Georgian Celebrities – The Chevalier d’Eon
Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (later known as Charlotte Genevieve Louise Auguste Andree Timothee d’Eon de Beaumont) was born on 5th October 1728 in Tonnerre, Burgundy son of Louis d’Éon de Beaumont, attorney and director of the king’s dominions, and Françoise de Charanton. As he grew up, d’Éon excelled at his studies. His slight, adrogynous physique led to him being known as ‘petit d’Éon’.
In 1756 d’Éon joined a network of spies called Le Secret du Roi who worked directly for King Louis XV, without the knowledge of the government, and sometimes against official policies and treaties. D’Éon was sent on a secret mission to Russia to meet with the Empress Elizabeth and liaise with the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchs. D’Éon disguised himself as a woman (Lea de Beaumont) to do so, and even became a maid of honour to the Empress in this guise. At the time the English would only allow women and children across the border into Russia. Given the delicate nature of the work, d’Éon had to convince everyone that he was a woman or face execution. In 1761, d’Éon returned to France and became a captain of dragoons. In 1762 he was sent to London to draft the peace treaty which was signed in Paris 10 February 1763. D’Éon later became an ambassador to London and was involved in a scandal during which he accused his successor, the Count of Guerchy of attempting to murder him. In 1766, Louis XV granted D’Éon a pension of 12,000 livres a year for his services. D’Éon continued to work as a spy, but lived in political exile in London. He possessed secret letters which protected him against action by the king but he could not return to France.
There were constant rumors that D’Éon 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 that an examination would dishonour him. After a year without progress, the wager was abandoned. In 1774, after the death of Louis XV, d’Éon tried to negotiate a return from exile. The resulting agreement permitted D’Éon to return to France and keep his ministerial pension, but required that he turn over the secret correspondence he held.
On his return to Frnace, d’Éon declared he really was a woman, and demanded recognition by the government as such. He claimed to have been born anatomically female, but said he had been raised as a boy because Louis d’Éon de Beaumont could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. King Louise XVI complied, but demanded that d’Éon dress appropriately and wear women’s clothing. He agreed, especially when the king granted him 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. In 1779, d’Éon published his memoirs ‘La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d’Éon’.
He returned to England in 1785. The pension which had been granted by Louis XV was lost during the French Revolution. In 1792, he sent a letter to the National Assembly, offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs but his offer was refused. D’Éon participated in fencing tournaments until being seriously wounded in 1796.
In 1804 d’Éon was imprisoned for debt but released in 1805, upon which a contract was signed for his autobiography. The book was never published, because d’Éon became paralysed following a fall. His final years were spent bedridden, and on 21 May 1810 he died in poverty in London at the age of 82. Doctors who examined his body after death confirmed that the Chevalier was anatomically male.