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The War of Spanish Succession Subsumed an Entire Continent

The balance of power in Europe was at stake throughout the 13-year conflict.

war of spanish succession; marriage of maria teresa to louis xiv
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  • Philip IV gives his daughter, Maria Teresa, in marriage to Louis XIV in 1660.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1700, King Charles II of Spain died. A sickly, childless man, the matter of his succession had begun to consume courtly discussion as soon as the Habsburg descendant was as young as four. Although the king was nearly 39 when he died, a viable heir to the throne had not been identified over the 35 years of politicking. Instead, much of Europe found itself highly involved in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Unlike much of Europe, the Spanish crown could pass through the female line as well as the male line. This meant that not only could Charles’s sisters, Maria Theresa and Margaret Theresa, theoretically inherit the throne, so too could their children.

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Maria Theresa, Charles’s half-sister, renounced her and any future children’s claim on the Spanish throne upon her marriage to King Louis XIV in 1660. However, Charles’s full sister, Margaret, was not married during her father’s lifetime—primarily, it seems, because Philip IV hoped to keep her from having to renounce her claim on the throne in case of Charles’s premature death.

It seems that Charles lived longer than his father expected. The boy, four at the time of Philip’s death, was widely considered so sickly he would not live to adolescence. Charles, despite suffering from smallpox, measles, chickenpox, and rubella, survived his childhood. However, the degree of inbreeding that resulted in his birth left him fragile.

Philip IV and Charles’s mother, Mariana of Austria, were uncle and niece. Mariana’s mother (Philip’s sister) and her husband, Ferdinand II, were also first cousins. All eight of Charles’s grandparents were descendants of Joana (less-than-charmingly known as Joana the Mad) and Philip I of Castile. Although it’s unclear exactly which of Charles’s health issues were due to the rampant inbreeding of the Habsburg family, it certainly contributed to the perception and the reality of his frailty.

inbreeding of charles II's family tree led to the war of spanish succession
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  • A family tree depicts the repeated intermarriages resulting in Charles II's birth.

    Photo Credit: Reddit

By 1698, Charles’s failure to conceive with either his first or his second wife had led Spain’s allies to begin petitioning Charles and the court to accept alternative heirs. None of Spain’s closest allies wanted to see Spain acquired by either Austria (Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor) or the French Bourbons (Philip of Anjou), who were the nearest blood relatives to Charles and most likely heirs. 

Louis XIV of France and William III of England recognized that if either option were ceded the whole Spanish empire, the power balance of Europe would shift for good. Although Charles’s preferred heir, Philip of Anjou, was in fact Louis XIV’s grandson, Louis and William came together in agreement to divy up the land.

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Under Louis and William’s proposal, Charles’s grand-nephew, Joseph Ferdinand would be the designated heir. Giving over this power to the Bavarian rulers would be counterbalanced by Spain ceding some of its lands to both France and Austria.

Charles was willing to see the throne given to Joseph Ferdinand… but he balked at the division of his empire’s land. Soon, even this teetering compromise was blown up, as Joseph Ferdinand died in 1699 at age six after a bout of smallpox.

A year later, on the verge of death, Charles made another will, leaving the Spanish throne to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Maria Theresa and Louis XIV. If, for any reason, Philip rejected the throne, it would then be offered to his younger brother, Charles, Duke of Berry, then finally the Archduke Charles, a younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Eight days after Charles’s death, the throne was formally offered to Philip.

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  • The Duke of Anjou is recognized as Philip V of Spain.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although his grandfather, Louis XIV, considered forcing Philip to reject the throne so that William II would be forced to maintain the provinces of a previous agreement that saw land split between a variety of European kingdoms, the Dauphin of France insisted that his elder son be allowed the throne.

Louis, the Dauphin, believed that even if his father bent to the will of the English king, Austrian leaders would pursue war, though the British and the Dutch would not. Louis XIV listened to his son, and Philip was declared the King of Spain.

Just a few months later, Louis XIV made the move of registering Philip’s claim to the French throne with his country’s government. Charles II’s will had stated that Philip must not be eligible for the French throne, and other leaders across Europe disdained the idea of a unified France and Spain—such a union would irretrievably change the balance of power in the continent.

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Some countries supported Philip and Louis XIV regardless—Milan and Mantua in Italy as well as Swabia and Franconia in Imperial Germany pledged their support to the kings.

Meanwhile, William of Orange was becoming increasingly unhappy with the way that these shifts were affecting the British economy. Although the Brits had a distinct disinterest in war to maintain the power structure of mainland Europe, they were more than willing to go to war to protect their trade.

By the fall of 1701, Leopold, Holy Roman Emperor, the Dutch Republic and William of Orange had signed the Treaty of Hague, which stated that its signatories would protect Protestant succession in England as well as their trade access and give over certain Spanish territories to Austria and the Dutch Republic. It did not support the proposed inheritance of the Spanish throne by Archduke Charles.

Just a few days after the Treaty of Hague was signed, James II of England, exiled during the Glorious Revolution, died. In response, Catholic Louis XIV threw his support suddenly behind James Francis Edward Stuart as a claimant to the British throne, making a war unstoppable.

