By Robert Krebs (Guest Contributor)
In 1701 at Carpi, he was there. Later that year, he appeared at Chiari. As 1701 rolled over into 1702, he could be found at Cremona. Two years later in 1704, he was seen once more at Blenheim—with a friend, the duke of Marlborough, this time. He popped up at Mirandola, Cassano, Turin, Toulon, Susa, Oudenarde, Lille, and Malplaquet too. Admittedly, the list of locations is beginning to sound like a long-lost verse from the Hank Snow song “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
But it’s true. On battlefields across Europe, Prince Eugene of Savoy was there. So were the armies of Louis XIV. In nearly half a century of fighting, French land units had suffered no major battlefield defeats. Success bordered on hegemony. Victories could be tallied in the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the War of the Reunions, and the Nine Years War. However, with the War of the Spanish Succession, the Sun King’s military brilliance was—if only briefly—dimmed. Eclipsing Louis was none other than Prince Eugene.
Prince Eugene of Savory was a military savant, at least according to Napoleon. Only forty years old at the breakout of the War of the Spanish Succession, Prince Eugene of Savoy commanded all armies for the Holy Roman Empire. His success against French armies frustrated Louis, who wrote to one of his generals “Your obey the rules of the art of war, Prince Eugene doesn’t give a fig for them.” Prince Eugene of Savoy also didn’t “give a fig” for learning how to spell his name in German. He never thought of himself as either Austrian or German, for he was French at heart.
How did a man who spoke and wrote exclusively in French come to fight for the Holy Roman Empire? The answer involves a cardinal, a poisoning, and a rejected petition. Prince Eugene grew up in the French court, if on its periphery. His mother Olympia Mancini, the countess of Soissons, was a niece of Cardinal Mazarin and an early mistress of Louis XIV. If love and lineage were kind to Prince Eugene, genetics were quite cruel. Physically frail, the jaundiced and unattractive Eugene was quickly shoved towards the clergy. Despite this, Eugene maintained an interest in war; he studied military strategy and learned to handle weapons and ride horses.
Like every teenage son, Prince Eugene also had his mother to blame for his unfortunate scenario. During the Affair of the Poisons, evidence emerged suggesting that she had poisoned her husband and was involved in a plot to poison Louise de la Vallière, then the first mistress of Louis XIV. Strongly convinced of her guilt, yet aware of his intimate connection to Olympia, Louis gave her the opportunity to face trial or leave France. She opted for the latter. Thanks, Mom.
To Prince Eugene, his name fell into disrepute. And so, when he petitioned Louis XIV for a position in the army, he was rebuffed. Louis remarked that, “nobody ever ventured to stare me in the face so insolently, like an angry sparrow hawk.” Incensed, Prince Eugene of Savoy left, offering his allegiance to Leopold I and the Holy Roman Empire. The rest is history.
Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667-1714. Longman, 1999.
Mollenauer, Lynn Wood. “The Politics of Poison: Courtiers and Criminals in the Affair of the Poisons, 1679-1682.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1999.
Wernick, Robert. “The Little Prince Who Grew Up to Haunt Louis XIV.” Smithsonian, January 1985, pp. 54-63.
Robert Krebs is a senior at Vanderbilt University studying Public Policy, French, and Mathematics. He is most interested in the quantitative study of legislative behavior, but also devotes time to playing and arguing about hockey.