Pissed-off Toff sees fascinating parallels between the predicament of Prince Andrew and the Diamond Necklace Affair which shook the French monarchy to its foundations.
You know how when you watch a film or a TV programme, you generally come away with a quite clear impression of what you think of it? If, for example, I watch Titanic (and I must have seen it half a dozen times), I think: I do fancy Kate Winslett. When I watch New Lives in the Wild presented by Ben Fogle, I think: These people are mad, but Ben looks like a really good chap. When I watch an episode of The Apprentice, fronted by ‘Lord’ Sugar, I think: They are all ghastly, but I’m loving this.
However, when, a few days ago, I watched the Prince Andrew interview … when – with solid 18-carat gold pen in hand to note down every word – I watched this prolonged act of suicide, I did not know what to think. And as I tried to make sense of the ensuing kerfuffle in the media, my confusion increased.
Firstly, why on earth did he give this interview at all? And to the aggressive Emily Matlis, of all people? The press office at Buckingham Palace had already denied in the most categorical terms that Prince Andrew had ever had any sexual contact with the seventeen-year-old Virginia Roberts. Why not leave it at that? If the Prince had been able to offer new and positive proof regarding his assertions, it would have been different. But he had none, and after Maitlis had done with addressing him as ‘Your Royal Highness’ the niceties were over and she just went for him.
Indeed, this was not really an interview. It was a trial, with the BBC’s most inquisitorial presenter acting as judge and jury. Nor did she even attempt to hide her scepticism about everything the man said. “You seem utterly convinced that you are telling the truth,” she commented at some stage. She might as well have said “Oh yeah??” Almost the worst bit came at the very end. “I think you’ve probably dragged out most of what is required,” said the Prince, “and I’m truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to discuss this with you.” What? Grateful for having been eviscerated in public?
And after all this we were none the wiser. For all the Prince’s protestations, Virginia Robert’s story sounded entirely plausible. And there was still that photo showing the Prince with his arm round her waist and Ghislaine Maxwell smiling in the background. If we are to believe the Prince, the photo is a forgery. However, the professor of digital forensics and image analysis at the University of California says he discerns no obvious signs of manipulation. And the man who found this snapshot in a bungalow in Australia and photographed it for the world to see said it was just one photo among others in a messy pile.
The really humiliating thing for Prince Andrew is that an opinion poll conducted by YouGov for The Sunday Times showed that fully 45% of those questioned believe that Prince Andrew probably did have sex with Virginia Roberts in the circumstances which she alleges. Ouch!! Meanwhile, Prince Andrew says first that he has ‘no recollection’ of any encounter with her. Which might mean: Perhaps it happened, but if it did I’ve forgotten. Then when pressed by Maitlis, he said “It didn’t happen.” Curioser and curiouser.
Anyhow, the only effect of all this was to add a ton of oxygen to the story and to create a media feeding frenzy, with The Daily Mail in particular throwing their very considerable resources at it. Indeed, I would hate to be targeted by them. Guy Adams of The Daily Mail, for example, is a formidable investigative journalist who could probably make Mother Theresa look like Mephistopheles. You wouldn’t want him poking around into your past, just as you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the ferret-faced Maitlis woman in front of a TV camera. What, again, induced the Duke of York to do it? I just can’t think.
It is the prurience and sanctimoniousness of the public and the media that is perhaps the most unattractive aspect of this whole affair. “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality,” the historian Macaulay observed; and with the media stirring the pot, we now see thin-lipped puritans queuing up to denounce the beleaguered Prince.
Here, for example, is the former home secretary Jacqui Smith reporting that during a state banquet for the Saudi royal family, Prince Andrew cracked a ‘racist’ joke involving Arabs and camels which left her ‘slack-jawed’ with horror. “It’s as worse as you could imagine [sic],” she said, with sickening piety. Come off it, Jacqui! It was no doubt a silly joke told at the wrong moment; but it must have been told a hundred times in various officers’ messes up and down the country. It’s not as though he started singing the Hitler Youth song. Now that really would have been ‘inappropriate’, to use my most-hated PC term. (Though come to think of it, the Arabs might have quite enjoyed it. They don’t seem too keen on the Jews.)
