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Painting of two people fencing, one man is dressed as a woman

A look at diverse forms of love and desire through works in the Royal Collection

Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747-1828)

The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d'Eon c. 1787-9

RCIN 400636

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The Chevalier D’Éon was a decorated soldier, spy and diplomat who lived the first half of their life as a man, and the second as a woman.

It is difficult to reconstruct D’Éon’s’ life and identity with great certainty, given the many fictionalised accounts about them. D’Éon was born in Burgundy to a noble family. While living as a man, the charismatic and intelligent D’Éon worked as a member of a network of spies, before serving in the French army during the Seven Years War. In 1762 they came to England in order to negotiate a peace treaty, and settled in London where they worked as a diplomat. Though at the time D’Éon was presenting as male, their gender was the cause of much speculation and interest ­– and in 1777 a court ruled that D’Éon was a woman. After September 1777 D’Éon permanently presented as a woman – living as such until their death in 1810. A medical examination following D’Éon’s death designated them male. 

While living as a woman in London, D’Éon earned money through fencing demonstrations. D’Éon’s most famous fencing match is depicted in this painting. The match took place at Carlton House on 9 April 1787 in the presence of the Prince of Wales, sundry gentlemen and fencing aficionados. D’Éon’s opponent was the Chevalier de Saint-George – an expert fencer and favourite of the prince. Shown to the right of the painting, wearing a full skirt and bonnet, D’Éon appears to be dominating the match. Pinned to their chest is the Cross of St Louis, an award for exceptional military valour. In 1822, Henri Angelo wrote that,

nothing could equal the quickness’ of D’Éon’s fencing, and noted that it was particularly remarkable given that they were in their ‘sixtieth year'

'Reminiscences', vol.2, p.421

Though it is tempting to view D’Éon as transgender in a twenty-first-century sense, it is important to recognise this terminology did not exist during their lifetime. However, we do know that in their autobiography, D’Éon identifies as female and explains they were encouraged to live as a man by their family, in order to secure an inheritance.