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The War of Spanish Succession

Hugh Zimmerbaum, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Hugh Zimmerbaum

    Hugh Zimmerbaum is a prospective PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures; After earning his BA degree in Literature with a concentration in Russian Studies in 2018, he spent two years as an EFL teacher in Russia.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

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

Learn about the War of Spanish Succession. Discover the alliances it formed, the battles that were fought, and the conditions of the treaties that ended it. Updated: 11/17/2021

The War of Spanish Succession

The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a conflict over the succession to the throne of Spain after the death of Charles II, who had no children and would be the last king of the Habsburg Dynasty to rule Spain. Both the House of Bourbon and the House of Habsburg had claims to the Spanish Empire. The war was fought to determine which House should control the empire's possessions or whether the possessions should be split between them. The outcome of the war created favorable terms for the British Empire on the world stage.

Conflicting Claims to the Throne

Charles II of Spain ruled from 1665-1700. Known as 'El Hechizado' (the Bewitched) because he had physical and mental disabilities, possibly resulting from inbreeding among the Habsburg royalty, Charles II was childless, and the question of who would succeed him led to the War of Spanish Succession Competing claims to the various territories of Spain arose from the conflicting interests of Charles II, the Bourbons of France, and the Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles II had two sisters, Marie Therese and Margarita Teresa. Marie Therese had married into the House of Bourbon by marrying Louis XIV of France, and Margarita Teresa married into the House of Habsburg by marrying Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor. Marie Therese had renounced her claim to the throne upon her marriage to Louis XIV, and the most obvious heir was Joseph Ferdinand, the grandson of Margarita Teresa. However, Margarita Teresa's daughter, Marie Antonia, had bestowed her right to the throne to her father-in-law, Leopold I. He desired that Spain go to his children from a third marriage. Ultimately, three competing claims arose to the Spanish throne, from the House of Bourbon, the House of Hapsburg, and Joseph Ferdinand.

Pictured: Charles II of Spain. The War of Spanish Succession began because of conflicts over the inheritance of his throne.

Charles II Spain War of Spanish Succession

The Maritime Powers

On another level of European politics at the time, the Maritime Powers of England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands were strongly opposed to the Bourbon claim to Spain. They feared the loss of trade with Spain and the West Indies. In 1698, France, England, and the United Provinces came to an agreement with a Partition Treaty that would break up the Spanish Empire among its claimants, giving most of the Spanish possessions to Joseph Ferdinand. Neither Leopold I nor Charles II agreed to this treaty. Matters were further complicated when Joseph Ferdinand died in 1699. A second Partition Treaty from France and the Maritime Powers offered Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and the Indies to the Habsburgs, but Leopold I wanted the whole Spanish inheritance for his heir and refused. Charles II, who was also dissatisfied, gave the entirety of the Spanish inheritance to France in his will a month before his death. When Charles II died in November 1700, war seemed inevitable, as all the necessary parties would respect neither the will nor the treaty. Louis XIV chose to honor the will, and Philip V took the Spanish throne.

1701: Hostilities Between France and the Holy Roman Empire

The War of Spanish Succession began in March 1701 when France seized Spanish territory in the Netherlands. At first, the war was between only Leopold I and Louis XIV and was fought in northern Italy. The Habsburgs took the upper hand in the fighting for the rest of the year, and several victories pushed the French back.

A map showing the fighting in northern Italy in 1701.

War of Spanish Succession 1701 North Italy Map

1702: Allies Become Involved

In 1702 the war began to draw in Europe at large. France's allies included Spain, Portugal, Savoy, Bavaria, and Cologne. The Habsburgs were supported by the Maritime Powers, Prussia, and many German princes. 1702 saw continued fighting in Italy and attacks from the English at sea. In northwestern Europe, the French outnumbered the Maritime Powers. A major development took place in the summer when Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria, the father of Joseph Ferdinand, sided with the French and attacked a Hapsburg army from the rear.

1703: The French Gain an Advantage

With the aide of Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria, the French were in a position in 1703 to take Vienna itself. French forces had joined the Bavarian forces at Ulm and were in striking distance of Vienna. Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria was cautious, however, and refused to attack Vienna. Ultimately, they missed the chance to attack Vienna.

Meanwhile, after seeing English victories at sea, the Portuguese became convinced that England could protect them from the Bourbons and left its alliance with France to join the Maritime powers. Likewise, the Duke of Savoy abandoned his alliance with the French and sided with the emperor.

1704: French threats to Vienna are put to an end

In 1704, the military strategy of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, brought the Habsburgs major victories, which destroyed the French's possibility of taking Vienna. Marlborough secretly and quickly moved his troops by creating feints and diversions to slip by the enemy. In this way, he managed to move his forces in between Vienna and the French and Bavarian forces. The Habsburgs enjoyed victories from August until the end of the year, and the threat of Vienna being taken was dispelled.

1706: The First Peace Negotiations

Leopold I died in 1705 and was succeeded by Joseph I. That year saw little fighting. In 1706, however, there were further decisive imperial and Maritime victories over France and Spain in Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain itself. Louis XIV approached the Dutch and offered to cede Spain and Spanish America if the French kept Milan, Naples, and Sicily. The Dutch were offered fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands, but the English and the Habsburgs refused these terms, as they did not want to divide the Spanish possessions.

1707: War Resumes in Favor of France

In 1707, France took advantage of poor troop distribution and internal disagreement on the part of their enemies to take back parts of Spain that had been lost the year prior. A new threat to Vienna arose from Charles XII of Sweden, who had recently attained Saxony in the Second Northern War, which was taking place in the Baltic region. The threat of Charles XII invading soon passed, as Sweden never became an active participant in the War of Spanish Succession. German princes had been reluctant to send soldiers to aid the Habsburgs to fight the French, which hindered the imperial forces in the Netherlands. The French also achieved reversals on the Rhine front, and the Habsburgs could not make further gains in Northern Italy.

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.

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  • 0:55 Background
  • 3:13 War in Bavaria
  • 4:31 War in France & Spain
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Background

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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Video Transcript

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.

Background

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What countries fought in the war of Spanish Succession?

Several countries and kingdoms were drawn into the War of Spanish Succession. The main powers involved were France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Other important powers were Portugal, Bavaria, Savoy, and Prussia.

What happened in the war of Spanish Succession?

The War of Spanish Succession was a war involving many western European powers and included fighting in multiple theaters of war throughout Europe. The issue over which the war was fought was the inheritance of territory controlled by Spain after the death of King Charles II.

Who won war of Spanish Succession?

The outcome of the War of Spanish Succession was most favorable to the Maritime Powers, England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Although France ultimately made concessions, the final agreements were not as damaging to them as some peace agreements proposed throughout the course of the war. The Spanish Empire also kept control of Spain and Spanish territory in America, despite having to give up land in the Netherlands and northern Italy.

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