And here we have Rohan Silva, a former Downing Street adviser, reporting that during a meeting at Buckingham Palace, Prince Andrew used the expression ‘the nigger in the woodpile’, leaving poor Silva “reeling at the Prince’s use of language.” Yes, this old colonial expression is now decidedly – um – off-colour, and it was no doubt silly of Andrew to use it. But to judge by Silva’s pious outrage, anyone would think that the Prince had beaten him up and then buggered him. Where is the sense of proportion?
Next, Jo Swinson, the priggish leader of the Lib Dems, steps forward to say how shocked she was that during the interview Prince Andrew did not show sympathy for the girls whom Epstein ‘trafficked’. But the interview wasn’t about them. It was about the Prince.
And then there’s Virginia Roberts, invariably described in the media as a ‘victim’ and a ‘sex-slave’ who was cruelly ‘trafficked’ by Epstein; so that whilst no-one seems willing to give Prince Andrew the benefit of any doubt, Roberts receives it unquestioningly. However, that she was a ‘victim’ and a ‘sex-slave’ is merely her own assertion, which I for one find hard to believe. Look, for example, at that now-infamous photo in which the Prince has an arm round her bare waist. In it, she is smiling broadly. And she claims that after ‘working’ (her word) with Prince Andrew later that same night, she received $15,000 from Epstein; which, in my book, makes her not a ‘slave’ or a ‘victim’, but a prostitute, and a jet-setting one at that.
Years later we see her down on her luck, living in some shabby bungalow in Australia. Then along comes the Epstein scandal, and in these #MeToo days with ‘sex abuse’ now being the most heinous crime in the book, she sees a chance to make a large amount of money. I suggest that Virginia Roberts is not so much a ‘victim’ as an adventuress who is out for everything she can get.
And how the media are loving it, enjoying a self-righteous orgy of salacious tut-tutting. Epstein’s seven-storey New York townhouse, where Prince Andrew stayed, was “decorated with pieces of erotic artwork, including a pair of prosthetic breasts mounted on a bathroom wall,” intones The Daily Mail. Really? Sounds like School of Tracy Emin: Establishment stuff, nowadays. The Daily Telegraph, on the other hand, reports that Epstein’s Paris home, where the Prince is understood to have stayed, “featured photographs of naked women on the walls.” What? Naked women, as seen in almost every art gallery in the world? And inevitably, Richard Kay of The Daily Mail calls on the prince to apologise. Really? What for? Plus, Kay is a gossip-merchant, for God’s sake. He is in no position to claim the moral high ground.
In the end, then, not only are we none the wiser about all this affair, but no-one comes out of it with credit. Not the BBC’s attack-dog Emily Maitlis; nor the prurient and sermonising media; nor the people who used to grovel in the presence of Prince Andrew but who now turn on him; nor the charities which abandon him in droves; nor the Duke of York himself.
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So is there perhaps a moral in all this mess? Something to make sense of it? I think there is. Ever since he left the Navy in 2001, Prince Andrew has been riding for a fall. And when you are living unwisely, it is often something quite unexpected, and for which you are perhaps not responsible at all, that finally takes you down. This, indeed, is my well-founded fear for my own life, littered as it is with mistakes and lost opportunities.
Perhaps, too (and now, after fifteen hundred words I finally get to the point), one of the most interesting aspects of this affair lies in the numerous parallels with an episode which took place almost 250 years ago and which, famously, shook the French monarchy to its foundations. Indeed, as Napoleon later commented, the execution of Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI and Queen of France, dated from what history now calls the Diamond Necklace Affair. And as my distinguished ancestor Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord commented: “Watch out for this diamond necklace business. It may rock the throne of France.”
In both cases, the ingredients are remarkably similar.
