Thursday, May 28, 2015


Crossing the Rhine 1672 by Adam Frans van der Meulen.

In the event, William III was now able to exploit an increasingly favourable diplomatic situation, as the inordinate demands made Spain and the German princes wonder whether they might be next on Louis’ list if he achieved total victory over the Dutch. Towards the end of 1672 Frederick William of Brandenburg (William III’s uncle) and the Emperor Leopold I sent troops to the Rhine to encourage restraint. On 30 August 1673 Spain and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy joined the Dutch and the exiled Duke of Lorraine to form a new coalition. Louis now had to disperse his war effort to the west and the south. By the end of the year, he had evacuated most of the Dutch Republic and was fighting mainly in the Spanish Netherlands, the Rhineland and Franche-Comté, not to mention the Mediterranean. In all theatres the French had the better of the argument, as was revealed by the three separate peace treaties of August 1678 to February 1679, known collectively as the Peace of Nyjmegen, the Peace of Saint-Germain of June 1679 and the Peace of Fontainebleau of November 1679. The Dutch did best; their return to the pre-war status quo, plus the withdrawal of the punitive French tariffs, represented a relative triumph. As we have seen, the Swedes were the luckiest, keeping most of their German possessions despite their comprehensive defeat at the hands of Brandenburg. For the same reason, the Brandenburgers were the most dissatisfied. Virtually the status quo ante bellum was restored in Germany, the French returning Philippsburg but gaining Freiburg in Breisgau. The Spanish did worst of all, losing Franche-Comté (and thus control of the ‘Spanish Road’ leading from Italy to the Netherlands), Artois and sixteen fortified towns in Flanders.

If Louis XIV had failed to humble and partition the Dutch Republic, he undoubtedly had succeeded in strengthening French security in the north and the east at the expense of the Spanish. This was not negligible. It should be remembered that Paris was only 90 miles (150 km) away from Spanish Cambrai when Louis began to roll the frontier back. There was always a defensive element in French strategy. To record the qualified success of Nyjmegen in this way is to imply that Louis had begun the war with a specific war aim. Yet even his friendliest biographers (François Bluche, for example) agree that the most potent motive for war with the Dutch was a simple thirst for gloire. Louis was quite candid when referring to his decision to go to war in 1672:

I shall not attempt to justify myself. Ambition and [the pursuit of] glory are always pardonable in a prince, and especially in a young prince so well treated by fortune as I was…A king need never be ashamed of seeking fame, for it is a good that must be ceaselessly and avidly desired, and which alone is better able to secure success of our aims than any other thing. Reputation is often more effective than the most powerful armies. All conquerors have gained more by reputation than by the sword.

That last epigram suggests that Louis realized that the manner in which his victories were represented was more important than the victories themselves. That is surely why so much time and money were lavished on the depiction of the Sun King as invincible warrior. Louis’ official ‘battle painter’, Adam Frans van der Meulen, accompanied him on campaign, to make the necessary sketches that would be later worked up into paintings or cartoons for Gobelin tapestries. A particularly good example was his depiction of Louis and his army crossing the Rhine at Tolhuys on 12 June 1672, in reality an unopposed fording exercise but hyperbolically celebrated by Bossuet as ‘the wonder of the century and of the life of Louis the Great’. We have already noted the offensively triumphalist iconography of Versailles, much of which derived from episodes during the Dutch War. It was not necessary to travel to the palace in person, for Louis’ propagandists ensured that engravings of the frescoes, paintings and all the other martial representations were broadcast far and wide. A good example was the capture of Maastricht in 1673 which was the occasion for one of the most memorable images of the king, the painting by Pierre Mignard known simply as Louis XIV at Maastricht, although it also calls out to be subtitled ‘hubris’. In all these images, Louis is depicted as young, strong, energetic, handsome, commanding, usually on a rearing charger he effortlessly controls. Among other media pressed into service to proclaim to the world the greatest triumph of the greatest king of the greatest nation were medals, ballets, triumphal arches, verses and plays. With casual disregard for the compromise nature of the settlement that had brought the war to an end, Corneille wrote: ‘No sooner have you spoken than peace follows, convincing the whole world of your omnipotence.’

