Chevalier d’Éon: The French Knight Who Lived As Both A Man And A Woman

In 1762 the Chevalier d’Éon was a war hero, diplomat, and secret spy sent to London to negotiate a peace agreement with their native France. By the time they returned to their homeland, though, the Chevalier was now a Chevalière — a female intellectual and scribe who was beloved in England. Oh, and a potential political timebomb for France! How exactly did this come to pass? And is it accurate to characterize d’Éon as Europe’s first openly transgender person? Note: for this article, we will use the pronoun “they” when gendering d’Éon.

The Chevalier was born male

D'Éon was born in 1728 as — take a deep breath — Charles-Genèvieve-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont. Their family was of noble origins — hence the lengthy succession of names — but not exactly rich. There was no question of d’Éon’s sex at birth; they were declared male and enjoyed a largely uneventful childhood.

They wound up following their father into the legal profession, earning canon law and civil law degrees in Paris, before being appointed royal censor for literature and history at the age of 30.

Le Secret du Roi

In 1756 France entered the Seven Years’ War against Britain and its ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia. During this conflict, d’Éon functioned as the Captain of the Dragoons and gained a sterling reputation as a brave soldier.

They were given the job of Secretary of the Embassy in St. Petersburg, Russia, but this was only their official gig. In truth, they had been recruited into the Secret du Roi organization. Translating as “King’s Secret”, this was King Louis XV’s clandestine spy network.

A secret spy attending metamorphosis ball

While in Russia, D'Éon’s real task was to surreptitiously collect intelligence on Empress Elizabeth’s court, because King Louis aspired to install a Frenchman on the throne of Poland. During this time, they attended many of the Empress’ “metamorphosis balls.” These were extravagant parties where noblemen would dress as women, and vice versa.

According to Dr. Gary Kates, writer of the biography Monsieur d’Éon Is a Woman, this wasn’t unusual at the time. He told website History, “In the medieval and early modern period, cross-dressing was much more socially accepted.”

The Chevalier d’Éon is born

After six years of conflict and palace intrigue, though, the war showed little sign of ending, and France was sinking further and further into debt. So, the King put together a diplomatic group, which included d’Éon, to travel to London in hopes of negotiating a peace deal.

His gamble worked: on February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the war ended. For their efforts, d’Éon was awarded the Order of Saint-Louis, which gave them the title of Chevalier and came with a substantial pension.

Silently surveying Britain for an invasion

D'Éon received a new job title — Chargé d'Affaires — and also took over as French ambassador in London. Once again, though, their real job was to spy for the King. Despite having just negotiated a peace with Britain, Louis was still making secret moves against the nation.

This left d’Éon with the task of secretly conducting a survey of the coasts of England, in order to determine the most advantageous spot for the French fleet to land in an invasion!

Expensive tastes put an end to their time as ambassador

As part of their duties as ambassador, and as a means of ingratiating themselves with British nobility, d’Éon threw extravagant parties. They then sent the bill to an almost-broke French government, and they were repeatedly reproached for importing too much Burgundy wine!

When they subsequently found themself busted down to secretary, while the Comte de Guerchy took over as ambassador, d’Éon wrote a succession of angry missives to his bosses. They were then fired on October 4, 1763, and ordered to come back to France.

Refusing to return to France

D'Éon outright refused to return home, and they had good reason. The Comte de Guerchy knew nothing about the Secret du Roi and d'Éon’s true purpose in London, and d’Éon hadn’t heard from Louis directly about their firing.

They believed that it would seriously endanger the invasion plans if they left London, and so they would only do it if they received a direct order from Louis. As Dr. Kates put it, “D'Éon had a huge ego. They thought they were the best person for the job.”

D'Éon is protected by the British

Unfortunately, Louis mustn’t have thought as highly of d’Éon, because when he found out about their refusal to come back, he froze their pension! By this point, d’Éon feared their future in France lay in the Bastille fortress, a prison to which other threats to the Crown had been banished.

Interestingly, though, when Louis ordered the British to extradite d’Éon to France, the foreign minister stonewalled him, saying d’Éon had every right to simply become a private citizen in England!

Playing the blackmail card

D'Éon was soon the target of several failed kidnap attempts by the French Foreign Ministry. They knew they had to do something drastic to safeguard their future, so they played the only card they still held.

In March 1764 they published a book of all the letters they had received while performing their diplomatic duties: missives which were deeply embarrassing for many powerful people in France. Their implied threat was clear: if Louis continued to push them, d’Éon would go public with the secret invasion plan.

