To what extent was warfare between Britain and France the main contributory factor in French political instability 1689 - 1789?
To what extent was warfare between Britain and France the main contributory factor in French political instability 1689 - 1789?
On the 17th of June, 1789, the Estates-General was brought to an end by the majority of the Third Estate, outraged that their larger numbers counted for nothing, left to form the National Assembly which signalled the beginning of the French Revolution. What ensued was 10 years of political turmoil, war and mass killings, the result being a reformed nation using a more liberal system that many nations use today. There are many causes to the rise against the monarchy, many reasons the country plunged into chaos for a decade but how many of them were influenced by war between France and her greatest enemy, Britain? What effect did the period of wars known as the “Second Hundred Years War” have on France?
France were the major power in Europe after the Franco-Dutch war in 1678, having gained several territories, Louis XIV was the most powerful monarch in Europe. However, this wasn’t to last for long as Louis’s desire for aggressive expansion, would eventually begin to cause France’s downfall. The other leading nations in Europe had grown weary of Louis XIV’s desire to expand, thus forming the Grand Alliance which consisted of the majority of Europe’s powers bar France, with the goal of forcing France back to her borders as they were when Louis XIV took power. The War of the Grand Alliance, otherwise known as the Nine Years War begun with France crossing into Germany with the intent of intimidating the German states, as they were still currently fighting the Ottoman Turks in the east. This caused the complete opposite of what Louis wanted to happen, rather than separating the German princes it caused them to unify, posing quite a formidable resistance to France. During this conflict in Germany, William III of Orange, who was Louis XIV’s main rival in terms of power, invaded England with the intent of bringing the English into the war on the side of the coalition. Having successfully invaded English in 1689 and had them declare war on the French, William finally had the coalition he wanted. Over the course of the next 8 years, fighting would ensue between the Grand Alliance and France, with the fighting mostly in the Spanish Netherlands, the Rhineland, and Catalonia. By 1697, both sides were desperate for peace and peace talks were about to commence. The war had a devastating effect on the economy of both sides, with Childs arguing “The strain of paying and feeding huge concentrations of soldiers reduced England to a fiscal crisis while France stumbled to peace under the weight of a shattered economy”. With the Treaty of Ryswick resulting in France having to give up a number of territories and recognise William III of Orange as the King of England, Scotland and Ireland, this can be considered a resounding defeat for France. Not only have they had the result of the Treaty against them, but their economy has been ruined and Louis must accept that he can no longer expect to take territory with minimal opposition. We thus begin to see the debt forming which Louis XVI will inherit, one of the major causes for the French Revolution. Frances dominance over Europe was starting to fade, but it took until 1701 in the War of the Spanish Succession for Frances downward spiral to really pick up speed.
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The War of the Spanish Succession started in 1701 with disputes over Phillip V of Spain succeeding Charles II as the King of Spain. With Phillip V in the line of succession for the French throne, the unification of Spain and France was on the cards, this is simply something that the other powers in Europe couldn’t let happen. A coalition formed of England (later Great Britain), the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Empire, the Kingdom of Portugal, the Duchy of Savoy and the Spanish loyal to Archduke Charles. France and England were still recovering from the economic battering their previous conflict caused upon them, this perhaps being the reason William III struggled to get support initially for war against France thus being a reason the Grand Alliance didn’t declare war officially until 1702, this was also due to William III’s death in 1702. The war lasted over a decade with the majority of the fighting taking place in Europe, in Spain, Italy and the low lands. The conflict was finally settled with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the Treaty of Rastadt in 1714, resulting in Phillip V of Spain being recognised as the King of Spain, but he must renounce his place in the French line of succession, making the unification of France and Spain impossible. Along with this many former Spanish territories were handed over to nations of the Grand Alliance such as Gibraltar and Minorca to the British, and Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Milan, and Sardinia to Austria.
