Chevalièr d’Éon: the tale of an 18th-century gender non-conforming spy
What happens when a spy becomes the subject of other people’s investigations? Nige Tassell delves into the life of the Chevalier d’Éon – the French master of disguise who defied conventional notions of gender
After decades of speculation, gossip and even gambling on the matter, in 1810 it was an elderly Londoner called Mrs Cole who finally discovered the truth. For the previous 14 years, this widow had shared an apartment with a French spinster, the Chevalière d’Éon. During the last few of those years, the chevalière – the female equivalent of a chevalier, or knight – was largely bedbound. Both women were in their early eighties; both also lived in poverty and suffered poor health. Now, on 21 May 1810, at the age of 81, the Frenchwoman was dead.
Unsurprisingly, it was Mrs Cole who found the body. Mourning the passing of her friend and flatmate, she solemnly began to prepare the corpse to receive visitors, aiming to provide some dignity in death. As she changed the deceased’s clothes, Mrs Cole made a startling revelation: the chevalière was very much in possession of male genitalia.
The French flatmate had told a convincing tale: that they had been born female but – due to social restrictions of the time – had been raised as a boy. As an adult, they had fought as a soldier, and had been free to revert to ‘her’ biological sex only after retiring from public life. Now it appeared that the opposite had been true. This was the final twist in an action-packed life.
Mrs Cole sought a second opinion – a dozen opinions, actually, including those of surgeons and professors of anatomy who visited the property. Yes, her friend had narrow, feminine hips and an unobtrusive Adam’s apple, but all of these experts came to the same conclusion: that the chevalière had actually been a chevalier all along.
Who was the Chevalièr d’Éon?
Charles-Genèvieve-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont had been born in 1728 in the small Burgundy town of Tonnerre. His was a noble family, albeit a comparatively poor one. After a childhood of little note, he followed his attorney father into legal training, graduating in both civil law and canon law in Paris before taking on positions within the civil service. By the age of 30, he had risen sufficiently through the ranks to become a royal censor for history and literature.
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By then, though, d’Éon had already embarked on the first of his double lives, having been recruited into Le Secret du Roi (The King’s Secret), an undercover network of spies that, under the direct command of Louis XV, operated without the knowledge of the ministries of the French government. These spies often worked directly against government policy – at least, whenever opposing the official line worked in the king’s favour.
An early mission for d’Éon – albeit one that may have been, at the very least, exaggerated when he recounted it in his memoirs, as the episode was never documented elsewhere – involved travelling to Russia to elicit the support of the Empress Elizabeth. Support was sought for the placing of Louis XV’s cousin, the Prince of Conti, onto the Polish throne. The empress was known for refusing to meet with French ambassadors so, in order to infiltrate the imperial court as well as evade the attention of the British who only permitted women and children across the Russian border, d’Éon took advantage of his comparatively androgynous looks to disguise himself as a fictitious French noblewoman, Lia de Beaumont. The ruse was successful, with his female persona apparently gaining the trust of the empress and allegedly serving as one of her maids of honour. At the same time, under his biological sex, d’Éon was employed as secretary to the French embassy in St Petersburg.
Dispatched to London
Returning to France in the autumn of 1760, d’Éon was appointed as a dragoon captain the following spring, seeing service for a portion of the remaining two years of the Seven Years’ War. Having been wounded in battle, he was removed from the frontline and dispatched to London where his legal training would be put to good use: he was charged with helping to draft the peace treaty that would bring the war to a close. For his service in creating the conditions that would bring peace to Europe, d’Éon was awarded the Order of Saint Louis in 1763. The honour was the French equivalent of a knighthood and he could now use the title Chevalier d’Éon.
The new chevalier remained in London, becoming the embassy’s chargé d’affaires before a promotion to the position of minister-plenipotentiary. Such appointments offered great opportunities to bolster his usefulness to Louis XV by supplying significant intelligence to the king. One example of this was overseeing covert surveys of the British coastline in preparation for Louis’s misconceived plan of invading Britain, a scheme that only a small number of the king’s very closest associates were aware of.
The privileges that came with being interim ambassador didn’t last. Within three months, a permanent ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, was appointed and d’Éon’s role reduced to that of secretary. He didn’t take this demotion lightly. Having been instructed to return to Paris for his protestations (and fearing the Bastille to be his destination once back on home ground), he resisted orders, instead writing directly to the king to accuse Guerchy of attempting to poison him at an ambassadorial dinner. The French government’s request to have him deported fell on deaf British ears.
D’Éon retaliated to the French government’s threats by publishing a swathe of secret correspondence from missions as part of Le Secret du Roi, causing Paris to retreat somewhat from its aggressive actions towards the chevalier. They now realised he was a politically dangerous man. D’Éon was a sharp thinker and, by not publishing the correspondence concerning Louis XV’s secret and undeniably controversial invasion plans, he knew the king could not lend his support to the government’s attempts to discipline d’Éon.
