The successes of Richelieu and Mazarin had left France the strongest power in Europe. The Empire was weakened by the exhaustion and division of Germany, and by renewed danger from the Turks. Spain was weakened by the exhaustion of her gold and men in eighty years of futile war in the Netherlands. England, after 1660, was bound to France by secret subsidies to its King. France too had been divided and weakened, but by 1667 the wounds of the Fronde had healed, and France was one. Meanwhile first-rate men had been found to rebuild the French armies: Louvois, a genius of military organization and discipline, Vauban, a genius of fortification, trench warfare, and siege, and two superlative generals—Condé and Turenne. Now, it seemed to the young and adulated King, was the time for France to reach to her natural geographical boundaries—the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the sea.
First, then, to the Rhine. The Dutch controlled it; they must be subdued; and soon thereafter they must be brought back to the faith that for a thousand years had been the helpful ally of kings. Once the many mouths of the great river were under French control, all the Rhineland, and therefore half of German commerce, would be in the power of France. The Spanish Netherlands (“Belgium”) were in the way; they must be conquered. Philip IV, dying in 1665, left the Spanish Netherlands to Charles II, his son by his second marriage. Louis saw a diplomatic opening. He quoted the old custom of Hainaut and Brabant, by which the children of a first marriage inherited in preference to those of a second; Louis’ wife was the daughter of Philip IV’s first marriage; therefore, by this ius devolutionis—the right or law of devolution or transmission—the Spanish Netherlands belonged to Marie Thérèse. It was true that Marie, at her marriage, had renounced her right of succession; but this renunciation had been made conditional upon the payment of her dowry—500,000 gold crowns—by Spain to France; 123 this dowry had not been paid; ergo . . . Spain denied the syllogism, Louis declared the “War of Devolution.” Let his own memoirs reveal the motives of the royal chess player:
The death of the King of Spain and the war of the English against the Dutch (1665) offered me at once two important occasions for making war: one against Spain for the pursuance of rights which had fallen to me; the other against England for the defense of the Dutch. I saw with pleasure the plan of these two wars as a vast field where great occasions might arise for distinguishing myself. Many brave men whom I saw devoted to my service seemed always to be begging me to offer them an opportunity for valor. . . . Moreover, since I was obliged in any case to maintain a large army, it was more expedient for me to throw it into the Low Countries than to feed it at my expense. . . . Under pretext of a war with England I would dispose of my forces and my information [espionage] service to begin more successfully my enterprise in Holland. 124
This was the royal view of war; it might make one’s country greater in extent, security, or revenue; it would open roads to renown and power; it would provide outlets for combative impulses; it would let the costly army feed on alien food; it would improve the position of the state for the next war. As for the human lives that would be lost, men must die in any case; how absurd to die of some lingering disease in bed!—how better could men die than in the anesthesia of battle, on the field of glory, and for their fatherland?
On May 24, 1667, French troops crossed into the Spanish Netherlands. There was no effectual resistance; the French had 55,000, the Spanish 8,000, men; soon the King entered Charleroi, Tournai, Courtrai, Douai, Lille, as if in a triumphal procession; and Vauban fortified the conquered towns. Louvois had supplies ready at every step, even to silver service for the officers in camp or trench. Artois, Hainaut, Walloon Flanders were annexed to France. Spain appealed to the Emperor Leopold I for help; Louis proposed to Leopold to divide the Spanish empire with him; Leopold agreed, and gave no help to Spain. The conquest of Flanders had been so easy that Louis hurried to take also Franche-Comté—the region around Besançon, between Burgundy and Switzerland. It was a dependency of Spain, and yet a thorn in the very side of France. In February, 1668, a French army, twenty thousand strong, descended upon Franche-Comté under the lead of Condé; it was everywhere victorious, for French bribes had softened local commanders. Louis himself led the siege of Dole; it fell in four days; and in three weeks all Franche-Comté submitted. He returned to Paris in glory.
But he had overreached himself. The United Provinces persuaded Sweden and England to join them in a Triple Alliance against France (January, 1668); all three states recognized that their political or commercial freedom would wither if the power of France should extend to the Rhine. Louis saw that he had moved too precipitately toward his goal. The secret agreement with Leopold had stipulated that on the death of Charles II of Spain all the Netherlands and Franche-Comté were to go to France; it seemed only a matter of a year or so when the sickly Charles would die; perhaps it was better for France to wait and let the fruit fall peacefully into her lap. Louis offered terms to the Alliance; his trained diplomats worked on England and Sweden; at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (May 2, 1668) the War of Devolution was ended. France returned Franche-Comté to Spain, but she retained Charleroi, Douai, Tournai, Audenaarde, Lille, Armentières, and Courtrai. Louis had kept half the spoils.
