Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont usually known as the Chevalier d’Éon, was a French diplomat, spy, freemason and soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.
D’Éon had androgynous physical characteristics and natural abilities as a mimic, good features for a spy. D’Éon appeared publicly as a man and pursued masculine occupations for forty nine years, although during that time d’Éon successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting as a woman. For thirty three years, from 1777, d’Éon dressed as a woman, claiming to have been female at birth. Doctors who examined d’Éon’s body after d’Éon’s death discovered that d’Éon would have actually been designated male at birth.
D’Éon was born at the Hôtel d’Uzès in Tonnerre, Burgundy on October 8th 1728, into a poor noble family. D’Éon’s father, Louis d’Éon de Beaumont, was an attorney and director of the king’s dominions, later mayor of Tonnerre and sub-delegate of the intendant of the généralité of Paris. D’Éon’s mother, Françoise de Charanton, was the daughter of a Commissioner General to the armies of the wars of Spain and Italy. Most of what is known about d’Éon’s early life comes from a partly ghost-written autobiography, The Interests of the Chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont.
D’Éon excelled in school, moving from Tonnerre to Paris in 1743, graduating in civil law and canon law from the Collège Mazarin in 1749 at age 21. D’Éon became secretary to Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant of Paris, served as a secretary to the administrator of the fiscal department, and was appointed a royal censor for history and literature by Malesherbes in 1758.
LIFE AS A SPY
In 1756, d’Éon joined the secret network of spies called the Secret du Roi, (secret of the king), employed by King Louis XV without the knowledge of the government. It sometimes promoted policies that contradicted official policies and treaties. According to d’Éon’s memoirs (although there is no documentary evidence to support that account) the monarch sent d’Éon with the Chevalier Douglas, Alexandre-Pierre de Mackensie-Douglas, baron de Kildin, a Scottish Jacobite in French service, on a secret mission to Russia in order to meet Empress Elizabeth and conspire with the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchy. At that time the English and French were at odds, and the English were attempting to deny the French access to the Empress by allowing only women and children to cross the border into Russia. D’Éon had to pass convincingly as a woman or risk being executed by the English upon discovery. In the course of this mission, d’Éon was disguised as the lady Lea de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. Eventually, Chevalier Douglas became French ambassador to Russia, and d’Éon was secretary to the embassy in Saint Petersburg from 1756 to 1760, serving Douglas and his successor, the marquis de l’Hôpital. D’Éon’s career in Russia is the subject of one of Valentin Pikul’s novels, Le chevalier d’Éon et la guerre de Sept ans
D’Éon returned to France in October 1760, and was granted a pension of 2,000 livres as reward for service in Russia. In May 1761, d’Éon became a captain of dragoons under the maréchal de Broglie and fought in the later stages of the Seven Years’ War. D’Éon served at the Battle of Villinghausen in July 1761, and was wounded at Ultrop. After Empress Elizabeth died in January 1762, d’Éon was considered for further service in Russia, but instead was appointed secretary to the duc de Nivernais, awarded 1,000 livres, and sent to London to draft the peace treaty that formally ended the Seven Years’ War. The treaty was signed in Paris on 10 February 1763, and d’Éon was awarded a further 6,000 livres, and received the Order of Saint-Louis on 30 March 1763, becoming the Chevalier d’Éon. The title chevalier, French for knight, is also sometimes used for French noblemen.
Back in London, d’Éon became chargé d’affaires in April 1763, and then plenipotentiary minister – essentially interim ambassador – when the duc de Nivernais returned to Paris in July. D’Éon used this position also to spy for the king. D’Éon collected information for a potential invasion – an unfortunate and clumsy initiative of Louis XV, of which Louis’s own ministers were unaware – assisting a French agent, Louis François Carlet de la Rozière, who was surveying the British coastal defences. D’Éon formed connections with English nobility by sending them the produce of d’Éon’s vineyard in France and abundantly enjoyed the splendour of this interim embassy.
