The King's Secret

The King's Secret

The Chevalièr d'Éon was an 18th-Century war hero, an indispensable spy, and a famous diplomat. But today, they're best known for their pioneering approach to gender boundaries. Historian Gary Kates pulls back the curtain on this fascinating True Spy. Hear the groundbreaking story of d'Éon's life - from undercover geopolitical manipulation in the Russian court and plotting Louis XV's French invasion of England to being recognized by both French and English courts as having the right to live as a woman.
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True Spies, Episode 203 - The King’s Secret

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Rhiannon Neads and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

GARY KATES: I think d'Éon was a very successful French spy in England. They did exactly what The King’s Secret and Louis XV wanted them to do. For those who harbored plans of renewed French fighting and an invasion of England, they were instrumental. So I would say d'Éon was, in their own way, a remarkably successful spy.

NARRATOR: The King’s Secret. It’s the early 1760s, and two old rivals have arrived at an uneasy truce. For seven years, the empires of France and England fought on opposite sides during one of the world’s first truly global conflicts. But as the dust began to settle, there were those in France who didn’t want peace with England. In fact, they found any peace treaty with England to be offensive to French national pride. And so, a network of French spies began to plan a possible invasion of the English mainland. They looked for weak points in their enemy’s defenses, any vulnerabilities that could be exploited. They relayed this intelligence directly to King Louis XV of France and waited for the perfect moment to strike. 

GARY KATES: Where England might be vulnerable to an invasion. Where do they have their defenses? Where is the Navy housed?

NARRATOR: One of the spies helping to plan this invasion was the Chevalier d'Éon, an 18th-century double agent who was a member of a secret intelligence network that was so underground that even the French government didn’t know about it. D'Éon fought in wars, too - even planned a secret invasion - but they are most well-known for something else entirely: blurring gender boundaries.

GARY KATES: The Chevalier d'Éon is important because they managed to do what, as far as we historians know about the past, no one else had ever done before. That was not living as one gender or another gender. It wasn't living as a woman, or a woman living as a man. That's been done in many societies throughout time. The unique story about the Chevalier d'Éon is that they did it as a kind of celebrity in front of the 18th-century European public.

NARRATOR: This is Gary Kates. Many scholars have written extensively about d'Éon, but Gary’s book Monsieur d'Éon Is a Woman is regarded as the definitive text. D'Éon lived as a woman later in life. While it’s tempting to assign modern labels such as ‘transgender’ to someone like the Chevalier d'Éon, these concepts as we understand them didn't exist for more than 150 years after D'Éon died, so we can't know for sure if this is how they would have identified themselves. On top of this, debate has raged since D'Éon was alive as to whether their very public transition was an authentic desire to live as a different gender, or whether it served another purpose. More on that later. Gary is a historian and when he’s talking about d'Éon, he’ll use the pronouns that d'Éon used at the point in time that he’s discussing. We’ll use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to d'Éon throughout. D'Éon was born Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont in 1728. But in this story, we’ll refer to them simply as d'Éon. D'Éon grew up in Burgundy, a region in Eastern France.

GARY KATES: Their mother and father were minor noblemen, civil servants. The dad is a civic functionary in Burgundy. And let's talk for a minute about Burgundy. Burgundy was known then by all Frenchmen - and is known still today - as having some of the best wines and vineyards in Europe. And the d'Éon family purchased vineyards and grew wine like all wealthy families in Burgundy. 

NARRATOR: Gary explains that d'Éon had a typical childhood for a member of the French nobility and they seemed to have a bright future ahead of them.

GARY KATES: Wealthy, very well educated at the right schools, training in fencing, training in military arts. Looking forward to becoming later in life a military officer and perhaps, if he can, a functionary, a politician in the French monarchy. And d'Éon is talented. He's physically talented. He's a great fencer. D'Éon is also very smart, begins writing tracks for the French government on arcane subjects such as taxation. So d'Éon is really an up-and-coming nobleman with a political and military career and intellectual career in front of him.

