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Foreign policy of France under Louis XIV


War of the League of Augsburg
War of the League of Augsburg

After Mazarin died and the king assumed personal responsibility for running the state, Louis’s foreign policy led France into four wars: the War of the Devolution (1667-1668); the Dutch War (1672-1678); the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697), also called the Nine Years’ War; and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). These wars were increasingly long and costly and generated anti-French propaganda. They earned Louis a reputation for reckless, overweening ambition and cruel tyranny that he has never entirely lost. Most modern historians now take a more balanced view. Louis did bully and threaten weaker powers, such as the Dutch, and occasionally terrorized an area, as in 1688 and 1689 when he devastated the Palatinate, the area west of the Rhine River in Germany. But he was also capable of moderation. It now appears that—aside from achieving personal glory—his primary goal was not, as opponents alleged, to conquer Europe, but rather to secure France’s vulnerable borders.

The main such area was the long-contested, ragged eastern border with Germany and the Netherlands. Here, Louis made possibly his most critical blunder when he abandoned the old Dutch alliance against the Spanish and unnecessarily threatened and then attacked the Netherlands in 1672.

The Dutch responded by striking new alliances at various times with Sweden, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and England. In 1689 England joined dynastically with the Netherlands under William of Orange. These alliances eventually wore down French forces and contained French ambitions. The succession in Spain became a critical issue in 1700, when the Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II, died without a direct heir. Before he died, he deeded the Spanish throne to Louis’s grandson, Philip, duc d’Anjou. Louis could hardly refuse the chance to break the old Habsburg vise around France.

He accepted Charles’s will, although he thereby aroused great fears in England and the Netherlands that France and Spain would eventually merge into one superpower. War might have been averted, but Louis precipitated it by reasserting Philip’s rights to the French throne before Philip assumed the Spanish throne and by moving aggressively in the Spanish Netherlands (roughly present-day Belgium).

The result was the War of Spanish Succession, in which France suffered a string of humiliating defeats. Only at the end of the war did France manage to restore some military balance. The Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, and subsequent treaties gave international recognition to Philip’s accession to the Spanish throne (Philip V (of Spain)). But Spain relinquished its rights to the Spanish Netherlands and its Italian possessions, which went to Austria. To win international recognition, Philip had to renounce his rights to the French throne, although he soon renounced this renunciation. France had acquired the eastern province of Franche-Comté earlier, and the Treaty of Utrecht confirmed France’s acquisition of Alsace and Strasbourg.

Although hardly overwhelming in scale, Louis’s territorial acquisitions were important and prepared the way for further rounding out France’s eastern frontier. The transfer of the Spanish throne from Habsburg to Bourbon hands was arguably even more significant. It removed a base of hostile operations on France’s southern border that had long caused trouble. It also led to the formation of an advantageous diplomatic and military alliance with Spain during the 18th century. Thus, France did benefit from Louis’s foreign and military policies, even if these wars cost heavily in terms of lives, money, and ultimately European public opinion. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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