The offers of the allied powers were met with the gasconade which was so common in Spanish diplomacy. His master, said Alberoni, would lose forty crowns before he would agree to terms so humiliating: rather than consent to them, he would die fighting, sword in hand. Nancré, the French ambassador, urged the acceptance of conditions which were for the true interests of Spain. “Nancré has vomited out his proposals,” wrote Alberoni. “They were scandalous enough to be worthy of an Englishman.”
Undisturbed by the combination already formed against him, the cardinal now attacked, without notice or provocation, a nation with which Spain was at peace. The Spanish proceeded, with utter unconcern as to consequences, to seize anything they wanted, no matter to whom it belonged. Sicily had been ceded to Savoy by the treaty of Utrecht. In August, 1718, a Spanish fleet sailed to that island, 30,000 soldiers landed, and the principal towns were easily captured. Such an invasion seemed so extraordinary that it was universally believed that a secret alliance had been made between Philip and the king of Sicily. It was not the fact. When Victor Amadeus found himself deserted by his former allies, he sought to form a combination with Spain, but the plans of Alberoni were too chimerical to attract him. The invasion of Sicily now drove him into the Quadruple Alliance. It was rarely that the house of Savoy made a treaty by which it lost. To exchange fertile and populous Sicily for rocky and barren Sardinia was a bad bargain, but Victor Amadeus saw that resistance was impossible. He never forgave those who had framed the alliance, and found his only consolation subsequently, when the three men most responsible for it – Stanhope, Dubois, and Orleans – died suddenly, and without opportunity to save themselves from perdition by obtaining absolution for their sins.
The invasion of Sicily compelled the allies to resort to force. An English fleet sailed under Admiral Byng, with orders to resist any infraction of the neutrality of Italy and the provisions of the treaty of Utrecht. His instructions were communicated to Alberoni. The cardinal treated the English fleet as he treated everything that conflicted with his desires: he paid no attention to it. With true Spanish hauteur, the Enlish minister was informed that the Chevalier Byng might execute the orders that he had received from his master. He proceeded to do so without delay. On the 11th of August, Byng attacked the Spanish off Cape Passaro. A few hours were sufficient to destroy the fleet with which Alberoni had expected to rule the Mediterranean. The visions of Italian conquest were dissolved as soon as the were brought in contact with realities.
Alberoni still persisted in a desperate struggle, trusting to fortune to come to his aid. He had hoped that Charles XII. of Sweden would invade England in behalf of the Stuart cause. The death of that erratic sovereign put an end to such plans, and the cardinal decided to revive the projects of Philip II. and undertake the conquest of England himself. In 1719, a fleet of twenty-four sail, mostly transports, was dispatched to conquer the greatest maritime power of Europe. A storm off Finisterre dispersed the new Armada, and saved it from the defeat which awaited it.
In December, 1718, England formally declared war upon Spain, and Stanhope demanded of the regent to do the same. Orleans had bound himself to this by the provisions of the Quadruple Alliance, but he was loath to take the step. He desired the regency to be a period of peace, and a contest with Spain was in the highest degree unpopular in France. The coterie which cherished the traditions of Louis XIV. regarded a war against his grandson as an impious and a fratricidal measure. Orleans had already lost the popularity which had attended the beginning of the regency, and he did not wish to increase the illfavor with which his administration was regarded.
The measures adopted by Philip and Alberoni removed all difficulties from his path. Though the hopes which greeted the reforms promised by the regent had been disappointed, the thought of any revolt against his authority could only be entertained by discontented visionaries. Orleans’s power was as firmly established as if he had been king instead of regent, and, after sixty years of implicit obedience to the sovereign, the idea of open resistance was foreign to the community. The great body of the population desired peace and tranquillity, and cared little whether the regent made an alliance with England or with Spain, whether he chose Dubois or Maine as his adviser.
The discontents of a little clique were enough, however, to excite the hopes of Alberoni, and some harmless vaporing was dignified with the importance of a dangerous conspiracy. The Duke of Maine had been deprived of the rank bestowed on him by the fondness of Louis XIV. A very small portion of the community took any interest in his fortunes, and he was the last man to become the leader of an insurrection. Not only was he dull and inert, but he was suspected, and not unjustly, of a lack of physical courage. Among a nation where courage was highly esteemed, and was almost universally possessed, there could be no more fatal defect in a man who aspired to become a leader. To do Maine justice, he had not the least aspiration for such a rôle.
