Montmajour Abbey and the Necklace of the Decapitated Queen

Ruins of the Montmajour Abbey, France.
Ruins of the Montmajour Abbey

Montmajour is the oldest abbey in Provence, France. Its construction started long ago in the year 948. When the mighty Roman Empire collapsed, these southern lands passed to the French Crown, and warriors and monks came to settle here.

Eight hundred years later, the last abbot of Montmajour became Cardinal de Rohan, infamous for his participation in the Queen Marie Antoinette necklace affair. This almost detective story accelerated the beginning of disorder and the further collapse of the monarchy in France. However, let’s start with the abbey, and then we’ll tell the story of the famous and vanished-without-a-trace necklace that allowed Alexandre Dumas to write his novel, “The Queen’s Necklace.”

Benedictine Abbey Montmajour

“Montmajour” in French means “The Giant Mountain.” In order to build a new monastery, black monks chose a mountain located near Arles and surrounded by sloughs. One could reach the abbey only by boat in those distant times. Of course, now the sloughs are gone, but Montmajour is still there and in well-preserved condition. Benedictines did a quality job.

This abbey is called the oldest in Provence for a fair reason: all other monasteries in this region of France were founded by the monks from Montmajour.

Montmajour rapidly expanded its influence, and by the end of the 10th century, it had become one of the richest monasteries in Provence. From the 11th century, the abbey served as a family vault of the Counts of Provence. The golden years of the abbey started in the 12th century and lasted until the beginning of the 18th century.

Probably, only due to the height of the location, the cemetery of the 11th century is still preserved. I have never seen such an ancient cemetery before. The graves are carved in stone. They are as small as for children. The ancient Europeans were short.

The courtyard of Montmajour Abbey, France.
The courtyard of Montmajour Abbey

Ruins of Montmajour Abbey, France.

The cemetery of Montmajour Abbey, France.
The cemetery of Montmajour Abbey

Most parts of the abbey are perfectly kept. The oldest of them are especially interesting: Chapel (11th century), medieval constructions (12th century), and Watchtower (14th century). The main hall is striking with its arches and quantity of light!

What an amazing decoration of the inner garden and the adjoining gallery of the abbey. The Corinthian capitals are taken from antique ruins, which Provence is full of, and the splendid stone carving reminds one of the Carolingian Renaissance.

The most recently built part of Montmajour Abbey did not survive. At the beginning of the 18th century, there was a massive building surrounded by a high wall. I suppose it was a new monastery for novitiates. This very part of Montmajour was almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution. It is closed to visitors now, but you can view it from the Watchtower. I should say it is impressive.

Moreover, from the Watchtower, we also catch a view of the famous snow-white Camargian horses. They were far enough from the Abbey that you could hardly recognize the horses on the pictures, but believe me, these are white horses.

Camargian horses near Montmajour Abbey, France.
Camargian horses

Ruins of Montmajour Abbey, France.

Ruins of Montmajour Abbey, France.

Cardinal de Rohan, the Queen of France, and the necklace

That is the way of France–cardinals have always been attracted to their queens. Cardinal de Rohan was not an exception. He fell in love with Queen Marie Antoinette who paid no attention to him, which not only made him suffer, but also adversely affected his career at the court of Louis XVI.

Today, every single schoolchild in France knows this story. It provided the basis for the novel “The Queen’s Necklace,” by Alexandre Dumas, where almost all characters and events are real.

Louis XV–the father-in-law of the future queen–ordered from the court jewelers a very expensive and beautiful necklace for his official favorite, Madame Du Barry, but he died before paying for it. The jewelers created the unique necklace consisting of 629 diamonds; it cost one and a half million livres. Such jewelry was worthy of a royal persona, and it was not easy to sell it.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who ascended the throne, inherited an empty treasury, so they could not even think of buying of the necklace, although the young queen liked it very much. In 1781, a 26-year-old beauty, Jeanne de la Motte, appeared at the court of Louis XVI. She was a distant relative of the Valois royal dynasty, and the wife of the impoverished Comte de la Motte.

Ambitious, envious, and offended by the ruling royal relatives, Jeanne was attempting to become a close friend to the young queen. First of all, the beauty chose a friend at the royal court, becoming a mistress of Cardinal Louis René de Rohan.

