Chevaliere d'Eon. Detail from a mezzo-tint print dated June 25, 1771, age 43.
This colourized version appeared in the August 2000 edition of BBC History.
|A portrait of
the Chevaliere d'Eon, or rather the Mlle Lia de Beaumon. The date is
unknown, but a fair guess is that he/she is in her early 40's.
Note the hint of facial beard shadow and the lack of any great
bust and cleavage - presumably the painter was not required to
excessively flatter the Madamoiselle in these regards.
In an age without hormones and other feminising medical treatments, the once captivating maiden in her 20's would find it increasingly difficult to pass, by her 50's it was brutally being stated that she looked like a man in a dress.
Charles Genevieve d'Eon de Beaumont
"I always treated my body harshly in order to eliminate any desire it might have to rebel against me. As long as I was engaged in warfare as a dragoon with the volunteers of the army, I never got in a bed whether in winter or in summer without undressing . . . Thanks to God, the law, and the King, I no longer fight either hand to hand or from a distance, since I have begun to wear a dress and have adopted a new body at the Convent of the Virgins of Holy Mary."—The Chevalière d'Eon, in a letter to Madame the Duchess de Montmorenci-Bouteville, 1778 [ms. pp. 203-204]
The story of Chevalier d'Eon is an amazing one. Diplomat, writer, spy, and Freemason, a member of the elite Dragoons and one of the best swordsmen France, whose true gender was a source of speculation and provoked public bets in the late 18th century. While he lived it was generally believed that d'Eon was born female, but he had started to dress as a man in his childhood, and changed back from "a bad boy into a good girl" when his secret was revealed decades later. But after his death it turned out that he was a man who had dressed as a woman. D'Eon is often called the patron saint of transvestites, indeed from the 1920's until the 1960's the term "Eonism" was often used rather than transvestite. Although usually categorised as a transvestite, in many aspects of his life he was also a transsexual, Chevalier d'Eon doesn't fall fully in to any of the neat categories in to which the medical profession tries to define what it considers to be gender and sexual disorders.
Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Thimothée d'Eon de Beaumont was born October 5 1728 in Tonnere, France, into a family of lawyers. His father, Louis d’Eon de Beaumont, was an attorney and Sub-Delegate of the Paris Intendancy; his mother, lady Françoise de Chavanson, was a noblewoman from an old and wealthy family. His father Louis was in debts and he would get a large inheritance from Françoise's family only if she had a son. The confusing genders of the new baby's first two names was precursor to a whole life marked by ambiguity. Little is known of d'Eon's childhood and his book of memoirs, La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Eon (1779), written by his friend La Fortelle, is not very reliable. D'Eon tells in it that he was born female, and raised from the start as a boy, while other reports say that he was dressed as a girl until age seven. D'Eon also reveals, that until the age of ten, he was "under the yoke of an involuntary urinary flow." On balance it would seem that D’Eon generally grew up in a normal schoolboy style, but that his mother sometimes dressed him in his sister clothes to amuse herself.
D'Eon learned to read at a very young age, and at school he excelled in languages and won awards for memorization. After graduating from College Mazarin in Paris in 1749 he worked as the Secretary of Monsieur de Sauvigny, Administrator of the Fiscal Department of Paris. There he completed his first book on French government finance. He then worked as a royal censor, spending his time with books. In 1756 d'Eon joined the King's Secret, a network of spies, who worked more for the King himself than the Foreign Ministry.
Just prior to the Seven Years war, the Tsarina (Empress) Elizabeth Petrovna I of Russia was negotiating with England to support its Hanoverian king, George II, with thousands of Russian mercenary troops in order to protect the near defenceless Hanover from France and Prussia who were collusively plotting to invade the German province. So adroit were English emissaries in their dealings with Elizabeth that she refused to see any French envoys who might dissuade her from accepting a half million pounds in exchange for her troops.
