Le Chevalier d’Eon: a Cross-Dressing Spy in Russia

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

1

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Éon de Beaumont, also known as Chevalier d’Eon. Agent of Le Secret de Roi (The King’s Secret), pictured in a dragoon uniform.

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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.

2

Mademoiselle de Beaumont, the alter-ego of Chevalier d’Éon used to influence Tsarina Elizabeth I 

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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.

 

Sources:

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.

 

[1] Edna Nixon, Royal Spy: the Strange Case of the Chevalier d’Eon (New York: Reynal & Company, 1965), 35.

[2] Nixon, Royal Spy, 37.

[3] It should also be noted that at least from 1777 on, d’Eon dressed as a woman and identified as female

[4] Nixon, Royal Spy, 39.

[5] Nixon, Royal Spy, 41-42.

[6] Cythia Cox, The Enigma of the Age: The Strange Story of the Chevalier d’Eon (London: Longmans, 1966), 21.

[7] Michel de Decker, Madame Le Chevalier d’Eon (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1987), 42.

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The Epic Fail of the Virginia Company

There were times in American history when businessmen ran the government. Spoilers: it didn’t go well. One of such situations occurred after King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London in 1607. The Virginia Company was not a company in a modern sense; rather, it was a bunch of companies and private entrepreneurs united to explore and exploit whatever they find in the land of Virginia. American historians often don’t bother themselves with the Virginia Company (if you decide to read more about it, there will be a lot of E-Z borrowing (and giving up)) – after all, it only functioned for 17 years until it was dissolved by the royal order since the venture turned out to be almost a complete failure.

Indeed, the members of the Company probably did not look as confident as in Disney’s Pocahontas movie:

disney

For glory, God and gold and the Virginia Company!

The riches they hoped to find in the Virginian soil were not there, and the hopes for the lucrative trade with the locals proved futile. The tobacco they planted thank to John Rolfe’s (newly born) agricultural skills were worse in quality that Spanish product and King James had to be persuaded to grant Virginia some kind of monopoly on selling tobacco to England. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Wait, there’s more!

Virginian planters were so devoted to growing tobacco they neglected the production of food for themselves and had to rely on Indians and the supplies from England. The latter task was the job of one of the smaller companies in Virginia’s bunch: the Magazine. Indians were not always willing to trade with the colonists, and the Magazine occasionally appropriated more money from the treasury that they were owed.

As if it wasn’t enough, Powhatan Indians also massacred some colonists on March 22, 1622. Colonists had to abandon their plantations and get crowded to be able to defend themselves. Safety and food was their primary concern, and they begged the Virginia Company to help them handle these two pressing issues. The response was clear: your primary concern should be growing tobacco [1].

Since it was as bad as it sounds, the members of the Virginia Company started looking for the culprit, which in the hierarchy-oriented minds of 17-century Englishmen was the leader. But which leader was it – Sir Thomas Smith who led the company until 1619 or his successor Sir Edwin Sandys?

 

Candidates for the culprit. Edwin Sandys (left) probably looks eviler than Thomas Smith (right), but some people in the Virginia Company didn’t think so.

 

The true answer is: we don’t know, and neither did King James. Quarrels between various leaders of the Company and Virginian planters soon turned into an endless stream of petitions and proposals destined to bury the king’s desk under their weight. Alderman Johnson claimed that nothing but tobacco was produced because of Sandys. Captain Bargrave made the same complaint but blamed it on Smith. Planter John Martin asked the king to kick the Virginia Company out of Virginia. Nathaniel Rich begged James to investigate the manipulations of Sandys.

At some point, James finally had enough. In an unusually short note, he asks the House of Commons to follow his example and stop reading this gossip material [2]. Soon, the Virginia Company was dissolved.

3

This is how king James normally talks [3].

4

And this is how he talks if you drive him crazy [2].

 

We don’t have to pick between Smith and Sandys. The very thought that all these plan-producing, quarreling leaders were staying in London, perhaps never even seeing Virginia, can be eye-opening. It took 9 weeks to get from the Chesapeake  Bay to England and 6 weeks for a reverse trip (thanks to a handy current). What adequate response could the leaders provide to the colony’s problems given the very limited powers of the Virginia governor?

In any case, it was the Virginia Company who failed, not the Virginia settlers. Those continued growing their tobacco and, as it would become clear in 1776, preferring to be ruled by people who are actually from Virginia.

 

Sources:

[1] “Council in Virginia. A Letter to the Virginia Company of London. April (after 10), 1622,” in Susan M. Kinsbury, ed. 1933. The Papers of the Virginia Company of London, Volume III, Documents I, 611-615.
“Treasurer and Council for Virginia. Letter to Governor and Council in Virginia. August 1, 1622,” in Susan M. Kinsbury, ed. 1933. The Papers of the Virginia Company of London, Volume III, Documents I, 666-673.
[2] “James I. A Letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons. August 28, 1624,” in Susan M. Kinsbury, ed. 1935. The Papers of the Virginia Company of London, Volume IV, Documents II,477-478.
[3] “James I. A Letter to the Privy Council. July 17, 1622,” in Susan M. Kinsbury, ed. 1933. The Papers of the Virginia Company of London, Volume III, Documents I, 653.

