A History of England

David Hume

Chapter 64

Para 63--Para 81

[1668] The next expedient which the king embraced in order to acquire popularity is more deserving of praise; and had it been steadily pursued, would probably have rendered his reign happy, certainly his memory respected. It is the Triple Alliance of which I speak---a measure which gave entire satisfaction to the public.

[State of France] The glory of France, which had long been eclipsed either by domestic factions or by the superior force of the Spanish monarchy, began now to break out with great lustre, and to engage the attention of the neighboring nations. The independent power and mutinous spirit of the nobility were subdued; the popular pretensions of the Parliament restrained; the Huguenot party reduced to subjection; that extensive and fertile country enjoying every advantage both of climate and situation, was fully peopled with ingenious and industrious inhabitants; and while the spirit of the nation discovered all the vigor and bravery requisite for great enterprises, it was tamed to an entire submission under the will of the sovereign.

[Character of Louis XIV] The sovereign who now filled the throne was well adapted, by his personal character, both to increase and to avail himself of these advantages. Louis XIV., endowed with every quality which could enchant the people, possessed many which merit the approbation of the wise. The masculine beauty of his person was embellished with a noble air; the dignity of his behavior was tempered with affability and politeness; elegant without effeminacy, addicted to pleasure without neglecting business, decent in his very vices, and beloved in the midst of arbitrary power, he surpassed all contemporary monarchs, as in grandeur, so likewise in fame and glory.

His ambition, regulated by prudence, not by justice, had carefully provided every means of conquest; and before he put himself in motion, he seemed to have absolutely insured success. His finances were brought into order; a naval power created; his armies increased and disciplined; magazines and military stores provided; and though the magnificence of his court was supported beyond all former example, so regular was the economy observed, and so willingly did the people, now enriched by arts and commerce, submit to multiplied taxes, that his military force much exceeded what in any preceding age had ever been employed by any European monarch.

The sudden decline and almost total fall of the Spanish monarchy opened an inviting field to so enterprising a prince, and seemed to promise him easy and extensive conquests. The other nations of Europe, feeble or ill governed, were astonished at the greatness of his rising empire; and all of them cast their eyes towards England, as the only power which could save them from that subjection with which they seemed to be so nearly threatened.

The animosity which had anciently subsisted between the English and French nations,and which had been suspended for above a century by the jealousy of Spanish greatness, began to revive and to exert itself. The glory of preserving the balance of Europe, a glory so much founded on justice and humanity, flattered the ambition of England; and the people were eager to provide for their own future security by opposing the progress of so hated a rival. The prospect of embracing such measures had contributed, among other reasons, to render the Peace of Breda so universally acceptable to the nation. by the death of Philip IV., King of Spain, an inviting opportunity and some very slender pretences had been afforded to call forth the ambition of Louis.

At the treaty of the Pyrenees, when Louis espoused the Spanish princess, he had renounced every title of succession to every part of the Spanish monarchy; and this renunciation had been couched in the most accurate and most precise terms that language could afford. But, on the death of his father-in-law, he retracted his renunciation, and pretended that natural rights, depending on blood and succession, could not be annihilated by any extorted deed or contract. Philip had left a son, Charles II. of Spain; but as the Queen of France was of a former marriage, she laid claim to a considerable province of the Spanish monarchy, even to the exclusion of her brother. By the customs of some parts of Brabant, a female of a first marriage was preferred to a male of a second in the succession to private inheritances; and Louis thence inferred that his queen had acquired a right to the dominion of that important duchy.

[French invasion of the Low Countries] A claim of this nature was more properly supported by military force than by argument and reasoning. Louis appeared on the frontiers of the Netherlands with an army of forty thousand men, commanded by the best generals of the age, and provided with everything necessary for action. The Spaniards, though they might have foreseen this measure, were totally unprepared. Their towns, without magazines, fortifications, or garrisons, fell into the hands of the French king as soon as he presented himself before them. Athe, Lisle, Tournay, Oudenarde, Courtray, Charleroi, Binche, were immediately taken; and it was visible that no force in the Low Countries was able to stop or retard the progress of the French arms.

