Lectures on Modern History/The War of the Spanish Succession

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
XV. The War of the Spanish Succession



We come now to the last and greatest transaction in Lewis XIV.'s reign—the acquisition of the Spanish crown.

The idea of a predominant Power in Europe was part of absolutism. It proceeded from the same love of authority, the same pride of greatness, the same disregard for the equal rights of men, the same pretension to superiority and prerogative, international as well as national. The position of the king in Europe was security for his position in France itself. Subjects were more willing to submit to one to whom foreigners submitted. In three successive wars Lewis had striven for this advantage, and had made himself felt as the public enemy and the vigilant disturber of the peace of Europe. If he added Spain to his dominions by legal and pacific means, by negotiated treaty or testamentary bequest, it would be more legitimate than his former attempts at mastery. His mother was a Spanish princess. His wife was a Spanish princess. The emperor was in the same position, but in each case the Queen of France was the elder sister. Both of the French queens had resigned their claims; but Lewis had not confirmed his wife's renunciation, as her dowry was left unpaid; and it was not confirmed by the national authorities in Spain.

In 1668, in spite of the will of Philip IV. giving the succession to Austria, Leopold, who at that time had no children, had been ready for an equitable partition. But in 1689, when the Maritime Powers, that is, when William III. had urgent need of Austria in the coalition against France, they promised the undivided monarchy of Spain to Leopold's second son. That agreement was superseded by the peace of Ryswick. And in the interval a new claimant was born, with evidently better right than the young archduke. For the archduke was the son of a second marriage. The emperor had only a daughter by his Spanish wife, who married the elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, and gave birth to a son in 1692. Under the will of Philip IV., the late King of Spain, that prince was the lawful heir. He was not the imperial candidate; for Leopold had required his own daughter to surrender her claim, that his crowns might not pass from Habsburg to Wittelsbachs.

For the very reason that he was neither a Habsburg nor a Bourbon, the electoral Prince of Bavaria became the candidate of William, and he agreed with Lewis that he should inherit Spain and the Indies, Italy and the Low Countries to be divided. By this, which is known as the First Partition Treaty, though in reality it was the second, England obtained nothing, except the prospect of peace through a friendly understanding with France, and it alienated the emperor and outraged Spain. That foreigners should dispose at their own convenience of the empire which had been built up by Spanish hands, was an intolerable offence to Spaniards. They refused to be dismembered without even having been consulted. With all her dominions, with the united crowns of twenty-two kingdoms, Spain was unprosperous and insecure. Her vitality was kept up by her foreign possessions. Brabant, the Milanese, Campania, Apulia, were the richest portions of Europe, and neither France, nor the empire, nor England possessed the like. Deprived of these, the monarchy would decline quickly; for with all her pride, and her fame, and her unsetting sun, Spain was visibly going down. It was their policy and their resolution that the crown, though it must pass away to strangers, should pass undiminished. That it was about to pass away, all men knew.

On 19th September, three weeks before Lewis and William concluded their treaty, the primate assured the French ambassador that they must proceed as if the king was a dead man. The king himself knew his danger. His wife was a sister of the empress, and they were in the Austrian interest. So much so, that having made a will in favour of the Bavarian prince, Charles revoked it; the ambassador Harrach, the Prince of Hesse who commanded in Catalonia, the queen, when her confidant was not bribed on the other side, were active for the archduke. But when the Partition Treaty became known, in November 1698, the king made another will, and publicly announced that his heir was the young prince of Bavaria. He thus took the candidate of France and England, assigning to him the whole, not a part. It was an attempt to preserve unity and avert partition by adopting the chosen claimant of the partitioning Powers. The English parliament, intent on peace, and suspicious of William's foreign policy, which was directed by him personally, with Dutch advisers, to the exclusion of ministers, reduced the army to 7000 men. William carried his distrust of Englishmen so far that he requested the imperial ambassador Wratislaw, an important man in his own country, to consult nobody but the Dutchman Albemarle. The public men of this country, he said, revealed every secret to their friends.

