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Useful Notes / War of the Spanish Succession

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The Battle of Ramillies, 23 May 1706. The 16th Foot charging French infantry, Richard Simkin, 1900

The War of the Spanish Succession was the last great war (and the last war, period) fought by France under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

The war pitted Habsburg Austria, England (which united with Scotland during the war to become Great Britain), the Dutch Republic, Prussia, various German states and Portugal against France, Spain and Bavaria.

This conflict started over the line of succession that ended when the last Habsburg King of Spain, Charles II, died without an heir in 1700. As his health had always been poor throughout his life note , the different factions saw this coming for decades, and to their credit they did at least try to take steps to prevent a military conflict stemming from an issue they knew was inevitable.

The causes of the war were the result of rather convoluted intermarriages between the Spanish, French, and Austrian royal families. This being Early Modern European nobility, names tend to repeat, so for the purposes of clarity regnal numbers and royal titles will be included as much as possible. Even so, it can get confusing, so try to keep up.

In the 17th century, Spain was one of the few major powers that allowed the throne to pass through the female line (and indeed to a woman if need be). note  Charles II of Spain would die childless, so this left potential heirs in the marriages of his two sisters. His eldest half-sister, Maria Theresa, had married Louis XIV, the King of France, also known as the Sun King. Her son, also named Louis, was le Grand Dauphin - heir to the French throne and nephew of King Charles II.

His other, also elder sister, Margaret Theresa, had married Emperor Leopold of Austria. Her daughter, Maria Antonia, married Prince Maximilian II of Bavaria, and they had a son named Joseph Ferdinand (i.e. the grandson of Emperor Leopold and therefore the grand-nephew of Charles II).

So there are two potential candidates to the Spanish throne. One is Louis le Grand Dauphin, the son of the King of France. The other is Joseph Ferdinand, the grandson of the Emperor Leopold of Austria. The most obvious and direct line of succession was through Charles II's eldest sister, Maria Theresa, making Louis le Grand Dauphin heir to the crown of Spain. However, this would make him direct heir to both the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of Spain — and therefore ruler not only of the dominant continental power of France, but also to the vast overseas Spanish Empire, which was still the biggest in the world at the time and had comparable natural and human resources. This was deeply alarming to many in Europe, in particular the Kingdom of England and the Dutch Republic, who feared the formation of an unstoppable Catholic juggernaut that would make Charles V look tame.

An attempt to prevent war was a series of negotiations between Louis XIV of France and William III of England (i.e. William of Orange, a Dutchman who became King of England after the overthrow of the last Catholic King of England, James II). Louis XIV initially proposed the simplest solution by supporting the candidacy of his son and direct heir, Louis le Grand Dauphin, but this was rejected outright. Therefore the parties compromised and both agreed to support the candidacy of Joseph Ferdinand of Austria. He would inherit the bulk of the Spanish Empire, including the Spanish Netherlands, but Spain's Italian territories would be partitioned. Naples and Sicily would go to France, while Milan would go to Austria. This was the Treaty of The Hague.

You may notice, however, that you have the kings of England and France discussing the disposition of territory for the Spanish Empire and Austria without the Spanish or Austrians actually being in the room. When Charles II learned of the French and English agreement regarding his own realm, he rejected it, and published his own will. His heir would still be Joseph Ferdinand, in agreement with the English and the French, but he would get everything, with no partition of the realm.

We'll never know what would have happened if things actually came to a head on this point, because in 1699 Joseph Ferdinand died, sending everyone back to the drawing board.

With the death of Joseph Ferdinand, succession passed back up the line to his mother, Maria Antonia. By this point, Maria Antonia was several years dead (1692), but before she died, and before she had had her own son, she had passed her claim to the Spanish throne off to her half-brothers - the sons of Emperor Leopold by his third wife (Maria Antonia's step-mother) Eleonore of Neuburg. This meant one of Emperor Leopold's two sons: the Archduke Joseph and the Archduke Charles. You will notice, at this point, that they were only tangentially related to the Spanish line of succession, not being directly related (nor married) to either a sister or niece of Charles II. They had claims on the Spanish throne only because their father's former (now deceased) wife, Margaret Theresa, had passed her claim on to her daughter, Maria Antonia, who then passed her claim on to her half-brothers before she had had her own son.

