Saturday, October 16, 2010

War and Empire (1)

The following posts are indebted to a number of books, most notably William Doyle, The Old European Order, 1660-1800, 2nd edn. (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Tim Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (Penguin, 2007).

The eighteenth century was a period of warfare. The wars of religion were over, and wars were now fought for dynastic or trade reasons. Inevitably they were also clashes over empire. Monarchs, however enlightened they professed to be, still prided themselves on their warrior credentials. Frederick the Great turned Prussia into a military machine. Joseph II on his death bed stated
‘I have always considered the military profession as my vocation’ (quoted Doyle, Old European Order, 266).

Women rulers were no less militaristic. In 1717 Elisabeth Farnese, the wife of Philip V of Spain, provoked a major European crisis following the Treaty of Utrecht when sent to Sardinia the greatest armada Spain had assembled since Lepanto in 1571, comprising 300 ships, 33,000 troops and 100 pieces of artillery (Blanning, Power and Glory, 563)). This was in pursuit of what she saw as her son’s dynastic rights.

Her action led to a hasty Anglo-French rapprochement against Spanish aggression and in August 1718 a British fleet commanded by Admiral Byng destroyed the Spanish fleet off Cape Passara. In the following year Philip V renounced his claims to Italy and the southern Netherlands. However in 1732 Elisabeth secured the succession of her son Don Carlos as duke of Parma in 1732. After the War of the Polish Succession (below), he received Naples and Sicily where he was to become ‘King of the Two Sicilies’.

An equally pugnacious woman ruler was Catherine the Great. Peter the Great’s failure to establish primogeniture meant that every time a tsar or tsarina died, there was a succession struggle in which a woman had as good a chance as a man as coming top. In 1762 Catherine came to power as the result of a coup following the death of her husband Peter III (in which she was implicated). In 1783 she annexed the Crimea.

The rise of Russia
For the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, see here. Tim Blanning (The Pursuit of Glory, p. 558) notes that the Russian victory at Poltava (27 June 1709) was 'a truly world-historical event, much more momentous than Blenheim'.

The dominance of France

In 1700 France was the leading power in Europe, dominant culturally as well as militarily. An anonymous German lamented in 1689:
'French language, French clothes, French food, French furniture, French dances, French music, the French pox … perhaps there is also a French death’ (Quoted Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 77).
In 1685 the exile Pierre Bayle observed
‘in future it will be the French language which will serve as the means of communication for all the peoples of Europe’ (quoted ibid, p. 50).
In the world of politics, the decisive moment came in 1714 when the Holy Roman Empire signed an international treaty (Rastatt) drafted in French (ibid, p. 51).

But this apparent hegemony was misleading and was to be undermined in a series of European dynastic and colonial wars.