The three Lives of Count Bonneval

The three Lives of Count Bonneval


 André Julien Fabre                                     September 25, 2008

Count Claude-Alexandre de Bonneval (1675-1747), had a strange destiny : he lived three consecutive lives…

 .1. Bonneval Royal Guard Officer in the French Army

 Claude Alexandre de Bonneval was born at the end of XVIIth century in an aristocratic Limousine family. At the age of thirteen, he joined up Marine Guards under the command of Admiral Anne Hilarion de Costentin, comte de Tourville and protector of his family. in 1692, during the "Nine years War", he took an heroic part to the battle of La Hougue but, after several duels…and an affair with an officer's wife, Bonneval had to leave the Navy, and he enrolled in the Régiment des Gardes Françaises.

During Spanish Succession War, Bonneval's brilliant feats of arms cover him with glory but, once again, in 1701, his obsessive pride of honour will bring him some problems  : Michel Chamillart, Secretary of State for War, had requested a clarification on his "campaign expenses",  Bonneval answered with a highly provocative letter. After that, the only thing left was to leave the Army, but, this time Bonneval had went too far : he was judged as deserter and condemned to be hung up (in effigy) into the pillory …

 .2. Bonneval Major-General in Austrian army

 After that, Bonneval kept wandering for several years in Europe until he was contacted in Venice by an Austrian agent and persuaded to get to the service of the Prince Eugène de Savoie, Feldmarshall in the Austrian Army (and outcast from the Court of Versailles).

The War of Spanish Succession had just begun, and Bonneval appointed as First Lieutenant during the 1704 Danube campaigns, got rapid fame as hero. Still fighting against his mother country, but now promoted Major-General, Bonneval had the singular fortune, in 1709, at the Battle of Malplaquet, near Mons, to save the life of an enemy who was none other than César-Phébus of Bonneval, his own brother !

Away from battlefield, Bonneval was an enraged duellist. However, man of great culture, he multiplied contacts with every "great mind" of his time, from Leibniz to Fénelon and Voltaire to Montesquieu.

His career reached a peak in 1715, during the war between Austria and Turkey. Bonneval displayed incredible gallantry at the Battle of Petrovaradin, resisting the Turks several hours at the head of his troops, although seriously injured (he will have to wear all his life a silver plaque on his belly).

Such a glorious feat of arms had a great impact in France and Bonneval became in his home country an heroic figure incensed by poets such as Jean-Baptiste Rousseau who wrote an enthusiastic ode on this occasion :

"Quel est ce nouvel Alcide

Qui seul, entouré de morts

De cette foule homicide 

Arrête tous les efforts ?

A peine un fer détestable

Ouvre son flanc redoutable,

Son sang est déjà payé."

It only remained to Bonneval to negotiate his return to France. The Duc d'Orléans, another Limousine (as his counsellor, the famed Abbé Dubois) gave endorsement letters and in February, 1717 during a solemn ceremony : Bonneval could be received in the Parliament of Paris with all the honours due to his rank.

He was then 42 years old and had to start a family : his mother found for him Judith de Gontaut-Biron, a parent of the Regent who fell at once in love with the beautiful adventurer. On March 7, 1717, their marriage was celebrated, but ten days later, Bonneval was back in his Regiment.

A few months later, the city of Belgrade was recaptured from the Turks : another triumph for Bonneval.

However Tarpeian Rock was close to Capitol : after some bad jokes on his protector, Prince Eugene, Bonneval was sentenced to five years in jail in the Spielberg fortress (future prison for Silvio Pellico and much later concentration camp…). But, the Indomitable hero of Petrovaradin made a spectacular escape to find, once again, refuge in Venice.

There, Bonneval led a brilliant life, between feasts and masquerades, meeting celebrities as Montesquieu who was then visiting Italy. However, this high-style life made very soon Bonneval short of resources : he had to seek new adventures and fleeing eastwards he arrived in Sarajevo where, in 1729, the trap closed : Bonneval was arrested and kept 14 months in prison. Threatened to be given back to the Austrians, nothing more was left for him but a solution of despair : once again, change side and abjure Catholic Faith to embrace Mohammedanism.

