The 18th-century Antecedents of the Concert of Europe I: The Triple Alliance of 1717
By: Randall Lesaffer
The signing of the Triple Alliance of The Hague by representatives of Britain, France, and the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands on 4 January 1717 (30 CTS 65) was a major diplomatic event in the years after the peace settlement of Utrecht-Rastatt [Rastadt]-Baden (1713–1714). Through the alliance, Britain and France, who had led the opposing coalitions during the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1714) and were the architects of the peace, confirmed the Utrecht settlement after some years of bickering and doubts. The alliance treaty marked the beginning of a strategic cooperation between the two leading powers of Europe to uphold the system of Utrecht which would last for almost a quarter-century. At the same time, it formed one of the earliest instances of great powers assuming the mantle of guarantors of the balance of power and peace of Europe. Claims by the great powers to special responsibilities and prerogative rights to safeguard the balance of power and peace of Europe would become the hallmark of the Concert of Europe in the 19th century.
In 1713, the great powers of Western Europe—Britain, France, and Spain—and some of their allies, including the Dutch Republic, had made their peace at Utrecht after more than a decade of war over the succession to the Spanish monarchy. The backbone of the Utrecht settlement was the perpetual separation of the French and Spanish monarchies through the renunciations of King Philip V of Spain (1683–1746), grandson to the French King Louis XIV (1638–1715), of his rights to the French throne and through the renunciations of the other princes of the House of Bourbon, including the future King Louis XV (1710–1774) and future Regent Philip, Duke of Orleans (1674–1723), to the Spanish throne. As the renunciations and the peace treaties of 13 July 1713 between Britain and Spain (Article 2, 28 CTS 295) and between Savoy and Spain (Article 3, 28 CTS 269) had stipulated, this separation was a necessary condition to safeguard the balance of power, which in turn was essential to the peace and tranquillity of the whole of Europe. Also essential to the Utrecht system was the split of the Spanish monarchy, whereby Sicily went to the Duke of Savoy and Naples, Milan, Sardinia, the Tuscan harbours, and the Southern Netherlands were ceded to the Emperor Charles VI (1685–1740), the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish crown. For Britain, the recognition of the Protestant Succession and France’s abandonment of the Jacobites, the Catholic male descendants of the Stuart king James II (1633–1701), had been a major condition of peace. Even after Charles VI and the Holy Roman Empire had made their peace with France at Rastatt [Rastadt] and Baden in 1714, the peace remained incomplete, and therefore largely unstable. The refusal of Charles VI to accept his loss of Spain and of Philip V and his wife Elisabeth Farnese of Parma and Piacenza (1692–1766) to surrender their Italian ambitions stood in the way of peace in Italy and the Western Mediterranean and kept alive the fear of a new clash between London and Versailles.
In 1714, Queen Anne (1665–1714) had died and had been succeeded by George I, Elector of Hanover (1660–1727). The new king dismissed the Tory ministers, some of whom had plotted with James III (1688–1766), the Old Pretender, and threw in his fate with the Whigs, who quickly began to drift back to their old policies by trying to revive the Grand Alliance with Vienna and The Hague and thus jeopardised the Utrecht compromise. The Jacobite rising of 1715–1716 further exacerbated relations with France. There the Regent Philip of Orleans fell too weak to openly oppose the Jacobite rising and in wavering alienated Hanover and the Whigs. In late 1715, he refused an alliance with London to help it quell the rebellion.
If the instability of both the British and French regimes threatened to cause them to drift apart in 1715, it ultimately also stopped them from coming to blows and from destroying the Utrecht system. In the end, the Utrecht compromise propped up both the Hanover Succession and the position of the Regent in France. It stipulated French support for the Protestant Succession and the exclusion of the Catholic Stuarts from the line of succession (Articles 4 and 5 of the Peace Treaty of Utrecht between France and Great Britain, 11 April 1713, 27 CTS 475) and it assured the Regent’s place in the line of succession in France through the exclusion of Philip V of Spain and his descendants, thus weakening the latter’s claim to the regency.
