NO GREAT WAR WAS EVER ENTERED UPON WITH MORE RELUCTANCE on both sides than the War of the Spanish Succession. Europe was exhausted and disillusioned. The newfound contacts which had sprung up between William and Louis expressed the heartfelt wishes of the peoples both of the Maritime Powers and of France. But over them and all the rest of Europe hung the long-delayed, long-dreaded, ever-approaching demise of the Spanish Crown. William was deeply conscious of his weakness. He was convinced that nothing would make England fight again, and without England Holland could expect nothing short of subjugation. The King therefore cast himself upon the policy of partitioning the Spanish Empire, which included the southern Netherlands, much of Italy, and a large part of the New World. There were three claimants, whose pretensions are set out in the accompanying table.
The first was France, represented either by the Dauphin or, if the French and Spanish Crowns could not be joined, by his second son, the Duke of Anjou. The next was the Emperor, who claimed as much as he could, but was willing to transfer his claims to his second son by his second wife, the Archduke Charles. Thirdly, there was the Emperor’s grandson by his first marriage, the Electoral Prince of Bavaria. The essence of the new Partition Treaty of September 24, 1698, was to give the bulk of the Spanish Empire to the candidate who, if not strongest in right, was at least weakest in power. Louis and William both promised to recognise the Electoral Prince as heir to Charles II of Spain. Important compensations were offered to the Dauphin. This plan concerted between Louis XIV and William III was vehemently resented by the Emperor. As it became known it also provoked a fierce reaction in Spain. Spanish society now showed that it cared above all things for the integrity of the Spanish domains and that the question of the prince who should reign over them all was secondary. At the end of the long struggle Spanish sentiment adopted exactly the opposite view, but at this moment its sole inspiration was an undivided Spanish Empire. However, it appeared that Louis and William would be able to override all resistances and enforce their solution.
But now a startling event occurred. The Treaty of Partition had been signed at William’s palace at Loo in Holland in September 1698. In February 1699 the Electoral Prince of Bavaria, heir to prodigious domains, the child in whose chubby hands the greatest states had resolved to place the most splendid prize, suddenly died. Why and how he died at this moment did not fail to excite dark suspicions. But the fact glared grimly upon the world; all these elaborate, perilous conversations must be begun over again. By great exertions William and Louis arranged a second Treaty of Partition on June 11, 1699, by which the Archduke Charles was made heir-in-chief. To him were assigned Spain, the overseas colonies, and Belgium, on the condition that they should never be united with the Empire. The Dauphin was to have Naples and Sicily, the Milanese, and certain other Italian possessions.
Meanwhile the feeble life-candle of the childless Spanish King burned low in the socket. To the ravages of deformity and disease were added the most grievous afflictions of the mind. The royal victim believed himself to be possessed by the Devil. His only comfort was in the morbid contemplation of the tomb. All the nations waited in suspense upon his failing pulses and deepening mania. He had however continued on the verge of death for more than thirty years, and one by one the great statesmen of Europe who had awaited this event had themselves been overtaken by the darkness of night. Charles had now reached the end of his torments. But within his diseased frame, his clouded mind, his superstitious soul, trembling on the verge of eternity, there glowed one imperial thought—the unity of the Spanish Empire. He was determined to proclaim with his last gasp that his vast dominions should pass intact and entire to one prince and to one alone. The rival interests struggled for access to his death-chamber. In the end he was persuaded to sign a will leaving his throne to the Duke of Anjou. The will was completed on October 7, and couriers galloped with the news from the Escorial to Versailles. On November 1 Charles II expired.
THE SPANISH SUCCESSION
Louis XIV had now reached one of the great turning-points in the history of France. Should he reject the will, stand by the treaty, and join with England and Holland in enforcing it? But would England stir? On the other hand, should he repudiate the treaty, endorse the will, and defend his grandson’s claims in the field against all comers? Would England oppose him? Apart from good faith and solemnly signed agreements upon which the ink was barely dry, the choice, like so many momentous choices, was nicely balanced. The Emperor had refused to subscribe to the Second Partition Treaty. Was it valid? Louis found it hard to make up his mind. A conference was held in Madame de Maintenon’s room on November 8. It was decided to repudiate the treaty and stand upon the will. On November 16 a famous scene was enacted at Versailles. Louis XIV, at his levee, presented the Spanish Ambassador to the Duke of Anjou, saying, “You may salute him as your King.” The Ambassador gave vent to his celebrated indiscretion, “There are no more Pyrenees.”