 .3. Bonneval, converted to Islam becomes Osman Pasha in Constantinople.

 s soon as he was In Constantinople, Bonneval started a plan to modernize Turkish army, but the Sultan's entourage refused any changes and Bonneval was sent on mission to the most distant regions of the Ottoman Empire, roaming for six months in all Orient, from Petra to Mecca.

After repeated "coups d'Etat" and the coming of a new sultan, Bonneval reached the highest honours becoming Grand Master of Artillery, Governor of Caramania, Petrean Arabia and Chios. Living in a palace of Scutari, the most aristocratic quarter of Constantinople, he got a new name, Achmet Osman and the title of" Three Tails" Pasha" (There is a portrait from the Swiss painter Jean-Etienne Liotard showing Bonneval wearing, as all good Moslems, turban and beard …)

In 1737, a glorious moment, the last, was to come : the battle of Nis, in Bosnia against Austrian Army, but Bonneval could never achieve his grand project of an Engineering School to train specialists in artillery.

It was time then to prepare a return to France but this project could never be realized : Bonneval died on March 23, 1747. He was 72 years old.

His tomb can still be seen in Istanbul, at the Pera "Whirling Dervishes" Tekké with this inscription :"God is permanent; God, glorious and great with the true believers, give peace to the deceased Achmet Pasha, Chief of Bombarders, in the year of the Hegira 1160"


 Saint Simon left on Bonneval a rather cruel statement :"He was an excellent family junior with a keen talent for war, of high intelligence blended with a eat culture and a true gift for eloquence but he was also a true rake and a wild plunderer."

However, despite a very large amount of historical testimonies, the "Bonneval case" remains an enigma : how can be explained his immoderate taste for paradox and provocation? The whole life of Bonneval seems dedicated to reversals and "flip-flops" ?

• 1698 : Bonneval, convinced to be victim of a plot hatched by a Minister, resigns from the "Marine Royale".

• 1701 : Bonneval becomes deserter after a tumultuous exchange of letters with the War Minister Michel Chamillart.

• 1709 : Duel (among many others ...) with a Prussian general accused of making "degrading comments" on the King of France ( Bonneval was apparently unaware that he had been fighting many years against his own country…)

• 1723 : Discord with his benefactor, Prince Eugène de Savoie.

• 1724 Spectacular dispute with the marquis de Prié, powerful governor of Netherlands, guilty, in the eyes of Bonneval of defamation against the Queen of Spain, one of the daughters of the Regent, Louise-Élisabeth d'Orléans.

• New desertion of Bonneval, disavowed by the Emperor of Austria : rather than submit, he sends a very insolent letter of resignation and takes refuge in Venice.

• 1730 : New volte-face : Bonneval leaves Venice and flees to Bosnia but arrived in Sarajevo, at the borders of the Ottoman Empire, he decides, in dire distress,  to change camp and abnegating his Catholic Faith, passes to the enemy

• 1745 : Attempts of Bonneval to flee from Constantinople and claim protection in Rome from the Pope : the last dream of his life...

• 1747 : Final episode : Bonneval, who had so often claimed to be Muslim, dies in Constantinople expressing his wishes to be buried in Christian land.

In summary, Bonneval's long life could be briefly summarized : a long-lasting "coup de théatre"

 .1. Bonneval Mythomaniac ?

 Could Bonneval have been some kind of mythomaniac patient, prone to chronic tendency to lie and relate imaginary adventures ? In fact, his Mémoires issued in 1742 in Utrecht as" Anecdotes Vénitiennes et Turques, ou Nouveaux mémoires du comte de Bonneval, depuis son arrivé á Venise jusqu'á son exil dans l'isle de Chio, au mois de mars 1739" have always been suspected to be  plain forgery. According to many XVIIIIth century specialists, the real author of the "Mémoires" is likely to have been the marquis d'Argens Boyer or, perhaps a collective team of French refugees in Holland as La Barre de Beaumarchais or Father Yves-Joseph de La Hode.