Six months later, both the will and the treaty were void and annulled by the death of the Bavarian prince, by small-pox, at Brussels, where his father was governor. The work had to be begun over again. The feeling of all Spanish statesmen in favour of maintaining the integrity of the monarchy was unchanged. That could be done only by choosing a Bourbon or a Habsburg. No other person could compete. The court was divided simply into an Austrian and a French party. The king's choice reverted to his nephew, the archduke. But those who had preferred the electoral prince were opposed to the Austrian, and became the partisans of France, They were a majority, and preponderant. If it could be made her interest to keep up the Spanish empire France was better able to do it than Austria. Especially now that England was detached from her ally the emperor. For William concluded with Lewis a second Treaty of Partition, giving Spain, the Indies, and the Netherlands to the archduke, the Italian possessions to France. Austria was no party to this agreement, and openly preferred Italy to all the rest. In England it was received with extreme coldness, and in Spain with indignation. In the summer of the year 1700 the king's illness became alarming. The skill of his physicians being exhausted, spiritual remedies were sought, and he was exorcised. The devil declared that the king was possessed. Subsequently he admitted that this was a falsehood, which surprised nobody.

The great question, whether the Spanish monarchy should remain united or should go to pieces, reached a preliminary conclusion on 3rd October 1700. Charles appeared to be sinking, when he signed the last will which Portocarrero and the friends of the French had drawn up, with some marks of haste. He lived on four weeks longer, but never had the strength to revoke the act which disinherited his family. He left Spain, with all dependencies, to the Duke of Anjou, second son of the Dauphin, and if Anjou ever came to the throne in France, then he should be succeeded in Spain by his younger brother, so that the two crowns could never be united. Failing the French line, the succession was to pass to the archduke; and if the archduke came to the throne of Austria, then to the Duke of Savoy. There also the union of the crowns was provided against. The policy of all this was obvious. The artifice consisted in the omission of the House of Orleans, For the Duke of Orleans, descending from Anne of Austria, was nearer than the archduke Charles. At the same time he was farther removed from the throne of France than the Duke of Anjou, less likely, therefore, to alarm the Powers. It might be hoped that he would be near enough to Lewis to secure the preservation of the Spanish empire, and not near enough to threaten European independence. A time came when the allies thought of him as a possible substitute, and offered him a principality between France and Spain. That is, he suggested himself as a better alternative to Anjou, and they thought of giving him Navarre and Languedoc. Put forward at a time when the Maritime Powers were not committed to the archduke, he might have been accepted. But he was not the candidate of Lewis. The object of the Spaniards was to make sure that Lewis would break his engagement with William III., that he would give up the partition and accept the succession, preferring the risk of war for so great a prize to the chance of a pacific division of the spoil. This they ensured by the provision that Spain, if it did not belong to the French line, should pass to the Austrian; that, failing Anjou and his brother, the Austrian should take his place.

The will of Charles II. shows a distinct animosity against the Maritime and Protestant Powers; and a rumour spread that it had been written under the influence of the pope, who dreaded the presence of Dutch and English sailors and factors in South America. A letter was produced purporting to contain the advice of Innocent XII. in the matter; and the following pontiff, Clement XI., was obliged to disavow it.

Before the death of Charles II. the nature of the will he had made was known at Versailles. Tallard, who had negotiated the Partition Treaty, was beside himself with anger. He convinced Torcy, he convinced Lewis himself, that they must not accept the succession. On 4th November the king sent word to William that he remained true to the scheme of Partition to which he had pledged himself. "I shall fulfil my engagements," he said, "in spite of any offers that may be made to me." He assured Leopold that he would never accept the whole succession. It was safer to be content with a share, under the auspicious sanction of the Maritime Powers. But Torcy, having shaken off the too eager Marshal Tallard, changed his mind. He urged that neither the whole succession nor a part of it could be had without fighting, as Austria was as much opposed to the partition, as to the acceptance of the will by France, Torcy was not yet the great man he became during his long administration. But his argument carried conviction, and Lewis argued that his grandson should accept the proffered throne, and that the Bourbons should reign where the Habsburgs had reigned for a century and a half. He was not bound by any engagement to the emperor, who was no party to the Partition Treaty. He was bound by that treaty to King William; but it was uncertain whether William had the support of his two nations. The funds rose at Amsterdam; and in England the king observed that everybody preferred the will to the treaty. For the Partition Treaty had stipulated nothing for English interests, nothing, therefore, worth fighting for. And England had no territorial advantage to claim.

