Better known as the Chevalier d’Eon, d’Eon was born in Tonnerre, Burgundy, to Louis d’Eon de Beaumont and Françoise de Charanton. D’Eon excelled in school as a child and went on to study law, graduating from the College Mazarin in 1749 at 21 years old. In 1756 d’Eon joined a clandestine organisation of spies known as the “Secret du Roi” (secret of the king), employed by Louis XV. One of d’Eon’s early missions involved travelling to Russia in order to gain access to Empress Elizabeth and broker an alliance between France and Russia in the Seven Years War. The Russian borders were heavily guarded by the English, who only allowed women and children to cross. D’Eon, who until this point had presented as a man, dressed as a woman and risked execution if discovered. Using the name Lea de Beaumont, d’Eon manoeuvred into the court of the Empress and served as one of her personal attendants. In 1760 d’Eon returned to France as a man and became a captain of dragoons. Wounded at the Battle of Villinghausen in 1761, upon the death of Empress Elizabeth d’Eon was sent to London to draft the peace treaty that formally ended the Seven Years War. D’Eon received the Order of Saint-Louis in March 1763 and officially became a Chevalier, or French knight. Returning to London in April, d’Eon became interim French Ambassador and continued to spy for Louis XV. D’Eon provided information for a potential French invasion of England, an ill conceived idea that Louis XV’s own government was not aware of. In October 1763 the Comte de Guerchy became official French Ambassador, prompting d’Eon’s demotion to secretary and professional humiliation. Disobeying orders to return to France, d’Eon published secret diplomatic correspondence in a scandalous breach of discretion.
D’Eon was in political exile, unable to return to France, but still possessed letters from Louis XV concerning his intended invasion of England. These with other Secret du Roi documents protected d’Eon from further reprisal. Despite presenting as a man, rumours began to circulate among London society and a betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange for d’Eon’s true gender. D’Eon refused to submit to an intimate examination, believing it to be “dishonouring” whatever the outcome, and after a year of public speculation the wager was abandoned. Upon the death of Louis XV in 1774, the Secret du Roi was abandoned and d’Eon tried to negotiate a return from exile. It was at this time that d’Eon claimed to have been assigned female at birth but raised as a boy because Louis d’Eon de Beaumont could not inherit his wife’s fortune without a male heir. D’Eon demanded to be allowed to return to France as a woman and in 1777 the court of Louis XVI agreed. D’Eon spent the next 33 years living as a woman, although was allowed to continue wearing the insignia of the Order of Saint-Louis (a male privilege). D’Eon’s war pension was ended by the French Revolution, leaving her penniless and forced to sell personal possessions. The family’s land in Tonnerre was confiscated by the revolutionaries and d’Eon made a living competing in fencing tournaments until seriously wounded in 1796. In 1804 at 76 years old, she was jailed in a debtor’s prison for 5 months and soon after became paralysed in a fall. Her last years were spent bedridden in poverty. D’Eon changed her perceived gender in a time when transgender issues were not even acknowledged by society. She demonstrated astounding personal strength in the face of public mockery and sets a powerful example to the LGBTI community.