The Mystery of Chevalier d’Eon

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Contradictions, eh?

Life is full of them, but it’s rare to find so many in one place, at one time, and in one person.

Le Chevalier d’Eon was both a diplomat and a soldier; born noble, yet later impoverished; an international celebrity, but also a clandestine spy.

And, throughout the course of her life, d’Eon lived as both a man and a woman—she was the first openly transgender person in European history. 1

By many accounts, d’Eon appears to have perpetuated much of the mystery herself, becoming the subject of great public fascination, particularly in London, where she spent much of her life.

But who was she, and what drove her to become a social pioneer? She was certainly not the first person to have questioned the identity assigned to them at birth. And d’Eon lived in the 18th century when, let’s just say, a lot of people weren’t exactly hip to alternative lifestyles. But d’Eon didn’t just survive her swim against the social tides of the time—she masterfully played her identity to her advantage, and became an icon in the process.

Ostrich-feather hat? Nice.

Before we move on, a brief note about pronouns: since D’Eon lived as both a man and a woman at various times throughout their life, my attempt here will be to use whichever pronoun seems most appropriate, by considering what d’Eon’s preference may have been at the time.

Let’s Start from the Beginning

On October 5, 1728, d’Eon was born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont. 1

I know what you’re thinking: “Holy shit, that’s a lot of names.” You’re not wrong! For brevity’s sake, let’s stick with d’Eon. But, for just a moment, it’s worth nothing that d’Eon’s six forenames are of the typically male variety. D’Eon was born to a family of aristocrats in Burgundy—as a boy.

A young d’Eon.

D’Eon’s early life was unremarkable—living as a young man, he studied in Paris and took advantage of some of that sweet, sweet aristocratic nepotism to get a foot in the door as a civil servant. And he did damn well, rising through the ranks toute de suite. By 1756, he got a nice little job lined up. It was nothing big, he just became the …

Ambassador to Russia

Yeah. What were you doing when you were 28 years old?

It was a pretty impressive gig for someone who hadn’t yet hit 30, but that’s not even the half of it. The job was just a cover for something even cooler: spycraft.

At some point early in his career—these things weren’t exactly done on the books, you see—d’Eon was recruited for King Louis XV’s secret network of spies. Le Secret du Roi—the King’s Secret—was relatively new, having been established in the 1740s. Unlike the Rhonda Byrne book, this Secret wasn’t about vision boards. It was about placing Louis XV’s cousin Prince de Conti on the Polish throne, effectively creating a French satellite state. 1

D’Eon’s mission, should he choose to accept it (actually, it was probably mandatory—French monarchical despotism, and all that) was to infiltrate the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth as an ambassador, and start pulling those marionette strings.

Up to this point, it appears d’Eon had been living entirely as a man. But, by some accounts, d’Eon’s time in the court of Empress Elizabeth may have been d’Eon’s first exposure to cross dressing. The Empress often hosted her famous Metamorphoses Balls, in which every attendant was expected to wear a dress. 2 Elizabeth was an aesthetically inclined woman: she owned over 15,000 dresses, and changed her outfits throughout the day. But dresses weren’t enough: Elizabeth admired her own figure, and preferred the way men’s attire showed her legs. And, when you’ve got the power of an empress, you can force members of your court to party however you like. 3

The Seven Years’ War, Knighthood, and a New Mission for Le Secret

Unfortunately for France, the Seven Years War erupted the same year d’Eon arrived, before he could pull the aforementioned strings and get Russia to support Prince de Conti for the Polish throne. D’Eon returned to fight for France as a dragoon.

D’Eon, dragooning.

The Seven Years’ War ended about seven years later—go figure—and things didn’t turn out so well for the French. The winning side, led by the British, really stuck it to France in the subsequent treaties. Apparently already over his war hangover, Louis XV was thirsty for revenge.

Meanwhile, d’Eon had returned to France, and was awarded the cross of St. Louis for his service as a dragoon captain—a type of mounted soldier—in the later stages of the war, when he fought at the Battle of Villinghausenand and was wounded. 4 At the age of only 35, d’Eon had been knighted and given the title of “Chevalier,” which was the French equivalent of knighthood. 5

After returning from the war, d’Eon resumed his ambassadorial duties in the British court. But d’Eon’s spying wasn’t over, because Le Secret had a new mission: invade Britain. To this end, d’Eon was tasked with scouting the British coastline for weak points.

So How’d That Go?

Oh, it didn’t. D’Eon’s relationship with the French government back home deteriorated. See, d’Eon had expensive tastes, and was chastised by the French government for importing way too much wine. On top of that, d’Eon’s professional situation was less than tenable.

See, d’Eon wasn’t intended to be the true ambassador—again, this was just a cover.

Technically, d’Eon was named a minister plenipotentiary, with ambassador status. But the real ambassador was to be Comte de Guerchy, who was expected to arrive later that year. And look, I know history can be rough on some folks. But nobody liked Comte de Guerchy, and he lacked diplomatic experience. Guerchy was on his way to London to replace and demote d’Eon to secretary. On top of that, d’Eon’s secret job as a spy would likely put him at odds with Guerchy. 1

D’Eon did the one thing he could to improve the situation: he reamed out his superiors with a string of angry letters. As a spy, he was often working against Guerchy and official French policy, but for his cover, he needed to work as a secretary underneath Guerchy. He was at odds with himself, and made it clear to his superiors that he wasn’t happy about it.1

This strategy panned out brilliantly, assuming d’Eon’s goal was to be fired six months into his job, because that’s exactly what happened. D’Eon was ordered to return to France immediately, so that he could receive a stern talking to, and maybe get locked away in the Bastille forever.1

D’Eon Pulls an Ed Snowden

D’Eon wasn’t interested in disappearing in the Bastille, so he stuck around London. Failing to secure an extradition, the French Foreign Ministry tried and failed to kidnap d’Eon, and d’Eon retaliated.

