Chevalier d'Éon (1728–1810)
Note: the 19th-century biography below preserves a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
D'ÉON DE BEAUMONT, CHARLES GENEVIÈVE LOUIS AUGUSTE ANDRÉ TIMOTHÉE (1728–1810), chevalier, of an old family ranking among the minor nobility, was born at Tonnerre in Burgundy on 5 Oct. and baptised on 7 Oct. 1728. The date is fixed by his baptismal certificate and corroborated by an autograph note by D'Éon, but the inscription on his coffin gave the date of his birth as 17 Oct. 1727. Although baptised as a boy, it would appear that there were congenital doubts of the sex of the infant, which is said—on perhaps insufficient authority—to have been put into girl's clothes at a very early age, and to have been, when three years old, publicly dedicated to the Virgin Mary under the feminine names of Charlotte Geneviève Louise Augusta Timothea, to which the name of Marie was added by the Archbishop of Seurre, when the child was confirmed. Up to the age of seven D'Éon wore the distinctive colours of Our Lady, though whether as a boy or girl is uncertain. Thenceforward his education was as a boy. He pursued his studies with diligence, took in due time the degree of doctor of law, and had probably some intention of practising as a lawyer, from which he would seem to have been diverted by the death of his father in 1749 and his being left in very reduced circumstances. He had, however, influential friends, among whom were the Prince de Conti, the Abbé (afterwards Cardinal) de Bernis, and the Marshal de Belle-Isle; and, after a few years, during which he seems to have held some employment as a secretary, he was in 1755 sent to St. Petersburg as a secret agent of the king and of the Prince de Conti, who was at that time at the head of the secret correspondence. The details of this mission are quite uncertain, but there is reason to believe that in carrying it out D'Éon resumed woman's clothes, and was received by the Empress Elizabeth as a woman (Gaillardet, p. 15). It has been said that he held for some months an appointment as the empress's lectrice; and, whether as lectrice or lecteur, was mainly instrumental in bringing Russia into the alliance then forming between France and Austria. In June 1756 he returned to France, carrying a private letter from Elizabeth to Louis XV, as well as her public consent to receive a French representative; and was shortly afterwards sent back to Russia as an attaché of the legation. In April 1757 he again left St. Petersburg with private letters from the empress to Maria Theresa and Louis XV, and, being at Vienna when the news of the battle of Prague (6 May) arrived, was immediately despatched by the French minister to carry the important news to Versailles. He executed the mission with extraordinary celerity, and, although his coach was upset and his leg broken, he reached his destination thirty-six hours before the special courier sent to the Austrian ambassador. His zeal was rewarded by the present of a gold snuff-box with the king's portrait, a gratuity in money, and a commission as lieutenant of dragoons. D'Éon was detained in Paris for some months by his broken leg, but in September he was sent back to St. Petersburg as secretary to the embassy, and was also instructed to correspond secretly with the king. He remained at St. Petersburg till August 1760, and, though the principal evidence of his exceptional merits is contained in a volume of ‘Lettres, Mémoires et Négociations particulières,’ published by himself in 1764, it incidentally appears from other writers that he won the favour both of the French ambassador, the Marquis de l'Hôpital, of Woronzoff, the Russian chancellor, and of the empress herself. He had meantime, in 1758, been promoted to the rank of captain of dragoons, and had found time to write and publish a small work bearing the imposing title of ‘Considérations historiques sur les Impôts des Egyptiens, des Babyloniens, des Perses, des Grecs, des Romains, et sur les différentes situations de la France par rapport aux finances depuis l'établissement des Francs dans la Gaule jusqu' à présent’ (2 tom. 12mo, 1758).
