The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Prince Eugene of Savoy – the Debauched Boy Turned Military Hero

In 1682, King Louis XIV of France was approached by a short and unprepossessing-looking young man, who asked to be allowed to enlist in the French army. The young man was Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), who, as the fifth son of one of the important, aristocratic families in France had two careers open to him – the church or the army.

The King refused categorically and, as a result, Prince Eugene left France and offered his services to Louis’s enemy, the Austrian Emperor Leopold I. During his glamorous career Prince Eugene won an almost uninterrupted series of victories, all of them, directly or indirectly, at the expense of France. He has come down in history as the military leader who stopped the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Later, Napoleon included Prince Eugene among the seven greatest military leaders in history.

Statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy in Heldenplatz, Vienna

Why would the French King, who prided himself on his ability to discern talent, fail to see Prince Eugene’s great potential? Most biographies of the Prince suggest that his unappealing outer appearance had affected his chances of a military career. Prince Eugene was short, had a dark complexion and a large, unbecoming nose. According to the Duchess of Orleans, who knew him personally, “his nose ruins his face”, “he has two large teeth which are visible at all times”, while his “upper lip is so narrow as to prevent him ever shutting his mouth.” There is no need to go into the further details, which the Duchess provided with relish, as one gets the point – the Prince was no Apollo.

What is less clear to me, though, is why the French King, a man far from stupid, should care about the height or the noses of his generals or the regularity of their teeth for that matter rather than their military ability. It appears, in fact, that he just couldn’t take Prince Eugene seriously. It shouldn’t escape notice at this point that when one wasn’t taken seriously in this environment, he was almost automatically ordered to a church career.

It seems to me quite possible that while Louis knew that generals came tall or short, plain or handsome, what he found ridiculous about Prince Eugene’s suggestion was not so much his outer appearance as his reputation for being what could be described as a homosexual transvestite.

Indeed, Prince Eugene was known for belonging to a set of young aristocrats who had managed, even against the background of the open promiscuity of the court at Versailles, to stand out as shameless perverts. The group centred around the Abbé de Choisy, who would appear dressed as a girl except for the occasions when he felt like wearing the make-up of a mature woman. According to the Duchess of Orleans, Prince Eugene often “played the part of a woman among the young people”. The court was surely not surprised to hear that the Prince had fled France disguised as a woman.

The Belvedere Palace, Prince Eugene's summer residence in Vienna.

The biographies of Prince Eugene regularly suggest that a profound and rather mysterious change happened to the Prince in his youth. For unknown reasons, “the very debauched boy who seemed to promise no good” – as he was described by his contemporaries – transformed himself into a hard-working, ambitious, and seriously-minded young man, who devoted himself to his duties. It is even mentioned that there was no hint of the scandals of a sexual nature that had attended him in France once he moved to Vienna. The implication is clearly that Prince Eugene underwent a moral transformation that brought him closer to the image expected of a great military hero. While anything is possible, experience shows that such total transformations are extremely rare. One wonders if they are even desirable in the first place, as such stories suggest.

If we keep an open mind, we should be able to imagine that just as great military leaders can be tall or short, plain or handsome, they can also be – and indeed have been throughout history – homosexual or heterosexual. They can even be transvestites.

What is harder to accept with transvestitism, I imagine, is that it carries an obvious implication of effeminacy that is difficult to square with the very masculine virtues expected of a warrior. However, there was Prince Eugene, very likely a homosexual and a transvestite and, at the same time, without doubt, the greatest general of his century, a man “who fought as a lion,” as his soldiers sang in a popular song at the time.

Comments are closed.