Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rohan Palace: Queen takes Bishop, Pawns take Queen

We’re getting into the final week here, so I’m back to trying to cram in the last few history posts before we leave.

When Louis XIV took over Strasbourg in 1681, he did so via negotiation, thus sparing everyone the inconvenience of a siege. The deal the Sun King and the city fathers struck allowed the residents to practice whatever faith they liked, but not in Notre Dame, which was returned to the Catholics. The city was allowed to continue to run its affairs as it pleased, via a city government made up of the representatives elected by the various guilds but the titular “head of state” – the Bishop – would be appointed by the king, and serve as his representative.

The first Bishop-Prince to fill this role was Armand-Gaston-Maximilien de Rohan-Soubise, reputedly the “natural” son of King Louis. Of course, as the representative of the King of France, he required a residence of appropriate elegance and splendor, and so the Palais Rohan was built.

It’s a Parisian-style palace, and the first major French-style building in the city. What I find remarkable about it is that, although it was built for a man who was at least nominally a church official, there was almost no concession to overt religiosity on the building. Other than depictions of Faith and Hope (or Hope and Charity? Whoever they are, neither is Chastity, as we will see) over the entrance, there’s nary an angel, crucifix or saint to be seen.

The last Bishop-Prince of Strasbourg was Louis Rene Édouard Rohan, a man in possession of the dangerous combination of ambition and stupidity. He took on the job in 1779, but he didn’t have much interest in being Bishop of a barbaric little outpost on the far edge of the Empire. He was much more interested in politics, and – much to his detriment – gossip. As Ambassador to Vienna he had alienated the Austrian royal family by streading scandalous rumours about the conduct of the Austrian Princess. Sadly for Rohan, he would later have to play host to that Princess as when she spent her first night in France as wife of Louis XVI – the room where Marie Antoinette slept is still preserved in the palace museum today.

Making an enemy of the Queen of France wasn’t a good career move at the time, and so Rohan set about trying to win a place in her esteem. To do this, he contacted his former mistress, Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, who went by the name Comptesse de Lamotte, who was close to Marie Antoinette. The Comptesse delivered letters from the desperate Cardinal to the Queen, who – judging by her correspondence – was inclined to forgive the Cardinal.

Incredibly, the letters were such that the poor deluded Cardinal came to believe the Queen was in love with him, an impression not lessened by the Comptesse inviting him to Paris so as to arrange a meeting with “The Queen” – in fact a prostitute doing what must have been a heck of an impression – and the Cardinal, in which the Cardinal "gave her a rose." I've no idea if that's supposed to be a euphemism.

The Comptesse suggested that the Cardinal could clear up any doubts by doing the Queen a favour. When her wedding to Louis XVI had been announced, a syndicate of jewelers had tried to convince the king to buy as a wedding gift a fabulous and elaborate diamond necklace that had been commissioned for the previous king’s mistress, though never delivered on account of his death. Such was the workmanship that only the King would be able to afford it.

However, Marie Antoinette refused, on the grounds that it was far too expensive, and the money would be better spent equipping the Royal Navy. However, according to the Comptesse, the avaricious Marie-Antoinette secretly coveted the necklace, but was worried how the public would react to such an excessive purchase. And so the Cardinal – who was already lending the Comptesse huge sums of cash – arranged to pay 2,000,000 livres for the necklace on credit, on the understanding that the Marie Antoinette would pay him back. He then delivered the item to the Queen’s valet – actually the faux-Comptesse’s husband.

When the jewelers came looking for their payment, the whole fraud came out in the open. Cardinal Rohan was put on trial in 1785, as were the Lamottes and the prostitute. The Comptesse Lamotte was found guilty and sentenced to a whipping, branding, and imprisonment. The first two were never carried out, and she escaped from prison within a year.

The Cardinal was found to be innocent, which, along with Lamotte’s suspiciously easy escape, convinced the French public that their foreign Queen had engineered the whole episode to acquire the necklace, and embarrass her long-time enemy. Her already weak popularity plummeted, and the resentment against her and her husband’s rule would break out into the French Revolution four years later.

We all know how that ended for Marie-Antoinette. Rohan anti-Marie credentials stood him well in the early years of the Revolution, but he eventurall left for Germany, where he used his fortune to help priests fleeing the Terror. After her escape, the “Comptesse” moved to London, where she wrote her memoirs, blaming everything that had happened on the Queen's scheming. As for the necklace – supposedly it was broken up and sold.

As incredible as all of this sounds, I’m not making any of it up.

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