The War of Spanish Succession and the Treaty of Utrecht

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  • 0:07 Spanish Succession
  • 0:55 Background
  • 3:13 War in Bavaria
  • 4:31 War in France & Spain
  • 5:36 Treaties
  • 6:20 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 War of the Spanish Succession. With multiple claimants and no clear heir, several nations fought from 1701 to 1714 to decide the Spanish throne and tip the balance of power in Europe in their favor.

War of the Spanish Succession

International politics today can often turn on the opinions and actions of one nation's people. A bad economic quarter, a powerful movement or even insurrection can often cause a country to bow out or sometimes increase its international involvement. However, in Western Europe in the early modern period, the movements and voices of the people mattered little on the grand stage of international politics. Instead, politics revolved around an elite group of nobles and their exclusive rights to the thrones of entire nations. The death of an heirless monarch could cause turmoil and war if the succession was not guaranteed properly. Just such a situation occurred in Spain in the first years of the eighteenth century, erupting into a conflict that engulfed the entirety of Western Europe and became known as the War of the Spanish Succession.


Charles II ruled over Spain from 1665 to 1700. The king, who took the throne at the age of four, was a sick and likely mentally handicapped child, and his condition only worsened in adulthood. Nicknamed El Hechizado in Spain (or, 'the Bewitched'), it was clear to the Spanish nobles and the other powers of Western Europe that Charles would die without an heir. Several relatives in France, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire held distant but similarly legitimate claims to Charles II's inheritance, and two treaties and other agreements were made attempting to avoid the warfare that having multiple claimants to the throne might cause. Unfortunately, these treaties ultimately failed, as all parties never agreed to the same terms or were present at the same discussions.

In France, Louis XIV, the self-named 'Sun King,' claimed the Spanish throne for the Bourbon dynasty in the name of his grandson, Philip, as Louis XIV himself was a cousin to Charles II. Further legitimating France's claim to the throne was the will of Charles II, which left all of the Spanish Empire to Philip.

Many of the powers in Europe feared the possibility of a Spanish king loyal to the French throne. Though Spain's power and international influence had been steadily declining over the past half century, Spain still held considerable territory in the Americas, Italy, the Low Countries and the South Pacific. Indeed, Great Britain attempted to break up the Spanish Empire amongst the various claimants in both the Treaty of The Hague and the Treaty of London, brokered in 1698 and 1700 respectively, to avoid this very real possibility.

In order to ensure the balance of power in Europe did not tilt toward France, Austria proffered its own Hapsburg claimant to the Spanish throne. Leopold I, King of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, was actually a closer, first cousin to Charles II, and therefore considered his claim to the Spanish throne more legitimate.

Though Great Britain initially wanted to maintain peace on the continent, in the event of war, the British supported Austria in order to check French power. The Dutch Republic and most of the Germanic principalities of the Holy Roman Empire similarly supported Austrian claims, while the Spanish nobles, who resented British attempts to break up the empire and likely engineered Charles II's will, favored the claims of Louis XIV's grandson.

War in Italy, Low Countries and Bavaria

These were the eventual alliances which formed when war broke out in 1701, first with Austria invading Spanish held duchies and territories in Italy. Led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, the Austrians scored several victories early in the fighting at Carpi, Cremona and Luzzara.

Though the British were initially hesitant to join the war, they eventually declared war on France, concluded an alliance with Austria in 1702 and immediately sent troops under the Duke of Marlborough to join the Dutch forces and begin campaigning in the more southerly Spanish Netherlands. After some initial successes, British attention was drawn away by the entrance of Bavaria into the war.

Bavarian entry into the war caused Savoy and Marlborough, the latter of whom was by now General of all English, Dutch, and imperial forces, to stop their campaigns in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands and try to knock Bavaria out of the war before it could have a major impact. Two years of fighting came to a head at the Battle of Blenheim in August 1704 when a joint Franco-Bavarian force was nearly completely destroyed by a smaller force led by both Savoy and Marlborough. This effectively ended Bavaria's involvement in the conflict. After Blenheim, Savoy and Marlborough's armies split, returning to their respective campaigns in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands, driving the French out of both by 1706.

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