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The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part I): The Secret Treaty of Vienna (19 January 1668)

By: Randall Lesaffer

After weeks of extensive albeit secretive meetings, on 19 January 1668, Johann Weikhard (1615–1677), Prince of Auersperg, a top minister of the Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705), and Jacques Bretel de Grémonville (1625–1686), knight of the Order of Malta and representative of the French King Louis XIV (1638–1715) at the Habsburg court in Vienna, put their signature to a secret compact between their sovereigns (10 CTS 385). The treaty affirmed the peace between France and the Austrian Habsburgs and provided for the partition of the Spanish Monarchy in case of the premature death, without issue, of the sickly boy-king of Spain, Charles II (1661–1700).

During the more than 50 years of his personal rule over France (1661–1715), the Sun King Louis XIV engaged in a series of wars of conquest and expansion, culminating in the disastrous War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1713/1714). The net result of these wars on the map were the extension of France to the north against the Spanish Netherlands, to the north-east against the Holy Roman Empire, and again, with the Franche-Comté in the east, against the Spanish Monarchy. Although the causes, and on the part of Louis XIV, the motives of these wars were multiple and complex, from beginning to end, the question of the Spanish succession stood at their centre.

Two years before Louis XIV assumed the reins of power himself, the French government under Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602–1661) concluded the war with Spain which had raged for 24 years through the Peace of the Pyrenees (7 November 1659, 5 CTS 325). The peace sealed the end of Spanish preponderance and marked France’s rise to becoming the first among the great powers of Europe. Under the treaty, Spain had to cede Roussillon, Conflans, and Cerdagne, the counties bordering the Mediterranean to the north of the Pyrenees (Articles 42–43), as well as the County of Artois and other lands in the Spanish Netherlands (Articles 35–41).  The peace was completed with a marriage alliance between the houses of Habsburg and Bourbon, whereby the Spanish King Philip IV (1605–1665), gave his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa (1638–1683), the only surviving offspring of his first marriage to Elisabeth of France 1602–1644), in marriage to Louis XIV (Article 33). Under the marriage contract, signed the same day (5 CTS 403), Maria Theresa would receive a dowry of 500,000 écus from her father (Article 2). The effective payment of this dowry would exhaust all the infanta’s right to the inheritance of both her parents. Article 5 entailed the renunciation of all rights of succession to any part of the Spanish Monarchy, including the Spanish Netherlands and Franche-Comté for Maria Theresa and for the issue from her marriage to Louis XIV (Article 5).

The failure of Philip IV to fulfil his obligations with regard to the dowry gave Louis XIV an opening to question his wife’s renunciation. The Spanish government stood by the interpretation that the conditioning of the infanta’s renunciation of her inheritance rights under Article 4 on the full and timely payment of the dowry only stretched to her private rights and not to the succession to the throne, which from the wordings of the contract was clearly the intended reading. However, French lawyers and diplomats cooked up the theory that the non-payment of the dowry invalidated the renunciation in its entirety. After the death of Philip IV in 1665 and his succession by the young and sickly Charles II, the French government laid claim to large tracts of the Spanish Netherlands. It was alleged that under the customary law of some of the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands, the naked ownership of the property of the deceased was required to revert to the issue from his first marriage so as to protect them against discrimination by the surviving second or third spouse, the so-called right of devolution. This was interpreted to mean that Maria Theresa’s rights to the Spanish Netherlands outstripped those of her young half-brother, born of Philip IV’s second marriage to Mariana of Austria (1634–1696).

In May 1667, Louis XIV launched the War of Devolution by invading the Spanish Netherlands. The international context was propitious. The Second Anglo-Dutch War was in its third year but it was clear that it would not last much longer. Since January 1666, France had been directly involved, having declared war on Britain in pursuance of its alliance with the Dutch Republic (27 April 1662, 7 CTS 139). Although the Dutch regents were nervous about seeing France swallow the buffer that the Spanish Netherlands formed between themselves and their overarching ally, as long as the war with Britain endured, they were in no position to stop the French action. The French invasion, and the success of the Dutch raid on the British fleet at the Medway, however, created the conditions for a speedy conclusion of peace between the Dutch Republic and Britain at Breda (31 July 1667, 10 CTS 231). This did not stop Louis XIV from persisting. In September, the French armies scored a major success when they forced the city of Lille, in the south of Flanders, to surrender.