This measure, executed with such celerity and success, gave great alarm to almost every court in Europe. It had been observed with what dignity, or even haughtiness, Louis, from the time he began to govern, bad ever supported all his rights and pretensions. D'Estrades, the French ambassador, and Watteville, the Spanish, having quarrelled in London, on account of their claims for precedency, the French monarch was not satisfied till Spain sent to Paris a solemn embassy, and promised never more to revive such contests. Créqui, his ambassador at Rome, had met with an affront from the pope's guards; the pope, Alexander VII, had been constrained to break his guards, to send his nephew to ask pardon, and to allow a pillar to be erected in Rome itself as a monument of his own humiliation. The King of England, too, had experienced the high spirit and unsubmitting temper of Louis. A pretension to superiority in the English flag having been advanced, the French monarch remonstrated with such vigor, and prepared himself to resist with such courage, that Charles found it more prudent to desist from his vain and antiquated claims. ``The king of England'', said Louis to his ambassador, D'Estrades, ``may know my force, but he knows not the sentiments of my heart; everything seems to me contemptible in comparison of glory.'' These measures of conduct had given strong indications of his character; but the invasion of Flanders discovered an ambition which, being supported by such overgrown power, menaced the general liberties of Europe.

As no state lay nearer the danger, none was seized with more terror than the United Provinces. They were still engaged, together with France, in a war against England; and Louis had promised them that he would take no step against Spain without previously informing them; but, contrary to this assurance, he kept a total silence till on the very point of entering upon action. If the renunciation made at the treaty of the Pyrenees was not valid, it was foreseen that upon the death of the King of Spain, a sickly infant, the whole monarchy would be claimed by Louis, after which it would be vainly expected to set bounds to his pretensions. Charles, acquainted with those well grounded apprehensions of the Dutch, had been the more obstinate in insisting on his own conditions at Breda; and, by delaying to sign the treaty, had imprudently exposed himself to the signal disgrace which he received at Chatham. De Witte, sensible that a few weeks' delay would be of no consequence in the Low Countries, took this opportunity of striking an important blow, and of finishing the war with honor to himself and to his country.

[Negotiations] Negotiations, meanwhile, commenced for the saving of Flanders; but no resistance was made to the French arms. The Spanish ministers exclaimed everywhere against the flagrant injustice of Louis's pretensions, and represented it to be the interest of every power in Europe, even more than of Spain itself, to prevent his conquest of the Low Countries. The emperor and the German princes discovered evident symptoms of discontent; but their motions were slow and backward. The States, though terrified at the prospect of having their frontier exposed to so formidable a foe, saw no resource, no means of safety. England, indeed, seemed disposed to make opposition to the French; but the variable and impolitic conduct of Charles kept that republic from making him any open advances, by which she might lose the friendship of France without acquiring any new ally. And though Louis, dreading a combination of all Europe, had offered terms of accommodation, the Dutch apprehended lest these, either from the obstinacy of the Spaniards or the ambition of the French, should never be carried into execution.

Charles resolved with great prudence to take the first step towards a confederacy. Sir William Temple, his resident at Brussels, received orders to go secretly to the Hague, and to concert with the States the means of saving the Netherlands. This man, whom philosophy had taught to despise the world, without rendering him unfit for it, was frank, open, sincere, superior to the little tricks of vulgar politicians; and, meeting in De Witte with a man of the same generous and enlarged sentiments, he immediately opened his master's intentions, and pressed a speedy conclusion. A treaty was from the first negotiated between these two statesmen with the same cordiality as if it were a private transaction between intimate companions. Deeming the interests of their country the same, they gave full scope to that sympathy of character which disposed them. to all entire reliance on each other's professions and engagements; and though jealousy against the house of Orange might inspire De Witte with all aversion to a strict union with England, he generously resolved to sacrifice all private considerations to the public service.

Temple insisted on an offensive league between England and Holland, in order to oblige France to relinquish all her conquests; but De Witte told him that this measure was too bold and precipitate to be agreed to by the States. He said that the French were the old and constant allies of the republic, and till matters came to extremities, she never would deem it prudent to abandon a friendship so well established, and rely entirely on a treaty with England, which had lately waged so cruel a war against her; that ever since the reign of Elizabeth there had been such a fluctuation in the English councils that it was not possible, for two years together, to take any sure or certain measures with that kingdom; that though the present ministry, having entered into views so conformable to national interest, promised greater firmness and constancy, it might still be unsafe, in a business of such consequence, to put entire confidence in them; that the French monarch was young, haughty, and powerful; and, if treated in so imperious a manner, would expose himself to the greatest extremities rather than submit; that it was sufficient if he could be constrained to adhere to the offers which he himself had already made, and if the remaining provinces of the Low Countries could be thereby saved from the danger with which they were at present threatened; and that the other powers, in Germany and the north, whose assistance they might expect would be satisfied with putting a stop to the French conquests, without pretending to recover the places already lost.

