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Fortress Belgium – The 1715 Barrier Treaty

By: Randall Lesaffer

On 15 November 1715, representatives of Emperor Charles VI (1711–1740), George I of Great Britain (1714–1727) and the Estates-General of the Republic of the United Provinces of the Northern Netherlands signed the Barrier Treaty at Antwerp (29 CTS 333). With the treaty, one of the open endings of the peace process of Utrecht-Rastatt-Baden that settled the War of the Spanish Succession (1700–1713/14) was dealt with. In the treaty, the Emperor Charles VI who had obtained the Southern Netherlands – roughly present-day Belgium and Luxembourg – as part of the Utrecht-Rastatt-Baden compromise, conceded to the Dutch Republic the right to garrison a number of fortified towns along the French border as a bulwark against French attack. Hereby, one of the major strategic goals of the Republic in the War of the Spanish Succession was achieved.

The idea of a ‘Dutch Barrier’ in the Southern Netherlands had a long pre-history which roots back to the midst of the 17th century. During much of the Republic’s long struggle for independence against Spain, the Eighty Years’ War (1567–1648), France had been the Republic’s ally. The Dutch decision to enter a separate peace with Spain in the Treaty of Münster of 30 January 1648 (1 CTS 1) had put severe pressure on the Franco-Dutch friendship, but in the early 1660s the alliance had been renewed. It was, however, not to last. In 1659, France ended its 24-year war against the Spanish Monarchy. The Peace of the Pyrenees of 7 November 1659 (5 CTS 325) marked France’s ascendancy as the new leading power in Europe. As part of the Franco-Spanish peace, it was decided that the French King Louis XIV (1643–1715) would marry Maria Theresa (1638–1683), daughter of the Spanish King Philip IV (1621–1665). Because of this marriage, the Spanish infanta surrendered all her rights to the Spanish succession (Marriage Contract of 7 November 1659, 5 CTS 403)

After having assumed personal power in France in 1661, the young Louis XIV quickly turned to an expansionist policy. In 1663, he revoked the cession of his wife’s rights and laid a claim to the Spanish Netherlands on her behalf. In 1664, France introduced new commercial tariffs in order to contain the Dutch dominance of the cargo trade with France. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667), Louis XIV remained true to his alliance with the Dutch Republic (Treaty of Paris of 27 April 1662, 7 CTS 139), but this was only motivated by the fear that a British victory might bring the Republic under British rather than French domination.

From 1663 onwards, the Dutch government under John de Witt (1625–1672) was riddled with concerns over the threat that France might annex the Spanish Netherlands. Since the Peace of Münster, the regents at The Hague had moved to an objective alliance with the Spanish Monarchy, whose possession of the Southern Netherlands they now considered a buffer against France. The maxim ‘Gallia amica, sed non vicina’ (France as friend but not as neighbour) gave apt expression to the diplomatic balancing act the diplomatic relation with France became in the face of Louis XIV’s northward expansion plans.

This balancing act broke down in 1667 when Louis XIV decided to take matters into his own hands by invading the Spanish Netherlands. When the Spanish defences crumbled, de Witt saw himself forced to resist France, first by flirting with an alliance with Spain and then by forming a coalition with Britain and Sweden, the so-called Triple Alliance of 23 January 1668 (10 CTS 409), to pressure France to back down. The ensuing Peace of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] of 2 May 1668 (11 CTS 11) saved most of the Spanish Netherlands but also caused the Franco-Dutch friendship to founder.

When Louis XIV launched his war of revenge in 1672, his forces bypassed the defences in the Spanish Netherlands on their way into the Republic. This, combined with the continuing erosion of Spanish military strength in the Netherlands and the uncertainty about the succession in the Spanish Monarchy after the death of the childless Charles II (1665–1700), made it clear that the Spanish buffer could no longer be counted on to contain France or keep the war away from the commercial centre of Holland. Henceforth, the Republic would seek its security in an alliance with Britain and in finding an alternative to the crumbling Spanish buffer. The cement of the Anglo-Dutch alliance, which was much fortified by the takeover of the British throne in 1689 by the Dutch Stadtholder as King William III (1672/1689–1702), was the British need to ensure that the Flemish coast – from which an invasion against England could be staged – and the Belgian economy be kept out of French hands.

