French Emperor Louis XV created one of the earliest secret services in history, the Secret du Roi (the King’s Secret), and in the midst of war with England recruited one of its most famous spies, Chevalier d'Éon.
Born Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Thimothée d'Eon de Beaumont in 1728, the Chevalier grew up in a minor aristocratic family. Tracing the Chevalier's story is difficult, as the British Museum notes, as there are conflicting accounts about D'Éon's life mingled with speculation and rumor.
It appears Charles de Beaumont's standout moment occurred at Versailles when, invited to a costume ball by the Countess of Rochefort, the Chevalier appeared dressed as a woman. The disguise prompted the Prince of Conti to recruit him into the Secret du Roi.
Dispatched to Russia in 1755 - and disguised as a woman - the Chevalier undertook a mission to persuade the Russian Empress Elizabeth I to ally with France against the English and Prussians.
Demonstrating remarkable skill, D’Eon reportedly alternated between two personas: Lia de Beaumont, a transvestite integrated into the empress's cabinet, and Charles de Beaumont, her brother. This dual role facilitated the alliance between Russia and France. Charles de Beaumont returned to France, presenting Russia's plan of attack against the Prussians.
The King’s Secret Service
In the mid-18th century, Louis XV orchestrated a covert foreign policy through a network of spies known as the Secret du Roi. The network often operated counter to the king’s official policies behind the backs of his ministers. While that may appear counterintuitive, safeguarding secrets while uncovering those of potential enemies was crucial for survival in royal courts. Spies and courtiers engaged in the trade of secrets.
In the 1740s, Louis XV established his bureau with Cardinal Fleury as his prime minister, placing spies, couriers, and secretaries under Prince de Conti. Initially they focused on strengthening France's alliance with Poland and positioning Prince de Conti on the Polish throne.
The Secret du Roi also aimed to weaken Austria, despite negotiations for a Franco-Austrian alliance. The clandestine network worked against Great Britain as well, especially after the bitter defeat of the Seven Years' War.
After the death of the Prince de Conti, former ambassador Comte de Broglie assumed leadership of the French spy organization.
As the 18th century waned, both secrecy and the French monarchy lost power and legitimacy. The Secret du Roi grappled with changing attitudes favoring transparency and accountability.
Notably, alongside the Chevalier d’Eon, the playwright and polymath Caron de Beaumarchais was a member of the Secret du Roi.
Despite its celebrated spies, the King’s network faced setbacks. When the Austrian court deciphered Louis XV’s spies' letters, the Secret du Roi was exposed, leading to its collapse just before the king's death.