Did Wellington Save the Hope? — Part One

He certainly did save the hope of England, even of Europe, that June day in Belgium, on the battlefield of Waterloo. But the Hope to which I refer is a precious blue diamond, which, thanks to the efforts of the Duke of Wellington, was not lost to history. And shortly after he prevented its misappropriation, it was acquired by the man whose name it bears, even to this day.

The supposed curse which is attributed to the Hope Diamond is fiction. However, the true story of its real-life adventures are so much stranger than the plot of any novel. Now, how this rare blue diamond glittered its way across Europe, through the hands of crowned heads and cut-throats …

The gem now known as the Hope Diamond is estimated to be at least a billion years old. It was forged deep beneath the earth’s crust, where carbon atoms, along with a few atoms of boron were forced together under tremendous heat and pressure. It is the inclusion of the small percentage of boron which gives the Hope its steely blue color. After uncounted millions of years beneath the surface of the earth, the stone was thrust ever upward through the earth’s crust in a series of violent calamities, including both volcanos and earthquakes.

The Hope came out of the earth’s depths on the Indian sub-continent. The raw stone would have been covered with an opaque bluish-grey caul which hid the blue fire at its heart. After moving about the Deccan Plateau for many thousands of years, pulled along by landslides and floods, it eventually came to rest in the vicinity of Golkonda. This area was renowned for the production of diamonds, and it was here that, at some point, the stone was first plucked from the soil by a human hand. Sometime after that, its blue-grey caul would have been polished away, revealing the transparent blue stone beneath.

In the seventeenth century, an intrepid merchant-adventurer came to Golkonda seeking large and unique gem stones, which he would then sell to affluent buyers in Europe. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was on his fourth journey to the east when, probably early in 1660, he acquired a dark blue diamond of a somewhat triangular shape, weighing over 112 carats. He described it as a "beautiful violet" stone, violet at the time meaning a deep intense blue. Tavernier kept the large violet stone until he could find just the right buyer, which he did, in 1668; the French King, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV had a passion for diamonds and owned thousands of them, but it seems he could never get enough. Diamonds were then considered the jewel of kings and, from the Middle Ages, had seldom been worn by anyone else, as they were too rare and expensive. Among his many diamond-encrusted jewels, Louis had two complete sets of diamond accessories for his coat and vest. The first set had 123 buttons, 300 buttonhole surrounds, 19 floral sprays, with an additional 96 buttonhole designs for his waistcoat. His second set comprised 216 buttons, 355 buttonhole decorations, with 96 more for his waistcoat. One would have thought he had enough diamonds, and yet, in December of 1668, court records show that he purchased the large violet stone from Tavernier, along with forty-four other large diamonds and 1,122 smaller ones.

Louis kept the Tavernier violet in his cabinet of curiosities until 1673. In that year, he had it re-cut by his court jeweler, Sieur Pitau. Previous to this cutting the stone was almost the size it had been when it came up out of the earth. Its Indian owners had only polished away the caul which covered it, but had not cut it into facets, as they prized size over brilliance. But now, the Sun King had decided he wanted a gem which radiated more light, and Pitau had the knowledge and skill to shape the stone to do just that. The re-cut stone weighed just over 67 carats, and was almost heart-shaped. It also acquired a new name, the diamant bleu de la Couronne de France, the "Blue Diamond of the French Crown," or more commonly, the "French Blue." Louis XIV occassionally wore the French Blue, sometimes as an ornament on his hat, sometimes attached to a cravat pin, but most often on a ribbon around his neck. When he died, it passed to his heir, Louis XV.

Louis XV seldom wore the French Blue until, in 1745, he was made a Knight of the Ordre de la Toison d’Or, the Order of the Golden Fleece. This was a prestigious appointment, even for a French king. It was customary for members of this order to wear an insignia of the order on state occasions. Louis XIV had set the trend for these insignias to be extremely ornate and heavily jeweled. Louis XV could do no less, and with assistance from his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, designed his own bejeweled insignia to signify his membership in the order, which included the French Blue. The jeweler completed the work in 1749, and Louis was painted wearing his Order of the Golden Fleece insignia. Though this setting was long ago broken up, the drawings of the jeweler, Pierre-André Jacquemin, who made the piece, still exist.

Louis XVI did not seem to care for the ornate insignia of the Golden Fleece worn by his grandfather, and he is believed to have only worn it on a very few occasions. Despite many stories which try to play up the curse of the stone, his wife, Marie Antoinette, is not known to ever have worn the blue diamond, which was still part of the Golden Fleece insignia, just as it had been even before her birth. When Louis and his family attempted to flee France after the start of the French Revolution, the Crown Jewels, which included the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, were confiscated by the new government. They were housed in Paris, in the hôtel du Garde-Meuble, which was located in the Place Louis XV. Before long, that same square was called Place de la Révolution, and the equestrian statue of Louis XV which stood at its center was torn down to make way for that most modern instrument of death, the guillotine.