Confronted with this event, William felt himself constrained to recognise the Duke of Anjou as Philip V of Spain. The House of Commons was still in a mood far removed from European realities. Neither party would believe that they could be forced into war against their decision—still less that their decision could change. They had just completed the disarmament of England. They eagerly accepted Louis XIV’s assurance that, “content with his power, he would not seek to increase it at the expense of his grandson.” A Bourbon prince would become King of Spain, but would remain wholly independent of France. Lulled by this easy promise, the Commons deemed the will of Charles II preferable to either of the Partition Treaties. It was indeed upon these superseded instruments that the Tory wrath was centred. Not only were the treaties denounced as ill-advised in themselves, and treacherous to allies, but that they should have been negotiated and signed in secret was declared a constitutional offence. The Tories even sought to impeach the Ministers responsible.
But now a series of ugly incidents broke from outside upon the fevered complacency of English politics. A letter from Melfort, the Jacobite Secretary of State at Saint-Germain, was discovered in the English mail-bags, disclosing a plan for the immediate French invasion of England in the Jacobite cause. William hastened to present this to Parliament as a proof of perfidy. At about the same time Parliament began to realise that the language and attitude of the French King about the separation of the Crowns of France and Spain was at the very least ambiguous. It appeared that the Spaniards had now offered to a French company the sole right of importing Negro slaves into South America. This touched English shipowners nearly, though hardly on a point of honour. It also became apparent that the freedom of the British trade in the Mediterranean was in jeopardy. But the supreme event which roused all England to an understanding of what had actually happened in the virtual union of the Crowns of France and Spain was a tremendous military operation effected under the guise of brazen legality.
Philip V had been acclaimed in Madrid. The Spanish Netherlands rejoiced in his accession. A line of fortresses in Belgium, garrisoned under treaty rights by the Dutch, constituted the main barrier of the Netherlands against a French invasion. Louis resolved to make sure of these barrier fortresses. During the month of February 1701 strong French forces arrived before all the Belgian cities. The Spanish commanders welcomed them with open gates. They had come, it was contended, only to help protect the possessions of His Most Catholic Majesty. The Dutch garrisons, overawed by force, and no one daring to break the peace, were interned. Antwerp and Mons; Namur—King William’s famous and solitary conquest—Leau, Venloo, and a dozen secondary strongholds, all passed in a few weeks, without a shot fired, by the lifting of a few cocked hats, into the hands of Louis XIV.
Others, like Liége, Huy, and its neighbouring towns, fell under his control through the adhesion to France of their ruler, the Prince-Bishop of Liége. Citadels defended during all the years of general war, the loss or capture of any one of which would have been boasted as the fruits of a hard campaign, were swept away in a month. All that the Grand Alliance of 1689 had defended in the Low Countries in seven years of war melted like snow at Easter.
We have seen in our own time similar frightful losses, accepted by the English people because their mood was for the moment pacific and their interests diverted from European affairs. In 1701 the revulsion was rapid. Europe was roused, and at last England was staggered. Once more the fighting men came into their own. The armies newly dissolved, the officers so lightly dismissed and despised, became again important. Once more the drums began to beat, and smug merchants and crafty politicians turned to the martial class, whom they had lately abused and suppressed. In the early summer the Whig Party felt itself supported by the growing feeling of the nation. The freeholders of Kent presented a petition to the Commons, begging the House to grant supplies to enable the King to help his allies “before it is too late.” The House committed the gentlemen who presented it to prison, an act which showed that Parliament could be as equally despotic as a king. But every day the menace from France was growing plainer. The insular structure in which England had sought to dwell cracked about her ears. In June the House of Commons authorised the King to seek allies; ten thousand men at any rate should be guaranteed to Holland. William felt the tide had set in his favour. By the middle of the year the parties in opposition to him in his two realms, the Tory majority in the House of Commons and the powerful burgesses of Amsterdam, were both begging him to do everything that he “thought needful for the preservation of the peace of Europe”—that is to say, for war.
This process united William and Marlborough. They joined forces. Nor was their partnership unequal. For while King William now saw that he could once again draw the sword of England, he felt the melancholy conviction that he himself would never more wield it. This was no time on either side for half-confidences or old grievances.
Someone must carry on. In his heart the King knew there was but one man. On May 31 he proclaimed Marlborough Commander-in-Chief of the English forces assembling in Holland. In June he appointed him Ambassador Extraordinary to the United Provinces. Discretion was given him not only to frame, but, if need be, to conclude treaties without reference to King or Parliament. Though the opportunities of the reign had been marred or missed by their quarrels and misunderstandings, the two warrior-statesmen were at last united. Though much was lost all might be retrieved. The formation of the Grand Alliance had begun.
