Thursday, August 01, 2013


Louis XIV

Some years live in historical memory, like 1789, or 1914 or 1989 and some important dates are largely forgotten or were never historically remembered to begin with. Such is the case with the year 1672.

This year represented perhaps the greatest chance France ever had before the Napoleonic wars of establishing hegemony over Europe and turning the reign of the “Sun King” into the establishment of French lasting domination of Europe. How this didn’t happen is one of the most interesting stories of European history in the 17th century.

The reason why French hegemony was a real possibility in the latter half of the 17th century was in response to two developments. The debilitation of Spain and the disaster of the Thirty Years War. The Thirty Years War ended, for good any chance of the Habsburgs turning the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized, absolutist state. Although contrary to much popular / historical literature the Empire after the war was not the empty shell it is traditionally portrayed in the historical literature. Still it was not a tightly administered state like Sweden or France and remained an association of largely independent principalities that lacked the ability to act in concert most of the time. Thus as a possible contender for hegemony the Empire was out. Further the extraordinary devastation and horror of the Thirty Years War had depopulated and impoverished the Empire setting it back economically.1

As for Spain the slow steady and prolonged decline of Spain economically and militarily had produced a state that could not function as a great power but insisted on trying to be one. Spain during these years experienced a significant population decline and even worst a serious economic contraction that impoverished both state and society. The decay and poverty of Spain were by 1650 proverbial. Spain was no longer a contender for European hegemony or even a serious military threat to France. The Treaty of the Pyrenees, (1659 C.E.), that ended the long war between Spain and France had set the seal on Spanish decline. Spain was in no position to contest French aggressive moves without massive international support.2

France herself, by her intervention in the Thirty Years War had secured the defeat of the Habsburgs and in so doing prevented the defeat of Sweden and the Protestant powers. (A rather nice irony that Catholic France had secured the “victory” of the Protestant powers and established the ephemeral position of Sweden has a “Great Power”.)  Only the fact that France was distracted by internal wrangles, (The So-called Fonde.), prevented the Spanish defeat from coming quicker and being less than utter.3

France despite the losses and disruption of 24 years of continuous warfare was a powerful dynamic state, ruled by an effective royal bureaucracy. Further it was at the time the most populous state in Europe. During the Thirty Years War and the war with Spain the French armies had grown substantially in size and even the French fleet had acquitted itself well. But the basis of French power was not simply its armies but the economic dynamism of the state and society and the effective royal absolutism that governed both.

Louis XIV had inherited the throne as a very young child in 1643 by the time he came into his majority in 1661, after France had been most capably governed, (This also includes the period of civil war known as the Fonde), for almost 20 years by Cardinal Mazarin, (Who died in March 1661), he inherited the most powerful state in Europe.

Louis XIV was indeed the “Sun King” and it appeared that no one could even remotely challenge his power or the power of his kingdom. Richelieu and Mazarin seems to have laid the basis for the establishment of French hegemony in Europe.

The English were not even remotely a threat. Despite a fine navy the English had been riven by a vicious civil war in mid-century. The kingdom was small, thinly populated and divided by religion with the running sore of Ireland. Economically England could not even remotely compare to France. The English civil war had brought about the execution of the king, (Charles I), which had diplomatically isolated England. Further the restoration of Charles II in 1660 had put on the throne a man whose rule was precarious and that and his need of funds to govern made it all too easy to chain him to French diplomatic needs.

In this rosy image of the plenitude of power there was also the fact of French cultural predominance, which spread French culture throughout Europe and made French the de-rigure “with it” language throughout Europe. The only fly in this image of power was the Dutch Republic.

The Netherlands was at this point the greatest trading nation in Europe. Its ships carried at least 40% of all European trade and its manufactures were spread all over the world. From Nagasaki in Japan, to the Spanish New World, to the prosaic but important North Sea fishery, Dutch trade, traders, manufacturers, manufactures were everywhere. Further Dutch financiers and guilders were the most important European financial fact of the age.

Basically the Dutch were the great economic success story of the age. With only as population of 1.5-2 million The Netherlands was a flourishing, prosperous economic success story. The centrality of the Dutch to the European economy also stirred a great deal of envy and out right hatred.4

The Dutch had been one of the very few European states to have done well out of The Thirty Years War and to add insult to injury they were one of a tiny number of European states that were not monarchies. Instead they were a group of 7 provinces loosely united, with the wealthy province of Holland dominating the state. They did have as occasional leaders the the quasi-monarchical position of Stadtholder, vested in the house of Orange. But in this time period they were doing without the position of Stadtholder.

