EUROPE in the seventeenth century was divided among considerable states or great powers, or perhaps, more accurately, large political entities—like the Spanish empire and the Austrian Habsburg empire—and numbers of small kingdoms, petty princedoms, and dukedoms, which changed hands or were absorbed whenever a significant dynastic marriage took place. The Spanish empire, though it still comprised the southern Netherlands, important parts of Italy and much of the New World across the Atlantic, was on the decline. At the beginning of the century it had lost the northern Netherlands which had achieved independence under William the Silent; in 1668 Portugal finally became a separate kingdom, while by the treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) Spain had been obliged to concede several frontier districts to France. The decadence of Spain had set in during the first half of the century. It suffered from economic uncertainties, from inflations and depressions, from a price revolution, from a lazy aristocracy and an incompetent or corrupt bureaucracy, from the frequent breakdown of public order, from a peasantry that often starved. Its vulnerability and large possessions aroused cupidity or concern throughout Europe.
Philip II, once the husband of Queen Mary I of England, had been a powerful king. But none of his grandiose schemes were realized. His grandson, Philip IV (1621-65 ) was an idle monarch dependent on ministers and favourites, including a nun to whom he confided his sexual excesses. He had to contend not merely with the loss of Portugal and the long war with France but also an exhausting civil war concentrated in Catalonia, the ‘Ireland’ of Spain. However, his territorial losses were not extensive; and when not long before his own death his daughter Maria Teresa was married to King Louis XIV ‘of France it looked as if the régime of the Spanish Habsburgs might be fortified by the alliance. But on the contrary, this very marriage whetted the appetite of the young Louis XIV. For Philip IV’s successor, Charles II, known as ‘the Bewitched’, was sickly and impotent. He lived a life of fantasy and disappointment. He was unable even to masticate his food. His half-sister’s renunciation of her right to the Spanish succession on her marriage to Louis XW had been made contingent on her dowry being paid by her father, but it was never paid. Thus through his marriage Louis might hope one day to lay claim to the whole of the Spanish empire for his family, the Bourbons. Meanwhile he did lay claim to possession of the Southern or Spanish Netherlands (roughly modern Belgium) on the ground that by local law these lands should descend through, or ‘devolve upon’, the female line, that is to say upon his queen, Maria Teresa. On this excuse, during the regency of Charles II’s mother, Spain was again attacked by France and compelled to yield fortresses in the Netherlands to her. And in 1668 Louis XIV concluded a secret treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor, also a Habsburg, whereby it was agreed that France and the Emperor should divide the possessions of Spain between them if Charles the Bewitched were indeed to die without an heir.
Some historians have asserted that this question of the Spanish succession dominated the history of Europe in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Certainly the whole world was aware of its explosive character. Supposing France did, for example, on one pretext or another overrun the whole of the Spanish Netherlands, then the strategic security of both the United Netherlands and of England, as well as of northern Germany—the heart, in fact, of Protestant Europe—would be menaced. Yet the pitiful Charles II, the plaything of women and of priests, hung on to his life and his throne for more than thirty-five years and struggled, not unskilfully, for the preservation of Spanish imperial unity and integrity. If in the end the Spanish empire was to be partitioned between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs, it was not to come about until the second decade of the eighteenth century. Though its resources were small and its armies negligible, other powers propped up the declining kingdom of the Spanish Habsburgs, lit so recently by the genius of Velazquez and Cervantes. Meanwhile Louis XIV’s ambitions were by no means confined to the acquisition of Spain for his heirs. In the sixteen-eighties he was aiming to extend the frontiers of France far beyond the Spanish Netherlands, towards the Rhine, and he even hoped one day to be elected Holy Roman Emperor himself and to hold sway over the whole of middle Europe.