Lore Kephart ’86 Historians Lecture Series featuring Craig Harline, PhD

Join us Tuesday, September 26, 2017 for the ninth annual lecture A WORLD ABLAZE: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation by Craig Harline, PhD Professor of History Brigham Young University. 7:00 pm Villanova Room, Connelly Center Free and Open to the public, refreshments immediately following the talk. You can RSVP through this link.

Snooze Button Time Travels

A funny article to lighten up the post spring break workload! Very relatable to the life of a graduate student.

Via The Onion

MINNEAPOLIS—Setting his sights on a point five minutes into the future, snooze button time traveler Brent Conley, 31, engaged the launch initiation switch on his temporal teleportation device at precisely 7:30 a.m. this morning, immediately sending himself hurtling through time.

Having carefully computed the appropriate coordinates and loaded them into his sophisticated time-travel mechanism, the veteran temporal navigator and online ad salesman was reportedly able to rocket himself through the very fabric of the fourth dimension with little more than the press of a button, traveling the equivalent of five earth minutes in the mere blink of an eye.

“Ummghh,” said the snooze button time traveler upon his virtually instantaneous arrival at 7:35 a.m., having rematerialized in the same spot in his one-bedroom apartment exactly one-twelfth of an hour after his departure. “Wha?”

“Gahh,” he added as he eyed his current time coordinates with disapproval, immediately discerning with the insight of years of time-travel experience that he had yet to journey far enough into the future.

With a vigorous and confident strike of his hand, Conley reportedly engaged the ignition button again, initiating a second staggering surge though the chronological ether. Quickly assuming the proper supine position necessary for time travel, the temporal voyager pulled close his duvet heat barrier for the fantastic light-speed journey before him.

While the electronic time-manipulation device that powers Conley’s leaps into the future is said to be small, it is by no means simple. Bearing a dizzying array of switches, dials, buttons, and an arcane digitized display of glowing numbers and dots, the mechanism can reportedly be calibrated to the time cruiser’s exact needs and is always kept within arm’s reach, perched conveniently atop a birch-veneer self-assembled end table.

According to reports, the advanced device emits piercing tones to indicate a successful arrival in the future, often blaring the choruses and verses of classic rock songs from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today, or occasionally the shrill vocalizations of Conley’s disembodied travel companions, Bill And Linda In The Morning.

“Son of a…” said the veritable time captain after a second deftly executed chrono-jump, his vision blurred and a watery discharge emanating from his mouth, both common side effects of his disorienting blasts through spacetime. “Come on.”

“Agh,” he added defiantly before challenging the very limits of time travel by commencing a third vault across the temporal threshold.

According to astonishing accounts, the 2003 University of Minnesota graduate is known to venture as far as 20 minutes into the future routinely, completing such mind-bending feats of chronological teleportation as many as three or four mornings per week.

To endure his extraordinary journeys, Conley reportedly wears a specialized time-travel suit consisting of cutting-edge cotton-poly-blend plaid leg coverings and protective upper-body gear emblazoned with the words “Hard Rock Cafe London,” garments specifically suited for the particular rigors of his transits. In addition, the chrononaut’s meticulously engineered queen-sized time-pod, which carries Conley effortlessly into the future, is said to consist of dozens of hidden spring coils, a space-age quilt-top surface, and several insulating layers of highly advanced 300-thread-count textiles.

In spite of his remarkable ability to bend the very dimensions of time to his will, the snooze button time traveler is said to occasionally encounter obstacles on his voyages. Indeed, such a glitch reportedly occurred Monday when an errant deactivation of his device’s power toggle, which is located within just inches of the launch bar, propelled the traveler into a much deeper wormhole in the spacetime continuum than he had anticipated, depositing him woefully into the far-too-distant future.

“What?” said Conley in momentary confusion, examining the unexpected digits 8:28 on his chrono-display before realizing he had been thrust a startling 48 minutes into the future and had no means of return. “No!”

“God fucking dammit,” the time traveler added as he hurriedly grabbed khaki pants and a dress shirt from his hamper and sprinted toward the bathroom.

 

Annual Kephart Lecture Tomorrow!

On October 1, 2016 Villanova will be welcoming Dr. Richard White as the Annual Kephart Lecture distinguished speaker. Dr. White is a Pulitzer-Prize nominated historian specializing in the history of the American West, Environmental history, and Native American history. He has held the Margaret Byrne Chair at Stanford University since 1998 and is currently working on three separate projects that focus on the history of modern California through use of photographs, the history of the late nineteenth century United States, and the history of Western America.

The Kephart Lecture is free and open to the public with light refreshments following. Please be sure to register here http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/history/newsevents/kephart_registration.html and for those using social media, follow and tag #Kephart2015.