The alternative to the crumbling military power of Spain for the defence of the Southern Netherlands became the garrisoning of key fortresses with Dutch troops. It was hoped that this would give the Republic the strategic depth it lacked to defend its demographic and commercial centre against attack from the south. In 1698, shortly after the end of the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), which proved the strategic value of the line of fortresses in the south of the Spanish Netherlands to both France and the ‘Grand Alliance’ consisting of the Emperor, Britain, and the Dutch Republic, William III and Spain agreed on a Dutch barrier. It provided for the garrisoning of eight towns and fortresses by the Republic. When the Grand Alliance was reformed on the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession through the Treaty of The Hague of 7 September 1701 (24 CTS 11), one of its major aims was the restoration of the Dutch Barrier (Article 5). After his grandson had taken the Spanish throne as Philip V (1700–1746), the troops of Louis XIV had occupied the Southern Netherlands and evicted the Dutch troops from the barrier towns.

Although the Dutch Barrier was a shared goal of The Hague and London during the war, it was also a cause of tension. For the Republic, the concern with the future of the Southern Netherlands went beyond security. There were also economic reasons for this concern as the Republic also wished to see the economic stranglehold it held on the maritime economy of the Southern Netherlands remain intact. This pertained to the so-called ‘closure of the Scheldt’, which had been stipulated in Article 14 of the 1648 Treaty of Münster. Rather than a physical closure, the article implied that ships sailing the Scheldt through the Republic to Antwerp had to reload on small boats and were heavily taxed. Moreover, Article 15 stipulated that the commercial tariffs for the other Flemish harbours would be at the same level as those for the Scheldt, thus impeding the revival of Antwerp or the Flemish harbours as the hubs of the Northern economy and protecting the position of Amsterdam. The Republic hoped to exploit the presence of its garrisons to strengthen this stranglehold and more generally dominate the trade of the Southern Netherlands, for which Britain was its main competitor.

In 1709, when the war was in its final phases and serious attempts were being made to bring it to a halt, the Republic and Britain worked out the details for a future Dutch Barrier (Treaty of The Hague of 29 October 1709, 26 CTS 425). The treaty was particularly generous to the Dutch as it not only provided for a line of fortresses along the French border, but also granted the Dutch control over more northern towns such as Ostend, Ghent, Dendermonde, and Damme, which allowed it to defend its control over the Scheldt and its hold over Antwerp and over commercial flows in and through Flanders. In return, the Republic guaranteed the Protestant Succession in Britain. The overall advantages for the Dutch and the danger that the Dutch could and would abuse these to advance their commercial interest to the detriment of British merchants were such that the treaty became a major bone of contention in Westminster. It did not long survive the formation of a Tory government in 1710 as the new men in power turned from a focus on the balance of power in Europe to a focus on Britain’s commercial and imperial interests. In early 1713, at the Utrecht peace conference, the two maritime powers reached a new compromise on the Barrier (Treaty of 29 and 30 January 1713, 27 CTS 373), which prepared the ground for the inclusion of the Barrier in the Utrecht-Rastatt-Baden settlement with the other powers. The new barrier also included a few northern garrisons but the number of these was much reduced and now served only to protect the Scheldt. The new compromise omitted Ostend or Dendermonde, the two towns which were of most strategic value to the commercial competition between the Republic and Britain. It also contained stronger guarantees for British trade rights in the Southern Netherlands.

After the Emperor Charles VI, who had been the Grand Alliance’s candidate for the Spanish throne, adhered to the Utrecht compromise in the Treaty of Rastatt of 6 March 1714 (29 CTS 1), the way was opened for him to take possession of the former Spanish Netherlands which were dealt to him. At Utrecht, it had been decided that Britain and the Republic would continue to occupy the Southern Netherlands, which they had wrested from the French during the war, until a full compromise with the Emperor was reached. This came about with the Antwerp Barrier Treaty of 15 November 1715.

The Barrier Treaty was a joint Austrian-Dutch military alliance to defend the Austrian Netherlands. It stipulated that a standing force of 30,000 to 35,000 men would be stationed in the Austrian Netherlands, 40% of which would be provided by the Republic (Article 3). The Dutch Barrier was much reduced from the 1713 Utrecht compromise. It now contained only 6 towns and 1 fortress, against over 15 before, all along the French border (Article 4). However, the treaty also provided for a mixed garrison at Dendermonde (Article 5). Article 19 provided for an annual lump sum of 1,250,000 guilders to be paid by the Austrians to the Republic on the income of the Austrian Netherlands for the upkeep of the Dutch Barrier and its garrisons. The Treaty affirmed the Münster regime for the Scheldt and Flemish harbours and the equal treatment of Dutch and British commerce (Article 26). It was further detailed and executed by an Austrian-Dutch agreement of 30 January 1716 (29 CTS 383) and another convention of 31 January 1716 (29 CTS 395)

In the years that followed, the Dutch Barrier was confirmed several times, but the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) would show its ineffectiveness in the face of the decline of the Republic as a great power. In 1781, Emperor Joseph II (1765–1781) unilaterally revoked it.



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