Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Louis XIV: the early wars

[This painting by Pierre Mignard represents Lous'' capture of of Maastricht in 1673.]

France: the international situation
In 1661 France had just emerged from 25 years of foreign war against the Habsburgs of the Spanish and Austrian empires. Since her entry into the Thirty Years’ War in 1635 French foreign policy had aimed at breaking the potential stranglehold on France occasioned by the rise of Spanish power and Spain’s possession of territories round the borders. The costs of the war were such that in 1648 both France and Spain went bankrupt - but France slightly less so than Spain.

One of the ‘big stories’ of the late 17th century is the transformation of the military and financial institutions of the state to enable it to fight large-scale wars in Europe and beyond.

Following the Peace of Westphalia ten towns in Alsace passed to France and its sovereignty was recognised over the three fortress towns of Metz, Toul and Verdun. These provided the essential bridge-heads of Spanish Franche-Comté and imperial Alsace. France was set for more expansion and this was to be one of the themes of the reign of Louis XIV.

The war with Spain ended with the Peace of the Pyrenees, negotiated by Mazarin. The treaty was sealed by the marriage (June 1660) of Louis XIV to Marie Thérèse, daughter of Philip IV of Spain. The marriage produced a son in 1661. Louis was not faithful to her, but her always treated her with public respect.

The War of Devolution, 1667-8
 Marie Thérèse had relinquished her claims to the Spanish throne, but the legal validity of this was doubtful. Non-payment of part of her dowry could be held to invalidate her renunciation still further.

In 1665 Philip IV died. In his will he left his possessions to his son, the very sickly Carlos II, and on his death (assuming there were no heirs) to his daughter from his second marriage, Margaret, wife of the Emperor Leopold. Louis deliberately misinterpreted Brabantine law and claimed that the children of a first marriage took precedence over the children of a second marriage. He thus argued that by right of devolution his wife was the heir to the Spanish Netherlands. In May 1667 he massed an army of 70,000 on his northern frontier.

In a short winter campaign he took Franche-Comté as a bargaining counter. By the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668 he settled for twelve towns in the Spanish Netherlands and gave back the rest of his conquests to Spain.

The Dutch War, 1672-9
The United Provinces seemed a threat to Louis because they stood in the way of any possible conquest of the Spanish Netherlands and because of Dutch commercial rivalry with France. His main aim in going to war with Holland was the recognition of French claims to the Spanish Netherlands - claims the Dutch were never going to concede. By the secret Treaty of Dover (1670) he secured the alliance of England.  Further treaties secured the alliance of the minor German states.

In March 1672 French and English forces jointly attacked Holland. Turenne and Condé outmanoeuvred the young William of Orange and crossed the Rhine in early June. In the summer Orangist crowds murdered the De Witte brothers and placed William of Orange as stadholder of the Netherlands. Louis was now confronting the man who was to be his most dangerous and implacable enemy.

When Louis invaded Holland, the Dutch flooded the dykes. Louis captured Maastricht (1673), but the Dutch were undefeated. The war then shifted to the Rhineland. It was ended by the Peace of Nijmegen (1678). Although the war has been seen as a failure because Louis failed to achieve his main aims, France acquired its largest territorial and population gains since the Middle Ages: ten towns in Alsace, the Franche-Comté (capital Besançon) pushing the borders of France towards the Rhine and gaining Lille, Douai, Valenciennes, Cambrai and Ypres in the Netherlands. This gave him a more solid barrier to invasion, which he immediately sent Vauban to fortify. He also gained de facto control of Lorraine by occupying Nancy and Longwy. However the Dutch regained Maastricht.

Politically, however, the treaty stored up problems for Louis. He had alienated many of France’s traditional allies in the Rhineland, and created a climate in which she would be isolated in future international disputes.