The Wars of Louis XIV in Treaties (Part IV): The Second Peace of Westminster (19 February 1674)
By: Randall Lesaffer
In the spring of 1672, Louis XIV (1638–1715) launched his long-prepared attack on the United Provinces of the Netherlands. On 6 April, his government issued a declaration of war against the Dutch Republic. In the weeks to follow, French troops moved through the Bishopric of Liège to Westphalia in order to invade the Republic from the east. After having taken some Dutch fortress-towns, on 12 June the Sun King crossed the Rhine at Tolhuis, ready to strike at the heartland of his enemy.
The early stages of the 1672 war saw Louis XIV’s long hatched plans come—almost—to fruition. Ever since he had been forced to accept the Peace of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle], the French king had plotted war against the Dutch Republic. For years, he and his chief ministers had prepared the French army, while building a diplomatic network around and against the Republic. Next to the alliances with the British king Charles II (1630–1685) and Sweden, this entailed neutralizing the Holy Roman Emperor and securing some crucial allies in the Empire. While Louis XIV failed to tease Frederick William (1620–1688), the Elector of Brandenburg, from his alliance with the Netherlands, he did secure the support of key-strategic allies such as the Bishop of Münster, Christoph Bernhard von Galen (1606–1678), whose lands stretched out along the vulnerable eastern borders of the Republic. In the summer of 1670, Louis XIV took a calculated risk to secure his own eastern border by occupying the Duchy of Lorraine and driving its duke, France’s long-standing enemy Charles IV (1604–1675), from his lands. The action forced France to postpone its attack on the Dutch Republic, planned for 1671, by a year and put it on the back foot in the game for allies in Germany. Nevertheless, French diplomats secured a new treaty with Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) in the fall of 1671 (Treaty of Vienna, 1 November 1671, 12 CTS 51). Under the treaty, France and the emperor guaranteed the peace agreements of Westphalia and Aachen and agreed that as long as France stood by the settlement of Aachen, the emperor would not come to the aid of the Triple Alliance or any of its members in a war with France (Article 3). Two months later, Louis XIV brought the Archbishopric of Cologne, another territory of strategic importance for the invasion of the United Provinces, into his network of allies (Treaty of Brühl, 2 January 1672, 12 CTS 111).
By early 1672, both France’s armed forces and its diplomatic work were ready. The third pillar of Louis’s plan, to leave the Republic in the dark about the storm that was building over its head, had also been largely successful. France’s aggressive trade policies and the extension of its presence and ambitions in the Caribbean and North America hurt Dutch interests, but led to a split among its rulers rather than to effective countermoves against France. While some leading industrial towns such as Leiden and Haarlem, as well as Amsterdam itself, advocated for and then took countermeasures, the regency under John de Witt (1625–1672) continued to put its trust in the Triple Alliance with Britain and Sweden and expected to be able to mend fences with France. This prevented the Dutch from seriously preparing for war, while driving the leading towns of Holland and Zeeland into the waiting arms of William III (1650–1702), the Prince of Orange. Under pressure from the other provinces and the shifting international context, in February 1672 the States voted to appoint the young standard-bearer of the house of Orange to become captain-general and admiral-general of the Republic’s forces.
When Louis XIV launched his offensive in the spring of 1672, he could entertain realistic hopes for a speedy conquest of the Republic. He had amassed an impressive range of forces, had neutralized almost all of the Republic’s allies—except Spain and Brandenburg—and could count on the effective aid of the British fleet and the Republic’s direct neighbours to the east. Careful not to provoke the emperor, the French troops bypassed the Spanish Netherlands and moved through the Bishopric of Liège towards Maastricht and the Dutch border. This came at the disadvantage of not provoking Madrid into open war, while it did not stop the governor-general of the Spanish Netherlands from sending troops to the Republic as an auxiliary. In fact Louis hoped for a Spanish declaration of war as this would allow France to conquer the Spanish Netherlands without breaking the Peace of Aachen and Louis XIV’s understanding with the emperor.
The French attack took off spectacularly well and by the middle of June the French forces were set to strike at the core of the Republic. Louis XIV himself was able to make a triumphant entry into Utrecht on 30 June. Unprepared for war and left in the lurch by its old allies, the Dutch government saw no alternative but to sue for peace. In June, it offered the cession of all its Brabant possessions and Maastricht and to pay a huge indemnity of 10 million livres. Against the advice of Simon Arnauld de Pomponne (1618–1699), former ambassador in The Hague and now foreign secretary, Louis turned this down and demanded the cession of Gelderland, Utrecht, and Overijssel on top of this. Meanwhile, the Dutch took the desperate measure of opening the sluices to protect Amsterdam and Holland against a further French advance. This and the intervention of the army of Brandenburg stalled and effectively bogged down the French offensive.
With this, Louis XIV’s hope for the quick conquest and surrender of the Republic was doomed. France’s plan had been to overwhelm the Republic and knock it out of the equation of European power politics by degrading it to a French satellite. The Sun King’s hatred for the Dutch state stemmed largely from its thwarting of his attempt to conquer the Spanish Netherlands, but it was surely also fuelled by his aversion for its republican regime. Ironically, the French offensive did succeed in bringing down the government of John de Witt, but in doing so helped to create the man who would become Louis’s main nemesis in the decades to come: William III of Orange. If the French offensive narrowly failed to bring down the Republic, it did cause the collapse of de Witt’s ‘era of true freedom’. In early July, while the French armies were set to attack Holland, the States of Holland appointed the young prince to become stadholder, thus effectively restoring the House of Orange to its position from before 1650. A month later, John de Witt resigned his post as grand pensionary of Holland. On 20 August, he and his brother Cornelis (1623–1672), the hero of the attack on the Medway, were caught in riots in The Hague and brutally slaughtered.
