The War of the Spanish Succession
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
England in general cared little and knew less about the European problem which absorbed the king of England. In a vague fashion the people were antagonistic to France; also in a vague fashion they suspected their Dutch monarch of caring more for Dutch than for English interests, whereby there was bred in them a sort of reaction against the anti-French sentiment, which had become active during the peace following the Treaty of Ryswick. Until that treaty William had consistently pursued the single policy of antagonism to France, but since that date he had rather taken the line of seeking an accommodation with Louis.
The European problem was in truth one with which England had less direct concern than any other Power; but it was on the point of plunging the world into a tremendous struggle, in which, as it happened, England played a very leading part. England as a matter of fact ultimately flung herself into the war with zeal, not because the country was passionately moved by any abstract political theories or any obvious interests at stake, but because Louis deliberately stirred it to a frenzy of wrath against himself. Nevertheless it is necessary to seek to understand the complication of dynastic and other interests which brought the war upon Europe at large.
The Spanish Inheritance question
The central question, then, was that of the inheritance of the Spanish dominion. The senior branch of the house of Hapsburg ruled over that dominion, while the junior branch was identified with Austria and the headship of the German Empire. Spain and the Empire had ceased to be united under one crown when Charles V abdicated in 1556. Now, for the past century, the Spanish crown had descended in direct male line, but outside that actual line the claim to succession passed through the daughters of the kings of Spain.
The French claims
For generations the Austrian Hapsburgs had taken the eldest of the Spanish infantas as their brides. As there was no "Salic law" in Spain, this course would obviously secure the Spanish succession to an Austrian Hapsburg whenever a king of Spain should fail to leave a male heir of his body. But twice the rule had been broken. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV had in their day married the eldest Infanta, while the second Infanta had been the bride of the Hapsburg. But in both cases, again, the Bourbon marriage, but not the Hapsburg marriage, had been accompanied by a renunciation of the Spanish succession on the bride's part. Hence Leopold of Austria, emperor at the end of the seventeenth century, son of one Infanta and husband of another, seemed entitled to claim the Spanish succession whether for himself or for the offspring of his marriage if the king of Spain, Charles II, should die without issue.
But the complication did not end here. Louis, on the one hand, was able to put in a strong plea that his own wife's renunciation (though not his mother's) was legally invalid. Again, the offspring of Leopold's marriage had been a daughter, who married the Elector of Bavaria. But Leopold wanted the Spanish succession to pass to his own second son by a later marriage, and therefore his daughter renounced her own claim on condition that the Netherlands should be handed over to her husband and their offspring.
The claimants to the throne
This, again, was a renunciation which had no legal validity at all; but it will be seen that there were thus three possible claimants to the succession, since there was no possibility whatever that the king of Spain, Charles II, would leave an heir of his body. These were Leopold's grandson, the Electoral Prince of Bavaria - a child born in 1792; Leopold himself or the son whom he had nominated in his own place, the Archduke Charles; and a grandson of Louis XIV.
Nor could the question be settled among them by merely legal arguments, technicalities as to the more or less questionable validity of particular renunciations. The Spanish dominion included not only Spain itself and the American Empire, but also the Netherlands, the kingdom of Naples, and certain Italian duchies. Europe could not allow this great dominion to become a mere appendage either of France or of Austria, although Spain itself would certainly be fiercely opposed to any disruption of the Spanish Empire.
The First Partition Treaty
It appeared then that here was a matter for settlement by treaty. The European balance would be best served by the accession of the Electoral Prince of Bavaria to the Spanish dominion, and this had the advantage also that his title seemed on the whole the strongest. But the other claimants would not withdraw without receiving a substantial solatium. On this basis, William and Louis on their own account made the first Partition Treaty. Austria and France were to get their solatium in Italy, and otherwise the Spanish Empire was to go to the Electoral Prince.
The Second Partition Treaty
The English ministers were not consulted, nor was the matter brought before parliament. Ministers simply gave an unqualified assent to William's bargain. But then the bargain itself was nullified by the death of the Electoral Prince. William did not want to see the Spanish Empire handed over to Leopold of Austria, but still less did he wish to see it handed over to Louis XIV. Louis, however, was again ready to make his bargain with the maritime Powers, since he did not wish to fight for his maximum claims against a European coalition. He was moderate enough, and was prepared practically to content himself with the Italian territories, leaving the rest to the Archduke Charles. On these terms William and Louis came to an agreement known as the Second Partition Treaty; but when it was submitted to Leopold he refused to accede to it.
This was the situation at the beginning of 1700; but it was once more turned upside down by the action of Spain. The Spaniards were furious at any scheme of partition. The dying King Charles made his choice between the Hapsburg and the Bourbon in favour of the Bourbon. He named as legitimate heir to the whole of his dominion Philip, the second son of the French Dauphin, since it was recognised in Spain as well as elsewhere that the actual crowns of Spain and France were not to be united. If Philip's elder brother should die without heirs then the crown of Spain was to be transferred to his younger brother, and only if he succeeded to the French throne should it pass to the Archduke Charles, the Hapsburg claimant. Having made his will in these terms Charles died.
Now William took for granted that this will would merely be used to force Leopold into acceptance of the Partition Treaty. To his intense indignation Louis immediately tore up the treaty and took his stand upon the will, claiming the entire Spanish inheritance for his grandson. In William's eyes this meant that for all practical purposes the policy of the Spanish Empire would be directed by Louis; and that was a consummation which must be averted at all costs. He could have carried the Whigs with him, but now the Tories were dominant; therefore he dissolved parliament. But he apparently gained nothing by the dissolution, for in the new parliament the Tories retained their preponderance. It was absolutely necessary to conciliate the Tories, and to educate them over to his point of view. Godolphin returned to the ministry, which was also joined by Rochester.
[Ed. What happened next? Read on ...]