For Louis XIV3 had all the instincts of a megalomaniac, the first of a succession of madmen who brought death and destruction to modern Europe. He had inherited a wealthy kingdom with vast natural resources and a large population, a victorious army and highly capable generals and diplomatists. Having intervened in Germany under the impulse of Cardinal Richeieu’s foreign policy, France had emerged from the wars of the first half of the century with her prestige enhanced. After many vicissitudes the monarchy had recovered from the civil wars known as the wars of the Fronde, and Cardinal Mazarin, Richeieu’s successor, had left the young king the heritage of a peaceful realm, directed by a centralized government, and valuable territorial acquisitions from the wars against the Spanish empire. But Louis XIV was determined to win personal glory at all costs. ‘Love of glory,’ he wrote, ‘requires the same delicacy of touch and of approach as love of a woman.’ He determined to exercise what was to him an endearing art. At home his minister Colbert stimulated industry and-commerce and built up a French navy. Overseas his able diplomatic representatives worked to enhance French prestige: in its name even the Pope was insulted. Streams of money flowed through carefully sited channels to buy French supporters or to neutralize France’s enemies. And war was threatened when diplomacy failed.
At first the French King advanced smoothly along his prepared paths of aggression. By the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1668 he obtained Lille and other frontier fortresses; by a group of treaties known as the Peace of Nymegen, concluded ten years later, he acquired Franche-Comté and more fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands. These gains and others exacted earlier by the treaties of Westphalia (1648) and of the Pyrenees (1659) were swollen by the lands brought under French control by the ‘acts of reunion’ in 1680-81. While William of Orange was hamstrung by the opposition of the States-General to any fresh military action, while the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor was diverted to the east, while England trembled on the verge of civil war and her King secretly took French pay, Louis was able to push his frontiers towards the Rhine. In his hands were concentrated Strasbourg and the whole of Alsace, Franche-Comté, much of Lorraine and many villages in Flanders as well as the key town of Luxembourg. He had drawn back from Luxembourg under pressure in 168i, but his soldiers had occupied it in 1684. By the truce of Ratisbon (August i 684) the important powers in Europe were compelled to recognize the French right to cling to all these territorial gains, however dubiously won, for a period of twenty years. William of Orange had worked not for such a one-sided truce but a general negotiated peace; if it had to be a truce, he had suggested, it should last for only eight years. But he could not induce his allies or even his own people to stand behind him. Thus in the years 1684-85 Louis XIV had climbed to the pinnacle of his power and glory in Europe.
Some French historians have placed the high-water-mark of Louis XIV’s success earlier than that, around about the time of the treaty of Nymegen (1678-79). It is argued that the provocative conduct of the French in Alsace-Lorraine and in Flanders had excited such enmity that sooner or later they were certain to be forced to defend their conquests by war. The truce, it is contended, was generally recognized to be no more than a breathing space for consolidation, extorted by terror (the French had the largest army in western Europe) whereas by the treaties of 1678-79 France’s expansion to the north-east had been recognized and sustained by public agreement.
Be that as it may, Louis XIV had no intention of standing still. If he paused for the moment, it was in order that he might later spring forward more effectively. Charles II of Spain might die at any time; he was married to a French princess, Louis XIV’s niece: but it was known that he could have no children. One day the Spanish authorities might well welcome a French Bourbon prince as their king. Only the Austrian Habsburgs could stop a French prince from acquiring the throne of Madrid, and they might be prepared to acquiesce in it if they were offered a generous share of the Spanish empire, such as they had been offered, and had accepted, in the secret partition treaty of 1668. Otherwise there were only the Protestant powers, who might be neutralized or embroiled with one another. Thus the French King himself watched the international situation with the closest possible attention. Always a hard worker, he had now dropped the extravagant pleasures of his youth. After the death of his Spanish wife in January 1684 he was secretly married to the widowed Mme de Maintenon, a lady who had been the governess of his illegitimate children and was an exceptionally pious Roman Catholic. While Louis awaited developments in Madrid and Vienna, he decided to unify his kingdom spiritually by expelling the French Protestants—the Huguenots—when he could not convert them. Their conversion or suppression had been his aim for several years: he wanted to demonstrate to the Roman Catholic world that he really was the Most Christian King. Finally in October 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which was the charter of Huguenot liberties, and tens of thousands of industrious Frenchmen, fleeing before an organized persecution, left their homeland to settle in England, Holland and Germany. The cruel means—the bullying and the torture—by which conversions had been attempted or achieved, as related by the exiles wherever they went, aroused anger against the French King throughout the Protestant nations. And this example of brutal bigotry contributed to political antagonism against France even in countries which, fearful of her might, had hitherto been prepared to cling to their neutrality at all costs.