Marie Antoinette was amorous and mad about expensive jewelry; Louis de Rohan was deeply in love with the young queen; Jeanne decided to play on that, having fabricated a perfect intrigue. The necklace had almost been bought out by a Portuguese princess, when Madame de la Motte became involved in the matter. She persuaded the cardinal to buy the necklace for the queen. That purchase cost a lot of money; that’s why a part of the sum was paid in cash, and the cardinal issued a debenture for the rest.

The jewelers gave their masterpiece to the cardinal who handed it over to the queen via Jeanne. Marie Antoinette was in love, but not with the cardinal. Still she accepted the present with a proviso to return the whole sum eventually. The acknowledgment was handed over to Jeanne.

When it came time to return the rest of the sum to the jewelers, another creditor came to the cardinal–Count Cagliostro. Being a man of piety, the cardinal paid back the debt to the count, so nothing was left to pay to the jewelers. Madame de la Motte calmed him; she said that the queen promised to pay herself, and there was the acknowledgment to that. The cardinal, who never won the queen’s affection, was pleased at least with that.

As for the queen, Jeanne told her that Cardinal de Rohan had no money, and the destiny of the necklace was only in her royal hands. Marie Antoinette had to appeal to the king. Her husband, infuriated to discover that affair, closed the purse. The necklace was handed to the close friend, Jeanne, with a request to return it to the jewelers.

No way. Jeanne did not return it. Having received the queen’s acknowledgment, the jewelers came to the court demanding their money back. An unholy row erupted in Paris.

A watchtower of the Montmajour Abbey, France.
A watchtower of the Montmajour Abbey
A courtyard of Montmajour Abbey, France.
A courtyard of Montmajour Abbey.

A watchtower of the Montmajour Abbey, France.

The figures in this story, Jeanne de la Motte and Cardinal Louis de Rohan, were imprisoned in the Bastille pending the investigations. As per the court decision dated May 31, 1786, Louis de Rohan was acquitted; however, he was dismissed from the royal court and sent into honorable exile to Montmajour Abbey. Jeanne of Valois de la Motte was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Like all serious offenders in France, she was stigmatized with a royal lily at her shoulder.

The necklace was never found–629 diamonds decorated with gold disappeared without a trace. However, the deft Jeanne did not die in the Bastille. By some incredible means she escaped and reappeared in England. Moreover, in 1787, her memoirs and pamphlet with so-called dirt on the royal family appeared in print in London.

This scandal with millions, brilliants, and questionable conduct of the queen against the background of the poor existence of the ordinary French people would soon play its role. Some modern researchers think that the “timely” appearance of the book by Madame de la Motte “poured oil on flames” and partially caused the French Revolution, which not only crushed the monarchy, but physically destroyed Louis XVI and the Queen Marie Antoinette with the help of guillotine.

According to the official version, the Countess de la Motte did not repeat the destiny of the royal couple. She died in London in 1791. Unofficial version: she met a Russian Tsar, and died in hoary old age in Crimea, Russia. The necklace vanished into thin air.

Ruins of Montmajour Abbey, France.

A courtyard of Montmajour Abbey, France.

The scheme of Montmajour Abbey, France.
The scheme of Montmajour

The courtyard of Montmajour Abbey, France.

The main hall of Montmajour Abbey, France.
The main hall of Montmajour Abbey
The cemetery of Montmajour Abbey, France.
The cemetery of the abbey

Watchtower of Montmajour Abbey, France.

More about France:

Le Pont du Gard: Just Plumbing, But Gorgeous!
Le Mont Saint Michel – The Grave of God
How Not to Die of Hunger Examining Benedictine Abbey in Jumieges

36 thoughts on “Montmajour Abbey and the Necklace of the Decapitated Queen

  1. one of the cardinals of Montmajour was a Pierre de Bagnac B.1330 D.1369, he was born in a chateau not far from where i live called the Chateau de Bagnac, sadly today this is ruin but does however still feature a tower from the time he would have been there, i have a wrote a page for the chateau on my wordpress 🙂


  2. Victor, this post is fantastic! The article is an entertaining history lesson and the photographs take me right back in time, imagining how it was when this place was alive with monks and all the intrigues going on behind the walls.


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