vexed question by a personal examination. Some of the efforts he had to repel by violence. In 1770 and in 1772 his friends tried to arrange that he should be allowed to return to France; but he refused all offers as the Ministers insisted on making it a condition of his return that he should wear feminine apparel. After the accession of Louis XVI he obtained leave to return, free from the embarrassing restraint hitherto demanded. As he was overwhelmed with debts he placed as a guarantee in the hands of Lord Ferrers an iron casket containing important French state papers. The minister sent Beaumarcheus to redeem them, and in 1771 the Chevalier returned to France. He presented himself at Versailles in his full uniform of a captain of dragoons. The Queen (Marie Antoinette) however, wished to see him presented in female dress; so the Minister implored him to meet her wishes. He consented; and thenceforward not only wore women’s clothes but called himself “La Chevalière d’Eon.” In a letter addressed by him to Madame de Staël during the French revolution he spoke of himself as “citizeness of the New Republic of France, and of the old Republic of Literature.” On 2nd September, 1777 he wrote to the Count de Maurepas, “Although I detest changes of costume, yet they are hard at work at Mademoiselle Bertin’s on my future and doleful dress, which however I shall cut in pieces at the first sound of the cannon shots.” As a matter of fact when war with England became imminent he demanded to be allowed to take in the army the position which he had won by bravery and as the price of honourable wounds. The only reply he got was his immurement for two months in the Castle of Dijon. In 1784 he returned to England, which he never again left. In vain he appealed to the Convention and then to the First Consul to be allowed to place his sword at the service of his country; but his prayer was not listened to. Used to the practice of the sword, his circumstances being desperate, he then found in it a source of income. He gave in public, assaults-at-arms with the Chevalier de Saint-George, one of the most notable fencers of his time. At length he was given a small pension, £40, by George III, on which he subsisted during the remainder of his life. He died 23rd May, 1810.
In very fact Chevalier d’Eon is historically a much injured man. His vocation was that of a secret-service agent of a nation surrounded with enemies, and to her advantage he used his rare powers of mind and body. He was a very gallant soldier, who won distinction in the field and was wounded several times; and in his endurance and his indifference to pain whilst carrying despatches of overwhelming importance he set an example that any soldier might follow with renown. As a statesman and diplomatist, and by the use of his faculties of inductive ratiocination, he averted great dangers from his country. If there were nothing else to his credit he might well stand forth as a diplomatist who had by his own exertions overthrown a dishonest Russian Chancellor and an unscrupulous French Ambassador. Of course, as he was an agent of secret service, he had cognisance of much political and international scheming which he had at times to frustrate at the risk of all which he held dear. But, considering the time he lived in, and the dangers which he was always in the thick of, in a survey of his life the only thing a reader can find fault with is his yielding to the base idea of the flighty-minded Marie Antoinette. What, to this irresponsible butterfly of fashion, was the honour of a brave soldier or the reputation of an acute diplomatist who had deserved well of his country. Of course to her any such foolery as that to which she condemned d’Eon was but the fancy of an idle moment. But then the fancies of queens at idle moments may be altogether destructive to someone. That they may be destructive to themselves is shown in the record of the terrible atrocities of the Revolution which followed hard on the luxurious masquerades of Trianon and Versailles. Even to the Queen of France, the Chevalier d’Eon should have been something of a guarded, if not an honoured, person. He was altogether a “king’s man.” He had been for many years the trusted and loyal servant of more than one king; and from the king’s immediate circle the proper consideration should have been shown.
There is something pitiful in the spectacle of this old gentleman of nearly eighty years of age, who had in his time done so much, being compelled to earn a bare livelihood by the exploitation of the most sordid page in his history—a page turned more than half a century before, and then only turned at all in response to the call of public duty.
In his retirement d’Eon showed more of his real nature than had been possible to him in the strenuous days when he had to be always vigilant and ready at an instant’s notice to conceal his intentions—his very thoughts. Here he showed a sensitiveness with which even his friends did not credit him. He had been so long silent as to matters of his own concern that they had begun to think he had lost the faculty not only of making the thought known, but even of the thought itself. The following paragraph from the London Public Advertiser of Wednesday, 16th November, 1774, shows more of the real man than may be found in any of his business letters or diplomatic reports:—
“The Chevalier d’Eon with justice complains of our public prints; they are eternally sending him to France while he is in body and soul fixed in this country; they have lately confined him in the Bastille, when he fled to England as a country of liberty; and they lately made a Woman of him, when not one of his enemies dared to put his manhood to the proof. He makes no complaints of the English Ladies.”
In an issue of the same paper 9th November, of the same year, it is mentioned that the Rt. Hon. Lord Ferrars, Sir John Fielding, Messrs. Addington, Wright and other worthy magistrates and gentlemen and their ladies did the Chevalier d’Eon the honour to dine with him in Brewer St., Golden Square (common proof that the Chevalier d’Eon is not confined in the Bastille). D’Eon was much too wily and too much accustomed to attack to allow diplomatic insinuations to pass unheeded. He was now beginning to apply his garnered experience to his own protection.
From the above extract of 16th November one can note how the allegation as to his sex was beginning to rankle in the soldier’s mind, and how an open threat of punishment is conveyed in diplomatic form. Indeed he had reason to take umbrage at the insinuation. More than once had attempts been made to carry him off for the purpose of settling bets by a humiliating personal scrutiny. From something of the same cause his friends on his death caused an autopsy to be made before several witnesses of position and repute. Amongst these were several surgeons including Père Elisée, First Surgeon to Louis XVIII. The medical certificate ran as follows:
“Je certifie, par le présent, avoir inspecté le corps du chevalier d’Eon, en présénce de M. Adair, M. Wilson et du Père Elysée, et avoir trouvé les organs masculins parfaitement formés.”
The Wandering Jew
Arthur Orton (Tichborne claimant)
Chapter VIII. Hoaxes, etc.
A. Two London Hoaxes
B. The Cat Hoax
C. The Military Review
D. The Toll-Gate
E. The Marriage Hoax
F. Buried Treasure
G. Dean Swift’s Hoax
H. Hoaxed Burglars
I. Bogus Sausages
J. The Moon Hoax
The Bisley Boy