The National Assembly decided that it was important for the people of France to see the treasures they now collectively owned. Thus, the confiscated Crown Jewels were put on display in the Garde-Meuble every Monday, beginning in August 1791. Security was not just lax, it was practically non-existent. Early the following year a petty thief named Paul Miette was spending most Mondays studying the layout of the jewel display and the building which contained them. He missed several weeks when he was imprisoned for theft, but in the late summer, he and a gang of his cronies were ready to strike. At about 11:00pm, on 11 September 1792, Miette and crew climbed to the second floor of the Garde-Meuble, where they easily broke in and began gathering the precious treasures housed there. The thieving went so well that they returned again the next night and the next, for six days, each time bringing more friends along. They also brought along food and wine and ate and caroused after their thieving was finished for the night. It was not until the morning of 17 September that the theft was finally discovered by the authorities.

The jeweled insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which contained the French Blue, was gone. Though many of the royal jewels which were stolen by the thieves that week in September were recovered, the French Blue was not. There are two theories about its whereabouts and possessors for the next twenty years. The first theory is that Cadet Guillot, one of Miette’s cohorts, took the insignia of the Golden Fleece as part of his spoils in the theft on the first night. It is believed that he left Paris either that night or the next day, travelling north to the coast. Guillot realized he would not be able to fence the insignia anywhere in France, it was too well known. Therefore, he decided to leave the county, travelling first to Nantes and then on to Le Havre, where it is believed he was able to board a fishing boat which eventually took him to England.

Guillot must have been very disappointed when he arrived in London to find the prices for gemstones so low. Since so many aristocratic French émigrés had traveled to England, where they sold their jewels when they needed ready cash, gemstones were a glut on the market. Though Guillot is believed to have shown the jeweled insignia to a number of potential buyers, he was never able to sell it to any of them. He apparently broke up the Golden Fleece sometime in 1796. He tried to sell just the red Côte de Bretagne spinel, which had been carved into the shape of a red dragon and set into the Golden Fleece insignia just above the French Blue. Guillot seems to have gone into partnership with another thief, Lancry de la Loyelle, to whom he entrusted the Côte de Bretagne, in the hope he could sell it back to the French government or to some other European buyer. Lancry was anything but "Loyelle," and had Guillot imprisoned for debt before he absconded with the Côte de Bretagne. If one believes this theory, the whereabouts of the French Blue are then unknown for the next sixteen years.

According to a second theory, the theft of the French Crown jewels was actually engineered by Georges Danton, a leader of the Revolution and then Minister of Justice. Danton needed valuables for political reasons and organized the theft so that he would not be implicated. The thieves were to give him all of the great jewels, keeping the smaller ones for themselves in payment for their efforts. There are some supporting facts for this theory, as few of the thieves were ever caught, and many of those were eventually set free. The Minister of Justice was perfectly placed to make such arrangements.

The Duke of Brunswick, father of Prinny’s future wife Caroline, was then commanding the combined armies of Prussia and Austria. In early September 1792, this great army of 60,000 men was camped at Valmy, poised to invade France with the intent of returning Louis XVI to the throne. They faced nearly the bulk of the French army, which comprised no more than 36,000. Johann Wolfgang van Goethe was attached to the Prussia army and reported that Brunswick’s men were eager for the fight. If Brunswick had advanced swiftly between 14 – 18 September, he could have easily overwhelmed the French troops and his way would have been clear for a march on Paris. But he did not advance and by 20 September, 18,000 French reinforcements arrived, bringing troop strengths nearly equal. There was a brief, inconclusive battle that day, and then the Prussian/Austrian army withdrew. The next day, the French government abolished the monarchy and on 22 September 1792, proclaimed that it was "Year 1 of the Republican Age."

If the second theory of the French Blue’s movements is to be believed, Danton used some of the stolen French Crown jewels to bribe Brunswick to give up the fight against the French, thus saving the Revolution. Just over a year later, Brunswick resigned his commission as the commander of the Prussian troops, citing a lack of cooperation between the Prussian and Austrian officers. If Brunswick did accept the bribe, he could never show the gems in public, most of them, including the French Blue, would be too easily recognized. On the other hand, he would have tangible wealth with which to secure his small duchy and protect his family as war in Europe was clearly imminent. It is not known if the insignia of the Golden Fleece was already broken up, or if Brunswick received the complete insignia, but here the French Blue disappeared from the pages of history at this point in this second theory.

Next week, when and where the French Blue resurfaced, the theories on how it got there and, of course, how the Duke of Wellington prevented it from disappearing from the historical record yet again.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Did Wellington Save the Hope? — Part One

  1. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   The Francillon Memo | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Did Wellington Save the Hope? — Part Two | The Beau Monde

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