The English minister was content to accept of the terms proposed by the pensionary. Louis had offered to relinquish all the queen's rights on condition either of keeping the conquests which he had made last campaign, or of receiving in lieu of them Franche-Comté, together with Cambray, Aire, and St. Omers. De Witte and Temple founded their treaty upon this proposal. They agreed to offer their mediation to the contending powers, and oblige France to adhere to this alternative and Spain to accept of it. If Spain refused, they agreed that France should not prosecute her claim by arms, but leave it entirely to England and Holland to employ force for making the terms effectual. And the remainder of the Low Countries they thenceforth guaranteed to Spain. A defensive alliance was likewise concluded between Holland and England.

The articles of this confederacy were soon adjusted by such candid and able negotiators, but the greatest difficulty still remained. By the constitution of the republic, all the towns in all the provinces must give their consent to every alliance, and besides that this formality could not be despatched in less than two months, it was justly to be dreaded that the influence of France would obstruct the passing of the treaty in some of the smaller cities. D'Estrades, the French ambassador, a man of abilities, hearing of the league which was on the carpet, treated it lightly. ``Six weeks hence'', said he, ``we shall speak to it.'' To obviate this difficulty, De Witte had the courage, for the public good, to break through the laws in so fundamental an article, and by his authority he prevailed with the States-general at once (January 13) to sign and ratify the league, though they acknowledged that if that measure should displease their constituents, they risked their heads by this irregularity. After sealing, all parties embraced with great cordiality. Temple cried out, ``At Breda as friends---here as brothers.'' And De Witte added that now the matter was finished, it looked like a miracle.

[Triple League] Room had been left in the treaty for the accession of Sweden, which was soon after obtained, and thus was concluded in five days the triple league, an event received with equal surprise and approbation by the world. Notwithstanding the unfortunate conclusion of the last war, England now appeared in her proper station, and by this wise conduct had recovered all her influence and credit in Europe. Temple likewise received great applause, but to all the compliments made him on the occasion he modestly replied that to remove things from their centre or proper element required force and labor, but that of themselves they easily returned to it.

The French monarch was extremely displeased with this measure. Not only bounds were at present set to his ambition; such a barrier was also raised as seemed forever impregnable. And though his own offer was made the foundation of the treaty, he had prescribed so short a time for the acceptance of it that he still expected, from the delays and reluctance of Spain, to find some opportunity of eluding it. The court of Madrid showed equal displeasure. To relinquish any part of the Spanish provinces in lieu of claims so apparently unjust, and these urged with such violence and haughtiness, inspired the highest disgust. Often did the Spaniards threaten to abandon entirely the Low Countries rather than submit to so cruel a mortification, and they endeavored by this menace to terrify the mediating powers into more vigorous measures for their support. But Temple and De Witte were better acquainted with the views and interests of Spain. They knew that she must still retain the Low Countries as a bond of connection with the other European powers, who alone, if her young monarch should happen to die without issue, could insure her independency against the pretensions of France. They still urged, therefore, the terms of the triple league, and threatened Spain with war in case of refusal. The plenipotentiaries of all the powers met at Aix-la-Chapelle. Temple was minister for England, Van Beuninghen for Holland, D'Ohna for Sweden.

[Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle] Spain at last, pressed on all hands, accepted of the alternative offered, but in her very compliance she gave strong symptoms of ill-humor and discontent. It had been apparent that the Hollanders, entirely neglecting the honor of the Spanish monarchy, had been anxious only for their own security; and, provided they could remove Louis to a distance from their frontier, were more indifferent what progress he made in other places. Sensible of these views, the Queen-regent of Spain resolved still to keep them in an anxiety which might for the future be the foundation of a union more intimate than they were willing at present to enter into. Franche Comté, by a vigorous and well-concerted plan of the French king, had been conquered in fifteen days during a rigorous season and in the midst of winter. She chose, therefore, to recover this province, and to abandon all the towns conquered in Flanders during the last campaign. By this means Louis extended his garrisons into the heart of the Low Countries, and a very feeble barrier remained to the Spanish provinces.

But notwithstanding the advantages of his situation, the French monarch could entertain small hopes of ever extending his conquests on that quarter which lay the most exposed to his ambition, and where his acquisitions were of most importance. The triple league guaranteed the remaining provinces to Spain, and the emperor and other powers of Germany whose interest seemed to be intimately concerned, were invited to enter into the same confederacy. Spain herself, having about this time, under the mediation of Charles, made peace on equal terms with Portugal, might be expected to exert more vigor and opposition to her haughty and triumphant rival. The great satisfaction expressed in England on account of the counsels now embraced by the court promised the hearty concurrence of Parliament in every measure which could be proposed for opposition to the grandeur of France. And thus all Europe seemed to repose herself with security under the wings of that powerful confederacy which had been so happily formed for her protection.