The commercial, economical, and pacific spirit was evident, both in England and Holland. On the other side, there was the strong will and the infinite dexterity of William. In the last Partition Treaty he had betrayed this weakness of his position, and had given way to the skilled diplomacy of France. Lewis did not believe that he would prevail over the public opinion of his country. And if he did prevail, his position would be less formidable than before. Lewis now had Spain on his side, and all the dependencies of Spain. He also had Bavaria and Savoy. In the last war he had been unsuccessful at sea, and in the Irish expedition, which was carried on beyond the sea, by his naval, not by his military administration. In the coming war he would trust less to his fleet than to his troops, which had never been unsuccessful in a general action. He resolved to defy the Dutch and English, and to seize every attainable advantage. The Spanish ambassador had exclaimed, "The Pyrenees have melted away." Lewis now announced that his grandson was not to renounce his right to the throne of France. In the Barrier Fortresses the Dutch held garrisons. Lewis sent them home and occupied the places himself "Dutchmen were not wanted," he said, "to protect one Bourbon against the other." In August 1701 he obtained for French traders the asiento, the profitable and coveted monopoly in negro slaves. In September he prohibited English imports. Then, on the 16th, he did one thing more, one thing too much even for a nation of economists and calculators.

The acceptance of the Spanish succession by France was the frustration of William's efforts during thirty years. He had striven and made war for peace and civilisation against wilful attack and the reign of force. That good cause was defeated now, and the security of national rights and international conventions was at an end. The craving for empire and the hegemony of Europe had prevailed. The temper of England compelled him, in April 1701, to acknowledge Philip of Anjou. The country, he said, could not understand the refusal to acknowledge a king welcomed by the whole of Spain. He advised the Emperor to have the German princes with him, and to begin the attack. He himself would arm meanwhile, and his own people, before long, would drive him into war. He relied on the arrogance of the French, and this calculation, the measures by which he brought public opinion on to his side, are the greatest achievement of his career.

As it became apparent that England was to lose, not, like Austria, a visionary prospect, but its commercial existence, during the summer of 1701 the spirit of parliament began to be roused. William, watching the flow of the patriotic tide, concluded with Austria and Holland the treaty of the Hague, which divided Europe, for the first time, into a Latin and a German half. Austria was to obtain that which it desired above all things, dominion over Italy. The Maritime Powers were to retain their commercial privileges in Spain, and everything they could make their own in America. France was to be excluded from transatlantic markets; but nothing was said as to Spain. Implicitly, Philip V. was acknowledged. The Maritime Powers aimed much more at prosperity than at power. Their objects were not territorial, but commercial. The date of this treaty, which was to cost so much blood, was 7th September.

William was moving more rapidly than public opinion, but public opinion was not far behind. The country was committed to war with France at the very beginning of that fatal September. The treaty had been signed nine days, when James II. died at St. Germains. Lewis acknowledged the son as he had acknowledged the father — the one as the other, a king in partibus. It was a platonic engagement, involving no necessary political consequences. Since the treaty of Ryswick, Lewis treated William as king, though there was a James II. He did not cease so to treat him because there was a James III. To a prince who, the week before, had contrived a warlike coalition against him, a coalition which soon proved more formidable than all those which had preceded it, he owed no more than the letter of their agreements. The decisive step towards open hostilities was taken by the King of England, not by the King of France. Parliament had just passed the Act of Succession. Lewis's declaration in favour of the Stuarts appeared to be a defiance of the law in favour of the Guelphs. England had not dared to question the right of the Spaniards to regulate the succession. England could not permit interference with her own.

