The main task of any code is to disguise the true meaning of things, to keep reality a secret, to keep people guessing. And no-one kept people guessing about his secrets more than the 18th century individual known as the Chevalier d’Éon. But then, it was his job to keep secrets because he was a spy.
The Chevalier’s life is so
full of intrigue and action that it easily qualifies for an “Extraordinary
Life” article. Indeed, his life is so full of intrigue and action that I intend
to write 2 articles on him. This, the first, deals with his life up to 1774,
the year his spymaster, King Louis XV of France, died.
Born in 1728 into a family
of the Burgundian minor nobility the Chevalier, baptised Charles Geneviève
Louis Auguste André Timothée Éon de Beaumont, managed to gain the patronage of
several influential noblemen in Paris. The most powerful of these was the
king’s cousin, Prince Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti.
Europe at that time was
almost constantly at war with itself. The Seven Years War began in 1756 and
Charles d’Éon was chosen as an agent of the “Secret du Roi” by King Louis. This
was a top, top, top secret organisation which even the French government didn’t
know about. The agents spied for the king, and the king alone.
The Seven Years War can be
regarded as the first “World War”. It pitted Britain against France in Europe,
India, Africa and the Americas. The European campaigns relied on alliances
between Austria and Prussia. Charles d’Éon was sent to the Russian court just
before the start of the war to try to persuade the Empress Elizabeth to become
an ally of France. The British had begun to patrol border crossings into Russia
and only allowed women and children to cross into the empire. The apocryphal
story often told is that Charles, disguised as a woman, managed to enter
Russia, live with the Empress’s Maids of Honour and even become one of them. He
successfully passed on a secret letter from King Louis to the Empress
expressing the desire for a political alliance.
Whatever the facts about
this first mission it seems d’Éon was trusted with a bigger mission to Russia
the following year. This time he had an official government post as secretary
to the French ambassador. In fact both men were working as agents of the Secret
du Roi behind the French government’s back.
This time the secret
mission was to persuade the Empress to give support to King Louis’s desire to
put his cousin, the Prince of Conti, onto the throne of Poland (offered to him
by a faction of Polish nobles). However, this mission failed and the Ambassador
was recalled back to France.
Charles d’Éon found his
power and influence increased when it became clear that the new ambassador, the
Marquess de l’Hôpital, was inept and totally useless. Single-handedly d’Éon
secured the Empress Elizabeth’s signature on the Treaty of Versailles in 1756,
and secured the overthrow of the Russian Chancellor, a known supporter of
Prussia. The Empress even offered d’Éon a job but, because he was a secret
agent, turned it down.
D’Éon remained in Russia
until 1760 when the aging Marquess was replaced by a younger ambassador. D’Éon
had hoped to succeed the Marquess himself and decided his usefulness in Russia
D’Éon served as a dragoon
officer in several battles in the Seven Years War, and in 1762 was appointed to
the delegation in London who negotiated the subsequent peace treaty. King Louis
knighted him and from hence forward he was known as the Chevalier d’Éon. King
George III even trusted him to carry the treaty to Versailles for King Louis to
King George’s trust was
misplaced. Still working as a spy the Chevalier was under orders to gather
intelligence that would help King Louis of France invade England. Unfortunately,
the king’s mistress, the Madame de Pompadour, discovered some of Louis’s secret
files and had alerted the French government, who then tried to uncover the full
extent of the Secret du Roi.
The Chevalier was now
living in London as an official diplomat of the French court. The French
government demanded his return, but King Louis sent secret orders for him to
remain. After the French government branded him a traitor the Chevalier decided
to publish selected documents and letters from his secret missions. The book
caused a huge scandal. Forget Wikileaks, the Chevalier’s disclosures meant that
both the French and British governments were wary of doing anything that would
force him to reveal more.
King George III was wary
of extraditing the Chevalier as the French government requested because of the
fear he would reveal British secrets to the French. King Louis didn’t want him
back for fear of him revealing French secrets to the British. However, putting
on a show of solidarity with his government Louis signed an extradition order
against d’Éon whilst secretly alerting him.
The Chevalier had now
exposed his secret life as a spy and his diplomatic career was over. He lived
in London as an exile for several more years, protected by his undisclosed secrets.
Unfortunately, in 1774 his spymaster King Louis XV died, to be succeeded by
Louis XVI who wasn’t interested in the Secret du Roi and wound down the
organisation. The new king had a secret mission of his own, which was to see
the return of the Chevalier d’Éon to France and his continued silence.
And so Charles, le
Chevalier d’Éon returned to his homeland in 1777. There were several
conditions. In return for a very nice pension the Chevalier had to keep his spy
work secret forever, and he was to dress as a woman for the rest of his life.
That ends the tale of the
Chevalier d’Éon for now. In November I’ll return with a look at his
extraordinary life as a woman and try to uncover the mystery of his gender and