We have, in both cases, a royal figure with a tarnished reputation. In the France of 1785, Marie-Antoinette with her extravagance, her love of fun and frivolity, and her various favourites of dubious repute. In England in 2019, Prince Andrew with his love of money, his weakness for a freebie, his lack of judgement and his habit of cultivating friendships with dodgy figures.
In both cases, we also have an under-current of anti-monarchical feeling, together with a public hunger for scandal, willingly catered for by the pitiless media. (In fact, I would argue that the modern scandal-based media culture was born in France in the years immediately preceding the Revolution … a period which saw an explosion in the number of muck-raking newspapers and pamphlets, and which witnessed the birth of journalism as a trade.)
In both cases, we have the appearance on the scene of a determined adventuress. In the France of 1785, the self-styled ‘comtesse’ de la Motte. In our own time, Virginia Roberts, ‘victim’ and ‘sex-slave’. And in both cases, the adventuress brings down the royal figure in an affair in which the latter has done either no wrong at all, or not much wrong. In both cases, too, this is possible only because the royal figure is riding for a fall in any case, and because the accusations now flying around are therefore credible. Oh, and in both cases, we also have an accompanying cast of spivs, crooks and chancers.
In both cases, then, something bad was waiting to happen. As the essayist Carlyle put it: “Through what crack, what crevice, what crater will the French explosion carry itself?”
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Here, then, is the story of the Diamond Neckless Affair – known in French as the Affaire du collier – as brief as I can make it. You might well have heard of it; if you have, this will refresh your memory (it is a hideously complicated mish-mash of events and claims and counter-claims); and if you haven’t, well then, it’s something for your next dinner-party (the other night, at the Beefsteak Club in London, I boosted my dwindling reputation by recounting the basics of this story to my host, who kindly professed himself impressed).
First of all, the cast:
Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI of France. For many years after they married, the King was unable to successfully perform the sex act. Since one of the main functions of both King and Queen was to provide a male heir, this brought about what would now be called ‘reputational damage’ on an embarassing scale. The King consoled himself by hunting; the Queen by extravagant attempts to distract herself. Both became objects of widespread ridicule, stirred up by a small army of pamphleteers.
The Cardinal de Rohan, Archbishop of Strasbourg, Grand Almoner of France, richest prelate in the country; charming, intelligent and dissolute. For one reason and another, Marie-Antoinette, source of so much desirable favour and patronage, loathed him and refused to address a word to him. This was a situation that he would give anything to reverse.
Boehmer & Bassange, jewellers to the Monarchy. In the final years of the reign of Louis XV, they had assembled a diamond neckless the likes of which had never been seen before. Consisting of 647 stones, it weighed in at 2,482 carats, and they were hoping to sell it to the ageing monarch for his mistress. However, when Louis XV died, they were left with this ruinously expensive item on their hands. Repeated attempts to sell it to Marie-Antoinette failed. She might or might not have wanted it, but for once prudence got the upper hand, and she said that the asking price of 1,600,000 livres would be better spent on a battleship or two.
Jeanne, self-styled ‘comtesse’ de la Motte. Descended from the Valois kings of France but raised in absolute poverty, Jeanne de Saint-Rémi de Valois was determined to regain her rightful place in the world, and so left her native village in the provinces to go to Paris to try her luck with the help of considerable sex-appeal and ruthless determination. Here, after a period as seamstress and prostitute, she married a penniless officer who styled himself the ‘comte’ de la Motte.
So much for the cast of characters. Now for the plot; or rather, the bare bones of it.
Ambitious and unscrupulous as she is, Jeanne de Valois frequents the antichambers of the Queen’s rooms at the Palace of Versailles, where anyone well-dressed can go, and where her great name and undoubted charms are assets to exploit. She hears of the difficulties in which Boehmer & Bassange find themselves, with their diamond necklace which they are desperate to offload. At some stage she meets the Cardinal de Rohan and probably becomes his mistress, despite being married. She soon learns that what is eating away at his heart is a desire to get into the good favours of the Queen, who loathes him. She knows, too, the the Queen likes nice clothes and fine jewellery.
