“In the court of the evening, by particular desire of several persons of distinction, the celebrated CHEVALIERE D’EON will FENCE with a NOBLEMAN.”
On the evening of 23rd August 1793 the patrons of the Theatre Royal, Richmond were looking forward to a real treat. Included on the bill that evening was a fencing display by that acknowledged champion of the flashing blade – the Chevaliere d’Eon. This was the same person who on June 19th that year had received the personal congratulations of the Prince of Wales and his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert after a fencing demonstration that had shown “a vigour and firmness incredible”.
Unfortunately growing celebrity and royal approval did not please everyone at the theatre that night. One reviewer commented that the event was “a disgusting sight… a ﬁne display of fencing by the Chevalier but in a dress that was scarcely decent.”
The thing that shocked our critical critic and intrigued the Richmond audience was the Chevalier d’Eon, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, born in Tonnerre, France on 5th October 1728, was dressed as a woman.
Some claimed that the Chevalier was a woman. Others said he was a man who liked to dress as a woman. Others said that the Chevalier d’Eon, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste, etc, etc was in reality a woman who liked to dress as a man dressed as a woman! As for the subject of their speculation, he claimed that he was a female but had been raised as a boy because his father, Louis d’Éon de Beaumont, could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. Less charitable souls hinted that the all-masculine Chevalier had become intimate with Queen Charlotte and was the true father of her son the Prince of Wales. The only way that d’Eon could preserve the honour of the Queen and his own neck was by presenting himself as a woman.
In the midst of all this sexual speculation there was something else that the good people of Richmond didn’t know about the swordsman/woman they had come to see that night. The Chevalier d’Eon was also a spy!
After graduating in 1749 from Collège Mazarin, in Paris, d’Éon served as a secretary to the administrator of the fiscal department. In 1756 he joined the secret network of spies called “Le Secret du Roi” who worked undercover for King Louis XV, without the knowledge of the government and sometimes against official policies and treaties. The monarch sent d’Éon on a secret mission to Russia to meet Empress Elizabeth and persuade the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchy. It was later suggested that d’Éon disguised himself as a woman, Lia de Beaumont, to do so. Returning to France in 1761, d’Éon became a Captain of Dragoons and fought in the latter stages of the Seven Years’ War.
In 1763, d’Éon was appointed ambassadorial minister in London and used this position to gather information to help the King plan a secret invasion of England. The King’s ministers knew nothing about this idea. When the new ambassador, the Count of Guerchy, took up his post in London, d’Éon was reduced to his former rank of secretary. Feeling humiliated, and against orders, he returned to France. In a letter to the King, d’Éon complained that the new ambassador had tried to murder him. Knowing that d’Eon still held his secret invasion plans the King was obliged to support his spy. In 1766, Louis XV granted d’Eon a 12,000 livre pension for his services – and his silence. For this the Chevalier was required to live in political exile in London.
Following the death of Louis XV in 1777 d’Eon was allowed home after agreeing that he would hand over the secret invasion papers in return for the payment of his debts and confirmation of his royal pension. The new King, Louis XVI, accepted d’Eon’s claim that he was a woman but demanded that he wore the appropriate clothing. The King even funded a new wardrobe and Marie Antoinette sent her own dressmaker, Rose Berlin, to help with the transformation.
In 1785, having lost his pension during the French Revolution, d’Eon returned to England. Running short of money and remembering his famous fencing match at Carlton House in 1787 when, despite his age and triple skirts, he had defeated the world fencing champion, the Chevalier de Saintes-Georges, d’Eon set out on a theatre tour giving fencing demonstrations and inviting challenges. In the billings for these performances d’Eon stated that “she” no longer had the pension granted “her” by Louis XVI and, “having been frustrated in the receipt of £5,000 deposited for her in the hands of an English noble, she was obliged to cut her bread with her sword.”
In 1796 d’Eon’s new and profitable career as theatrical fencer ended when he received a deep wound in the armpit during a display in Southampton. Broke once again and with a diminishing circle of friends Chevalier d’Eon, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont died in London on 21st May 1804,. The autopsy by a group of leading anatomists found “the male organs in every respect perfectly formed… there was an 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.” Horace Walpole later reported that at a supper at the Johnstones “Lord Mount-Edgecumbe had said excellently, ‘Mademoiselle d’Eon is her own widow.’”
Chevalier d’Eon was buried as he wished in St Pancras Churchyard.
Miss More gives the following account of this extraordinary character:
“On Friday I gratified the curiosity of many years, by meeting at dinner Madame la Chevaliere D’Eon – she is extremely entertaining, has universal information, wit, vivacity, and gaiety. Something too much of the latter (I have heard) when she has taken a bottle or two of Burgundy; but this being a very sober party, she was kept entirely within the limits of decorum. General Johnson was of the party, and it was ridiculous to hear D’Eon’s military conversation. Sometimes it was, ’When I was colonel of a regiment”, then again, ‘No. It was when I was ambassador’s secretary to the Duke of Nivernois,’ or, ‘When I negotiated the peace of Paris.’ She is, to be sure, a phenomenon in history; and, as such, a great curiosity. But one D’Eon is enough, and one slice of her quite sufficient."
HORACE WALPOLE Memoirs Vol ii
— from Martyn Day
CREDITS: The billing from the ‘Theatre Royal’ was kindly supplied by Jane Baxter, Local Studies Librarian at the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection. The print of young Chevalier d’Eon is from Enugmis del l’Historie/Geographie