He threatened to his Le Secret spymasters that he’d publish all their secrets if he wasn’t absolved of his misbehaviors, and released the first volume to prove he wasn’t messing around.

JGL acts in movies, and there hasn’t been a good d’Eon movie yet. Just sayin’.

And, just like that, d’Eon suddenly become an 18th-century Edward Snowden—a centerpiece of European politics, now far more popular in England than in France. 2

This is right around when rumors of d’Eon’s gender-related peculiarities began to surface.

It’s unclear who started these rumors—it may have been political enemies, or d’Eon himself. The idea that d’Eon may have actually been born a woman began to gain traction, as well, with the assumption that he had merely been passing as a man all along. 3

Louis XV is a Poor Loser

Amazingly, d’Eon’s gambit paid off: somehow, blackmailing France won him an annual pension from Louis XV, with purse strings attached, of course: d’Eon had to continue spying for Le Secret and hand over the remaining, unpublished French secrets that he had threatened to divulge—which, fine, that’s fair enough.

But King Louis, being very uncool about the whole thing, took the deal a step too far with a further demand: that d’Eon officially declare a gender before returning to France. 4

Dude. Weak.

An Official Declaration, and a Bad Time in France

D’Eon made what was an unprecedented decision for the time, and declared herself a woman.

As much as we may like to believe that Europe at that time was open-minded when it came to gender roles, d’Eon’s declaration was likely accepted because so many in the French government already presumed it to be true. This was in part due to the rumors that had snowballed regarding d’Eon’s identity, which suggested d’Eon had actually been born a woman, but had been forced into the life of a man by a domineering father who had wanted a son.5 6

And the story—of a brave young woman passing as a man all her life in order to serve her country and live up to the expectations of her father—was far more beneficial to d’Eon than the alternative: returning to France as a man and a “trickster.” 7

In 1777, d’Eon returned to France as a woman, only to find misery.

France’s patriarchal society had little room for d’Eon in the capacity that she had previously enjoyed as a man. Forced into early retirement, she was repeatedly barred from re-entering military service (she had even requested to serve in the American War of Independence), and had lost her political clout. 8

Back to London

For someone used to living such an extraordinary life, d’Eon could no longer stand it to live in France, exiled to her family estate in Tonnerre, and deprived of awesome things to do. In 1785, she sailed back to London, which was relatively free of the despotism that was keeping her down in France.

The Brits were relatively cool about it. They still drew sh*tty cartoons, though.

In England, d’Eon was welcomed. To English eyes, she was a heroine and a celebrity. But she was soon destitute—with the outbreak of the French Revolution, her pension from the French crown disappeared. To make ends meet, she sold off her possessions.

By 1791, d’Eon was in her 60s and had run out of things to sell, but she needed a way to make money. And, because she found it impossible to ever be a boring person, she made the rent by putting on sword fighting exhibitions until 1796, when a tournament injury ended her career.1

The End of the Enigma

D’Eon continued on, living to the golden age of 81. For years, the mystery had endured on both sides of the English Channel: had d’Eon been born a girl, and perhaps been forced into life as a man by her father? Or had d’Eon been born a boy, and transitioned to living as female, either out of personal preference, shrewd necessity, or some combination of the two?

Bad. Ass.

At d’Eon’s death, the mystery of the day was at last resolved. As an elderly female roommate dressed d’Eon’s body for her burial, she made a discovery: d’Eon was biologically male. The newspapers reported her obituary, referring to her as a “political character” of “questionable gender.” 2

And, unless that obituary included several hundred additional pages explaining her incredible life, I’d call that a royal disservice.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Rodriguez McRobbie, Linda. (2016, July 29). The Incredible Chevalier d’Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy and Returned as a Christian Woman. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman
  2. Rodriguez McRobbie, Linda. (2016, July 29). The Incredible Chevalier d’Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy and Returned as a Christian Woman. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman
  3. Worthington, Daryl. (2017, February 6). Chevalier d’Eon: Spy, Celebrity and Europe’s First Transgender Person. Retrieved from https://www.newhistorian.com/chevalier-deon-spy-celebrity-europes-first-transgender-person/7982/
  4. Worthington, Daryl. (2017, February 6). Chevalier d’Eon: Spy, Celebrity and Europe’s First Transgender Person. Retrieved from https://www.newhistorian.com/chevalier-deon-spy-celebrity-europes-first-transgender-person/7982/
  5. Rodriguez McRobbie, Linda. (2016, July 29). The Incredible Chevalier d’Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy and Returned as a Christian Woman. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman
  6. Labelling d’Eon a woman also had the added benefit of undercutting d’Eon’s stature in a male-dominated society, effectively removing a troublesome diplomat and spy from the equation.
  7. Rodriguez McRobbie, Linda. (2016, July 29). The Incredible Chevalier d’Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy and Returned as a Christian Woman. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-incredible-chevalier-deon-who-left-france-as-a-male-spy-and-returned-as-a-christian-woman
  8. Burrows, Simon. (2006). Blackmail, scandal, and revolution: London’s French libellistes, 1758-92. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

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