Spain's distant cousins: AD 1690s

During the 1690s all Europe awaits the death, thought likely to be imminent, of Charles ii, the king of Spain. He is childless and has no cousins in the immediate Spanish Habsburg line. The question of the day is who will inherit the vast Spanish domains.

The two most powerful European rulers, Louis xiv of France and the Austrian emperor Leopold I, can make almost equal claims on behalf of their descendants. Both these monarchs have a Spanish Habsburg princess as a mother and a Spanish Habsburg princess as a wife (such is the interconnection of Europe's royal families, though the Habsburg link is of course almost a tradition in the Austrian imperial family).

In each generation the elder infanta has been sent to France, but the French brides have specifically renounced any claim to the Spanish throne. The younger sisters, marrying in Austria within the Habsburg clan, have not renounced their claim.

In the mid-1690s the Austrian case looks stronger than the French. A daughter of Leopold I and his Spanish bride has married the elector of Bavaria. In 1692 she gives birth to a son, Joseph Ferdinand. His claim is clearly good. Perhaps even more important, he has the advantage of being neither Bourbon nor Habsburg. The boy is a Wittelsbach. Another great European dynasty in possession of Spain will help to preserve the balance of power.

Partition treaties and wills: AD 1698-1700

In 1698 William III of England and Louis XIV, Normally at loggerheads, join forces. Both are determined to prevent the reassembling of the great Habsburg domain held in the 16th century by the emperor Charles V. They sign a partition treaty accepting the right of the young Joseph Ferdinand to all Spain's possessions except Italy - which is to be shared, as a sweetener, between Habsburgs and Bourbons. Milan will go to the Austrians, the rest of Spanish italy to the French.

The ailing Spanish king, Charles II, is outraged at this high-handed distribution of his property. He responds with a will naming Joseph Ferdinand as heir to the entire estate. But in 1699 the boy dies.

Undaunted, William and Louis come up with a second partition treaty in 1699. This is generous to the Habsburgs, in that a younger son of the Austrian emperor (the archduke Charles) is to have almost everything except Italy and Lorraine, which will go to France. Charles II, now almost on his deathbed (in October 1700), changes his will again. As if in a fit of pique, he leaves everything to a Bourbon prince - Philip, the second grandson of Louis XIV. A month later Charles II dies.

Given the way things have turned out, Louis XIV changes tack. Forgetting the recent partition treaty, he eagerly accepts his grandson's good fortune - treating him now as Philip V of Spain. The Austrians prepare for war.

Europe takes sides: AD 1701-2

At the start, in 1701, the quarrel is specifically between France and Austria - or between Louis XIV and the emperor Leopold I. Each is fighting on behalf of a grandson or son who is not next in line of succession to the French or Austrian throne. Each of the candidates has been identified in the Spanish king's will, which states that if his crown is not accepted by one of the younger grandsons of Louis XIV it shall go to the younger son of Leopold I (the archduke Charles).

The list of nations involved in the war soon extends beyond France and Austria - perhaps inevitably in view of the importance of the issue, but also because of the aggressive stance taken by Louis XIV.

Alarmed by France's ambitious demands, England and Holland enter the fray in 1702 in support of the Austrian emperor. The emperor can also rely on many of the states within his German empire, among whom the most useful ally is Prussia (encouraged in 1701 by being elevated to a kingdom).

The important exception among the German states is Bavaria, whose elector in 1702 joins the war on the side of France. Spain is with France (fulfilling the intention of the late king's will), as also are the neighbouring territories of Portugal and Savoy. These two are reluctant allies, acting mainly from fear of the Bourbons. Both change sides in 1703, when the fortunes of war favour the imperial side.

Fortunes of war: AD 1702-1706

Although the detailed development of the war is very complex, the basic aim is clear. Each side is trying to take control of the territories which make up the late king's bequest. The imperial allies have the two most brilliant generals of the war, and each makes early inroads in one of the significant regions of Spain's European empire. Prince Eugene of Savoy rapidly seizes much of northern Italy, while the duke of Marlborough makes advances in the Spanish Netherlands.

But a bold French initative in 1704 threatens to make these peripheral successes of trifling importance. A joint French and Bavarian army presses eastwards to threaten Vienna itself.

A rapid move by Marlborough from the Netherlands brings him to the Danube in time to join Prince Eugene. Together they win the outstanding victory of the war, at Blenheim in August. Twenty-four battalions of French and Bavarian infantry and four regiments of dragoons are taken prisoner.

In the same month, August 1704, the imperial cause has considerable success at sea. Gibraltar is taken by an English and Dutch expedition (on behalf of the archduke Charles as king of Spain) and an English fleet defeats the French in an engagement off Malaga. These two events give the allies command of the Mediterranean for the rest of the war.

The year 1705 is relatively quiet on all fronts, but in 1706 the allies' two generals achieve spectacular successes. Prince Eugene's victories that summer in north Italy are so convincing that Louis XIV withdraws all his troops from the region. At the same time Marlborough sweeps the French out of the Spanish Netherlands, in a campaign beginning with his victory at Ramillies in May.

The setbacks of 1706 prompt Louis XIV, in August, to discuss a possible peace.