His wife was a more energetic character. Their chateau at Sceaux had long been a centre for society and literature. Its mistress amused herself with a constant succession of fêtes. Plays were acted, poets recited verses, courtiers turned compliments, ladies exercised their charms. The duchess founded an order called the Honey Bees, to which those distinguished by fashion or by wit were delighted to be admitted. Fontenelle was one of the ornaments of her little court. The first president of the Parliament there displayed his talents as a courtier, which. atoned for his lack of any talent as a judge. This charmed existence was broken in upon by the political misfortunes of the Duke of Maine. His wife abandoned the part of a delightful hostess for the more serious one of a political conspirator. She was better fitted for the former rôle than the latter. A few nobles of small importance joined in conferences where little was done except to abuse the regent. The Prince of Cellamare was then Spanish ambassador at Paris. The relations of his master and of the Duke of Orleans were unfriendly, and those who were offended with the regent naturally sought the counsels of the ambassador. The Duchess of Maine and some of her associates conferred with Cellamare. He seems to have estimated the conspirators at their just weight, but he reported their plans to his government. Alberoni attached to them an undue importance, and he directed the minister to continue the consultations. The cardinal hoped that a few uninfluential intriguers, without definite plans, and without means of executing what plans they had, could overthrow the regent and bring France again into close alliance with Philip.
These intrigues continued for some months. A few persons signed papers assuring Philip of their devotion and of their willingness to serve him. The young Duke of Richelieu agreed to betray the town where he was stationed to the Spanish king. He began his long and disgraceful career by conduct, the baseness of which was equaled by the folly. The conspirators had little idea of what they wanted to do, and no idea whatever of how they were to do it. Proclamations were indited, in Philip’s name, demanding a session of the States General of France. That body, it was believed, would depose Orleans from the regency, would renew the alliance between France and Spain, restore to Maine his forfeited rank, and assure to Philip his rights to the French throne. The only thing in which the plotters showed any real zeal was in discussing the verbiage of Philip’s proclamations. The habitués of Sceaux, who were pretending to be conspirators, were only fitted to debate questions of grammar, and to amplify the resonance of a phrase. On these idle schemes Alberoni continued to build his hopes. “Do not leave Paris,” he wrote Cellamare, “without having set fire to all the mines.” “They are mines without powder,” replied the ambassador.
These intrigues did not escape the vigilance of Dubois. He was warned of their existence in the summer of 1718, but he was in no haste to expose them. Copies of many of the papers were furnished him by an unfaithful employee of Cellamare. In December, two gentlemen were sent to Spain with various documents of the conspirators. At Poitiers they were arrested and the papers seized. Immediately after this the official residence of Cellamare was entered; his letters were taken possession of by the French government; he was himself arrested, and was afterwards sent out of France under a strong guard. He protested against this invasion of his sacred character, but the letters which had passed between him and Alberoni, and which proved that the Spanish minister and ambassador were encouraging plots against the head of the French government, showed that Cellamare had forfeited the immunities to which his office entitled him.
The arrest of those who were involved in these transactions soon followed. The Duke of Maine had no part in the intrigues of his wife, and knew nothing of them. He was, however, taken into custody, and he displayed the greatest pusillanimity. He was arrested at Sceaux and carried to Dourlens. During the long journey he hardly spoke, but uttered frequent sighs and sobs. At each church which was passed, he bowed profoundly, crossed himself, and muttered his prayers. At his prison at Dourlens he occupied him- self in praying for deliverance, and when he heard any sudden noise his face became of a deathly pallor. After a time he was released, but it was long before he would have anything to do with his wife, for fear that her unquiet disposition would again involve him in similar peril. She was also arrested, as were many of her confederates. All, with one accord, sought to obtain forgiveness by turning state’s evidence, and endeavoring to implicate others.
“I would have given my blood to save you,” wrote the Abbé Brigault to some of his associates whom his confessions involved, “but you know the obligations of religion. . . . I cannot hope for absolution unless I tell the whole truth. I must follow the lights of my faith.” All were, perhaps, influenced by the same motives. The Duchess of Maine wrote Orleans that even liberty would be insupportable, unless she could be assured of again enjoying his friendship. Orleans contented himself with the terror and humiliation of the unfortunate intriguers. After a few months’ imprisonment, all were released without further punishment.