After Guerchy sued d’Éon for libel, the chevalier went into hiding in London where he became something of a folk hero to the British public who enjoyed the French government being undermined by one of their own. He remained a spy in Britain where, with the invasion correspondence as his personal insurance policy, he continued to receive a handsome annuity from Louis XV.
In London, the chevalier’s androgynous looks meant that rumours abounded about his sex, with many observers holding the opinion that d’Éon was actually a woman masquerading as a man. Indeed, such was the fervour over the chevalier’s biology that a betting pool was even launched on the very matter on no less an institution than the London Stock Exchange. No pay-outs were forthcoming though as d’Éon refused to be medically examined to provide a definitive answer. One school of thought would later suggest that the chevalier declined to settle the argument because, to help pay off mounting debts from an extravagant lifestyle, he was in receipt of payments from betting houses keen to keep the book open.
Such was the fervour over the chevalier’s biology that a betting pool was even launched on the matter
The mystery surrounding the chevalier remained, although one French nobleman viewed the interminable chatter about d’Éon’s sex as sufficient confirmation in itself that the chevalier was actually a chevalière. “All the world says it,” he announced. “Final incontestable proof!”
In 1774, Louis XV died – and with him went Le Secret du Roi. No longer operating along these secret channels, and concerned about a possible loss of that annuity underwritten by the late king, d’Éon sought to end his exile in London and return to France. An agreement was drawn up: the chevalier could return to his homeland, and he could retain his pension, if he surrendered all the correspondence involving Le Secret du Roi.
But d’Éon insisted on another condition. Claiming to have been born female, the chevalier requested that the French authorities and the new king Louis XVI officially recognise this. D’Éon’s story involved being raised as a boy because his father could only receive an inheritance from his wife’s family if he fathered a son. The new king agreed to d’Éon’s request, although insisted that the chevalier must always present as a woman. Louis XVI even provided d’Éon with a clothing budget. The deal was known as ‘The Transaction’.
In his book Monsieur d’Éon is a Woman, d’Éon’s biographer Gary Kates describes the journey back to France as one seen to be loaded with symbolism. “It marked as well his maiden voyage across the gender boundary, a barrier much better defended and more impenetrable than any national border. As far as the world knew, d’Éon was returning both to his original country and to his original sex.” Not everyone was convinced by these claims of being born female. In November 1777, the newly retitled Chevalière d’Éon was – after four hours of preparation – presented at court at Versailles, with one female observer announcing: “She had nothing of our sex but the petticoats and the curls which suited her horribly.”
Giving fencing displays was one modest source of income, but time was nonetheless spent in a debtors’ prison
When France began to assist the anti-British rebels in the American Revolutionary War, d’Éon requested to join the cause, but was rebuffed by the French government. Further requests ended in arrest and being held in a dungeon for three weeks, before being sent back to Tonnerre, to which d’Éon was confined. Here, a collection of – possibly amplified and embellished – memoirs was embarked upon. Eventually, in 1785, small-town life proved too stifling and the chevalière successfully petitioned to be allowed to return to London.
These weren’t to be happy years. The French Revolution had put paid to the pension previously authorised by successive kings and d’Éon fell on hard times. Family-owned land and property in Burgundy was also being seized by the revolutionary government, forcing d’Éon to sell personal possessions to make ends meet. Giving fencing displays was one source of modest income, but some time was nonetheless spent in a debtors’ prison. A couple of years after release, d’Éon was paralysed by a fall and was largely confined to bed for those final years. It was a sad, rather tragic end to a life spent colourfully both in the uniform of a dragoon captain on the frontline of war and dressed to the nines for the collective gaze of the Versailles set.
Ever the secret-keeping spy, d’Éon had kept the personal mystery intact right up to death. But then, with the body still warm, Mrs Cole made her discovery.
Why did the Chevalier d’Éon present as a woman?
There were likely a multitude of reasons behind the spy’s identity switch…
In 1777, the Chevalier d’Éon returned to France from exile in London but only on the condition that the claim of being born female was recognised by the French government and crown, despite it eventually being revealed not to be true. In his book Monsieur d’Éon is a Woman, d’Éon’s biographer Gary Kates offers several reasons for the double life.
“D’Éon’s switch was not a compulsion but an intellectual decision that he made between 1766 and 1776 after careful thought and reading,” says Kates, suggesting that d’Éon chose to present as a woman “because he deeply admired the moral character of women and wanted to live as one.” Also, despite his military combat, d’Éon was ill at ease with hypermasculine ideals. Informed by the Enlightenment thinkers, he was “heavily influenced by early modern feminist writing that called into question patriarchal gender roles”.
Kates argues that d’Éon’s declining influence on public life may have been a contributing factor, too. “The ‘cause’ of d’Éon’s transformation was his alienation from French political life. His career as a diplomat and spy having reached a dead end, he searched for a way to win back his honour and regenerate his own soul.”
This article first appeared in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed