Hidden in plain sight and living both as man and woman; the remarkable story of a transgender spy enthralled Georgian England.
As if being the first openly transgender person recorded in modern European history wasn’t interesting enough, the Chevalier (meaning ‘knight’) d’Éon also led a remarkable life as a decorated soldier, diplomat and spy.
Charismatic, popular and fiercely intelligent, d’Éon fascinated the public.
Born male in 1728, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont came from Burgundy aristocracy. They studied in Paris, before gaining their first job in the civil service. Climbing the ranks, d’Éon became secretary to the French ambassador to Russia in 1756.
However, the role was a front.
The Chevalier was in fact a member of le Secret du Roi, a secret network of spies and diplomatic agents established by Louis XV. After a stint as a Captain in the French Dragoons, d’Éon was sent to the UK as a diplomat, where they embraced London life and continued to spy for the King before falling out with a superior.
After seeking political exile in London following the row, The Chevalier published secret diplomatic documents in ‘Lettres, Memoires et Negociations’, declared one of the most scandalous books of the time.
The book caused such controversy that d’Éon became a celebrity in London, and rumours they were a woman emerged on both sides of the channel. Reports emerged that they had attended cross-dressing balls during a diplomatic mission to Russia and bought corsets while living as a man in London.
One report states that d’Eon blackmailed the French king by threatening to disclose secret information about French invasion plans. In response, Louis XVI offered them an official pension under the condition that they dress as a woman.
At the time, a stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army was widely recognised, so the idea of d’Eon as a woman was accepted.
D’Eon was even celebrated by pioneering feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as a shining example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.
D’Eon would dress in women’s outfits and bonnets, adorning the finery with the Croix de St Louis, a medal awarded to only the bravest and most exceptional French officers.
But despite their achievements, their life became a spectacle. London bookmakers took bets on d’Éon’s gender and it was even the subject of a court trial in 1777 that declared them a woman.
Following the trial, d’Éon permanently presented as female. They lived as Charlotte de Beaumont and, though they were welcomed into the French court by Marie Antoinette, they remained in London to avoid the French Revolution and became one of the best known celebrities of Georgian England.
Charlotte earned money through fencing matches in which they regularly beat male opponents.
A 1792 Thomas Stewart portrait of the Chevalier d’Éon in the National Portrait Gallery is the earliest representation of a transgender person in the collection. In the painting, they wear a black dress, white silk collar and the medal of valour.
The portrait acts as an unprecedented historic document of the sitter’s acceptance into British society at a time when people who wore clothing not associated with their assigned gender were viciously persecuted.
The term ‘transgender’ was not known in d’Éon’s time, and in their autobiography, they identified as female, explaining they had been born female, but raised male by a father desperate for a son.
In old age, they lived with a widowed friend, Mrs Coles.
Despite the fame and notoriety that had accompanied this remarkable life, d’Éon died in relative poverty in May 1810, at the age of 81.
As Mrs Coles dressed d’Éon’s body for burial, she was shocked to find male anatomy.
LGBTQ+ historian Mok O’Keeffe, who posts on social media as the Gay Aristo, says the Chevalier’s experiences teach us that it is never too late to find and express your true self.
‘The Chevalier’s relationship to gender was a complicated one,’ Mok tells Metro.co.uk. ‘While presenting as female, there are reports that they did not always want to wear traditional “female” clothing and 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. Each situation is different but the need to bring in an income can mean that some may encounter difficulty in expressing their identity.
‘Any act of difference was brave in the eighteenth century. 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.
‘Sadly this was all too apparent when the Chevalier was alive and they were not given dignity, even in death – with bets being placed on what the sex of the corpse would be.’
LGBT+ History Month
February is LGBT+ History Month in the UK – a four-week celebration of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary history, and the pioneers of the LGBT+ community.
The theme for 2023 is ‘Behind The Lens’ – celebrating the contribution of the community to the world of film, from directors to screenwriters, from costume designers to special effects artists.
At Metro.co.uk – well be highlighting untold stories from LGBT+ history, shedding light on events during the month, and featuring first-person reflections
You can find our latest LGBT+ History Month content here.