NARRATOR: To really understand d'Éon and their later work as a spy who helped plan a daring invasion, it’s important to understand what was going on in France in the 18th century. At that time, France was a vast and powerful empire. And, much like private companies today, empires were expected to grow and become more powerful. D'Éon was born at a time when France was a mighty force. Largely because of the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King.

GARY KATES: Louis XIV had reigned for 70 years. He had built the Palace of Versailles. He had extended France's borders. And most Frenchmen, even those who were critical of the king, even those who didn't like him, would tell you that Louis XIV was the greatest one of the greatest kings in French history - and certainly, the king that perfected what we call absolutism or absolute monarchy. So to come after Louis XIV is a very hard thing to do. Part of Louis XIV’s genius was his daily work ethic from the moment he rose until he went to sleep. Just how he played the game of managing an absolute monarchy. Most kings were not on the job 24/7 like Louis XIV.

NARRATOR: But shortly before d'Éon was born, Louis XIV died. His grandson, Louis XV came to power and he had a very different reputation. Louis XV was perceived to be something of a playboy, a king who would much rather be in court entertaining than locked away in his chambers plotting to expand the French empire.

GARY KATES: I think some might call Louis XV a little lazy, he lacked any vision. Some would say about Louis XV that he would rather be in the arms of a mistress than be holding his king's counsel in planning for the next war. So Louis XV is a rather closed character without the genius of Louis XIV, and for that reason is not held in high regard in the 18th century.

NARRATOR: But despite his reputation for a lack of effort, one innovation that Louis XV did create was a new underground network of spies. They were called The King’s Secret. And this organization would become a crucial part of d'Éon’s life.

GARY KATES: So The King’s Secret is a group of 20 agents who spy for France over a 25-year period. And the reason it's called The King’s Secret is not because it's secret from the public. That's obvious. It’s secret from the King's own Foreign Ministry and government. And this is what is so bizarre about it. 

NARRATOR: Sometimes the personal interests of King Louis XV would clash with those of France. So he created The King’s Secret for the times when he wanted to undermine his own foreign policy. And that’s where d'Éon fits into the world of King Louis XV. D'Éon is young, smart, talented, and the ideal spy.

GARY KATES: Everyone later would describe d'Éon as extraordinarily intelligent, very witty. An excellent writer. We take for granted today - because a diplomat can just get on the telephone or email or whatever - we take for granted today the communication skills of what it takes to be a diplomat, if not a spy in the 18th century. One of the key ways for a diplomat to distinguish themselves was through their writing because, remember, that it was their correspondence that was so valuable to the French court. So I think it was d'Éon’s intellectual vibrancy and personality that made him so valuable as a young, early-30s, up-and-coming diplomat. 

NARRATOR: D'Éon’s first assignment for The King’s Secret took place in the mid-1750s. And it was not an easy one. In fact, their spying career started with a trip into a diplomatic pressure cooker. D'Éon would be going to Russia.

GARY KATES: D'Éon enters the secret as a conduit and then d'Éon gets an unofficial assignment as being the secretary to the new ambassador to Russia, St. Petersburg. And so when d'Éon goes to St. Petersburg, to the court of Empress Elizabeth's Russia, d'Éon is playing a double role. 

NARRATOR: The stakes of this first assignment were high because, at the time, Russia was an ally of England. And England and France were fierce rivals. D'Éon’s mission was, simply put, to infiltrate the Russian court and convince the Russian monarch, Empress Elizabeth, to side with France. D'Éon would do this by gaining the Empress’ trust and undermining English interests. Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, wrote about the Chevalier d'Éon in a book called Famous Imposters. Stoker says that, during their time in Russia, d'Éon was able to, “Creep into the good graces of the Empress. He became her ‘reader’ and was thus enabled to prepare her for the reception of the secret purposes of his king.” And it’s at this stage in d'Éon’s life that it’s first reported that they dress as a woman. There are varying reports as to why d'Éon decided to do this. Some historians say that it was because, at this time, only women and children were able to cross the border into Russia. Indeed, d'Éon later claimed that dressing a woman was necessary for fear that they would be executed by English forces within Russia. And then there’s the theory that it was a necessary measure to gain the trust of the Empress herself.

