Costumes in the early part of the 18th century, from Nickoll\'s \'View of Hampden Court\'
Costumes in the early part of the 18th century, from Nickoll's 'View of Hampden Court'

Ever since the days of Elizabeth English seamen had persisted in a belief that they had a right to trade with the Spanish settlements in Central and South America and in the West Indies, whether the Spanish authorities sanctioned the custom or not. The Spanish authorities did not sanction the custom and punished offenders with a high hand, as they had an obvious right to do. The Treaty of Utrecht had at last made some limited concessions; the British had the right of supplying negro slaves, and of sending one trading ship to the South Seas. But this provided no remedy for the still extensive illicit traffic.

On the other hand, the Spaniards were charged with exercising the right of search not only within the proper area of Spanish waters but on the high seas. Both sides broke the law freely. A British captain named Jenkins declared that his ship had been boarded on the high seas and his own ear torn off by the Spanish revenue authorities. When further stories of outrage were multiplied, and, in spite of the conciliatory attitude of British ministers, no redress was forthcoming, the story of Jenkins's ear was resuscitated, a storm of popular indignation swept over the country, and Walpole found himself obliged to choose between declaring war and resigning. He would not resign, and in October 1739 war was declared.

The War
Walpole's inefficiency as an organiser of war was no less conspicuous than his ability as a peace minister. Knowing what he knew, it was his business to have been ready to strike and to strike hard the moment that war was forced upon Britain. The Spanish fleet might and should have been in effect swept off the seas at once. Instead Anson was despatched on the celebrated expedition in the course of which he circumnavigated the globe. Vernon was sent to the West Indies and the Spanish Main Portobello was severely handled, but both at Cartagena and at St Iago the British were badly repulsed owing to the discords between the naval and the military authorities. No great result could be looked for from such operations. But before any one else was drawn into taking part in the duel - for France was quite unprepared for a great naval struggle – all the leading states in Europe found themselves fighting over the Austrian succession.

Invasion of Silesia
The Emperor Charles VI died. According to the Pragmatic Sanction, which every one had guaranteed more or less solemnly, Maria Theresa was to succeed to the whole of the Austrian dominion. Her husband, Francis, formerly of Lorraine, was a candidate for the Imperial Crown. But the Elector of Bavaria claimed the succession to large portions of the dominion, and was also a candidate for the Empire. France and Spain saw their advantage in the dismemberment, Great Britain and Hanover in the integrity, of the Austrian dominion. The electorate of Brandenburg, for some time ranking among the more powerful of the German principalities, had been erected into the kingdom of Prussia at the beginning of the century. Its second king, Frederick William I, had organised his army on the hypothesis that the state was a military machine. The country had not hitherto played the part of a first-rate Power; Frederick II, who had just succeeded his father on the throne, was now to prove the efficacy of that military machine, and set Prussia definitely in the front rank of the European Powers. But to give Prussia that position, it was a strategic necessity for her to absorb the Austrian province of Silesia. While other Powers were arguing and arming, Frederick acted. His troops entered Silesia, for the possession of which he was able to concoct a claim sufficiently plausible for his purposes, and announced that if Maria Theresa confirmed him in possession he would defend the integrity of Austria. If not he would naturally support the claims of Bavaria.

The permutations and combinations, and the withdrawals and reappearances of the various states who participated in the war as principals or as auxiliaries were complicated and confusing. The direct issue was between Maria Theresa and Charles of Bavaria, who was successful in the imperial election and became Charles VII. Charles claimed the main succession in right of his wife, the daughter of the Emperor Joseph, the elder brother and predecessor of Charles VI. Since the male succession failed there was a good enough case for arguing that the daughter of the younger brother had no right of precedence over the daughter of the elder brother. Spain intervened in spite of her war with Great Britain, because the opportunity offered of making good her claims to dominions in Italy; Frederick intervened because he wanted to make good his claim in Silesia.

Both these were claims against Maria Theresa as the heiress of the Archduke Charles; that is, they were in respect of possessions which had gone to her father as the old Emperor Leopold's second son, not as the senior representative of the Hapsburgs; consequently, from the point of view of Charles VI there was no objection. There was in short to be a dismemberment of the dominion of Charles VI in the interests of Bavaria, Prussia, and Spain, France tore up her guarantee of the Pragmatic Sanction and intervened in the curious character of an auxiliary, because the disintegration of Austria was to the interest of the Bourbons, When the war was fairly opened in Silesia in the spring of 1741, Great Britain, under Walpole's guidance, would not intervene on the continent, and Hanover itself was forced into neutrality by the threat of a French invasion of the Electorate Saxony joined the Bavarian combination; and if both France and Prussia had acted energetically against Austria Maria Theresa might have been forced into submission. But Frederick held off, after early successes, hoping to make a separate compact of his own with Austria; and France held off because it did not suit her that Charles should have matters all his own way.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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