Peace proposals: AD 1706-1710

The terms suggested by Louis XIV in 1706 are close to those proposed in the second Partition treaty of 1699. He is willing for his grandson Philip to relinquish Spain and Spanish America to the archduke Charles; Philip, instead, will merely retain the Spanish territories in Italy.

The allies, determined now that the Bourbons shall benefit from no part of the Spanish inheritance, reject this very reasonable proposal. Warfare continues, but so - over the following years - do peace negotations. Louis, old now and perhaps weary, keeps returning with suggestions. Each time he offers more, but each time the allies become increasingly demanding.

By 1709 Louis is even willing to relinquish Bourbon claims to any part of the Spanish inheritance. The allies reply that in that case he must give his approval to the use of force to remove his grandson from Madrid, where he is securely installed by now as the de facto monarch Philip V. Not surprisingly, Louis breaks off negotiations.

Once again, the war continues - at increasingly great cost, particularly in the Spanish Netherlands. The battle of Malplaquet, in September 1709, is a victory for Marlborough in strategic terms. But the allies suffer 20,000 casualties, compared with about 1l,000 French.

In 1710 Louis' peace proposals become even more conciliatory. He now accepts the use of force to remove Philip from Spain; he is even willing to provide funds for the purpose. The allies in their turn insist that French troops shall be used for the purpose. Again negotiations break down.

Finally, in 1710-12, subsidiary events conspire to break the prolonged impasse. First there is a change of ministry in England. In 1710 the Whigs suffer an election defeat by the Tories; with stronger French links, the Tories are inclined to peace. Then death cuts a swathe through both Bourbon and Habsburg families, profoundly altering the political complexion of the war.

Royal deaths: AD 1711-1712

In 1710, of the two contenders for Spain, Philip is fifth in line of succession to the French throne and the archduke Charles is the younger brother of the Austrian emperor Joseph I (their father Leopold has died in 1705).

Two years later only a sickly infant stands between Philip and the French crown. Louis XIV has suffered in quick succession the deaths of his only son in 1711 and of his elder grandson and elder great-grandson in 1712. A two-year-old (subsequently Louis XV) becomes the French heir. Even more significant, the archduke Charles is now the emperor Charles VI (his brother Joseph I dies childless in 1710).

These abrupt changes undermine the strategy of the allies. Their aim has been to place the archduke Charles on the Spanish throne. Nobody would now accept his inheriting it as the Austrian emperor.

By the same token Philip, in possession of Spain, cannot be allowed to inherit the French throne. In May 1712 he is persuaded to renounce any claim to France. The way is at last open for a succession of peace treaties which are signed during 1713 and 1714. In the changed circumstances the results are much more favourable to France than any of the solutions discussed in previous years.

Treaties of Utrecht and Baden: AD 1713-1714

France and Spain agree separate treaties with each of their opponents, most of them in Utrecht in 1713. The house of Bourbon can be said to have gained the greatest advantage, since everyone now accepts the right of Philip V to Spain and the Spanish colonies overseas. But other nations make significant gains too.

Great Britain wins some useful territories. Gibraltar is ceded by Spain, as is Minorca - a valuable Mediterranean base captured by a British fleet in 1708. From France Britain receives Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Hudson Bay territory. Louis XIV also recognizes the Protestant succession and promises to give no further support to the Exiled stuarts (a Pledge made also in 1697 but subsequently broken).

Britain and Holland are both granted commercial privileges, and Britain is allowed to provide 4800 African slaves each year for the Spanish colonies in America. In the so-called Barrier Treaties the Dutch win a confirmation of their right to maintain a line of fortresses along the southern frontier of the Spanish Netherlands - as a protection against French expansion.

In the treaties agreed with the emperor Charles VI in 1714 (initially at Rastatt, later confirmed at Baden), the Spanish Netherlands become the Austrian netherlands. This part of the Spanish inheritance, together with Spanish territories in northern Italy, is ceded to Charles even though he is now emperor.

Among other important concessions, the elector of Brandenburg is accepted in his new status as king of Prussia. Adjustments along the Rhine include the ceding to France of Strasbourg and alsace (steadily infiltrated by Louis XIV during recent decades).

These settlements, representing a major adjustment of Europe's internal balance, hold good until the next upheaval in the Napoleonic period. In the interim the great powers continue to vie with each other, and there are minor adjustments (within Italy, and between Austria and prussia). But the real rivalry for the rest of the century is overseas, in Europe's Competing empires.

However, one cause of future conflict does result from the Treaty of Utrecht. Within a week of its being signed, the emperor Charles VI - alarmed by the drastic diminution of the Habsburg empire - issues a Pragmatic sanction to secure within the family the inheritance of the remaining territories.

The Sanction states that the inheritance can pass through the female line, with the order of succession being any son of his, then any daughter of his, and finally any daughter of his deceased elder brother Joseph I (an arrangement to the detriment of the only princesses, daughters of Joseph, who as yet exist). The Sanction is finally accepted by the major European powers in 1720, but this is not enough to prevent a war on the issue (the War of the Austrian Succession) when Charles dies in 1740, as he feared, without a male heir.