Chevalier d’Eon

Ian Kelly, in his biography of Casanova, quotes an Austrian military attaché who refers to the Venetian as ‘a most dangerous spy, capable of the greatest crimes…linked to a spy ring and to badly disposed Dutch officers.’  This was in 1760 during the Seven Years War when France, along with other European states, was engaged in uncovering as much information as possible about their enemies.  If the military attaché was right, it may be that Casanova was connected to a network of agents known as le Secret du Roi (the King’s Secret) although, if so, most probably only as a bit player.  It would certainly fit in with what we know of his penchant for intrigue and the nature of his relationship with the French state.

Le Secret du Roi was established by Louis XV to supplement normal diplomatic channels and was directly answerable to the king himself.  It allowed Louis both to keep a check on his own foreign ministers while at the same time engage in enterprises abroad which were hidden from the rest of his court.  The king went to great lengths to hide this network, setting up a secret parallel postal service, having messages encoded and keeping its expenses out of the official accounts.  Le Secret du Roi originated in the 1740s and the War of the Austrian Succession when Louis privately advocated the candidacy of Prince de Conti for the Polish throne against the official French policy being followed by his own ministers which was, instead, to support the ruling house of Saxony.

So what sort of men took part in this spy network?  There were over thirty agents involved and, inevitably, many of them would have been adventurers and opportunists who saw le Secret du Roi as way of making money, gaining favour with the king or advancing some other particular agenda of their own.  The organisation was led, successively, by three men: the Prince de Conti, a cousin of Louis XV who, as indicated above, hoped to succeed to the Polish throne; Jean-Pierre Tercier, a censor who was sacked in 1758 for mistakenly granting royal privilege to Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s ‘De l’esprit’ (‘On the Mind’) which rejected free will and religious morality; and, finally, Count de Broglie, a diplomat and military officer who in the 1760s drafted plans for the invasion of England in revenge for the losses suffered by France in the Seven Years War.

In addition to the heads of le Secret du Roi, there were a number of other very notable characters.  There was Comte de Saint-Germain, for example, described by Casanova, in a classic pot-calling-the-kettle-black moment, as ‘the king of imposters’.  Saint-Germain was an extraordinary, multi-talented, adventurer who claimed, amongst other things, to be 300 years old and to be able melt diamonds. He was a linguist, philosopher, chemist, occultist and gifted musician.  He had already been arrested in England in 1745 on suspicion of espionage but released without charge.  This was before he became a spy as part of le Secret du Roi, first being employed by Louis XV for diplomatic missions in 1749.  In 1760 he was engaged in negotiating peace between England and France but the English refused to deal with him, unconvinced by his credentials to speak on behalf of Louis XV.  The French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, managed to convince Louis to disavow Saint-Germain and have him arrested but he was able to escape to England.  Then there was the Chevalier d’Eon, who was born a man but spent much of his life dressed as a woman. He joined le Secret du Roi as a spy in 1756 during the Seven Years War. Predictably, given the period, the ambiguities surrounding his gender identity led to a certain amount of controversy and a number of duels. Unfortunately for his opponents, however, he happened to be a highly accomplished fencing master. He spent much of his time as a spy in England.   At the end of his career, he negotiated a state pension with Louis XV by threatening to reveal state secrets to the English, a pension which he received up until the French Revolution.  For the last 33 years of his life (until 1810) he dressed as a woman.  Next, there was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a watchmaker, inventor, musician and playwright who penned two of the greatest French box-office hits of the eighteenth century (‘Figaro’, initially banned by Louis XVI, and ‘The Barber of Seville’).  He first came to the attention of Louis XV having invented a more portable clock mechanism.  Beaumarchais was heavily involved in clandestine support for the American revolutionaries, supplying money, arms and equipment.  He also became a very close friend of Joseph Paris-Duverney, a wealthy financier who was involved with Casanova in establishing the French lottery.  And then there was Voltaire, one of the giants of the Enlightenment, who was himself a participant in several diplomatic missions, in particular with regards to Prussia and Frederick the Great.

How successful was Le Secret du Roi?  Not very, it would seem.  It caused confusion both amongst his ministers who were negotiating with foreign powers and amongst those foreign powers themselves, making it difficult for France to pursue clear and effective foreign policy objectives.  According to the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘the failure of Louis’s secret diplomacy in Poland enabled Russia, Austria, and Prussia to partition Poland (1772) and virtually eliminate French influence in central Europe’.

As well as le Secret de Roi, Louis created the office of le cabinet du secret des postes (more commonly known as le cabinet noir – the black cabinet), formalising a practise which had existed long before he had come to the throne.  The operations of le cabinet noir took place at the Hotel de Poste (now, the Hôtel de Villeroy).  A team of half-a-dozen or so skilled clerks would identify correspondence of possible interest to the king, unseal them using mercury, copy them and send them on to their original destination. This practice became enormously unpopular and featured as one of the grievances put before the Estates General in 1789.  French diplomat and confidant of Napoleon, Louis de Bourrienne, claimed that the main purpose of le cabinet noir was to titillate the king:

The black cabinet was established in the reign of Louis XV for the mere purpose of prying into the scandalous chronicle of the court and the capital…at first intended merely to amuse a monarch’s idle hours, [the black cabinet] soon became a medium of intrigue, dangerous from the abuse that might be made of it.
(Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, ‘The Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Volume I)

Ironically, one of the reasons Louis XV established a clandestine postal service for le Secret de Roi was to ensure that none of its correspondence was intercepted by le cabinet du secret des postes.