This declaration of Lewis XIV., imprudent but not unprovoked, gave to William what he wanted. It supplied a strong current of national feeling. The nation was ardent on his side. He had succeeded at last. The war with France, for the partition of the Spanish monarchy, would be carried on with determination under the coming reign. For William knew that Anne would soon be queen. It was also known at Paris, for William had consulted the French king's physician, and there were no illusions. The strange impolicy of Lewis's action may be explained by the belief that another than William of Orange would appear at the head of the allied armies in the next campaign. That the change of commander would be the greatest calamity that had befallen France since Agincourt was not foreseen.

In November 1701 Parliament was dissolved, and a majority was returned prepared for war, prepared to support the policy of the Grand Alliance. What made it formidable was that the Tories themselves were warlike. The Whigs were warlike because it was their nature, since France had declared itself for the Stuarts; also because they and their friends were interested in pushing trade with the oceanic world, which was mainly Spanish. But it was not, at first, a Whig war. On 9th March 1702 they obtained the majority. They were 235 to 221.

William III. was dying. He had borne the accident well by which he broke his collar-bone. He sat at dinner that evening, and was expected to recover in a few weeks. But he fell asleep one day near an open window. Nobody had the courage to shut it, and he caught a chill, of which, in five days, he died. His prestige was lost to the cause of the allies. At the same time, William was a Dutch king, working with Dutchmen only, Heinsius, Bentinck, Keppel, for Dutch as much as for English objects. While he lived there was no danger that the interests of his own countrymen would be made subordinate to those of England. There was no sign of Holland taking the second place, of Holland being sacrificed to England. That security was now over. The leadership passed to England. In the field, the Dutch were far ahead. The understanding was that the English were to be 40,000, the Austrians 90,000, and the Dutch 102,000. But whereas the Dutch ultimately put 160,000 men into line, the English, in the greatest battle of the war, at Malplaquet, were under 8000, or less than one-twelfth of the whole force engaged.

What gave to this country the advantage in the war of the Spanish Succession was the genius and the overwhelming personal ascendency of Marlborough. One of the Dutch deputies, who did not love him, who was not even quite convinced as to his qualities as a soldier, describes him as perfectly irresistible, not so much by energy and visible power, as by his dexterity and charm. And this in spite of defects that were notorious and grotesque. Everybody knows, and perhaps nobody believes, the story of his blowing out the candle when he found that his visitor had no papers to read. Many years later the story was told, when an officer present stated that he was the visitor whom the duke had treated so parsimoniously. It is due to him that England became one of the great Powers of the world, and next to France, the first of the Powers. And it was not his doing, but the doing of his rivals, that the allies were sacrificed. The Dutch had no such splendid personality, and though they had their full share in the war, they lost by the result. The character of the struggle changed by the death of William and the substitution of Marlborough, who depended, more and more, on the support of the Whigs. In one of his last conversations William had said: "We seek nothing but the security which comes from the balance of power." Our policy was not maintained throughout on that exalted level.

The War of Succession began in Italy, by the attempt of Eugene to recover Milan, which reverted to the empire on the death of Charles II. It was, as it were, a private affair, involving no declaration of war, no formal breach with France. But the French were in Lombardy, and, with the support of the Duke of Savoy, they were able to check the Austrian advance. Eugene went home to Vienna to organise and direct and urge the exertions of his government. On his return, after a very memorable absence, Victor Amadeus had deserted his French alliance, and had attached himself to the Austrians. A French army laid siege to Turin, and Eugene, coming up the right bank of the Po to his rescue, defeated the French, raised the siege, and established for the first time the domination of Austria over Italy. He was repulsed in his attempt on Toulon; but the Italian war was at an end, and the emperor triumphant. In Germany the valley of the Danube which is the road to Vienna, was open to the French, because the elector of Bavaria was their ally against his father-in-law the emperor. The Imperialists were in danger, and the Dutch, more solicitous of the Belgian frontier before them than of what went on hundreds of miles away, on the long line from Strasburg to the distant centre of Austria, refused to let Marlborough take their troops away to another seat of war in Southern Germany.