After the death of William of Orange in early 1702, his sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne reaffirmed her support of the Treaty of Hague and declared war on France.

With so many different countries and leaders intertwined in the fight against France, a variety of strategies, methods, and desired outcomes were on the table. Although the Dutch and English were driven primarily by their goal of increased, or at least stabilized trade, the Holy Roman Empire wished to see Archduke Charles on the throne to maintain the power of the Habsburg family.

Even within the Holy Roman Empire, the stakes of the conflict were unclear. Though the Habsburgs wanted to maintain their power as emperors and rulers of the Austrian kingdom, non-Austrians were becoming openly more resentful of the Habsburg power structure. 

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Some, like Francis Rákóczi, saw the War of Spanish Succession as a chance to stage a play for independence. The Hungarian revolt led by Rákóczi would seriously distract the Holy Roman Empire from their larger aims for much of the war.

The Dutch Republic’s fight was mainly located in the Low Countries, where they faced troops from Bavaria and France. Although there were a not insignificant number of conflicts and outright battles, little changed in terms of territory or existing power structures over the course of over 10 years of war.

Meanwhile in Italy, Hapsburg, Prussian, and Savoyard forces joined against France and Spain in an attempt to win back Milan and Mantua from Spain. After an initial surge by the French through 1706, the tides turned as Prince Eugene of Savoy broke the Siege of Turin with the help of German troops. 

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  • Troops at the Battle of Ramillies, 1706.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This stunning victory marked the true end of war in Italy, although minor skirmishes continued. In March 1707, Emperor Joseph I (who succeeded the throne upon Leopold I’s death in 1705) signed the Convention of Milan, ending the war in Italy in return for France giving over Milan and Mantua into Austrian hands.

The remainder of the Grand Alliance felt betrayed by Joseph’s decision. Not only was he giving up pressure on France, he also gave French troops the right to travel freely through Lombardy to reach Southern France.

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Until this point, British, Portuguese, and Habsburg forces had also been mounting a primarily naval campaign directly against Spain. Thanks to the power of the British navy, this was primarily their fight—most impressively and famously at the Capture of Gibraltar.

After their fabulous win at Gibraltar, the Grand Alliance forces along the coast of Portugal and Spain began to lose control of the region. A disappointing defeat at Almansa came just a month after Joseph I signed away passage to Southern France, no doubt leaving British and Dutch leaders in turmoil.

Despite facing another stinging defeat at Toulon in August of 1707, British capture of Menorca in September of 1708 finally gave Britain the foothold they sought in the Mediterranean Sea, allowing the access to trade that had been their guiding ideal.

These victories, from the coast of Spain to Italy and beyond, left France open to beginning negotiations to end the conflicts. However, much as Louis XIV had done in 1701, the Grand Alliance overplayed their hand as peace discussions began in late 1708.

Their first attempt at making peace gave Philip V just two months to cede his Spanish throne willingly to Archduke Charles. If he did not, the treaty would compel Louis XIV to remove his grandson by force.

Naturally, Louis was not thrilled by the idea of being asked to go to war against his grandson. He may have been willing to yield his ambitions for a unified Spain, but he would not fight against his own blood—and in fact considered this proposal deeply offensive.

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  • An illustration of the northern approach to Gibraltar, 1567.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If the Grand Alliance had proposed a more equitable treaty at this point, it’s entirely possible the War of the Spanish Succession could have ended in 1709. Instead, the conflict dragged on, and the Allied forces began losing troops and battles at an alarming rate.

The tide of popular opinion had begun to turn against continuing the war in Britain. The Dutch Republic was running out of money. Only the Habsburgs wanted to continue to fight, although even they gave in 1711 after secretly negotiated peace terms between France and England were revealed.

In the first month of 1712, representatives from each of the nations and duchies involved in the war gathered in Utrecht, Holland. Even as the conference began, more circumstances arose to impede peace.

The sudden deaths of Louis, the Grand Dauphin; his son, Louis, Duke of Burgundy; and Louis, son of the Duke of Burgundy, left the Duke of Burgundy’s second and only surviving son heir to Louis XIV at the age of two.

With only a toddler (also named Louis) poised to take the French throne and Philip V as inheritor-in-waiting, pressure to make Philip renounce the French throne rose exponentially.

With conflicts still ongoing, the French had proven that they were still able and willing to fight and win. The British and Dutch Republic came to terms on a new treaty that would give over fewer barrier territories to the Dutch, while maintaining their interests. 

On April 11, 1713, after 12 long years of warfare, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Savoy, and Prussia signed the first Treaties of Utrecht.

Philip renounced his claim to the French throne on June 6, and Spain and Britain signed an additional treaty with Spain in December of 1713. The French Bourbon family likewise renounced their claims on the Spanish throne.

Although for many of its participants, the goal of the War of the Spanish Succession was to maintain the current power balances across Europe, the war nonetheless had major reverberations. Mostly, it stacked the power of trade in the hands of Great Britain, and gave the Protestant leaders security in knowing that the Catholic monarchs of Europe would not interfere in British rule again.