The opening of the sluices and the Brandenburg intervention changed the nature of the war, and of the diplomatic game surrounding it. Louis XIV’s grand diplomatic scheme was designed to allow a speedy surprise attack on the Netherlands, but could never withstand the pressure of a protracted war. Thereto, the interests of the major powers of Europe were too much aligned against a French submission of the Low Countries. As the French offensive was bogged down, its diplomatic network foundered. The attack on French forces by the troops from Brandenburg had forced one corps, that of the Marshal of Turenne (1611–1675), to veer away from the Republic and push it back. In this Turenne was successful and by the summer of 1673, the Grand Elector of Brandenburg was knocked out of the war (Treaty of Vossem, 6 June 1673, 12 CTS 477).
This was to be France’s final major diplomatic success. The Franco-British offensive had awakened Vienna to the danger that was threatening the Empire in case of French victory and had turned the wheels of diplomacy in another direction. In the summer of 1673, while Louis XIV’s armies were campaigning in the Republic—with the subduing of Maastricht on 1 July as the high point—as well as in the Empire, Vienna broke its neutrality and negotiated an alliance with Madrid and The Hague. This materialized in the treaties of The Hague of 30 August 1673, which were joined by Charles IV of Lorraine (13 CTS 35 and 13 CTS 49). Two weeks later, on 15 September, the Elector of Cologne made his peace with the Republic (13 CTS 55). This diplomatic realignment left Louis XIV with few effective allies—Münster and Britain—but removed the reason for not attacking the Spanish Netherlands. In September 1673, France declared war on Spain and would soon begin operations to conquer as much of the Spanish Netherlands as possible. While Spain was no match for France it could this time count on fighting allies. Nothing could have spelled the failure of Louis’s plan to take out the Republic as a step towards conquering the Spanish Netherlands more clearly.
The final pillar of France’s plan against the Republic to crash down was Britain. Joining the alliance against the Republic had been a big gamble on the part of Charles II. With this, the king knowingly set himself on a collision course with much of his country’s public opinion, religious establishment, and merchant interest. But French subsidies and the anticipation of a quick victory over the country’s major commercial and colonial competitor and recent enemy gave the king hope that the alliance would allow him to strengthen his hand against parliamentary opposition and establish a platform for creating a strong, and possibly openly Catholic, monarchy. Charles II did not hesitate to join the fray as his fleet actually opened hostilities against the Dutch in late April 1672. However, a naval action by the French and British fleet near Sole Bay in early June 1672 ended in failure; a year later a series of major naval operations to clear the way for a seaward invasion were fought off by the Dutch fleet while Dutch privateering activities began to exact a dreadful toll on British trade. Naval defeat, the cost of maritime war, the stalling of the French offensive, and the dragging out of the war strengthened the hand of the parliamentary opposition in London. Meanwhile, the rise and ascendancy of William III, nephew of Charles II through his mother Mary Stuart (1631–1660), also took away a major reason for Charles’s enmity against the Republic. After speedy negotiations, on 19 February 1674, British and Dutch diplomats signed a peace treaty at Westminster (13 CTS 123). Regardless of the weak position of the Dutch, the peace treaty confirmed the territorial and commercial status quo of the Peace of Breda of 1667, as did the ensuing treaty of commerce and navigation, signed at London on 10 December 1674 (13 CTS 255). Thus the Third Anglo-Dutch War only led to the confirmation of the humiliation of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). The only gain the British king could secure was the payment of a sum of 800,000 patacoons, in fact a meagre compensation for the anticipated loss of French subsidies (Article 10 of the Treaty of Westminster). In April, Christoph Bernhard von Galen had to cave in as well and made his peace with the Republic and the emperor at Cologne (treaties of 22 April 1674, 13 CTS 141 and 13 CTS 153).
The Peace of Westminster definitely sealed the fate of Louis XIV’s second great war. The Sun King had taken the lesson from his failure to conquer the Spanish Netherlands in the War of Devolution (1667–1668) that he needed to radically break the mould of European diplomacy by knocking the Dutch Republic from the list of great powers. Four years of military and diplomatic preparations brought him close to attaining this goal, but in the end he overreached. Once the French offensive stalled and the surprise wore off, the wheels of European diplomacy Louis had hoped to derail kicked back into action. What had started as a war to clear an open road towards annexing the Spanish Netherlands now became a traditional war of attrition with bits and pieces of these lands as the only attainable prize. Moreover, what had started with the almost complete diplomatic isolation of the Republic now threatened to turn into the isolation of France. In the end, the greatest result of Louis XIV’s Dutch War was to set a large part of Europe against France. It also projected into the driving seat of European diplomacy the man who would as no other endeavour to make this so: William III.
Barry Coward, The Stuart Age. England 1603–1714 (3rd edn., London: Pearson Education 2003) 304–13.
Carl J. Ekberg, The Failure of Louis XIV’s Dutch War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 1979).
Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477–1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995) 785–825.
John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV 1667–1714 (London and New York: Longman 1999) 105–59.
Paul Sonnino, Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988).
Wout Troost, Willam III, the Stadholder-King. A Political Biography (Aldershot: Ashgate 2005) 64–83.
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