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French Foreign Policy in the Seventeenth Century

During the seventeenth century France became the leading power in Europe, in a process made up of two main phases. Henry IV (1589–1610), Richelieu (162442) and Mazarin (1643–61) all concentrated on the traditional view that the major enemy was the Habsburgs in their twin manifestations of Spain and Austria. Then, after attaining his majority in 1661, Louis XIV (1643–1715) extended the scope of French foreign policy and made the maritime powers (initially Holland and then England) the main opponents of France. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century France reached the peak of her power and influence but also became universally detested and increasingly vulnerable. This was the result of the inconsistencies of Louis XIV himself and his departure from the caution and restraint of Richelieu and Mazarin.

It is hardly surprising that in the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610) France was less aggressive towards her neighbours. After the destructive Wars of Religion the main priority was internal reconstruction and the reconciliation of warring factions. Although Henry IV resumed the old Valois campaign against the Habsburgs which had dominated French policy before Cateau Cambrésis (1559) he concentrated after 1598 on diplomatic rather than military activity. He succeeded, for example, in weakening the Spanish war effort in the Low Countries by providing subsidies to the Dutch in their continuing struggle for independence. He also concluded alliances with some of the Protestant princes of Germany, with the Swiss cantons and with Sweden—all designed to deter the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs from displaying further aggression towards France. According to Sully, Henry IV had even more extensive ambitions: a project for European stability known to history as the Grand Design. This envisaged the destruction of Spanish power in Italy and the Netherlands, together with an end to Austrian control over Hungary, Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. Once the Habsburg threat to Europe (and, of course, to France) had been removed, Europe could settle down to a new stability based on balance and harmony between the six hereditary monarchies, six elective monarchies, three republics and three religions (Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism). The whole structure would be upheld by a regular conciliar system and guaranteed by general disarmament. What really distinguished the Grand Design from the normal run of French policy was the assumption (derived, no doubt, from the bitter memory of civil war) that French interests could be served only by building order in Europe, not by profiting from disorder.

In the first half of Louis XIII's reign there was a temporary reconciliation with the House of Habsburg as the French government, under the influence of the dévot party, now thought in terms of an alliance of Catholic powers to deal with revolution and sedition attributed to a renewed Protestant offensive in Europe. Richelieu, however, was convinced that France could not co-exist safely with a powerful Habsburg combination. On receiving the title of Principal Minister in 1630 he therefore urged Louis to abandon the dévot policy and to reopen the struggle to ‘arrest the progress of Spain’1 and to ‘halt the advance of the House of Austria’.2 This would be accompanied by the gradual eastward expansion of the French frontier to a position along the Rhine where it could serve, simultaneously, as a defensive line and as a series of bridgeheads for future offensives against the Holy Roman Empire.

Richelieu's method was based on the judicious combination of diplomacy and military force. The former tended to predominate until 1635, by which time Richelieu believed that France had recovered sufficiently to enter the Thirty Years’ War with prospects of immediate success. He fostered close relations between France and the maritime powers, drawing up the Treaty of Compiegne with the Dutch in 1624 and arranging the marriage between Henrietta Maria and Charles I of England in 1625. He was constantly active in Central Europe. In 1625, for example, he was instrumental in diverting the campaigns of Ernst Mansfeld from the Palatinate to the Netherlands, since he feared that Spain might gain the upper hand against the Dutch rebels and subsequently threaten the French frontier; with his encouragement, Mansfeld provided Spinola with an additional obstacle at a critical time. In his relations with the German states Richelieu was assisted by a somewhat sinister intriguer, Father Joseph, who achieved a measure of success at the Diet of Ratisbon in 1630. Richelieu's major instrument against the Habsburgs, however, was Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who invaded Germany in 1630. Richelieu reasoned that Sweden possessed the military prowess to bring the Habsburg offensive to a standstill but that she lacked the resources to inflict total defeat and thereby win control over the Empire. France could, therefore, benefit from a stalemate in which Sweden and the Habsburgs would exhaust each other, leaving Richelieu with the initiative when he chose to enter the struggle. The Treaty of Barwalde (1631) was the basis of this policy. In return for a guarantee of French material aid and subsidies for six years, Gustavus Adolphus agreed to maintain 36,000 troops in Germany, although he undertook not to invade Bavaria, which Richelieu was hoping to detach from the Habsburg-Imperialist camp.

