ON Mazarin's death Louis at once assumed personal rule. Since the death of Henry the Great, France had been governed by ministers; now she was to be governed by the king-the power exercised by ministers was precisely circumscribed. Order and vigour were introduced on all sides; the finances were regulated by Colbert, discipline was restored in the army, the creation of a fleet was begun. In all foreign courts Louis asserted the dignity of France; it was very soon evident that there was no foreign power of whom he need stand in fear. New connections were established with Holland and Portugal. England under Charles II was of little account.
To a king on the watch for an opportunity an opportunity soon presents itself. Louis found his when Philip IV of Spain was succeeded by the feeble Charles II. He at once announced that Flanders reverted to his own wife, the new king's elder sister. He had already made his bargain with the Emperor Leopold, who had married the other infanta.
Louis' armies were overrunning Flanders in 1667, and Franche-Comte next year. Holland, a republic with John de Witt at its head, took alarm; and Sir William Temple succeeded in effecting the Triple Alliance between Holland, England and Sweden. Louis found it advisable to make peace, even at the price of surrendering Franche-Comte for the present.
Determined now, however, on the conquest of Holland, Louis had no difficulty in secretly detaching the voluptuary Charles II from the Dutch alliance. Holland itself was torn between the faction of the de Witts and the partisans of the young William of Orange. Overwhelming preparations were made for the utterly unwarrantable enterprise.
As the French armies poured into Holland, practically no resistance was offered. The government began to sue for peace. But the populace rose and massacred the de Witts; young William was made stadtholder. Ruyter defeated the combined French and English fleets at Sole Bay. William opened the dykes and laid the country under water, and negotiated secretly with the emperor and with Spain. Half Europe was being drawn into a league against Louis, who made the fatal mistake of following the advice of his war minister Louvois, instead of Conde and Turenne.
In every court in Europe Louis had his pensioners intriguing on his behalf. His newly created fleet was rapidly learning its work. On land he was served by the great engineer Vauban, by Turenne, Conde, and Conde's pupil, Luxembourg. He decided to direct his own next campaign against Franche-Comte. But during the year Turenne, who was conducting a separate campaign in Germany with extraordinary brilliancy, was killed; and after this year Conde took no further part in the war. Moreover, the Austrians were now in the field, under Montecuculi.
In 1676-8 town after town fell before Vauban, a master of siege work as of fortification; Louis, in many cases, being present in person. In other quarters, also, the French arms were successful. Especially noticeable were the maritime successes of Duquesne, who was proving himself a match for the Dutch commanders. Louis was practically fighting and beating half Europe single-handed, as he was now getting no effective help from England or his nominal ally, Sweden. Finally, in 1678, he was able practically to dictate his own terms to the allies. The peace had already been signed when William of Orange attacked Luxembourg before Mons; a victory, on the whole, for him, but entirely barren of results. With this peace of Nimeguen, Louis was at the height of his power.
By assuming the right of interpreting for himself the terms of the treaty, he employed the years of peace in extending his possessions. No other power could now compare with France, but in 1688 Louis stood alone, without any supporter, save James II of England. And he intensified the general dread by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the expulsion of the French Huguenots.
The determination of James to make himself absolute, and to restore Romanism in England, caused leading Englishmen to enter on a conspiracy--kept secret with extraordinary success--with William of Orange. The luckless monarch was abandoned on every hand, and fled from his kingdom to France, an object of universal mockery. Yet Louis resolved to aid him. A French force accompanied him to Ireland and Tourville defeated the united fleets of England and Holland. At last France was mistress of the seas; but James met with a complete overthrow at the Boyne. The defeated James, in his flight, hanged men who had taken part against him. The victorious William proclaimed a general pardon. Of two such men, it is easy to see which was certain to win.
Louis had already engaged himself in a fresh European war before William's landing in England. He still maintained his support of James. But his newly acquired sea power was severely shaken at La Hogue. On land, however, Louis' arms prospered. Luxembourg in Flanders, and Catinat in Italy, won the foremost military reputations in Europe. On the other hand, William proved himself one of those generals who can extract more advantage from a defeat than his enemies from a victory, as Steinkirk and Neerwinden both exemplified. France, however, succeeded in maintaining a superiority over her foes, but the strain before long made a peace necessary. She could not dictate terms as at Nimeguen. Nevertheless, the treaty of Ryswick, concluded in 1697, secured her substantial benefits.
