Mighty in pen, sword and amour

Prince of Europe
September 12, 2003

This historical biography first appeared in Paris ten years ago, in a French translation, having found no publisher in the UK. But the success of Philip Mansel's Paris between Empires two years ago emboldened the publishers to produce this one. The two books form the panels of a grand diptych that depicts European history from 1750 to 1850. This updated volume ends in 1814, with the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. It is a wonderful read - even better than the French version.

Charles-Joseph de Ligne was born in 1735 in Beloeil, his family estate south of Brussels - "the cockpit of Europe... a region where there has always been war" - then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that stretched from Flanders to Romany. The family was old and illustrious, related through marriage to half the sovereigns of Europe, but it held on to its Belgian identity, and its allegiance was to Austria and its empire.

Ligne was educated in French, and at 15 was taken by his father to the court of the Habsburgs in Vienna, where, with his good looks and natural charm, he was made a chamberlain.

At 20, Ligne married a princess of Liechtenstein - "an eel under a rock" - whose plain looks did not engage his heart but who gave him four children and was later "good at paying off his debts".

To make a mark at this time, one had to achieve military glory. Ligne's first success was in 1756, during the seven years' war. He rose in rank to become a field marshal, although his ultimate goal eluded him: to lead the army that would defeat Napoleon, for by then he was too old.

But he also had ambitions to become a great writer. He wrote profusely in verse and prose, and published 35 volumes in his lifetime and as many since - the first grand seigneur to become a published author. His epigrams have been compared to Rochefoucault's, his letters to those of Madame de Sevingne's and his memoirs to Saint Simon's.

In 1763, Ligne left Vienna for "his real patrie - the Republic of Letters". He visited Voltaire, Rousseau, and Goethe, who found him "the most cheerful man of the century". At Versailles, he became a trusted friend of Marie Antoinette. Back in Vienna by 1787, he followed the events in France and was appalled by the revolution. He urged Austria to invade and "finish the French farce", but the armies were defeated.

Travel was also one of Ligne's passions. His carriage sped across Europe "like a moving salon". He stayed in Potsdam with Frederick the Great, whose knowledge and wisdom impressed him. In Russia he enchanted Catherine the Great - "her head is her Cabinet" - who had murdered two tsars. In Poland he found "the best manners of France with Oriental hospitality" and elegant women. He had affairs, claimed Polish ancestry and took Polish nationality to acquire land. " J'aime mon état d'etranger partout " (I like being a foreigner everywhere), he wrote.

Military glory "is the idol dearest to my heart", said Ligne, but in the war with the Ottomans in 1788, Joseph II decided that Ligne's charm would serve him better as a liaison officer. He became an important player in the "Great Game of Europe through his friendship with Potemkin and his connection with Poland. In the event, Austria was defeated by the Turks.

Ligne kept up his journal: his portrait of Potemkin - "A genius... a spoilt child of God" - is often quoted, while his writing on the Turks, whom he liked for their "elegance and lack of vulgarity" is an early "manifesto of Orientalism". He finally saw action in 1788 at the battle of Belgrade, when he took the city for the Austrians.

The last 20 years of his life were spent in a converted monastery near Vienna where he gave lavish hospitality, in particular to French emigres who had escaped from the revolution. He was prophetic about Napoleon, who would rule with "a sceptre of iron... You will become slaves and you will deserve it", he told a French friend.

No one conjures court life better than Mansel: the splendour, politics, intrigues and love affairs. Sharp observations temper his vast scholarship and memorable anecdotes abound. The book is a rich tapestry where every thread is necessary.

It finishes with a grand finale: the Congress of Vienna, with crowned heads and statesmen and their entourage, gathered to enshrine a "new principle of international relations. Henceforth changes should be made by agreement between great powers at congresses and conferences". It held until 1914.

At a time when the European Union is having trouble defining itself, Ligne embodied a certain idea of the European: spirited, creative, generous, cosmopolitan, civilised and cultured.

Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review.

Prince of Europe: The Life of Charles-Joseph de Ligne (1735-1814)

Author - Philip Mansel
ISBN - 1 84212 731 4
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 340

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