On his return to Paris he was laid up with a severe attack of small-pox, but the following year he was appointed on the staff of the Marshal de Broglie, and served in that capacity through the campaign of 1761. It was his only military service, and, though creditable in a high degree, cannot be considered as entitling him to pose, as he afterwards did, as, before all, a soldier. In September 1762, when the Duke de Nivernais was sent to England on a special mission to settle the preliminaries of the peace, D'Éon accompanied him as secretary; and in the following February was sent over to Paris with the ratification of the definite treaty. On this occasion, in addition to a handsome gratuity in money, the king conferred on him the cross of St. Louis, and he was sent back to London with the understanding that, as the Duke de Nivernais was returning to France, he was to continue there as chargé d'affaires until the arrival of the new ambassador, Count de Guerchy. But he also had instructions to continue the secret correspondence with the king, through the medium of the Count de Broglie and M. Tercier, a clerk in the ministry of foreign affairs. In this latter capacity he had to examine into and report on the details of a scheme for the invasion of England, which had been submitted by the Count de Broglie; and in this way a number of papers of the greatest importance and most compromising nature came into his hands. This, and the rank of minister plenipotentiary, which, on a question of precedence, was conferred on him, would seem to have swelled his vanity to an inordinate pitch. He launched out into expenses suitable, as he considered, to his exalted rank, and, when M. de Guerchy arrived, refused either to accept his orders of recall or to give up the papers with which he had been entrusted. He demanded that his private debts should be paid, that his expenses during his residence in England should be charged to De Guerchy, and—in terms more or less explicit—that his recall should be signed by the king, not merely stamped. In this he was to some extent warranted by a secret letter from the king, directing him to resume the dress of a woman and to withdraw from public notice, but to remain in England and to take care that none of the letters or papers connected with the secret correspondence should fall into other hands (autograph letter, Boutaric, i. 298). He remained in England, and he clung to the papers, both of the secret and of his official correspondence; but he did not put on a woman's dress, nor did he withdraw from the public position into which he had thrust himself. On the contrary, he devoted himself to a remarkably venomous correspondence with the Duke de Praslin, and still more with the Count de Guerchy, the copies of which, as afterwards published by D'Éon, are almost incredible, even though the authenticity of some of them is vouched for by the Duke de Broglie (Le Secret du Roi, ii. 129). The quarrel which followed appears in its modern presentment extremely grotesque, but was at the time extremely bitter, and culminated in D'Éon swearing that De Guerchy had attempted to hocus him and had bribed a certain Vergy to murder him while under the influence of the narcotic or at some other time. He supported the allegation by an affidavit obtained from Vergy, and De Guerchy was accordingly indicted for an attempt against D'Éon's life. The grand jury brought in a true bill, and D'Éon was jubilant. ‘That poisoner and scoundrel, Guerchy,’ he wrote to his patron, the Count de Broglie, ‘would be broken on the wheel, if justice was done to him in France; but here, in England, by God's mercy, he will only be hanged. … He will be thrown into the felon's gaol, and his friend Praslin may get him out if he can. As far as I see the only friend that can get him out will be the hangman.’ After all, however, it was held that the court had no jurisdiction, and the case was quashed, though the mob expressed itself very violently in favour of D'Éon, stopped De Guerchy's carriage, from which De Guerchy narrowly escaped, and smashed the windows of his house. It was several days before the ambassador or any of his family could venture outside. He then applied for leave and went over to France, leaving D'Éon master of the situation. The Count de Broglie was commissioned to negotiate with him, as though with an independent power; but it was not till after the death of Louis XV (10 May 1774) and the consequent revelation to the ministry of the secret correspondence, that definite steps were taken to settle the long-vexed question. To this end Beaumarchais was sent over to London, and eventually succeeded in bringing D'Éon to terms. His claims on the government, which he put at 14,000l. sterling, were brought down to 5,000l., and this sum was paid to Lord Ferrers, who, by a private understanding with D'Éon, held the papers in nominal pawn, and which he now surrendered. Finally all the papers, secret or otherwise, were given up; D'Éon entered into an agreement to seek no further quarrel, judicial or personal, with De Guerchy; he was to receive a pension of twelve thousand livres, or about 500l., a year; and was ordered to wear woman's clothes, on compliance with which the payment of the pension depended. The exact meaning of this order to resume woman's clothes cannot now be understood; for though it had been strongly suspected that D'Éon was a woman, and bets on the subject had been freely made, the fact was certainly not then verified, nor does the French government appear to have troubled itself about the truth or falsehood of the allegations. It was probably thought that they afforded a ready means of preventing any further mischief and of effectually taming an unruly spirit.
The news that D'Éon was on the point of returning to France spread dismay among those who had speculated on his sex. It appeared that the ‘policies,’ as they were called, amounted to upwards of 120,000l., payable on his being proved to be a woman; and though many holders of these ‘policies’ were willing to forfeit their interest rather than to come before the public as having engaged in such a disreputable sort of gambling, there were some who fancied they had a legal claim to satisfaction, and were disposed to insist on it. One Hayes, a surgeon, had paid to a broker, named Jacques, fifteen guineas, on the condition of receiving back fifteen hundred guineas whenever it should be proved that D'Éon was a woman. In June 1777 he maintained that he could prove it. The case was tried before Lord Mansfield, who charged the jury to the effect that the wager was not illegal, and the question for them to decide from the evidence was who had won. The jury gave a verdict for the plaintiff (Gent. Mag. xlvii. 346); and though it was afterwards decided that the ‘policy’ was legally invalid, the decision of the jury was thus recorded that the evidence before them was sufficient to prove D'Éon to be a woman. On 13 Aug. 1777 he left London, and a few days later presented himself at Versailles in his uniform as captain of dragoons. This brought on him an order ‘to resume the garments of her sex,’ forbidding him ‘to appear in any part of the kingdom in any other garments than those proper for a woman’ (19 Aug. 1777). He obtained, however, a short respite. He had no such clothes suitable to appear at court, and the queen was pleased to order him a complete outfit. On 21 Oct. the dresses were ready, and the transformation took place under the superintendence of Mlle. Bertin, one of the ladies-in-waiting. ‘She—D'Éon—was anointed with fragrant perfumes, her hair was curled, and a magnificent headdress put on her; her gown, petticoats, and stockings were of the richest materials, and she was adorned with bracelets, a necklace, earrings, and rings. … In this quality she was presented at court, and there compelled to remain two years that she might become moulded into her new condition’ (Telfer, p. 292). She was naturally a little awkward at first, as well as masculine in her speech and manners, concerning which many stories were put in circulation. On one occasion, it is said, she was asked by a lady if she would not regret her former condition and her arms, in case she wanted to demand satisfaction for any insult. ‘I have already considered this matter,’ she answered, ‘when I quitted my hat and sword; I own it gave me some concern; but I said to myself, what does it signify? I may do as much perhaps with my slipper.’