D'Éon becomes a celebrity

With the publication of the letters, though, something strange happened: d’Éon became famous! As Atlas Obscura’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie put it, “D'Éon went from a somewhat minor figure on the European political stage to the central character for a short time.”

They were “talked about not only by heads of state but by newspapers, in cafes, even in aristocratic households as well. Dr. Kates includes a contemporary letter from a 16-year-old girl to her friend in which she dishes about d’Éon’s ‘treasonous impudence.’”

Becoming a secret spy…again

For the next decade, the French government negotiated with d’Éon to return home, while they dangled the prospect of revealing the truth to the whole world. Amazingly, though, once again the King saw a secret opportunity.

By making themself a celebrity in Britain, d’Éon was able to become even further well-established as a part of British society, so they were now even better placed to spy for France. Louis quietly bestowed a 12,000 livres annual pension on d’Éon, in exchange for reporting back about Britain’s political players.

A decade of “exile”

Of course, there was also another proviso to this deal: d’Éon would return any incriminating evidence he possessed about the Secret du Roi. This is why, for the next decade, d’Éon never published another volume of tell-all letters, and spent their time spying on the British, all while seemingly being in exile.

On May 10, 1774, though, a spanner was thrown in the works: Louis passed away, and his son King Louis XVI wanted to cut d’Éon loose. He had no desire to invade Britain and felt his father’s secret foreign policy was redundant.

Rumors about d’Éon’s gender spread

Before we get to what the new French monarch wanted to do with d’Éon, though, we need to discuss the rumors that had begun to spread while they lived in London. In 1771 bookmakers began taking bets on whether the Chevalier was, in reality, a Chevalière — with 3:2 odds that they were, in fact, a woman.

Instead of categorically denying the rumors, though, d’Éon began to manipulate the press, which increased the rumors to a fever pitch and saw them become even more famous in the process.

D’Éon muddies the waters

It got to a point where people became so obsessed with discovering the truth about d’Éon that they were unable to leave home without armed protection. They still refused to confirm or deny, though — at least in public.

In private, it’s alleged they told a French emissary that they were female, and from that point on, this is what the government believed. In 1775 playwright and state emissary Pierre de Beaumarchais traveled to London to once again negotiate d’Éon’s return, and they told the whole story of their gender.

A deal to return home is proposed — with a caveat

D'Éon supposedly claimed that they had been born female, but their domineering father had always wanted a son. He therefore forced the youngster to live as his son instead, and that is why d’Éon had presented as male.

Whether de Beaumarchais believed this story or not is immaterial, because he was about to convince d’Éon to agree to a deal which allowed them to come home, as long as they legally declared as female and lived as a woman.

The new King genuinely thought d’Éon was female

“Louis XVI was incentivized to make d'Éon happy,” explained Dr. Kates. “He was a young King who had just come to the throne and had to clean up the mess left by his grandfather.”

The author continued, “He knew if the secrets d’Éon had were revealed to the public, there was a good chance England would go to war with France, and he needed breathing room to rebuild the economy.” Yet, crucially, the academic believes, “Louis XVI thought d’Eon really was and had always been a woman.”

The Transaction

D'Éon soon signed “The Transaction,” which stated that the King would pay off their debts and agree to a new pension, and in return d’Éon would embrace their “true” gender. For d’Éon, they were now a “heroine who had dressed up as a man in order to perform patriotic acts for Louis XV.”

For Louis, though, there was an ulterior motive for this official gender change. As Dr. Kates explained, “There weren’t women ambassadors or diplomats, so d’Éon couldn’t rise to power again.”

A voyage across the gender boundary

In Monsieur D’Éon is a Woman, Dr. Kates described the new Chevalière’s journey back to their homeland as one positively brimming with importance. He wrote, “It marked as well his maiden voyage across the gender boundary, a barrier much better defended and more impenetrable than any national border.”

He added, “As far as the world knew, d’Éon was returning both to his original country and to his original sex.” While it may have been symbolic for d’Éon, for France it was a clever way of sidelining someone who could have posed a problem in the future.

The Chevaliere d’Éon is officially presented to the public

D'Éon was publicly unveiled as a Mademoiselle on November 21, 1777. The makeover they were given by Marie-Antoinette’s dressmaker — which included powdered hair, a full face of makeup, and an extravagant dress — took four long hours.

An exhausted d’Éon reportedly admitted, “These ladies, to bring me to my predetermined point of perfection, make me suffer martyrdom so as to transform me into an elegant woman. It is more difficult to equip a lady than a company of Dragoons from head to foot.”

