Vicomte de Turenne

Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne Turenne was one of the most celebrated war heroes of French history in its pre-Napoleonic era. Of noble birth, Turenne rejected much of the trappings of his station in life for the hardships of the battlefield. His courage under fire and the loyalty he inspired among his troops, helped France in several decisive military engagements during the era of Louis XIV.

Turenne was born on September 11, 1611 into a prominent family. His father, the Duke of Bouillon and Viscount de Turenne, was an ardent French Protestant, a scholar, and diplomat with close ties to the French royal court. He gained possession of an independent duchy called Sedan, near Verdun, from an advantageous first marriage. In 1602, widowed a year, the Duke married Elizabeth of Nassau, the intelligent, strongwilled daughter of an eminent Dutch prince. Turenne was the second son of this union.


Ill Health

Turenne grew up during a troublesome time that made for an extremely intricate web of political and religious alliances and enmities. His maternal grandfather, called William the Silent, was a staunch Calvinist, and led his half of the Netherlands in a long war against Spain. This House of Orange, as William's line was called, was closely allied with Protestants in France, known as Huguenots. Numerous intrigues were fomented at various times within young Turenne's own family, and he likely came to prefer the unambiguous drama of the battlefield to the circuitous nature of government diplomacy.

During Turenne's childhood he lived under the shadow of his brother, who inherited their father's robust constitution and extroverted nature. Turenne, by contrast, was a sickly child who did not speak until the age of four. Within earshot, his father often remarked that such a frail physique would never be able to stand the rigors of war. Moreover, Turenne did poorly at his lessons and continually frustrated his tutor with his poor memory and inability to grasp various academic subjects. He became an avid reader, though, and came to love the annals of Roman military history written by Caesar.

As Turenne grew into his teens, his health vastly improved. He became an excellent rider, and once even spent the night sleeping on the ramparts of Sedan, to prove that he was indeed fit for the life of a soldier. By this point his father had died, and his brother had become Duke. When Turenne turned fifteen, his mother sent him to her brother, Prince Maurice of Nassau, for a military apprenticeship. He began his stint with the Dutch army as a lowly musketeer in the war with Spain. A quick learner in these less academic matters, he rapidly advanced and was soon given a company of infantry to command.


A Favorite at Court

After five years, Turenne returned to Sedan, where intrigues at court were beginning to threaten the stability of the monarchy. A powerful cardinal, Richelieu, wanted to abolish the duchy of Sedan. After defying an order, Turenne's mother decided to send him to Paris as a kind of hostage. There he impressed the cardinal, who gave him his own regiment. Turenne soon deployed this force in Italy, to participate in one of the numerous conflicts across Europe that became known as the Thirty Years' War. In 1634, he fought with the Army of Lorraine and helped take a massive fortress at La Motte. His commander, Marshal Henri de la Force, spoke so well of Turenne that he was promoted to marechal-de-camp, or major-general.

France became increasingly embroiled in the Thirty Years' War in the 1630s. The conflict originated with a few powerful German princes who had converted to the Protestant faith. Their lands, however, had been granted by the Hapsburg rulers in Vienna, who in turn were allied with the Catholic Pope under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire. France, though Catholic, had emerged as the Empire's main rival for European hegemony, and allied with the devout Lutheran king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, to take the side of the princes.

Over the next several years, Turenne commanded French armies in decisive battles in this conflict. Several occurred in Alsace, the border region between France and Germany. An eight-month siege at Breisach, a fortress on the Rhine, yielded a great victory in 1638. For his role, Turenne was offered one of Richelieu's nieces as a wife, but he politely declined, since the woman in question was naturally a Catholic. Turenne was also a key leader in French victories at Freiburg im Breisgau in 1644, and Nordlingen the following year. During these battles, he was closely allied with Louis II, Prince de Conde. The fortunes of these two men would become closely intertwined in future years.


The Fronde

Turenne worked closely with Swedish general, Gustav Karl Wrangel, in several joint skirmishes that helped bring a close to the Thirty Years' War by 1646. It was formally concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Internal conflicts in France, however, were reaching a crisis point. That same year marked the start of the first "Fronde," or rebellion against royal authority. Conde helped suppress this uprising at the behest of Richelieu's successor, Cardinal Mazarin. But the two men had a falling-out, and Conde then organized the second Fronde, called the Fronde of the Princes, in 1650. Meanwhile, the French king, Louis XIV, was still a minor and held little power.

Turenne and his family were involved to varying degrees in this rebellion, which was, in essence, an open war on the monarchy led by several notable aristocrats and supported by regional parliaments. Turenne's brother, the Duke of Bouillon, was opposed to Mazarin. Many worried that the general would ally with his family and lead an army against the royals. Mazarin even attempted to bribe Turenne with a grant for the government of Alsace, but he refused. In turn, Mazarin ordered and bribed French troops to turn against their own marshal. He was forced to flee to Holland, where Conde's sister, Madame de Longueville, convinced him to join the Fronde. Historical legend speculates that Turenne was deeply enamored of this woman, and was swayed to the cause by his heart.


