Above: Caricature of d’Éon dressed half in women’s clothes, half in men’s clothes
When Louis XV inherited the French throne in 1715, France had been exhausted by Louis XIV’s constant warfare. If Louis XIV was the archetype of the absolute monarch, his great-grandson obviously lacked some of the qualities necessary to rule over France in the same fashion as his iron-fisted predecessor. Louis XIV knew these shortcomings to some degree: after the death of Cardinal Fleury chief minister to both monarchs Louis XV received a set of instructions written by Louis XIV. The newly ascended King of France was the most impressed by the following: “Do not allow yourself to be governed.” On the eve of the Seven Years War, however, Louis XV had not been able to follow this advice due to his constant doubting of his capacities, his timidity, and his mood swings. To regain some of the power he had lost, Louis XV created Le Secret, a clandestine system of diplomacy that allowed him to overpower his ministers and take control of foreign policy. In a letter to the Chevalier d’Eon, Louis XV said: “At my court, I enjoy less power than an advocate at the Châtelet, over my armies less power than a Colonel. Is it by this [the Secret] that I regain what I have lost.” It is in the context of the Le Secret that the Chevalier d’Eon’s political career began. After moving to Paris to study canon and civil law, d’Eon became the Secretary to the Intendant of Paris. In 1753, he published Considérations historiques et politiques, a book which did not go unnoticed. As a result, he became the royal censor for history and literature by Louis François, Prince de Conti, the King’s cousin and the head of Le Secret, who was impressed by his many qualities.
Le Chevalier d’Eon joined Le Secret in 1755, on the eve of the Seven Years War, a time of political unrest in Europe. While under the leadership of Louis XIV, France had dominated the European diplomatic game. However, England was growing into the leading European power throughout the 18th century. The rivalry between France and England for European leadership was best expressed during the Seven Years War through warfare, global land grabs and, of course, clandestine diplomacy. France had not had any diplomatic relations with Russia for over a decade and wanted to prevent an alliance already in negotiation between Russia and England. Such an alliance would have led to an invasion of pro-French Poland by England, Russia, and Prussia. Louis François, Prince of Conti, convinced Louis XV to send a man from Le Secret to Russia to revive the tie between the two countries, so the Chevalier Douglas left for St-Petersburg only to discover that Russian Chancellor Bestuzhev was already very close to making a deal with the English. He came back to Versailles disappointed only to be sent back, this time with a secretary, the Chevalier d’Eon.
Before getting to the heart of the subject of the successes of the Chevalier d’Eon in Russia, it is necessary to reflect on the controversy of the event. Chevalier d’Eon was a diplomat, soldier, spy, writer, and respected fencer. However, d’Eon is perhaps most well-known as one of the first well-documented examples of a publicly known cross-dresser in history. The Prince of Conti had already sent two envoys to Russia, the Chancellor Bestoujov-Rioumine, and M. de Valcroissant, who had both been arrested and put in jail. He then decided to send a woman, or rather a man dressed as a woman, and cast d’Eon for the role, who took on the name of Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont. While this is the version of the story that d’Eon himself agrees with, and which he wrote about in letters and his memoir, other historians believe that such a physical transformation never happened and that d’Eon invented such a story later in his life. According to their research, there is no information related to d’Eon’s dressing as a woman in Louis XV’s secret correspondence or among the documents of Le Secret.
If the Chevalier d’Eon did arrive in Russia dressed as a woman, as documents seem to suggest, then d’Eon proved perfectly suited to accomplish this particular mission. D’Eon was tasked with gaining the trust and ear of Russia’s ruler, Tsarina Elizabeth, who was described in the late 1750s as “now forty-six years of age, in poor health and likely to respond to the attentions of a pleasant young woman.” Not only did d’Eon manage to get along with Elizabeth, but he also got himself a place at her court. D’Eon soon became Elizabeth’s personal reader and maid of honor. D’Eon, lived as a woman for approximately six months, likely revealed the trickery to Elizabeth who found it very amusing and agreed to keep the secret. In the Archives of the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères an account of d’Eon’s daily routine as a female written by the son of a contemporary and friend of d’Eon states: “The maids of honour of the Empress Elizabeth slept in couples in a room near that of his royal lady […] d’Eon shared the bed of the young Woronzoff.” The Chevalier spent a significant amount of time beside Elizabeth and became the mail carrier between her and Louis XV.
Mademoiselle de Beaumont, chevalier d’Éon.
The stratagem started when Lia de Beaumont/the Chevalier d’Eon managed to deliver a signed letter from Louis XV. He had hidden it “in the double binding of a copy of Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois so that the correspondence would be hidden from the foreign ministers and Louis XV’s mistress Mme de Pompadour.” Before the start of the royal correspondence, the Chevalier d’Eon and other members of The Secret created a secret coded language to enable the King and the Tsarina to communicate. The coded terms all had to do with the vocabulary of the fur trade: for example, the English ambassador Sir Charles Williams became “the black fox.” If England’s influence in Russia increased again then wrote “The fox raises the stakes,” with the term “the little gray ones” referring to British troops. After being seduced by the Chevalier d’Eon and the secret method of correspondence, Elizabeth accepted to re-open diplomatic relations with France.
After the success of his mission to Russia, the Chevalier d’Eon received other honorary positions, became a war hero, and was sent on another spy mission to England. However, that is a story for another time.
Cox, Cynthia. The Enigma of the Age: the Strange Story of the Chevalier d’Eon. London: Longmans, 1966.
De Decker, Michel. Madame Le Chevalier d’Eon. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1987.
Nixon, Edna. Royal Spy: the Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon. New York: Reynal & Company, 1965.
 Edna Nixon, Royal Spy: the Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon (New York: Reynal & Company, 1965), 35.
 Nixon, Royal Spy, 37.
 It should also be noted that at least from 1777 on, d’Eon dressed as a woman and identified as female
 Nixon, Royal Spy, 39.
 Nixon, Royal Spy, 41-42.
 Cythia Cox, The Enigma of the Age: The Strange Story of the Chevalier d’Eon (London: Longmans, 1966), 21.
 Michel de Decker, Madame Le Chevalier d’Eon (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1987), 42.