Alliances against France: AD 1686-1697
The military adventures of Louis XIV prompt other European powers to form alliances against expansionist France. The first is the League of Augsburg, put together in 1686 by the Austrian emperor Leopold I. He brings into it his Habsburg cousins in Spain and various states of the Holy Roman empire. This league has no specific purpose (other than to give Leopold a sense of security during his proposed campaign against the Turks), and it takes no action against France. Its successor, the Grand Alliance of 1689, is in a different category.
The Grand Alliance is prompted by opportunistic moves on Louis’ part. In the second half of 1688 he sends two armies across the Rhine.
One French army goes to Cologne to support Louis’ favoured candidate for the archbishopric, which has fallen vacant. The other marches into the Palatinate, where the death of the elector Palatine has given Louis a tenuous French claim (through his brother’s marriage to the elector’s sister).
This provokes the first coherent and widespread European response to French aggression. During 1689 an alliance is formed which eventually includes the Austrian empire, Holland, England, Brandenburg, Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, Savoy and Spain. The eventual leader of the alliance is William III, ruler of both England and Holland. But at the start his attention is elsewhere. He is busy fighting Louis’ ally, the Stuart king James II, in Ireland.
James II in Ireland: AD 1689-1690
With active encouragement from Louis XIV, James II sails from France in March 1689 with a small army of about 1200 men. They land in Kinsale and march to Dublin, where James is acknowledged king by an enthusiastic gathering of Irish Catholics – eagerly expecting now to recover the lands appropriated over the past century by English Protestants.
In April James moves north to take control of Ulster, where the Protestant settlement is strongest. But he meets very effective passive resistance. The Protestant strongholds of Londonderry and Enniskillen close their gates. Both survive long sieges during the summer of 1689.
In June 1689 an English army arrives in northern Ireland. For the rest of that year there is wary and inconclusive skirmishing, but in 1690 the stakes are increased. Both sides build up their troops and their provisions. In March a contribution for James II comes from Louis XIV, in the form of 7000 French veterans. In June William III, the new king of England, at last arrives in person.
On 11 July the rivals confront each other across the river Boyne. William has the larger army (about 35,000 men to 21,000) and he adopts bolder tactics, but his victory in itself is not conclusive since the Irish army survives to fight another day. What proves politically decisive is the immediate flight of James II back to France.
William returns to England in September 1690. Ireland is now secure enough, and James II sufficiently weakened, for him to turn his attention once again to the continent – to confront his main enemy Louis XIV, on the broader canvas of the War of the Grand Alliance.
For the summer campaign of 1691 William III is back in action in Flanders, the cockpit separating Holland from France. It is a measure of the interconnection of this European war that the continuing conflict in Ireland, this same summer, is fought between a Dutch general (Godard van Ginkel) on behalf of William III and a French one (the marquis de Saint-Ruth) for James II.
Five French fronts: AD 1688-1697
In 1688 French interference in Cologne and the Palatinate brought immediate confrontation with the armies of the Grand Alliance on France’s northern and eastern borders – in Flanders and on the Rhine.
Now, as the conflict develops in a succession of summer campaigns, two other theatres of war open up. One is on France’s border in the southwest, in Catalonia. The other is to the southeast, in northern Italy. The alliance includes nations well placed to tackle France in these four areas. Meanwhile two members, England and Holland (together often known as the Maritime Powers), have strong navies eager to grapple with the French at sea.
Although there are engagements, victories and reverses in all these regions, summer after summer, no conclusive advantage is achieved by either side. But since the war is one against many, this absence of result represents a considerable achievement on France’s part – making a useful political point for Louis XIV. France is like a chess master, engaged in simultaneous matches against several players without ever conceding check mate.
Yet, in another sporting metaphor, the nations involved are more like horses jockeying for position before a race. As the start finally draws near, a little calm becomes desirable – particularly for Louis XIV.
The prize in that other race is the throne of Spain. The Spanish king, Charles II, is ill and childless. The two great dynasties of Europe, the French Bourbons and the Austrian Habsburgs, have equally good claims to inherit his vast empire. And the rumour is, in 1695, that the ailing king’s death may not be far off.
Strength and diplomacy in conjunction will settle the issue when the time comes. France has proved her strength. Now it is the turn for diplomacy. Louis indicates that he might consider a peace treaty.
When peace is agreed – at Turin in 1696 with Savoy, at Rijswijk in 1697 with the other powers – France seems to make many concessions. Territories captured in the recent years are returned to their previous owners. Commercial concessions are made to Holland. William III is acknowledged to be the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland, and France agrees not to support rival claimants (meaning the Stuarts).
The terms of the peace make the war seem pointless – except as a flexing of muscles for the next round, in 1701, when the real and decisive war begins over the issue of the Spanish succession.