It was now, in this deadly atmosphere, that the flash came which produced the British explosion. On September 16, 1701, James II died. Louis visited in state his deathbed at Saint-Germain, and announced to the shadow Court that he recognised James’s son as King of England and would ever sustain his rights. He was soon astounded by the consequences of his act. All England was roused by the insult to her independence. The Act of Settlement had decreed the succession of the Crown. The Treaty of Ryswick had bound Louis, not only in formal terms, but by a gentleman’s agreement, to recognise and not to molest William III as King. The domestic law of England was outraged by the arrogance and her treaty rights violated by the perfidy of the French despot. Whigs and Tories vied with one another in Parliament in resenting the affront. The whole nation became resolute for war. Marlborough’s treaties, shaped and presented with much knowledge of Parliamentary susceptibilities, were acclaimed; ample supplies were tendered to the Crown. King William was able to sever diplomatic relations with France. The Emperor had already begun the war, and his famous general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, was fighting in the North of Italy.
But now William, against Marlborough’s advice, made the mistake of dissolving Parliament. He could not resist the temptation of haling the Tories, so stultified by events, before the tribunal of the electorate. He hoped for an overwhelming Whig majority. But the Tories, though wrong-headed and no longer sure of themselves, nevertheless made a stout party resistance. In spite of their record they were strong enough to carry Harley back to the Speaker’s chair in the new Parliament by a majority of four. They forgot their own misdeeds; they never forgave the King. He had played a party trick upon them, and the trick had failed. They longed for his death. Nevertheless they joined with the Whigs in supporting his war. In spite of the electoral changes Marlborough continued to conduct English foreign policy, and all moved forward in armaments and diplomacy towards a struggle with the might of France.
The second Grand Alliance now formed must have seemed a desperate venture to those whose minds were seared by the ill-fortune of William’s seven-years war. France had gained without a shot fired all the fortresses and territory so stubbornly disputed. The widest Empire of the world was withdrawn from the Alliance and added to the resources of its antagonists. Spain had changed sides, and with Spain not only the Indies, South America, and a great part of Italy, but the cockpit of Europe—Belgium and Luxembourg. Savoy, a deserter, still rested with France, though her greatest prince was an Austrian general. The Archbishopric of Cologne was also now a French ally. Bavaria, constant to the end in the last war, was to be with France in the new struggle. The Maritime Powers had scarcely a friendly port beyond their coasts. The New World, except in the North, was barred against them. The Mediterranean had become in effect a French lake. South of Plymouth no fortified harbour lay open to British and Dutch ships. They had their superior fleets, but no bases which would carry them to the inland sea.
On land the whole Dutch barrier had passed into French hands. Instead of being the rampart of Holland, it had become the sally port of France. Louis, occupying the cities of Cologne and Treves, was master of the Meuse and of the Lower Rhine, He held all the Channel ports, and had entrenched himself from Namur through Antwerp to the sea. His winter dispositions disclosed his intention in the spring campaign to renew the invasion of Holland along the same routes which had led almost to its subjugation in 1672. A terrible front of fortresses, bristling with cannon, crammed with troops and supplies, betokened the approaching onslaught. The Dutch sheltered behind inundations and their remaining strongholds. Finally the transference of Bavaria to the side of France laid the very heart of the Habsburg domains open to French invasion. The Hungarians were in revolt against Austrian rule and the Turks were once more afoot. In every element of strategy by sea or by land, as well as in the extent of territory and population, Louis was twice as strong at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession as he had been at the Peace of Ryswick. Even the Papacy had changed sides. Clement XI had abandoned the policy of Innocent XI. He espoused the cause of the Great King and his tremendous armies. Such was the prospect, as it seemed, of overwhelming adversity which had opened upon the English people largely as the result of their faction and their fickle moods.
At this moment death overtook King William. “The little gentleman in black velvet,” the hero for a spell of so many enthusiastic Jacobite toasts, now intervened. On February 20, 1702, William was riding in the park round Hampton Court on Sorrel, a favourite horse. Sorrel stumbled in the new workings of a mole, and the King was thrown. The broken collarbone might well have mended, but in his failing health the accident opened the door to a troop of lurking foes. Complications set in, and after a fortnight it was evident to him and to all who saw him that death was at hand. He transacted business to the end. His interest in the world drama on which the curtain was about to rise lighted his mind as the shadows closed upon him. He grieved to quit the themes and combinations which had been the labour and the passion of his life. But he saw the approach of a reign and Government in England which would maintain the cause in which his strength had been spent. He saw the only man to whom in war or policy, in the intricate convolutions of European diplomacy, in the party turmoil of England, or amid the hazards of the battlefield, he could bequeath the awful yet inescapable task. He had made his preparations deliberately to pass his leadership to a new champion of the Protestant faith and the liberties of Europe. In his last years he had woven Marlborough into the whole texture of his combinations and policy. In his last hours he commended him to his successor as the fittest man in the realm to guide her councils and lead her armies. William died at fifty-two, worn out by his labours. Marlborough at the same age strode forward against tremendous odds upon the ten years of unbroken victory which raised the British nation to a height in the world it had never before attained.