This made for a tenuous connection at best, and Maria Antonia was no longer around to say whether her previous abdication would still apply in the event of the death of her son, Joseph Ferdinand.

Louis XIV and William III, however, decided that it did, and negotiated a new treaty: the Treaty of London. They chose as their candidate Archduke Charles, the younger son of Emperor Leopold. They also did some territorial re-shuffling, but the main thing was that France stood to gain Milan as well this time, as all of Spain's Italian territories were due to be inherited by Louis le Grand Dauphin. This angered the Austrians. Also, once again, the kings of France and England were disposing of Spanish, Italian, and Austrian territory without consulting any of them. Charles II again rejected the partition of his empire: he agreed the throne would go to Archduke Charles of Austria, but again stipulated he should inherit the Spanish possessions in their entirety.

Again what would happen is anybody's guess, because on his deathbed Charles II suddenly changed his mind. The pro-French faction at court prevailed upon him, and he stipulated his entire realm should be inherited, not by Archduke Charles of Austria, nor by Louis le Grand Dauphin, nor even by le Grand Dauphin's first son (also called Louis), but by his second son: Philip, Duke of Anjou. If he should refuse, it would go to le Grand Dauphin's third son, Charles, Duke of Berry. Only if he then also refused would it go to Archduke Charles of Austria.

This left Louis XIV with a choice to make. He could implement the treaty he had already agreed with William III of England and ignore Charles II's will, in which case Archduke Charles would became king of Spain and Spain's territory would be partitioned, and despite the fact that the majority of Spain's territory would be inherited by an Austrian prince, the Austrians still objected to the treaty due to le Grand Dauphin's inheritance of all of Spain's territory in Italy.

The other option was he could accept Charles II's will, and have his grandson Philip, Duke of Anjou become king of an undivided Spanish realm. Philip as the second son of Louis XIV's heir, was not in direct line of succession to the French throne, so therefore a direct union of crowns was not an immediate threat. Nonetheless, for England and others, it remained a disturbing possibility.

Louis XIV came to believe that, whether he accepted Charles II's will or chose to abide by his treaty with England, Austria was likely to go to war with him in either case, and England was unlikely to support France in such a war, even to implement a treaty which was partly their own idea. Therefore he might as well go for gold and try to get as much as he could. So that's what he did. He accepted Charles II's will, tearing up his agreement with England, and his grandson became Philip V of Spain in 1700.

Louis XIV then did several things that pissed off just about everyone. He pointedly refused to exclude his second grandson, Philip, from the French line of succession, again raising the spectre of a united Franco-Spanish monarchy. French troops began occupying territory in the Netherlands and Italy that, according to Charles II's will, were supposed to be a part of Spain. Louis XIV began forming alliances with several of Austria's rivals in Germany. He then dropped his recognition of William III as legitimate king of England, and instead recognized the claim of James Stuart, the son of the exiled James II. England, the Dutch Republic, and Austria had had enough, and declared war in 1702. It was a war that would last 12 years.

How you view Louis XIV's actions depends on whether you believe that war was still inevitable at this point. One could say it was still theoretically possible to avoid war (or, at least, a large one), but it was Louis XIV's arrogance that pushed everyone into an alliance against him. On the other hand, it may have been that Louis XIV believed that a general war against him was inevitable no matter what he did, so the steps he took that so antagonized his neighbors were merely preemptive, rather than provocative. However, whether he simply didn't care to try to assuage his neighbors, or whether he thought it was pointless to try, the truth is that he didn't try, and the result was war.

The alliance bloc against France and Spain was composed mainly of England (with Scotland and Ireland in tow), the Netherlands, and Austria. Among the allies, England was by far the most powerful and capable of making moves against France, yet none of the allies had much hope of making serious headway against France on their own. They hoped a "Grand Alliance" would allow them to secure their interests.