GARY KATES: The story is that d'Éon cross-dresses in order to be in the private circle of Empress Elizabeth. The notion being that Empress Elizabeth is obviously a woman and her own could become much closer to her if their own was, if you will, a lady-in-waiting. That's the idea. If d'Éon can be Empress Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting, well, then no one can get closer to Empress Elizabeth than that.

NARRATOR: But here’s the thing with historical figures like d'Éon. The events of this story took place hundreds of years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s fact and what’s been distorted - passed into legend. According to Gary, the truth is that d'Éon did not assume a female identity to get closer to the Russian Empress.

GARY KATES: None of it is true. Now there will be sticklers. Did d'Éon ever cross-dress at the court of Russian Empress Elizabeth? And the answer is Russian Empress Elizabeth loved to throw masquerade balls. And at these masquerade balls, some of them were cross-dressing balls. So probably in the 18th century, every nobleman from the major courts in Europe, major cities in Europe, would have known what it was like to be in an evening gown or the opposite, because they all experienced at one point or another a cross-dressing masquerade ball. But that's really as far as we get.

NARRATOR: Years later, this thread would become a huge part of d'Éon’s identity. But, lacking first-person insights into d'Éon’s feelings about their gender, all we know is that, at this point in their life, they consistently presented as male. Ultimately, d'Éon’s first foray into the world of espionage was a success. It’s reported that they gained the Empress’ trust and that, in part because of d'Éon’s influence, Russia switched sides and became an ally of France. Bram Stoker wrote this about the success of d'Éon’s mission: “The gratitude of King Louis was shown by his making d'Éon a Captain of Dragoons and conferring on him a pension of 2,400 livres; he was also made censor of history and literature.” The Dragoons were a part of the French army. And soon, d'Éon would be sent to the front lines because, in 1756, France went to war. After the fact, the conflict was called the Seven Years War. And, in part, due to d'Éon’s work, the French Army would be fighting alongside their new Russian allies.

GARY KATES: So, the Seven Years' War in Europe [involves] France and Austria and Russia, and a lot of other smaller countries against Prussia, with the largely financial support of England. England is the financial backer of Prussia. So that's the Seven Years War. 

NARRATOR: The Seven Years' War was brutal and bloody and claimed around 1m lives. There isn’t a great deal of information known about d'Éon’s role in the Seven Years War. But records show that they were sent to the front lines. And at this time, the records still refer to d'Éon as a man.

GARY KATES: What we do know is that near the conclusion of the Seven Years' War dead zone is where a d'Éon is sent to the front. And he is regarded as a military hero. His heroism is lauded.

NARRATOR: Bram Stoker wrote the following about d'Éon’s contributions on the battlefield: “D'Éon threw himself with his accustomed zeal into the service of the Army and distinguished himself by his courage in the battles of Hoecht; of Ultrop, where he was wounded; of Eimbech where he put the Scotch to flight; and of Osterkirk, where at the head of 80 Dragoons and 20 Hussars he overthrew a battalion of the enemy. And it is because of these efforts that d'Éon was awarded a prestigious accolade. D'Éon was now a chevalier, the French term for Knight.

GARY KATES: He also is awarded a very important medal for their military heroism. And so down for the rest of their life, we will hark back to these moments as evidence of, again, patriotism, real sacrifice for France, activity for the French monarch.

