CHEVALIER D’EON DE BEAUMONT - AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
D’Eon was a bright pupil at school, and moved to Paris at the age of fifteen, graduating in Law in 1749, and by the age of 25 he had attracted notice as a political writer, becoming secretary to the Intendant of Paris, Bertier de Sauvigny, and in 1758, at the age of 30, was appointed the Royal Censor for History and Literature by Malesherbes.
Court Life & Spying Missions
Trusted for his lawyerly abilities, multi-lingual talents and his dashing bravado with the sword, in 1756 D’Eon joined a spy network set up by King Louis XV called the Secret du Roi, which existed in secret without the knowledge of the French Government, often promoting policies which deliberately undermined the elected government.
The King planned a secret mission to Russia to meet with Empress Elizabeth, and to to conspire with the pro French faction against the Hapsburg monarchy to which the English responded by attempting to deny any access to the Empress by allowing only women and children to cross the border into Russia.
Danielle from the Beaumont Society relates...
'Louis XV, always liking a bit of spicy intrigue to brighten his day, and believing that a French woman (who were renowned everywhere for their charm, diplomacy and guile) might get through Elizabeth's door where a male diplomat could not; he hit on the idea of sending a 'lady' diplomat - an intelligent and gifted man in the guise of a woman - to Russia.'
In Louis XV's court, extravagant fashion was the order of the day, and as ostentatious as possible! As Danielle (The Beaumont Society) continues;
'...there were many who carried foppery to extreme, and to get accepted some sort of fantastic fashion statement was usually called for or the potential courtier would pass literally unnoticed....it is hardly surprising that transvestism played a very strong role, and it seems to have been more blatant and open in this high society world than at any time since Nero and his decadent Roman successors.'
It was suggested that the fresh faced D'Eon, who had all the qualities required, should undertake the mission and travel as Lady Lia de Beaumont (his sister) in the latest Parisian fashion with forged documents and serve as maid of honour to the Empress. The ruse worked, and 'Lia' was able to persuade the Empress to write inviting a new Ambassador to Moscow. Returning to Paris, he was (somewhat unbelievably!) sent back to St Petersburg in his male identity to serve as secretary to the embassy from 1756 to 1760, and it is said he managed to combine the two lives as 'Charles' and 'Lia', and continue his life as a spy. On his return to France he was rewarded for his efforts with a pension of 2,000 livres.
D'Eon fought in the Seven Years War, becoming a Captain of Dragoons in 1761, and was wounded at Ultrop. In 1762 he was sent to London to draft the peace treaty that ended the War and d’Eon was rewarded with 6,000 livres and the Order of Saint-Louis (which he wears in our print) becoming Chevalier d’Eon.
Now back in London, d’Eon became Charge d’Affaires in 1763, and then interim Ambassador, when the Duke de Nivernais returned to Paris. He nonetheless continued his spying activities for the King, and collected information for potential French invasion, an initiative by the King which the French government were unaware of. D’Eon formed friendships with English nobility by sending them French wine as a gift, and enjoyed his life as interim Ambassador to the hilt!
The Compte de Guerchy was appointed Ambassador at the end of 1763, and D’Eon was humiliated by being demoted to a secretarial post, so made plans to disobey orders and return to France. He wrote to the King, and claimed the new Ambassador had tried to drug him at a dinner party. The British Government declined an attempt at extraditing D’Eon to France, and his French pension was stopped in 1764. In an effort to save his position, D’Eon published much of the diplomatic correspondence, and called Guerchy unfit for the job. This was a scandalous breach that was almost unheard of, but D’Eon had an ace up his sleeve: he had kept back all documents pertaining to Secret du Roi as his own insurance policy, making the French government very cautious when dealing with him. D’Eon sued Guerchy for attempted murder, and Guerchy then counter sued for libel, at which point D’Eon was declared an outlaw and was forced into hiding. He commanded the sympathy of the British public, and eventually the hapless Guerchy was recalled to France. In 1766 Louis XV awarded him a pension (which was almost certainly a bribe to buy his silence) and a 12,000 livres annuity, but ignored a plea for over 100,000 livres to clear his debts.
D’Eon continued spying for France, but he was banished from his home country and had to live in London in exile, although there is no doubt that because he kept the King’s secret letters he was protected. While living in London, despite the fact that he normally dressed in a Dragoon’s uniform, the rumour mill started circulating that D’Eon was actually a woman. With his famously smooth cheeks and a soft voice, the rumours took such hold, with many claims and counter claims that a betting pool was started at the London Stock Exchange, and a large wager of as much as £120,000 riding on the answer! D'Eon had to protect himself from being kidnapped and stripped, and challenged the gamblers to a duel. However, after a year without confirmation or denial, the wager was abandoned on the grounds that no proof could be found.
Return to France and life as a Woman
Louis XV died in 1774, and D’Eon set about negotiating a return to France. A twenty page treaty resulted, in which he was allowed to return as long as he handed over all the correspondence pertaining to the Secret du Roi. D’Eon claimed to have been female at birth, but was brought up as a boy because otherwise his father would have been unable to inherit from his in-laws. The new King Louis XVI recognised his request, but insisted as part of the deal that D’Eon dress and live as a woman, and even supplied funds for new wardrobe of female clothing. Agreement was reached, and he was able to return to France in 1777, but was banished to his home town of Tonnerre.
Memoirs & Latter Life
As a result of the French Revolution, the new authorities cancelled the pension the King had granted him, and all his families’ property and possessions were confiscated by the Government. This put D’Eon into a situation with no income, which forced him to sell all his valuable possessions. By 1786, back in England he continued to live as a woman and took part in high profile fencing competitions dressed as such, challenging the best swordfighters in and around, to a fascinated public, (see the image left which shows one such event at Carlton House in 1787, the home of the Prince of Wales) until in 1796 he was seriously wounded in Southampton when an opponents foil broke and wounded her in the side. In 1804, he found himself in a debtors prison for 5 months, and after an accident in 1806 he spent his last years bedridden and in poverty, dying in 1810 at the age of 81. In 1779 a ghost written memoir entitled Militaire, Politique, et Privee de Madamoiselle d’Eon, was self published. It was mostly written by a friend La Fortelle, but was certainly embellished by D’Eon.
After D'Eon died there was unsurprisingly much interest as to his real sex, and a post mortem was conducted. The surgeon who conducted it wrote in the certificate that he had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed”, but also “an unusual roundness in the formation of limbs” as well as “breasts remarkably full”. Havelock Ellis used the term eonism to describe transgender, and some modern scholars have suggested that D’Eon was transgender. The Beaumont Society who offer support for the transgender community is named for him.
" The Beaumont Society is a national self help body run by and for those who cross dress or are trans-sexual. We welcome all transgender people and their partners, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed or colour, and all varieties from nervous new transvestites to those experienced and confident in their second gender.”
The portrait print of D’Eon de Beamont that we have for sale is a particularly glamorous one, showing her in all her formal finery, by Pierre Jean Baptiste Bradel in 1779, Although it has a little damage; some of the text at the bottom has been lost, and there is a slight water stain, this framed portrait of this extraordinary historical character is in reasonable condition considering it is almost 250 years old. A similar print resides in the British Museum. What a talking point to have on your wall!
Read more about D'Eon....