Nevertheless, the Count of Bonneval did exist, there is no doubt about it and his incredible life is no fiction : countless testimonies, from the Prince of Ligne to Voltaire and from Montesquieu to Leibnitz, attest that Bonneval fully lived each of his three consecutive lives.

 .2. Bonneval psychopath?

 Many arguments lead to consider, underlying in the Bonneval case, some psychiatric disorders with a main fact : Bonneval, in all circumstances, showed a highly impulsive temper, to say the least, associated with an obsessive refusal to accept any judgement from the others. However, several components of Bonneval's personality could come in discussion :

• Repeated changes in belief, religion, flag or country (more often, maybe, as he changed shirt ?); suggest in retrospect a diagnosis of instability. However there is no trace here of the self-contempt or depreciation so often displayed by psychiatric patients.

• Bonneval's compulsive travels and chronic hyperactivity could also suggest maniac hyperkinesia or even dromomania, a psychological condition in which people spontaneously depart their routine to travel long distances and take up different identities. However lacks here the depressive component, rarely absent in such cases

• In fact, many facets of a paranoid personality are present in the "Bonneval case" : pride, distrust, distortion of reality and antisocial reactions. Such a diagnosis could bring a better understanding of a complex personality, which at first may seem disorganized : a Bonneval driven by a constant need of glory and adulation and from that, always prone to parade. Faced to criticism, even of the lightest sort, Bonneval gets wild. When he feels offended, his thirst for revenge has no limits : hence the countless duels or rather, in his own words, "affairs of honour". The most spectacular episode is when Bonneval, to "punish" a Minister of War who had asked justifications for his campaign expenses, abruptly leaves the Army to get over to the enemy.

In final analysis comes a question : rather than psychiatric condition, could it be sheer frivolity or opportunism or, maybe, plain cynicism?

.3. Bonneval : a split personality ?

 Throughout his life, Bonneval displayed a split personality, based on repeated "double games" : disciplined soldier but enraged duellist, subject of the king of France but officer in Austrian Army, high-ranked aristocrat but Moslem Pasha,

However, it should be stressed that Bonneval was in full agreement with his time, keenly fascinated with masks, "turqueries" and disguises of all sorts :

  • Masks and transfigurations : by the end of the reign of Louis XIV and more and more during Regency, masked balls were raging in Paris as well as Venice, the city so dear to Bonneval. Goldoni and Marivaux have superbly demonstrated that masked characters can help to understand complexities of human relationships and the subtle relations between appearances and truth.
  • "Turqueries" and Orientalism : all along eighteenth century, Western World kept  fascinated by Orient, the fragrance of its spices (and its coffee ...), the mystery of harems and the splendour of its ornaments : hence the vogue of "turqueries" in the court of Versailles as well as in Mozart's operas ("Zaide", "The abduction from the Seraglio") and throughout literature (a good example comes from "Les Lettres Persanes" from Montesquieu, "Vathek" from William Beckford or "Mahomet le Prophète" from Voltaire.
  • Disguises and metamorphosis : At the time of Bonneval, Society remains divided in social groups locked together in insurmountable partitions. Very few dare to cross the barriers : Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Protestant renegade dressed in caftan, Lady Stanhope, woman traveller disguised in Turk costume and the celebrated Knight of Seingalt (Casanova) changing identity at each stage of his adventurous life.

 In conclusion,

After examining his case, it seems clear that Bonneval, during his long life, did nothing else than endlessly change appearances. A border-line patient, maybe, but without any trace of this symptom so common among psychopaths : weariness of life. Bonneval loved each of his three lives and the feeling was mutual.


* Dr. André Fabre-Julien Fabre is a member of the Société d'Histoire de la Médecine since 1998,  former hospital paediatrician and head of Medical computer Department in the Centre Hospitalier Intercommunal de Créteil. His current interest is on History of Medicine in Antiquity.

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Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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