Credited with Saving Royal Lives

Turenne's forces were defeated at Rethel in 1650. Mazarin still tried to lure him back to the King's army. The following year, Louis XIV reached the age of majority. With this political development, Turenne switched alliances, and went to war in 1652 on behalf of the young monarch when Conde allied with Spain to unseat the French monarchy. Louis XIV, Mazarin, his family, and the entire court were forced to depart Paris. The court fled, and Turenne battled Conde's 14,000-strong army with troops of just 4,000 outside Gien, where the terrified royal family were in hiding.

Turenne and the king's army finally defeated Conde on July 2, 1652 at Faubourg Saint-Antoine, just outside Paris. Early the following year, he wed Charlotte de Caumont, granddaughter of his former commander at La Motte. A few months later, he was back commanding French forces against Conde and the Spanish troops still on French soil. An alliance with England, which Louis XIV had concluded with the Puritan claimant to the English throne, Oliver Cromwell, resulted in a great show of strength against the enemy. The Battle of the Dunes wrested the port of Dunkirk out of Spanish hands in 1658. "Our cousin the Marechal de Turenne, by looking after everything and being present everywhere, has given innumerable proofs of his wonderful management as well as of his consummate experience, his signal valor, and his whole-hearted zeal for our service and for the grandeur of this realm," declared Louis XIV.


"L'Etat, C'est Moi"

That grandeur was becoming increasingly evident as Louis XIV moved to secure the throne and his personal control over France and its destiny. The Fronde had done little to damage the monarchy. In the end, it actually gave Louis XIV the opportunity to consolidate power even further. As king, he rescinded privileges held by the noble class, elevated the political status of the bourgeoisie, and declared that he was king "by the grace of God," or with divine right. He centralized the economy, launched several initiatives in trade and agriculture that enriched the coffers of the treasury, and created a large standing army.

Turenne now came to command one of the greatest military powers in all of Europe, under one of the most politically ambitious monarchs of the epoch. French troops became known for their rigorous order and adherence to tough discipline, unlike many of the armies of Europe that were rife with malcontents, hangers-on, and a corrupt officer class. It was still at war with the Hapsburgs, however. A renewal of hostilities began in 1667 with a dispute over the Spanish Netherlands. Turenne authored the plan for what became Louis XIV's War of Devolution.

War with Holland

Turenne commanded French forces in several battles that took place in Flanders over the next year. He was frustrated, however, when the king joined the army for certain battles, such as a great siege at Lille, and brought with him an unwieldy retinue in the hundreds, complete with all the attendant luxuries for which Louis XIV's reign would become famous. This particular war ended when several other European powers, including England and Sweden, joined with Spain to oppose French expansionism.

In 1668, Turenne converted to Roman Catholicism. His decision was likely the result of a growing distaste for the dissension and increasing fanaticism of some Protestant sects, such as the Puritans. The conversion distressed his three sisters, who were all ardent Huguenots. Louis XIV, meanwhile, continued his belligerent policies. In 1672, he declared war on the United Provinces—the entity formed by Turenne's grandfather, William of Orange. Turenne and the king commanded an invasionary force—along with Conde, now back in the King's good graces. This force was halted when the Dutch infamously opened their massive system of dikes and flooded their own country to prevent the French army from advancing any further toward Amsterdam. Over the next six years Turenne helped lead France to some acquisitions, but the conflict was concluded with the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen.

A Noble Resting Place

Louis XIV was determined to gain territory from Germany in the Alsace and Black Forest regions. Thus Turenne would spend the twilight years of his career leading French forces to several victories in the area, among them the capture of the venerable city of Strasbourg. On July 27, 1675, Turenne died at Sassbach against the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. Cannon shot had felled him while astride his horse on a reconnaissance ride. Still preparing for battle, his adjutants tried to keep the death a secret from the troops, fearing that news of the loss would demoralize them. His armies, intensely devoted to their famed leader, learned of it anyway and were distraught. Hearing the rejoicing of the enemy troops during the night only blackened the French mood. Turenne's men were soundly defeated the next day and driven back across the Rhine.

After a grand funeral, Turenne was buried at a fortress outside of Paris, the Abbey of St. Denis. Several other French kings were buried in this place of honor, and Turenne's tomb was one of several defaced during the French Revolution. His remains languished in storage for several years until 1802, when Napoleon, who had written extensively of Turenne's military exploits, had them re-interred inside Paris's Eglise des Invalides. Later, a famous monument to Napoleon was created there. One of the six chapels that surround the elaborate Napoleon's Tomb features Turenne's crypt.

Further Reading on Vicomte de Turenne

Marshal Turenne, Longmans, Green, 1907.

Weygand, Max, Turenne: Marshal of France, Houghton Mifflin, 1930.