The impact this conflict had on the French was huge, French hegemony had been prevented; truly ending their dominance of Europe. This war showed that a balance of power had formed in Europe, which could be seen as a warning for nations looking to expand their territories, nations that were feared as becoming too powerful or were too powerful could be struck down. France who was in the strongest position prior to this engagement, felt the full force of the blow. The economy in France was again in a dire situation, William Young writes “France was bankrupt and devastated by a savage winter in 1708-1709 and desperate for peace”, another cause for the debt that plagued France for the rest of the century
The next conflict Britain and France took part in was the War of Austrian Succession which similar to the War of Spanish Succession, revolved around France; the continents leading power, wanting to expand her territories yet again and become the superpower of Europe. As with the War of the Grand Alliance and the War of Spanish Succession, this was met by stiff opposition as the balance of power in Europe was still in the best interests of the other nations in Europe, not because it was the most reasonable system, rather because France was the only nation with the capability of domination of Europe via land and sea. Browning states “France was the only nation in which the notion of preserving a European balance of power was challenged” which isn’t surprising considering their economy was in a significantly better position than it was in 1702, the position of the country geographically and such a large, successful army to back it up. In 1740 when Charles VI; Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire died, his daughter; Maria Theresa was set to take the throne. However there were issues with this, as women weren’t allowed to become emperor, thus creating a dispute over the next emperor. On one side, France, Prussia, Sweden and Spain along with various other Italian and German nations, licking their lips at the prospect of expansion via the weakened and distracted Habsburg monarchy. Those who came to the aid of their Austrian allies were Great Britain, Russia, the Dutch Empire, Sardinia and Hanover, in hope of maintaining the status quo of Europe. The war lasted for 8 years, with both sides making gains in both Europe and outside of Europe, although this territory gain wasn’t permanent, as the conclusive treaty of the war would force Britain and France to return their gains. The war was finally concluded through the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, where the main points were; Austria recognized Frederick II of Prussia's conquest of Silesia, as well as renouncing parts of its Italian territories to Spain and France had to withdraw from the Netherlands in order for some of the colonies lost to Britain, to be returned. Overall the treaty was disappointing for both Britain and France, in particular France, who went into that war with the aim of expanded her empire when in fact she game out worse have funded 8 years of war and gaining nothing. Perhaps both nations were so eager to conclude negotiations with Prussia benefiting the most, is both nations were trying to become the ally of this swiftly rising power. Prussia who had been slowly growing over the years had become one of the worlds leading nations, with France and Britain constantly at war against each other, Prussia was going to be a vital ally for future conflicts and that she proved to be.
The next conflict that carried the Anglo-French hostilities into it was the Seven Years War, which ran from 1756 to 1763 and is regarded as the first truly global conflict. Engagements during the war were mainly fought in Europe but there was a large amount of fighting in North America also (known as the French-Indian war), along with fighting in India (Third Carnatic War) and West Africa. The large scale of this conflict, spread across so many different theatres, required absolute commitment from each and every combatant, countries such as Prussia for example were fighting for their very survival as a nation. Daniel Marston points out “In the long term this meant that, because countries were putting all they had into simply continuing the fight, any gains became secondary.” Both nations knew that victory here would cripple the opposing nations completely, having invested so much and got so little in return. The participants were Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and eventually Spain. The alliances had shifted since the Tar of Austrian Succession quite considerably, this was a result of the Diplomatic Revolution in 1756. With the alliance of Austria and Britain on the rocks, both nations realised they needed new allies to achieve their goals, Austria required the French to attempt to reclaim Silesia off the Prussians and Britain required Prussia to attempt to keep France in check. This shift is what caused the outcome of the Seven years war, with Prussia having the largest army in Europe, led by Frederick the Great and Britain having the worlds largest navy, this meant that Britain could use her armies to fight in North American primarily and focus on naval battles while Prussia sent her armies forth in Europe. This excellent combination, along with the French army in such disarray is the cause for the significant defeat France took in this war.