Not surprisingly, this triumphalist effusion provoked a correspondingly bitter reaction from those on the receiving end. In the Dutch Republic, propagandists turned back to the stock of images and metaphors of the eighty-year war against the Spanish to assault this new and even more dangerous enemy. Louis XIV was depicted in the pamphlets as an Old Testament tyrant such as Nebuchadnezzar, the idolatrous King of Babylon who shrieked ‘Kill, kill for the hunt is good!’ as the sky caught fire and the earth belched smoke. Stories of Spanish atrocities–pillaging, burning, iconoclasm, blasphemy, torture, mutilation, rape (especially of the very young and the very old), murder–were retold with French villains to form a new ‘Black Legend’. However exaggerated many of these written accounts and visual illustrations may have been, the reality was ghastly enough to give them credibility and staying-power. In the same way that the demonization of the Spanish had allowed successive generations of Dutch to sustain the long war for independence, memories of the invasion and occupation of 1672–3 kept Francophobia on the boil for the next generation or so.

The same could be said of contemporary events in the Holy Roman Empire. Here too, the same sort of image of Louis XIV as the scourge of a wrathful God was eagerly propagated, especially after Turenne had deliberately ravaged the Palatinate when retreating in 1674, to send out a warning to the other German princes. That this was not freelance work on the part of individual soldiers but was done systematically on the orders of the commanding general was thought to represent a particularly offensive new addition to the horrors of war. The outraged Elector, Karl Ludwig, announced that he was making Louis XIV personally responsible for the wanton destruction of so many years of painstaking reconstruction after the horrors of the Thirty Years War. As in the Dutch Republic, France now replaced Spain as German enemy number one, presented as the epitome of tyranny, flourishing only because of the ruthless exploitation of its own people. Louis XIV was presented as the ‘Great Turk’ who allied with the infidel to subjugate god-fearing Christians in his demonic quest for a universal monarchy. All the atrocity stories broadcast by the Dutch were repeated here, probably for the same good reason. The following lively extract gives a good impression of the rhetoric employed by the pamphleteers:

The diabolic French murderers like Turkish bloodthirsty killers have tormented, tortured, martyred, maltreated, racked, stretched, afflicted, strangled, thumb-screwed, sawed, asphyxiated, roasted, fried, burned, executed, skewered, smashed, shattered, torn apart, disembowelled, broken on the wheel, quartered, wrenched apart, mutilated, hacked, shredded, sliced up, hanged, drowned, punched, shot, stabbed, and gouged the poor, wretched, innocent people of Upper and Lower Germany without discrimination.

The continuing and intensifying cult of Louis XIV as hammer of the Germans during the 1670s could only reinforce this stereotype. For example, after Turenne’s victory at Türkheim in Alsace in January 1675 forced a larger imperial army to retreat to the right bank, Louis XIV had a medal struck with the legend ‘Sexaginta milia Germanorum ultra Rhenum pulsa’(60,000 Germans were beaten back over the Rhine). The representational culture unleashed during this period, which was to achieve its climax at Versailles, certainly achieved its object of enhancing Louis’ gloire, but at the cost of giving German nationalism both a boost and a Francophobe direction. Even the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I could see that here was an asset to be enlisted. In 1673 he called on the German princes to rally ‘as loyal patriots’ to the defence of the Empire and ‘the liberty of the German nation’.

The peace established in 1678–9 was very much a true, indeed, to adapt Clausewitz, it might be said that for Louis peace was the continuation of war by other means. The means in question were ‘reunions’. This process was immensely complicated and need not detain us long. Essentially, Louis claimed that if it could be established that any of his new possessions brought with them fiefs, the rulers of the latter were summoned to do homage to the new sovereign. Failure to do so was penalized by ‘reunion’ to France. In this manner, between 1680 and 1684 a large amount of territory on the northern and eastern frontiers was annexed, including most of Luxembourg, Alsace, Montbéliard and the Duchy of Zweibrücken. The most sensational of these seizures was the occupation in 1681 of Strassburg, where the great cathedral was returned to the Catholic Church. Needless to say, Louis’ triumphal entry into his new possession was well publicized through the various media. The most elaborate engraving of the event was headed ‘The king in his council arbiter of peace and war’. Indeed, it was some indication of the dominant position he enjoyed in Europe in the aftermath of the peace treaties of 1678–9 that Louis was able to achieve all this without provoking a major war. There was a scuffle with the Spanish at Luxembourg in 1681–2, but the Austrians were too preoccupied with the Turkish invasion that led to the siege of Vienna in 1683. In August 1684 Leopold I accepted a truce of thirty years at Regensburg, by which Louis XIV was to keep Strassburg and territory ‘reunited’ up to and including 1681.

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