A devilish idea now forms in her mind. So obsessed is the Cardinal by the desire to gain the Queen’s favour, that he is a sucker, ripe for exploitation. Here is an opportunity. Jeanne de la Motte now sets about persuading him that she is on intimate terms with the Queen. She persuades him that despite all appearances to the contrary, the Queen would like to be friends with him. She persuades him that as a mark of goodwill, the Queen would like to entrust the Cardinal with a most delicate task, on completion of which he will reap rich rewards.
By this stage, and with the help of a forger named Rétaux de Villette, Jeanne de la Motte is sending fake letters from the Queen to the Cardinal, who laps them up. What the Queen rather wants, she tells her friend-to-be whom she cannot recognise in public, is that nice diamond necklace. But her husband mustn’t know about it. So if the Cardinal could take delivery of the object in question and then secretly bring it to Versailles, she – the Queen – would be ever so grateful, and would in due course pay the 1,600,000 livres asking price to the jewellers in four instalments, out of her own resources. Yes: if the nice Cardinal would kindly do her this service, then the world would be his oyster.
So blinded was he by his ambition, that the Cardinal did not notice that the letters purporting to come from the Queen of France were signed, quite contrary to accepted form, ‘Marie-Antoinette de France’. To give a modern equivalent, when our own Prince Charles sends a letter, he signs it ‘Charles’. He does not sign it ‘Charles of England’.
Anyhow, the Cardinal fell for it. But the shrewd Jeanne de la Motte realised that further reassurance was called for. And one day the perfect opportunity presented itself. Walking through the arcades of the Palais-Royal in Paris, the ‘comte’ de la Motte, who seems to have been something between husband and pimp, spotted a prostitute called Marie-Nicole d’Oliva who bore the most striking resemblance to the Queen of France.
Yes, it was all very well for the Cardinal to have received letters from Her Majesty, thought the ‘comte’ and his wife. But a meeting with the Queen in person would surely be better. And this is what Jeanne de la Motte now engineered. Late one evening, in a part of the gardens of Versailles known as the Bosquet de Vénus, the Cardinal came face to face with a woman whom he firmly believed to be the Queen of France, but who was in fact a common prostitute, and who handed him a rose and spoke the words “You know what this means.”
By now the Cardinal was well and truly suckered, and from then on it was easy going. Believing that he was a trusted intermediary, he took delivery of the necklace from the jewellers and carried it to the de la Motte quarters in Versailles, whence it was, he believed, to be taken to the Queen, who would subsequently pay for it and thank him in an appropriate manner.
What happened, of course, was that Jeanne de la Motte’s husband took this priceless object off to London, broke it up and sold it piecemeal. Sooner or later, though, the jewellers turned up at Versailles, complaining that the Queen had not paid her first instalment of 400,000 livres. And then it all unravelled, as scams do. The Cardinal de Rohan was arrested at Versailles, taken to the Bastille, and charged with the crime of ‘criminal presumption’, in that he had deemed it possible that the Queen of France would accept a secret rendez–vous with him in the dark gardens of Versailles. However, not only did the parlement of Paris reject the charge, but they ruled that “With Her Most Christian Majesty’s reputation for frivolity and indiscretion, with her succession of male and female favourites of dubious repute, we find it entirely plausible that the Cardinal de Rohan did so presume.” It was a slap in the face, pure and simple.
As both Talleyrand and Napoleon commented, that was the end of Marie-Antoinette; regardless of the fact that in this particular case she was entirely innocent, the plaything of unscrupulous operators outside her orbit.
* * * * *
The similarities with the current position of our own Prince Andrew are striking, are they not? Misguided behaviour; a damaged reputation; and the unexpected appearance of an adventuress who acts as a catalyst for the inevitable downfall.
There’s one difference, of course … which is that whereas Marie-Antoinette ended up with her neck on the block, our own Prince Andrew will retreat to a comfortable early retirement.
(This piece slightly enlarged and updated on 25 Nov.)