NARRATOR: But while d'Éon’s personal fortunes may have been on the rise, their country was not faring so well. The Seven Years' War was a disaster for France. Rather than gaining power and influence, France’s empire was weakened. And, to add salt to the wounds, England was the winner. The French’s biggest adversary took control of key French colonies and advanced their empire. And it was now, at this crucial point in French history, that d'Éon would once again work for The King’s Secret. And this time, they’d be doing it on English shores. That’s because d'Éon was sent to England with the Duke de Nivernais, a high-ranking French diplomat, to negotiate peace with the English.

GARY KATES: So d'Éon goes to England with an official charge and an unofficial charge. d'Éon goes to England, assigned by the French Foreign Ministry to aid the Duke De Nivernais in preparing what will become the [Treaty] of Paris 1763, in other words, to prepare and negotiate. 

NARRATOR: But d'Éon has an ulterior motive, too because France was not going to accept English supremacy without a fight. That’s where The King’s Secret comes in. Under the command of a distinguished military general named Victor-Maurice, comte de Broglie, d'Éon had another mission: plan a French invasion.

GARY KATES: He's working for the Count de Broglie within what we've been callingThe King's Secret. And de Broglie wants to go up and down the coast of England and to really map out for the French where England might be vulnerable to an invasion. Where? Where do they have their defenses? Where is the Navy housed to actually do secret reconnaissance trips? So that the French court has a very good idea of the military strength on the coast of England because De Broglie very much wants to talk. So, at exactly the same moment that France is signing a peace treaty with England, there are these secret parts of the French government, directed by King Louis XV himself, that are exploring how and when a revenge attack could take place. And that is what d'Éon is basically in charge of figuring out. 

NARRATOR: There was a lot on the line here. For France, and for d'Éon. French pride was at stake and they wanted to hit back at their old enemy. But at the same time, there was a lot at stake for d'Éon because, if they were discovered spying behind enemy lines, the consequences would be severe.

GARY KATES: If the Brits had become aware of d'Éon spying, absolutely he could have been tried, convicted, and killed. Yes. Yes. 

NARRATOR: As part of d'Éon’s role as a double agent, they used their roots in Burgundy to gain favor with the English nobility. In this period, d'Éon began importing cases of wine which would be gifted to influential people. According to historical records, d'Éon was a popular figure in England. No doubt partly due to the contents of their cellar. But ultimately, the plans for an invasion came to nothing and France and England signed their peace treaty. At this point, d'Éon’s career as a spy takes a back seat. Now they want to pursue loftier ambitions: D'Éon wants to become a legitimate diplomat. No more subterfuge. A handsome official residence. Wining, dining, and all that good stuff.

GARY KATES: With the signing of the peace treaty [The Treaty of Paris of 1763] Nivernae returns to Paris. D'Éon stays in London as the temporary ambassador from France to London and does now what, in his 30s, what he wants. What he expects is that he will be named the permanent ambassador to London. I mean, why not? He's done a great job. Nobody has said he hasn't done a great job, but he doesn't get the job. The job is given to a rival.

NARRATOR: After being passed over for this job, d'Éon was involved in a series of public feuds with the new ambassador: the comte de Guerchy. The mudslinging involved a series of publications where d'Éon called their rival unfit for the job. De’Eon also claimed that Guerchy tried to drug them. It was the 18th century equivalent of a Twitter spat and it was clear that d'Éon was not going to go quietly. And there was more damage to d'Éon’s reputation. By now, d'Éon had been importing French wine to England for years. The wine had helped grease wheels and forge relationships but d'Éon was bringing so much wine across the channel that people began to get suspicious of their intentions.

GARY KATES: D'Éon imports so much French wine that the government can't ignore it, doesn’t ignore it. And they basically accused d'Éon of establishing a side business. “Oh, my God. Barrel after barrel of Burgundian wine. You're now engaging in commercial trade.” I mean, this isn't private. And so they start threatening [they’ll come] down on him if he doesn't restrict his wine importation.

NARRATOR: Finally, the French government had had enough of the public embarrassment.

GARY KATES: So the French Foreign Ministry issues an official recall saying, “Get your derriere back here in Paris.” Now, that is an order. It's an order for the king.

