War of the Spanish Succession

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In 1701, soon after the death of King Charles II of Spain, the major European powers became entangled in a conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession that was to last until 1713. It involved all the major powers of Europe in a struggle to determine which dynasty ( Austrian Habsburg or French Bourbon) would rule Spain.

For Great Britain (still subdivided into two kingdoms: England and Scotland till 1707) and the Dutch Republic, the object of the war was less to add a few cities and districts to their own domains than to cripple the power of Louis XIV. The ambition of the Grand Monarque had stepped beyond these narrow limits, and by placing on the throne of Spain his grandson Philip he had brought into politics the fear not merely of a disturbance but of an entire overthrow of the "balance of power." Thus the instrument of his ambition, the magnificent French Army, was (above all for Great Britain) an object in itself and not merely an obstacle to the attainment of other objects. Many of the allies, however, had good reason to fear for their own possessions, and others entered the alliance with at least the hope of acquiring a few material gains at small expense.

The action of Louis XIV. in the matter of the Spanish succession was foreseen, and William III of England had devoted his last years to providing against the emergency by the formation of a coalition to deal with it, and the production of a claimant for the Spanish throne, Archduke Charles. The coalition naturally grew out of the Grand Alliance and consisted of Austria, some of the German states (including Prussia, Hanover and most of the Holy Roman Empire), Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Denmark and Portugal.

On the other side France was supported by Spain where Philip, recognized as heir by the dying Charles II, had been promptly installed, Bavaria and Cologne. A doubtful ally was the Duchy of Savoy, whose policy was to secure and aggrandise himself by adhering at each moment to the stronger party. The alliance of Louis with the discontented prince of Hungary and Transylvania Rakocsy was rather an impediment to his enemy than a direct assistance to himself.

More detailed summary

In March 1701, the fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium) were handed to France. Great Britain and the Dutch Republic at once began their preparations, but neither state was able to put an army in the field in the year. Great Britain because her peace-time army was absolutely insignificant, and the Dutch Republic because it dared not act alone.

In the late spring Emperor Leoplod I assembled an Austrian army under Prince Eugène in Tyrol to overrun the Spanish possessions in Italy while the opposing army (French, Spaniards and Piedmontese), commanded by Maréchal Catinat, was slowly concentrating between the Chiese and the Adige to prevent the invasion of Northern Italy. On May 27, Eugène entered in Italy by the mountain passes between Rovereto and the Vicenza district. On September 1, Eugène defeated the Maréchal de Villeroy, the new commander of the Franco-Spanish army, in the Battle of Chiari.

In 1702, Marlborough captured several of the Meuse fortresses and Liège in October. On the Rhine the Allies initially seized Landau but had to retire when Bavaria sided with France. On October 14, Villars defeated the Allies at Friedlingen but could not exploit his victory. The same year, an Allied army disembarked at Cádiz in Spain but did not obtain any tangible result.

In the first half of 1703, Marlborough captured Rheinberg and Bonn but in June his Dutch allies were defeated at Ekeren in front of Antwerp. On the Rhine, Villars captured Kehl in March. At the end of April, he crossed the Black Forest and effected a junction with the Elector of Bavaria at Ebingen in May. The latter had to face a revolt in Tyrol and the advance on Vienna was delayed. On September 20, Villars and the elector won the Battle of Höchstädt and proceeded to the recapture of Landau. In Italy, the Duchy of Savoy defected to the Austrians and the campaign produced no significant result. The same year, Portugal joined the Grand Alliance.

The campaign of 1704 was marked by Marlborough's march to the Danube and his resounding victory at Blenheim. In the Iberian Peninsula, an Allied army assembled in Lisbon in March. A Franco-Spanish army tried to invade Portugal and the Allies captured Gibraltar.

The year 1705 saw no major change to the general situation. In the Iberian Peninsula, the Allies captured Barcelona.

1706 was a bad year for the French. Villeroy was defeated at Ramillies in May. The whole of Flanders and Brabant, except a few minor fortresses, fell into Marlborough's hands within two weeks. In September, another French army was defeated at Turin. This battle practically ended the war in Italy. In the Iberian Peninsula, the French vainly tried to recapture Barcelona. The Allies then launched an offensive in Castile, temporarily occupying Madrid in June.

1707 was a year of respite for France. In Spain the campaign opened with the brilliant success of Berwick at Almansa; in Germany Villars raided into Bavaria; and an Austro-Savoyan army was repulsed in front of Toulon.

In July 1708, the Grand Alliance won another victory at Oudenarde in Flanders. The French retreated in disorder on Ghent. Shortly after this battle, the army of Prince Eugène joined Marlborough's army in Flanders. The Allies then lay siege to Lille who surrendered in December. Ghent and Bruges were then retaken by the Allies. A terrible winter almost completed the ruin of France.

In June 1709, the Allies attacked the Douai lines and invested Tournai which capitulated on 3 September. A few days later, on 11 September, the Allies won a Pyrrhic victory at Malplaquet. In the Iberian peninsula, the Spaniards defeated an Allied army at La Gudina in May.

In 1710, Villars lay entrenched behind a new series of lines which extended from Valenciennes to the sea. During the summer, the Allies captured Douai and Béthune. In Dauphiné, Berwick again repulsed an Austro-Savoyan army. In the Iberian peninsula, the Allies won the battles of Almenar in July and Saragossa in August and temporarily occupied Madrid once more. However, a French counter-attack forced the British to surrender at Brihuega in December and defeated an Imperial army at Villaviciosa the following day.

In 1711, Marlborough passed the French lines and captured Bouchain. In December, Marlborough was recalled to Great Britain.

In 1712, the British contingent withdrew from the Low Countries. The coalition practically dissolved but the Dutch Republic and Austria determined to make one last effort to impose their own terms on Louis XIV. Eugène's army was brought back to the Low Countries. Villars, still suffering from his Malplaquet wound, took command of a French army in April. Eugène took Le Quesnoy in July and invested Landrecies. At the end of June the French forced Eugène's lines of defences and decisively defeated the Allies at Denain. Eugène retreated to Mons.

Before the opening of the campaign of 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, putting an end to the war.


This article is mostly an abstract of texts taken from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Spanish Succession, War of the, in Encyclopaedia Britannica (c1910-1922), Vol. 25, pp. 599-608