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French Expansion Under Louis XIV: Conflicts & Overview

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  • 0:37 Louis XIV & 17th France
  • 2:03 War of Devolution
  • 3:26 Dutch Wars
  • 4:37 War of the Grand Alliance
  • 5:38 War of Spanish Succession
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the initial expansion and eventual reduction of French territory during the reign of Louis XIV of France, and the numerous wars fought and political games played in the process.

French Expansion Under Louis XIV

When a company or restaurant really takes off, usually one of the first things they think about is expanding operations. Whether it's opening a second restaurant location or shipping to new markets, growth becomes an important component of gaining market share, prestige, and notoriety amongst consumers.

Louis XIV, the self-named 'Sun King' of seventeenth-century France, had a similar urge to expand and made France a main protagonist in several of seventeenth-century Europe's important continental wars. Under Louis's reign, France expanded its borders north and east and even managed to place Louis' grandson, Philip, on the Spanish throne.

Louis XIV & Seventeenth-Century France

When Louis' father, Louis XIII died in 1643, Louis XIV took the throne as a four-and-a-half-year-old child. The boy king was not without help though, and the able administrator Cardinal Jules Mazarin looked after Louis' education and began centralizing authority in the monarchy.

Mazarin's attempted application of absolutist principles were not taken lightly by the provincial nobles from whom power was being taken, and in the late 1640s and early 1650s a series of internal rebellions by nobles and provincial parlements alike, named The Fronde, threatened Louis' young reign.

Soon after The Fronde was successfully defeated, Louis came of age and began to take the reins of government. After Mazarin's death in 1661, Louis began his era of personal, absolutist rule with a series of civil, military, economic, and administrative reforms, the bulk of which were enacted in the 1660s and 1670s. These reforms became known as the Grand Ordinances, and they played a large part in modernizing and improving the efficacy of all facets of French government.

Louis' and Jean-Baptiste Colbert's improvements enriched France and supported an ostentatious court culture, best exemplified by the enormous Palace of Versailles, where Louis permanently relocated the French court in 1682. Louis' consolidation of power in France in himself and his military reforms poised France to make major plays for disputed border territories and increase French power internationally.

War of Devolution

The first of these opportunities for Louis XIV and France came after the death of Philip IV of Spain in 1665. Although European custom dictated that the Spanish throne and all its holdings passed to Charles II of Spain, Philip's first son of his second marriage, Louis claimed the Spanish Netherlands based on a local Flemish custom.

In the Spanish Netherlands, in certain instances, daughters of a first marriage were preferred over sons of a later marriage when it came to inheritance. By quoting the custom and further stating that Spain had never sufficiently paid the dowry for Louis' wife, Marie-Thérèse (Philip IV's daughter from his first marriage), Louis managed to gain quasi-legal footing for his invasion of the Spanish Netherlands.

With justification in hand, Louis sent the French army into the Spanish Netherlands in May 1667. The French army under the Marshal de Turenne easily secured most of the principal fortresses and towns in Flanders and Hainault. In early 1668, a separate French force under the Prince de Condé overran the Franche-Comté, also ruled by Spain.

Fearful of French aggression, the Dutch, English, and Swedish created the Triple Alliance and demanded peace and a stop to French aggression. The Alliance and Louis concluded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle in May 1668. The terms forced France to return the Franche-Comté to Spain, but allowed France to keep the territory in Flanders it had claimed in 1667.

Dutch Wars

Louis was not content solely with the expansion of new territory. In 1672, Louis, who had secretly allied France with England in 1670, invaded the Dutch Republic in an attempt to cripple France's biggest economic competitor. Fighting was fierce, and the Dutch only stopped the initial French advance by opening up dikes, flooding the land, and spoiling it with salt water in the process.

With the French advance checked, the Dutch sued for peace. Louis was not content with his initial success, and his refusal to negotiate sparked a revolution in the Dutch Republic by William of Orange, who began pushing back the French advance.

Louis' prospects for victory were further damaged when England bowed out of the war in 1674 and the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, and Spain joined the Dutch cause. Despite being outnumbered and outmanned, the French forces continued to match their defeats with victories elsewhere, taking Freiburg in 1677.

The two sides concluded peace with the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen. France was forced to return several of the territories it had gained in the Spanish Netherlands in 1668, but in return it kept the Dutch city of Maastricht, and in a separate treaty received the Franche-Comté from Spain.

War of the Grand Alliance

Louis continued to claim territory along France's borders in the 1680s, exploiting the ambiguities in various treaties to claim cities and towns, such as Strasbourg and parts of Lorraine. Alarmed at these bold acts of aggression, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Sweden, and several Germanic states formed the League of Augsburg in 1686, aimed to push France back within its borders. Louis disregarded any threats from the League, and in 1689, invaded the Palatinate, using the familiar tactic of distant family relations to claim the territory in the name of France.

The League and the other European powers reacted, as Austria, the Dutch Republic, and England formed the Grand Alliance in 1689 to oppose French aggression. Fierce fighting on land and sea continued for nine years until financial and military exhaustion forced both sides to the negotiating table. The 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, which concluded the fighting, allowed Louis to keep Strasbourg, but forced him to return the rest of the territory he had dubiously claimed in the 1680s.

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