In 1672 he resumed his march to the Rhine, and now his real goal appeared—not Flanders but Holland. We shall see this tragedy later from the standpoint of the Dutch; in summary, the attack reached almost to Amsterdam and The Hague before it was checked by the opening of the dykes. But again Europe rose against the new threat to the balance of power. In October, 1672, Emperor Leopold joined the United Provinces and Brandenburg in a “Great Coalition”; Spain and Lorraine entered it in 1673; Denmark, the Palatinate, and the duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in 1674; and in that year the English Parliament compelled its Francophile King to make peace with the Dutch.
Louis faced bravely this nemesis of his pride. Despite Colbert’s complaints that he was impoverishing France, he raised more taxes, built a navy, and expanded his armies to 180,000 men. In June, 1674, he directed one force to a second siege of Besançon; in six weeks Franche-Comté was again conquered. Meanwhile Turenne, in the most brilliant and ruthless of his campaigns, led twenty thousand soldiers to victory over seventy thousand Imperial troops; to prevent the enemy from feeding itself, he laid waste the Palatinate, Lorraine, and part of Alsace; along the Rhine the desolation of the Thirty Years’ War was renewed. On July 27, 1675, Turenne was killed while reconnoitering near Sulzbach in Baden. Louis had him buried in St.-Denis with almost royal honors, knowing that that one death equaled a dozen defeats. The Great Condé, after bloody victories in the Netherlands, replaced Turenne, and drove the Imperials from Alsace; then the Prince, worn out by years of passion and war, retired to a life of philosophy and government at Chantilly. Louis now took charge of the campaign in the Netherlands; he besieged and captured Valenciennes, Cambrai, St.-Omer, Ghent, and Ypres (1677–78). France acclaimed the King as a general.
But the drain upon his people had become unbearable. Revolts broke out in Bordeaux and Brittany; in south France the peasantry neared starvation; in the Dauphiné the populace was living on bread made of acorns and roots. 125 When the Dutch offered peace, Louis signed with them (August 11, 1678) a treaty restoring to the United Provinces all the territory that France had taken from them, and lowering the tariffs that had kept Dutch products out of France. He made up for these surrenders by forcing Spain, now in disintegration, to yield to him Franche-Comté, and a dozen towns that advanced the northeastern frontier of France into the Spanish Netherlands. A treaty with the Emperor kept for France the strategic cities of Breisach and Freiburg-im-Breisgau; Alsace and Lorraine remained in French hands. These treaties of Nijmegen (1678–79) and St.-Germain-en-Laye (1679) were a triumph for the United Provinces, but not a defeat for Louis; he had prevailed over the Empire and Spain, and, here and there, he had reached the coveted Rhine.
Despite the peace he kept up his immense army, knowing that an army in being is a force in diplomacy. With that power behind him, and taking scandalous advantage of the Emperor’s preoccupation with the advancing Turks, he established in Alsace, Franche-Comté, and Breisgau “Chambers of Reunion” to reclaim certain frontier districts that had formerly belonged to them; these were occupied by French troops; and the great city of Strasbourg was induced, by the lavish lubrication of its officials, to acknowledge Louis as its sovereign (1681). In the same year, by like means, the Duke of Milan was led to cede to France the town and fortress of Casale, which controlled the road between Savoy and Milan.* When Spain dallied in handing over the Netherland cities, Louis again sent his armies into Flanders and Brabant, overcame resistance with indiscriminate bombardment, and absorbed the duchy of Luxembourg en route (June, 1684). In the Truce of Regensburg (August 15) these conquests were provisionally recognized by Spain and the Emperor, for the Turks were besieging Vienna. By an alliance with the Elector of Cologne Louis in effect extended French power to the Rhine. Part of the Gallic aspiration to reach natural boundaries was realized.
This was the zenith of the Roi Soleil. Not since Charlemagne had France been so extended or so powerful. Immense and costly spectacles celebrated the successes of the Sun King. The Council of Paris officially declared him Louis le Grand (1680). Le Brun painted him as a god on the vaults of Versailles; and a theologian argued that Louis’ victories proved the existence of God. 127 The populace, amid its destitution, idealized its ruler, and took pride in his apparent invincibility. Even foreigners praised him, seeing some geographical logic in his campaigns; the philosopher Leibniz hailed him as “that great prince who is the acknowledged glory of our time, and for whom succeeding ages will long in vain.” 128 North of the Alps and the Pyrenees, west of the Vistula, all educated Europe began to speak his language and imitate his court, his arts, and his ways. The sun was high.