Chevalier d'Eon and gender non-conformity in the 18th century

In the second episode of Not What You Thought You Knew, Dr Fern Riddell discusses the life of the Chevalier d'Eon. An 18th-century French soldier, diplomat and spy, the Chevalier lived for periods of their life as both a man and a woman. They have been recognized as Europe's first openly transgender person.

Fern is joined by historian and author Dr Andrew Lear, and EJ Scott of the museum of transology to discuss the Chevalier’s amazing life. Along the way, we’ll learn about the history of gender non-conformity, the importance of celebrating trans lives throughout history and the lessons we can learn from this remarkable figure.

Who was the Chevalier D'Eon?

Born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont on October 5 1728, in Tonerre, a city in central France, d'Éon came from a poor yet noble family. They excelled in school and moved to Paris in 1743, graduating in civil law and canon law from the Collège Mazarin in 1749. By 1756, d'Eon had joined le secret du roi, King Louis XV's secret spy network which operated without the knowledge of government and on occasion contradicted official policy. A period of history conjured up in the heroic writings of Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers.

One legend about d'Eon's clandestine adventures sees them sent on a secret mission to conspire with Empress Elizabeth of Russia. To infiltrate the court and avoid detection, d'Eon assumed the identity of the lady Lia de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. This tale has never been confirmed and maybe an instance of d'Eon's tendency for personal myth-making.

After their time as a spy and a period as the French Ambassador to Russia, d'Eon returned to France to become a captain of Dragoons, in the later stages of the 7 year-war, serving at the Battle of Villinghausen in July 1761. D'Eon was sent to London in 1763 to help draft the peace treaty that ended the conflict. They were rewarded for this service with the honorific title Chevalier which is roughly equivalent to a knight in English.

Despite this illustrious career, the Chevalier fell foul of the French government after being posted to London as chargé d'affaires in April 1763. D'Eon felt dishonoured when a new French Ambassador arrived in London and demoted them. When recalled to France, D'Eon disobeyed orders and refused to leave. As leverage, D'Eon began publishing secret diplomatic correspondence.

D’Eon was now essentially blackmailing the French government with this collection of embarrassing correspondence, some of which was penned by King Louis XV himself. Fearful of revealing further intel, d’Eon was paid off with a 12,000-livre annuity. The once-celebrated soldier, diplomat and spy was now a political exile in a foreign land, discarded by their own country.  

If the Chevalier D'Eon's life was uneventful up to this point it would be nothing compared to what came next when the d'Eon's began living permanently as a woman from 1777. To find out more about this next period of the Chevalier's life and the scandal and intrigue surrounding in their new life in London listen to Not What You Thought You Knew, episode 2 The Chevalier d'Éon and Gender Nonconformity