Modern history


The difficulty which Louis XV experienced in adjusting to the template of authority inherited from Louis XIV was evident in foreign as well as domestic policy. War under Louis XV was less about the unbridled pursuit of la gloire than had been the case under his predecessor. Even the Sun King had seemed to accept, in his last years, that he had warred too much. The Regent, Dubois and Fleury had also each in turn renounced thoughts of preponderance in Europe, and largely accepted the notion of a balance of power, which the Utrecht Treaty – through seeking ‘to confirm the peace and tranquillity of the Christian world through a just equilibrium of power’ – enshrined. Louis XV had thus to adjust the popular image of the warrior-monarch to fit the shifting complexion of international relations in which the need to fight and the nature of warfare had changed.

A general acceptance of the notion of the balance of power as the idiom within which international relations were conducted after Utrecht reflected an estimation of the relative limitations of France’s strength, and the strength of its friends and foes in the aftermath of Louis XIV’s extensive wars. The rejection of foreign adventurism derived partly from an awareness of the dynastic vulnerability of the Bourbon line, partly from the country’s economic as well as its military fragility – and partly too from the increasingly evident limitations of France’s traditional international allies. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, France had pursued its struggles against the Habsburgs by fostering friendship with states in northern and eastern Europe which after 1715 were in serious decline. Sweden never recovered from defeat at the hands of Russia in the Great Northern War (1688–1721), while Poland was escaping French influence and falling increasingly under the hegemony of Austria and the new military and naval power of Russia. Another customary ally, Turkey, victim of Austrian expansionism in south-east Europe, was also less of a player in international relations than hitherto. The Hungarian and Transylvanian noble dissidents whom France had earlier cultivated were being progressively integrated by the Austrians. In Germany too, France’s traditional friends – notably Bavaria and the Rhine princes – had failed to break through to great power status, and were being eclipsed by the emergence of bellicose Prussia, a natural opponent of Austria, but one which France was to find unreliable.

If prolonged warfare down to 1713 had exhausted France and reduced its foreign policy options, at least it had had much the same effect on the state’s traditional opponents. Spain was now under a Bourbon (Philip V) rather than a Habsburg – even though that Bourbon had gone native, and adopted the autonomous interests of the Iberian state. Most European states after Utrecht saw Austria, France’s long-term opponent in European power politics, rather than Spain, as the most powerful threat to international peace. In the event, the Habsburgs tended to direct their energies towards consolidating their hold on the Italian peninsula and building up their south-eastern territories. Dynastic weakness – as in France, and indeed in Hanoverian England too – restrained Habsburg aggression: Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI gave high priority to securing the succession for his daughter Maria Theresa through the Pragmatic Sanction, and he failed to expand the Habsburg power-base in Germany. The financial toll of decades of warfare on another of France’s foes, the United Provinces, was also showing, and the Dutch economy failed to match the pace of change set by its rivals, England and France. The Hanoverian connection and the perennial threat of Jacobitism induced England too towards prudence. Under the Fleuryesque Robert Walpole (in power from 1721 to 1741), the English eschewed Continental entanglements, aiming only to give the balance of power a few tweaks when this seemed absolutely essential.

Utrecht thus prefaced a phase in international relations in which states were pulling in their horns out of a fear of continuation of generalized European conflict. A system of five great powers – Britain plus, on the Continent, Austria, Prussia and Russia as well as France – was slowly emerging, with no single state being able to assert itself without producing countervailing opposition from the other great powers. Europe was not locked into stasis – the ‘system’ was always breaking down under the impact of events such as dynastic extinction, and diplomacy was not always up to the task of preventing the resort to arms. The balance of power had become a kind of mantra to which all deferred. There seemed a growing sense that international power politics had become in fact a zero-sum game in which territorial gains inevitably produced compensatory adjustments. States thus sought to extend their influence marginally and incrementally, and by negotiation and diplomacy rather than full-scale war if at all possible. Although between 1610 and 1792, every one year in two was a war year somewhere in Europe, between 1713 and 1740, France was at war only one year in five.

Given the dwindling strength of France’s customary allies, the limitations of its foreign policy options, and the major financial implications of fighting wars, one can understand Orléans, Dubois, then Fleury, being attracted by means of maintaining grandeur through economic development rather than military manoeuvrings. This entailed a prudent tendency to favour friendship with England. The Entente Cordiale which developed between the two powers after 1715 was never the best of all possible worlds, for there was strong economic and colonial rivalry between the two powers, notably over commercial influence in Spain’s American colonies. Yet given that war was unthinkable in France’s situation, friendship with England aimed at containing and reducing potential hostility seemed the surest guarantee for the pursuit of state objectives.