Unfortunately, their interests were fairly divergent. All three wanted to see Archduke Charles placed on the Spanish throne, but for different reasons. Emperor Leopold's main concern was the Austrian Habsburg possessions in Italy. It was the threat of French acquisition of territory in northern Italy (the gateway to Austrian heartlands) that made him object to the Treaty of London in the first place. The Netherlands were less important to him, whereas they were the primary concern of England and the Dutch. They wanted to see the Spanish Netherlands placed under Austrian control - something Austria actually did not want, viewing it as a burden rather than an asset. The thing was, who got control over the Low Countries was a sticking point for England, because it was a natural launching point for an invasion of the British Isles (as their own king at the time had demonstrated), and they had no intent of letting France (or any hostile power) rule them. Divisions between the allies would prove critical to how the war turned out.

At first the war went well for Louis XIV, but the tide swiftly turned against him. After six years of war, by the end of 1708, the French had been driven out of Italy and the Netherlands, and Austria had occupied Bavaria. These victories convinced Savoy and Portugal to join the Grand Alliance. Great Britain also captured the strategically important peninsula of Gibraltar and island of Menorca from Spain, giving them control of the western Mediterranean. A French-sponsored Hungarian uprising against the Austrians was also crushed. The winter of 1709 - "the Great Frost" - was the coldest Europe experienced in centuries, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation in France and Spain.

For Louis XIV it was a disaster, and he was willing to make peace at almost any cost. He opened negotiations, and was willing to switch his support to the candidacy of the Archduke Charles of Austria, as well as give up all his territorial conquests he had acquired for the last 60 years. At this point, however, the allies pressed their luck too far. They demanded that his grandson, Philip of Anjou, must immediately abdicate the Spanish throne, and if he did not, Louis XIV must himself make war upon him to install the Archduke Charles of Austria.

This was a step too far. Supporting in principle the candidacy of the Austrian Archduke was one thing, but making war upon his own grandson was another. This demand enraged the French, reigniting their will to continue the war. Nor were the French as beaten as the allies had convinced themselves. Despite being driven out of Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, the territory of France itself remained largely untouched. The Archduke Charles was also unpopular with the Spanish court, and had no control in Spain outside of coastal regions where the English Royal Navy could supply him. It also came to light that the Archduke Charles, in exchange for English support, had promised commercial concessions once he became King of Spain. This not only furthered angered the Spanish, but also the Dutch, who viewed the concessions as being made at their expense.

The war continued and, now fighting on their own territory, the French and Spanish proved resilient, inflicting multiple defeats on the allies. By the end of 1710 Louis XIV remained solidly in control of France, and his grandson Philip V remained solidly in control of Spain. The political situation had also changed. In 1705, the Emperor Leopold I died, leaving the empire to his eldest son, Joseph I. In 1711, Joseph I also died without a male heir. This made his brother the Archduke Charles the heir to both Austria and the Spanish Empire, putting everyone back in the same position they were in 15 years ago. A united Austro-Spanish Empire was nearly as undesirable to Britain as a united Franco-Spanish one, and continuing the war in support of the Archduke Charles's candidacy no longer made sense.

In 1711, the British reopened secret negotiations with the French, leading to the signing of preliminary articles, the main takeaway of which was the agreement in principle that the monarchies of Spain and France would remain separate. Then, once again, a series of deaths threatened to throw everything back into chaos. In 1711, three days before Joseph I of Austria's own death, Louis le Grand Dauphin died of smallpox, putting his first son Louis, Duke of Burgundy (grandson of Louis XIV) in line for the French throne. The next year in 1712, Louis, Duke of Burgundy also died (of measles). Both his sons also became infected, both of whom were also named Louis (yes, we know). His eldest son, the five-year-old Louis, Duke of Brittany, died a few weeks after his father, leaving the two-year-old Louis, Duke of Anjou, the great-grandson of Louis XIV, as heir to the French throne, but he was not expected to survive. This meant the potential scenario that originally freaked everyone out so much was now within arm's reach: Philip of Anjou, former prince of France, now ruler of the Kingdom of Spain, was separated from becoming the direct heir to the Kingdom of France by a single toddler on the verge of death. This made his prompt abdication from the French line of succession a matter of immediate urgency.

By this point the British were pretty much done fighting and working on a separate peace with France. The Dutch and the Austrians, however, continued to fight, trying to improve their negotiating position. Without the support of Britain, however, they were doomed to fail, and suffered multiple defeats at French hands.