In the short run, the Jacobite rising drove the Hanover-Whig government to seek new alliances with the Dutch Republic and Charles VI. In 1715, the restoration of the Grand Alliance was hampered by the tensions between The Hague and Vienna over the Dutch Barrier in the Southern, now Austrian, Netherlands. After the Barrier Treaty was signed on 15 November 1715 (29 CTS 333) with British help, The Hague proved conducive to supporting George I against the Jacobites. On 6 February 1716, a bilateral alliance was signed at The Hague between Britain and the Republic, guaranteeing the Protestant Succession (29 CTS 413). Dutch troops were deployed to Britain to fight the rebellion.
Apart from his Whig ministers, George I also had personal dynastic reasons to desire an alliance with Emperor Charles VI. Hanover had been a close ally of the Emperor during the War of the Spanish Succession. Moreover, the elector-king hoped for imperial support to safeguard his new German territories of Bremen and Verden against Sweden and to second his aspirations in Mecklenburg. On 5 June 1716, George I attained his goal for an alliance with the Emperor through the Treaty of Westminster (29 CTS 453). The impending war with the Ottoman Empire had made Charles VI more inclined to make such a move. The alliance came at the price of the understanding that Britain would support a swap between Sicily and Sardinia. The Utrecht peace settlement had allotted Sardinia to the Austrian Habsburgs—next to Naples, Milan, and the Tuscan harbours—, whereas the much bigger prize of Sicily had been given to the House of Savoy. However, Charles VI had not given up his hope of regaining Sicily, and was for this purpose able to appeal to the historic ties between Naples and Sicily—known as the Two Sicilies—among other claims.
The British alliances with the Dutch Republic and the Emperor and London’s rapprochement with Madrid in early 1716 left France and its regent isolated. In the summer of 1716, Orleans’s former preceptor and confidant Guillaume Dubois (1666–1723) was sent first to The Hague and then to Hanover to speak with James Stanhope (1673–1721), George I’s main foreign minister. After long negotiations, and in the face of the Russian occupation of Mecklenburg, success was achieved in the fall. The Whig ministry in London tried to derail it by raising stiff demands directed at France, but to its surprise, these were accepted by the regent. The British conditions included the expulsion of James III from the papal enclave at Avignon and a French concession not to build a new military harbour at Mardijk to replace the one at Dunkirk, which under the stipulations of the Peace of Utrecht the French had been required to destroy. On 28 November 1716 a convention was signed. At the turn of the new year, Dubois removed the last hurdle the Whig opponents of accommodation with France could raise by persuading the Dutch to accede. On 4 January the Triple Alliance was formally concluded at The Hague.
As was the case with the Hanover Convention of November, this treaty opened with the French concessions to the demands regarding the Stuart Pretender’s expulsion from Avignon or Lorraine (Article 2) and Dunkirk-Mardijk (Article 4). More importantly, in Article 5, the signatory parties confirmed the Peace of Utrecht and guaranteed the Protestant and French Successions as they had been determined at Utrecht. They mutually guaranteed each party’s possessions and rights—including Hanover’s gains of Bremen and Verden—and promised to defend them in case of attack by sending an auxiliary corps, fleet, or money (Articles 5 and 6). The same support was promised in case of rebellion (Article 7). With their alliance, the two leading powers that had brought the Utrecht system into existence confirmed their allegiance to it and thus sent out a powerful signal to curb the revisionist tendencies of mainly Spain and Austria.
With this alliance, the rulers of both Britain and France wanted to guarantee their hold on the reins of power by neutralising the most dangerous potential foreign opponents and by avoiding a new war. At the same time, the involvement of the Dutch Republic made it clear that this was more than a bilateral alliance intended to protect the immediate interests of just two powers. Once again, the leaders of the two opposing coalitions from the War of the Spanish Succession had come together to protect the fabric of the European peace they had made at Utrecht. Whereas the treaty itself included no explicit claims that these three powers acted in the name of Europe, this was in fact what they did. The Anglo-French alliance created the framework to induce both Vienna and Madrid to accept the Utrecht settlement for Italy. And even if this was passed over silently in the treaty, it also enhanced the likelihood of French support for the major amendment this would cost, the swapping of Sicily and Sardinia.
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