Georgian Celebrity: Chevalier d’Eon, French Diplomat, Spy, Soldier, and Transvestite

220px-Thomas_Stewart_–_Chevalier_d'Eon Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810), usually known as the Chevalier d’Éon, was a French diplomat, spy and soldier, whose first 49 years were spent as a man, and whose last 33 years were spent as a woman. From 1777, d’Éon claimed to be anatomically a woman, and dressed as such. Doctors who examined the body after d’Éon’s death discovered that he was anatomically male. He is considered to be one of the earliest openly transvestite or transgender people.

The title chevalier, French for knight, refers to the honorary title “chevalier des ordres du Roi,” to which d’Éon was entitled after receiving the Order of Saint-Louis in 1763.

Early Life
Chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont was born at the Hôtel d’Uzès in Tonnerre, Burgundy, into a poor, but noble family. His 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. His mother, Françoise de Charanton, was 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, which worked for King Louis XV personally, without the knowledge of the government, and sometimes against official policies and treaties. 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 intrigue with the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchy. D’Éon disguised himself as a lady, Lea de Beaumont, to do so, and even became a maid of honour to the Empress (although there is no documentary proof of d’Éon being sent on this mission).

At the time the English would only allow women and children across the border into Russia in an attempt to prevent the French from reaching the Empress, since the French and English were at odds with each other. Given the delicate nature of the spy work, d’Éon had to convince the Russians, the English, and even his own France that he was a woman or he would have been executed by the English upon discovery. His career in Russia is the subject of one of Valentin Pikul’s novels, Le chevalier d’Éon et la guerre de Sept ans. 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 returned to France in October 1760, and was granted a pension of 2,000 livres as reward for his service in Russia. In May 1761, he 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 Ulstrop. After Empress Elizabeth died in January 1762, he 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 to formally end the Seven Years’ War, which was signed in Paris on 10 February 1763. As a result of this, he was awarded a further 6,000 livres, and received the Order of Saint-Louis on 30 March 1763, becoming the Chevalier d’Éon.

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. He collected information for a potential invasion – an unfortunate and clumsy initiative of Louis XV, of which Louis’s ministers were unaware – assisting a French agent, Louis François Carlet de la Rozière, who was surveying the British coastal defenses. D’Éon formed connections with English nobility by sending them the produce of his vineyard 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 reduced to his former rank as secretary and humiliated by the count. D’Éon found himself 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 his letter to the king, d’Éon claimed the new ambassador had tried to drug him 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 his 2,000 livres pension was stopped in February 1764. In an effort to save his station in London, he published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence about his 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 secrecy was scandalous to the point of being unheard of, but d’Éon had not yet published everything (he kept the King’s secret invasion documents and those relative to the Secret du Roi 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 defend himself when Guerchy sued for libel, and he was declared an outlaw and went into hiding. However, d’Éon but secured the sympathy of the British public: the mob jeered Guerchy in public, and threw stones at his residence. D’Éon busied himself writing a long book on public administration, Les loisirs du Chevalier d’Éon, which was which published in thirteen volumes in Amsterdam in 1774.

Guerchy was recalled to France, and in July 1766, Louis XV granted d’Éon a pension for his services (or as a pay-off for silence) and gave him 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. His possession of the king’s secret letters protected him against further actions, but d’Éon could not return to France.

Life as a Woman
Despite d’Éon habitually wearing a dragoon’s uniform, there were rumours that he was actually a woman, and a betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange about his true sex. D’Éon was invited to join, but declined, saying an examination would be dishonouring, whatever the result. After a year without progress, the wager was abandoned.

In 1774, after the death of Louis XV, the secret du roi was abolished, and d’Éon tried to negotiate a return from exile. The French government’s side of the negotiations was handled by the writer Pierre de Beaumarchais. The resulting twenty-page treaty permitted d’Éon to return to France and keep his ministerial pension, but required that d’Éon turn over the correspondence regarding the secret du roi.

The Chevalier d’Éon claimed to be physically not a man, but a woman, and demanded recognition by the government as such. He claimed to have been born anatomically female, but 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, but demanded that d’Éon dress appropriately and wear women’s clothing, although he was allowed to continue to wear the insignia of the Order of Saint-Louis. He agreed, especially when the king granted the chevalière funds for a new wardrobe. In 1777, after fourteen months of negotiation, d’Éon returned to France, and was banished to Tonnerre for six years.

When France began to help the rebels during the American War of Independence, d’Éon asked to join the French troops in America, but his banishment prevented him from doing so.

In 1779, d’Éon published the memoirs La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d’Éon. They were ghostwritten by a friend named La Fortelle and are probably embellished.

He was allowed to return to England in 1785. The pension, which had been granted by Louis XV, was lost because of the French Revolution necessitating the sale of d’Éon’s personal library, jewellery, and plate. The family’s properties in Tonnerre were confiscated by the revolutionary government. In 1792, he sent a letter to the French National Assembly, offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs, but the offer was rebuffed.

D’Éon participated in fencing tournaments until being seriously wounded in Southampton in 1796. His 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. The book was never published because d’Éon became paralyzed following a fall. His final four years were spent bedridden, and on 21 May 1810, he died in poverty in London at the age of 82.

Doctors who examined the body after death discovered that the Chevalier was anatomically male. He was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church. His remaining possessions were sold by Christie’s in 1813.

The term eonism was coined by Havelock Ellis to describe similar cases of transgender behavior; it is rarely used now.

The Beaumont Society, a long standing society for transgendered people, is named after the Chevalier.

The film Le secret du Chevalier d’Éon is loosely based on his life, but it portrays him as a woman masquerading as a man.

Le Chevallier D’eon – a series of manga written by Tou Ubukata and illustrated by Kiriko Yumeji. It is published by Del Rey Manga

Le Chevalier d’Eon – 2006 anime series loosely based on the Chevalier d’Éon.

Eonnagata, a 2010 theatre piece by Canadian Robert Lepage, combining drama and dance, based on the life of Chevalier d’Éon.

Some of d’Éon’s papers are at the Brotherton Library in Leeds, U.K.

In 2012, a painting owned by the Philip Mould Gallery was identified as being a portrait of d’Éon.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Georgian Celebrity: Chevalier d’Eon, French Diplomat, Spy, Soldier, and Transvestite

  1. suzan says:

    all I can say is “wow, that is mighty fascinating”.

  2. carolcork says:

    What a fascinating story. Truth is often stranger than fiction!

Comments are closed.