A series of treaties would end the war between the multiple combatants: the treaties of Utrecht, Rastatt, and Baden. By the Peace of Utrecht it was agreed that Philip V would keep the throne of Spain, but would renounce for himself and his heirs any claim to the throne of France, and his relatives in France would likewise renounce any claim to the throne of Spain. In what should by now be fairly familiar, Britain and France decided other parties' territorial dispositions between them without the other parties' input. The French negotiator taunted the Dutch with the scathing remark, "De vous, chez vous, sans vous." Meaning negotiations would be held, "About you, around you, without you."

Despite making the second largest contribution to the allied cause after Great Britain, the Dutch ended the war essentially bankrupt with little to show for it, and out of all the participants were probably the biggest losers despite being on the "winning" side. By the Treaty of Rastatt, Spain's territories in the Netherlands were ceded to the Austrians, with Austrian troops to be stationed in the southern Netherlands as a bulwark against France. As previously mentioned, this was largely at the insistence of the British and Dutch rather than the Austrians themselves, who were not particularly interested in the Netherlands, and their commitment to defend them was implemented half-heartedly at best. Ultimately the defensive measures stipulated by the treaty would prove illusory, and even Britain's commitment to defend the Netherlands from external aggression proved ineffective. Dutch commercial and maritime power was permanently weakened by the conflict, and the Netherlands fell solidly into the ranks of second-rate powers in Europe.

The outcome for France was more ambiguous. While a direct union of crowns between France and Spain was not to be achieved, nevertheless a Bourbon king now sat upon the throne of Spain, supplanting the Habsburgs. France itself made some minor colonial concessions to the British in the New World, but otherwise largely retained its territorial integrity. Louis XIV also revoked his recognition of the claim of the exiled Catholic James Stuart to the throne of England and returned his recognition to the Protestant monarch Queen Anne.

The real question is whether France achieved anything after over a decade of war that it had not already achieved (or could have achieved) in 1701 by negotiation. Again, it depends on how you view the actions of Louis XIV. If you believe it was his arrogance that caused the war in the first place in 1701, then the outcome for France could largely be considered a failure, with Louis XIV taking an unjustifiable gamble which pushed France to the edge of ruin in 1709, with France only coming back from the brink of disaster due to the overconfidence of the allies and the return of French fortunes in 1710. If, however, you believe war was inevitable no matter what Louis XIV did, then the war could largely be considered a success, with Louis XIV managing to hold on to gains that he would have had to fight for anyway.

Louis, Duke of Anjou, the great-grandson of Louis XIV, managed to survive his measles (almost certainly being saved when his governess called a halt to his blood-letting, a "medical" procedure that undoubtedly contributed to the death of his older brother). He would become King Louis XV at five years old when his great-grandfather Louis XIV, called the Sun King, finally passed on in 1715, having survived every other monarch who originally started the conflict, as well as his own son and grandson.

Austria did well out of the war, and by the Treaty of Rastatt secured its core interests by acquiring all of Spain's Italian territories, in particular the territory around Milan, and while Austria did not particularly care for them, the acquisition of the Spanish Netherlands also provided some additional revenue. Nevertheless the Archduke Charles (now Emperor Charles VI) considered the war a failure, as he had hoped to acquire the entirety of Charles II's realm and re-create the empire of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V from over a century previous, with an Austrian-Spanish-Italian-Dutch realm all united under a single Habsburg. He continued to insist he was the rightful heir to the throne of Spain. Nobody else liked this idea though, and ignored him, so he had to be content with the bulk of the Spanish Empire going to the Bourbons.

Emperor Charles VI would soon have a daughter, Maria Theresa, and he would spend the rest of his life working to ensure that his daughter would be accepted by the other European powers as ruler of the Habsburg realms (even to the neglect of everything else). She would go on to become the Maria Theresa of Austria, one of the most extraordinary Habsburg monarchs in history. It would turn out to be a mighty struggle for her, because all those monarchs who promised her father they would recognize her immediately turned on her. Maria Theresa herself would go on to have another famous daughter, Marie-Antoinette, though famous for quite a different reason.