NARRATOR: It was an order that dÉon refused. They would not return to France. Instead, they continued to live in England as an exile. Furthermore, d'Éon essentially blackmailed the French government when they threatened to reveal details of the planned French invasion of England. So, using that leverage, d'Éon was able to live as an outlaw for a number of years. Incredibly, despite this drama, d'Éon continued to work for The King’s Secret. Remember, the organization existed outside and above the French state. While the outrage back in France was very real, it also provided d'Éon with the ultimate cover story: If I’m ostracized by France, how could I possibly be a spy? And so, for a number of years, d'Éon kept passing up-to-date intelligence from the English court back to their native France. D'Éon continued their work as a spy until 1774.

GARY KATES: When King Louis XV dies and his grandson, Louis XVI ascends to the throne, Louis XVI is, at that point, very young. He's in his 20s. Broglie actually writes him a long memoir, taking him through the history of The King’s Secret. And Louis XVI is shocked and just says, “Let's close this down. I want everyone to retire. Everyone's going to be given a pension and retired for life. And I don't want anyone ever to hear about this.” And that it's only in the French Revolution when Democrat ministers in the French Revolution, French revolutionaries, discover the papers of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and see these orders from Louis XVI that the public learns about The King’s Secret for the first time. SoThe King's Secret was basically left to secret for the entire old regime and Louis XVI successfully shut it down. 

NARRATOR: When it comes to d'Éon’s legacy as a spy, Gary Kates is clear that they were a huge asset to French foreign interests during the time period they were active. 

GARY KATES: I think d'Éon was a very successful French spy in England. You did exactly whatThe King's Secret, Broglie, and Louis XVI wanted him to do. His reports on the French land. His reports were extremely valuable to Broglie and Louis XV. For those who harbored plans of renewed French fighting and an invasion of England, they were instrumental. So I would say d'Éon was, in their own way, a remarkably successful spy.

NARRATOR: It is around this time that d'Éon’s gender was first called into question. Initially, it appears that it was a way for d'Éon’s rivals to discredit them. In his essay on d'Éon, Bram Stoker wrote the following: “During this time one of the means employed with success by his enemies to injure the reputation of d'Éon, was to point out that he had passed himself as a woman; the disguise he wore on his first visit to Russia. His clean-shaven face, his personal niceties, the correctness of his life, all came to the aid of that supposition. In England, bets were made and sporting companies formed for the purpose of verifying his sex.” Here’s Gary Kates.

GARY KATES: Rumors become public that d'Éon is actually a woman, this renegade diplomat now living in London. And the rumors go - what we would call today - they go viral. And at the London Stock Exchange. And we have to remember that at this time, there is not that different - well, I'm not sure there's a difference today - but at that time, the Stock Exchange was also a forum for gambling. And so, there are bets taken out at the Stock Exchange as to whether d'Éon is a man or a woman. And d'Éon is offered a lot of money to strip in front of witnesses. 

NARRATOR: D'Éon ultimately refused to strip and no bets were settled. But rumors and intrigue kept swirling. What was the truth? D'Éon appeared to give everyone the answer when they started to present as female, and claimed to have been assigned female at birth. Now, there is a lot of scholarly debate as to why d'Éon chose to do this. Some say that d'Éon seized upon the rumors and used it as an opportunity to gain forgiveness for all of the drama and disgrace they had caused. As one contemporary scholar wrote: “It was necessary to find a way of sparing the family he had offended the insult they would see in his return; he was therefore made to resume the costume of that sex to which in France everything is pardoned.” So, in short: If d'Éon returned to France as a woman, they would not have to answer for their actions. All would be forgiven. All the wine. All the drama. But not according to Gary Kates. Gary believes that d'Éon’s transition has a much deeper meaning. 

