The treaties of the second decade of the eighteenth century might have ushered in a peace as durable as that which followed the Congress of Vienna at the very end of this period. Alas, Utrecht-Rastadt-Nystad turned out to be more like 1919 in their fragility. Even before the Great Northern War had been brought to a close, the western powers were at it again. However, this was rather different from the earlier war, for Great Britain and France were now on the same side. Just how this remarkable volte-face–in its way just as radical a diplomatic revolution as that of 1756–came about tells us a lot about the continuing importance of dynastic, as opposed to national, considerations in determining foreign policy. Of course Louis XIV, for example, had always been concerned to press the interest of the Bourbon family; indeed this has been something of a leitmotiv of recent historiography. Yet he was always careful to identify family and national interests, in the same way that he identified his person with the state. Even if he never actually said ‘I am the state’, he did say much that amounted to the same thing. And he did write in The Craft of Kingship in 1679:

Kings are often obliged to act contrary to their inclination in a way that wounds their own natural good instincts. They should like to give pleasure, and they often have to punish and ruin people to whom they are naturally well disposed. The interests of the state must come first…When one has the State in view, one is working for oneself. The good of the one makes the glory of the other. When the State is happy, eminent and powerful, he who is cause thereof is covered with glory, and as a consequence has a right to enjoy all that is most agreeable in life in a greater degree than his subjects, in proportion to his position and theirs.

If he conceded on his deathbed that he had liked war too much, and if even his most adulatory biographers allow that his early wars were motivated primarily by a search for personal gloire, his strengthening of the frontiers did benefit the whole nation.

Purely dynastic, on the other hand, was the policy adopted by Spain, which proved to be the rogue elephant of international politics. Or rather one should write: the policy adopted by the Queen of Spain, for the driving force was supplied by Elizabeth Farnese of Parma, whom Philip V had married as his second wife in 1714. Dominating her husband to a degree that very few consorts have achieved, she used the resources of her new country to carve out a patrimony for the two sons she bore–Don Carlos in 1716 and Don Philip in 1720. Neither seemed likely to succeed to the Spanish throne, as Philip V already had two surviving sons by his first marriage, so she turned her attention to Italy. In this she was aided and abetted by Giulio Alberoni, a turbulent priest originally from Piacenza who had first gone to Spain as secretary to the duc de Vendôme, had then become the envoy of the Duke of Parma and had been responsible for the selection of Elizabeth as Philip V’s new wife. An adventurer by temperament, he also appears to have harboured a strong antipathy towards the Austrians, the new masters of the Italian peninsula, and so was an enthusiastic accomplice.

In 1717 the ambitious duo despatched a mighty armada (the largest Spain had assembled since Lepanto in 1571) comprising 300 ships bearing 33,000 troops and 100 pieces of artillery to conquer Sardinia from the Austrians. As the latter were preoccupied with their latest war against the Turks, this proved to be a soft target. So too did Sicily, to which the victorious Spaniards moved the following year. This violent revision of the peace settlement then attracted the hostility of the other great powers, notably France and Great Britain. Both wished to see the status quo preserved, mainly for dynastic reasons. The Regent of France, the duc d’Orléans, naturally still entertained hopes of becoming king if the infant Louis XV were to die and so, equally naturally, was at daggers drawn with Philip V, the only other possible claimant. It was in pursuit of a possible Orleanist succession that he sought a rapprochement with Britain against Spain. George I was turned into a responsive listener to his overtures by the thought that an alliance would both neutralize the threat from the Stuart pretender and secure Hanover. The latter looked especially vulnerable in 1716 when Peter the Great went into winter quarters with a large army in the Duchy of Mecklenburg, next door to Hanover. So it was that the ‘natural and necessary enemies’ (as the British envoy to the French court, Lord Stair, put it in 1717) sank their differences and combined to put a stop to Elizabeth Farnese’s Mediterranean adventures. On 11 August 1718 a British fleet commanded by Admiral Byng destroyed the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro, the southernmost point of Sicily, capturing seven ships of the line in open waters and then destroying the remaining seven that sought refuge inshore.


Battle Cape Passaro painting showing Spanish flagship Real San Felipe (centre) being bombarded by British ships.