How had it come about that the French were able to expand north-eastwards and acquire territory on the left bank of the Rhine by force or threats without meeting resistance from the Germans? France, it is true, had a population of eighteen or nineteen million people, but there were some twenty million Germans, some eight million Spaniards, five million English and Scots, and two or three million Dutchmen. The answer was that the Germans were divided among themselves. The Holy Roman Empire, though it still existed, was a ramshackle survival of earlier times. Already for many years French influence had been stronger in northern Germany than that of the Emperor. Some leading Germans, like the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, were French allies and in French pay. For ten years (168-68) a League of the Rhine was established at Frankfort-on-Main consisting of German princes, but also of French and Swedish members which, though its declared aim was pacific, was a body patently hostile to the Habsburgs and subject to French pressure. The Imperial German diet met, but was rarely united or in agreement. Its troops were numerically smaller than those of France. At one stage in the latter half of the seventeenth century it was reckoned that Louis XIV could rely on the support of four of the seven princes who had the right to elect the Holy Roman Emperor. Louis thus hoped that, if anything should happen to the Emperor Leopold I, he might actually acquire this honourable title for himself and so command or even attain wider allegiance among the rulers of Germany.
Whereas Louis XIV, who took over full authority in 1661, had inherited from Richelieu and Mazarin a highly successful foreign policy and well-organized military and economic resources as spring-boards from which to launch his policy of aggrandizement in Europe, the Emperor Leopold I, who succeeded his father Ferdinand III in April 1657 at the age of sixteen and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in July 1658, was left with a somewhat dubious heritage. When the Emperor Charles V died he had divided his huge Habsburg empire into two parts. The Habsburgs of Vienna were junior and inferior to the Habsburgs of Madrid. They ruled over modern Austria and Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia and much of Hungary. During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) they had, on the whole, played a secondary part, but had been ‘maimed, depopulated, and impoverished’. Plague and hunger then spread across the Habsburg lands; it is estimated that the population of Bohemia alone declined by nearly a half. Yet, as the late Professor Betts wrote: ‘by the end of the century the Habsburg monarchy had become one of the great powers, hailed as the saviour of Christendom in the last and only permanently successful crusade, wooed as an ally by the maritime powers, feared as a rival by France.’
How much did this remarkable achievement owe to the Emperor himself? Leopold I had perhaps been underestimated. A colourless figure, brought up by the Jesuits, of admirably cultured tastes and varied hobbies, something of an amateur musician, he was timorous in his decisions, very cautious and slow to make up his mind. Yet he had the advantage of having at his disposal really capable ministers and generals and quite an efficient diplomatic service. On the whole, he chose his servants wisely and was loyal to them. Although the overlapping between his rights as ruler of the Habsburg lands and his position as Holy Roman Emperor complicated matters, it enabled him to draw on a wide circle of helpers. In Raimondo Montecuccoli, Charles V of Lorraine, Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, Ernest Rudiger von Starhemberg and later Eugen of Savoy he had soldiers fully comparable with the French marshals. Baron Lisola, the enemy of Louis XIV, was one of the ablest diplomatists of the century. It was he who constantly warned Leopold of the dangers from France.