GARY KATES: D'Éon comes to understand that political life itself, the life of a diplomat and a spy, is always immoral everywhere. It is literally unchristian. And once they come to that existential reality, their path through it to redeem themselves is to live the rest of their life as a woman. And their model here is, ironically, Joan of Arc. I say, ironically, because Joan of Arc was a French patriot who was burned at the stake for wearing men's clothes. If you actually look at the indictment against Joan of Arc, it's not the role Joan of Arc plays in the Hundred Years War. It's the cross-dressing. So it's interesting, from a lot of different levels, d'Éon picks on Joan of Arc. So, it's the moral crisis aspect that is expressed through a religious language. That is the language of. Evangelical Christianity. Of what has happened to d'Éon’s soul, what political life does to men's souls that anyone like d'Éon ought to live as a woman. It's a form for d'Éon of moral purification.

NARRATOR: In any case, King Louis XVI granted d'Éon’s request to come home, officially recognizing them as a woman - and evening providing funds for the Chevalier to buy a wardrobe of women’s clothes. Around the time of the French Revolution, d'Éon returned to England - where the British government also legally recognized their change of gender. And it was during this period that they began to have money problems. D'Éon’s pension was stopped by the French revolutionaries - no more monarchy meant no more pension for French nobles like d'Éon - and to survive, they were forced to sell off their possessions and take part in fencing exhibitions. During one of these exhibitions, d'Éon was badly injured. They lived out their remaining years, practically penniless and living with a female roommate - a widower named Mrs. Coles. Mrs. Coles had no idea that there was even any suggestion that d'Éon had ever presented as male. It’s her understanding that they are two women living out their twilight years together. In 1810, at the age of 81, d'Éon died. And, fittingly, their death kicked off another chain reaction of intrigue and drama.

GARY KATES: So the d'Éon is living with a female roommate. And the female roommate realizes when she tries - when d'Éon is not getting up from bed - realizes that d'Éon has died and in laying out the body the roommate discovers d'Éon has a penis that the roommate thought that she had been living with a woman for all these years. It turns out that this person has a normal penis and scrotum. And so, she shrieks and is mortified and immediately wants this verified. And so, seven, eight - a group of a group of men - professionals. Some from the government. Some medical. Some legal. A couple of surgeons. They come into the room and they basically confirm that d'Éon's body is male, was male. And that's what goes into the newspapers and again, shocks the European public, the British public.

NARRATOR: The shock and column inches were an appropriate epilogue for d'Éon. The initial reaction was that they were a huckster, a trickster who fooled everyone. A great imposter. But over the years, interpretations have changed.

GARY KATES: And from that time, if I can just move forward from there, from maybe 1810 to 1900, if you picked up a biography or a story in a newspaper about d'Éon, it would be some version that d'Éon was a great con man. He led a life in which he lied to everyone. A trickery. He masqueraded as the other gender just to put out the greatest hoax in history. He was that kind of a provocateur. Then in the period that begins in the 1890s and goes right through World War II, there is a rich reflection on d'Éon's sexuality. And Eonism, in the 1930s is coined by a German writer to mean what we might call today trans and/or transsexual. 

NARRATOR: In today’s context, d'Éon’s legacy is now revered. The Beaumont Society, a support group for the transgender community, was named in honor of d'Éon. And they are understood to be a pioneer and an icon. And so much more than a member of the French aristocracy, a knight, or even a spy.

GARY KATES: If anything, d'Éon’s trans status reflects an imaginary figure with enormous will and vision about erasing the gender barrier. Erasing the borders among genders. And so d'Éon is rightly today thought of as a founder of the modern trans movement. And I don't think that is in any way anachronistic or not understanding d'Éon’s gender identity from an 18th-century viewpoint. I think, in fact, it gets to the center of what d'Éon’s gender transformation is really about.

NARRATOR: I’m Rhiannon Neads. Join us next week on True Spies.

Guest Bio

Gary Kates is an American historian who specializes in the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He is the H. Russell Smith Foundation Professor of History at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

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