100 Heroes: Prince Eugene of Savoy

The gay man who became one of the most successful military commanders of his time.

100 Heroes: Prince Eugene of Savoy

Prince Eugene of Savoy was a field marshal in the army of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty during the 17th and 18th centuries. He was one of the most successful military commanders of his time, and rose to the highest offices of state at the Imperial court in Vienna.

Born in Paris, Eugene was brought up in the court of King Louis XIV of France. Based on the custom that the youngest sons of noble families were destined for the priesthood, the Prince was initially prepared for a clerical career, but by the age of 19, he had determined on a military career. Based on his poor physique and bearing, he was rejected by Louis XIV for service in the French army. Eugene moved to Austria and transferred his loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire.

In a career spanning six decades, Eugene served three Holy Roman Emperors: Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles VI. His first battle experiences were fought against the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna in 1683 and the subsequent War of the Holy League, before serving in the Nine Years’ War, in which he fought alongside his cousin, the Duke of Savoy. The Prince’s fame was secured with his decisive victory against the Ottomans at the Battle of Zenta in 1697, earning him Europe-wide fame. Eugene enhanced his standing during the War of the Spanish Succession, where his partnership with the Duke of Marlborough secured victories against the French on the fields of Blenheim (1704), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709); he gained further success in the war as Imperial commander in northern Italy, most notably at the Battle of Turin (1706). Renewed hostilities against the Ottomans in the Austro-Turkish War consolidated his reputation, with victories at the battles of Petrovaradin (1716), and the decisive encounter at the Siege of Belgrade in 1717.

Throughout the late 1720s, Eugene’s influence and skilful diplomacy managed to secure the Emperor powerful allies in his dynastic struggles with the Bourbon powers, but physically and mentally fragile in his later years, Eugene enjoyed less success as commander-in-chief of the army during his final conflict, the War of the Polish Succession. Nevertheless, in Austria, Eugene’s reputation remains unrivalled. Although opinions differ as to his character, there is no dispute over his great achievements: he helped to save the Habsburg Empire from French conquest; he broke the westward thrust of the Ottomans, liberating parts of Europe after a century and a half of Turkish occupation; and he was one of the great patrons of the arts whose building legacy can still be seen in Vienna today.

Personal life

Rumours about Eugene’s sexuality began in his teenage years. From the court of Versailles, there were rumours of Eugene’s encounters with pages. It’s believed that he was unable to pursue a career in the church because of his widely-known interest in men.

No significant relationships were recorded, but his detractors appeared to be quick to mention his homosexuality when seeking to denigrate him.

Eugene died in his sleep at his home on 21 April 1736, aged 72.