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Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution
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Famous Faces

Crooked Cardinal: Cardinal de Rohan

Crooked Cardinal: Cardinal de Rohan Louis René Édouard, Prince and Cardinal de Rohan, was born in Paris on September 25, 1734.  Born into one of France's most ancient and wealthy noble families, Rohan held various high offices, including Bishop of Strasbourg, Ambassador to Vienna, and Grand Almoner of France before being named a Cardinal in the French Catholic Church.

In Old Regime France, high positions in the Church were routinely filled by  members of  the  aristocracy  who had less of a religious calling than a desire to reap the financial rewards that went with such posts.  Not only did the Church own vasts tracts of rich agricultural land, tax-free, but bishops, abbots, and other officials collected the revenues that came with them in the form of tithes and other payments.  The Bishop of Strasbourg, for example, collected an episcopal income of 400,000 livres per year and another 800,000 livres per year in income on feudal domains in Alsace.  Not bad for a priest.  Best of all, as bishop and then cardinal, Rohan didn't really have to spend any time in Strasbourg.  Instead he could live the good life in Paris and spend his time at Versailles furthering his political career.

Unfortunately, in the 1760s Rohan had bet on the wrong horse:  Instead of backing the Austrian alliance and the project to marry the French dauphin to the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette, he had opposed it.  In later years he became convinced that this political misstep had cost him the goodwill of the Queen and ruined his chances for advancement. In his desperation (and perhaps stupidity) he fell for the scam concocted for his benefit by the Comtesse de La Motte that became known as the Diamond Necklace Affair.  She had targetted him not only because of his enormous wealth and equally large ambitions, but also because he had already been famously suckered once by the adventurer and magician Cagliostro.

Rohan fell for the scam hook, line, and sinker.  After a few warm-ups that cost the Cardinal substantial sums of money to help La Motte (who posed as the Queen's "poor cousin") and thereby win Marie Antoinette's favor, the ready mark was asked to purchase for her a jewel that her cheap husband had refused her:  a diamond necklace originally commissed by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry, and that even he had found too expensive.  Since then the Parisian jewelers who had crafted the necklace had been unable to find anyone rich or foolish enough to pay the 1.5 million livres they said it was worth.  In 1785, however, the Countess convinced Rohan that the only way to win the Queen's favor would be to buy this necklace for her, and he agreed to do it!  The Cardinal agreed to pay for it in installments over the course of several years; meanwhile, the Countess forged Marie Antoinette's signature to the purchase order, took delivery of the necklace in the Cardinal's presence, and then turned it over immediately to a man purporting to be the Queen's valet, but who was, in fact, La Motte's husband and confederate.  Not waiting for future payments from the Cardinal, the La Mottes proceeded to sell off the diamonds one by one on the international black market.

What is most interesting about this story is not the cleverness of the scam artists or the gullibility of the Cardinal, but what happened next. When the plot was revealed, the King could have simply arrested all the parties involved and had them thrown in prison for life—that's what kings usually did.  Instead, Louis XVI decided to put the Cardinal and the La Mottes on trial for treason.  This trial and all the attendant publicity it caused meant that Marie Antoinette's name was smeared across the press, associated now with the shady character who claimed to be her poor and misunderstood cousin, and the late King's very unpopular mistress with whose necklace she was now forever associated in the public mind.  In the end, the Cardinal was acquitted of any wrongdoing and, in the public mind, the Queen was guilty by association with people she had never met.  In some weird way, the fact that the Cardinal believed that Marie Antoinette was immoral and corrupt enough to do what the La Mottes convinced him she was doing, confirmed everything that everyone already believed about her anyway.

Having fled France in 1790, the Cardinal de Rohan lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1803 at the age of  69.

Famous Faces

Rumors and RevolutionThe Teen Queen: Marie AntoinetteHis Royal Hesitancy: Louis XVIThe Iron Fist: Maria TheresaSwede on the Side: Axel von FersenThe Queen's Crony: Princesse de LamballeMonsieur Moneybags: Jacques NeckerPass the Buck Chuck: Charles-Alexandre de CalonneMad Max: Maximilien RobespierreThe Warmonger: Jacques Pierre BrissotDear Abbe: Emmanuel Joseph SieyèsCrooked Cardinal: Cardinal de RohanAmerica's Sweetheart: Marquis de Lafayette
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The Affair of the Necklace
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The Film
Learn about the Marie Antoinette documentary.

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