Marlborough, sheltered by the complicity of Heinsius, politely disregarded their orders and started on his famous march, by Ehrenbreitstein and Heilbronn, meeting Eugene on his way. Eugene, at that moment, was the most renowned commander in Europe. Marlborough was better known as a corrupt intriguer, who owed his elevation to the influence of his wife at court, who would disgrace himself for money, who had sought favour at St. Germains by betraying the expedition to Brest. Blenheim altered the relative position of the two men in the eyes of the world. It was known that the day had been won, not by the persistent slaughter of brave soldiers, but by an inspiration of genius executed under heavy fire with all the perfection of art. In the midst of the struggle Marlborough had suddenly changed his order of battle, gathered his squadrons on a new line, and sent them against the French centre, with infantry supports. He did what Napoleon was vainly entreated to do in his last engagement. That is what suggested the simile of the angel, and what Addison meant by the words: — 

Rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm.

The great Eugene had done well, as he always did. The Englishman had risen in a single day to the foremost rank of generals. And England rose with him. There had not been such a defeat for sixty years, since Condé, at Rocroy, established the military reputation of France. The French retreated to the Rhine, and on that side Austria was safe.

In Spain the issue was very different. Philip was thoroughly safe during three years of reign, and the archduke would have been glad to content himself with what could be secured in Italy. But the English felt that their trade interests would be safer in Spain and the Indies under a Habsburg than under a Bourbon. They brought the archduke to Lisbon in 1703, having concluded with the Portuguese that treaty which made them commercial dependants on England, and which has been the cause of so much port wine and so much gout. It was a disastrous change of policy. The English destroyed the French fleet at Vigo, with many tons of American silver. They took Gibraltar and Minorca, without understanding their importance. They failed to defend the one; and they six times offered the other for an exchange. But on land they were utterly defeated, at Almanza and Brihuega, and the archduke never actually reigned over much more than Catalonia. There, having restored the Aragonese Constitution, he succeeded in inspiring a sentiment of loyalty, and repulsed his rival. He was never able to maintain himself at Madrid. On that seat of war the French had much the best of it. They lost Germany at Blenheim in 1704, and Italy at Turin in 1706.

The deciding campaigns were in Belgium, where there were many fortresses, and progress was necessarily slow. After Marlborough's victory at Ramillies in 1706 the French lost ground, and when the princes, as they were called, took the field together, no French marshal had a chance. For Marlborough was now a prince of the empire; and Eugene, having driven the enemy out of Germany and Italy, was again by his side, thirsting for something to do. At Oudenarde, where he was present, with no troops of his own, at a critical moment he led a successful charge. Together they conquered Lille; and together they defeated Villars at Malplaquet. There, in the summer of 1709, the five years of constant victory which began at Blenheim came to an end.

After Turin and Ramillies Lewis had been willing to treat. He was profoundly discouraged; and when Torcy came to the Hague in 1709 to meet the Triumvirate, Heinsius, Eugene, and Marlborough, he gave up almost every point. He even agreed that France should furnish men and money to drive Philip V. out of Spain, where he felt quite safe and refused every summons. Lewis, in return, asked for Naples, and Naples only, without Sicily. The allies could have everything else, and could have compelled him to restore all the ill-gotten acquisitions of his reign. They were unwilling to be at the trouble of one more campaign in the Peninsula, where they had met with so much misfortune. They required that Lewis should undo his own offending deed, and himself compel his grandson to resign the Spanish throne. Marlborough, holding a position such as no Englishman had ever enjoyed, was preponderant in their councils. He aspired to be captain-general for life, and rejected an enormous sum with which France offered to repay his advocacy of peace. The attempt to prolong war for his own private advantage is the deadliest of his crimes. Lewis, in despair, made an appeal to his people, and a thrill of genuine indignation ran through the unhappy country. The tide began to turn. At Malplaquet, the greatest battle fought in modern Europe before Napoleon, the allies lost 23,000 out of less than 100,000; and the French not half so many.

