The “bad boy to good girl”: the chevalier d’eon and the transidentité in the Eighteenth century

Photo: The London Magazine
At a time when the policy is still strictly masculine, we consider the cross-dressing d’eon as a way, for a woman of exceptional ability, access to a career at the height of his talents.

Once per month, The Duty starts to enthusiasts of history the challenge to decrypt a topical theme from a comparison with an event or a historical figure.

Chelsea Manning is one of the leading transgendered the most known in the world. The whistleblower alert, condemned for treason in 2013, has undertaken during his captivity approaches, medical and legal recognition of her new gender identity. Grâciée by Obama and released last may, Manning has a singular career in many ways. The latter recalls that of the chevalier d’eon, a hero of the French war of the Eighteenth century, born a man, and having assumed a female identity during the second half of his life.


Despite the 300 years that separate them, a lot of elements together with these two individuals, starting with the disappointments of a promising military career which led them to disclose State secrets, as well as their change of identity. If the story of Chelsea Manning today has a lot of secrets, look at that of the chevalier d’eon allows you to better understand the way in which the transidentité could be seen at a time when it was a reality difficult to conceive. Phenomenon poorly known, was to sentenced ? The history may reveal a few surprises.

Photo: Courtesy Ariane Godbout
Ariane Godbout is a graduate of the master’s degree in history and advisor to the national Assembly.

Unlike Manning, who had to undertake long legal procedures for change of sex is recognised by the authorities, it was surprisingly easy for the chevalier d’eon — born man and have always lived as such — to claim a female identity, even in the heart of the 1770s. This change was due, however, to be build on a lie : that he had always been a woman disguised as a man. This transformation also had the effect of enclosing it within the straightjacket of the hermetic femininity, with codes that are well-defined.


State Secrets


Born in 1728 in the small village of Tonnerre, Charles d’eon de Beaumont is known for in his youth a course particularly bright for a boy from the nobility of the robe. A graduate in law of 25 years, author of numerous articles in literary and an important treaty on the finances, the young man is quickly to notice in the limited circles of the court of France, then joined the secret service of the king Louis XV in 1756.


During the Seven Years war (1756-1763), its diplomatic actions and his courage during the fighting earned him to be named captain of the elite corps and later receive the prestigious cross of Saint-Louis. In 1762, the military hero is sent to London, where it plays a key role in the negotiations of the famous Treaty of Paris by which Canada is ceded to Great Britain. His appointment as ambassador acting in the same town the following year, then enables him to believe that it is only in the early stages of a promising career.


Unfortunately, the appointment of the comte de Guerchy with the title of ambassador to its place in 1763 put an abrupt end to his hopes. Bitterly disappointed, the chevalier d’eon uses a way is unusual to avenge the injustice of which he deems himself the victim, recalling the disclosures that will later Manning to WikiLeaks : it publishes not only a part of his correspondence with the court of France, plunging his superiors in embarrassment — but he threat, especially to reveal the State secrets extremely delicate that it holds. Admired by some, hated by others, Eon is built up a significant reputation.


If this blackmail the plunges in disgrace at Versailles, it has the advantage to tip in its favor the relationship of forces. Aware of the importance of household’eon, Louis XV resolves to pay him a sufficient pension so that he can continue to live comfortably in London, against his silence and his services. The knight spends the following ten years to cultivate links in the political circles of English and to collect information for the benefit of the king of France. He knows, however, that the monarch wishes to do it to kidnap her in order to eliminate the threat that he represents ; as he often use camouflage to escape the attempted kidnapping. It is likely that he started to wear clothes for women.


Change of identity


As early as 1771, rumors emerging in the English press : the famous knight would be it, in fact, a woman ? The noise spreads and bets on him are increasing at the stock Exchange, large sums of money are offered in exchange of its consent to submit to a medical examination. If he denies first fiercely these rumors, it will eventually opt for the ambiguity by stating the following year that it is a woman who has spent her entire life disguised as a man.


After three years of rumors, the uncertainty ends and that an envoy of the young Louis XVI went to London in 1774 to negotiate the recovery of the secrets that still holds Eon. An agreement is finally reached : the knight agrees to make the compromising documents in exchange for permission to return to Versailles, without anything being held against him. Above all, the agreement formalizes their status as a woman, a fact without precedent in history.


It is curious to note that in the middle aristocratic of the period, the change of genre of the knight ” has not led to the unanimous rejection which could have been expected.


If his new female identity shocks the conservative circles, it provokes in many other admiration. As for the editor of the Annual Register, which expresses itself in these words : “We have a few times seen women turn into men and do their duty to the war ; but we have never seen anyone embody many talents of military, political, and literary all at once. “Poems are even the praise of his exploits, like the one that sends him an officer, in 1779 :” By the glory signet ring was said to reach / The fearless warrior ! And skillful policy. “


These testimonies shed light on a key aspect of the trajectory d’eon : several contemporary him look benevolent because they think admire the courage of a woman who was at the height of a man. At a time when politics, diplomacy and war are still areas strictly male, one considers the cross-dressing d’eon as a way, for a woman of exceptional ability, access to a career at the height of his talents. However, this new identity also leads to unexpected changes.




The weight of agreements begins to be felt at the time that the now knight goes back to France, in 1777. Thinking that his military exploits have precedence over her female identity, Eon door every day his captain’s uniform — a badge of honor in the spirit of the aristocracy. However, in the eyes of others, that a woman dare to wear clothes male is a real provocation. He is accused also of not adopting the behavior, calm and modest, suitable for ladies, being rather ” always in movement, full of grimaces, awkward in his manners and impatient “.


The voltage rises at the time Eon receives a formal prohibition, on the part of the king, wearing his military uniform. This pressure is particularly hard to live with for the signet ring. Denying that part of its identity is scorned by his kind, Eon responds to social expectations by disobedience repeated — it will even be adopted in 1779 — but also by writing, by arguing in his letters and his memoirs of a feminine ideal virginal, brave and warrior, based on the model of Joan of Arc or the Amazons.


In spite of these difficulties, ‘eon spent the rest of his life as a woman. His return to London in 1783 and the French Revolution, which broke out six years later represent as many moments where it would have been free to resume a masculine identity, and where she has refused to do so. It is, as a woman, she’s writing her memoirs, and as a woman that she died in 1810.


After his death, the announcement that the chevalier was anatomically a man causes a real shock wave. A woman travestisse to access some functions could be understandable, but that a man, especially a noble, a diplomat, a soldier and a spy, may wish to become a woman seemed unthinkable. The story of the chevalier d’eon plunges gradually into the shade, and stay there for a long time.


The similar route of Manning and d’eon cache and a different path. While the first key is finally free after bitter legal proceedings, the second could do no more than touch on the subject through his disobedience, his writings and the ideals it was built. These lives cross demonstrate, however, that the freedom, whatever the time, remains a fight unrestrained, and that bravery lies not only in achievements, but also takes its source in the courage to rise beyond the dictates of society in order to become himself.


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