The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties VII: The Grand Alliance of 1689 and the Nine Years’ War
By: Randall Lesaffer
The Truce of Regensburg marked the apex of the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715). Now in his late forties, the Sun King ruled over the greatest and most powerful kingdom of Europe from his grand palace at Versailles. Over the quarter century of his personal rule, he had significantly diminished the challenge of the great noble families to the monarchy and successfully subdued or co-opted them into his regime. He had crushed the military and social power of the Huguenots and had repeatedly proven the ascendancy of France and its armies over its neighbours and foreign competitors. He had extended his lands to the north and east, had secured the realm’s borders with a ring of fortresses, and had gained control over the entrances into Germany and northern Italy. In 1684, Louis’s glory was second to none of his peers, and to none of his predecessors. Although he realized that the fear these successes inspired in his opponents spelled danger for the future, he felt assured for the time being that the Truce of Regensburg and the emperor’s war against the Ottomans safeguarded France against a counterattack by a grand coalition of European powers.
In fact, however, the breathing space of twenty years which Louis XIV thought he had bought at Regensburg was to last for only about three years. For this, the king himself was partially to blame. While Louis XIV wanted to avoid a new general conflagration of Europe and had no intention of re-starting a grand offensive against his immediate neighbours, he saw no reason not to continue his hitherto successful policy of mixing diplomacy, pressure, and armed force to nibble at their territories. Meanwhile, the diplomatic wheel of fortune began to turn against the Sun King and curtailed the space the governments of Europe were willing to leave Louis for new machinations.
In 1685, the Brandenburg Elector Frederick William (1620–1688) had factually abandoned his old alliance with France by first restoring his alliance with the Dutch Republic (Treaty of The Hague of 23 August 1685, 17 CTS 305) and then by entering into a secret compact with Emperor Leopold I (1650–1702) (Treaty of Berlin of 1 April 1686, 17 CTS 471). Shortly afterwards, the emperor, Spain, Sweden, and some leading German princes including Bavaria locked themselves together in a defensive alliance against France, the League of Augsburg of 6 July 1686 (18 CTS 21). The willingness of the German princes to make common cause with the emperor came from a combination of their fear of French aspirations in Germany and the growing fame of the emperor as a champion of Christianity for his war against the Ottomans. The taking of Buda by the emperor’s army and its spectacular victory over the Ottomans at Mohács in 1687 caused a constitutional crisis in Istanbul and allowed Vienna a chance to countenance war in the West. It was against this background that two events occurred which precipitated Europe into a new general war.
Imperial victories in the east forced Louis to show his hand. Fearful of the danger of an imperial counteroffensive, the French king resolved to try and force the issue. In 1687, he demanded from his treaty parties from the truce of Regensburg that they transform the truce into a permanent peace, thus confirming France’s possession of Strasburg and Luxemburg. When this demand failed, he hoped to strengthen his hold on the lower Rhine by trying to impose a pro-French candidate for the succession to the archbishopric of Köln [Cologne]. When this failed and the brother of the Bavarian elector, Joseph Clemens of Wittelsbach (1671–1723), was appointed, Louis XIV abruptly changed course and judged it best to secure his eastern border by invading and occupying German territories along the Rhine. On 24 September 1688, the French king published an ultimatum in which he demanded permanent peace on the basis of Regensburg and the appointment of his candidate in Köln. A day later, his troops started their offensive. In this manner he hoped not only to ensure France’s defences but also to intimidate the German states and knock them out of their alliance with the emperor, or out of the war before it really started. This plan misfired, and by early 1689 Louis saw himself at war with the emperor, the Empire, and the Dutch Republic.
At the same time, a long-slumbering constitutional crisis in Britain was jolted awake. In 1685, at the death of Charles II (1630–1685), the throne of the three British kingdoms had passed to his younger brother, the now openly Catholic James II (1633–1701). The birth in 1688 of a son, whose right to the throne superseded the rights of his elder, Protestant half-sisters, presented the spectre of a Catholic dynasty in London and spurred some leading Protestants into action. Acting on their invitation, the Dutch Stadholder William III (1650–1702), spouse of James II’s eldest daughter Mary (1662–1694), assembled an army and invaded England. James II, who had refused French help to safeguard support at home, saw that support crumble and fled to France. By February 1689, William and Mary were installed on the British throne.
Occupied in Germany, the French government could do little to influence events on the British Isles in the short run. This, and the brutal campaign of the French in Germany, with the destruction of the Pfalz [Palatinate] and the sacking of Heidelberg and Mannheim, solidified a ‘grand alliance’ of France’s opponents. Its foundation was the treaty between Leopold I and William III as Dutch stadholder, which was signed at Vienna on 12 May 1689 (18 CTS 367). Contrary to the vast majority of alliances, this treaty was expressly stated to be both defensive and offensive (Article 2). The parties promised one another to continue the war and not to make separate peace (Article 3) until the Treaties of Westphalia were restored to full force and respect (Article 4). In other words, the parties were not content to defend their and their allies’ existing lands, but committed to reducing France to its borders as designed at Westphalia. By the end of the year, William III acceded to the alliance in his capacity as British king. Spain, which had already been at war with France since April 1689, as well as Savoy (Treaty of The Hague of 20 October 1690, 19 CTS 95), joined in 1690.
With Sweden formally allied to his enemies, although largely inactive in the war, the Sun King saw himself now utterly devoid of any important allies. Nevertheless, once again, the superiority of his armies—although less dominant than before—aided by their ability to concentrate on certain strategic fields close to their base, continued to prove itself. Notwithstanding the number and power of its enemies, France could not be beaten. What followed was a long, drawn-out strategic stalemate that evolved into a war of attrition. It was in the end not the outcomes on the battlefield but the drain on the belligerents’ finances and the chimera of the Spanish succession that brought the parties to the negotiation table.
Lucien Bély, Les relations internationals en Europe XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1992).
Jonathan I. Israel, ‘The Dutch role in the Glorious Revolution’, in Jonathan I. Israel (ed.), The Anglo-Dutch Moment. Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its World Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991) 105–62.
John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714 (Modern Wars in Perspective; London and New York: Longman 1999).
Derek McKay and H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers 1648–1815 (London: Longman 1983).
David Onnekink, Reinterpreting the Dutch Forty Years War, 1672–1713 (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2016).
Geoffrey Symcox, ‘Louis XIV and the Outbreak of the Nine Years War’, in Ragnhild Hatton (ed.), Louis XIV and Europe (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 1976) 179–212.
Wout Troost, William III, the Stadholder-King. A Political Biography (Aldershot: Ashgate 2005).
Wouter Troost, ‘William III, Brandenburg, and the construction of the anti-French coalition, 1672–88’, in Jonathan I. Israel (ed.), The Anglo-Dutch Moment. Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its World Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991) 299–333.
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