Two years of horror followed, both for the marooned Spanish army and their involuntary hosts, until the inevitable surrender was signed. Meanwhile, in 1719 a British expeditionary force landed in Galicia, taking Vigo and Pontevedra, and a French army invaded the Basque country, taking San Sebastian. Alberoni was dismissed and expelled. As John Lynch has written, ‘rarely has a war been so resoundingly lost, or a fall from favourite to scapegoat been so precipitate’. France and Britain now imposed a settlement to tidy up and stabilize the Utrecht-Rastadt treaties: Philip V was to renounce any claims to Italy or the southern Netherlands, but the succession to the duchies of Parma and Tuscany was assigned to his son by Elizabeth Farnese, Don Carlos; Charles VI finally abandoned his claim to the Spanish throne but received Sicily; Victor Amadeus II of Savoy had to give up the latter but received Sardinia in exchange and kept his royal title.

The complete package took a very long time to be implemented. Even the most gifted narrator would find it difficult to construct an account of the 1720s both coherent and interesting, or indeed either of those things. Only intense concentration and repeated reference to the chronology can reveal which abortive congress was which, which short-lived league brought which powers together, who was allied to whom, who was double-crossing whom, or whatever. Suffice it to say that this was a period when Great Britain enjoyed a preponderant influence on the European states-system that was as rare as it was brief. Among other things, the British succeeded in forcing the Spanish to recognize the commercial concessions granted at Utrecht and the Austrians to abandon their project for a commercial empire based at Ostend. One lucky beneficiary of all this hustling and bustling was Elizabeth Farnese, for whom sixteen years of scheming finally paid off when Don Carlos entered Parma in March 1732 as its new duke. The Spanish troops sent to assist him were transported across the Mediterranean in British ships, as was the garrison sent to Tuscany to protect his claim against the day when the current childless Grand Duke died.

By 1730 the French had recovered sufficiently from the exertions of the War of the Spanish Succession to contemplate resuming what they believed to be their rightful position at the apex of the European states- system. Not only had Louis XV survived childhood and adolescence, he was now a hale and hearty adult, who had sired a male heir in 1729 and gave every sign of producing many more. In 1726 he had sacked the incompetent duc de Bourbon and announced–in conscious imitation of his predecessor–that he would henceforth be his own first minister, although adding almost in the same breath that Cardinal Fleury would be present at all meetings with his ministers. Fleury was indeed the new director of French policy, bringing to foreign affairs an impressive combination of subtlety and resolution. He disliked the high-handed manner in which Sir Robert Walpole had imposed a pax britannica on the Mediterranean in 1731 and he was also alarmed by the Austro-Russian axis: ‘Russia in respect of the equilibrium of the North has mounted too high a degree of power, and its union with the House of Austria is extremely dangerous.’ So he began to distance France from the entente with Britain and to resume the leap-frog relationships with Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the Ottoman Empire.

Opportunity for the French to flex their muscles came from the succession problems that were afflicting several of their rivals. In Great Britain, the Stuarts were still a threat. Peter the Great’s failure to establish primogeniture destabilized the Russian state every time a Tsar or Tsarina died; indeed his decree that the incumbent should designate the successor positively invited instability. Most importantly, Charles VI had proved unable to produce a male heir, thus calling into question the succession to the Habsburg Monarchy. To guard against its partition, in 1713 Charles issued a ‘pragmatic sanction’ proclaiming that, in the event of his dying without a male heir, all his possessions in their entirety would pass to his elder daughter, the Archduchess Maria Theresa. This was bound to be problematic, not least because it involved passing over the daughters of his predecessor, his elder brother Joseph I. Charles now set about gaining international recognition for the pragmatic sanction and not without success, for Spain in 1725, Bavaria, Cologne and Russia in 1726, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic in 1731, and Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire in 1732 all gave their consent. It was not given freely, of course, but had to be bought by concessions of one kind or another. Whether it was worth all the diplomatic effort involved is doubtful. It is hard to disagree with Prince Eugène’s opinion that a large army and a well-stocked treasury would have been more help than these paper promises.

