Nipissing University

History 2155 -- Early Modern Europe

 The Wars of Louis XIV

Steve Muhlberger

The Glorious Revolution was merely the beginning of a long dynastic struggle between William III and James II.  The Revolution guaranteed that England -- and Scotland and Ireland too -- would become intimately involved in the
great European wars that had been going on the Continent for over 10 years and would continue for another 25.

By chosing for their king Louis XIV's deadliest foe, William of Orange, instead of his fellow Catholic and ally James II, the English had become involved in a deadly confrontation between France and one side, and most of the rest of western Europe on the other.  England would be almost continuously at war with France from 1689 to 1714. This long contest had important effects on both Britain (England and Scotland officially united as the United Kingdom of Great Britain from 1707) and the continental countries.

These were some of them:

The effect of these wars was if anything greater on the continent, where they were mostly fought.  Really Louis XIV and his kingdom of France were central to the whole process.  Louis's ambitions were the driving force behind the wars.

From his youth he had two great imperial aspirations, aspirations that he had inherited, in a manner of speaking, from his teacher and first minister, Mazarin.

The first of these aspirations was the acquisition of Spain.  The Spanish Hapsburgs, an infertile and inbred lot, were in danger of dying out when Louis came to the throne.  Louis considered himself the logical successor to the Spanish empire.

The birth of Carlos II of Spain in 1661 seemed to put off the day for a moment, but only a moment.  Carlos II was
an unhealthy and grotesque product of a long dynastic marriage policy.  He had the same grandfather as his mother, and of 56 maternal ancestors 48 were also ancestors on his father's side [Maland 227].  Everyone was sure that he would die young.  In fact Carlos fooled them all by living 39 years, but it was obvious that he was the last of his line.  The question was, what would happen to the vast Spanish empire in Europe and America once he was gone?  Would it go to Louis, the Austrian Hapsburgs, or a Bavarian line?  Through his entire early life, Louis chipped away at the Spanish empire and worked to justify his claims to the whole thing.

The second imperial aspiration, was, indeed, Louis's ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor, and to be the greatest ruler of Europe in name as well as in fact.  For a while in his youth the survival of the Austrian Hapsburgs, who had held the title for a long time, also seemed in doubt.  In any case the emperorship was elective, and Louis with his money and his armies felt certain he could get himself named and become the overlord of all Germany.  Much of Louis's life was spent waiting for the death of Emperor Leopold I so that this plan could be put into action.

These two ambitions tended to focus Louis's attention to the northeast.  This was the least secure boundary of France.
In that quarter Louis's neighbors were Spain, in modern Belgium and in the area called Franche Comté, and various German princes, such as the Duke of Lorraine and theElector of Palatinate, who were in theory subjects of the emperor and often his allies in fact.  So Louis's personal ambitions and his strategic concerns put him in conflict with both branches of the Hapsburg family and with the Dutch, who feared to have France as an immediate neighbor.   In other words, he might well end up fighting most of Europe.

Louis started with small wars which eventually became large ones, as more and more people became alarmed at his ambitions.

The first of his wars began in 1667, soon after Louis's assumption of personal power, with an attack on the Spanish Netherlands.   Louis did not attack until he had diplomatically isolated Spain.  So when the war started, Spain was at a terrible disadvantage, and the fighting all went Louis's way.  It went too well -- three countries which Louis had paid off, England, Holland and Sweden, became alarmed and and formed a Triple Alliance.  In theory, the Triple Alliance was anti-Spanish and pro-French, but it was chiefly aimed at making sure that Louis did not entirely swallow the Spanish Netherlands.  Louis backed off rather than fight that combination; it seemed likely that Carlos II would die soon, and he preferred to save his political capital for the question of the Spanish succession.

