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The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part II): The Peace Treaty of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] (2 May 1668)

By: Randall Lesaffer

The French invasion of the Spanish Netherlands in May 1667 marked the beginning of the first, and shortest, offensive war that Louis XIV (1638–1715) would launch during his long, personal rule (1661–1715). The war, known as the War of Devolution, was publicly justified under the claim that Louis’s wife, Maria Theresa (1638–1683), the eldest daughter of the former Spanish King Philip IV (1605–1665), held hereditary rights to part of the Spanish Netherlands. Louis’s legal advisers based this on the combination of two trumped-up, dubious legal claims. First, the failure of Philip IV to pay his daughter’s full dowry had invalidated the cession of these rights from the marriage contract. Second, the customary law of succession of some of the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands dictated that the rights of children from a prior marriage superseded those from a later marriage. Both arguments were far-fetched and legally unsustainable as they applied, against all custom and practice and contrary to the actual text of the marriage contract (Contract of 7 November 1659, 5 CTS 403), rules of the private law of succession to public domains.

Although the defence and pursuit of dynastic rights were real concerns for Louis XIV that he closely associated with his reputation—as his major monarchical opponents would—the war also had deeper causes. France and the Habsburg–Spanish Monarchy had been locked in a struggle for the dominant position in Europe since the early 16th century. Spanish acceptance of defeat in the war against the Dutch Republic in the Peace of Münster of 30 January 1648 (1 CTS 1) and against France in the Peace of the Pyrenees of 7 November 1659 (5 CTS 325) had shifted the balance of power to France. However, France still felt boxed in and threatened by the Spanish Monarchy and its natural ally the Austrian Habsburgs, as Spanish lands continued to encircle France from the south, east, and north. The French invasion was aimed at pushing the northern border of France further back from its capital and heartlands, which in previous wars had proven all too vulnerable to attacks from the north. In 1636, a Spanish army under Philip IV’s brother, Don Fernando (1609–1641), had almost reached the gates of Paris.

The time for the attack was propitious. The new Spanish King Carlos II (1661–1700) was a sickly infant and was widely expected to die soon. A successful war against the Spanish Netherlands would put France in a position of strength to negotiate its way towards a larger share of the inheritance. Moreover, Louis XIV banked on the fact that the British Monarchy and the Dutch Republic were still at war with one another, with France as a rather passive belligerent on the Dutch side. This, he hoped, would allow him a free hand against Spain. He also realized that the Anglo-Dutch war was in its last stages, making the summer of 1667 the final opportunity to campaign under these conditions.

Louis’s calculations betrayed how strained the historic alliance between France and the Dutch Republic had become. The alliance of the two countries against Spain went back to the 1590s, the early years of the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish Monarchy. It had been severely damaged by the Dutch decision to make separate peace with Spain at Münster in 1648, thus leaving Paris to continue the war against Spain on its own. However, the alliance had survived and had been renewed in 1662 (27 April 1662, 7 CTS 139). The 1660s were marked by increasing suspicions and frustrations on both sides. Although French friendship remained a hallmark of the foreign policies of the Dutch regents and their leader John de Witt (1625–1672) to protect themselves against Spain and against a British-supported restoration of the House of Orange, they were also concerned that French encroachment upon the Spanish Netherlands would make the Republic vulnerable to France’s military might. On his side, Louis XIV, who set great store by the divine rights of kings, held little sympathy for the republican regime at The Hague, while it was felt that the Republic’s dominant position in European trade and shipping severely impeded the economic policies of France. In 1667, the French government imposed new, higher trade tariffs on merchants from the Republic.

French estimations that the Spanish garrison in the Southern Netherlands would be no match proved correct. Over the spring and summer of 1667, the French invading army made good progress and subdued several key fortresses and towns, including Charleroi, Tournai, Ath, Kortrijk, Oudenaarde, Veurne, and Lille. Meanwhile, on 31 July 1667, the Dutch and the British had made peace at Breda (10 CTS 231). The French threat of overrunning the Spanish Netherlands, and the spectacular defeat of the British navy through the Dutch raid on Medway, had convinced the maritime powers that it was time to bury the hatchet and turn their attention to France.

During the autumn and winter of 1667–1668, the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish governments engaged in a series of intricate negotiations, with London and The Hague in a mediating role. The French government proposed two alternative options to the diplomats of the two maritime powers for a peace with Spain. One option was for Spain to cede a series of territories including either the whole of Franche-Comté or the Duchy of Luxemburg, regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Another was to cede all the territories the French had effectively conquered. As the war was still going on, the latter alternative did nothing to reassure The Hague as additional French conquests were anything but unlikely.

Whereas Louis XIV had proved himself to be open to Anglo-Dutch mediation, in early 1668 the maritime powers decided to fortify their hands for a possible clash with France. On 23 January, they closed an alliance at The Hague, which Sweden joined (10 CTS 409). Through this Triple Alliance, the three powers committed themselves to cajole Spain into accepting the cession of the towns and fortresses it had lost, and to induce France to accept a truce until the end of May of 1668 so that further conquests could be prevented. They also agreed, in secret, to turn against France if it would not agree to end its offensive under these conditions. When Louis XIV learned of the treaty and its secret clauses, he directed his anger at the Dutch Republic. In the months to follow, his resentment at what he considered the betrayal by his ally would only fester and burst.

In the early spring, before the new campaign season would really launch, Louis XIV decided to make peace with Madrid. On 15 April, a treaty was finalized between France, the British Monarchy, and the Dutch Republic at Saint Germain near Paris (11 CTS 1). The treaty stipulated that the French and Spanish kings would, before the end of May, accept and ratify the peace project the maritime powers which had proposed and which allowed France to retain its conquest (Article 1). It further stated that, in case Madrid refused to give in, it would have another chance to accept peace before the end of July, but under more severe conditions (Article 3). After that, the maritime powers would join France in the attack on the Spanish Netherlands. The parties agreed on a dividing line, running from east to west through these lands, which their troops would not cross (Article 6). In early May, peace was finally made between the two Catholic powers (Peace of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] of 2 May 1668, 11 CTS 11). It consolidated French gains in the Spanish Netherlands (Article 4) but provided for the restitution of conquests in the Franche-Comté (Article 5). Remarkably, the treaty genuflected to the role of the papacy and German princes to induce peace, but left the maritime powers unmentioned.

French acceptance of the peace had come after a long debate in Louis XIV’s government. In the end, Louis XIV was prevailed upon to halt the offensive and make peace because of the general expectation that the Spanish King already had one foot in the grave. Louis XIV calculated that his secret arrangement with Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) to partition the Spanish Monarchy (Treaty of Vienna of 19 January 1668, 10 CTS 385) had put him in an excellent bargaining position to assure a large part of the Spanish succession when the moment came. Making peace at this time would reduce the risk of his diplomatic isolation and of an all-out war against a grand coalition of Madrid, Vienna, London, and The Hague. In the long term, the small Spanish king’s resilience proved him wrong. In the short run, Louis XIV would not forget the betrayal of the ungrateful merchants of Holland. He began to ponder that the road to Brussels might lead through The Hague, not for his diplomats, but for his armies.

Lucien Bély, Les relations internationals en Europe XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1992).
John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714 (Modern Wars in Perspective; London and New York: Longman 1999).
Klaus Malettke, Hegemonie – multipolares System – Gleichgewicht 1648/1659–1713/1714 (Handbuch der Geschichte der internationalen Beziehungen 3; Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh 2012).
Herbert H. Rowen, John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1625-1672 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1978).
Paul Sonnino, Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988).