But during the early part of his reign the Emperor had to contend with wars against Sweden, ruled by a line of ambitious kings seeking to extend their possessions southwards, and against the predatory Turks, whose Ottoman empire stretched from the eastern frontiers of the Habsburg empire to the Black Sea. In 1664 Montecuccoli defeated the Turks at the battle of St. Gotthard and a treaty was concluded at Vasvar; by this treaty Transylvania and parts of Hungary were temporarily abandoned to the suzerainty of the Sultan. Thus Leopold was able to turn his attention to the west, and in January 1668 concluded the partition treaty with Louis XIV which would have gained him a vast accession of territory on the extinction of the Spanish Habsburgs. But Lisola warned the Emperor, rightly as it proved, against French untrustworthiness. The attacks on the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 and on the Dutch Netherlands in 1672 were, he suggested, ‘the beginning of the march of the enemy towards the gates of Vienna’.6 The Emperor was gradually convinced: and during ten years when he was relatively freed from problems in the east (owing to Turkish absorptions in war elsewhere) seven years were spent in fighting France. Thus it was that William of Orange and the Dutch were able to count on considerable German help in their long-drawn-out struggle against Louis XIV. And so long as such allies could be collected on the mainland of Europe, the fact that William’s uncle in England was the ally or client of Louis XIV was not of the first importance.
But in 1682 the Emperor Leopold’s attention was once more distracted to the east. With his extremely vulnerable frontiers and relatively limited resources it was virtually impossible for him to fight simultaneously on two fronts. In 1678 Thokoly, a Magyar patriotic leader, started a revolt in Christian Hungary. This afforded an opportunity to the Turkish Grand Vizir, Kara Mustafa, to plan a major campaign against the Austrian Habsburg empire, with a base in Hungary. In the spring of 1683 a Turkish horde of some 100,000 men was concentrated under the flag of the Prophet in the neighbourhood of Belgrade. Its object was to overrun Hungary and then conquer Vienna.
The Emperor Leopold was most reluctant to turn away from his contest with France for the preservation of Germany in order to defend himself against the unprovoked aggression of the Turks. Vainly he strove to stave off the evil hour by diplomatic means. But the Sultan was persuaded that a magnificent chance had come his way. Leopold’s own resources to deal with the Turkish armies were insufficient, and it needed a clarion call by Pope Innocent XI to save Europe from the infidels, to persuade the German princes and John Sobieski, King of Poland, to gather together for the rescue of Vienna. The siege by the Turks of the Austrian capital, which was hastily abandoned by the Emperor and his Court, began in July 1683. It was heroically defended by its garrison. And in September 1683 John Sobieski and Charles of Lorraine routed the Turks and drove them back into Hungary. The Emperor now had to decide whether he would pursue the war and expel the Turks from Hungary or turn his face back towards the west and use his victorious troops to check Louis XIV.
The French King had never actively assisted the Turks, though he had been on pretty good terms with them. But he had allied himself with the Hungarian rebels and was secretly delighted by the difficulties of the Emperor. He had refused his assistance in the Christian campaign to save Vienna. It was only the Austrian victory over the Turks that had induced him to make his offer of a twenty-year truce in the west. Under pressure from the Pope, the Emperor Leopold, who was a devout Roman Catholic, was induced to accept the Truce of Ratisbon and instead of joining with William of Orange and the Spaniards in defence of the west, to sign a Holy League with Poland and the republic of Venice (at Linz, March 1684) aimed at the final destruction of the Ottoman empire. When the Most Christian King of France was invited to send his fleet to take part in the last of the Crusades, he refused.
Such broadly was the European situation in 1685. Spain in decline under an impotent and half-imbecile king; Germany divided; the Holy Roman Emperor absorbed in a crusade against the Turks; the French King aggressively feeding on his past successes. To the north, Sweden was still reckoned to be a considerable power. She had been the ally of France during the war against the Dutch, but had been humiliated by being beaten by one of the allies of the United Netherlands, Brandenburg, at the battle of Fehrbellin in 1675 – a humiliation in the light of her magnificent military tradition in the first half of the century. The Brandenburgers had afterwards invaded Swedish Pomerania, while the Danes had attacked Scania. Only the intervention of French diplomacy prevented Sweden from suffering large territorial losses when the group of treaties was concluded that ended the war.
