Chasing Prince Eugen

Not the ship, the historical personage.  For some few years, I’ve been intrigued by the figure of Prince Eugen of Savoy. His name is very familiar to European historians, especially those who focus on pre-Napoleonic warfare. He rides a rearing stallion in front of the Hofburg in Vienna, and stands guard over the Danube on castle hill in Budapest. He fought the Ottomans out of Hungary and with the assistance of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlboro, singed Louis XIV’s fingers on several occasions. He left four lovely baroque palaces, a phenomenal art collection, and no written records, no personal papers, nothing. His friends and associates destroyed what they had from him after his death.

I’ve been, unintentionally at first, following Prince Eugen across Europe for the past five or six years. Southern Bavaria, near Hochstadt, is the site of the battle English-speakers know as Blenheim. Eugen saw his first serious action in the relief of Vienna in 1683, and participated in most of the subsequent battles against the Turks along the Danube as far as Belgrade. I have not tracked him across northern Italy, but there’s still time.

Why? I’m not certain. He’s a fascinating character, in part because of what we can’t know. All sorts of historical rumors circle around him, and always have. Was he a homosexual? Why didn’t he ever marry? Why was he such a good field commander? What motivated him? Did he have any good friends? Apparently he and Marlboro got along very well, but beyond that we don’t have any information.

Based on descriptions and portraits, we do know that he was, ah, well, homely, short and lightly built, and apparently an absolute terror on the battlefield.

I think one of the things that I find fascinating is his loyalty. He fled France and served the Habsburg dynasty for all of his adult life. He pulled the emperors’ chestnuts out of the proverbial fire more than once, and he never seems to have tried to use his position for his own gain, at least that historians can tell. Of course, given the rewards the Habsburgs showered him with, and the loot he captured, he didn’t need to skim the army budget. In an age when the top military personnel moved from army to army as finances and the desire for experience took them, Eugen stayed with the Habsburgs.

He seemed to have a gift for finding weak spots and for doing the absolutely mad, insane thing that saved the day. One of his best known victories, at Zenta in 1697, came when he led his cavalry into the Turks just before sunset, when you were supposed to be making camp and settling down for the night, and fighting them back across the river before they could finish establishing a secure bridgehead. No one in their right mind fought at night in those days. Eugen did. At Belgrade in 1717, his men sick with dysentery, he got caught between the walls of the city and two Turkish armies. Most people started writing his epitaph, but when the fog and smoke cleared (literally in this case), he’d won. he wasn’t known as an original thinker, but he was very, very good at improvising and at reading the battlefield and finding the key point, the moment when he could turn the tide. he was defeated more than once, but always came back. I admire that.

It’s been a fascinating five years, chasing Prince Eugen.


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