Louis XV - who always liked a bit of spicy intrigue to brighten his day - believed that a French woman (who were renowned everywhere for their charm, diplomacy and guile, but not for their intelligence and bravery in the face of danger) might get through Elizabeth's door where a male diplomat could not; he thus hit upon the idea of sending to Russia a "lady" diplomat who was really an intelligent and gifted man in the guise of a woman. His gaze quickly fell on the relatively young and somewhat effeminate (some Englishmen said "he's just French") d'Eon, who also had all the other qualities he needed, including once winning a bet with his friends that he could pass with Madame Pompadour (Louis XV’s mistress) as a woman - fooling King Louis at the same time. In the archives of the French Foreign Ministry a document concerning the situation says: "D'Eon was young, small in stature [five feet four inches], full breasted and with the sort of legs that were favourable to his disguise." D'Eon also stood out because of his blue eyes, unusually high-pitched voice and especially because of his youthful and fresh-faced complexion - a rarity at a time when dangerous and often lead-based chemicals were used as make-up and therefore most courtiers had very poor skin quality, to hide this they used even more make-up and thus making their deformities even worse! The complexion of the otherwise beautiful Elizabeth was awful for probably this reason.
Charles was soon persuaded to go to Russia as "Lia de Beaumont" - his own sister - in robes of the latest Parisian fashion, with suitably forged documents proving "her" parentage and patronage. The 27 year-old Mlle Lia de Beaumont travelled to St. Petersburg to see Elizabeth as the travelling companion of a fur trader named Douglass. Once d'Eon arrived at Elizabeth's court, he/she charmed the Empress and was granted a private interview. During this, d'Eon discarded his female disguise and revealed himself to be the special envoy of King Louis XV, delivering to her a letter from Louis which proposed a secret agreement.
Elizabeth was so captivated by d'Eon's disguise and daring that Lia was appointed as her Reader, and was thus able to spend many hours in the company of the Empress - and perhaps became her lover. D'Eon persuaded the Empress to write to Louis and invite a new ambassador to Moscow, and a short time later she signed a secret pact with Louis not to aid George II. The treaty with Russia which the English ambassador had confidently expected, never happened. Lia took a very strong liking to this highly pampered feminine lifestyle, and the intriguing young new French Lady-in-Waiting did not lack for male admirers within the Russian court, although the French Foreign Ministry noted that D'Eon slept (i.e. shared a bed) with a young lady who was later to become the Princess d'Askoff. D'Eon behaved as chaste and innocent female virgin toward his bedmate since his main interest lay in keeping his secret.
Soon d'Eon was back in Paris to report his incredible success. But almost unbelievably, only the next year he was re-dispatched to Moscow by Louis XV in his male role - fulfilling the position of Assistant to the Ambassador. He was introduced to the Russian court as the brother (some reports say uncle) of the girl, Lia, that he had posed as the previous year!
D'Eon proceeded to be both Charles at the French Embassy and his sister (or niece), "Lia", at the Russian Court, carving (for those few important people in the know back in France) an enviable reputation as a spy in the process! He stayed in Russia for five years but in 1761, when it was believed in Paris that his double life was about to be exposed, Louis recalled d'Eon to France and bestowed upon him a large annuity. The next year the King's favourite spy was appointed a captain of the elite Dragoons.
The Seven Years' War, which had started in back 1756, was now nearing its end and d'Eon only had time to fight in one major campaign - he served with the French army on the Rhine as aide-de-camp to the Marshal de Brogue. However he showed courage and skill, and also was wounded in the head and thigh. For his services and help in the Franco-Russian peace negotiations, d'Eon was to be awarded at the age of just 35 the rare Cross of Saint-Louis. The Cross raised him in noble rank - he was now known as the "Chevalier d'Eon".
In September 1762 Louis XV sent d'Eon to England, as a man, to secretly learn what terms would be acceptable to the English in ending the Seven Years' War. D'Eon apparently accomplished this mission by disguising himself as a woman and encouraging a British officer serving the Duke of Bedford to get drunk, and then stealing from him papers which revealed England's intentions.
Soon afterwards the Duc de Nivernaisin - who had headed the French Embassy to England - returned to France, and undoubtedly in part to d'Eon's efforts the war ended with the signing of the "Treaty of Paris" in February 1763. Louis then sent d'Eon - who had been Secretary to the Embassy - back to England, first as Resident Agent and then as Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of Great Britain (effectively a temporary ambassador). At the same time he continued to work as a spy for the King, he was to secretly get information from high-ranking British officers about England's armies and also deliver reports to Versailles that detailed England's coastal defences. Louis XV - who planned to invade England - urgently needed this information and d'Eon had perhaps reached the peak of his career.