The Entente Cordiale did not, however, last long. Distinct signs of chilliness were evident by the late 1720s. Walpole’s rapprochement with Austria in 1731 meant that Fleury had to work hard to keep England out of the War of Polish Succession. By late in the decade, England was resentful of the French acquisition of Lorraine and was anxious about its growing influence in Continental affairs, especially as France’s commercial prosperity contrasted with the sorry state of its own balance of trade at that moment. Growing clamour in England for a more aggressive policy towards France’s ally, Spain, triggered the Anglo-Spanish ‘War of Jenkins’s Ear’ in 1739, which seemed certain to bring in the French on Spain’s side.

In the event, Jenkins’s ear proved a turning point around which Anglo-French relations failed to turn. This was less due to the diplomatic skills of the ever-plausible Fleury – for the cardinal was losing ground to a war party in Versailles and Paris just as Walpole was doing the same in London. Rather, the unexpected death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1740 sparked off an international crisis which placed Anglo-French rivalry in a different context. As we have seen,15 France’s efforts to put the Bavarian ruler rather than a Habsburg client on the throne of Holy Roman Empire, coming on top of Prussia’s seizure of Austria’s wealthy province of Silesia, gave a rude enough shock to the Continental balance of power to worry the English. The novelist and journalist Henry Fielding was not alone in England in surmising that these steps presaged ‘the scheme of universal monarchy, framed by the House of Bourbon’.16 Carteret, Prime Minister following the fall of Walpole, pieced together a wide-ranging European alliance against France, its Spanish ally and the endlessly unreliable Frederick II’s Prussia. The Anglo-Austrian victory over the French at Dettingen in May 1743 was accompanied by alliance between Maria Theresa’s Austria and Sardinia, which opened up an Italian front against the ‘Gallespani’ (Franco-Spanish forces), while the death of the Bavarian Holy Roman Emperor left the road clear for Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis, to succeed to the imperial title. The queen of Hungary was now inclined to cut her losses, and in December 1745 she signed the Treaty of Dresden with Prussia, ceding the contested province of Silesia.

Dresden terminated hostilities in central Europe, but not elsewhere. In the Low Countries, the French came out unequivocally on top: Saxe’s brilliant victory at Fontenoy in May 1745 against Anglo–Dutch–Hanoverian forces under the duke of Cumberland opened up the road into the Austrian Netherlands. Virtually the whole of the region fell to Saxe’s ingenious generalship. His task was, it is true, made easier by the need of the English to remove troops to put down the 1745–6 Jacobite Rising, which the French had subventioned. The ‘45 Rising’ was comprehensively crushed, and following defeat at Culloden in April 1746, the ‘Young Pretender’, Jacobite Charles Edward Stuart, took refuge in France. In Italy, where France, Spain and the Two Sicilies matched up against English, Austrian and Sardinian forces, the issue swayed one way then the other. In 1747, Philip V of Spain died and his successor Ferdinand VI sought peace. In the same year, Belle-Isle had to be sent down to repulse Sardinian incursions into Provence – the only military invasion of French soil between 1715 and 1792.

The Anglo-French struggle was also taking place in the colonies, marking a new, and enduring, globalization of warfare. The inhabitants of England’s North American colonies outnumbered French Canadians some ten to one, but the French were tough, fur-trapping frontiersmen who posed a considerable military threat. It took a combined operation between the American colonists and the Royal Navy to seize the strategic centre of Louisbourg on Cape Breton in 1745, which the French spent the rest of the war trying to win back. The English and the French were also locked in combat at the other end of the world – in India, where Dupleix, Governor-General of the French trading ports, outclassed his opposite numbers from the English East India Company, capturing Madras in 1746.