The wealth of the Netherlands and their dominance of European trade had given rise to a ferocious conflict with England. England in an attempt to curtail Dutch dominance had deliberately tried to curtail direct Dutch trade with England. The result was the First Dutch war (1652-1654), which was viciously fought. The war showed the limits of Dutch power in that the Dutch fleet was repeatedly defeated by the English. The peace was a defeat for the Dutch. Still the Dutch recovered quite well economically and a later war with England (1665-1667), was indecisive.5

Still the Dutch had managed to piss off not just England but many European powers.

Here we must speak of the French. Louis XIV and his great minister Colbert had in the years preceding 1672 been endeavoring to build up French trade, and manufactures. They however faced the problem of Dutch competition. Thus Colbert tried by various protectionist measures to help French trade and manufactures. The efforts however faced the problem of the Dutch lead and advantage. The Dutch simply had greater experience in those areas and when French protectionist measures began to bite into Dutch trade the Dutch were able to retaliate, doing great damage to French trade and stymieing French efforts to encroach on the Dutch advantage in trade and manufactures.

Thus the Dutch replied to Colbert’s protectionist tariffs designed to protect French manufactures with vicious trade reprisals including the mass dumping of French goods, further they stymied all efforts by the French to trade directly with certain areas like the Baltic region, thus keeping much French trade in the hands of the Dutch.

Thus by 1670 The French facing Dutch intransigence on trade and economic issues and were simply unable to compete with the Dutch, so war was suggested as the solution.6

The Dutch would be defeated in a war and forced accept French terms which would end Dutch economic dominance and give the French the economic advantages the Dutch had. Thus Dutch economic practices that curtailed or were thought to curtail French economic plans would be ended and Dutch economic and military power curtailed.

The fact that the Dutch were roundly detested by most European powers meant that Louis XIV had little trouble getting acceptance of his plan to defeat and overrun the Dutch Republic. Louis was able to get Charles II of England to go along with another war with the Dutch Republic, further several German states like the Archbishopric of Cologne were willing to go along with allowing French troops to go through them to invade the Dutch Republic. The Dutch Republic was alone and friendless and there was worst.

The Dutch had to put it mildly a wretched army, that was small, badly trained, equipped and supplied. The fortifications of Dutch cities were also in a dilapidated and weak condition. That combined with the lack of any sort of overall direction of Dutch defence meant that The Netherlands was a sitting duck.

So in 1672 when Louis XIV prepared to attack the chances of success were excellent. Just how Louis XIV muffed it is an interesting story; and he did more than muff it he lost France's greatest chance of the century of securing French hegemony in Europe and brought to power his greatest and most able enemy.

On March 28th 1672 Charles II went to war against the Dutch Republic. In April of the same year Louis advanced against the Dutch going through the territory of his ally The Archbishopric of Cologne with an army of 120,000.7 

Louis XIV advanced against ineffectual Dutch resistance. On June 12 1672 against slight resistance his army forced a crossing of the Rhine against a Dutch force led by William of Orange. After doing so French forces fanned across The Netherlands taking city after city against slight resistance. Louis XIV personally occupied the Dutch city of Utrecht and in the north French forces occupied the city of Groningen. The Netherlands seemed prostate before him. At this moment  one of Louis XIV’s generals suggested the prompt dispatch of a few thousand cavalry to seize Amsterdam. Louis XIV ignored the advice, which would likely have succeeded and given Louis XIV complete victory.

The only chance for the Dutch would seem to be cutting the dikes and flooding the land. And at this crucial moment French cavalry occupied the Dutch town of Muiden on June 20th not far from Amsterdam, the commercial and economic heart of The Netherlands and whose fall would seal the ignominious collapse of The Netherlands. Muiden was important because it was there that the main sluice gates controlling water flows were located. Astoundingly no one on the French side knew of them it seems. Not Louis XIV, not his generals, not Rochefort who commanded the troops located at Muiden. Not getting the infantry units that he felt he  needed to properly hold Muiden Rochefort evacuated Muiden about a day later. On June 22 the Dutch opened the sluices at Muiden. The water of the North Sea flooded in turning the province of Holland into a waterlogged swamp and stymieing any effort of the French to invade the province of Holland.8

Amsterdam became the capital of an archipelago of towns surrounded by moats of flooded land. And also unconquerable. For although the combined English and French navies greatly out- numbered the Dutch navy any chance for the time being of conquering The Netherlands by invasion from the sea or naval blockade was impossible.