On the whole, Richelieu was remarkably successful. France had succeeded in maintaining a coalition against the Habsburgs and in destroying the initiative gained by Spain and Austria in the 1620s. There were, however, miscalculations in his policy. He lost control over the Swedish offensive in Germany from 1632 as Gustavus Adolphus followed his own design and invaded Bavaria. Richelieu feared, for a while, that Sweden might force a victory in Central Europe after all, and he expressed relief at hearing of the Swedish king's death at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. Richelieu's policies of checks and balances could now be resumed, but only because of a stroke of luck. Moreover, he committed France to the Thirty Years’ War several years too early. In 1635 France was fresh, but also untried. As a result, the performance of French troops was initially unimpressive. It seems that Richelieu had failed to reform and modernize the French army sufficiently. From 1637, however, France began to recover, and the real value of Richelieu's diplomacy became apparent. While the Habsburgs and Sweden were experiencing the strain of years of destructive warfare, France still possessed considerable reserves; these were used in the 1640s in her search for an advantageous settlement. But Richelieu died in 1642, some time before the final vindication of his policies.

Mazarin proved the ideal successor, trained in the methods of Richelieu but without the urge to experiment with his own schemes. What Richelieu designed Mazarin consolidated, thus introducing to French foreign policy a period of retrenchment. He pursued, with singleminded determination, the humiliation of France's two Habsburg rivals and the strengthening of the French frontier. The results were apparent in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659). The former gave to France Metz, Toul, Verdun, Southern Alsace, Breisach, Philippsburg and authority over ten imperial cities. Austria, by contrast, received no territorial additions and emerged somewhat enervated from the Thirty Years’ War. The Treaty of the Pyrenees, concluding France's struggle with Spain, was still more advantageous. France received Artois and Roussillon from the Spanish Netherlands, together with fortresses in Hainault, Flanders and Luxemburg. What had become particularly apparent was the growing weakness of Spain, exposed at the Battle of Rocroi in 1643 and confirmed over the next sixteen years of warfare. By mid-century it was clear that France and Spain were exchanging roles, that the ascendancy of the one was being accomplished by the decline of the other. This was a happy situation for France, but it brought a degree of uncertainty. When Mazarin died in 1661 it was plain that France would continue to exploit Spain's problems in order to extract further territory. But what direction would French foreign policy as a whole now take?

On taking control of French diplomacy, Louis XIV at first kept to the lines laid down by Richelieu and Mazarin. He observed in 1661, for example: ‘The state of the two crowns of France and Spain is such today and has been such for a long time in the world that it is impossible to raise one without humbling the other.’3 The War of Devolution against Spain (1667–8) was a further stage in this traditional conflict, resulting, by the Treaty of Aix–la–Chapelle, in the acquisition of more border areas in Flanders. But the first decade of Louis XIV's absolutism began a major shift in French diplomacy which resulted eventually in the maritime powers (the Netherlands and England) becoming the major antagonists of France. The catalyst for the change was Louis XIV's deep resentment of the apparent ingratitude of the Netherlands ‘who, in spite of my recent aid to them, were working to unite all Europe against me’.3 This seemed to be confirmed by the Dutch participation in the Triple Alliance against France during the War of Devolution in 1668. By 1670 his resentment had become an obsession, and he intrigued with Charles II of England for the destruction of the Netherlands. According to its final article, one of the objectives of the Secret Treaty of Dover was to ‘humble the pride of the States General and to destroy the power of a people which has...shown ingratitude to those who have helped to create its republic’.4 This policy was fully supported by the French economist and minister Colbert, who regarded the Netherlands as a major obstacle to French naval and commercial development. ‘As we have ruined Spain on land, so we must ruin Holland at sea’: this was the new axiom of French foreign policy.4 The most consistent enemy of Louis XIV was soon to be the Stadholder, William of Orange. He became particularly dangerous after assuming the English crown in 1688, and regarded France in the same light as William the Silent had once seen Spain.