Predictably, Louis XVs inclination to be duplicitous did little to engender an atmosphere of trust among members of his court.  It was due to this wariness that Casanova was employed by the king’s newly appointed foreign minister, Abbe de Bernis, and initiated into the world of French subterfuge.  Being a foreigner and unconnected to the French court, Casanova was somebody who de Bernis (and Madame de Pompadour, who was his close ally at this time) felt they could rely upon.  In 1757, de Bernis was suspicious of the king’s claims regarding the readiness for war of the French fleet so sent Casanova to Dunkirk to find out.  After fleeing to Paris from the Venetian inquisition, the mission was a way for him both to curry favour and to make some cash. In his memoirs Casanova recorded the emphasis that de Bernis placed upon secrecy:

As you are on a secret mission, my dear Casanova, I cannot give you a passport. I am sorry for it, but if I did so your object would be suspected. However, you will easily be able to get one from the first gentleman of the chamber, on some pretext or other … You quite understand how discreet your behaviour must be. Above all, do not get into any trouble; for I suppose you know that, if anything happened to you, it would be of no use to talk of your mission. We should be obliged to know nothing about you, for ambassadors are the only avowed spies.
(Memoirs of Casanova, Paris and Holland, Chapter II)

His assignment went well but Casanova was scathing about the whole affair:

This mission cost the admiralty twelve thousand francs, and the minister might easily have procured all the information I gave him without spending a penny. Any intelligent young naval officer would have done it just as well…But all the French ministers were the same. They lavished money which came out of other people’s pockets to enrich their creatures.
(Memoirs of Casanova, Paris and Holland, Chapter II)

Around seven months later, in December 1757, Casanova was employed by de Bernis again, this time to raise money on the bond markets of Amsterdam.  France was desperate for funds but had a very poor credit rating.  Ian Kelly writes:

Casanova was to be despatched on an even more daring and clandestine, international errand for the French government.  It was important, again, that it was undertaken by a ‘foreigner’, but one loyal to de Bernis and La Pompadour.  Casanova would go to Amsterdam to negotiate how much cash and gold could be raised against French government-issued bonds.
(Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)

Casanova was again successful, making himself a tidy sum into the bargain thanks to some private wheeling and dealing.

The broader population itself, of course, was not exempt from scrutiny.  Antoine de Sartine, Lieutenant General of Police in Paris from 1759 to 1774, apparently once boasted to Louis XV, “Sire, whenever three people speak to one another in the street, one of them will be mine.”  Whatever the literal truth of de Sartine’s claim, there can be no doubt that in the eighteenth century a close eye was kept on the capital.  The office of Lieutenant General of Police and the inception of what was to become the first modern police force had been established in 1667 by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance under Louis XIV.  The position was held by Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie from March 1667 to January 1697 who unified existing policing agencies and took charge of Paris’s general security, safety and well-being.

By the time of the Revolution, the Paris police regulated the city’s markets; ensured the honesty of its merchants; lit, cleaned, and made safe the city’s streets; fought its fires; ran its prisons; solved its crimes; kept its wayward elements in order; and made sure its abandoned babies were cared for. They were also charged with spying on and suppressing subversive elements in the population
(Nina Kushner, ‘The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans’)

Information gathering on the part of the police, through networks of spies and informants, expanded as the eighteenth century wore on.  There were two main reasons for this.  Firstly, as Paris grew in size and complexity, intelligence became an increasingly valuable tool for tackling criminal and violent behaviour.  Even prior to the eighteenth century Paris could be an unstable and dangerous place; it was one of the reasons why Louis XIV had re-settled his court at Versailles.   Secondly, not everyone fitted easily into the established hierarchies and social units of the Old Regime which, it was believed, ensured a ‘natural oversight’ by superiors and was thereby a guarantee of social order.  Groups outside these hierarchies, such as Protestants, foreigners, Jews, beggars and prostitutes, were viewed as a potential source of instability.  Police surveillance, therefore, compensated for this absence of ‘natural oversight’.

Over time, more and more people were targeted.  In the 1720’s, for example, to help Louis XV gauge public opinion, agents in cafés wrote down overheard conversations.  By the 1740’s, writers, homosexual men and prostitutes were included.  Professor Nina Kushner, author of  ‘Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris’, comments: ‘In principle and largely in practice, it extended to anyone outside the social hierarchy and to any group that met behind closed doors’.  Kushner details the enormous amount of time, energy and ink that the police vice unit (operating from 1747 to 1771) spent on investigating the world of elite prostitution.  This was not, primarily, for reasons of prosecution but more for ensuring that behaviour was contained within the boundaries of what was deemed socially acceptable and discrete.

Casanova himself continued to dabble in espionage throughout his life.  He undertook some commercial spying, for instance, for the Venetian authorities as a way of encouraging them to grant him permission to return to Venice and, once he was allowed to return from exile in 1774, he continued to spy for them on and off, for money this time, by reporting whatever gossip or rumour about his fellow citizens he could get hold of.

(Portrait of Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart)

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2017)

Pinterest Board: Spies