The wish of Charles II had always been that his empire go to a single heir with no partition of the realm, and in fact Spain largely achieved this, though it did not necessarily seem so in the immediate aftermath, with the Spanish Netherlands and Italy lost to the Austrians. Nevertheless Spain would reconquer Naples and Sicily 20 years later by the hand of their prince Charles, future Charles III of Spain, almost completely restoring the realm of Charles II by way of a dynastic union with a new Neapolitan kingdom. Despite a tumultuous history for the next three centuries, especially when their entire empire was destroyed from the inside by the spectacularly traitorous royal specimen Ferdinand VII, the Bourbons remain the royal family of the Spanish monarchy to this day.

By far the biggest winner out of the conflict was the Kingdom of Great Britain. It had prevented the rise of an empire that could threaten its interests by both France and Austria. It had established maritime dominance over its Dutch neighbors (though it would not become outright maritime supremacy in Europe until later). It had acquired territory in the New World and the Mediterranean, including Gibraltar, which the United Kingdom controls to this day (to the great irritation of Spain). It had extracted commercial concessions from the Spanish Empire, and French recognition of the Protestant succession of Queen Anne. Its economy emerged from the war largely intact. In effect, England got basically everything it wanted.

Including Scotland. You will also notice that until 1707 it had been the Kingdom of England. This is because it was only during the War of the Spanish Succession that the parliaments of England and Scotland, until that time separate states ruled by the same monarch, officially united to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. Prior to this it was by far England which was the senior partner in the relationship, and which made all the serious decisions. One of the reasons for the Acts of Union was the Scots being tired of being treated like chopped liver in a war they were just as committed to as the English.

It is easy to look back on the War of the Spanish Succession as the absurd egotistical squabbling of a couple of inbred European royal families which led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. To a certain extent, that is absolutely correct. However, it was also the point at which national interests were really starting to take precedence over personal ones. The centuries-long process of Europe's transformation from a continent dominated by families to one dominated by nations was still ongoing, and the War of the Spanish Succession was an important milestone on the road to a transformation that arguably would not be complete until after the First World War. That Louis le Grand Dauphin had a right to inherit the throne of Spain was something nobody denied. Nevertheless, even from the earliest days of the conflict, it was judged that, "Because of the great danger which threatened the liberty and safety of all Europe, from the too-close conjunction of the kingdoms of Spain and France, the same person should never become King of both kingdoms." While this was a principle that Louis XIV did not necessarily accept, even he did not dare to flout it too blatantly. It was an important marker on the road to the development of the nation state, as well as the principle of collective security.

It is tempting to try to see the War of the Spanish Succession as either the beginning or end of something, but really it was nothing of the kind. Europe had just gotten off the Nine Years' War (1688–1697) and the Thirty Years' War before that (1618-1648). The War of the Spanish Succession was Louis XIV the Sun King's last great war, but the 76-year-old had been fighting for his entire life. The Great Northern War (1700–1721), fought between Sweden and Russia, was concurrent with the War of the Spanish Succession. The United Kingdom almost immediately fought the Jacobite rising in 1715. A two-year war between Spain and an anti-Spanish coalition would soon follow (1718–1720), followed by the War of the Polish Succession (1733–1735) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The United Kingdom would fight another Jacobite rising in 1745 against Catholic pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie, shortly followed by the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) between Britain and France. Then the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), then over two decades of constant war caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Though by no means inconsequential, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about the War of the Spanish Succession. For Europe, it was just another day at the office.

Appears in the following works:

  • The Baroque Cycle
  • In the comedy Le Verre d'eau ("The Glass of Water") by Eugène Scribe the war was ended by Lord Bolingbroke exploiting the rivalry between the Duchess of Marlborough and Queen Anne for the favours of an attractive young guards officer. The play became very popular in Germany in the 20th century and was filmed as Ein Glas Wasser in 1960 with Gustaf Gründgens as Lord Bolingbroke and Lilo Pulver as the Queen. Another beloved film adaptation was made in the Soviet Union in 1979.
  • The main campaign in Empire: Total War starts during this time period. The British start with the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Galway as generals.
  • The French song "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en-guerre" (Marlbrough goes to war) was written during the final stages of the war, based on a false rumor about the duke dying. The melody has been referenced many times, including Mozart!'s The Wedding Of Figaro.