The most extraordinary person of the age

Not everyone was convinced that d’Éon made for a pretty woman. In fact, a courtier said, “She had nothing of our sex but the petticoats and the curls, which suited her horribly.” This didn’t stop d’Éon becoming an even bigger star as a woman, though.

The Annual Register’s Edmund Burke wrote, “She is the most extraordinary person of the age. We have several times seen women metamorphosed into men, and doing their duty in the war, but we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents.”

A “femme forte”

While d’Éon wouldn’t exactly live their life as a typical aristocratic lady, they did fully embrace their new Amazonian persona. In many ways, they presented themselves to the world as a classic French femme forte — which translates as “strong woman” — in a similar vein to historical heroines such as Joan of Arc.

In private, though, sometimes being a woman wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It quickly dawned on d’Éon that any political or social powers they had as a man were now gone, just as the King had intended.

The war hero is prevented from going to war again

For example, in 1778 France entered the American War of Independence. D'Éon pleaded with the government that they should be permitted to wear their dragoon captain’s uniform again, instead of a dress. They thought this would be a necessary step in eventually allowing them to take back command of a military unit.

But instead, they were told to become a nun! D'Éon refused to let it lie, though, and they found themselves banished to a dungeon under the Chateau of Dijon for 19 days. They were only released when they agreed to stop pushing to go to war.

A potential “out” reveals itself

When the French Revolution began in 1789, though, everything changed once again. Louis was executed, meaning “The Transaction” was now null and void. But d’Éon’s family home was also seized, meaning they had nowhere to live and no pension.

D’Éon had to figure out a new way to make a living, but they were also free to begin dressing as a man again if they so desired. Fascinatingly, they chose to continue living as a woman for their last 33 years of life. They even began fencing in women’s dress to earn money.

Fencing provided a living — for a while

By this point, d’Éon was living in England as a beloved public figure. In 1792 Thomas Stewart painted their portrait in support of the French Revolution; it featured d’Éon in profile, sporting a cockade hat and some light stubble on their chin!

D’Eon’s fencing career provided for them until 1796 when they suffered an injury at a tournament and were forced to bow out of the profession. By this point, not even their celebrity could keep them afloat, though, and they sank into poverty.

They identified as “a new creature”

In their old age, d’Éon embraced religion and began composing their memoirs. In one eye-opening passage, they wrote, “What I am writing is not for the feeble souls of this century. How much I have suffered in body and soul. All that I know is that my transformation has made me into a new creature.”

For their final 14 years, they lived in an apartment with an old woman named Mrs. Cole, and rarely ventured outside. In fact, they were often too sick and enfeebled to get out of bed.

A political character “of questionable gender”

D'Éon passed away on May 21, 1810 at 81 years old. Mrs. Cole found their body and, when she was dressing it for the funeral, was astounded to discover d’Éon had male genitalia. When their death was reported in the newspapers, d’Éon was therefore “outed” as being biologically male.

They were also labeled a “political character” who for most of their life was of “questionable gender.” In fact, the overriding narrative became that d’Éon had deceived people by pretending to be a woman. But was that truly the case?

What is d’Éon’s legacy?

Well, in truth, many historians disagree on the legacy of d’Éon’s fluid approach to gender, mainly because their exact intentions can never be confirmed. For example, Dr. Kates told Atlas Obscura, “I see d’Éon’s gender transformation as a mid-life crisis which has very much to do with a reaction to the hyper-masculinity of diplomacy and politics of the Old Regime.”

He believes d’Éon began to see the female of the species as the more noble gender, especially as they got older and read more and more works of feminist literature.

Did they believe the female of the species was more moral?

Dr. Kates argued, “I think it’s at that point in his life that living as a woman comes to him as a way to transform himself morally and away to escape this hyper-masculine box he found himself in.”

To the academic, d’Éon felt, “whether we live as a man or a woman is a choice that all of us have.” He added that they believed “women in the 18th century are living lives that are morally superior to men, and therefore… men should choose to live as women.”

Was it fueled by religion or a new focus on individualism?

Fascinatingly, Dr. Kates also argued that d’Éon’s late embrace of Christianity empowered them to change gender: a “conversion from bad boy to good girl.” But the period’s embrace of “bourgeois individualism” was also integral, as it was the first time in history when people actively rebelled against the roles set out for them.

He suggested, “Our occupations just followed us… but somewhere in the early modern world, we realized that we ought to have choice. In that way, we’re just extending this to gender.”

Had their previous roles simply run their course?