But the Swedes were not grateful to France; they resented not being consulted by their ally; and they refused for some time to ratify the treaties. Charles XI, an able but rather odd monarch, like most of the Vasas, was now determined to put his house in order and to make himself absolute in his kingdom. Thus for a time he tried to avoid becoming involved in European quarrels. He came to terms with the Danes in a secret treaty signed in 1679; he also concluded that the French alliance was of little use to him, especially as the French fleet was incapable of operating in the Baltic. He turned therefore to the Dutch. In September 1681 he at last ratified the peace treaty and signed a far-reaching treaty at The Hague whereby the two parties undertook to work for the maintenance of the status quo and to defend it, if necessary by force of arms. This treaty was the germ of the Grand Alliance which William of Orange was ultimately to construct against France. At the time it was neutralized because Louis XIV renewed his treaties with Brandenburg and concluded a treaty with Denmark which encouraged her to realize a long-felt ambition by attacking the independent duchy of HolsteinGottorp. Thus Sweden and Denmark changed sides in the sixteen-eighties. And the confused situation in the Baltic, as we shall see, was to play its part in the events leading to the Revolution of 1688.
Though William of Orange thus achieved some progress in his plans for containing the aggressions of Louis XIV when the Dutch—Swedish treaty was signed in 1681, he found that the opposition of the Regents of Holland and of Friesland to his forward policy was still firm. In 1682 as a result of William’s diplomatic pressure on England and a Dutch undertaking to send troops to assist Spain in fulfilment of an existing treaty, Louis XIV had for a time to abandon his designs on Luxembourg. But when in the following year William had pressed for the raising of a larger Dutch army he had met with effective opposition, particularly from Amsterdam, which was determined not to be forced into another war with France. Van Beuningen, one of the Amsterdam Regents, who had gone over to England on a special embassy to enlist Charles II in the alliance against France, had come back in March 1683 feeling that the situation was hopeless and that it was as dangerous as it was useless to prepare for war.
This attitude in England, combined with the distraction of the Emperor by the Turks and the presence of Brandenburg and Denmark in the French camp, had effectively negatived all William’s plans. The Stadholder never forgave Van Beuningen for his opposition to recruitment; he even asserted that he was a servant of France and that he deserved to lose his head. Feelings in Holland became inflamed. Shall we be compelled by the cowardly merchants of Amsterdam to submit to the might of the French King? William had demanded. In February 1684 he produced in the States of Holland an intercepted letter from the French ambassador to the United Netherlands as evidence of the intrigues between the French and the Regents of Amsterdam. When, in the end the States-General felt obliged to accept the twenty-year truce proposed by France, William was in despair. ‘It is all the fault of those scoundrels in Amsterdam,’ he asserted. He might have added that it was also the fault of his English uncle and father-in-law who seem—at any rate according to French reports—to have rejoiced at his set-backs in Holland. James assured William that the acceptance of the French terms in 1684 was the only means to peace. William did not believe it; he was convinced that the independence of his country had to be maintained by continuous and unflinching resistance to French aggression either in the Spanish Netherlands or in the Rhineland. A mere look at the map shows how these small but virile and prosperous Protestant nations—the United Netherlands, England and Sweden—supported, if possible by Denmark and Brandenburg—stood across the path of French mastery in Europe. If England, about to be ruled by a Roman Catholic king, were to range herself on the side of France, or if indeed she refused to enter an anti-French defensive alliance—that would be a fatal blow to William of Orange and to the security of the Dutch republic.
In fact the future was not so dark for William as it appeared to be at the end of 1684. In the first place, the Dutch Regents were as patriotic as he was, as patriotic as John de Witt had once been; they had no more intention of consenting to the French domination of Europe than they had once before of yielding to the tyranny of Spain. When the time was ripe, they would support their Captain-General. Secondly, James II, when he came to the throne of England, would prove himself, once he felt secure, to be proud, stubborn, and independent. He would not become the vassal of France; on the contrary, he would, much to the French King’s wrath, renew existing treaties with the Dutch. Lastly, Louis XIV’s policy of forcibly converting his own Protestant subjects to the Roman Catholic Church or, if they would not conform, driving them out of his kingdom, created a fierce reaction against France throughout the Protestant world. That gave William of Orange an opportunity he did not fail to grasp. His position at home and abroad was immensely strengthened. Once again he was able to direct the opposition to the French menace. But to do so successfully he required the active help of England. Hence the revolution of 1688 has to be understood in its international setting.
Let us now turn to see what happened in England after King Charles II died.