On many occasions in history, the future of a nation, or even of the world, has been decided on the basis one apparently weak soul, who nevertheless carried within himself the promise of great achievements.
Thus, the magnificent France of the early 17th century owed all the glory and splendour of Louis XIV to a young man not yet twenty-two years of age: Louis II of Bourbon, Duke d’Enghien and Prince of Condé, known as the Grand Condé. And all of this was the consequence of a battle…
A great danger for France
It was the year 1643. Europe was immersed in the Thirty Years’ War, a religious conflict deeply intertwined with political issues, over which rivers of blood had already flowed in much of the continent.
The French monarch Louis XIII was suffering from the illness that would soon lead to his death. His former confidant, Cardinal Richelieu, a statesman who had shown himself unyielding in the face of the great powers of the day, had also been rendered powerless in the face of illness – that enemy often sent by God himself – and had, the previous year, already delivered his soul to the just divine judgement, having left title of Prime Minister to his right-hand man, Cardinal Mazarin.
Weakened by this political instability and under attack from all sides, France now saw the threatening shadow of the greatest military force of the time, the dreaded Spanish Tercios, invincible for more than a hundred years, descending upon her, led by an experienced officer, Don Francisco de Melo. Unless some drastic measure was taken, the eldest daughter of the Church would succumb in short order to the pikes and arquebuses of the enemy infantry.
The French monarch, in his last days, did not fear to place his entire army under the direction of a relatively inexperienced military man. It seemed a desperate gamble: he appointed Louis, Duke d’Enghien, as head of his army. At that moment, the fate of France was in the hands of a young man of twenty-one… But who was this youth to whom the king entrusted his troops?
The youth of Louis II of Bourbon
Louis, the son of Henri II de Condé and Charlotte Marguerite de Montmorency, was born on September 8, 1621, into the most illustrious family in France: the Bourbons. He inherited the title of Duke d’Enghien and, after the death of his progenitor, also that of Prince of Condé.
At the age of eight, his father determined that he should study under the auspices of the Jesuits at the lycée Sainte-Marie in Bourges. Despite the simplicity of the classroom, whoever entered it would find the nephew of King Louis XIII seated separately, raised on a gilded dais, so that he would be given due deference.
From an early age, Louis’ love of arms ignited in his heart a desire for heroic deeds. As a child, he used to organize small-scale wars with the other boys, assuming for himself the role of commander. Before going into battle, he would make speeches in Latin, a language which he spoke as fluently as French.
Years later, he entered the Royal Academy for young nobility. Always decorous and especially dedicated, Louis excelled in all the arts, from horsemanship to mathematics. In short, the prince was gradually developing the profile of a general. However, Richelieu proposed that he should first join the army as a soldier before beginning to command. In this way, knowing first-hand the struggles and difficulties faced by his subordinates, he would be prepared to be both resolute in making difficult decisions and as affable as a true father in times of peace, gaining his men’s trust – an indispensable condition for triumph in war.
In fact, a charismatic leader was indispensable, as the French army had become demoralized. After the death of the Prime Minister, many officers had left their posts under various pretexts and salaries were in arrears. In general, the army was already resigned to defeat.
Heading for the battlefield
It was up to him, who Bossuet described as “a young prince of royal blood who had victory in his eyes,”1 to raise the morale of the French forces and lead them to triumph. And the Duke succeeded.
He began by re-establishing discipline, gathering the troops that were scattered throughout the country into fortified bases, so that they could move swiftly in the face of any enemy onslaught. But the decisive factor for cohesion was his genius and his striking presence:
“He had above all, to the highest degree, that supreme gift of the leader, that gift which nothing replaces and without which everything else is nothing: authority. It was enough for him to appear to impose himself. He had the promptness and firmness of resolve that inspire confidence; the bravery and enthusiasm that draw admiration; and that irresistible dominance that ensures obedience and breaks down all barriers. […] He also knew how to calculate, to see things correctly and to temper enthusiasm when the need arose. He knew how to combine prudence and tenacity according to circumstances.”2
He restored the soldiers’ spirits and marched off to face the Spaniards, whom he met at Rocroi, near the Belgian border.
On May 17, 1643, to reach the battlefield it would be necessary for the French army to cross a strait, which would make them an easy target for the enemy. Louis chose to take his chances. Extreme swiftness guaranteed that the daring manoeuvre achieved the ideal result: the Duke d’Enghien was able to encamp in front of the Spaniards.
The day before, the prince had received news of Louis XIII’s death. However, this had no effect on his attitude against the adversary. He gathered his general staff and asked whether it would be more advantageous to engage in battle or to make small skirmishes, with the sole purpose of confusing the enemy and gaining time. The prudent voice of his advisors, especially that of Marshal de L’Hospital, replied that in view of so many misfortunes, the second option seemed more plausible. Added to the death of their sovereign, a defeat would be disastrous for France.