The exposure of the conspiracy satisfied the purposes of Dubois. The French people were justly indignant that the Spanish prime minister had encouraged plots against the head of the government. The party of the old court and the advocates of Philip V. were plunged in confusion. In January, 1719, war was declared against Spain. In answer to this, proclamations in the name of the Spanish king were published in France, exhorting the people and the Parliaments to resist the tyranny of the Duke of Orleans, to summon the States General, and to check a fratricidal war. They produced no effect. The French army was placed under the command of the Marshal of Berwick, the bastard son of James II. He was a man who recognized no obligations but those of a soldier. He conducted the campaign against Philip with the same ability that he had formerly displayed in behalf of that monarch.
Philip still cherished the delusion that the hearts of the French people were unalterably attached to the grandson of Louis XIV. The fleurs de lis were painted on the Spanish banners. A proclamation invited the French soldiers to join the Spanish army, and assured them that Louis XV. would approve their conduct when he should attain his majority. Neither officer nor soldier in the French ranks heeded this appeal. Philip seems really to have supposed that his appearance would dissolve the French army; when he discovered his illusion, he fell into a deep melancholy, and left the queen to excite the ardor of the Spanish troops.
The advance of the French met with few obstacles. They overran Spain with little more resistance, wrote one of their officers, than the Spanish themselves had met with in the conquest of Mexico two hundred years before. In the mean time the Austrians with superior forces encountered the troops that had been landed in Sicily, and the English ships cruised along the defenseless shores of Spain. Even Philip and his wife began to realize the folly of the contest which they had excited. A final endeavor was made to draw Orleans from the alliance. Philip suggested a scheme by which, while his own son should succeed to the French throne if Louis died, Orleans should be consoled with the formation of a new kingdom for himself, to be taken from France, and to consist of Burgundy, Alsace, and French Flanders. Great Britain was to be parceled in like manner; the Pretender would have Scotland and Ireland, while George must be content with England. This proposition was one of the last schemes devised while Alberoni remained prime minister. Certainly a man who could invent and propose plans so chimerical had no claim to be called a statesman.
The disasters which had attended Alberoni’s measures weakened the influence which he had once possessed. The allies declared that his dismissal must be the price of peace. His unbounded ambition had been the sole cause of the war, wrote Stanhope, and unless he was removed there could be no certainty of permanent tranquillity. The Duke of Parma advised his niece to dismiss the cardinal, and Philip yielded to these suggestions. Alberoni had been a visionary, but only a visionary could please such masters. He had at least been zealous in their service, and he was now treated with harshness. He was ordered to leave Madrid in eight days, and Spain within three weeks. He never again returned, and in his wanderings in Italy he was long pursued by the animosity of his former masters. He revenged himself by telling the truth about them. Philip, he said, was an uxorious bigot, and the queen was a firebrand who would kindle the flames of war through the civilized world. Both the Pope and the Spanish king were eager to deprive Alberoni of his cardinalate, but the common interest of the cardinals always prevented the degradation of any one who had been clothed with that dignity. Alberoni even contemplated the possibility of being a candidate for the papacy. “There are two obstacles,” he said; “I am only fifty-five, and I have not the reputation of being a fool.” At one conclave he received ten votes, but, whether he was too young or too wise, he failed of an election.
Though Alberoni had been dismissed, Philip still persisted in his extravagant claims. He was informed that he must take what was secured to him by the treaty of the Quadruple Alliance, and he decided to accept. Once again he swore to the renunciation of his possible rights to the French throne. As he never for a moment intended to observe his oath, this did not disturb him. He was, however, strenuous in his demands for Gibraltar. The English replied that they had offered Gibraltar to obtain peace, but the offer was no longer in force after Philip had gone to war and been defeated. It was at last agreed that this and other debated questions should be referred to a congress of the various powers to be held at Cambray. “The congress,” said Dubois, “will occupy half its session in regulating questions of etiquette, and the other half in doing nothing, and then some unforeseen event will bring it to an end.” That was precisely its history. The various plenipotentiaries wasted several years doing nothing, and in 1725 Spain and Austria made a treaty of alliance, and arranged between themselves the unsettled questions of the Spanish Succession.
While Spain was forced to remain at peace, much to the advantage of the country, and much to the discontent of its sovereign, France witnessed the development of new commercial and financial systems, which attracted the attention of the world, and which have still a curious interest for posterity.