In the event, the next major European war was precipitated not by the Austrian but by the Polish succession. When Augustus II of Saxony-Poland died on 1 February 1733, Austria and Russia supported the election of his son as Augustus III, while France resurrected the candidature of Stanislas Leszczyski, who had been briefly King of Poland from 1704 until 1709 as the puppet of Charles XII. In the meantime, Stanislas had secured French support by the marriage of his daughter Maria to Louis XV in 1725. However, his son-in-law gave him only token support in Poland, choosing instead to campaign on the Rhine and in northern Italy. Here the French were uniformly successful and by 1735 were ready to dictate terms to the hapless Charles VI. Their diplomatic position had been greatly strengthened by an alliance with Spain, the ‘First Family Compact’ of 7 November 1733. The war was finally brought to an end by the Treaty of Vienna in May 1738, three years after the actual fighting had stopped. Its terms showed once again how important were dynastic considerations in determining the map of Europe. Augustus III was confirmed as King of Poland, with Stanislas Leszczyski receiving as compensation the Duchy of Lorraine, which on his death was to pass to France. The current Duke of Lorraine, Francis Stephen, who had married Charles VI’s heiress Maria Theresa in 1736, was to receive Tuscany, whose last Grand Duke had died in 1737. The Habsburgs were also to take the Duchy of Parma from Don Carlos, who was to receive Naples and Sicily, where he was to become ‘King of the Two Sicilies’. Although for the time being his brother Don Philip was not provided for, Elizabeth Farnese’s dream of setting up her boys as independent rulers had taken another giant step forwards.

So the pax britannica had been short-lived. It was the French who directed the peace-making of 1735–8 and it was they who seemed in control, for they had established a solid axis with their Spanish relations and extended Bourbon control over southern Italy. Their victory over Charles VI seemed all the more complete when financial exhaustion and military failure forced him to accept French mediation to bring to an end the war he had been fighting against the Turks since 1737. By the Peace of Belgrade of September 1739, the Turks regained most of the territory they had lost in 1718, including Belgrade, although the Austrians kept the Bánát of Temesvár. In the east, however, the situation was less encouraging, for the new King of Poland, Augustus III, was under no illusions that he owed his crown to Russian and Austrian support and was also married to a Habsburg. French leap-frog diplomacy was still intact, but was going to be more problematic in the future.

Another long-term problem that loomed ever larger was colonial competition with the British. The latter had gained enough at Utrecht to whet their appetite for more. They now controlled the entire Atlantic seaboard of North America, with the exception of Spanish Florida, and also claimed a vast swathe of territory to the south of Hudson Bay. In between were the French, whose first expedition to the St Lawrence river had been made as early as 1534 and who now controlled the river-valley to the Great Lakes and beyond. More recently, the French had also laid claim to territory far to the south, at the mouth of the Mississippi, naming their new possession ‘Louisiana’ after their king and founding New Orleans in 1718. Their obvious strategy was to link up these new acquisitions with their older colonies in the north via the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. It was in the latter that increasingly they collided with settlers from the British seaboard colonies moving west across the Appalachians in search of new land. By the 1730s it was clear that armed struggle was inevitable.

So was a war between Britain and Spain. Spanish hostility to Britain was determined by the loss of Gibraltar and Minorca at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and by the obligation to allow the British to supply Spanish colonies in America with African slaves. In the course of the 1730s war became increasingly likely, as growing numbers of enterprising and unscrupulous British merchants flouted Spanish commercial restrictions. A more specific bone of contention was the formal settlement of Georgia, which intensified disputes about the northern limits of Spanish Florida. The war which eventually broke out between Britain and Spain in 1739 is known to the British as ‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’. The owner of the ear was Captain Robert Jenkins of the British merchant marine, who displayed it, pickled in a jar, to a committee of the House of Commons in 1738. He claimed that it had been amputated by a sword swipe from a Spanish coastguard, who had boarded and looted his ship off Havana. No matter that the alleged incident had occurred seven years earlier, together with other horror stories it was enough to galvanize British public opinion by triggering all those powerful anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic associations, from the Inquisition to the Armada. Hispanophobia had been given a recent impetus by the assistance given by Spain to an abortive Jacobite invasion in 1719. The war-party inside and outside Parliament made the most of popular indignation, pressuring a reluctant Walpole to declare war.

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