However, Louis was very much offended by Triple Alliance.  He felt he had been betrayed by people he had trusted.  His animus was particularly directed at the Dutch.  Hostility to the Dutch actually came  quite naturally to him.  As a Calvinist Republic they were both religiously and politically offensive, and Colbert, his economic guru, had been urging him to exclude Dutch trade from his kingdom with prohibitive tariffs:

Thus Lionne, the foreign minister,  was told to arrange a new web of alliances against the Dutch, and in 1672, a huge army was sent against the Republic, almost conquering it.  The French outflanked the Dutch defenses, scattered their armies, and were only prevented from taking Amsterdam by the opening of the dikes. With their metropolis safe, Dutch resistance stiffened, and the young William of Orange, the future William III of England, heretofore largely excluded from power, took over the government.  Over the years William proved himself not only an excellent soldier, but quite a statesman as well.  It was he who over the years wove one alliance after another to oppose Louis, for whom he had a personal hatred.

This Dutch war came to a halt in 1679 in a stalemate.  William of Orange had attracted the support of Emperor, Spain, Brandenburg (the future Prussia) and a variety of princes and prince-bishops in western Germany. Together this alliance of the Hague stopped Louis from having his way.  But neither had they gained very much.  Everybody was happy to have peace.  No
one, however, thought it would last very long.

Louis devoted the next few years to piecemeal conquest in western Germany.  The treaty of 1679 had given Louis some towns in Alsace and the de facto possession of Lorraine.  Louis sent his officials into that area to enforce his claims, and to extend them as far as possible.  For a while, his neighbors put up with him, because he had a huge army and big treasury, and they did not.  But resentment of France built up.  By now it was France that was diplomatically isolated.

The third of Louis's wars, usually called the War of the League of Augsburg, began in 1688, with a lightning stroke at the Palatinate.  This set off a huge European war.  The attack on Germany, of course, allowed William of Orange to invade England, and so this war became, in addition to a war along the Rhine, meant to contain Louis, a war for the British
succession.  The greatest European power outside of France had been brought into the League of Augsburg, making Louis's goals more difficult to achieve.

The English were not enthusiastic to be caught up in the war.   But involvement was necessary, if the Protestant Succession was to be preserved.  James II had fled to France, and very quickly Louis equipped him with an army and a fleet.  In 1690, the invasion force landed in Ireland, hoping to raise Catholic support for a Stuart restoration.

It was here that the British Succession was decided.  William, too, crossed to Ireland, and at the Battle of the Boyne defeated his predecessor, who once more retreated to France.  The war in Ireland continued,  for Protestant rule in Ireland itself was at stake.  The Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland  was secured for the next century at the Battle of Aughrim, July
12, 1691:   Orange Day (formerly a major holiday in Ontario).

The very day after the Boyne, the French fleet won its greatest victory over the English fleet ever.  For two years, the French dominated the Channel, and England remained open to a second invasion.  But Louis was too hard pressed in Germany to spare an army for James.  By the time the troops were found, the Channel was closed, and James had lost his last good chance to return.

The War of the League of Augsburg continued till 1697.  Like the previous war, no one, except William of Orange, gained much from it.  The French army, which was large, well-equipped, and well-generalled, won astonishing victories, but they could not make much headway against an all-European alliance.  The League of Augsburg held off the French, but could not penetrate their defenses and knock them out of the war.  Eventually it seemed best to everyone just to call it off.

One reason, besides exhaustion, was the looming problem of the Spanish succession.  Carlos II was finally dying.  All the European powers had been scheming for years about how they would divide up his empire, had made various agreements among each other, and they did not want a now-pointless war to complicate matters.

Between 1697 and 1702 the diplomatic horsetrading was fast and furious.  The Elector of Bavaria, the Emperor, and Louis's sons and grandsons all had claims to the throne as descendants of Philip IV of Spain.  Other rulers wanted the inheritance divided to prevent Carlos's successor from dominating Europe.  People were particularly concerned that
France and Spain might someday be united.  Carlos himself wanted to arrange things so that his heritage would never be split.  He wrote one will after another in an attempt to save his empire.

Louis, to  secure the main prize for one of his grandsons and avoid pan-European opposition, actually proposed a partition of the empire  to his worst enemy, William of Orange, a big step for such a proud man, and in 1698, a partition treaty was signed between England and France.

But Carlos in 1700  left everything to Philip of Anjou, a younger grandson of Louis XIV, on condition that he took the whole empire and renounced any claim to the French throne.  Then he died, leaving Louis with the choice of the will or the treaty.  Either would mean war, for the Spanish council would offer the unsplit empire to the emperor if Louis tried to split it.

