Thursday 25 July 2013

Espionage and Adventure: Friedrich von der Trenck

Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck (Prussia, 16th February 1726 – Paris, France, 25th July 1794)

Engraving of Friedrich von der Trenck

Well, my fan is all-a-flutter because today on the Guide we are remembering a man of action, the ever-adventurous Friedrich von der Trenck.

Born into a military family, von der Trenck initially pursued a career in law but the lure of an adventurous life proved too strong and by 1744 he was stationed in Silesia as on officer of Frederick the Great. His swift rise, numerous decorations and occasional indiscretions did not endear our hero to everyone and when the moment came to cast doubt on this favourite of the King, they grabbed it with both hands. In an unfortunate twist of fate, von der Trenck's cousin was fighting on the opposing Austrian side at Silesia and when the two men corresponded with one another, rumours began to spread that von der Trenck was an Austrian spy. Despite his bravery in battle and loyalty to his Prussian rulers and comrades, he was imprisoned at Glatz. His initial period of captivity was one of relative ease but his repeated efforts to escape resulted in a new sentence, this one of hard labour.

The daring escape by Sallieth after J.van Meurs (1788)
The daring escape by Sallieth after J.van Meurs (1788)

After several increasingly audacious failed escape attempts, von der Trenck finally made a desperate, bid for freedom, surviving a forty foot drop from the walls of the fortress before evading capture throughout a long winter night. Fleeing Prussia he initially resumed his military career in Hungary before moving on to Russia where, he told his friends, he was highly favoured by Tsarina Elizabeth. He remained in Russia for a number of years where he enjoyed a long affair with an unnamed, married noblewoman who some have suggested was the Tsarina herself.

Even now Frederick had not given up on recapturing the escaped convict so, when von der Trenck returned to his homeland in 1753 to attend the funeral of his mother, the King made a move.

von der Trenck by Dutch engraver Willem Kok (Dutch translation, 1788)
 von der Trenck by Dutch engraver Willem Kok (Dutch translation, 1788)
Upon von der Trenck's arrival in Danzig he was rearrested and taken to the Magdeburg Citadel, where he was held in manacles in a tiny, isolated cell. This time there would be no escape and he was to remain in captivity for a decade until his freedom was secured by special petition of Empress Maria Theresa. Upon his release, von der Trenck made up for lost time as he established himself as a mercenary, merchant and writer, producing a highly successful, very colourful autobiography that became required reading for the thrill-seeking public!

Eventually, von der Trenck became the Austrian spy he had been suspected of being all those years before and it was this new adventure that was to prove his undoing. Undercover in  revolutionary France, he was discovered and went to the guillotine on 25th July 1794. He was posthumously given the title of Count by the King of Prussia, a rank that passed to the eldest of his fourteen children.

His is a story worthy of the most breathless adventure novel, a life of flamboyant highs and devastating lows and he even found time for a dash of illicit romance! Come to think of it, one of the more excitable Gilflurt aunties was in Russia in the late 1740s; I wonder...

You can see more wonderful pictures from the life of this remarkable character here

My thanks to fabulous Twitter follower De Zilveren Eeuw for the wonderful engravings that accompany this post!


Gem Twitcher said...

Wow!! What a story!!...and one to make the ladies hearts beat!! Thank you,Madame-He really was a true adventurer,wasn't he?:-)

Catherine Curzon said...

Not a happy ending, but a fitting one!

Beth Elliott said...

Have to admire his spirit - and his zest for life. AND he found time to beget 14 children that he recognised, maybe others as well.

Catherine Curzon said...

He's one of my favourite characters; a man who made the most of every day!