Both Charles and his supposed sister Lia quickly became an accepted part of the English Court (perhaps even the lover of Queen Sophia-Charlotte, wife of King George III) and of the social scene around London, but of course they were never seen together! Charles' lifestyle was sumptuous, he enjoyed fully his high position and he spent much money to create the right connections with English counts, dukes, and lords. From vineyards in his own estate or neighbouring districts he imported and gave away as gifts Burgundian wine. This generosity made him very popular among aristocratic wine connoisseurs but it, and the need to maintain two separate lifestyles, was costly. Unfortunately Lia's feminine lifestyle was perhaps even more costly than Charles masculine one, and soon d'Eon was deeply in debt. When the French Foreign Minister refused to pay the bills d'Eon began using his position to gather powerful documents on France, including some of the country's most dangerous secrets. He accumulated these as ammunition, putting them aside in a private cache, they would also allow him the luxury of being very impudent to the new ambassador when he arrived ... .
D'Eon had not been long in his important position as Minister Plenipotentiary when he lost the favour of his sovereign, chiefly - according to his own account - through the adverse influence of Madame de Pompadour, who was jealous of him as a secret correspondent of the King. Louis still liked to amuse himself by carrying on secret schemes of fantastic diplomacy through subordinate agents, behind the backs and without the knowledge of his responsible ministers. The Duc de Choiseul, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Marshal de Belle-Isle, Minister of War, were both kept in the dark, as was perhaps more importantly Madame de Pompadour.
D'Eon was thus soon superseded by the Comte de Guerchy and was informed that he would have to give up the title of Plenipotentiary Minister. D’Eon showed his irritation by denying the genuineness of the Comte's letter of appointment and complaining of his treatment to a number of influential friends. But nobody helped him. In October 1763 he refused to follow orders to leave England. Apparently d'Eon was afraid that he would be kidnapped and taken to France and in a letter to Louis XV he claimed that the Comte de Guerchy had tried to have him poisoned: "Subsequently I have discovered that M. de Guerchy caused opium, if nothing worse, to be put in my wine, calculating that after dinner I should fall into a heavy sleep, that they would put me, still asleep, onto a couch and, instead of my being carried home, I should be carried down to the Thames where probably there was a boat waiting ready to abduct me." Indeed d'Eon raised an action against Guerchy for the alleged attempt to poison him. Guerchy, on the other hand, had previously commenced an action against d’Eon for libel, founded on the publication by the latter of certain state documents of which he had possession in his official capacity. Both parties succeeded in so far as a true bill was found against Guerchy for the attempt to murder, though by pleading his privilege as Ambassador he escaped a trial, and d’Eon was found guilty of the libel. Failing to come up for judgment before the court in France when called upon, he was outlawed.
In retaliation for the Ambassadors ploys, d'Eon used his secret diplomatic documents and in 1764 published them along with his observations in a book called Lettres, mémoires, et négociations particuliéres, which became a best seller in Europe while throwing the courts of both France and England into horror and confusion. The book made d'Eon famous, however, he did not publish in it the King's secret plan to invade England which perhaps saved his life.
In 1766 a forgiving Louis XV granted d'Eon an annual pension of 12,000 livres for the services that he had rendered to the King in Russia in the army and other commissions. D'Eon continued to work as a spy, but he also had another hobby - books. During his London residency he spent much of his time and money on his library, which eventually contained some 6,000 books and 500 rare manuscripts.
Also in 1766, in another small twist of his complicated and secretive life, d'Eon became a Freemason in the Lodge of Immortality, No. 376, which met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, London, England. He served as a Junior Warden in 1769 and 1770.
In 1770, rumours as to the sex of d’Eon began to excite public interest, they probably originated from stories about his first residence at St Petersburg disguised as a lady (when some in France suspected that he was a hermaphrodite), but other possible sources include the French Ambassador and Cockrell, the Queen’s Assistant at the English Court. The word spread around London that the famous Burgundian Chevalier d'Eon was actually a woman and bets began to be laid on the subject. D'Eon's behaviour was not considered effeminate, he looked like a man, and wore his uniform of a French Dragoon captain. But the continuing regular appearances of Lia, who was now known to actually be the Chevalier, hardly helped matters and on more than one occasion she/he was ridiculed for his female dress, wigs and makeup. D'Eon responded by fighting several duels that he easily won through his expert wielding of rapiers. But the rumours about his true sex did not help d'Eon's work in the King's Service.
