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The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part V): The Peace of Nijmegen (1678–1679)

By: Randall Lesaffer

The entry into the war of the emperor, some German states, and Spain at the side of the Dutch and the loss of his allies in 1673 and 1674 forced Louis XIV (1638–1715) and his ministers to rethink the whole war and adjust its aim. Whereas the war had started as an attempt to subdue the Dutch Republic, the French king now had to fall back on his older ambitions to make territorial gains against the Spanish Netherlands and some German states to the north and east. By the start of the campaign of 1674, the battlefield had moved from the Dutch Republic to the lands surrounding French territory, with Louis’s armies now fighting to extend the French borders. During 1674 the French king suffered further diplomatic setbacks through the declaration of war by the Diet of the Holy Roman Emperor in May and the re-entry into the war of the Great Elector of Brandenburg in July. A year later, Louis’s most effective ally Sweden suffered a debilitating defeat against Brandenburg and ceased to be a serious player on the German battlefields.

Although France was now fighting as good as alone against a grand coalition of the emperor, several German states, Spain, and the Republic, its superior military organization, aided by internal divisions in the opposing coalition, assured its ascendancy towards the end of the war. By the end of 1676, war weariness forced the parties seriously to consider peace. After a series of negotiations, in November of that year a grand peace conference was called at the Dutch town of Nijmegen [Nimeguen]—which France had taken and temporarily occupied at the beginning of the war—with the British acting as mediators.

The Nijmegen peace conference was the first of the three great ‘Dutch’ peace conferences, together with those of Rijswijk [Ryswick] and Utrecht, which would play a crucial role in European diplomacy and coalition wars against Louis XIV. As a multilateral peace conference of European importance it built on the precedent of the Westphalia peace conference. As Münster and Osnabrück had previously been in the 1640s, Nijmegen became the venue for all belligerent powers, and some others, to try to settle a war. Because of the European scale of the war, its desired result was a settlement that would restore peace on a European scale and would create a new geopolitical order among the European princes and powers. In this Nijmegen was more successful than Westphalia, which failed to attain peace between the two great powers of the period, France and Spain. Contrariwise, the Nijmegen conference secured peace between the leading contenders in the war—France, the emperor and Empire, the Dutch Republic, and Spain. The peace treaties signed at Nijmegen were quickly followed by a peace settlement between Sweden and its two major enemies, Brandenburg and Denmark. Both of these peaces were brokered by France and negotiated at the French court (Peace of Saint-German-en-Laye between Brandenburg, France, and Sweden of 29 June 1679, 15 CTS 179; Peace of Fontainebleau between Denmark, France, and Sweden of 2 September 1679, 15 CTS 219).

The choice to organize the peace conference in the Dutch Republic was partially dictated by the central role of the Dutch Republic and William III in the coalition, but it was also an acceptable proposition to Louis XIV as many in Dutch leading circles had little interest in continuing the war after it had moved away from their territories. By having a peace conference in the Republic, even if it was not taking place at the Republic’s political heart, The Hague, French diplomats would have better chances to exploit the divisions between the war party led by the stadholder and the peace party in the Republic. Another way in which the situation at the peace conference of Nijmegen differed from that of Westphalia was that at Nijmegen it was decided to have both Catholics and Protestants live and work together in a single town.

The peace conference of Nijmegen, like those of Westphalia and most of the later European conferences of the 17th and 18th centuries, did not result in a single European peace treaty involving all belligerents, but in a series of bilateral peace treaties between pairs of belligerents. This arrangement had a legal logic as war was conceived of as a legal status in the relations between two states which had openly declared war against one another. Although the war was European in nature as it involved numerous powers, legally speaking it consisted of a number of bilateral wars whereby not all members of one coalition were at open war with all the belligerents of the opposing coalition. This was reflected in the distinction between belligerents and auxiliaries. The latter referred to those states who gave aid to a belligerent against its open enemies, without being at war with those enemies themselves. For auxiliaries, it was not necessary to make a peace treaty with the enemies of its ally, but it sufficed to be included in the peace treaty as an ally.

This way of working also suited Louis XIV’s diplomatic goals at the conference very well. Ever since the French government had been forced to surrender its hope of conquering the Republic and had changed its war aims, it had endeavoured to split the Dutch Republic from the rest of the coalition by making a separate peace with it and thus to force the Empire and Spain to make more generous territorial concessions.

While the diplomats were gathered at Nijmegen and negotiated, the war continued relentlessly on the battlefield. William III (1650–1702), who was strongly set against a separate peace, had reason to expect that the coalition would be reinforced by the entry of Britain into the war in early 1678. In 1677, the Dutch prince had married his cousin Mary Stuart (1662–1694), daughter to James (1633–1701), Duke of York and brother and heir of Charles II (1630–1685). Hopes for a shift in British politics materialized in a defensive alliance between London and The Hague (Treaty of Westminster, 3 March 1678, 14 CTS 311) and a brief British intervention at Ostend in the Spanish Netherlands. By May, however, Louis XIV had secured the effective neutrality of Britain in the war, although William III continued to entertain hopes that the restored Anglo-Dutch entente from the days of the War of Devolution might be able to pressure Louis XIV into lowering his demands in the Spanish Netherlands (Treaty of Alliance of The Hague between Britain and the Dutch Republic, 26 July 1678, 14 CTS 355).