Dr. Kates also wondered if there was another contributing factor to d’Éon’s transition. Had they simply come to the end of the road with their previous roles and didn’t know where they stood with their homeland’s government anymore?

The academic told History Extra, “The ‘cause’ of d’Éon’s transformation was his alienation from French political life. His career as a diplomat and spy having reached a dead end, he searched for a way to win back his honor and regenerate his own soul.”

A feminist icon

Contemporary feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft certainly viewed d’Éon as a woman. In particular, this generation of women’s-rights advocates believed d’Éon exemplified what females could accomplish in life if they were given the opportunity to escape the unfair restrictions of their gender.

Dr. Kates told History that these pioneers believed “d'Éon proved that if women were given the same opportunities as men in terms of education and training, there is nothing they can’t do.”

An outdated view of d’Éon’s gender

A problematic reading of d’Éon was introduced in 1920 in Havelock Ellis’ The Psychology of Sex, though. He defined “Eonism” as a psychological malady which manifested as a man imitating a woman’s behavior and dress.

He wrote, “It is normal for a man to identify himself with the woman he loves. The Eonist carries that identification too far, stimulated by a sensitive and feminine element in himself which is associated with a rather defective virile sexuality on what may be a neurotic basis.”

A pioneer in exploring gender identity?

Dr. Kates totally disregards the idea that d’Éon was simply using gender to their advantage, as opposed to genuinely experimenting with it. He told History that, at the time, the press, “painted d’Éon as one of the greatest con men in history: an actor who made people believe something that was utterly untrue.”

He added, “That narrative dominates the discourse on d’Éon in the 19th century until new ideas about sexuality retrieve d’Éon as not a faker, but someone who was exploring their gender identity.”

D'Éon gave life to ideas which are still relevant today

Dr. Kates argues that d’Éon maintains relevance to this day, especially in terms of recent transgender debates. He told Atlas Obscura, “What makes d’Éon… such an important pioneer for today is not what he did but the extent to which he thought about it and gave ideas to it.”

He used the modern example of which public bathrooms transgender people should be allowed to use, and concluded, “A person should use the bathroom they feel most comfortable with; society shouldn’t be making that decision for them. This is right out of 1750s thinking.”

The opposing view

Historian Dr. Simon Burrows doesn’t subscribe to this view of d’Éon, though; he believes the initial decision to dress as a woman was motivated by money. It’s rumored that d’Éon was being paid on the sly by British gambling houses to keep his gender under wraps, because they had been taking bets on it as soon as the rumors started.

They were also living a life of luxury in England, spending a lot more than the French government was paying. This meant when Beaumarchais came calling, d’Éon was almost broke and needed a convenient way out.

A deal that works out well for both parties

“D'Éon really has little option but to agree,” argued Dr. Burrows, “but it also has advantages for him. He needs money, doesn’t he? And in Britain there’s… [a] risk he’ll be locked up as a debtor, so he does it for his own safety.”

In this scenario, Dr. Burrows believes Beaumarchais offers d’Éon the chance to return home as a woman because it’s advantageous for both parties. The academic theorized, “He really wants to go back to France,” and added, “He’s able to milk certain advantages, but it wouldn’t have been his first choice.”

A way of retrospectively justifying their actions?

Because of this, Dr. Burrows believes it’s difficult to make sense of d’Éon’s life as a woman. He mused, “In some ways, he leaves less of a legacy than we might think. He doesn’t leave a set of followers, he doesn’t leave a number of people who behave the same way, but he is important in terms of how people are beginning to define themselves.”

On top of this, the historian even thinks d’Éon’s writings, which explain their reasons for living as a woman, are more “retrospective moral justification” than a true belief in gender-fluidity.

An important figure to modern transgender communities

Regardless of voices like those of Dr. Burrows, though, to many in today’s transgender community, d’Éon is an icon. In fact, the Beaumont Society, which offers support to trans people struggling with their identities, is named in d’Éon’s honor.

There are also LGBTQ+ historians who believe that d’Éon’s gender expression was dictated by many of the same restrictions trans people face today. Mok O’Keeffe told Metro, “While presenting as female, there are reports that they did not always want to wear traditional “female” clothing.”

It was “a huge personal risk” to live authentically

O’Keeffe continued, “It was the potential loss of income from the French government that meant they were obliged to present in ‘female’ clothes. Today, many in the transgender community are isolated and heavily impacted by financial difficulty.”

He added, “Each situation is different, but the need to bring in an income can mean that some may encounter difficulty in expressing their identity… The Chevalier was open to ridicule, persecution and a loss of status. It was a huge personal risk to live as their true authentic self.”