Upon the arrival of the new ambassador, the comte de Guerchy in October 1763, d’Éon was demoted to the rank of secretary and humiliated by the count. D’Éon was trapped between two French factions: Guerchy was a supporter of the duc de Choiseul, duc de Praslin and Madame de Pompadour, in opposition to the comte de Broglie and his brother the maréchal de Broglie. D’Éon complained, and eventually decided to disobey orders to return to France. In a letter to the king, d’Éon claimed that the new ambassador had tried to drug d’Éon at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence in Monmouth House in Soho Square. The British government declined a French request to extradite d’Éon, and the 2,000 livres pension that had been granted in 1760 was stopped in February 1764. In an effort to save d’Éon’s station in London, d’Éon published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence about d’Éon’s recall under the title Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d’Éon in March 1764, disavowing Guerchy and calling him unfit for his job. This breach of diplomatic discretion was scandalous to the point of being unheard of, but d’Éon had not yet published everything (the King’s secret invasion documents and those relative to the Secret du Roi were kept back as “insurance”), and the French government became very cautious in its dealings with d’Éon, even when d’Éon sued Guerchy for attempted murder. With the invasion documents in hand, d’Éon held the king in check. D’Éon did not offer any defense when Guerchy sued for libel, and d’Éon was declared an outlaw and went into hiding. However, d’Éon secured the sympathy of the British public: the mob jeered Guerchy in public, and threw stones at his residence. D’Éon then wrote a book on public administration, Les loisirs du Chevalier d’Éon, which was published in thirteen volumes in Amsterdam in 1774.
Guerchy was recalled to France, and in July 1766 Louis XV granted d’Éon a pension (possibly a pay-off for d’Éon’s silence) and a 12,000-livre annuity, but refused a demand for over 100,000 livres to clear d’Éon’s extensive debts. D’Éon continued to work as a spy, but lived in political exile in London. D’Éon’s possession of the king’s secret letters provided protection against further actions, but d’Éon could not return to France.
LIFE AS A WOMAN
Despite the fact that d’Éon habitually wore a dragoon’s uniform, rumours circulated in London that d’Éon was actually a woman. A betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange about d’Éon’s true sex. D’Éon was invited to join, but declined, saying that an examination would be dishonouring, whatever the result. After a year without progress, the wager was abandoned. Following the death of Louis XV in 1774, the secret du roi was abolished, and d’Éon tried to negotiate a return from exile. The writer Pierre de Beaumarchais represented the French government in the negotiations. The resulting twenty-page treaty permitted d’Éon to return to France and retain the ministerial pension, but required that d’Éon turn over the correspondence regarding the secret du roi.
Madame Campan writes in her memoirs: “This eccentric being had long solicited permission to return to France; but it was necessary to find a way of sparing the family he had offended the insult they would see in his return; he was therefore made to resume the costume of that sex to which in France everything is pardoned. The desire to see his native land once more determined him to submit to the condition, but he revenged himself by combining the long train of his gown and the three deep ruffles on his sleeves with the attitude and conversation of a grenadier, which made him very disagreeable company.”
The Chevalier d’Éon claimed to have been assigned female at birth, and demanded recognition by the government as such. D’Éon claimed to have been raised as a boy because Louis d’Éon de Beaumont could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. King Louis XVI and his court complied with this demand, but required in turn that d’Éon dress appropriately in women’s clothing, although d’Éon was allowed to continue to wear the insignia of the Order of Saint-Louis. When the king’s offer included funds for a new wardrobe of women’s clothes, d’Éon agreed. In 1777, after fourteen months of negotiation, d’Éon returned to France and as punishment was banished to Tonnerre.
When France began to help the rebels during the American War of Independence, d’Éon asked to join the French troops in America, but d’Éon’s banishment prevented it. In 1779, d’Éon published a book of memoirs: La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d’Éon. They were ghostwritten by a friend named La Fortelle and are probably embellished. D’Éon was allowed to return to England in 1785.
The pension that Louis XV had granted was ended by the French Revolution, and d’Éon had to sell personal possessions, including books, jewellery and plate. The family’s properties in Tonnerre were confiscated by the revolutionary government. In 1792, d’Éon sent a letter to the French National Assembly offering to lead a division of female soldiers against the Habsburgs, but the offer was rebuffed. D’Éon participated in fencing tournaments until seriously wounded in Southampton in 1796. D’Éon’s last years were spent with a widow, Mrs. Cole. In 1804, d’Éon was sent to a debtors’ prison for five months, and signed a contract for a biography to be written by Thomas William Plummer, which was never published. D’Éon became paralyzed following a fall, and spent a final four years bedridden, dying in poverty in London on 21 May 1810 at the age of eighty one.
Doctors who examined the body after d’Éon’s death discovered that the Chevalier had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed”, while at the same time displaying feminine characteristics such as rounded limbs and “breast remarkably full”. D’Éon’s body was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, and d’Éon’s remaining possessions were sold by Christie’s in 1813. D’Éon’s grave is listed on Baroness Burdett Coutts’s memorial there as one of the important graves lost.