The extraordinary gender non-conforming 18th century spy whose royal power play made her a sensation

·6-min read

Gender non-conforming people have existed for as long as humans have, but there are few whose stories can rival that of the Chevalier d’Eon.

The Chevalier d’Eon was an 18th century French diplomat, soldier, spy and intellectual who was celebrated both as a man and as a woman throughout her long and eventful life.

Her gender expression became such a focus of fascination that the government offered a formal declaration on the matter, and at one point she couldn’t even leave her home without armed guards to stop people ripping her clothes off.

She lived a life clouded by speculation and rumours that continue to confound scholars to this day; it’s why, nearly 300 years later, she remains one of history’s most compelling figures.

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was born in 1728 to a poor but aristocratic family in Burgundy, France.

There are many conflicting accounts surrounding her biological sex, both historical and contemporary, but it seems certain that she was assigned male at birth and raised as a boy.

Bright and articulate, she excelled in school and later secured a place in the French civil service. She steadily climbed the ranks until she became secretary to the French ambassador to Russia.

Or at least, that was the official story. Unofficially d’Eon was tapped for another royal service – a clandestine network of spies known as le Secret du Roi, or “King’s Secret”.

The Chevalier d’Eon was charged with fostering good relations with the Russian court of the Empress Elizabeth, and to covertly undermine Hapsburg power in the area.

Once in Russia she got a taste of gender non-conformity at the Empress’s grand “metamorphosis balls”, where such expression was common and celebrated. By all accounts d’Eon “dazzled” in her post, but unfortunately, it didn’t last.

The Chevalier d’Eon was fired for importing too much wine – but got her own back on the king in the most spectacular way

France had entered the Seven Years War with Britain, and d’Eon was ordered to return to become a captain of Dragoons. Later, she was admitted to the prestigious Order of Saint Louis and honoured with the title “Chevalier,” the equivalent of “Sir”.

After the war ended d’Eon was appointed as liaison to the English court with secret orders to scope out the coastline for a possible French invasion.

It was a prominent position, but again, it wouldn’t last. D’Eon enjoyed England a little too much it seems, as she was strongly reprimanded for importing too much wine. Within six months she was fired for “insolence” and given two weeks to return to France.

D’Eon knew a stint in the Bastille awaited her the moment she returned to French shores, so she just decided to… not.

It was a scandalous decision and King Louis XV furiously ordered her to be extradited to France at once. But the British foreign minister refused, declaring d’Eon was free to stay in Britain as a private citizen.

The French foreign ministry went on to make several attempts to kidnap and arrest her; in retaliation, the Chevalier d’Eon made her most scandalous move yet.

She published a book of state secrets, full of correspondence from the le Secret du Roi and plenty of salacious details – and the promise there was more to come unless she was left in peace.

It was a risky strategy, and it paid off. King Louis XV agreed to leave her alone with a generous 12,000 livre salary on the condition that she did not reveal his worst secrets.

And the British loved her for it. Overnight D’Eon became an international celebrity, an instant household name beloved for her shocking defiance of the French government.

The Chevalier d’Eon couldn’t go out without people trying to tear her clothes off

As she began her life in exile, rumours began circulating about the Chevalier d’Eon’s gender – rumours, some historians believe, that were almost certainly fuelled by d’Eon herself.

The speculation soon reached fever pitch after London bookmakers opened a betting pool on her true gender: 3:2 odds that she was a woman, before sinking to even money.

D’Eon refused to consider the wager, saying any examination would be “dishonouring”, and was forced to hire protection just to safely step outside her house.

After a year the bet was abandoned, but an envoy from le Secret du Roi arrived in England to determine the truth. Finally, d’Eon told all: she was a woman raised male “by a father desperate for a son” and heir.

It was made official in 1777, when the Court of the King’s Bench in Westminster made a formal declaration that “she who had called herself the Chevalier d’Eon until that day was an individual who did not possess what the appellation ‘man’ promised and that she was a ‘virago’ disguised in a uniform.”

Afterwards d’Eon negotiated her return to France and demanded that French government also recognise her as a female.

They agreed, and on 21 November 1777, Mademoiselle la Chevaliere d’Eon was formally presented at the court at Versailles, “reborn” after a four-hour toilette that included powdered hair and an elaborate gown outfitted by Marie Antoinette’s own dressmaker.

There was just one problem with her new life: being an 18th-century noblewoman was incredibly boring, especially after she’d lived as a soldier, spy, and celebrated diplomat.

When France sided with the colonists in the American Revolution in 1778, d’Eon petitioned to be allowed to return to uniform and assemble an all-female battalion to fight the British; the government suggested she join a convent. When she continued to press the issue, she was arrested and put in jail.

Upon her release d’Éon returned to London where she continued to write and collected a large library of early feminist works. She was welcomed back to British society as a heroine, but her life was never what it once was.

When the French Revolution began in 1789 she lost her pension, and in 1810 she died aged 80 in poverty. She had lived as a woman for 33 years.

Yet the Chevalier d’Eon continued to confound people even in death. Doctors who examined d’Éon’s body discovered “male organs in every respect perfectly formed”, but also feminine characteristics.

Historian Hugh Ryan suggests that d’Eon was transgender, and that “her real transgender identity [was] brilliantly hidden by the fake one she had claimed as a smoke screen”.

Some scholars believe she was intersex, noting a post mortem that found an “unusual roundness in the formation of limbs” as well as “breast remarkably full”.

Others have refuted this notion, arguing instead that d’Eon’s transition was somehow part of a broader social and political strategy.

Either way, the mystery of d’Eon’s gender was only one fascinating aspect of her life. It’s impossible to say how she herself would have identified as the time period would’ve lacked the vocabulary to describe herself as either transgender or intersex.

But we can say for sure that she was a truly remarkable individual, both in her time and now.

“It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age,” the annual register of London said of her in 1781. “We have been no one who has united so many military, political and literary talents.”

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