A much graver change was coming over the spirit of the English nation. As the Whigs offered nothing better than the continuation of war, Toryism gained ground; and with Toryism, the Church. The Duchess of Marlborough was supplanted in the queen's favour; the Whigs went out of oflfice; and the new ministers dismissed Marlborough and appointed Ormonde to command in his stead. With the aid of an obscure French priest, who acted as chaplain to the Imperial ambassador, they began a secret negotiation with Torcy. They stipulated that the Dutch should be kept out of it, and should not be listened to, if they made proposals of their own; also that their conditions should be understood to come from the initiative of France. Torcy responded heartily. His first letter is dated five days after the death of the Emperor Joseph. By that event, the Archduke Charles succeeded to his throne. Joseph died 17th April. Four months earlier, 23rd December, Harley, by his intermediary, Gautier, informed Torcy that England would give up Spain and the Indies to the Bourbon king, and would desert the allies as soon as trade interests were provided for. The surrender of that which the English had claimed from 1703 to 1710, the return, in spite of success and glory, to the moderate policy laid down by William in 1701, was not caused by the prospect of the union of the crowns on the head of Charles. Harley was afraid that the archduke would make those terms himself. For it was known that the Austrians regarded Spain and its colonies as more burdensome than profitable. When Harley was stabbed by Guiscard, and was laid up with his wound, the secret of the negotiations passed into St. John's hands. His treatment of the allies was perfidious; but they obtained almost as much as they really wanted.

Eugene, deserted by the English forces under Ormonde, was beaten by Villars at Denain, and afterwards, by no fault of the English, at Friedlingen. Then the emperor made his own peace at Rastadt. At Utrecht, the Dutch secured a favourable tariff, the right of garrison in a line of fortified towns, from Ghent to Namur, and the daring Torcy had so thoroughly penetrated the weakness of England, in consequence of party divisions, that he concluded a disastrous war by a triumphant negotiation. France retained her own territory, practically undiminished, recovering Lille, and acquiring, for the younger branch of the royal house, Spain and the Spanish colonies. It gained infinitely more than either Holland or England. Marshal La Feuillade asked Bolingbroke why he had let them off so easily. The answer was: Because we were no longer afraid of you. Philip V. retained all that was legitimately Spanish, in Europe and America, excepting the two fortresses conquered by England, Gibraltar and Port Mahon. He refused to give up Corunna. But he renounced his claim in the succession to his grandfather's crown. Bolingbroke betrayed the allies, and he disgraced his country by the monopoly of the slave trade; but the distribution was not unfair to the contracting parties, and the share of England was not excessive. We acquired Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Hudson Bay territory, and, in addition to the asiento, the right of trading in the possessions of the House of Bourbon — in fact, the commerce of the world. And our revolutionary system, the permanent exclusion of the Stuarts, received the sanction of Europe. It was the condemnation of the principle of non-resistance, which had carried the Tories to power, and the perpetuation of Whiggism.

Bolingbroke did not intend that the great achievement of his life should serve the purpose of his enemies, and he gravitated towards the Stuarts, the true representatives of the cause to which Sacheverell had given renewed vitality. Harley had opened, through Berwick, negotiations with St. Germains, and had thereby secured the help of the Jacobite organisation. Bolingbroke went further. He believed that the Elector of Hanover could not be prevented from coming in, but that he would soon be driven out again. He said that he was too unintelligent to understand and manage parties, too much accustomed to have his own way to submit to govern under constitutional control. He promised that King James would be restored. And the French concluded peace at Utrecht in the belief that they were dealing with a Jacobite, that their concession in regard to the crown of England amounted to nothing, that, by yielding now, they would secure hereafter the elevation of a dependent dynasty. Under that illusion they combined with Bolingbroke to overreach themselves and to institute party government, under the supremacy of the Whigs.