Courtesy of his family riches, Louis-René de Rohan had never found anything wanting, and the affluence was reflected in all aspects of his lifestyle. But it surprised Jeanne de Valois that under this persona, there was also an extremely tender man with an almost childlike yearning for emotional support. She soon learnt that the biggest cause of his vexation was that despite his high position, he did not enjoy the real confidence of the royal family. There was, however, a good reason for this.

During the reign of former King Louis XV, de Rohan was close to everyone in the royal court, particularly the dominant faction led by the secretary for war and foreign affairs, Duc d’Aiguillon. This affinity ensured that de Rohan also enjoyed the backing of the king’s all-powerful mistress, Madame du Barry, who oversaw many aspects of the royal court, including foreign relations. This group was vehemently opposed to the idea of France entering into any understanding with Austria after the Seven Years’ War and continued to express their dissent when the wedding between the heir to the French throne and Marie, the daughter of the Austrian monarch, was solemnized. Forced to accept the alliance, Duc d’Aiguillon decided that somebody loyal to him and Madame du Barry should be delegated to Austria as the French Ambassador, and de Rohan was assigned this important mission.

De Rohan enjoyed all the pleasures Vienna had to offer, though he was always conscientious about his role. After settling in, he realised that the best option was to cleverly balance his position and began to devise a plan that would earn the Austrian queen’s trust while also pleasing his masters back home. When de Rohan learnt that Queen Maria Theresa was fed up with her daughter Marie Antoinette’s extravagant lifestyle in France, he hired spies to spread slander about her daughter’s misdeeds to the Austrian queen.

He reasoned that if he could exploit the queen’s discomfort about her daughter, he would please the duke back home and simultaneously unfold a personal plan of his own. So, while poisoning Queen Maria Theresa’s mind, de Rohan secretly travelled to France to meet the young Princess Marie Antoinette where he revealed how poorly her mother thought of her, while telling others about the princess’ improper conduct. This annoyed the young Marie considerably, and she instructed de Rohan to act as her confidant in Austria and keep a close eye on her mother’s words and actions. At some point, he also began to think that the young Marie had fallen in love with him and, in turn, started to foster strong feelings for her.

Unbeknownst to de Rohan, reports about his devious game reached Wenzel Anton, the prince of KaunitzRietberg, who advised the Austrian court on international affairs, and soon reached the ears of Queen Maria Theresa. The furious Austrian queen immediately took umbrage to de Rohan’s actions in Vienna, including his lavish lifestyle, and conveyed her feelings to her daughter in France.

Given the influence de Rohan enjoyed with the ruling regime, the princess decided not to take any hasty action. But as soon as King Louis XV died and her husband ascended the French throne, the new queen began to wield her axe. While ridding the court quickly of all those who were close to the old administration and opposed to the Austrian alliance, including Madame du Barry and Duc d’Aiguillon, she ensured de Rohan was also ordered to return immediately from his deputation to Vienna. Only because of his high family status and religious responsibilities was he allowed to remain in the royal court. Though, at all stages, Marie made sure he would receive nothing more than his conventional family rights.

So, contrary to all expectations, de Rohan had returned to a very different royal court at the Versailles palace. Not only were all his former friends and allies gone, but he was now in the company of those who disliked, if not hated, him. Forced to seek help from outsiders like the king of Poland to be nominated as a cardinal, nothing changed even after he assumed the important seat of Bishop of Strasbourg.

Most painfully, the very woman he deeply loved, Queen Marie herself, was at the top of the list of his adversaries.

Jeanne had heard some of these stories from Cagliostro, but the details came directly from the cardinal, who was becoming increasingly at ease in the company of the comtesse. There was nothing de Rohan did not share with his charming and compassionate friend as their friendship grew and the meetings became more frequent. Soon after, Parisian society learnt that the queen’s friend, Comtesse de la Motte Valois, had also become the new mistress of Cardinal de Rohan.

Jeanne knew better than to deny this, as she began to plan how to profit from the connection. She knew that the cardinal’s greatest desire was to win back Marie Antoinette’s favour and regain a place of respect in the court. She also knew that a good part of the affection de Rohan was showering on her was in the bona fide belief that the comtesse was a close acquaintance of the queen.

Jeanne set out to spin a new web of deceit around the cardinal. She began by implying subtly that she could persuade her close friend, the queen, to at least hear what the cardinal had to say. De Rohan was naturally overjoyed with the offer and agreed to do anything in return if Jeanne could truly accomplish the impossible.

Jeanne began to play the role of an intermediary between the cardinal and Queen Marie, taking care not to raise any suspicions. She told him that while she was initially furious and refused to even mention his name, Queen Marie had gradually come around to listening to the cardinal’s sincere apologies and fervent pleas. Jeanne created the impression that the ice between the cardinal and the queen was thawing fast, assuring that Marie, too, had always harboured soft feelings for him. Regrettably, she had fallen prey to some people who poisoned her mind against him at some point.

However, the clouds had now cleared and she knew the truth.

Soon, Jeanne told the besotted cardinal that the queen had openly declared her deepest affection for him and wished to establish regular communication through letters. De Rohan unleashed the most romantic prose and verses known to him and was on cloud nine when Jeanne handed over an immediate response from his dear beloved, responding in the same vein.

What Jeanne had done was to rely on the forging skills of Rétaux de Villette to create the queen’s reply. As the letters became a regular affair, she let the ink flow liberally to convince the love-blinded Cardinal that Marie was confiding in him now. The poor man’s joys heightened further when Queen Marie confirmed that the cardinal was officially pardoned and would soon be appointed as one of the most prominent ministers in the royal court. The only minor difficulty Jeanne encountered at times was to thwart the love-torn cardinal’s frequent appeals to set up a personal meeting with his paramour. She achieved this by citing the enormous risk of attempting such a secret meeting.

Once she was certain that the cardinal had well and truly fallen into her net, Jeanne slyly introduced her own personal agenda through Marie’s letters.

Marie now sought the cardinal’s assistance in streamlining some of the official regulations that made it difficult for the queen to directly contribute to some of the charities and social causes she supported. She wrote that if the cardinal was willing to support this proposal, the funding arrangements could be coordinated by her trusted friend, Comtesse de la Motte Valois. Just as Jeanne foresaw, the cardinal backed the idea without any hesitation, and thereafter, whenever the queen made him a monetary request, the enamoured gentleman would hand over to Jeanne many times more than what was requested.

Excerpted with permission from Fraudster Tales: History’s Greatest Financial Criminals and Their Catastrophic Crimes, Vijay Narayan Govind, Pan MacMillan India.