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The League of Hanover (3 September 1725): Safeguarding the European Balance

By: Frederik Dhondt (Ghent University)

The treaty of alliance of Hanover (32 CTS 201), concluded for a duration of fifteen years between Louis XV of France, George I of Great Britain/Hanover and Frederick William I of Brandenburg/Prussia, the so-called ‘League of Hanover’, is an important response to imperial hegemonic aspirations. The text of the treaty affirms sovereign states’ liberties in early modern European international relations.

Improbable partners?

In 1700, observers of the political relations between ‘absolute’ monarchs would have thought a league comprising these three crowns highly improbable. Louis XIV, who reigned until 1715, had fought most of his wars against Protestant opponents, such as William III of Orange or Frederick I of Prussia, predecessors of George I and Frederick William I. Moreover, George I’s ascension was a product of his systematic opposition to the Sun King’s policies. Initially a mere Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, ‘Georg Ludwig’ rose to the rank of Elector during the Nine Years War against France, and only succeeded Queen Anne in 1714 because his Catholic, French-supported competitor James Stuart had been excluded by Parliament. Frederick William of Prussia owed his royal title to a promise by Emperor Leopold I to his late father, in return for troops to fight France.

Hegemonic ambitions

In the eyes of his contemporaries, both Louis XIV and the Habsburg Monarchy were seen as having ambitions to create a Universal Monarchy. France’s power threatened the independence and freedom of rulers in the Holy Roman Empire, nearly killed off the Dutch Republic, and had swallowed most of the composite Spanish Monarchy. In November 1700, Louis had his grandson Philip of Anjou installed as King in Madrid. At the other extreme of Europe, the Habsburg Monarchy under the emperor had incrementally moved toward a similar claim to dominance. A major war broke out between France and Spain on the one side, and an alliance between the Emperor and the Maritime Powers, on the other. However, by 1711, Habsburg claims to the Spanish Monarchy had become as threatening to the Balance of Power as Louis XIV’s claims. Britain deserted the Habsburg candidate to the Spanish crown, the Archduke Charles, and preferred a continental balance between Versailles and Vienna to the latter’s all-out victory.

A Franco-British warning against Austrian provocations

For these reasons, the League of Hanover should be seen as a reaction by Britain and France against a joint Spanish-Austrian claim to a condominium, or joint rule, over Europe. On 30 April 1725, Charles of Habsburg and Philip of Anjou had, most improbably, in light of their longstanding enmity, concluded a peace treaty (the ‘Ripperda’ Treaty, 32 CTS 99), providing for an inter-dynastic marriage. Philip’s son, Don Carlos, would become the spouse of Maria Theresa, Charles’s eldest daughter. This treaty alarmed Europe. Uniting Vienna and Madrid would represent the equivalent of resurrecting Charles V’s Empire, which Britain had tried to avert fourteen years earlier.

Britain’s motives for joining the alliance of Hanover were clear. Ever since the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, George I’s diplomats had constantly worked together with those of the French Regent. After the latter’s death, the Duke of Bourbon, Louis XV’s Prime Minister, continued a policy of close alliance. For Britain and France alike, it was essential to guarantee the exclusion of an undesirable heir: in the French case, Philip V of Spain, who had to renounce his rights to his grandfather’s throne, and in the British case, the Catholic Pretender, on the basis of the Act of Settlement (1701). Both specific cases were inserted as a general rule in the Treaties of Utrecht (e.g. Art. 2 of the Treaty of 13 July 1713 between Britain and Spain, 28 CTS 295). The joint action of diplomats like Secretary of State James Stanhope, Ambassador Horatio Walpole, French Prime Minister Guillaume Dubois, or (from 1726 on) his successor André-Hercule de Fleury focused on the verbal containment of ambitions incompatible with this scheme and on ensuring ‘public tranquility’, as stated in the Treaty’s preamble. Thus, international stability was linked to the guarantee of the orders of succession in France and Britain. The British signatory of the alliance, Charles Viscount Townshend, was notorious for his opposition to imperial hegemonic ambition. His French counterpart, François, count of Broglie, was Louis XV’s ambassador in London.

German or European?

Driven foremost by geopolitical self-interest, Frederick William I of Brandenburg/Prussia joined in the League of Hanover because his Hanoverian neighbour had done so, and only after obtaining support from France and Great Britain/Hanover for his claim on the Rhineland Duchies of Jülich and Berg. Vienna reacted furiously, citing the law of the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Westphalia (Peace Treaties of Osnabrück and Münster of 24 October 1648, 1 CTS 119 and 1 CTS 271) permitted the member states of the Empire to conclude treaties as long as they did not commit a Reichsfriedensbruch (breach of the Imperial Peace), a grave offence. Since two members of the League of Hanover, Hanover and Brandenburg, were members of the Holy Roman Empire, and their treaty of alliance was directed against ‘any prince or state whatsoever’ (Art. 2), they had effectively concluded a treaty containing the possibility that they would take up arms against other members of the Empire. The alliance itself, however, invoked as its defence the very upholding of the Peace of Westphalia as well as politico-religious liberties (Art. 5).

Brandenburg/Prussia would end up leaving the alliance rather quickly. Russian presence in the Imperial-Spanish alliance constituted a greater risk than an attack from Hanover. Historians traditionally see a second inspiration for Prussian involvement: the 1724 incidents between Catholics and Protestants that occurred outside the Empire, in the town of Thorn in the province of Royal Prussia, within the Kingdom of Poland (the subject of the First Separate Article to the treaty of alliance of Hanover). These incidents could have served to attract the Protestant princes to the alliance, but did not constitute the essential motive for its conclusion.

Prussian membership was not essential. The alliance against Emperor Charles VI and Philip V was open to the accession of other powers, such as the Dutch Republic, Denmark, or Sweden (Art. 6). The League of Hanover, negotiated at the British King’s summer residence at Herrenhausen Palace, concerned a Europe-wide balance of power, far beyond its German implications (Art. 4: ‘common interests and the Balance of Europe’ determine action undertaken by the allies). The text affirmed that the Ripperda Treaty was outright unacceptable.

In the end, military confrontation between the two blocs would be averted. Spanish commitment to the Viennese alliance faltered as Charles VI’s wedding promises turned out to be vague and hypothetical. On 31 May 1727, preliminaries of peace opened another round of talks, prolonging an exceptional period of peace between European sovereigns that had begun in 1713.

About the author

Dr. Frederik Dhondt is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) at the Legal History Institute (Ghent University). His doctoral dissertation Balance of Power and Norm Hierarchy. Franco-British Diplomacy after the Peace of Utrecht will appear as volume 7 in the series Studies on the History of International Law (Brill/Nijhoff).


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