When the war with England broke out in 1778, D'Éon petitioned to be allowed to resume masculine attire, and to serve as a volunteer in the fleet. His petition was summarily refused, and in the course of the following year he went to Tonnerre, where his mother was still living. He seems to have resided there for the next six years, and in 1785 to have promptly availed himself of a permission to return to England. France had become distasteful to him, and he had many friends in England. On 9 April 1787 he appeared in public in an assault of arms, in which he specially distinguished himself by his dexterity in fencing, a dexterity which his feminine attire seemed to exaggerate.
It is unnecessary here to enter on an account of the pecuniary difficulties in which he was entangled, and which compelled him to exhibit in public as a means of livelihood. His distress culminated when the French Revolution put an end to his pension, leaving him without other support than what he derived from these exhibitions of fencing. On 26 Aug. 1796, being then sixty-eight years of age, he received a severe wound in the armpit, extending about four inches, and inflicted by a foil of which the button was accidentally broken. From the effects of this wound he seems never to have recovered, and to have been confined to the house, if not to his bed, for the remainder of his life, during which time he was supported partly by the sale of trinkets and curiosities in his possession, and partly by the charity of a wide circle of friends. He died 21 May 1810, and it was then—on laying out the body—discovered that he was a man. In the thirty-three years that had elapsed since he had been ordered to wear woman's attire, the doubts as to his sex had been almost forgotten; a Mrs. Cole, a woman of about the same age as D'Éon, and with whom he had lived for many years, had no suspicion of the fact, which, however, seems to be placed beyond doubt by the attested certificate of the surgeon who made a post-mortem examination of the body, and ‘found the male organs in every respect perfectly formed.’ And yet the body seems to have had many feminine characteristics. It is described as presenting ‘unusual roundness in the formation of the limbs. The throat was by no means masculine; breast remarkably full; arms, hands, and fingers those of a stout female; legs and feet corresponding with the arms.’ He was buried in the churchyard of St. Pancras, where a plain slab marked the spot, till 1868, when it was removed and lost or destroyed in carrying out works connected with the Midland Railway.
During his long life D'Éon was an inveterate scribbler, and left behind him a large number of manuscripts, many of which are now in the British Museum (Add. 11339–41, 29993–4). He published also several books and pamphlets, some historical, but for the most part relating to his quarrel with De Guerchy and his correspondence with his government. His ‘Considérations historiques sur les Impôts des Egyptiens,’ &c. has been already mentioned. Another work which may be named is entitled ‘Les Loisirs du Chevalier d'Éon de Beaumont … sur divers sujets importans d'Administration … pendant son séjour en Angleterre’ (13 vols. 8vo, Amsterdam, 1774). He left also, in manuscript, ‘Mémoires … pour servir à la vie du Comte de Vauban …,’ with a characteristic note that ‘the Chevalière d'Éon had been long engaged on this work; but her various occupations, military and political—sans compter les querelles d'Allemans et la guerre civile et incivile qu'elle a soutenue pendant de longues années en Angleterre—had filled up her best years; and she was now too old to finish an undertaking so important.’
D'Éon's portrait, as man, as woman, or as half man, half woman (London Magazine, September 1777), was frequently painted or engraved. Photographic copies of three of these are given by Telfer: one in woman's dress, at the age of twenty-five (also given by Gaillardet); one in military uniform, painted in 1770; and one in woman's dress, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1777. A well-known caricature by Gillray depicts the assault of arms at Carlton House in 1787; in the foreground ‘the Chevalière d'Éon making a successful thrust, and hitting Saint George in his right arm.’
[The Strange Career of the Chevalier D'Éon de Beaumont, by Capt. J. B. Telfer, R.N. (1885); Mémoires sur la Chevalière d'Éon, par F. Gaillardet (1866); Le Secret du Roi, par le Duc de Broglie (1878); Correspondance secrète inédite de Louis XV, par M. E. Boutaric (1866); Lettres, Mémoires et Négociations particulières du Chevalier d'Éon (4to, 1764); Catalogue of the scarce books and valuable manuscripts of the Chevalière d'Éon … which will be publicly sold by Mr. Christie … on (Thursday, 5 May and following days) 1791, with a preface containing ‘an interesting narrative of the very extraordinary case of Mlle. d'Éon;’ Notes and Queries, 4th series, vol. ii. passim. The literature on the subject of D'Éon is very extensive; some of it is catalogued by Telfer. See also the Catalogue of the Brit. Mus., where the name is given under Éon.]
J. K. L.