In 1774 d'Eon published in Amsterdam another book called Les Loisirs du Chevalier d’Eon, which further stimulated gossip. Indeed, he stirred such commotion that eventually some £300,000 (an incredible sum in those days) was wagered in England alone, and an offer of £6000 was made to anyone that could uncover d'Eon's true sex. The bets were even traded on the London Stock Exchange! Finally in 1777 an insurance company filed a suit for the recovery of one of these bets, which brought the question to the Court of the King's Bench for adjudication - whether the wagers had to be paid off and who was to win. Witnesses testified that d'Eon was a woman, but the court could not call on the chevalier to provide proof one way or the other as he had returned to France just a month before (some sources say a month afterwards - which seems rather improbable). Although the presiding Lord Mansfield finally ruled that d’Eon was female, there were clearly still some grounds for doubt as to his or her actual physical sex and many bets were to remain unresolved and unpaid until after d'Eon's death some thirty years later.
Louis XV's death in 1774 the new King, Louis XVI, called d'Eon back to
France for the purpose of acquiring d'Eon's stolen document collection and
permanently removing the embarrassing Chevalier from the scene. The
deeply in debt d'Eon reacted by sending messages from his secret London
hideaway to Paris trying to blackmail the new King by threatening to
disclose his spying activities. He demanded that Louis XVI bestow a
considerable amount of money on him, as well as provide his written
guarantee that he would be protected from his enemies in France before he
gave up his office. Unless his terms were met, d'Eon threatened that
he would reveal to the English all his secret correspondence with Louis XV,
and the clandestine French plans to invade England. This set a royal
dilemma as the new King had been making secret overtures to be on friendlier
terms again with the English, as the cost of various wars was crippling the
French (and other) economies.
In April 1775 Louis XVI sent his top agent, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, to England to negotiate the release of the sensitive documents. For the attempted blackmail the Chevalier should have gone to prison, and Charles could not allow his advisors to see there was no punishment - so a unique solution was found which conformed to d'Eon's own demand that the government publicly recognise him as a woman. The Chevalier would be paid for spying services rendered, a sum of money more than adequate to cover all his debts, and he would be allowed to return to France and live there freely - providing he did so ONLY as a woman! His prison sentence was only suspended in case he tried to revert to being Charles, and with this threat hanging over him, he would cause the King no further trouble. This solution provided a further safeguard because even when 'she' was back in France, Charles could not readily dare risk the discovery by the English of 'his' duality and 'her' high level spying.
D'Eon accepted the king's royal guarantee of safety and an amount of money that would be used to pay the spy's creditors, also his old pension of 12,000 livres was restored (with interest for missed payments) and to paid quarterly. He then turned over the secret documents and in 1777, age 49, returned to France to live out his life in France as a woman in accordance with the secret edict that Louis had decreed: "Charles Genevieve Louise Augusta Timothee d'Eon de Beaumont is hereby commanded to lay aside the uniform of a dragoon, which he had been in the habit of affecting, and resume the garments of her sex; and is forbidden to appear in any part of our kingdom in any other garments than those suitable to a female". By the end of 1777 d'Eon was legally a woman in both and England and France - no longer a Chevalièr but a Chevalière!
D'Eon was granted funds for the expensive wardrobe required by a lady of fashion, and Marie-Antoinette sent Mademoiselle D'Eon some corsetters, courtiers and maids to wait on her. The French Queen further insisted that D'Eon be the centre of interest wherever s/he went, to be presented at court, and be invited to the drawing rooms of the foremost hostesses of Paris and Versailles. In pictures of the period he is often depicted in relatively comfortable clothes, skirts, and low heels instead of high heels of women. On his left breast d'Eon always carried the Cross of Saint-Louis.
At first all this suited D'Eon quite well, but the next year - when France joined the American War of Independence against Britain - d'Eon sent letters to the French Foreign Minister requesting permission to give up 'her' petticoats and instead be sent to America to continue 'his' military service. The order was not rescinded, indeed for daring to defy the King he was taken to a dungeon beneath the Château of Dijon where he spent nineteen days. D'Eon was released on the condition that he returned to his hometown of Tonnerre and renew his promise to dress as a woman for the rest of his life. The following six years he lived mostly with his mother at the family's home in Tonnerre. Christian faith, especially Jansenist ideas, became important in his life.