The significance of the switch to an anti-Dutch policy was enormous. The entire pattern of European alliances and diplomacy stretching back over the previous hundred years was substantially altered. The last decades of the sixteenth century and the opening of the seventeenth had seen a situation where some powers, like Spain and Austria, were endeavouring to maintain the status quo to their own advantage in Europe, while areas like the Netherlands and Bohemia aspired to independence, and a series of Protestant states resisted the weight of the Counter Reformation. The eventual result had been the emergence of two armed camps and the complex sequence of events known as the Thirty Years’ War. France had usually been identified as one of the forces working against the Habsburgs and therefore as a sympathizer with revolt and Protestantism. The actions of Louis XIV brought about a complete transformation. Dutch diplomacy now projected France as the major threat to European and Protestant security, all the more dangerous since France was potentially more powerful than the Habsburg combination had ever been and certainly more openly aggressive. As the reign progressed the rest of Europe realigned itself, nearly always against France. It was now possible, for example, to see the Netherlands and Spain on the same side, as during the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–97). In this situation French diplomacy necessarily became far more complex; Louis XIV had fewer constant factors upon which to base his policies than had his predecessors. Richelieu and Mazarin had always manipulated a situation which already existed, whereas Louis had created an entirely new one.

Louis XIV responded to this complication in a contradictory way, showing great skill and perception on some occasions and blindness on others. He has had more critics and apologists than any other figure in French history, with the single exception of Napoleon I, and controversy about his aims and methods remains undiminished. But all would agree with Voltaire's assessment that ‘this monarch loved grandeur and glory’5 and that Versailles, with its cult of royal glorification and its lack of constructive criticism, glorification and its lack of constructive criticism,glorification and its lack of constructive criticism, was anything but an ideal environment for the formulation of balanced policies. Paradoxes and inconsistencies therefore multiplied, compounded by an immense degree of self-confidence and arrogance.

These became apparent in his response to religious issues in diplomacy and warfare. Before and after the Wars of Religion French policy had been based on a pragmatic view of Europe which had made possible an alliance with the Turks (1536) and with Sweden (1635), both against fellow Catholic states. When Richelieu had been appointed Principal Minister in 1630 France had become entirely predictable in her pursuit of purely secular objectives. Louis XIV, however, seemed to operate at two separate levels. On the one, he continued to exploit the problems of his co-religionists by maintaining an active interest in the Ottoman threat in Central Europe. In 1683, for example, he refused to provide French assistance for the relief of Vienna, hoping, no doubt, that the collapse of Austria would clear his way to become the most dominant ruler in Europe since Charlemagne. Other powers could point to this policy as the epitome of self– interest, particularly since the Ottoman threat had caused them to sink their own differences and to react with concern to what must have seemed a serious ideological menace. On the other, Louis seemed to be influenced by religious motives which spilled over into his foreign policy. His decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685 could not be defended on any practical grounds and had serious repercussions. Fifteen years earlier, the Secret Treaty of Dover had actually stated that Louis would assist in returning England to Catholicism, a clear departure from the type of policy pursued by Richelieu. It is doubtful whether Louis XIV ever intended to make religion the base of his aspirations, but the rest of Europe certainly came to see him as an ideological threat, a dangerous anachronism in a more enlightened and less bigoted age. The Dutch and, after 1688, the English, compared him with Philip II of Spain (1556–98), while the papacy and Catholic powers like Austria had no feeling of commitment to him and were seriously embarrassed by his persecutions. He became the object of a powerful propaganda war, initiated by the Huguenot refugees and sustained by hostile governments. The allegations laid against him were inevitably distorted and exaggerated but he had only himself to blame in having provoked so powerful and articulate a minority.

Louis XIV found his role greatly complicated by the unnecessary return of ideology to international relations, and therefore had to call upon all his skills and experience as a statesman and diplomat. How successful was he?

