War and Empire (2) Dynastic Wars
The War of the Spanish Succession
Historians have spoken of a ‘second Hundred Years’ War’, between Britain and France lasting, with intermissions from 1689 to 1815. The century opened with the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), brought about when Louis XIV placed his grandson on the throne of Spain. It is difficult to say who ‘won’ this war, as it ensured a Bourbon succession in Spain but at the cost of handing over most of the Spanish possessions in Europe to Austria and Gibraltar to Britain, and exhausting France’s military and fiscal capabilities. With the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the newly created nation of Great Britain was established as a major European power, even though its population was smaller than France’s. Although from 1714 the kings of Great Britain were also rulers of Hanover, Britain did not seek territorial power on the Continent and it was widely agreed that the main object of British policy was commercial. In 1714 Queen Anne declared,
‘It is in this nation’s interests to aggrandize itself by trade’ (quoted Doyle, Old European Order, 274).
The War of the Polish Succession
The next major dynastic war, the War of the Polish Succession (1733-8) followed the death of Augustus II (‘the Strong’) of Saxony-Poland. Austria and Russia supported the election of his son as Augustus III, while France supported the candidature of Stanislas Leszczynski, who had been briefly king of Poland from 1704 until 1709 and who was the father-in-law of Louis XV. France declared war on Austria and Prussia, though Britain and the Netherlands remained neutral, as they did not see their interests affected. The main battlefields were along the Rhine and in Italy. France failed to reinstate Stanislas but managed to have him installed as duke of Lorraine. (When he died in 1768 the duchy was absorbed by France.) The main significance of this war is that it established Russia as a great power in the east and extended Bourbon control over southern Italy.
The Pragmatic Sanction
In the 1730s Austria lost ground to the other powers. In 1713 she had gained the previously Spanish Netherlands and the Spanish possessions in Italy. In 1718 at the Peace of Passarowitz, Charles VI had gained territory from the Turks as far south as Belgrade. But he was haunted by his lack of a male heir and his quest to get acceptance of his daughter, Maria Theresa’s succession to the Habsburg lands though the Pragmatic Sanction (1713). [Pragmatic sanction meant in the latter period of the Roman Empire an edict formally issued by the emperor. They were called pragmatic, from pragma, the affair or matter of sanction.] [Maria Theresa is seen above in her prosperous and powerful old age.]
This put him at a diplomatic disadvantage, and in the next few years Austria was forced to make major concessions, such as the loss of Lorraine and Naples and Sicily to Don Carlos of Spain. At the Peace of Belgrade in 1739 most of the gains of Passarowitz, including Belgrade, were returned to the Turks. When Charles died his state was militarily and financially exhausted.
The War of the Austrian Succession
Charles VI died in 1740, shortly after the death of Frederick William I of Prussia. By this time Prussia had a highly efficient bureaucracy, plenty of financial reserves and the fourth largest army in Europe. But it was still a second-rank power with a large but untried army (Doyle, 282). When he succeeded to his father’s throne, Frederick II (‘the Great’) (right) used the uncertainty surrounding Maria Theresa’s accession to resurrect a tenuous claim to Silesia, to seize it and to rout an opposing Austrian army. The Silesian War broadened out into a more general war when the other European powers joined in so that they could dismember the Austrian Empire. In 1742 Maria Theresa was forced to surrender most of Silesia. In the same year the French achieved their war aim, the election as Emperor of their ally Charles Albert of Bavaria. But when he died in 1745 they were unable to prevent the election of Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis-Stephen.
In 1744 Britain officially entered the war on Austria’s side, having earlier given financial help to Maria Theresa. The conflict between Britain and France was soon carried over the world (see below). The war ended with the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1748. Although she was forced to accept the loss of Silesia, Maria Theresa made good her claim to the undivided succession of the Habsburg lands and the election of her husband as Emperor brought the imperial crown back into the family even though she did not hold the title in her own right. However the loss of Silesia was a major blow, politically and economically. The undoubted victor of the war was Frederick the Great, who was now challenging Austria for the mastery of the German-speaking world.
The Diplomatic Revolution
The War of the Austrian Succession did not create a permanent European settlement. The Austrians wanted the return of Silesia, and the rise of Prussia alarmed the other European powers. In September 1755 at Madame de Pompadour’s Bellevue estate, Austrian and French diplomats began negotiating an alliance. Fearing the vulnerability of Hanover, British diplomats moved to neutralise the Prussian threat by making an alliance with Russia in 1755. An alarmed Frederick assured the British that he had no designs on Hanover and in January 1756 Britain and Prussia signed the Convention of Westminster. News of this finally drove Louis XV into the arms of Austria and Russia to sign an offensive agreement with the Austrians which committed France to a major military effort in Germany in return to control of the Austrian Netherlands. The Diplomatic Revolution (or renversement des alliances) was completed.
The Seven Years’ War
The Diplomatic Revolution was complicated by the Russian response to the Convention of Westminster. The Russians saw Frederick as a serious threat and were determined to oppose his ambitions. This opened up for Frederick the alarming prospect of a war on two fronts. In August 1756 he launched a daring and controversial pre-emptive Blitzkrieg against Austria through Saxony. But he was unable to secure a decisive victory, and within a year both Russia and France had committed themselves to sending armies against him. He was forced to rely on annual subsidies from Britain and an Anglo-Hanoverian army. In the spring of 1757 he was confronted by ‘perhaps the most formidable coalition ever assembled in Europe’ (Blanning, Power and Glory, 579): France, Austria, Russia, Spain, Sweden and most of the German princes (except Hanover).
The summer of 1757 was a terrible time for Frederick as he and his allies went down to defeats. But on 5 November his army of 22,000 Prussians inflicted a total rout on a Franco-Imperial army almost twice as numerous at Rossbach (near Leipzig). It was
‘one of the most decisive battles against the odds in military history (Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory, 580).Prussian casualties amounted to 23 officers and 518 soldiers; their opponents’ losses were 700 dead, 2,000 wounded and more than 5,000 prisoners including 5 generals and 300 officers. Voltaire believed that this defeat represented a humiliation greater than Crécy or Agincourt. Louis XV is said to have said:
‘après nous, le deluge’.(Four years later France surrendered her claim to India and Canada to Britain.)
On 5 December Frederick won an even more remarkable victory at Leuthen in east Prussia, which forced the Austrians out of Silesia.
In spite of a series of spectacular victories Frederick would have been overwhelmed by the combined forces of his enemies if they had managed to agree on a concerted strategy. He was only saved from defeat by French losses at the hands of the British, the British subsidy to Prussia, and the combined Prussian-British victory at Minden in 1759. He was further saved by the death in 1762 of the Empress Elizabeth. Frederick:
‘The Messalina of the North is dead’.The Austro-Prussian Treaty of Hubertusburg in 1763 confirmed the 1745 situation. Austria abandoned hope of recovering Silesia but continued to harbour ambitions in Bavaria and the Balkans. At the same time France and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris. The result was a twenty year period of peace in Europe.
In 1770 the marriage of the Dauphin to Maria Theresa's daughter Marie Antoinette cemented the Franco-Austrian alliance. Prussia was confirmed as a great European power, and Dresden, the capital of defeated Saxony, lost its place as the centre of German culture.
Russia emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation. The threats from the Turks and Swedes were eclipsed and she would henceforth play a crucial role in European power politics.