Ever since the French king started his offensive to repudiate his wife’s renunciation of the Spanish succession, he had tried, at times in the face of interference from the Dutch, to reach a compromise with the greatest contender for the Spanish prize, Emperor Leopold I. Under the terms of Philip IV’s testament, the emperor and his future offspring were first in line for the succession of Charles II.

In the Emperor Leopold, Louis XIV found a willing interlocutor to talk about a division of the spoils. The French alliance with different German princes on the Rhine prevented an intervention to save the Spanish on the part of the emperor, let alone from the collective force of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, the Turkish threat to his Hungarian lands and the memory of France’s military aid against the Ottomans in 1664 further helped to dispose the emperor towards a deal.

In the years between 1661 and 1667, the idea of a treaty that would arrange a partition of the Spanish Monarchy in case of the extinction of the male line of the Spanish Habsburgs had been explored several times with the aid of Dutch and German diplomats. In late 1667, Louis XIV and Leopold I gave a green light for direct, if secret, negotiations at Vienna. For the emperor, secrecy was of the utmost importance so as not to destroy his relationship with Madrid and jeopardize his influence and position there. The negotiations were largely carried out by Grémonville and Auersperg, although the French diplomat also held several lengthy audiences with the emperor.

On the French side, discretion was maintained by confirmation of Grémonville’s powers to negotiate under the privy seal of the king, rather than under the grand seal, which would have necessitated the involvement of several officers of state. While the negotiations turned on the precise division of the spoils, in particular in Italy, concerns about keeping the deal secret also took up a considerable amount of time. It was agreed that the full powers of the two negotiators were to be locked in a coffer which could only be opened by use of the two keys, one of which was held by Auersperg and the other by Grémonville. In this manner, both parties sought to safeguard themselves against leaving proof in the hands of their opponent in case the negotiations broke down.

The final compromise was hammered out in mid-January 1668, after the death of Leopold’s son and heir, the Archduke Ferdinand (1667–1668), on 13 January. On 19 January, the treaty was ready to be signed. It left the core of the Spanish Monarchy to the Austrian Habsburgs, with the Spanish Netherlands, Navarra, Naples, Sicily, the Spanish possessions on the North African coast, and the Philippines going to France (Article 3). For the immediate future, France also obtained the emperor’s support for the Dutch plan to broker peace between Versailles and Madrid. Under this plan, France would obtain important territorial concessions in the Spanish Netherlands (Article 2).

To assure the secrecy of the treaty, it was agreed that the emperor would keep the two signed copies of the treaty, rolled into a bundle, until the French ratification arrived. Afterwards, the bundle with the ratifications included would be deposited with the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who would only be allowed to turn the copies over when both sides requested it (Articles 6 and 7). Although news of an understanding leaked out, the text of the treaty itself remained secret until the 19th century, when it was discovered by archivist.

With the treaty, Louis XIV scored a double success. For the short term, he warded off diplomatic isolation in the war against Spain by luring the emperor away from a close alliance with The Hague and London, which were colluding to prevent a French conquest of the Spanish Netherlands. At the same time, the leaking of the information of an understanding between Versailles and Vienna might make Madrid more malleable to an immediate compromise. For the long term, he secured the acknowledgment by the Austrian branch of the Habsburg house that Maria Theresa and her offspring held rights to at least parts of the Spanish succession. The idea of partition was on the table.

Lucien Bély, Les secrets de Louis XIV. Mystères d’État et pouvoir absolu (Paris: Texto 2013) 337–51.
Frederik Dhondt, ‘From Contract to Treaty. The Legal Transformation of the Spanish Succession 1659–1713’, Journal of the History of International Law, 13 (2011) 347–75.
Derek McKay and H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers 1648–1815 (London: Longman 1983) 14–23.