In some ways he showed a remarkable capacity to out-manoeuvre opponents and to extract advantages from unpromising situations. He frequently resorted to legal arguments in attaining his ends, regarding no treaty as permanent: ‘No clause is so precise that it is not subject to some interpretation.’3 The pretexts for the War of Devolution showed a careful manipulation of the domestic law of the Spanish Netherlands, while the legal arguments behind the acquisition of frontier territory from Germany in the 1680s (as réunions) made full use of any ambiguities in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). When occasion arose he was capable of buying up client states by lavish and well-timed use of French cash. For example, he made maximum use of Charles II's financial difficulties and provided him with the subsidies which enabled him eventually to defy the Whig-dominated Parliament in 1681. In return, France was assured a period of English neutrality. Other rulers drawn by the lure of extra revenue were the King of Sweden, the Elector of Brandenburg, and the Rhineland princes. Louis was also adept at isolating his enemies, as he showed before the Dutch War, when he concluded the Secret Treaty of Dover with England in 1670, an alliance with Sweden in 1672, and treaties with the Rhineland princes between 1671 and 1672. He could extract a favourable peace settlement from a position of stalemate, as he demonstrated in 1678. By the Peace of Nijmegen he acknowledged that the Netherlands could not be forced to yield substantial territory and he compensated France at the expense of the debilitated Spain. He observed, with characteristic lack of modesty: ‘I fully rejoice in my clever conduct whereby I was able to profit from every opportunity I found to extend the boundaries of my kingdom at the expense of my enemies.’4

But whatever his talents as a diplomat, Louis XIV was capable of the most monumental blunders. These were due largely to the intrusion of seemingly irrational impulses which could upset the most carefully prepared designs. The first apparent example was his obsessive hatred of the Dutch nation which altered the direction of French policy and incurred the undying enmity of a new power before the destruction of France's traditional rival, Spain, was complete. His capacity to antagonize was almost unequalled in modern history and can be illustrated by four typical instances. First, he threw away the possibility of a favourable armistice with the Dutch in 1672 by insisting on an annual acknowledgement, through emissaries, of Dutch submission to France. This demand was considered totally unreasonable and negotiations broke down, to be followed by Dutch military revival and six more years of warfare. Second, the methods of carrying out his réunions in the 1680s sometimes departed conspicuously from his normal pursuit of legality and amounted to open annexation in defiance of the opinion of German rulers. His capture of Strasbourg in 1681 could only be seen as an act of aggression, particularly when Louis added that ‘Alsace was a passage for our troops to Germany’.6 Third, the decision to devastate the Palatinate in 1688, which produced no material gain, swiftly consolidated the League of Augsburg against France. The resentment of the Empire was still apparent fourteen years later, when the Diet, declaring war on France, stated that ‘the King had done all that he could be enfeeble and entirely ruin the German people’.7 Fourth, he committed a major blunder in 1700. This was not, as is sometimes asserted, his acceptance of the Will of Charles II of Spain, but his unnecessary actions which antagonized France's rivals, and hastened the formation of the anti–French Grand Alliance in 1701. He insisted on occupying the Barrier fortress, which involved the expulsion of Dutch troops; he refused to consider any compensation for the Emperor now that the Second Partition Treaty (1700) had been destroyed; and he immediately asserted French privileges over other nations in all ports of the Spanish Empire. As a result, most of Europe was hurried into the War of the Spanish Succession, provoked once again by an aggressive assertion of French power. This reveals one of Louis XIV's greatest defects, in marked contrast to Richelieu. Success could not merely be seen as implicit in the gain; it had to be publicized to the extent of humiliating the dispossessed. Unable to maintain a low profile, Louis XIV possessed neither the means of preventing conflict nor the ability to effect a reconciliation.

Louis XIV reigned without a Principal Minister for fifty–four years. Of these, thirty were spent in the pursuit of diplomatic objectives by recourse to war. Each time the struggle grew longer; the War of Devolution lasted two years, the Dutch War seven years, the War of the League of Augsburg nine years and the War of the Spanish Succession twelve years. For much of his reign he dominated Europe, but provoked an increasingly concerted opposition. Unlike some rulers who have done this, he did not suffer cataclysmic defeat and he managed to hold his own to the end. But France had been over–exposed to his ambitions and was less powerful in relation to the rest of Europe by 1715 than she had been in 1661. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) was confirmation that France had been contained, just as the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) had checked the Habsburgs.

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