The Triple Alliance
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The death of Louis XIV in September 1715 produced what was practically a revolution in international relations. Only one sickly child, Louis XV, stood between Philip V of Spain and the Crown of France. Philip had abjured all pretensions to that Crown, and if that abjuration held good, the heir of the young Louis was Philip, Duke of Orleans, the son of the second son of Louis XIII. Orleans was declared regent; but there was no escaping the possibility that if Louis died Philip might act upon the legal doctrine that no abjuration of the French Crown could be valid. Hence the regent Orleans, so long as he should be heir-presumptive to the French throne, had. the very strongest interest in upholding the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. The House of Orleans and the House of Hanover were thus mutually bound to support each other; and there followed a period of close alliance between the French and British Governments. Further, this possible succession question created an antagonising between the Spanish Bourbon and the Government of France; for the time being there was no danger to Europe from that menace of Bourbon aggression, which had been conjured up by the old king's acceptance of the Spanish Crown for his grandson.
These condition had a double effect on naval policy. On the one hand, France was satisfied to rely upon the alliance with Great Britain for security against maritime attack, Holland during the late war had already dropped behind, and the British naval supremacy thus secured was increased by the new combination. On the other hand, the Spanish minister Alberoni was inspired with a passion for reviving the Spanish capacity for maritime rivalry; since, while the British dominated the seas, Spain was cut off from adventures for recovering power in the Italian Peninsula, now mainly absorbed by Austria.
Triple Alliance formed
Though the Whigs were in power, the great Whig names of Anne's reign very soon disappeared. Marlborough, at first recalled to a position of confidence, broke down completely at a very early stage; Somers was worn out; Shrewsbury vanished after his appearance as the Whig deus ex machina. Stanhope and Townshend became the leading counsellors of the Crown; and with Townshend was presently associated Sir Robert Walpole whose abilities had already won for him a marked ascendency in the House of Commons. Of the Junto, Sunderland alone held a leading position. At the beginning of 1717 there was a split between the Whigs, which caused Townshend and Walpole to retire and form a Whig Opposition, which vigorously criticised, and sometimes successfully challenged, the measures of the Government conducted by Stanhope and Sunderland. The Whig split was almost simultaneous with the development of the understanding between the French and British Governments into the Triple Alliance, in which Holland was included.
Alberoni had at first probably hoped to procure the advancement of Spain by closer relations with England, to be purchased by commercial concessions. Such hopes could not survive the Franco-British Alliance, and he was using his immense capacities for intrigue to work up combinations of the Baltic Powers, which, by threatening Hanover itself and the Hanoverian Succession in England, should prevent the Maritime Power from active intervention in his other designs. Then in 1717 he opened a premature attack upon Sardinia, which had fallen to Austria in the settlement after Utrecht. The discovery and exposure of the intrigues with the Northern Powers spoilt whatever existed in the nature of a plot; France and Great Britain intervened in favour of Austria, and forced the acceptance of an agreement which satisfied neither Austria nor Spain, but which gave Sicily to Austria, and Sardinia in place of it to Savoy. Thus the rulers of Savoy became the kings of Sardinia, the progenitors of the present royal house of Italy.
The Battle of Passaro
The check only incited Alberoni to fresh energy. He renewed his secret intrigues, which were intended to bring about an anti-Hanoverian combination between Charles XII of Sweden and his sometime great enemy the Tsar Peter, the creator of the power of Russia. He strove harder than ever to build up a mighty Spanish fleet. In France he intrigued with the faction which opposed the Orleans regime. In the summer of 1718 he struck again, launched an expedition against Sicily, and laid siege to Messina. But the British, fully alive to the great preparations which had been in progress, were ready with a strong fleet under command of Admiral Byng in the Mediterranean. Although Spain and Great Britain were not at war, the British fleet went in search of the Spanish fleet. They met off Cape Passaro. The result was entirely decisive. Only ten of the Spaniards escaped annihilation, while only one British ship was seriously damaged. The work was completed by Captain Walton.
There is an established fiction, commonly endorsed by historians, that Walton's despatch describing his operations was the briefest on record and ran, "Sir, we have taken and destroyed all the Spanish ships which were on this coast, the number as in the margin." Unfortunately the real despatch is extant, and is ten times as long as the laconic epistle with which the captain has been credited. But though Walton gained an undeserved renown, the fact remained that the battle of Passaro destroyed all prospect of the resuscitation of a Spanish fleet on a scale which could threaten the British supremacy. Nevertheless it was not followed by a declaration of war. Byng's purpose was sufficiently accomplished. Spain could not fight Austria in Sicily and Italy unless she held command of the seas.
Every one of Alberoni's schemes miscarried. The anti-Orleanist plot in France was detected and crushed. Charles XII. of Sweden was killed by a stray shot before Fredricshalle in Norway, and a revolution brought into power in Sweden a government from which Hanover had nothing to fear. A British squadron on the Baltic was an argument which Peter the Great found conclusive. Austria was added to the Triple Alliance, and at the beginning of 1719 the United Powers declared war against Spain. Alberoni made a last desperate attempt to despatch an armada, which went to pieces in the Bay of Biscay before a blow had been struck. A French army entered Spain, and a British squadron wrought havoc at Vigo. Philip realised that the struggle was hopeless, Alberoni was dismissed and banished, and the Spaniards evacuated Sicily. The arrangements proposed in 1717 were generally confirmed. The real root cause of the recent trouble had been the ambitions of Philip's queen, Elizabeth Farnese. The heir to the Spanish throne was Ferdinand, Philip's son by a previous wife, and Elizabeth wanted a separate dominion in Italy for her own offspring. She had now to be content with the recognition of her soft Charles as heir to the duchies of Tuscany, Parma, and Piacenza, which were to be definitely separated from the Spanish Crown.