France–Habsburg rivalry

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The term France–Habsburg rivalry (French: Rivalité franco-habsbourgeoise); (German: Habsburgisch-Französischer Gegensatz) describes the rivalry between the House of Habsburg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire as well as Spain; and the kingdom of France, lasting from 1516 until 1756.

Medieval Period[edit]

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, whose marital expansion heightened Franco-Habsburg tension.

During the late Middle Ages, the Habsburgs—whose dominions consisted principally of Austria, and later Spain—sought coalitions principally through marriage, a policy which had the added benefit of gaining territory through marital inheritance. Territorial expansion in this way allowed the Habsburgs to gain territories throughout Europe[1] such as the Spanish Road, Burgundy, Milan and the Low Countries. This practice was described by Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus' quote: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria, nube! – "Let others wage war. You, lucky Austria, shall marry!"[2] Despite the fact that both branches of the Habsburg family, Austria and Spain, had gained a significant number of territories in this way, the complex series of inter-marriage had several consequences, such as the mental and physical afflictions and deformities suffered by Charles II of Spain.[3] Following this tradition, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I married Mary, the last Valois duchess of Burgundy in 1477. Nineteen years later, their son Philip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile, daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. Joanna (also known as Juanna the Mad) was sister to Katherine (of Aragon), the first wife of Henry VIII of England. Following the death of her brother and two sisters, Joanna became heiress to the Spanish throne. Joanna and Philip's son, (Maximilian's grandson) Charles united all these possessions, when he became King of Spain (as Charles I) in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 (as Charles V). He ruled over a vast empire. Now, France had the Habsburgs on three sides as its neighbor, with Spain to the south, the County of Flanders to the north, and the Franche-Comté to the east.

Even though the realm of Charles V was divided between the German and the Spanish branches of his dynasty in 1555, most of the territories of the Burgundian Inheritance, including Flanders, stayed with the Spanish crown. France regarded the encirclement by the Habsburg powers as a permanent threat, and led several wars during the next 200 years, to prevent a Spanish-Habsburg pre-eminence in Europe. Among these conflicts, the Thirty Years' War was the most significant one, devastating large parts of Germany and shaping a new political map of Europe.

After 1648, France became predominant in central Europe. Following the peace treaty of Munster in 1648 and, more particularly, the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, Spain's power began its slow descent in what proved to be the last decades of a declining Habsburg regime. After their victory over the Turks in the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, the Austrian Habsburgs focused less and less on their conflicts with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. After the death of the last Spanish Habsburg Charles II in 1700, King Louis XIV of France claimed the Spanish throne for his grandson Philip. This caused the War of the Spanish Succession. In the treaty of Utrecht, Louis succeeded in installing the Bourbon dynasty in a Spain that was by now a second-rank power, and in bringing the Habsburg encirclement of France to an end. After 200 years, the rivalry had lost its original cause, but the two powers remained hostile for another 40 years.

Only in 1756, in the Seven Years' War against the new power of Prussia, France and Austria became allies for the first time. This alliance was later sealed with the marriage of Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the French Dauphin, later King Louis XVI.

The Napoleonic Wars put an end to the Holy Roman Empire, but they also marked the beginning of a new French–German enmity that led to two World Wars.


  1. ^ 1. R. J. W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550-1700: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 93,
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