In the end, events on the battlefield and the clever exploitation of divisions in the Republic and among the coalition had a greater impact. Some major successes of the French armies in the Spanish Netherlands—with the taking of Ghent and Ypres in the early stages of the campaign of 1678—and Britain’s effective neutralization forced the Dutch to fold. After some prevarication in the hope of securing better conditions for their Spanish and imperial allies—aimed at safeguarding as much of the buffer of the Spanish Netherlands against France as possible—on 10 August 1678 the Dutch signed a separate peace treaty with France (14 CTS 365), as well as a treaty of commerce and navigation (14 CTS 399). The agreement restored the territorial status quo ante bellum for the Republic, including the restitution of Maastricht, and put an end to the prohibitive trade policy of France against the Republic. It left it, however, without secure allies or any guarantees for a safe buffer against France in the Spanish Netherlands. William III’s wish that the Republic would be granted the right to garrison a line of fortresses—the barrier—in the Spanish Netherlands remained unfulfilled. Moreover, it had to guarantee the future peace between France and Spain, and the anticipated territorial concessions made by Spain (Article 13, and French interpretative letter of this article of 17 August 1678, 14 CTS 365, at 372 and 384–85).

With this separate peace, which also guaranteed the further neutrality of Britain (Articles 17 and 20, 14 CTS 365, at 373 and 374) in the ongoing war with the other members of the coalition, French diplomacy scored a major success. It left the emperor and Spain little choice but to accept peace themselves. The peace with the Republic allowed Louis XIV’s government to pick off one enemy after the other, and largely dictate the terms of peace. Spain was the first to give in and made its peace with France in mid-September (Peace of Nijmegen of 17 September 1678, 14 CTS 441). The Spanish Monarchy had to cede the Franche-Comté and some towns and fortresses along the French border in the Spanish Netherlands, including Maubeuge, Câteau-Cambrésis, Valenciennes, Saint-Omer, Cassel, and Ypres. France’s territorial demands had been largely dictated by Louis XIV’s new policy—inspired by his military architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707)—to round off the borders of France to make them more defensible and to protect Paris to the north and east with a double line of fortresses—the so-called pré carré. The Empire held out until early 1679 (Peace of Nijmegen of 5 February 1679, 15 CTS 1). The negotiators failed to reach a compromise on Lorraine and Alsace as Louis XIV was not willing to make any concession that would weaken or jeopardize France’s defences to the east. This left the eastern border of France unsettled and insecure, and implied that the Duchy of Lorraine remained occupied and its new duke, Charles V (1643–1690), in exile.

With the Peace of Nijmegen French diplomacy had proven able to exploit the country’s military ascendancy at the negotiation table. Although the hopes for a spectacular victory from the first stage of the war had proven unattainable, France had proven a match for an opposing coalition of much of Europe during a long-term war and had emerged with significant gains. But it had also suffered a major loss. If its hopes for a quick victory from 1672 had been dashed, the fear the move had inspired at the courts of Europe did not abate. Unstable and divisive as the anti-French coalition might be, it and its major proponent, William III, would henceforth find a basis for cooperation against France in this fear.

List of treaties made at the Conference of Nijmegen
Treaty of Peace between France and the Dutch Republic, 10 August 1678, 14 CTS 365
Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between France and the Dutch Republic, 10 August 1678, 14 CTS 399
Compromis between France and Spain, 11 September 1678, 14 CTS 437
Treaty of Peace between France and Spain, 17 September 1678, 14 CTS 441
Treaty of Peace between the Empire and France, 5 February 1679, 15 CTS 1
Treaty of Peace between the Empire and Sweden, 5 February 1679, 15 CTS 67
Treaty between France and Münster, 29 March 1679, 15 CTS 109
Treaty of Peace between Münster and Sweden, 29 March 1679, 15 CTS 119
Cessation of Hostilities of France and Sweden with Brandenburg and Denmark, 31 March 1679, 15 CTS 131
Cessation of Hostilities between France and Brandenburg for the Americas, 16 May 1679, 15 CTS 169
Treaty for the Execution of the Peace between the Empire and France, 17 July 1679, 15 CTS 197
Treaty of Peace between the Dutch Republic and Sweden, 12 October 1679, 15 CTS 317
Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the Dutch Republic and Sweden, 12 October 1679, 15 CTS 331

Hans Bots (ed.), The Peace of Nijmegen 1676-1678/79/La paix de Nimègue 1676-1678/79 (Amsterdam: Holland University Press 1980).
Heinz Duchhardt, ‘Peace Treaties from Westphalia to the Revolutionary Era’, in Randall Lesaffer (ed.), Peace Treaties and International Law in European History: From the Late Middle Ages to World War One (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) 45–58.

Read more from The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties series by Randall Lesaffer:

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

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

The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part III): The Secret Alliance of Dover (1 June 1670)

The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part IV): The Second Peace of Westminster (19 February 1674)

The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part VI): The Truce of Regensburg (1684)

The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part VII): The Grand Alliance of 1689 and the Nine Years’ War