Is it a man or a woman? Until the end of his life, the identity of Charles d’Éon de Beaumont was a mystery. So much so that this spy – one of the most talented of his century – fascinated his contemporaries … and still fascinates today. Born in Tonnerre, Yonne, in 1728, and died in London in 1810, D’Éon spent half his life dressed as a gentleman … and the rest as a lady. He would even eventually be renamed the Signet Ring of Aeon.
It was not entirely unusual for men to disguise themselves at the court of Versailles. A few decades earlier, Philippe d´Orléans, brother of Louis XIV, better known under the name of Monsieur, did not hide to put on jewelry, adornments and pretty dresses. “When I arrived at the Louvre, Monsieur was dressed as a girl, with blond hair; the Queen told me he looked like me, “writes his cousin, the great Mademoiselle. However, Philippe d´Orléans had wives and children, and was completely identified as male. The case of the Knight of Aeon is more unique in history, because it goes beyond the simple taste of cross-dressing.
Perhaps to feed his own legend, the Chevalier d’Éon writes in his Memoirs, Les Loisirs du chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont, that at birth, the doctor was unable to determine his sex, as it was covered of fetal material. As if from the first minutes of its existence, it had been a mystery. Rather puny, young Charles is no less brilliant. Very young, he distinguished himself by his gift for writing and public speaking. He also became a lawyer at the Parliament of Paris. He is also noted for his sword handling. Another of his strengths: D’Éon knows how to surround himself and choose his relationships. He is also very close to Prince de Conti, cousin of Louis XV, who engages him in “the Secret of the King”, the first espionage firm created in France. D’Éon will quickly prove to be the best part of it.
For his first mission, he was sent to Saint Petersburg, in order to convince Czarina Elisabeth to join France. In cold Russia, D’Éon presents himself to the sovereign in feminine attire. This one does not seem fooled, but is charmed by the personality of this extravagant. So much so that she wants to keep him by her side. The signet ring of Aeon then became the Tsarina’s regular reader, but also, according to some stubborn rumors, her lover… or her mistress. No one knows it very well anymore. In any case, D’Éon obtains from Elisabeth’s hand a treaty of alliance with Louis XV. Mission accomplished. To thank him, the king offers the knight a post of captain in the army. But wounded on the battlefield, the latter quickly became a spy again.
He must then leave for London, as “secretary of the French embassy for the conclusion of general peace”, in order to work on the signing of a treaty. But the mission of the Knight of Aeon is quite different: he must actually prepare a plan to invade the United Kingdom. When a few months after his arrival, the French ambassador to Great Britain fell ill, D’Éon immediately took his place. He then began to lead great train, organizing the most sumptuous receptions in London. All the aristocracy flock to his house, and even King George III adores him. D’Éon even seems to have forgotten his primary mission, spending lavishly, but never working again. He is then disowned by Louis XV, who withdraws his functions.
Fallen into oblivion, D’Éon, who until then appeared in London in male attire, decides to dress as a woman again … and therefore claims to have always been one. History is making the headlines in the social gazettes. Bets are even made to guess the true gender of the Knight of Aeon. In the salons of London, we don’t talk about that anymore, so much so that the rumor reaches Paris and goes back to the ears of the king. The latter then asks, by a letter, his former spy to certify his gender. The knight answers without hesitation that he is a woman.
In 1775, the new king, Louis XVI, became concerned about the fate of the signet ring of Aeon. He asks Beaumarchais, the famous playwright, to travel to London to have the former spy deliver him “top secret” documents. The writer will stay for many months with D’Éon, whose charm and wit he appreciates. So much so that it is claimed that they are having an affair.
After that, D’Éon wants to return to Versailles. But he can only appear there dressed as a woman, as Louis XV had enacted in his time. So here is the knight taken at his own game. He who had simply wanted to be noticed can no longer part with his dresses and his jewels, which are much less suited to him with age, it must be admitted. Rather than being ridiculed at court, where people laugh at his looks, he prefers to take refuge in his native lands, in Tonnerre.
Ruined, he returns to live in London, where he finds a room to rent with a woman just as miserable as himself. D’Éon hasn’t changed into his men’s clothes for several years now. He is now unrecognizable, in the guise of an old rombière. He takes advantage of his free time to write his Memoirs. Paralyzed and bedridden, he died at the age of 81, on May 21, 1810. His roommate, undressing him to do his mortuary grooming, then discovered in astonishment the masculine attributes of his faithful friend. The next day, a doctor is called to authenticate what had until then been a mystery. The rumor then spread quickly in London, but also in Paris: the signet ring of Aeon was therefore really a man.
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