However, that young warrior, audacious and perspicacious, did not share this opinion and, in this case, his genius prevailed against the languid voices of the officers. Questioned about possible defeat, Louis replied: “That doesn’t concern me, for I shall die first.”3 To risk all for everything – that was his determination.
As May 18 drew to a close, the French commander reviewed all his troops and set the battle for the following morning. The night was so peaceful for the young prince that it was necessary to wake him at the stipulated hour because, unlike most of the combatants, incapable of any rest due to the euphoria that griped them on the eve of the confrontation, he slept.
D’Enghien has under his orders twenty-two thousand soldiers, six thousand jinetes and twelve cannons, distributed in good battle array, keeping the cavalry on the extremities. Melo, on the other hand, has seventeen thousand infantrymen, eighteen cannon, and eight thousand cavalrymen distributed in a similar manner, with the fearsome Tercios viejos in the centre.4
Contrary to what one would think at first sight, parity does not reign between the armies. Although the French have more infantrymen, there is no doubt that the Spanish army is better disciplined.
In this battle, in which the future of the Church’s firstborn daughter will be decided, a tragic end seems irreversible. It only appears so. After all, the decisive factor in great struggles is the strength of the commander’s spirit, and this the future Prince of Condé had emblazoned on his warrior soul.
The climactic moment of the battle
In the early morning of the 19th, having been awakened at the appointed hour, he arms himself with great nimbleness, but refuses the helmet. Like Henry IV at Ivry, he dons a felt hat, on which he places a white plume in the manner of a panache. His soldiers would thus recognize that the brave warrior was defying his enemies with aplomb. At that moment, news arrived that Melo is expecting reinforcements at noon. With time running out, Louis launches the attack. The hour is four o’clock in the morning.
The disorganized Spaniards are surprised by the speed and fury of the French army, and succumb to the Duke’s cavalry. His aquiline gaze takes in the vulnerability of the Tercios in face of the position he has just conquered. He then launches a new attack, which once again destabilizes them.
However, just as d’Enghien is conquering the centre, his left wing, led by La Ferté Sennetere, is dispersed by the enemy cavalry due to a careless act on his part. The reinforcements provided by the French only aggravate the crisis. All the cannons are in enemy hands. While at first everything had promised victory, now the most terrible loss occurs. However, the courage and valour of the French commander, in an irrepressible élan, sends him with lightning speed to the other side of the melee, where he finds Sirot at the head of the reserve corps and soon helps him to subdue the right wing of the Spaniards.
Meanwhile, the fearsome Tercios assert the defensive position that has earned them the title of invincible. Thrice d’Enghien tries to break through the human fortress, and he is thrice repelled. But no wall can stop that jovial force. The Spaniards fall one after another, until Fontaine, valiant commander of the Spanish infantry, surrenders his soul. In this climactic hour, the Spaniards raise a white flag. It is the end of the battle.
Of the Spanish army, there are eight thousand dead, seven thousand taken prisoner, and the rest dispersed in flight, abandoning victuals, baggage, dozens of standards, hundreds of flags, and Melo’s noble baton of command, studded with the names of his victories. Louis, Duke of Enghien, at this instant removes his hat and gives thanks to God for the conquest.
Rocroi, a milestone in history
With the victory at Rocroi, he saved the kingdom from a possible Spanish invasion, which would have struck France at the tragic moment of Louis XIII’s death.
This episode so marked the country and its combatants that in another battle in the year 1648, when Louis – already bearing the title with which he was to be immortalized, Grand Condé – was facing a far superior enemy army, in a desperate manoeuvre he simulated a retreat and, recalling that blessed day of May 19, 1643, he gathered his last remaining strength, turned around at the perfect moment and cried, “Remember Rocroi!”5 The bold gesture produced a surge of enthusiasm in the soldiers, sparking a turnaround in the battle and giving France another magnificent victory.
The genius of this hero, though it launched him into many dangers, made him immortal, for true glory is born when the soul knows how to draw from itself – or rather to impetrate from God – the determination needed to face the greatest difficulties. It is not without reason that Bossuet,6 in the funeral eulogy to the great commander, quoted the words of the Angel to Gideon: “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valour. […] Go in this might of yours […] I [the Lord] will be with you” (Jgs 6:12, 14, 16). ◊
1 HENRI ROBERT. Os grandes processos da História. Porto Alegre: Globo, 1961, v.IV, p.54.
2 Idem, p.56.
3 Idem, p.59.
4 Cf. PALADILHE, Dominique. Le Grand Condé. Héros des guerres de Louis XIV. Paris: Pygmalion, 2008, p.37.
5 HENRI ROBERT, op. cit., p.67.
6 Cf. BOSSUET, Jacques-Bénigne. Oraison funèbre du Prince de Condé. In. MIGNE, J.-P. (Ed.). Collection intégrale et universelle des orateurs sacrés. Paris: Ateliers Catholiques du Petit-Montrouge, 1846, t.XXV, col.1309.