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European Powers in the 18th Century: Alliances, Wars & the Balance of Power

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  • 0:01 Major Players
  • 1:28 Who Gets to Rule in Spain?
  • 2:43 Prussia vs. Austria 1
  • 3:50 Seven Years of War
  • 5:28 New Endeavors
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will provide an overview of the major alliances and wars of 18th century Europe. We will meet the major players, explore their conflicts, and examine the delicate balance of power that was always in danger of falling apart.

Four Major Players

In 18th century Europe, nations focused nearly all their attention on the struggle for power, dominance, and territory. They made alliances that shifted or fractured as rulers' goals changed. Wars broke out frequently as monarchs tried to figure out who was going to rule in the various areas of Europe. The continent's delicate balance of power was always threatened by aggression.

Four major players took the lead in this nearly constant conflict.

  • Austria was ruled by the powerful Habsburg family, especially Maria Theresa, who reigned from 1740 to 1780. The Habsburgs, who also held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire most of the time, strove to expand their dynasty.
  • Prussia was controlled by the Hohenzollern family, especially Frederick II, who called himself an 'enlightened monarch' but had a knack for grabbing any territory he could get his hands on.
  • France was ruled by the Bourbon family, especially Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, who were absolute monarchs with an aggressive foreign policy. They wanted to make France a world power.
  • Great Britain was controlled by the House of Hanover. These German kings had an agenda that extended beyond Great Britain. They were also involved in a continual grudge match with France.

Now let's take a look at the alliances and wars that these four major players created as each one sought to tip the balance of power in its own favor.

Who Gets to Rule in Spain?

The last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II, died in 1700. He left no heirs, and because he had been greatly influenced by France, he willed his throne to Philip, the duke of Anjou, a Frenchman. This didn't set well with the Habsburg Leopold I of Austria, who had his eye on the throne for his son. France's Louis XIV supported Philip, who was his grandson. Before long, France and Austria found themselves in the midst of a war over who would sit on the Spanish throne.

Other countries quickly joined in. Great Britain and Prussia both sided with Austria. They didn't care for France's ambition. Spain actually allied with France. The Spanish people were perfectly willing to accept Philip as their king.

The War of the Spanish Succession lasted from 1701 to 1714 and was finally settled by the Treaties of Utrecht and Baden. Philip was allowed to remain on the throne, but he had to give up his place in French succession. Great Britain, which ducked out of the war a bit early, won some territory and a valuable contract to supply slaves to Spain. Austria received the Netherlands as a consolation prize, and Prussia's Frederick II received the title of king.

Prussian vs. Austria, Round One

A shaky peace prevailed among the four major players until 1740, when Maria Theresa ascended to the Austrian throne. Frederick of Prussia saw a prime opportunity to grab some Austrian territory that he had had his eye on for quite some time, and his army marched into Silesia at the end of 1740. Maria Theresa wasn't about to accept that. She raised an army and set out to fight, and the War of the Austrian Succession began.

The two combatants were soon joined by allies. France sided with Prussia, while Great Britain, which was already at war with Spain over trade conflicts, supported Austria. Maria Theresa managed to save most of her Austrian lands, but no matter what she tried, she couldn't force Frederick out of Silesia. The 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle confirmed Frederick's possession of Silesia and Maria Theresa's retention of her other traditional territories, but it left the Austrian monarch smoldering for revenge and did nothing to decrease the ever-growing tension between Britain and France.

Seven Years of War

Not surprisingly, war broke out again only eight years later in 1756. Frederick knew how badly Maria Theresa wanted Silesia back, but he wasn't about to let her have it. The Austrian monarch had recently made an alliance with her former enemy, France, and another deal with Russia for 80,000 troops. Frederick decided that he had better not wait any longer, and he made a preemptive strike into Saxony, between Prussia and Austria, on August 29, 1756, thus beginning the Seven Years' War.

Frederick found himself in a tight spot. He was surrounded by enemies, and his ally, Great Britain, was providing only monetary support. When Russia suddenly backed off, the Prussian king was able to win some stunning victories, but his triumph soon turned to near despair when the Russians returned. In the end, the 1763 Treaty of Hubertusburg allowed Frederick to keep Silesia, actually strengthened Prussia (which was now allied with the fickle Russia), and weakened Austria in the European balance of power.

Meanwhile, Britain was busy fighting France, especially in North America, where the conflict was called the French and Indian War. Britain started off strong with several naval victories that prevented a French invasion. The British then proceeded to snatch the French Canadian towns of Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal. They also swept through French colonies in the West Indies and captured a French base in India. Finally, the 1763 Treaty of Paris allowed Britain to keep all of France's North American colonies, while France regained its territories in the West Indies.

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