As "Lia's" years went by and the need for secrecy passed, the conditions became increasingly onerous to the Chevalier, and time and again this swash buckling hero appeared at the palace of Versailles in breeches, only to be whisked off by the palace guards and re-dressed in ladies' clothes - often tied in such a way that Lia found them almost impossible to get off again without the aid of servants.
In 1785 d'Eon was again found in violation of his agreement after he was seen riding across the grounds of his estate in his old dragoons uniform. He was ordered to never again move about unless he was dressed as female.
The same year, four years before the French Revolution, d'Eon was given permission to visit London in order to put his affairs there in order, and for the purpose of bringing back his library and other property. Hinted in this was the possibility of other undisclosed documents, potentially embarrassing to France. So France effectively sent d'Eon on his/her way, along with a gift of 6000 livres. Setting up house again in London, d'Eon would spend the rest of his life of his life in England. England was for him "a country more free than Holland and well worthy of being visited by a man of thought and lover of liberty...". D'Eon chose to arrive as "Lia", perhaps surprising after all his regular rebellions against skirts in France, which had caused him so many problems. Indeed "Charles" was never to re-appear, d'Eon living the last twenty years of his life entirely as a woman, ironically d'Eon had finally made a gender choice in favour of the fair sex just when the march of time was making him far less passable as a woman. When Horace Walpole met d'Eon in 1786 he found him loud, noisy, and vulgar - "her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes, but are fitter to carry a chair than a fan." And James Boswell wrote that "she appeared to me a man in woman's clothes."
D'Eon helped supported himself by opening up a successful fencing school. But he cut an odd figure while teaching young Englishmen the art of swordplay - he was at all times dressed as a woman. In 1787, d'Eon sought extra income by challenging to a duel a champion swordsman also from France and living in London at the time. The match took place at Carlton House in London on the 9th April before an audience of the Prince of Wales and many members of the fashionable sporting world. Though nearly sixty and now rather corpulent, d'Eon triumphed over a competitor twenty years his junior while wearing three tiers of skirts and a lady's lace cap.
After this victory D'Eon gathered a small supporting company of fencers and began to tour the provinces giving displays of skill in packed public halls.
In 1789, with the outbreak of the French Revolution, d'Eon's pension ceased and despite selling his huge library to cover part of his debts he spent seven months in debtors prison.
In 1795 D'Eon made the acquaintance of a Mrs Mary Cole, whose husband had been an admiral, and they were to keep house together for the next fifteen years.
In August 1796 D'Eon's small company was performing in Southampton, where an opponent's broken foil pierced his side. Badly wounded, he was bedridden for two years and was never to recover his strength. Sadly d'Eon's last years were largely spent in poverty and misery. In 1792 he strangely sent a letter to France to the National Assembly and volunteered "to fight and die for the nation, the Law, and the King", and to lead a division of women soldiers against Austria. In 1805 he signed a contract for his autobiography, entitled La Pucelle de Tonnerre, but this was never published.
D'Eon passed away peacefully in his bed on May 21, 1810, after having spent about 49 years living mostly as a man, and then another 33 years living as a woman. Upon his death, a number of English gentlemen insisted that the 81-year-old body of d'Eon be examined to settle long-standing wagers as to whether or not he was a woman. Most lost the bet. The coroner who examined the corpse sadly reported that the clever French spy was not a hermaphrodite or a woman but was, and had always been, a man. However he also reported:
It was only now that d’Eon’s friend, Mrs Cole, discovered (perhaps an unlikely and belated revelation) that her housemate of so many years was in fact a man.
D'Eon was buried in St. Pancras cemetery in England where his/her tombstone is still present today.
D'Eon had been a spy in the world of international politics but the final years of his life he spent in the world of women, dying peacefully during his self-created mission. Perhaps to protect the reputation of his lady friend(s) who trusted him, he did not reveal his true gender. It is noteworthy (although probably just co-incidence) that d'Eon lived through the period during which Voltaire (1694-1778) questioned the doctrines of the Church, and Rousseau (1712-1788) declared "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains". The ancien régime was destroyed in the French Revolution, and Napoleonic Wars spread the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Although d'Eon did not share the views of the later revolutionary leaders, Marat, Danton or Roberpierre, he greeted with enthusiasm the storming of the Bastille and its message of freedom. He admired the patron saint of Amazonian women, Joan of Arc, but while she had equipped herself with armour, d'Eon wore a dress - both of them challenging traditional gender roles.
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