Louis decided to go for the whole prize, hoping English taxpayers would not fight (they were in fact reluctant).    If Louis had kept a low profile, the house of Bourbon, as his dynasty was called might have acquired a vast empire for at little cost.

But Louis, being the greatest man in Europe,  allowed young Philip to take the Spanish throne and the empire and then blustered.  He reaffirmed that Philip was still third in line to the French throne; sent troops into the Spanish Netherlands to take key positions from the Dutch; and got Philip to grant the slave monopoly in Spanish colonies to French companies and to exclude their English rivals.  This was enough to make war with William likely.

When James II died at Versailles in 1701, and Louis recognized his son as James III, war with England was certain.
William, who was near death himself, was able to rally the reluctant English against the dynastic threat.  If the throne was to pass to his wife's sister Anne, a Protestant, instead of the Catholic Old Pretender, if the French were not to ruin England's trade, Louis would have to be fought.  Otherwise the French colossus would crush England.

It was during this long war that England and Scotland united their Parliaments; at the same time England perforce became a Mediterranean sea power.  To prevent Louis and Philip from crushing English allies in Italy, a strong naval presence in the south was necessary, as were bases.  Gilbralter was seized, to become a keystone of England's strategic position.

But once again, neither Louis nor his enemies could win the war outright.  A settlement was not reached until 1714.  In the a series of treaties, Philip got Spain and the New World, but had to give up the Spanish Netherlands and his Italian territories to Austria.  England got important concessions in the New World -- the monopoly of the Spanish slave trade, Newfoundland, and Hudson's Bay.  Most everything else went back to the way it was before the war.

Soon after this, Louis died.

It would be simple to say that all his effort was futile.  During his time, France did gain some territory in Flanders and along the Rhine, but little else tangible.  But in fact, some consequences of his policy were very important for the future.

His grandson's line managed to rejuvenate Spain, or at least its colonial system.  It had looked very decrepit in the late 17th century, but under Bourbon administration the empire lasted quite nicely into the 1810s. France itself gained a tremendous reputation for military power.    In Louis's time and long after, France was seen as a dangerous superpower, and a major aim of European diplomacy was to keep France under control.

Yet Louis also damaged his country and his dynasty.  At the beginning of his reign, Mazarin, Louis and their advisors, having beaten and discredited all internal opposition, had both allowed economic growth and increased the government's share of the wealth of the country.  These gains had made possible Louis's armies and the bribery by which he influenced such figures as the  King of Sweden, the Elector of Brandenburg, the Stuart Kings of England and such lesser figures as the Earl of Shaftesbury.

But the wars swallowed up all of these gains and more.  As early as the end of the Dutch War, in 1678, the royal debt was reaching alarming proportions. The deficit grew larger and larger until, in Louis last year, 1715, a year of with no fighting, it was almost half the royal income.

Amounts in millions of livres

Year Income due from tax Amount received  Expenditure Deficit
1683 116 93 109 16
1715 152 74 119 45

The accumulated national debt was 430 million livres, about six years' tax receipts, and it was growing at about 10% a year.  This kind of debt forced Louis into expedients that could not help but undermine royal power.   He created an amazing number of offices, including four different types of officials just to register baptisms.   All held hereditary offices, each drew some sort of salary, each was entitled to extract fees from the general population [Maland 280].

 Louis XIV made the reputation of his dynasty, even acquired the Spanish inheritance for it; but he also saddled it with a
damnable inheritance that would eventually bring it down.

Louis also created a dangerous rival for France, England.  Despite the best efforts of the country gentlemen, the wars for with Louis built up the central executive power that the Stuarts had fought for in vain.

The same wars also forced England to build up the famous fleet and the naval policy that would make it a world power.

Finally, if we are right in seeing the overseas arena as perhaps the most important one for a European power on the make, then Louis's ambitions were entirely wrongheaded.  He sacrificed colonial expansion for gains closer to home.  England, Britain, picked up the pieces, such pieces as Hudson's Bay, and laid the foundations for future economic greatness.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.