The outcome of the war was resolved with two main treaties, the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Hubertusburg, both being signed in February 1763, finally bringing the conflict to an end. The Treaty of Hubertusburg contained no major territorial changes in Europe, however the Treaty of Paris was a series of complex territorial changes outside of Europe. France lost many of her colonies, her presence outside of Europe was crippled and the British now owned the largest colonial empire in the world. Both Britain and France however, came out of the conflict with huge national debts, crippling the economies of both nations. However, France’s debts would not meet the critical point that started the revolution, until the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783.
The American Revolutionary War started in 1775 with a dispute between Britain and the American colonies over the Stamp Act of 1765 which would have forced the Americans to pay a direct tax to Britain. Americans argued that their lack of influence in parliament which was so far away, was a denial of their rights as an Englishmen, thus they used the phrase “No taxation without representation!” With America standing up to Britain, this was an excellent opportunity for some of the other major powers in Europe to hurt Britain’s colonial dominance. France, who conceded a lot of the currently owned British territories to the British in the Austrian War of Succession, felt her intervention was a necessity. However, France was already in huge amounts of debt, entering this war with the British would aid America in defeating the British, but would also plunge the nation into a vat of debt which was almost impossible to climb out of. After the intervention of the Dutch, French and Spanish, the war was pretty much unwinnable for Britain as she was simply on her own with a few Native American tribes. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which most importantly forced Britain to recognise the United States of America as a free sovereign and independent states. Although this was a blow to Great Britain as she lost a significant chunk of her colonies and she came out with very large debts, she could afford to pay off her debts quite comfortably, her arch rival France on the other hand, couldn’t cope with the payments required for the debt.
The wars between France and Britain over the past century brought two major issues with the French political system and economy. Firstly, the amount of debt massed by the French was absurd, over all the major conflicts they accumulated large numbers of debt that they simply couldn’t pay back. The reason they couldn’t pay them back as easily as the British is because the British had industrialised significantly earlier than France, giving them a stronger economy. The French economy however was a lot more agricultural than its British counterpart, giving it a weaker economy in the long run. So the debt accumulated over the past century of warfare was paid off partially by the British, whereas the French debt stagnated and grew with every conflict they fought, until eventually they required such large amounts of tax from the French population, that they rose up and fought back. The other issues that war with Britain brought up is the way France was ruled in comparison the Britain. Britain had been using a parliamentary system for a significant amount of time and the majority of the conflicts in from this period resulted in British victories. Whether or not this was down to the absolute monarchy France still employed remains to be seen, but the system itself was a lot more efficient.
The French people were heavily taxed up to the point before the revolution, the debts of the nation were so large that taxation had to be pushed up to nearly a quarter of all income. The ludicrous taxes in addition to the famine that had swept the nation due to the terrible winter France had endured made life for the peasant even worse. H Morse Stephens makes the point “Starving people could hardly be expected to see how the surrender of one fourth of their incomes could help them”. Another reason why the agricultural system of France was so much weaker than the British industrialised economy was that the bad winters of 1788 and 1789 brought the French to a complete standstill, a large blow to their production. What made this even worse for the lower classes of France was that a lot of the aristocrats and clergy were exempt from many of the taxes, they also indulged in many unnecessary luxuries while the rest of France was starving, causing some resentment from the people.
Another reason for the French political instability was the age of enlightenment which was sweeping across the globe at the time. The enlightenment was an era where people started to question their position in society and the authority above them. With people starting to realise their abused position in absolute monarchies such as France, a revolution was inevitable. The conflict between France and Britain in the American War for Independence would have brought attention to the revolution by the American people against their British masters, if the Americans could take out the vast British army then surely they could do it here in France.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the wars between France and Britain had a massive impact on the political instability that plagued the French throughout the 18th century. The British had several decisive battles over the French that not only crippled them with debt and territorial loss, but they showed France how successful a parliament was in comparison to a monarch. However, not all the reasons directly have a correlation with the conflicts of both nations. For example the age of enlightenment was a movement that spread across Europe around the same period in history, however it can still be linked back to the British and French fighting in North America, with the enlightenment igniting the American Revolution.
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There are some examples of useful analysis here but the vast majority of this essay is a narrative account of the conflicts between Britain and France and does not therefore address the question. 3 Stars.