Looks Can be Deceiving – The Cross-dressing Nobleman in Georgian England

We are delighted to have persuaded the lovely Laurie Benson out from her cozy drawing room as a guest writer so without further ado we will hand the post over to her to tell us about her findings.

Sometimes while I’m checking historical facts for one of my stories, I get sidetracked by some bit of information that I stumble upon. This blog post is the result of one of those instances, and I thought I’d share it with you.

When I came across this painting by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, the sight of a fencing match between a man and a woman was too intriguing to pass by. Who was she? What prompted this scene? And why was it in the collection of the Prince Regent? Down the rabbit hole of research I went, to get some answers.

I discovered this fencing match took place at Carlton House on April 9, 1787, in the presence of the Prince of Wales and his friends. The Prince can be observed among the group of spectators, wearing the Star of the Garter. The main subjects of the painting are the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Eon. Chevalier de Saint-George appears to the left of the viewer, not faring too well in this encounter. The Chevalier d’Eon appears to the right. However, that bit of information raised even more questions about the painting. Now I needed to find out what I could about the unusually dressed Chevalier d’Eon.

The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Eon c. 1787-9

The Chevalier d’Eon was born Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont on October 5, 1728, to a noble family in France. At the age of 28, his life changed forever, when he joined the Secret du Roi. This was a secret network of spies employed by King Louis XV without the knowledge of the French government.

In addition to his work as a spy, d’Eon also served as a soldier and fought in the Seven Years’ War. He came to London in 1762 as part of the French embassy and helped to negotiate the Peace of Paris, which ended the war between France and Britain. For this work, he was awarded the Croix de St Louis.

There is some inconsistency about what happened next. In some accounts, it says d’Eon was passed up for a promotion at the embassy and was insulted. Other accounts say he simply did not want to return to France when he was recalled. Either way, all accounts agree that in 1775 he blackmailed the French King by threatening to disclose secret information about French invasion plans. To silence him, Louis XVI offered him an official pension under the unusual condition that he should dress as a woman for the remainder of his days.

By 1785, d’Eon was back in England and had begun a new career performing fencing demonstrations. During these matches, he would dress in a black dress and wear his Crojx de St. Louis medal. Since there were stories of women who dressed as men to join the army and follow their sweethearts, it was accepted by most that d’Eon was a woman. However, there were those who constantly speculated and made wagers about d’Eon’s sex. There even was a court trial that declared d’Eon a woman.

A disgusting fight was exhibited on Friday Evening last, at the Richmond Theatre – the Chevalier D’Eon fencing with a gentleman. Her merit, as a fencer, is great; but we were hurt to see her displaying that merit on a publick stage, and in a dress that was scarcely decent. She seemed to have but one petticoat on, while a pair of immense pockets dangled on the outside. If she deems it prudent to make a publick display of her fencing abilities, would it not be better to reassume the dress of a man?

(St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 27 August 1793)

In 1792, the French Revolutionary government stopped paying d’Eon’s pension. He supported himself with fencing performances, selling his extensive library, and eventually selling his Crojx de St. Louis medal. He struggled with debt for the remainder of his life. When he died in 1810, his body was examined. Many people were shocked to hear d’Eon had the anatomy of a male.

This formal portrait of the Chevalier hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It was painted by Thomas Stewart in 1792 and is a copy of one painted by Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1791. In the portrait, d’Eon is shown wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution. His sympathy for the new regime in France ended with the execution of the French royal family.

NPG 6937; Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier
NPG 6937; Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier

Who says history is boring?