At the time when Louis XIV was marching from success to success on land it seemed to be of little consequence but now that The Netherlands were unconquerable by land it loomed very large. On June 7, 1672 the great Dutch Admiral de Ruyter had attacked the combined French and English fleets at Solebay, just off the Suffolk coast and defeated them. There was no chance of a blockade much less an invasion by sea.9.

In The Netherlands the crisis of invasion and the almost farcical level of military resistance produced a political crisis. The young 22 year old Prince of Orange William was named Stadtholder of the Netherlands in a desperate effort to coordinate resistance to the French advance. His leading political opponent William de Witt, was lynched by a mob. For de Witt was blamed for the disastrous military situation and for his peace policy with France which was felt to be a contributor to the disaster.10

Meanwhile the Dutch tried to make peace. Dutch negotiators offered to give up to the French parts of Dutch Flanders and Brabant, the Dutch fortifications on the Rhine and the city of Maestricht. Along with that came an indemnity of ten million livres, and substantial trading and economic concessions. In effect the Dutch were promising to abandon the Spanish Netherlands to France along with giving the French economic privileges that would greatly damage the Dutch economy.

Victory was within Louis XIV’s grasp but he blew it by demanding in addition the cities of Utrecht, and Nymwegen, the island of Brommel and other places. Also far greater trade concessions and a much larger indemnity of 25 million livres and each year the Dutch should present via a mission a gold medal of submission to the French King for allowing them peace.11

Not surprisingly this didn’t wash. Only if the Dutch had been completely crushed would they have even considered such terms. The War continued.

William of Orange proved to be an able diplomat and was able to put together a coalition to oppose the French and de Ruyter was able to keep beating the French and English fleets and this drove England out of the war by 1674. Meanwhile the French were forced to evacuate The Netherlands. Although the subsequent war was an overall success for Louis XIV he gained by its end nothing from the Dutch, not even an amelioration of those Dutch measures that had adversely affected French Trade and meanwhile the Dutch secured trading advantages from France. The brief chance of humiliating the Dutch while the rest of Europe applauded had been lost.12

And ominously the ruler of the Netherlands was William of Orange. An implacable and able enemy of French power and designs for European hegemony. And an enemy with the financial and the military resources to give backbone to his policies and designs. William was indisputably Louis XIV’s greatest enemy and Louis XIV’s superior in diplomacy. Eventually William was able to make himself King of England, (1688), and this was decisive in the process of turning England from a 2nd rate European power into one of the great powers. William became king of England as part of his attempts to thwart the designs of Louis XIV. And it was Dutch financial techniques that were the basis for English credit which financed English power.13

Thus in 1672 France and Louis XIV lost their best chance of getting hegemony in Europe and they lost it through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. Further they brought to power their greatest enemy who would by his acts help to make England by the end of Louis XIV’s reign one of the great powers of Europe and an enemy to any notion of French hegemony in Europe. 

William III

1. See Wilson, Peter H., The Thirty Years War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS., 2009.

2. See Elliott, J. H., Imperial Spain, Penguin Books, London, 1963. 

3. Goubert, Pierre, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchman, Vintage Books, New York, 1970, pp. 21-60. 

4. See Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches, Fontana Press, London, 1991.

5. Stoye, Europe Unfolding, Fontana, London, 1969, pp. 161-163, Rodger, N.A.M., The Command of the Ocean, W.W. Norton  & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 20-32, 65-94.

6. Goubert, pp. 124-127, Wolf, Louis XIV, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1968, pp. 275-285.

7. Goubert, pp. 128-129, Stoye, pp.278-279, Lynn, John A., The Wars of Louis XIV, pp. 113-117, Wolf, 283-288.

8. IBID.

9. Rodger, pp. 81-82.

10. Goubert, p. 130.

11. Wolf, pp. 287-288.

12. Goubert, pp. 131.

13. See Brewer, John, The Sinews of Power, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989, pp. 110-131.

Pierre Cloutier

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