Wednesday 22 March 2023

La Chevalière d'Éon

Have you ever picked a fight with the wrong person? Is one of those questions that pops up on These are usually stories of Hell's Grannies duffing up wanna-be muggers with deft blows of a sequinned handbag. All good fun and inspiring in their way. Sometimes the courage is not in meting out revenge but taking abuse on the chin and refusing to compromise your true self. I often think of Quentin Crisp in this regard. He was born in 1908 and openly flamboyantly wonderfully Out in London when to be even slightly camp was considered an invitation to be bashed. 

But Crisp was not the first to be gender fluid in London society. Nearly 200 years earlier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont was born into the Burgundian nobility in 1728 but was happier as La Chevalière d'Éon, and he came out as a woman at the age of 49. They had 30 years of living their best life in Versailles and London. Never 'eard of 'im? Never 'eard of 'er? Yup, me neither, but from Adam Savage at the armorer, I was off down a rabbit hole to the British Royal Armories at Leeds. Whooshing past plastrons, vambraces, breastplates and visors to land at a sword gifted by La Chevalière d'Éon to an English friend in 1777. Yere 'tis:

What it says on the tin steel in gold: "Donne par la Chevalïere d’Eon à son ancïen Ami Geo: Keate Esquïre. 1777". As one brought up as male in the French aristocracy, d'Éon was trained in the gentle art of fencing and served many years as a soldier notably in the Seven Years War. He was part of the mission sent to London to negotiate peace in 1763 and was rewarded with a purse of livres and a gong [Order of Saint Louis] when the war formally concluded at the Treaty of Paris. You really can't get more central to diplomacy centraal than that. Shortly after that d'Éon transitioned, but it didn't stop them fencing for sport, wager and cash; here against the Chevalier de Saint-George, another interesting, multi-talented fencer of the day:

The Prince Regent looks on from under a big hat. d'Éon died poor and paralysed from a fall in London at the age of 81 and is buried in St Pancras Old Church. Before his corporeal remains were interred, they were carefully inspected by a surgeon who found a well-developed bosom and normal-looking male external genitalia. We know now that has a rather poor consonance with gender identity. I'm quite sure that if some 18thC bravos decided to bully d'Éon, the way their shabby descendants abused Quentin Crisp, they could expect a poke in the face with something sharp.

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