Maurice de Saxe:
The Pompatus of Love
During his brief 54 years, Maurice of Saxony (also known as Maurice de Saxe, or Moritz von Sachsen) became one of France’s greatest commanders while also maintaining at least 17 acknowledged mistresses.
Born in 1696, Maurice was one of 354 children (that’s not a typo) of King Augustus the Strong of Poland (also Elector of Saxony); his mother was Countess Maria Aurora of Königsmarck. Young Maurice would be the first of only eight bastards officially recognized by the king, but spent his brief childhood being passed around to various relations.
At age 12, young Maurice enrolled in a Saxon infantry regiment. He saw action against the French at the Battle of Malplaquet, winning a battlefield commission for bravery at the age of 13. He celebrated with his first love affair, running off with a thirteen-year-old girl who he soon impregnated. Prince Eugene, commander of the Imperial forces, noticed his bravery and arranged his entry into a Jesuit college, but they boy’s Lutheran mother did not wish her son to convert to Catholicism. Maurice instead briefly took service under Peter the Great of Russia and fought against the Swedes.
His father finally noticed him, recognizing him in 1711 and granting him the title of Count of Saxony. After he fought the Swedes on behalf of his father he gained command of a Saxon infantry regiment at the age of 17. The end of the War of the Spanish Succession left him without purpose, and he convinced his old commander Prince Eugene to add him to his staff in 1716 for his successful campaign against the Turks.
Maurice’s mother despaired for his future, and worked tirelessly to secure a rich marriage for her son. In 1713 the Countess arranged a marriage for him with Johanna Viktoria von Leoben, considered the richest heiress in Saxony. He quickly ran through her fortune, spending it on women and parties and simply squandering the rest; by 1718 creditors had begun to seize her property and she had fled to Maria Aurora’s estate. In 1721 Maurice’s now-destitute wife pursued a divorce, lodging charges of serial adultery and profligacy. “Her statements are absolutely correct,” Maurice told the Lutheran Consistory.
Following his service against the Turks, Maurice traveled to Paris, ostensibly to study mathematics. There he met the love of his life, the astonishingly beautiful actress Adrienne Lacouvreur. Having little interest in mathematics, but a great deal in Adrienne, he prevailed upon his father to purchase a commission for him as commander of a German mercenary regiment in French service. The French crown stationed German and Swiss regiments in Paris; where French units might hesitate to fire on civilian crowds during times of civil unrest, it was felt that Germans would do so enthusiastically.
Maurice drew attention for his rigorous drill of his troops, as well as his rigorous pursuit of not only Adrienne but other lovely French women as well. His rough manners seemed to only add to his charm, and he became known as “The Wild Boar” for his relentless sexual efforts. Like his father, Maurice could allegedly bend horseshoes with his bare hands, and enjoyed displaying his immense physical strength. Soon a romantic triangle developed, as the Duchesse de Bouillon attempted to pull Maurice away from his beloved Adrienne.
The duchess extracted a promise from Maurice to ignore Adrienne (right), but he apparently ignored it and continued to make love to many women. In 1725 he took leave from his post to travel to Courland, today western and southern Latvia, in an attempt to gain election as duke. His campaign had a promising start, as he first befriended and then made love to the late duke’s widow, Anna Ivanovna, niece of Peter the Great. Meanwhile, Adrienne pawned her considerable store of jewelry and forwarded 40,000 livres for Maurice to use in bribing members of Courland’s Diet. Between the money and Anna Ivanovna’s influence – secured with a promise of marriage – Maurice won election and became reigning duke.
And then things unraveled. Anna discovered Maurice’s dalliance with one of her ladies-in-waiting and became enraged, breaking their engagement. The Polish Sejm overruled King Augustus, declaring their opposition to Maurice – Courland was, legally, a fief of the Polish crown and would have reverted to Poland had a new duke not been selected. Both Russian and Polish troops marched on the small capital of Mittau, which Maurice had been trying to fortify.
The years of peace that followed found Maurice depressed and at loose ends, living in Paris and continuing to enjoy the sexual favors of actresses, dancers and noblewomen. Adrienne died in 1730, apparently poisoned by the Duchesse de Bouillon, while Anna improbably became Tsarina of All the Russias – had Maurice kept his pantaloons laced, he would have been her crowned consort. King Augustus died in 1733; his successor, Maurice’s half-brother Frederick Augustus II, offered him command of the Saxon army but Maurice decided to return to French service. Soon afterwards the War of the Polish Succession broke out as the French tried to install their own candidate in Warsaw and Maurice returned to French service – to fight against his half-brother’s claim.
Maurice served under James FitzJames, Duke of Berwick, nephew of Marlborough and Marshal of France. In the early days of May 1734 Maurice led a daring attack at Ettlingen against his former patron Prince Eugene, scoring a signal success that drew the notice of King Louis XV and France’s de factor ruler, Cardinal Fleury. The young Saxon was now marked for rapid advancement, gaining promotion to lieutenant general, but it would take another war for this to come to fruition.
France intervened in the War of the Austrian Succession in the late summer of 1741, with the French army crossing the Rhine and taking up positions facing the Austrians and their Imperial allies. Maurice was given command of a division sent as an auxiliary force to assist the Bavarians and Prussians in Bohemia. Maurice conducted a daring night assault on the capital of Prague, surprising his own high command and Maria Theresa’s inept husband, commander of her forces in Bohemia. Control of Prague gave the Bavarian Elector Charles Albert five electoral votes and therefore the Imperial crown as Charles VII.
Maurice had completely altered the situation, but the elderly Marshal de Broglie held command in Bohemia and Maurice took leave to return to Courland. Anna Ivanovna had died, and without her bitter opposition he hoped to regain the duchy for himself. Maurice’s gambit failed, and the French lured him back into active service with an appointment as Marshal of France and an army command of his own.
Following a stillborn effort to invade Britain in 1744, Maurice took command of French forces in the Austrian Netherlands. He won major victories at Fontenoy in 1745, Rocoux in 1746 and Lawfeldt in 1747. Immense physical courage and an ability to inspire his troops to emulate it, uncanny insight into the minds of his opponents, an emphasis on training and combined-arms tactics all became hallmarks of his art of war. And to keep the Marshal in fighting trim, a special theater company staffed with pretty actresses accompanied his headquarters and served as his traveling harem. Now renowned as France’s greatest commander in generations, he obtained French citizenship in 1746 and a chateau at Chambord.
Maurice retired there after the war’s end in 1748, continuing to pursue beautiful women and entered torrid affairs with the 17-year-old Marie Rainteau and her 13-year-old sister, Genevieve – all at the urging of their father Claude-Louis, a seller of lemonade. Claude-Louis hoped to gain a lemonade concession from the French army, but his bumbling efforts instead led to embezzlement charges against Maurice. Since France’s greatest hero could not be placed on trial, it was Claude-Louis who went to prison.
Maurice’s death in 1750 would be attributed to several causes: the aftermath of a fall from his horse, a duel with the Prince de Conti, pneumonia, and, most likely, a heart attack following exertions with eight young actresses summoned to Chambord for “interviews.” Whatever the cause, Louis XV declared him a great hero, laying on a massive funeral procession with a splendid burial in the Lutheran Church of St. Thomas in Strasbourg (the king had wished him interred in Saint-Denis with France’s kings, but the Church would not allow a Protestant to be buried there).
“Life is only a dream,” he supposedly told his physician, his last words as he died. “Mine has been a beautiful one, but it has been too short.”
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.