Friday 27 February 2015

Coded Lives : 3 - The Chevalier's Secret

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 was over.

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 sign.

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 sexuality.

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