Although colonial and commercial issues were starting to make themselves felt, the achievement of a balance of power in Europe was still the highest priority of European statesmen. After his mixed fortunes posturing as military campaigner defending his people, moreover, Louis accepted the more restricted foreign policy goals inherited by Orléans, Dubois and Fleury. Even though by 1748, France was holding all the Austrian Netherlands and a number of Dutch frontier strongholds, and had occupied the Sardinian possessions of Nice and Savoy, the king was willing to trade them in and return to what was in essence a return to the status quo ante 1740. The marquis d’Argenson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs between 1744 and 1747, opined that France had become ‘too big, too rounded off, too well-placed for trade to prefer territorial acquisitions to a good reputation’. The king sacked d’Argenson for maladroitness, but seemed to share some of his views, presenting the restitution of French gains in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle as his own wish to act magnanimously – he claimed to eschew unseemly haggling and to be making peace ‘not as a merchant but as a king’ – the ruler of a great nation.17

There was a good deal of shrewd strategic thinking behind this approach. France, now encamped behind Vauban’s ceinture de fer, could be thought of as a ‘satisfied power’:18 gains in the Low Countries would imply perpetual (and expensive) conflict not only with the Austrians but also with the English and the Dutch, who would regard French acquisitions as a threat to their own trading and strategic interests. The attempt to wrap up this policy in bland Fénelonian language did not, however, go down well with the public. More used to the diplomatic quest for glory of Louis XIV, the French people had also suffered severe privations during the final stages of the war, and many were appalled to see France – seemingly naively – handing back most of its conquests. News-sheets railed incontinently against France having ‘fought for the king of Prussia’, who by managing to hold on to Silesia was the biggest gainer from the peace, and they coined the phrase bête comme la paix (‘as stupid as the peace’). One clause in the treaty had obliged France to expel the Jacobite Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, and when the latter, who had turned himself into a popular icon in Paris, was bundled into a carriage by policemen as he was coming out of the Opéra and thrown out of the country, there were riots and expressions of outrage at the indignities performed by the government. Furthermore, if the French had airily waved away one potential casus belli, more than enough causes of potential conflict remained embedded in the Aix-la-Chapelle Treaty. In particular, Austria felt humiliated and was already planning to get its beloved Silesia back. In addition, there were still numerous outstanding colonial and commercial matters at dispute involving France, England and, to a degree, Spain. The French had restored Madras to the English in return for Louisbourg, but these exchanges solved nothing. As war ground to a halt in Europe, it continued in the rest of the world.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle thus revealed the prioritization which European statesmen still accorded European power politics, and also signalled the growing centrality of Anglo-French conflict within international relations and the world stage on which that conflict was now taking place. One reason why the French – for all Louis XV’s altruistic claims – had hastened to the conference table in 1748 was the economic pressure which the English had been applying on them from 1746 onwards. The Newfoundland cod fisheries and the Canadian fur trade had made a longstanding and growing contribution to France’s trading position, but in the first half of the century this was being demoted in importance by the explosive impact of the Caribbean sugar islands (Saint-Domingue in particular, plus Martinique and Guadeloupe). England was a rival and competitor in these markets, as well as in the trade in slaves into the region. Similarly, the Indian subcontinent and through it the Chinese and south-east Asian markets were also a theatre for economic rivalry. The importance of these trading sectors in the broader French economy was highlighted by the English harassment of French trade which the War of Austrian Succession opened up. In 1747, the Royal Navy blockaded French ports against the return of the Newfoundland fishing fleet, and fears were soon being expressed lest the same fate be visited on the merchant vessels involved in the sugar trade. French trade was losing out to the English – only 149 slaves were landed in Saint-Domingue in the last three years of the war. In deciding to press for peace in 1748, France was as much moved by apprehension that things could only get strategically and commercially worse outside Europe as by a conviction that France had no possibilities of gaining territory within Europe on to which it could hope to hang. This was a difficult message, however, to sell to a public opinion which was becoming increasingly vocal.

The globalization of the Anglo-French conflict was further in evidence even before the ink was dry on the 1748 treaty. Indeed, England and France were to all effects still at war outside Europe. In India, Robert Clive’s appointment to head the English forces swayed the fortunes of the struggle England’s way. Rather than relying on local rulers to do the English’s fighting for them, Clive took to the offensive, shaking Dupleix’s complacency. Meanwhile in North America, the establishment by the French of a line of forts southwards from Canada towards France’s Louisiana possessions irritated English colonists by appearing to set limits to the latter’s westward expansion. Anxious about possible encirclement by the French, they became involved in a number of clashes with them in the early 1750s. Though England at first tried to keep aloof, French successes were seen as strategically threatening, and from 1754 the English government was moved to levy regiments of regulars in America to halt French expansion. The French riposted by embarking an expeditionary force of some 4,000 troops, but the Royal Navy intercepted it. The troops were imprisoned, and the English went on to impound some 300 French merchantmen. At the same time, they also deported 8,000 ‘disloyal’ Acadians from the erstwhile French possession of Nova Scotia. By the mid-1750s, a fuller resumption of Anglo-French conflict seemed to be in the air. War, however, had its costs.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!