THE general pacification was brief. North Europe was soon aflame with the wars of those remarkable monarchs, Charles XII and Peter the Great; and the rest of Europe over the Spanish succession. The mother and wife of Louis were each eldest daughters of a Spanish king; the mother and wife of the Emperor Leopold were their younger sisters. Austrian and French successions were both barred by renunciations; and the absorption of Spain by either power would upset utterly the balance of power in Europe. There was no one else with a plausible claim to succeed the childless and dying Charles II. European diplomacy effected treaties for partitioning the Spanish dominions; but ultimately Charles declared the grandson of Louis his heir. Louis, in defiance of treaties, accepted the legacy.
The whole weight of England was then thrown on to the side of the Austrian candidate by Louis' recognition of James Edward Stewart as rightful King of England. William, before he died, had successfully brought about a grand alliance of European powers against Louis; his death gave the conduct of the war to Marlborough. Anne was obliged to carry on her brother-in-law's policy. Elsewhere, kings make their subjects enter blindly on their own projects; in London the king must enter upon those of his subjects.
When Louis entered on the war of the Spanish Succession he had already, though unconsciously, lost that grasp of affairs which had distinguished him; while he still dictated the conduct of his ministers and his generals. The first commander who took the field against him was Prince Eugene of Savoy, a man born with those qualities which make a hero in war and a great man in peace. The able Catinat was superseded in Italy by Villeroi, whose failures, however, led to the substitution of Vendome.
But the man who did more to injure the greatness of France than any other for centuries past was Marlborough--the general with the coolest head of his time; as a politician the equal, and as a soldier immeasurably the superior, of William III. Between Marlborough and his great colleague Eugene there was always complete harmony and complete understanding, whether they were campaigning or negotiating.
In the Low Countries Marlborough gained ground steadily, without any great engagement. In Germany the French arms were successful, and at the end of 1703 a campaign was planned with Vienna for its objective. The advance was intercepted in 1704 by the junction of Eugene and the forces from Italy with Marlborough and an English force. The result was the tremendous overthrow of Hochstedt, or Blenheim. The French were driven over the Rhine.
Almost at the same moment English sailors surprised and captured the Rock of Gibraltar, which England still holds. In six weeks, too, the English mastered Valencia and Catalcnia for the archduke, under the redoubtable Peterborough.
Affairs went better in Italy (1705); but in Flanders Villeroi was rash enough to challenge Marlborough at Ramillies in 1706. In half an hour the French army was completely routed, and lost 20,000 men; city after city opened its gates to the conqueror; Flanders was lost as far as Lille. Vendome was summoned to Italy to replace Villeroi, whereupon Eugene attacked the French in their lines before Turin and dispersed their army, which was forced to withdraw from Italy, leaving the Austrians masters there.
Louis seemed on the verge of ruin; but Spain was loyal to the Bourbon. In 1707 Berwick won for the French the signal victory of Almanza. In Germany, Villars made progress. Louis actually designed an invasion of Great Britain in the name of the Pretender, but the scheme collapsed. He succeeded in placing a great army in the field in Flanders; it was defeated by Marlborough and Eugene at Oudenarde. Eugene sat down before Lille, and took it. The lamentable plight of France was made worse by a cruel winter.
Louis found himself forced to sue for peace, but the terms of the allies were too intolerably humiliating. They demanded that Louis should assist in expelling his own grandson from Spain. "If I must make war, I would rather make it on my enemies than on my children," said Louis.
Once more an army took the field with indomitable courage. A desperate battle was fought by Villars against Marlborough and Eugene at Malplaquet. Villars was defeated, but with as much honour to the French as to the allies.
Louis again sued for peace, but the allies would not relax their monstrous demands. Marlborough, Eugene and the Dutch Heinsius all found their own interest in prolonging the war. But with the Bourbon cause apparently at its last gasp in Spain, the appearance there of Vendome revived the spirit of resistance.
Then the death of the emperor and the succession to his position of his brother, the Spanish claimant, the Archduke Charles, meant that the allies were fighting to make one dominion of the Spanish and German empires. The steady advance of Marlborough in the Low Countries could not prevent a revulsion of popular sentiment, which brought about his recall and the practical withdrawal from the contest of England, where Bolingbroke and Oxford were now at the head of affairs. Under Villars, success returned to the French standards in Flanders.
Hence came in 1713 the peace of Utrecht, for the terms of which England was mainly responsible. It was fair and just, but the English ministry received scant justice for making it. The emperor refused at first to accept it; but, when isolated, he agreed to its corollary, the peace of Rastadt. Philip was secured on the throne of Spain.
Never was there a war or a peace in which so many natural expectations were so completely reversed in the outcome. What Louis may have proposed to himself after it was over, no one can say, for he died the year after the treaty of Utrecht.
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